Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Colors of Growth

In 2002, I spent a semester teaching at a private university in Fujian Province, since then I consider myself an expert of things Chinese. I'm of course joking but must admit that my stay in China has greatly influenced my perception of the country. What I especially recall is an almost complete absence of joy. Andreas Seibert's pictures that he took while journeying along the thousand-kilometer-long Huai River has not altered my impression.
Andreas Seifert is a freelance photographer, born in 1970 in Switzerland, who lives with his family in Tokyo. Since 2002 he has been documenting China's economic development. I love the way he introduces The Colors of Growth. China's Huai River: "The high-speed train from Shanghai to Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province, is moving through a severe thunderstorm. I look out the window. Lightning flashes in the rapidly darkening sky. Heavy raindrops drum down on the roof and windows of the train, making it impossible to see the passing fields and villages. The train slows down. About a week prior, on July 23, 2011, two high-speed trains collided on a viaduct near the city of Wenzhou, in similar weather. Cars were derailed and plunged off the bridge. There were 40 people killed and over 190 injured in the accident. The badly damaged cars were buried on the spot, without further investigation. The official explanation was that this was to make room for emergency vehicles." This telling me in what mood the photographer approached his subject is precisely how I would wish more photography books to be presented – for I want to have a clue in what frame of mind pictures were taken.
The Huai River drainage basin is a complex water system, I learn. It consists of the river itself and of many large and small canals, lakes, ponds and natural and artificial reservoirs. Seibert writes: "In order to get a solid understanding of the river, one must travel in a nonlinear fashion, taking detours along the way. While the places I visited are not located on a linear route, the images in this book are arranged so that by flipping from one page to the other, the reader is virtually traveling from west to east, from the river's source to the river's mouth."
Air and water quality is a major problem in China. I vividly recall how "my" students in 2002 emphasised the clean air on campus – an obvious indication that things were not that way elsewehre.

What Andreas Seibert achieves with his book on the Huai River is however much more than documenting the progressively deteriorating water quality: he also tells the stories of the people who live by, and from, this river. He thus impressively demonstrates that good photojournalism, the intelligent combination of pictures and words, is still unmatched when it comes to storytelling.

Interestingly enough, it was not so much the river but the people and their stories that were still with me when I closed the book. It is no small feat that Andreas Seibert was able to make visible, and thus make me feel, how much we human beings depend on an intact environment. 

"The Colors of Growth" is not only an inspiring but also a useful book.

Andreas Seibert
The Colors of Growth
China's Huai River
Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich 2013

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Arvid Gutschow

As it is common in photo books, the captions can be found on the pages in the back. And often they are so uninspired that they should have been left out entirely. The one of the above pic says: "Untitled (stubbles in the snow)", it was taken in 1952. More useful would be to tell the viewer when and where the picture was taken, and in what mood the photographer had been. Needless to say, I'm aware of the difficulties ... but nevertheless ...
The caption of the pic on the left reads: "Untitled (flickers of sunlight and bits of sea foam, Sylt)", it was taken in 1928. The caption of the pic on the right reads: "Branches of a Dried-Up Rivulet", it was also taken in 1928.
The caption of the pic to the left reads: "Undergrowth Battling the Sand and Wind", it was taken in 1928. The caption on the right reads: "Play of Stalks in the Sand" and was also taken in 1928.

Arvid Gutschow (1900 - 1984), I learn from Stefanie Odenthal ("A significant photographer and almost forgotten"), was a self taught photographer who began to take picturing the landscapes of the outlying areas of Hamburg at an early age. Photographing was then very different from today. "My father was a businessman. He took photographs while hiding under the black cloth of large cameras ... When I got older, I took pictures with the same box cameras and also a Stegemann camera."

Gutschow studied law and became a high-ranking official in the city government of Hamburg; taking photographs was done in his spare time. In 1930, his photographic book See Sand Sonne was published and made him well-known. Most of the pictures were taken on the Island of Sylt, Thomas Mann was supposed to write the foreword but had to bow out due to time constraints.

I very much liked Stefanie Odenthal's approach to See Sand Sonne and feel that one would be well-advised to consider approaching the now available book (published by Hatje Cantz and Alfred Ehrhardt Stiftung) in the same way: "One makes ones's way through the book as if taking a walk, in which the viewer follows the movements of the photographic gaze."

Andreas J. Büchting ("Memories of Arvid Gutschow: Fragment of a late friendship") was a close friend of Gutschow, who "tended to look at the world around him through the lens of a virtual camera, often by holding an 'O' shaped by his thumb and forefinger up to his eye." They traveled together through Switzerland, South India, and Western Europe. "In India, his photos focused on the details of agriculture and especially of people: people's faces, clothing, perticularituies. But ever and again the faces, eyes, their beautiful features. In the course of this, he became fascinated with colors, for without color, life in India will barely let itself be captured." Too bad that there are no such colorful pictures to be seen in this well-done book.

Arvid Gutschow
A Significant Photographer
Almost Forgotten
Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2013

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Cap San Diego

Die Cap San Diego ist ein Schiff, das im Herbst 2011 seinen fünfzigsten Geburtstag feierte und dafür wurde die alte Dame im Trockendock 16 der Hamburger Traditionswerft Blohm & Voss noch einmal kräftig herausgeputzt. "Entrosten, trennen, schleifen, schweissen, malen: Die Arbeiten an der 5,40 Meter grossen Schraube, am tonnschweren Anker, an der 11 500 PS starken Maschine dauerten zwei Wochen – bei Tag und Nacht und unter den eindringlichen Warnsignalen der sich fast pausenlos bewegenden Kräne auf dem Werftgelände."

Die beiden Fotografen Heike Ollertz und Axel Martens waren dabei und haben mit diesem Buch eine eindrückliche Dokumentation vorgelegt. Ihre Aufnahmen zeigen so ganz Unterschiedliches wie etwa Schutzfolien an der Schraube, die noch abgenommen und museale Hinweisschilder, die überholt werden müssen; Sicherheitshinweise auf dem Werftgelände, einen Assistenzschlepper, der für das Ablegemanöver fest macht und und und ... Ich fand faszinierend, auf wie viele verschiedene Arten ein Schiff wahrgenommen und abgebildet werden kann. Ein tolles Buch!

Heike Ollertz & Axel Martens
Cap San Diego
Junius Verlag, Hamburg 2011

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Josef Heinrich Darchinger

The caption of the above photograph reads: "For a Groschen (10 pfennigs) you can buy a bit of heaven: a roll of five caramel toffees. Wonderfully sticky, it's hard not to chew them and unfortunately they can pull out fillings and loose teeth". Bonn 1955).

Essentially, photographs are documents. They are records. Never does this become more apparent than when we are looking at photography of historical value: another world opens up in front of our eyes and we become aware that time does indeed exist or, to be more precise, that our perception of the world is inextricably linked to our concept of time.

Klaus Honnef starts his essay A Time Photographed. Jupp Darchinger: The Fifties and early Sixties with illuminating sentences that I can easily subscribe to: "The further time recedes into the past, the more bizarre its photographic images appear to be. Yet according to many theorists of the medium, it is such images that preserve the true reality of how things actually were. Nevertheless, Josef H. Darchinger's photographs from the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany somehow make us feel that the Wizard of Oz has waved his magic wand and allowed us to look into a strange and oddly unreal world."
The Reichstag in Berlin was a ruin, 1958 © 2008 Josef Heinrich Darchinger, Bonn, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Bonn

Wirtschaftswunder documents indeed a most exotic era where the workers were the cornerstone of the economic upturn and women had to ask their husbands if they wanted to go out to work. The book is divided into three parts: 1) Family Life. I am master in my own house. 2) The Economy. The factory chimneys are smoking again. 3) Politics. Let's go West. The most unreal shots I thought the ones who showed politicians like Schmidt, Brandt, and Kennedy who looked so young, promising, and somewhat innocent. And the ones that depict the former East Germany.

Darchinger's Wirtschaftswunder is impressive photojournalism and that means that photos and texts complement each other most convincingly. The captions of the above pictures read like this: "Years of imprisonment in a concentration camp for being a communist have cost him his health and vigour. His compensation: a pension of 95 marks a month and accommodation in temporary housing in a camp in Bonn. But the hunt for communists goes on. Between 1951 and 1968, 138,000 preliminary proceedings are instigated on the grounds of 'communistic activities'. 1956." (the picture to the left). "Will the money last till the end of the month? Bombed-out pensioners with as few salvaged belongings and their keepsakes in temporary accommodation in a camp. Hanging on the wall is a photograph of their missing son in the uniform of a submariner. Bonn 1956." (the picture to the right).

Josef Heinrich Darchinger
Deutschland nach dem Krieg
Germany after the war
Taschen, Cologne 2012