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 by 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.