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Another expert every month: We invite well-known bloggers and specialists from the international photography scene... Read more »

Nothing by John Gossage

IMG_7910There are many books which are made of ‘nothing’. More often than not, a book will amount to ‘nothing’ in the larger world. Publishing books can transform your money into ‘nothing,’ and the painful truth is, most books should have remained as a non-existent ‘nothing.’ Remaining ‘nothing’ can also be a way to preserve an important ‘something’. John Gossage’s new book from Waltz Books called Nothing however, is a shining example of something – great bookmaking.

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In 1985, the photographer John Gossage was invited to photograph in ‘The Kingdom’ of Saudi Arabia by Prince Abdullah Bin Faisel Bin Turki Al-Saud. Abdullah has asked Gossage what he might like to see in The Kingdom. Gossage replied that he’d like to take some photographs out in the desert. Abdullah replied, “You know there is nothing out there.” To which Gossage responded, “Yeah, that was sort of what I was looking for.” Hence the title Nothing.

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The notion of ‘nothing’ or ‘nothingness’ in photography might sound odd as photography deals with facts – light on surfaces, objects – the opposite of nothing. Nothing is a vacuum – a black hole. Gossage deals with black holes, or more accurately, blind spots in our vision. He makes (for me as a photographer) frustratingly interesting and complex images out of seemingly little or nothing at all: A piece of wood propping up another; a void of black with the slightest outline of something indefinable; some trash; an open tent flap; a cardboard box; the flat horizon between sand and sky. These are ‘things’ that most walk by – see perhaps for an instant – disregard and then erase from memory with the first sound sleep. Gossage’s pictures make us stop and again reconsider this world of ‘nothingness’ and strike us with sudden awe.

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Nothing is broken into three ‘parts.’ The book design – a three-folded panel – reveals three attached booklets. The two outer are 32 page each and the center is a leporello-fold ‘panoramic’ of individual photos of the ‘nothingness’ that Abdullah mentions of the desert. Maybe it is a 360 degree view from which one might ask, if this was the stage, where did all of the other substance in the two booklets come from?

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The printing is exceptional with separations by Robert Hennessey and inking by the firm F+W in Kienberg Germany. If I had to point to one modest flaw, the paper’s light weight allows a little of the verso image to show through, which for images with larger fields of light grey can be a little distracting.

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I am ending this month of Guest Writer for the Hatje Cantz Fotoblog with this book. I wanted to end on a high note and I can think of no other higher than this. I hope you enjoyed. Tschüss!

 

John Gossage: Nothing

Waltz Books, 2014

ISBN:9781939932020

Note: My photographs show a slight Moire pattern to the covers. The book’s covers are a fine grey linen without the stripes.

Bag Saga Blok by Krass Clement

IMG_7895Krass Clement’s new book from the Danish publisher Gyldendal, Bag Saga Blok, refers to an area in Vesterbro, Copenhagen behind an old movie theater that ran from the early 1940s until its closing in 1985. The theater, now sitting abandoned and succumbing to decay, sets the stage for Clement’s cast of characters and vignettes that spans almost a half-century.

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Bag Saga Blok opens with a short sequence of images of three people in a dark neon-lit parking garage. A woman at the center is looking intently at a thick book. It seems an odd place to look at a book, unless the book is the same as the one we now have in our hands – a screenplay of sorts and the three are the orchestrators of the film that is about to begin.

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Clement’s camera winds it way around the old theater buildings and finally out into the streets where characters are slowly introduced: a man who appears to be putting on make-up; an older man straight from Central Casting for an old shipyard worker; another younger man who appears to be wearing a dress; an older woman in a water-spotted raincoat who covers her head with a bag – fiction and reality blending together.

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As the narrative winds deeper into the second act we are introduced to the darker, seedier side of Vesterbro populated by drugs, porn shops, and prostitutes. Two old men peek timidly into a porn shop window; a woman lingers in a doorway perhaps seeking a transaction; a man seeks a moment of peace in the hallway of an apartment building entrance perhaps to do drugs; condoms and wrappers lay in among autumn leaves; a spoon and heroin lay amongst litter on an apartment floor. The characters get more desperate looking, the photographic description of them blurred and unsteady.

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As with almost every book from Clement the sequence is defined with cinematic repetition and slight shifts of view. He plies images from scene to scene effortlessly and jump-cuts to full effect; a short sequence of flea market sellers is for one frame interrupted by a woman’s spread legs on a doorway step – the words ‘Brug Matten’ (use the matt) just to her right.

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IMG_7907In the final act, we have returned directly behind the old theater and a surreal but non-threatening play is being performed among some hanging sheets. Children play with an air rifle opposite a couple deeply intoxicated, a sign declares a thank you for visiting and a final image of streetlight lit construction cranes at night hovering over the area marks the curtain closing on an era.

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At 224 pages and nearing 200 photographs, Bag Saga Blok is one of Clement’s larger offerings. The dark richness of the printing adds to the overall mood which – although looks backwards through several decades – avoids sentimental nostalgia. Surprising that it covers such a long period of time, all seems woven together to feel like one epic film – part documentary, part fiction, and distinctly Krass Clement.

 

Krass Clement: Bag Saga Blok

Gyldendal, 2014

ISBN:9788702168167

Zeitungsfotos by Thomas Ruff

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Between 1981 and 1991, the artist Thomas Ruff collected over 2500 newspaper photographs from German daily and weekly publications. Covering a broad range of topics such as politics, finance, sport, history, culture, science and technology, the images were chosen because they struck Ruff as unusual or odd in some way. It wasn’t until 1990, motivated by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, that Ruff started to re-photograph these images to create his Newspaper Photographs series. I asked Christoph Schifferli, the initiator of this new book Zeitungsfotos from the publisher Bookhorse a few questions regarding this project.

 

Jeffrey Ladd: When did you discover Ruff’s Zeitungsfotos series?

Christoph Schifferli: The first time I saw a larger set of Ruff’s Zeitungsfotos was at an exhibition at the Mai 36 Gallery in Zurich about ten years ago. I was quite fascinated by this body of work and I went back to the gallery several times.

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JL: Was there ever an artist book made of that work before?

CS: No.  Actually the Zeitungsfotos have been rarely published at all, and generally only a few images at the time in a post-stamp size format – at least until the wonderful catalog for the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Vienna in 2009 showed a larger selection of these pictures.

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JL: Many other artists have been working with appropriated imagery before, for instance Ruff’s countryman Hans-Peter Feldmann, do you think Ruff’s series operates very differently from Feldmann’s work in his books like Voyeur?

CS: There are a number of artists who used images from the daily press as material for their work and quite a few published artists’ book using these pictures with their distinct granular newsprint aesthetic. Among the early ones were Klaus Staeck with “Pornografie” (1971) and Hans-Peter Feldmann with “Überfall” (1975).

Compared to Feldmann’s Voyeur or similar works like Sol Lewitt’s Autobiography (1980) or more recently Batia Suter’s Parallel Encycloedia (2009), Thomas Ruff renounces any given combination or juxtaposition of images as they can be arranged in different sequences for every exhibition.

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JL: Much of Ruff’s earlier work made around the time of this Zeitungsfotos series held a straight and clear description exemplifying what photography does best which is describe faithfully what is before the lens – I am thinking mainly of his portraits – and it seems from these newspaper images onward Ruff’s work is progressively breaking faithful description and perhaps testing its limitations by introducing blur, unsharpness and pixels. On the surface, this seems in distinct contrast to much of work from other “Becher School” students, how do you see this work in comparison?

CS: That’s an interesting question. My feeling is that Thomas Ruff’s approach is actually quite consistent with the aestethic of the “Becher School”, since he takes very precise pictures of these blurred and partially fuzzy images. That’s one of the aspects of this body of works that fascinated me from the beginning: Ruff used a color film to shoot these black and white newspaper images and later on printed them as color photographs.

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JL: By removing the texts and picking these images solely on their merits as images, there is an interesting play happening where the viewer might know some of the historical information about the photos but maybe not the whole context for that specific photograph. Those bits of factual information do however linger while the viewer tries to look at the image objectively yet (at least in my case) cannot totally dismiss the bits of context that his or her mind is piecing together. By showing random newspaper photographs, say of Hitler, do you think someone is capable of viewing them completely and only as their merits as images without that battle of historical context creeping in?

CS: Probably one of the most efficient ways to “neutralize” the intrinsic meaning of an image is to change its context. That’s exactly what Thomas Ruff did by recreating these images as photographic color prints and showing them in a museum or gallery context.

JL: I am curious about the book’s size, which is rather small. The images are maybe even smaller in this book than they were when originally published in newspapers. Can you elaborate on how the size of the book was chosen?

CS: Yes they are smaller. We wanted the book to be compact and handy which is not an easy task when dealing with 800 pages. We wanted something you can grab for a short time and browse for a sequence, as well as for longer periods which can evoke a feeling of “reading.” While working with the material, this parallel became more and more obvious. It’s very much the lack of text that gives you the feeling of reading, provoked by one’s own associations. From that point of view the book neutralized the images and offers open readings.

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JL: Also, the placement of the photographs is interesting as they sometimes run a little bit into the book’s gutter depending on their size or cropping. I am probably reading too much into this, but, is that placement important to remind the viewer how any original image is ‘disrespected’ a little when printed in a newspaper? Printed on cheap paper, broken up by a large printing screen and then most likely viewed for about 5 seconds and then thrown out?

CS: We tried to work with a few designs that could be applied to all of the images. What we finally decided was to start with the largest image onto a double-page spread in maximum size as a kind of baseline. From there the size of all other images were adapted on the page accordingly and in keeping with their original proportions. Generally placed on the right side of the double-page spread, surprisingly few made it into the gutter. In the sake of “objectivity” we could not save those few from running into the gutter. We enforced the rigid system we set up believing, after all, they could take it. On the other hand we put a lot of work into image correction, to avoid “moiré” patterns.

JL: Did Thomas have much input while creating the book?

CS: When Lex Trueb, the designer and publisher of the book, and I saw an exhibit which gathering all 400 images glued to cards for presentation purposes at Mai 36 Gallery, it became obvious that this would make an interesting book. We were attracted by the specific form and quality of representation and we’re thinking either about making the book with facsimiles of the cards or working with the gallery’s digital documentation files.

When we approached Thomas Ruff with the idea, he had doubts about such a book, assuming that it would be boring after 50 pages. Happily we convinced him that the book’s condensed form would offer new ways to perceive the work. Especially the series “wholeness” would become more important and the sequential arrangement would develop some narrative.

As the papers from the different newspaper aged over the years, we agreed on eliminating the different background tones and replace them with one unified beige tone on which the images were printed in black. In that sense the single image is again being “objectified” in favor of the series.

Thomas then offered to re-photograph the original newspaper cutouts digitally which adds another interesting detail; the images in the book are not mere reproductions of the artworks – it’s a new work on it’s own – an artist’s book.

 

Thomas Ruff: Zeitungsfotos

Bookhorse, 2014

ISBN: 9783952339152

Also by Ruff:

Thomas Ruff: Editions 1988-2014

Hatje Cantz, 2014

ISBN: 9783775738590

A Perpetual Season by Gregoire Pujade-Lauraine

IMG_7541“Not to find one’s way in the city may well be uninteresting and banal. But to lose one’s way in a city calls for quite a different schooling.” – Walter Benjamin A Berlin Chronicle

In Gregoire Pujade-Lauraine’s A Perpetual Season, one is confronted with a city at once familiar and yet unrecognizable. The architecture and foundations of this unnamed and ultimately fictional city twist our sense of direction. All surfaces seem built with purpose although to what purpose is unknown. It does not seem to be for the benefit of human life.

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A Perpetual Season opens with a highrise building with a single lit window like an all seeing eye. It is the only image looking upwards and the highest reference in the book (After a few readings one might start to think of a panopticon). On the ground, the streets are stripped of all references – no advertising, no commerce, almost no litter. Everything has an aged modernist look. A few plates in we come across a granite boulder with six holes drilled into its side – a reminder of a past civilization? A past religion?

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Pujade-Lauraine has pulled off an interesting feat – that of using a tight edit of highly abstracted incidental spaces and photographs of passersby on the street to create a kind of futuristic nowadays. Godard’s Alphaville comes to mind.

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Of the people we encounter within this labyrinth  – it is mostly all walls that cut off our choices of direction into forward and backward after all – some seem confused, but most just seem to be existing within its confines. Not seemingly disturbed by their surroundings, mostly indifferent. This cross section of the populace seems to have embraced Benjamin’s adage about losing one’s self in a city. Or perhaps have become more comfortable with the lingering sense of having control placed over them.

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As a package A Perpetual Season is beautiful from its cover design to its blue toned page edges. The size, paper choices and printing all well considered and realized. Pujade-Lauraine is a talented designer who has done several of the MACK titles and is the author of The Significant Savages, a book included in the recent Parr/ Badger III. If there is one aspect I have lingering doubts it would be with the title. It rings a bit too self-conscious, and of his book The Significant Savages, I felt the same. Unexpectedly, even though completely different in practice (one book is images gathered off Facebook profiles, the other, taken by Pujade-Lauraine with a camera), these two books seem linked by more than initially meets the eye.

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Gregoire Pujade-Lauraine: A Perpetual Season

MACK, 2014

ISBN: 9781910164051

Hackney Photographs 1985-1987 by Berris Conolly

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A few days ago I posted about Joachim Schumacher’s Das Gebiet, a book about the transformation of the Ruhr area between 1976 and 1994. Looking at Berris Conolly’s new book from Dewi Lewis Hackney Photographs 1985-1987 I find a companion of sorts to the Schumacher book – two very competent photographers working in a similar language, that of black and white and large format, and providing a look back at places where they once lived and worked.

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My knowledge of the borough of Hackney previously was embarrassingly limited to blurry Stephen Gill photos of flea markets and such made in Hackney Wick. Located in east London and with a population of a quarter million, Hackney has a long history and has been no stranger to change and a shifting landscape being one of the poorest boroughs in the UK. As Adrain Wynn states in a short ‘Note’ to the photographs “The decade in which these photographs were made was one of turmoil both in national and local politics with issues of social justice never far from the headlines.”

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Conolly’s approach was one of wandering the streets and exploring the aesthetics of ordinary life. Unsparing in their details, Conolly takes seeming pleasure in filling his frames to their fullest. Leading the eye up fence lines to empty lots, to housing estates, back down roadways and a lines of cars. A broken wall gives way to autos and billboards – all elements seen seem to have equal weight and be precisely balanced. I generally do not like the term ‘a photographer’s photographer’ but Conolly is one that delights my wishes to still be surprised even by a familiar photographic language.

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Hackney Photographs represents a fairly large body of work covering a three year span. The consistency and strength from picture to picture reminds me a bit of my excitement after discovering Wilhelm Schurmann and his portrait of his hometown of Dortmund in west Germany over just a couple years in the early 1980s.

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In the back of Hackney Photographs appears an index of the plates with written observations and remembrances by Conolly. Far from a detached voice, his words add a personal dimension to the work and note his eye for small detail. For instance, the plate titled Ben, 1986 of a black man kneeling beside a car he writes; “Ben was photographed several times, usually around Hackney Downs. Here he poses in a back street garage beside his 1967 hot Mini with a skinned knuckle, perhaps from a slipped spanner.” In another titled London Fields from 1985 which shows a dilapidated playground and some rail lines; “A name no real estate agent could resist. A small park that has subsequently given title to the surrounding area, as well as the Martin Amis novel of cultural apocalypse. The Liverpool Street to Cambridge railway line runs in the background.”

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Hackney Photographs is well printed and the designer’s plate size is a good choice for allowing a deep investigation into Conolly’s photographs. In some ways this book, although simple and elegant, already feels dated like it was published in 1988. I do not mean that in a detracting way. It brings images and a design together and leaves well enough alone – the work doesn’t call for superfluous shine and glitter.

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Berris Conolly: Hackney Photographs 1985-1987

Dewi Lewis, 2014

ISBN: 9781907893568

Frances Farmer by Brigitte and Hans-Jurgern Tast

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In this season of books there are a lot of ‘best’ photobook lists but where are the ‘worst of’ lists? I came across this crazy little gem at a free book exchange here in Kalk, Koeln. It is a photo-story of the life of Frances Farmer the actress from the 1930s who, after being run through the Hollywood mill, eventually ended up committed to a mental institution in Western Washington where she was subjected to inhuman conditions including rape, and shock treatments. Some believe that she could have been one of the greatest actresses of her time.

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Ok, maybe its intention wasn’t meant to be a ‘true’ photobook but I think it actually fits the criteria in that it uses photography as its main language.

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It was published by Kulleraugen or “Googly-eyes” in March of 1979 and to their credit, its publication preceded the 1982 film Frances.

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The photos are by Brigitte Tast and Hans-Jurgern Tast who, in an afterword, mention reading about Farmer in Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon. Their photoplay of Farmer’s life was an attempt to reflect on how they felt reading Anger’s account instead of a strict factual account. They admit to playing fast and loose with historical details in regards to Farmer’s early life. The actress playing Frances is Anne Dommel.

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Kulleraugen was a media magazine established in 1977 which published a few books on film including titles on Bridget Bardot, John Travolta, and Marion Michael. There are a few copies of this online for around 20-30 euros so I guess only diehard fans will want to splurge. Meanwhile check your local free book exchange or second hand shop.

 

Brigitte and Hans-Jurgern Tast: Francis Farmer

Kulleraugen, 1979

ISBN: None

Zoe’s ‘Remainder’ Pick #4: I’m a Real Photographer by Keith Arnatt

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This book tells the story of Keith Arnatt’s journey in photography, in 19 series of photographs. Each series features prosaic subject matter – his dogs, the local garbage heap, everyday objects photographed in his studio, notes that his wife Jo left for him – exploring the conventions of the medium with a distinct edge and humor.

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Seen together for the first time, the threads and themes of Arnatt’s work connect to make a coherent statement about the act of photography and its relationship to the history of art. Arnatt’s story and work prove surprising, provocative, profound and moving.

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Keith Arnatt: I’m a Real Photographer: Photographs 1974-2002

Chris Boot, 2007.

ISBN 9781905712052

€ 6,95

 

Das Gebiet by Joachim Schumacher

IMG_7556Joachim Schumacher’s book Das Gebiet explores the Ruhr area of western Germany – a landscape shifting dramatically under the heavy weight of the dying coal and steel industry. Schumacher, a former student at the Essen Folkwang School of Otto Steinert, diverted from his teachers photojournalistic approach and adopted an objective documentary stance more akin to what was happening within the genre now known as the New Topographics. The photographs in Das Gebiet cover an eighteen-year span between 1976 to 1994.

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Das Gebiet opens with a handful of images from the mid-80s showing the remnants of industry dominating housing estates and backyard ‘Schrebergarten’ – perhaps calling to mind Walker Evans photographs of Bethlehem Pennsylvania but minus the graveyard tombstones. The small shacks and makeshift fencing around the gardens are a shock contrast to the engineering feats of the industrial buildings and machinery.

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As the book progresses industry falls far into the background, it gives way to newer buildings and neighborhoods. A different commerce seems to appear and the industrial no-mans-land is replaced by commercial zones of cement passageways, roads and in some places, a blitz of signage.

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Schumacher splits the book into three sections – Das Gebiet, Langer Aten and Von dieser Welt – although those titles seem more like metaphoric punctuation rather than clear divisions as the photographs provide a continuum that could maintain the course of the book without.

Das Gebiet is well printed and if I had one sticking point it would be with certain design choices. There are mainly two sizes the plates appear on the page and the smaller size is just a bit too small in my opinion for precision of Schumacher’s images. He obviously takes pleasure in the small details and resolve of the large format he employs most of the time – he says as much in his afterword – and many of those small plates sacrifice important details that would have taken on more and diverse pleasures for the viewer. For instance, a spread of pages where in two small images a group of women work on a garden plot next to large cooling towers and the facing page image where three individuals move what look like tables in front of a commercial district. It seems like a conscious effort on the part of the design was to minimize the human figures that occasionally appear.

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One last curiosity I have is also with Schumacher’s afterword as it is illustrated with other images made from this time period of the same material. Many of those images, reproduced as thumbnails, seem no less brilliant and begging to be included amongst the larger plates. By including these additional sixteen plates, for me calls into question the book’s editing.

Schumacher has been published previously but Das Gebiet is the first monograph on this body of work. The Ruhrgebiet has been explored by many over the last half of the twentieth century by both well known and less-known photographers. Perhaps Schumacher as a name, falls more in the latter category but much of this work is no less a powerful testament to the area’s history and transformation as this book attests.

 

Joachim Schumacher: Das Gebiet

Verlag Kettler, 2014

ISBN:9783862062263

The Stanford Albums by Carleton Watkins

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In today’s terms of photography, digital or even analog, it is hard to imagine what Carleton Watkins endured to make photographs – loading up a team of mules with nearly a ton of photographic equipment including a mobile darkroom tent, a dangerous assortment of flammable chemicals, and an enormous custom-built camera that produced “mammoth” 18 x 22-inch glass-plate negatives. Dust and grit could easily ruin a day’s work as the plates were coated, exposed for up to an hour, and developed. Water had to be carried great distances. The sun warped and shrank camera parts. If photography were this cumbersome still, there would not be the gluttony of images we are subject to today.

IMG_7178 IMG_7179 There is good reason that the New York Times declared in 1862 that, “as specimens of the photographic art they are unequaled.” I think that praise still holds true today even though the photographs will be perceived to many as too “old fashioned” to consider that they still hold as pioneers in establishing the language of contemporary landscape photography.

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The Stanford Albums are made up of three unique albums of Watkins’s work which were left to the university by Timothy Hopkins: Photographs of the Yosemite Valley (1861 and 1865–66), Photographs of the Pacific Coast (1862–76), and Photographs of the Columbia River and Oregon (1867 and 1870). This book is made up of a selection of large plate reproductions 25cm by 32cm, beautifully printed to mimic their original chocolate/purple tonalities. A back section of small reproductions, also well printed and large enough to enjoy on their own, show all 156 mammoth plates from the three albums.

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Throughout his career, Watkins documented the remote American West, generating more than 7,000 photographs of its most majestic wilderness sites as well as the dramatic transformation of isolated territories caused by logging and mining industries. His photographs won awards throughout the United States and abroad. With his early success, he established a gallery in San Francisco on prestigious Montgomery Street in 1861.

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Watkins’s fortunes took a turn with the 1874 failure of the Bank of California and the resulting economic panic. Heavily in debt at the time, Watkins had to declare bankruptcy and lost both his gallery and the majority of his negatives to a competitor.

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Watkins rebuilt his inventory, continuing to travel and work into the 1890s, but never recovered financially. At one point he and his family lived in a rail car in Oakland. Watkins’s health also declined, and by 1903 he was nearly blind. If that weren’t tragic enough, the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed his studio and his life’s work, and he never got over the shock. His family eventually had him committed to Napa State Hospital. He died there in 1916. This publication and recent exhibition of The Stanford Albums is testament to his sweat and brilliance.

 

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums

Stanford/Cantor Art Center, 2014

ISBN: 9780804792158

Mila’s ‘Remainder’ Pick #4: Medebach by Petra Wittmar

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In this photographic inventory of her birthplace, Petra Wittmar analyzes the architectural and topographical appearance of Medebach, a village located in Hochsauerland, in the center of Germany, and attempts to disclose the structures of village life in the process.

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Her interest in this subject was sparked by the drastic changes in the 1970s, which practically replaced the village with an increasingly interchangeable, standardized culture and lifestyle. Just as newly imposed construction norms and new directions in taste were taking hold, an apparently contrary yearning arose for “home” and personal happiness in this rural corner. Aesthetic breaches and varied cultural and political contradictions were the result, which led to an intensive investigation of questions surrounding the significance of identity.

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Medebach is an extract from a project to which the photographer devoted her time from 1979 to 1983. Her renunciation of inflammatory moments and her largely formal stringency distinguish the quality of these images, which can also be read as the German reaction to the American New Topographics movement in the late 1970s.

 

Petra Wittmar : Medebach – Photographs 1979-1983

Steidl, 2007

ISBN: 9783865212801

€ 15,00