Friday, December 19, 2008

Deutsche Bilder eine Spurensuche 1992-2008 by Eva Leitolf

A patch of ground where a major moment in history takes place will usually have some type of marker. At places like Dealey Plaza, Ground Zero or Antietam the historical significance is so well known and so strong that just treading on the ground makes an impression. The ground becomes anthropomorphized into a character, a bit player that "witnessed" history - seeming wise and full of experience. But what of all of the less significant sites where the event doesn't even manage to register as a historical footnote - the spot where a person drops dead or is robbed by thugs? Those events, surely significant to individuals and families take on relevance as well on a more personal than public level.

The artist Eva Leitolf, in her new book Deutsche Bilder eine Spurensuche 1992-2008, explores this theme by photographing sites where acts of racial intolerance in Germany were perpetrated.

Leitolf's book is a straight forward concoction of words and primarily landscape photographs. Like Joel Sternfeld's On This Site, the places are described photographically with an ironic beauty and seem almost idyllic in most. She is not describing slums or cities where crime is more common but areas of affluence where the violence is often aimed at protecting the perceived safety or 'purity' of a neighborhood. This, street vigilantism, seems to invoke feelings of striving to maintain a status quo. Leitolf's book runs closely parallel to Sternfeld's as both are equal measure photographs and text. Leitolf's narratives however, also explore how the local population sometimes silently condone the acts.

Deutsche Bilder eine Spurensuche 1992-2008 contains two different sets of photographs. Some are of landscapes that have no outward appearance of the violence and the other set show signs of the actual violence (specifically a series that were made from 1992 to 1994 relating to violence that occurred in the towns of Rostock, Thale, Solingen and Bielefeld) . This latter type reveal the effects from arson on houses and even a few candid images of racist skinheads. I am a bit torn as to whether I like the inclusion of these latter type. When I look at the landscapes alone, there is a powerful disconnect between the violence and the peaceful sense of place. When I am able to see the racist skinheads (which we naturally assume are the culprits or at least condone the violence) I have an obvious target to aim my judgment when it seems like one subtext of the book speaks of feelings that many people are susceptible to. In seeing the skinheads we are able to point to the 'other' and that takes some of the tension away from what these texts and photos raise in ourselves.

Through the texts we discover that many of these acts of violence go unpunished. Either suspects are not caught or when they are, they are let off with what seem to be light sentences with many being suspended by the courts.

Leitolf's photography tends to choose a vantage point which is neutral -- standing back and letting the frame fill with a full field of view. Always shot as verticals, there seem to be distinct parameters consciously decided upon b
y the photographer.

As a book, Deutsche Bilder eine Spurensuche 1992-2008 achieves a cleanliness with its design and format (vertical of course) that add to the sense of historical "purity" in the landscapes portrayed. The handling of the typography which appears on the left-hand page is elegant, both German and English translations are provided. Deutsche Bilder eine Spurensuche 1992-2008 was published by Snoeck.


Anonymous said...

It's always dangerous to comment on a book that you haven't seen. But, based on the photos you've included (and perhaps the way you've arranged them), I'd certainly agree with your ambivalence about including both the pure landscapes and images that show the effects of and perpetrators of the violence. The power of On This Site, which I've always considered an under appreciated gem, comes from two factors -- the disconnect between the peaceful image and the violent legacy of the specific place and, perhaps more importantly, the diversity of types of violence present in the various sites (including not only a wide range of violence perpetrated against humans but also acts of violence against the environment). This moves On This Site away from a statement about a particular subcultural group and the societies acceptance of their acts (which seems to be the focus of Deeutsche Bilder) and toward a more general statement about American culture. I also think that the generally horizontal layout of Sternfeld's book tends to emphasize the sense of tranquility at the sites more than the vertical layout of Deutsche Bilder.

Thanks for the great blog.
And, finally, I received my copies of Books on Books a few days ago. Nicely done. I'm already looking forward to the second set!

Anonymous said...


verninino said...

Under normal circumstances I dislike solo photographer monographs where the division is a graphic visual rupture. Somehow the brain-to-eye transition is always discordant for me. The best example from this year's cache is Beate G├╝tschow's LS/S: from bucolic photoshopped landscapes to isolated Modern Germanic architecture, ugh.

Reading the full review of DEUTSCHE BILDER EINE SPURENSUCHE a day before looking at the pictures, I didn't think much of the project. I don't much like guilt by insinuation; being African-American I'm too familiar with the hazards of profiling (by race, class, or fashion sense).

As a regular German visitor I can testify to the ubiquitous flat, overcast, pristine street and cityscapes of the North. However, I have had almost no exposure to the German underclass. It seems to be a blindspot among the emerging influential generation of German photographers-- at least among those to make it stateside.

After looking at the Leitolf images here and on her website, I think they do provide remarkable testimony on the stark and largely hidden conditions in which hatred (racism, terrorism, skin-headism) too often fosters and is perpetrated against those even less fortunate (in Germany, Turkish and African immigrants). Indeed, the separation heightens the thematic relation.

I'm not at all familiar with ON THIS SITE, but one of my favorite examples from the crime scene revisualization genre is Taryn Simon's THE INNOCENTS. Rather than dissociate the scene from the insinuated perpetrators, she literally has convicted-but-innocent victims pose in either the site where the violent act was committed or the scene of his/her actual alibi. It is an astonishing indictment of how the American criminal justice system prosecutes a lucrative war on the poor. Also, Susan Meiselas' recently re-released NICARAGUA includes a retrospective documentary which accomplishes a similar feat-- testifying on atrocities and the Orwellian impotence of revolution.

And yet another warranted Books on Books reference: FAIT is a welcome addition to the crime scene visualization genre in my photobook library. Thanks Jeff!

Anonymous said...

Great book.