Book Reviews

, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books Berlin, 2018

N = R*· F p · Ne · F l · F i · F c · L

The Drake Equation is a book that comes from a multi-hand partnership, in which complementary and often interchangeable roles determine the balance between the parties. A farsighted back-and-forth response that created the ideal conditions to strengthen the synergy between Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, fueled the creative process itself, supported the research. After the publication of a detailed article on Zeit-Magazin in Germany, the overall project was consolidated and enriched thanks to the collaboration of Andreas Wellnitz (publisher), Alard von Kittlitz (writer) and Isabel Latza (designer).

A long-term project on the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia, USA, an area created for researchers, scientists and, in particular, astronomers and astrophysicists, hosting the world's largest radio telescopes. Because of their sensitivity, these telescopes require an area completely free of radio waves and any form of electromagnetic energy. These places subsequently became an elective destination for anyone who wants to satisfy the desire for a natural life without technological interference.

A bizarre cohabitation with those who for centuries lived in this wild land, mostly colonizers, livestock breeders, hunters of deer and bears at the edge of the Appalachian mountains. A non-industrialized territory, economically marginal and geographically isolated, conservative and traditionalist. A familist and collective cultural terrain capable of preserving for centuries the sounds of the Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Scottish tradition then evolved over the years in hillbilly, folk and country music of the Carter Family, in the bluegrass, in the dry, minimal, skinny, skeletal sound of the banjo and the Dock Boggs voice.

The Drake Equation is a survey on the themes of science-fiction and on the many interpretations of reality. A mysterious plot that seems to have sprung from the mind of Isaac Asimov, by Philip K. Dick, from the utopian visions of Solaris by Andrey Tarkovsky. Or from the science fiction literature of the Urania publishing series or the US magazine Galaxy Science Fiction. What is real? What is fiction? What is human?

The portrait of a man with a white beard and glasses, the look dazed, lucid and hopeful at the same time. On the next page a series of glass prisms lights up reflections of a multicolored light. Almost an allegory of the unconscious, between restlessness and curiosity for the most obscure progress. A form of "panic" spiritualism as a bridge to the search for the borders of the well-known universe.

Gianpaolo Arena



Gianpaolo Arena: Could you tell us something more about how your project “The Drake Equation” started? What was your main inspiration that led you to explore the region around Green Bank? How long did it take for the mapping, documentation, travel?
Paul Kranzler: In 2011 or so I randomly spotted an article about the National Radio Quiet Zone. As usual Andrew and I would share our ideas for work. Also we had been considering working as a „duo“ for a while. We both deepened research, and put the idea back into the drawer, where all the other discarded inspirations would sit and wait and be left behind. Once in a while we came back to this, and finally began to get in touch with the Green Back Observatory in 2014. Eventually we travelled to the National Quiet Radio Zone for the first time in March 2015, with a vague idea of what would expect us. Long story short, this very special piece of America fascinated us and I personally had some of my best time ever there. Feeling certain to return, back home we edited the work. As our first trip was totally self – commissioned we showed the work to certain people to find a way to cross-finance another trip. Andreas Wellnitz, independent Photo Director in Berlin, was hooked by this work and commissioned us to proceed with our work there. In order to publish it in Zeit-Magazin, Germany. Andreas later published our book in his young publishing house Fountain Books Berlin.

© Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books, 2018
© Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books, 2018

GA: How did your collaboration with Fountain Books Berlin, Alard von Kittlitz and Isabel Latza start?
Paul Kranzler: Andreas Wellnitz matched us with Alard von Kittlitz whom he sent as a writer with us to West Virginia. I found Alard was a very much unbiased writer and person who also has been living in the US before. Andreas’ intuition proved good as the three of us were very well compatible and Alard´s presence helped us a lot with our work there.
Andrew Phelps: Fountain Books is the publishing house of Andreas Wellnitz, independent Photo Editor and Visual Director in Berlin. We showed him the photographs from our first visit and he immediately planned what would later become a 28 page spread in Zeit Magazine. A part of this publication was a second trip, where the writer Alard von Kittlitz accompanied us as a writer and produced the Zeit Magazine feature with us. When it came time to do the book, Andreas and Fountain just made sense. Getting Isabel Latza on board was just plain luck for us. Andreas has worked with her in the past and when we first met it really clicked; she did a fantastic job of getting right to what the project needed, including developing a font specifically for us. Working with Andreas and Isabel, 2 people who have a lot of experience in editing work, gave us a chance to step back sometimes and let them play and experiment with images and combinations we might not have seen.

© Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books, 2018
© Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books, 2018

GA: Please tell us a few anecdotes which happened while shooting or in some particular pictures...
Paul Kranzler: I guess my experience as a Central European is different from Andrew´s who grew up in the deserts of Arizona. Spending time deeply in the Appalachian Hills was different to my residencies in the metropoles of east and west coast. For the first time I got a glimpse on the American idea of freedom, as we met and were welcomed by people who chose to live more or less off the grid. They lived from and with the land and were hunters. Many of these families had been there since their ancestors conquered these territories.
Andrew Phelps: What made working on this project so interesting are the contrasting lives and lifestyles which run parallel to each other, sharing the same landscape but using if for different reasons. One morning we were up at sunrise to spend the day hunting bear with a local family, running through the woods with hound dogs, barely keeping up with an 11 year old girl who was running with a half a dozen dogs chasing a bear through woods and up a tree. The very next morning we were standing inside the dish of the GBT telescope, the very heart of cutting-edge radio astronomy, a massive piece of steel capable of listening to the Big Bang yet we were only a few miles away from the forest where we were chasing bears the day before. Simply our decision to collaborate completely on every image and to work as a team throughout the process, giving up the individual copyright led to a unique way of approaching each moment. There was very little planning or discussion about how a certain topic should be photographed, instead there was just a flow back and forth, passing the cameras back and forth, circling a situation, holding the lights for each other, one of us taking on the role of interviewer while the other photographed.
The most memorable situations were laying on our backs in the middle of the valley, making the long time exposure images of the scopes at night. A few beers and some snacks for the night, staring up into an amazingly black sky as these monstrous scopes hummed and blinked as they received particles which had been traveling through space since before the earth was created.

© Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books, 2018
© Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books, 2018

GA: What has been your 3 favorite photo-books in the last few years?
Paul Kranzler:
Joachim Brohm & Valentina Seidel: Trinity
Tina Bara: Lange Weile
Torbjorn Rodland: Confabulations
Andrew Phelps:
Ron Jude, Lago
Virginie Rebetez, Out of the Blue
Tender Mint, Lynn Alleva Lilley

© Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books, 2018
© Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books, 2018
© Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books, 2018
© Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps, The Drake Equation, Fountain Books, 2018

Andrew Phelps (USA and Austria) and Paul Kranzler (Austria)
have collaborated on a long-term project called THE DRAKE EQUATION about the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia, USA. The “Quiet Zone” was created in the 1950’s around the massive Green Bank Observatory which houses the worlds largest radio-telescopes. Due to their sensitivity these telescopes require a completely radio and technology-free zone as they listen for life throughout the universe.

THE DRAKE EQUATION is their first (but not last) collaboration together.

Fountain Books Berlin
Number of pages:
120 pages
23,8 x 28,5 cm