michael hughes’s blog

The making of… Loreley

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on January 5, 2009


Loreley Cliffs on the Rhine mear Mainz in Germany 1999

Loreley Cliffs on the Rhine near Mainz in Germany 1999
















At the end of November I was on assignment for the Finnish daily newspaper “Helsingin Sanomat”. Heikki Aittokoski, the German Correspondent and myself were doing a story about the Loreley legend which was why we were perched up on a hill top above the river Rhine on this bleak day. The light was completely dead and the colours could, at best, be described as pastel.


The Rhine is very deep and narrow here and it is one of the most dangerous places in the Upper Rhine Valley. So dangerous, in fact, that St Goar settled there to nurse ship-wrecked mariners back to health. At this spot, legend has it, Loreley threw herself from the cliffs on the way to a convent  because her lover had been unfaithful. In the romantic ballad written by Clemens Brentano in 1801, where Loreley appears for the first time, the woman’s ghost sits thereafter on the rocks, combing her golden hair and luring ships to their destruction. Later Heinrich Heine wrote the poem which was later set to music by Friedrich Silcher. I give you Heinrich Heine’s “The Loreley”;


I cannot determine the meaning
Of sorrow that fills my breast:
A fable of old, through it streaming,
Allows my mind no rest.

The air is cool in the gloaming
And gently flows the Rhine.
The crest of the mountain is gleaming
In fading rays of sunshine.

The loveliest maiden is sitting
Up there, so wondrously fair;
Her golden jewelry is glist’ning;
She combs her golden hair.

She combs with a gilded comb, preening,
And sings a song, passing time.
It has a most wondrous, appealing
And pow’rful melodic rhyme.

The boatman aboard his small skiff, –
Enraptured with a wild ache,
Has no eye for the jagged cliff, –
His thoughts on the heights fear forsake.

I think that the waves will devour
Both boat and man, by and by,
And that, with her dulcet-voiced power
Was done by the Loreley.

Translator: Frank Petersohn


Absolutely lovely.
What had attracted my attention that morning as we left the hotel, was a postcard of the winner of the Miss Loreley competition some years before. My daughter was about five years of age at the time and in the princess phase and I thought it would be nice to give it to her when I got back. It was the reason why it was in my pocket as we left the car and walked over the heath to the cliffs.

The view was great, if a little misty, but was not really an interesting photo for a daily newspaper which needs action and dynamism not landscapes to illustrate its articles. Looking around there were two blasted trees and some boulders and I remembered that the Miss Loreley from the postcard had been draped over a rock. Taking out the postcard, it was immediately obvious that we were standing exactly at the spot the photographer had taken his portrait.

The idea of putting pictures into pictures is not new, I had myself used historical photographs in a reportage I had done just after the wall came down in 1989 in Berlin, holding them into the picture at the same spot. I was soon fiddling around holding the postcard into the lens. Even through the viewfinder, I could see it was going to work and I took a great deal of trouble getting the salient points to match up until the optical illusion was perfect. In situations like this tenths of millimeters make all the difference and it is only later on, in front of the computer that you can actually see which one really makes the cut. In all I shot a roll of film on this one picture. (I was using a Nikon F5 with a 20mm lens, Fujifilm 400 colour negative)

At home, after the trip, everyone was enthusiastic, the newspaper and friends and colleagues. A week later I was on my way to New York, where the idea of Souvenirs really took shape. Looking at the picture after I had scanned it I tried to analyse just what it was that had happened. The first impression is of a window into another world, the second is like a mirror. Later on I realised that I had added the ideal into the reality. The myth is debunked by the surroundings and my hand which plumply draws attention to the artifice. The weather in the postcard is the ideal weather that the media demands, like pensioners in Florida or Spain: permanent blue sky. The girl is blond and busty, feminine in her robe, the myth of the Sirens which has been handed down over so many centuries was illustrated by people like Arthur Rackham and other Art Nouveau practitioners, hence the organic designs of lovely maidens. There could have been an ugly brunette sitting behind the postcard who could sing like hell. Loreley is the most viewed picture of the set on Flickr, it was also used in the National Geographic feature on the series in August 2008.


Flickr index: 170,221 views, 146 faves, 32 comments



One Response

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  1. MizeGuiff said, on May 23, 2009 at 9:45 am

    nice! i’m gonna make my own journal

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