The Mountains of Kong form a magnificent, impassable mountain range in West Africa. It’s not real. But that didn’t stop 19th-century writers from waxing poetic about its formidable, snow-capped peaks. Or illustrious cartographers from including it in historical maps. Or Jim Naughten from photographing it.
The British photographer pretends the legend’s true for the ongoing series The Mountains of Kong. He acts the part of an adventurer on a scientific expedition documenting Kong’s flora and fauna. He “returns” with implausible images of candy-pink mountains, exotic forests and wild beasts of every kind. “It’s a sort of Shangri-La ruled by the animals,” Naughten says.
Scottish explorer Mungo Park first claimed to see the mountains while journeying near the Kong Empire in his 1799 book Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, which included sweeping illustrations by cartographer James Rennell. Other cartographers expanded on the initial drawings, publishing some 40 maps that eventually depicted the mountains stretching hundreds of miles from Cote D’Ivoire to Nigeria. Geography books told of gold-dusted slopes, and credited it as the source of the Niger, Senegal and Gambia rivers. Finally in 1889, a sensible French officer returned from a trip to Africa and debunked the story. But the legend persisted. The mapmaking company Rand McNally included the Mountains of Kong in a 1890 map, and the region appeared in geographical indexes into the 1920s. “It’s the original fake news,” Naughten says.
Naughten loves history. He’s documented specimens from Edwardian zoos and World War I re-enactors. After reading about the Mountains of Kong in Simon Garfield’s On the Map in 2015, he decided to join in on the farce. “History is so mutable, so peculiar,” he says. “If you talk to people from different nations, or you look back on something five years later, history keeps changing. I find that utterly fascinating.”
He decided to make the series using stereographs, a 19th-century technique that causes ordinary images appear 3-D. Photographers took two photos of the same object, shifting the camera over three or so inches for the second shot. The images were placed side-by-side on a card before a stereoscope, a portable wooden device with magnifying lenses that combined them into a single, three-dimensional scene. “It was a way of bringing back pictures of exotic lands and the pyramids so that Victorians could see them in their own living rooms,” Naughten says.
To create the landscape of Kong, Naughten toted his Sony AZR2 and a tripod to mountain ranges in Scotland and Wales, as well as eight natural history museums in the UK, the US and Switzerland. He worked after hours, shooting 50 dioramas through the glass with a black cloth hanging behind him to block reflections. Later, he painstakingly tweaked the hues in Photoshop. “It’s trying to create a color that makes it otherworldly, like an early Star Trek color palette,” he says.
The final images depict a wildly unrealistic animal kingdom populated by silver lions, pygmy hippopotamuses and a chest-beating gorilla that rules them all. It’s clearly fake, but humans have believed stranger things.
The Mountains of Kong is on view at Michael Hoppen Gallery in London from September 13 through October 21.