Places remembered

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.