Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Dennis Stock

Photojournalist and Magnum member Dennis Stock, born 1928 in the South Bronx to an English mother and a Swiss father, must have been quite an impossible guy. "... he could be direct to the point of harshness", writes Carole Naggar in her informative essay "I'll meet you tonight at noon". In the words of his friend, gallery owner Howard Greenberg: "He had little patience for those who did not agree with him". And: "He had enormous confidence ... he could become combative and even arogant, which cost him relationships over time." Yet he was also generous and did serve as a mentor to younger photographers.
Time Is On Your Side is divided into sections entitled James Dean; Musicians, Actors, Jazz & Theater; Fairs & Festivals; California; Hippies & Road People,  All photographs are in black and white, some come with interesting captions and I continue to wonder who wrote them, in particular this one: "James Dean in his apartment on W.68th Street, just off Central Park West. On the top floor, it was small and stateroom-like – probably a maid's room in earlier days. It was crammed with books and records. Jimmy had a need to be surrounded by books, but it's not sure if he was a real reader. He collected all kinds of music: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, medieval music, and even Frank Sinatra's SONGS FOR YOUNG LOVERS. New York City, 1955." What I find interesting is the suggestion that the books shown are part of the furniture.

"In the whole series James Dean seems to be an actor in his own life, the people and places around him no more than a theater set. He cuts a lonely figure, disconnected from his surroundings by an invisible line", writes Carole Naggar. I couldn't agree more yet I also wonder how much this view of Dean might also be sort of a self-portrait of Stock.
A double-page spread in the section on immigrants shows couples in New York City (in 1950 and in 1951) giving "an assurance of 'No communist affiliation'". Indeed a "bureaucratic absurdity" (as the caption says) and at the same time a frightening document of a hysterical era. And, very different from the pretty relaxed pictures in "Hippies & Road People".

"In 1968, Dennis Stock assigned himself the subject of the state of California. He tought that this was were things were going to happen", I learn from Carole Naggar who also contributed an interesting description of the man holding a surboard (the picture below): "His whole body remains hidden, except for his arms, turning the surf into a polished white mask with the stark shadows of the stairs creating a geometric background as his shadowed hands seem like small animals with open jaws."
I'm increasingly concerned with questions of photographic collaboration. There are many superb shots in this tome that are quite obviously snapshots. And, there are the ones that give the impression that the person portrayed was trying to come across favourably, and succeeded in doing so. How much credit is due to the photographer and how much to the person portrayed?, I sometimes wonder. In case you also wonder, you should look at the pic of Louis Armstrong in his dressing room at the Latino Casino, Philadelphia, 1958. To look so supremely relaxed, there must have been quite some chemistry between Stock and Armstrong.

Dennis Stock
Time Is On Your Side
Prestel, Munich-London-New York 2014

Wednesday, 10 December 2014


Nachdem ich mich gerade mit einem Fotoband voller Psychotherapeuten, die an ihren Arbeitsplätzen porträtiert wurden, beschäftigt hatte, war ich recht gespannt, wie wohl die Ateliers und Lebensräume berühmter Maler und Bildhauer aussehen würden. 

Zuallererst ist mir bei Künstlerhäuser der an der Architekturfotografie geschulte Blick von Achim Bednarz aufgefallen: meisterhaft, wie dieser Mann Bilder rahmt.

Künstlerhäuser seien 'topografische Fixpunkte', schreibt Boris Plachta. "An diesen Orten erinnern wir uns an grosse Persönlichkeiten und ihre Leistungen und vergegenwärtigen das Vergangene."

Künstlerhäuser ist eine detailreiche Abhandlung über die Wohn- und Arbeitsstätten von Malern und Bildhauern. Fünfzig als Museen und Gedenkstätten gepflegte Künstlerhäuser und/oder Ateliers in ihren jeweiligen kunsthistorischen Kontexten versammelt dieser höchst informative Band, der auch einzelne Lebensschicksale schildert, besonders eindrücklich etwa die etwa von Otto Dix und von Käthe Kollwitz.

Mein spezielles Interesse gehört dem umgebauten Stall in Stampa, den Alberto Giacometti als Atelier nutzte. Zu sehen ist jedoch nur eine Aussenansicht, dafür erfährt man einiges über die Künstlerfamilie Giacometti, deren stabilisierendes Element offenbar die aus einer begüterten Bergeller Familie stammende Annetta Stampa, die Mutter von Alberto, Diego und Bruno, gewesen ist.

Auch Giacomettis knapp "24 Quadratmeter grosses Atelier mit rohem Betonfussboden und nackten Wänden in einem verwickelten Barackenkomplex in der Rue Hippolyte-Maindron 46" in Paris ist nicht abgebildet. "Das Atelier spiegelt Giacomettis Willen wider, als Künstler zu reüssieren", schreibt Plachta.

Aufschlussreich fand ich unter anderem die Aufnahmen von der rekonstruierten Pariser Wohnung Mondrians, die sowohl in der Anordnung als auch in der Farbauswahl genauso auf mich wirkt wie seine Bilder.

Gestaunt habe ich über die luxuriös ausgestatteten Salons im ersten Stock von de Chiricos Römer Wohnung an der Piazza di Spagna. Die Privaträume, einen Stock höher gelegen, seien jedoch, so Plachta, spartanisch eingerichtet gewesen.

Künstlerhäuser ist eine wahre Fundgrube. Da findet man Rembrandts Haus in Amsterdam, Rubens' Stadtpalast in Antwerpen, die Villa Franz von Lenbachs in München, das Wohn- und Atelierhaus von Auguste Rodin in Meudon, die Künstlerkolonie auf der Darmstädter Mathildenhöhe und und und ...

Sich in Künstlerhäuser zu vertiefen, ist höchst anregend. Und Horizont erweiternd. Mir jedenfalls eröffneten sich dabei viele bis anhin nicht bekannte Welten. Ganz besonders angetan haben es mir etwa das von Kandinsky gemalte Treppengeländer, das Bibliothek-Wohnzimmer von Alfred Kubin und Edvard Munchs Warnemünder Ferienunterkunft im Haus des Lotsen Carl Nielsen.

Bodo Plachta
Reclam Verlag, Stuttgart 2014

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Fifty Shrinks

„Fifty Shrinks“ combines photographs by Sebastian Zimmermann, a psychiatrist and photographer, of therapists' offices as well as interviews with therapists. „As you read through the book, you will be struck by the variety of mood, ambience, and furnishing, mirroring the wide spectrum of therapeutic philosophies held by the practitioners who opened their private offices and their minds as well“, writes Lee Kassan in the front cover text. And, that sums it up nicely.

The cover shows the psychoanalyst Martin Bergmann who continued to practise until a few weeks short of his 101st birthday. He is pictured in an elegant penthouse office anchored by a towering bookcase and sweeping views of Central Park. It is an image that radiates, and invites, contemplation. I would have liked to know whether it had been Dr. Bergmann who had decided that he wanted to be photographed looking down in thought while seated on a bed or whether he did so following instructions by the photographer.

A hint of how Zimmermann went about his work is given in the text that accompanies the portrait of Dr. Charles Brenner, „whose towering reputation as the dean of American psychoanalysis for half a century intrigued and intimidated me.“ After taking some photographs of him at his desk and reading from a book, Zimmermann noticed a chess board on a sideboard and asked Brenner if he would pose by the board. „His posture straightened, his focus intensified, his mood lifted, and he transformed into the authority figure that I had anticipated.“ It is a remarkable portrait that radiates the kind of authority I would clearly be intimidated by.

For more, see my review on

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

People of the Sea

End of Season

"A boy stands on the beach and looks out to the sea. 
He observes the waves as they break, the passing clouds, and the wind that blows fine sand across his skin. He feels the salt in his nose. Spellbound, the boy pauses, feeling the power of his place that has taken hold of him and will never let go." 

This is how Nicolai Max Hahn begins his foreword. These lines immediately create strong images in my mind. And they evoke sensations that are similar to the ones that Ingo Gebhard's photographs bring up. It is an inspirational text of the kind that is rarely found in photo books, and by this I mean that it helped my imagination to open up. "The waters of the North Sea are among the roughest of the world. Ingo Gebhard mostly photographs this force of nature during hurricane-strength winds in order to depict the elements as intensively as possible."
Hermann Goldschweer, Harbor Master

People of the Sea shows not only people of the sea, among them a former maritime rescuer, a pastor, an equine chiropractor, a young Frisian woman and an attractive older lady of whom the captions says "headstrong" (and, needless to say, I immediately associate that with her), but also of coastal landscapes.

Ingo Gebhard grew up on the island of Wangerooge in the North Sea and has worked as a freelance photographer for the fashion and advertising industry since 1995. As this tome impressively testifies, he has also pursued his own work that mainly focuses on black-and-white portraits and coastal landscapes.
Jens Dorow, Beach Attendant

The sharp outlines of the photographs make them resemble paintings, and looking at these faces makes one automatically think, yes, it is obvious, the rough winds have left their mark on them. Hardly anyone offers a smile.

Spending time with photographs often brings up mental images that have only remotely (and sometimes nothing) to do with what is before my eyes. Ingo Gebhard's formidable landscapes make me remember a storm that I witnessed in Piriápolis, Uruguay. The sea happened to be across the street from my hotel and I was able to watch it from the safety of my room. It is the photo of the tidelands below that brought up this movie in my head.

The pictures in this thoughtfully composed work – portraits alternate with coastal landscapes – radiate an intriguing calm and that's probably to do with what the sea has taught these men and women portrayed here: that in order to survive you need to remain calm.

Ingo Gebhard's People of the Sea is a great book, and an invitation to contemplate eternity.

Ingo Gebhard
People of the Sea
Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2014

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Alpine Landscape Pictures

Only after he had finished his studies in fine art photography, Olaf Unverzart, who grew up not far from the mountains but without any particular interest in them ("The Alps were first and foremost what you had to cross once a year to reach the Adriatic"), began to discover the Alps as a motif for his photographic endeavours. I can easily relate to that for often we for a long time do not see what is right in front of us. But once we do, and are fascinated by it, it can become an obsession, not one that we suffer from, but one that we feel uplifted by.
@ Olaf Unverzart

The introduction to this impressive tome comes, given that this is a book full of pictures, with this rather strange title "A Life Outside The Pictures". Written by Tom Dauer, it tells the story of his climb of the Piz Badile. It is a strong and personal text that however, like almost every other text that deals with photographs, doesn't fail to mention that pictures tell stories  – and that simply is bull, not only because pictures can't talk but mainly because this metaphorical way of putting it obscures the fact that what we see in a picture we bring to it.

Nevertheless, as I've said, Tom Dauer contributed a convincing text. "Climbing a mountain such as the north face of Piz Badile is life under a magnifying glass. What is important becomes bigger and clearer. Everything else is beside the point. Except when the unexpected happens. The uncontrollable, the wild, the untamable. Anything that lies outside the pictures."
@ Olaf Unverzart

Another text ("On Heavy Bags, Slow Pictures, and the Physical Experience of the Landscape") by the curator Sophia Greiff – what the hell are "slow pictures"? – provides a historical account of Alpine photography. "... the luggage of the pioneers of Alpine photography contained not only heavy, bulky, wooden box cameras but also various lenses and tripods, and even a portable darkroom, chemicals, and tanks – basically an entire photographic laboratory." Amazing, isn't it? Similarly amazing is the fact that Olaf Unverzart embarks on his photographic expeditions into the Alps with a plate camera and around twenty kilos of luggage. Which tells us something about the spirit in which Unverzart takes his pictures. "Good weather is the precondition of going, bad weather is better for my pictures. So I can only lose – or never – depending on how you see it."

When spending time with the majestic landscapes (or more precisely: with how Unverzart framed them) in this superbly done book, a quote by Francis Bacon (that was pinned to Dorothea Lange's darkroom door) comes to mind: "The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention."

Olaf Unverzart
Prestel Verlag, München - London - New York 2014

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Italien in vollen Zügen

Tim Parks, geboren 1954 in Manchester, wuchs in London auf und lebt seit 1981 in Italien. Er schreibt viel und gut und manchmal frage ich mich, ob es auch Gedanken gibt, die seinen Kopf durchqueren, und die er nicht aufschreibt? Jedenfalls kommt mir vor, als ob ich so recht eigentlich nicht zur Website der New York Review of Books gehen kann, ohne dass ich da etwas von Tim Parks zu lesen kriege, und dann auch immer noch etwas anregend Schlaues, wie macht der Mann das bloss?

Um es gleich klar zu machen: ich weiss, dass ich dieses Buch mögen werde. Weil ich Parks' Schreiben sehr mag und ihm eine Italien-Einsicht verdanke, die mich seither begleitet. Sie geht in etwa so (ich zitiere aus dem Gedächtnis): Sich der Tatsache gewahr zu werden, dass es italienische Zeugen Jehovas gebe, verändere das eigene Italien-Bild schlagartig. Stimmt, doch nur für einen Moment, liest man dann nämlich Italien in vollen Zügen ist das alte Italien-Bild sofort wieder da

Mein Bild vom Italiener an und für sich ist von meinem Vater geprägt worden, der meinte, für einen Italiener sei ein Stopp-Zeichen bestenfalls eine gute Diskussionsgrundlage. In den Worten von Tim Parks: "Aber in Italien ist kein Gesetz wirklich wasserdicht, von konsequenter Durchsetzung ganz zu schweigen. Es existieren immer interessante Schlupflöcher."

Vor den bürokratischen Auswüchsen retten sich die Italiener oft in Schreien und Brüllen (jedenfalls in meinen Ohren), doch keinesfalls in ernsthaften Protest. Generalstreiks bedeuten einen freien Arbeitstag, sie werden in der Regel auf Freitag angekündigt.

 Italien in vollen Zügen ist auch ein lehrreiches Buch. So lerne ich zum Beispiel, dass Fundbüro auf Italienisch oggetti smarritti heisst. Verlegte Gegenstände. Wobei smarritto auch erstaunt oder verwirrt bedeuten kann. Coincidenza ist ein anderes Wort, das ganz Unterschiedliches bedeuten kann. Bei Bahnreisen kann es Anschlussverbindung bedeuten, doch am häufigsten wird das Wort benutzt, "um eine plötzliche und völlig unerwartete Entwicklung der Dinge anzukündigen, die sofortiges Handeln erfordert." Ein Zug in partenza etwa, was meint, dass der Zug abfahrbereit ist, oft jedoch bereits abgefahren ist. Und da ist da noch ein Wort, das zu verstehen für Zugfahrten in Italien unabdingbar ist: soppresso, fällt aus.

Als Jugendlicher übten Bahnhöfe eine grosse Faszination auf mich aus, sie waren Sehnsuchtsorte, von wo man in die Ferne aufbrach. Das hat sich geändert, heute sind sie weltweit zu Einkaufszentren verkommen. Und zu Orten, an welchen Schlangestehen (kein italienisches Talent) vor den Schaltern angesagt ist. Aus Italien in vollen Zügen erfahre ich, dass am Milano Centrale die Afrikaner und Chinesen etwas verkaufen oder betteln und die osteuropäischen Immigranten beim Fahrkartenerwerb ihre Dienste anbieten (die Bedienung der Automaten ist eine Kunst). Und dass die Mailänder Barmänner keine Studenten, Aushilfen oder Möchtegern-Schauspieler sind, sondern wirklich wissen wie man Kaffee macht.

Das Schöne an Italien in vollen Zügen ist, dass es einerseits so ziemlich alle meine Voreingenommenheiten über Italiener bestätigt und sie gleichzeitig wieder aufhebt. "Das Faszinierende ist, dass ein und dieselbe Nation so gegensätzliche Stereotypen hervorbringt: den miesepetrigen, langsamen Bahnhofscafé-Kellner in dem schäbigen ungepflegten öffentlichen Lokal, wo alles schwierig und traurig ist, und den quicklebendigen Mann in dem quirligen Strassencafé, der doppelt so hart arbeitet, dabei aber fröhlich bleibt. Ich bin mir zum Beispiel sicher, dass derselbe Mann sein Verhalten komplett verändern würde, wenn er von dem einen Ambiente in das andere versetzt würde. Die Art seiner Bemerkungen, sein Kleidungsstil und vor allem die Qualität seines Cappuccino würden sich komplett wandeln."

Tim Parks
Italien in vollen Zügen
Verlag Antje Kunstmann München 2014

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

On Sanug and other things Thai

On the flight from Doha to Bangkok I get to sit near the emergency exit with lots of legroom. The seat next to me is vacant, the aisle seat taken by a gentleman from Kuwait who happens to be a former captain and is now into import/export. Of what, I ask, orchids? turbines? Anything, he says. As soon as we reach our cruising altitude, an Asian man sits down on the middle seat. The captain complains to the air hostess who tells the Asian man to vacate the seat. A few minutes later, an Englishman asks whether the seat is free whereupon the captain tells him that it is not. The Englishman gets furious, the Maître de Cabine appears and after some arguments by the captain (he regularly flies with this airline, he pays a higher fare than the regular customer), the seat remains vacant. I'm impressed by his negotiating skills and let him know that I foresee a future career as a diplomat ...
After landing at Suvarnabhumi Airport, I take the train to Phaya Thai and then the Skytrain to Soi Nana from where it is a fifteen minute walk to my hotel on Petchburi Road. The sky is grey and it drizzles and where my hotel once was I see a construction pit. I feel slightly shocked and decide to go to a place nearby where, many years ago, I very often stayed ... and there is another construction pit! It seems definitely not a good idea to re-visit old neighbourhoods.
Quite some time ago, in a hotel in Northern Thailand, I asked the young receptionist whether they offered a discount. Yes, she said. And who gets it? Everybody who asks, she smiled. Since then I always ask. In Lat Krabang, I'm asked back: How much you want to pay? Well, I'm happy with the best rate you can give me, I reply. And get an excellent one ...

Sign here, and here, and here. I'm astonished by the amount of paperwork that is required in order to change a one hundred-dollar bill. You seem to like my signature, I smile to the bank clerk. Not me, she smiles back, the bank!
There is a lightness of being in Thailand that I do not experience in Switzerland. I guess this has partly do to with what in Thailand is known as Sanug which stands for fun, joy, something pleasent, it is a cheerful, positive, life-affirming attitude. Anything can be sanug, be it a walk in the rain or enjoying a good meal; if something isn't sanug, a Thai wouldn't even touch it with a stick ...