Laurenz Berges’s photographs exemplify notions of memory and place, the »that-has-been« about which Roland Barthes spoke so eloquently in his seminal text on photography, Camera Lucida (1980), as well as the mainstays that account for our continued fascination with the photographic medium at a time when it is being threatened by new digital technologies. Upon initial viewing, the images in Berges’s current project qualify more accurately as non-places, the kind of non-descript, generic locales that each of us has experienced — in the mundaneness of our everyday lives, in the stills we extract from films, in the further reaches of our subconscious — and that remain ever present, ready to call up from our visual memory banks at a moment’s notice. That Berges has preserved a few such places from his immediate environs in Düsseldorf and North Rhine-Westphalia in crisp, accurate color images that seem vaguely familiar even to the viewer who has never actually traversed these sites underscores the universality of photographic depiction on the one hand and, on the other, the subjectivity of viewing.
Several images in the series record the intersection of architectural elements with the ground in harmonious if unspectacular compositions, pregnant with the implication of what might have occurred or still could occur there. In others, architectural elements enter into timid competition with nature, the separation of the two realms symbolizing the psychical compartmentalization of experience in general. Like Berges’s earlier studies of Russian barracks, these images derive their impact from inherent contradictions; where a quality of quiet permanence suffuses the abandoned interiors of the earlier series (initially constructed for occupation by German troops during the Wilhelminian and Nazi periods, the barracks then housed Russian troops, which, since the fall of the Wall, the reunification of Germany and end of the Cold war, have remained unoccupied), the photographs in this series demonstrate an almost epic grandeur in the ordinariness of their reality and a topicality in the mild outdatedness of their architectural detail. It is not coincidental that a sense of place derives from the confrontation of built and natural elements, that memory depends on the interplay of past and present and that both occur in conjunction with one another.
The series and in particular Düsseldorf, 1996, the motif that has been selected for this edition, recall a well-established photographic tradition, that of documenting the places where civilization and nature meet, which in the United States can be traced to records of the geological expeditions of the West during the late nineteenth century, exemplified by an image such as Timothy O’Sullivan’s Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, South Side of Inscription Rock, 1873, as well as to more critical examinations of this phenomenon by »New Topographics« photographers a century later, as in Lewis Baltz’s »New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California« series of 1974. While works such as these establish guideposts in the collective memory of a medium, so too do photographs closer to home to a German artist, including any one of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s portrayals of factory building facades since the early 1960’s, as well as more iconic studies, such as Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Das Bäumchen (The Little Tree) of 1929. Reference to the Bechers is inevitable since Berges studied with Bernd Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art and to Das Bäumchen because Renger-Patzsch’s seemingly overtly objective document of a specific landscape also allows for various symbolic interpretations.
Similarly, Berges’s photograph remains open in its signification, even as it bears reference to individual formal and iconographic elements in all of the images mentioned — the visual exploration of territories that comprise the homeland, the strategic framing of token elements of nature, the juxtaposition of the natural and built environment to form a modern landscape, the considered alignment of surfaces with the picture frame in relation to the film plane, the latent symbolism of natural phenomena within a man-made environment. As much as each of these photographs may succeed in exploiting unique properties of the medium and as much as we may be tempted to associate each with distinct nationalistic, social/historical or technological/artistic concerns, each image enters into possession of the viewer who re-creates it by inserting it into his or her own memory bank of visual experience. In the case of Laurenz Berges’s images, this is explained by the fact that aspects of memory and place have been addressed which are literally close to home to all of us; namely those that converge to form the concept of »residentiality« or what it means to reside somewhere.