Photography, like no other pictorial medium, is shaped from the outset by a particular relationship between representation and reality. The myth of photography is the magical connection between the object and its image. With the world now the focal point of this new Pencil of Nature (William Henry Fox Talbot), it appears to draw itself, as it were, without the need for further intervention. Working with that reality, which in photographic images is suspended in inimitable fidelity (Alexander von Humboldt), has always been the concern of a reflected form of photography, depicting it from the photographer’s own perspective, and scrutinising or even transfiguring it in terms of interpretation.
Wide-ranging campaigns of documentary photography go back a long way in the history of the medium. As early as 1851, shortly after the invention of the medium itself, the French government commissioned a group comprised mostly of painters and scientists (the new profession of photographer was drawn from their ranks) to carry out a nationwide documentation of historical buildings throughout France as part of a mission héliographique.
And, as part of America’s New Deal in 1930s, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) assigned the best documentary photographers of the day as it organised a large-scale photography programme aimed at documenting the precarious living conditions of farmers. The collection of more than 100,000 documents subsequently preserved at the Library of Congress is a testimony to the Roosevelt era and stands for the instrumentalisation of the enlightening photograph, and to an extent also for political propaganda. It remains an example of committed documentary photography to this day.
The project known as La Mission photographique de la DATAR established through state funding and private sponsors went on to take stock of France and its ‘inventory’ such as it was in the 1980s. It convened a self-confident group of French and international photographers tasked with formulating visual statements about the territory and the people of the grande nation in a book entitled Paysages Photographies.
Private initiatives, too, have commissioned significant fine art photography studies from various artists. A case in point is the contract for the seemingly unspectacular Court House project awarded in 1976 to twenty-four photographers of the so-called New Topographics movement by the Seagram spirits corporation to mark the bicentenary of the American Revolution. Their remit was to depict a particular type of American architecture, namely the ubiquitous courthouse as a metaphor for the achievement of democratic values. Today, as a book and image archive, it not only features an unusual motif, but also represents the beginnings of a documentary style that was to have an international impact.
For the nascent German photography scene in West Germany (FRG) in the 1980s the Siemens Fotoprojekt became one of the most important fields of experimentation for new documentary photography. At the various production sites of the Siemens corporation the protagonists involved (from Andreas Gursky to Michael Schmidt) were offered the opportunity to work on a theme of their choice over a long period within the project framework (the relationship between man, technology and the environment), without any interference or influence from the client. Their groups of works are now on permanent loan from Siemens at the photography collection of the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.
For more than three decades, documentary photography has also been the subject of a continuing exploration by Linea di Confine per la Fotografia Contemporanea in the province of Reggio Emilia, Italy. A highly subjective view of specific regions of Italy has emerged in each case as a result of commissioning fine art photographers on a freelance basis to examine through photography various aspects of mankind’s intervention in the landscape. The resulting image archive is now housed at a former hospital in the small town of Rubiera. It produced a number of acknowledged publications and exhibitions that not only went on show at leading art institutions such as the Fotomuseum Winterthur, but are now also regarded as the collective image memory of an Italian region.
ÖsterreichBilder / Facing Austria follows in the wake of this tradition of documentary photography, its twenty contributions by contemporary Austrian photographers opening up a broad panoramic view of Austria today. The bulk of the photographs were taken between spring and autumn 2016. It was Walker Evans (1903–1975) who came up with the aforementioned term ‘documentary style’, which he coined in 1973 as he was looking back at his work. He felt that his photographs were not documents in the way that police photographs of crime scenes are documents; rather, they were photographs in the documentary style: subjective artistic expressions based on social realities and conveying a personal world-view through an idiosyncratic imagery.
As curators we were interested in examining the question of the ‘state of the art’ as well as the subject matter itself: in Austria today where does photography stand as a documentary or conceptual art form? The photographs and contributions were selected and arranged in dialogue with the photographers themselves. Our starting point was not to illustrate preconceived topics or subsume the photographs to content-related considerations; rather, we wanted to showcase each individual artistic position, within the context of each work, over and beyond the ÖsterreichBilder project. The invitation to the photographers was drafted around the idea of involving all generations and ensuring a fair balance of gender and geographic distribution across the whole territory. Each photographic contribution is complemented by a theoretical text. Acknowledged Austrian essayists on photo theory have contributed to ÖsterreichBilder: Reinhard Braun, Silvia Eiblmayr, Monika Faber, Christine Frisinghelli, Jasmin Haselsteiner- Scharner, Martin Hochleitner, Gabriele Hofer-Hagenauer, Ruth Horak, Verena Kaspar-Eisert, Christiane Kuhlmann, Maren Lübbke-Tidow, Gerald Matt, Walter Moser, Petra Noll-Hammerstiel, Astrid Peterle, Michael Ponstingl, Rebekka Reuter, Walter Seidl, and Margit Zuckriegl.
In theory, the opportunities that digital photography affords fundamentally alter the structures of photographic representation; the ‘silver ties’ that inseparably link every depicted object with its (analogue) photo have now been severed. Underlying today’s photographs are programmable algorithms, which are therefore detached from any chemical-physical mechanism defined by physical laws. But, in practice, whether Andreas Gursky’s photograph of a mega-housing project in Paris entitled Paris, Montparnasse (1993) was or was not digitally manipulated is irrelevant. What’s crucial is the potential of a convincing visualisation of a city in all its beauty, its complexity and even its monstrous dimensions. So whether our photographers were working with digital technology or analogue film material (as was the case for around a third of them), the authentic share of photography, which has always been both document and fiction in equal measure, creates relevant image contributions through the artists’ perspective that deepen our understanding of the individual and society. The subjective world views of fine art photographers therefore contribute towards shaping the collective memory of our age.
These contributions examine not just the ‘state of the art’, but also the ‘state of the state’. Unexpected personal experiences in this project included the occasionally astonishingly short-lived and time-bound nature of topics addressed in the public debate as well as the fragility of political realities regarded as stable. Indeed, the topic addressed by Nora Schoeller, namely Das politische Feld [The political field], was originally intended to focus on the frequently rather unspectacular and often sceptically perceived business of day-to-day politics, even if it is eminently important for our democratic community: the struggle to reach decisions at many different levels, at meetings, sessions, elections, like the proverbial drilling of holes into hardwood boards [as posited by Max Weber]. In fact, the outcome of Austria’s presidential election in May, its subsequent annulment and re-run with far-reaching political clashes gave the subject matter an unexpectedly topical explosiveness that went on to shape the year as a whole.
At the beginning of 2016 the public debate in Austria was dominated by what has been termed the ‘refugee crisis’. The notion of ‘upper limit’ – a stipulated maximum figure regardless of the real number of refugees – was introduced in order to counter through a political measure the widespread fears of what was widely regarded as unchecked and uncontrolled mass migration. Looking back at 2016 we note that the stipulated ‘upper limit’ of around 37,500 refugees was not reached and that, by comparison, the intensity of the reporting has eased significantly.
A number of participating artists chose to engage in very different ways with the complex theme of flight and migration within the framework of the ÖsterreichBilder project. Kurt Kaindl portrayed people from all over Austria who, in the summer of 2015, got involved in refugee aid as members of civil society. Seiichi Furuya’s starting point was the theme of state borders, a topic he addressed once before some thirty years ago. In this instance he elected to illustrate this abstract construct in a complex series that not only hints at global connections but also has a real and fateful impact on the many people fleeing their homeland. In her photographs of landscapes Ekaterina Sevrouk referenced painting of the Romantic era. In her photographs of mountains, lakes and forests, shot in the area around Salzburg and in the Salzkammergut region, she incorporates human figures, young African men who cut a confident figure in landscapes that are foreign to them and, as a result, become paradoxical embodiments of flight and migration. In her autobiographical image-and-text work Katarina Šoškić revisited places in Vienna where she once lived for short or longer periods, either officially or under the radar, having left Belgrade to come and study in Vienna. Home no home is a work about physical placelessness, or atopia, in the digital age. Anchoring one’s existence in global social networks creates provisional living environments which, here and there, are perhaps the expression of widespread precarious existences, but also correspond to a free life concept of one’s own choosing.
The digitisation of the medium of photography has resulted in an exponential increase in the number of depictions of the self and the family; it has also led to the virtual disappearance or complete reworking of conventional family albums. Nonetheless, today more than ever before, photographs are taken by the users themselves and their omnipresent cameras and then shared and circulated ad infinitum on social media.
This still represents an intimate act of self-affirmation, but also an uninhibited dissemination of the definition of the self.
In the 1970s and 1980s a preoccupation (in book form) with one’s own origins was more the exception than the rule in documentary photography; we would mention as a case in point Manfred Willmann’s book Schwarz und Gold (1981), which is also about his childhood home in Graz (Volkmarweg 36). Today, exploring one’s autobiography and family is a common theme and, in our project, it is addressed by several of our contributors. The photographers Paul Kranzler, Rudolf Strobl and Simon Lehner for instance chose to continue writing the family stories which, at some point in the past, had tailed off in their own photo albums. Kranzler provides a documentary of himself and his young family in their new, recently acquired home and begins a new chapter in his family chronicle. Strobl, for his part, has been portraying his parents consistently for several years during his regular weekend visits. In the meantime his father has now moved out of his parents’ flat and into a care home. Strobl’s precise unsentimental photos depict his increasingly frail father and his devoted mother by his side, individual destinies within the context of the social care provided by the welfare state.
Koal, the German dialect word for Karl, is also the name of Simon Lehner’s grandfather, and in his extensive series Lehner depicts him in various everyday situations. The Super 8 films and videos of his sprightly grandfather, which also feature the photographer as a child, are a recurring theme. But here it is Lehner who is behind the camera, writing yet another chapter in the family history, with the roles of both protagonists in his photographs now reversed; in Koal, he also portrays the generation that rebuilt the country after the war, with all their attributes. Jan Schiefermair’s photographs show his circle of friends as they throw the traditional concept of the middle-class nuclear family overboard and, together, explore alternative forms of life in less standardised relationships. His photographs, taken directly from the context of their lives, are predicated on the unconditional bond of trust that exists between those involved.
Stefanie Moshammer situates her series entitled Therese in Vienna or, to be more precise, in Vienna’s Prater amusement park. Therese (Moshammer’s second name) is also an associative search for a person’s identity. Moshammer’s encrypted images are visually stunning settings which, as individual images, generate a powerful emotional impact. Arranged in sequence, they hint at a story of isolation, vulnerability and exposure, but also one of strength and self-determination.
Photographs from the world of work that go beyond the vested interests of their immediate contexts such as self-promotion for advertising and PR purposes are rare. Indeed, business enterprises represent protected areas where the personality rights of employees have to be safeguarded and where production techniques and workflows are often regarded as trade secrets. Each in their own way, Katharina Gruzei, Rudolf Sagmeister and Manfred Willmann have explored work as an activity that is existentially significant for the individual and, as such, experienced as meaningful, and also as the basis for the prosperity of a modern society founded on the division of labour. Manfred Willmann’s photographs of individual craftsmen and their small businesses in his immediate neighbourhood in southern Styria are the result of a personal relationship with them over many years; Willmann’s unsentimental images, condensed through the use of flashlight and perfect framing, are an extension of his legendary series Das Land by new, formal means. Katharina Gruzei operates in the man’s world of heavy industry. Her photographs of large shipbuilding activities at a Linz shipyard are in keeping with the history of the heroic representation of labour and workers. Playfully she adopts image strategies aimed at showcasing and exalting the solitary figure of the (heavy) worker toiling away on his oversized product. At the same time she depicts genuine work stages involved in a modern-day industrial working environment. For his series Rudolf Sagmeister portrayed people at their workplace and obtained access to five Vorarlberg industrial firms that are international in their corporate structure and operate in part at the global level. In concentrated images he extracts the individuality of workers and highlights a globalised working world that is also reflected in the international background of the workforce.
Cultural events and sports fixtures are the themes on which Clara Wildberger, Heidi Harsieber and Andrew Phelps have concentrated. In Wildberger’s enigmatic portraits and sceneries, Austria as a land of culture appears symbolically like a matrix yet to be deciphered. Major cultural events such as the Salzburg Festival and the steirischer herbst as well as underground events are the tropes that provide the starting point for Wildberger’s photographic works and his rejection of simple documentarism.
The specific result, however, is raised to a meta-level as the pictorial representation of an artistic act.
In Heidi Harsieber’s work, corporeality and eroticism are the main themes, along with sport itself. In her series for ÖsterreichBilder she attended various sporting events and took photographs of individual sportsmen and women as well as the mass audiences at major events. In keeping with her psychological interest, she lets us share in the individual, but also community-building emotions that come into play at large and small sporting events. The identity-shaping impact of sport is one that permeates all social strata and, behind the individual’s personal fascination, it becomes visible as a political dimension. Andrew Phelps picks up where he left off with his early series Nature de luxe, showing us Austrian landscapes that are exploited by sportsmen and women as both a stage and a piece of sports apparatus. The phenomenon summed up by Phelps in his images describes a view of landscape as a tourist playing field for leisure activities that hold the promise of happiness.
Werner Kaligofsky and Paul Albert Leitner both explore the Alpine region in Tyrol and associated questions of tourism and the use of landscape for purposes of tourism. Kaligofsky creates a conceptual work that is structured around aesthetic images of landscapes and lakes, laconically captioned with GPS co-ordinates. Into his work, like some sort of insert, he incorporates portraits of refugees photographed by a young Iraqi, Raad al Abbas, whom he commissioned with this series of portraits. The mountain lakes in Kaligofsky’s photographs are man-made reservoirs created for the production of artificial snow around Kitzbühel. In his photographs Kaligofsky hints at the construction of an illusory world that often underpins the tourist stagings of landscape and rural idyll, and interlaces the seemingly unspoilt landscape with portraits of people who are often housed in less attractive accommodation in outlying locations and are not as readily welcome as financially solvent tourists.
Paul Albert Leitner travelled extensively throughout Tyrol for ÖsterreichBilder. Leitner, the constant traveller, is not a travel photographer attracted by the exotic to be found abroad – or at home, for that matter. Leitner engages with everyday life, in side streets and city centres, the proximate and the random. With irony and wit he occasionally appears in person in his own photographs, for example in the photograph that introduces the series: Nachdenken über Tirol [Refecting on Tyrol]. As receptive as he is to the poetry of everyday life, Leitner is matter-of-fact and objective in his photographic approach, and something of a documentarist. He depicts the beauty and peculiarity of the world, revealing the magic of the medium in the process. His photographs are testimonies to the uniqueness of constellations and the preciousness of the fleeting moment. And yet, here and there, his images can also be seen as a baffled criticism of the circumstances prevailing in Tyrol as a land of tourism. As his presentation method, Leitner chooses to depict his analogue archive cards, thereby giving us an insight into his working method. His impressive archive now comprises more than 70,000 photographs from all over the world, meticulously appended with detailed captions and serial numbers (from 1 to 36) for the films and photographs.
The photographs by Leo Kandl and Christopher Mavrič were taken in Vienna. Kandl shoots his photographs on the streets in Vienna’s outskirts. People are seen lingering in the city’s squares and streets or moving through its urban space, with the photographer interested less in portraying individual persons than in soberly depicting situations and constellations in the public space. In these photographs the urban space becomes the backdrop against which everyday life, for the most part quite banal, is played out, right there and then. Photographically, Kandl is both restrained and reserved, rejecting ostensibly ‘exciting’ perspectives and lighting moods. His photographs subtly hint at potential fields of social tension, unemployment, and social exclusion while depicting mainly the unspectacular normality of the suburbs.
Like Kandl, Christopher Mavrič also takes to the streets, as it were, but only in his immediate surroundings, i.e. Vienna’s 20th municipal district. His methodology for his concentrated portraits is one of dialogue, focusing on portraying the individuals he approaches in this urban setting. Mavrič usually places those he portrays in the centre of his photographs, as in a studio portrait, with the urban space providing the framework. From a short distance he trains his camera on his models and exposes them to his imaging mechanism: we see Viennese people who consciously allow a portrait of themselves to be taken, their idiosyncratic habitus inscribing itself within it. Mavrič succeeds with personal portraits of anonymous passers-by which, as a series, offer sociological insights into living conditions in Austria today.
The compound noun ÖsterreichBilder [literally: Austria images] was originally intended merely as a working title, but in the course of the project its succinct candour proved increasingly viable. In our dialogue with the participants in the project it was important for us to think about the social relevance of each work and, as a result, to ask questions also about national identity and the status quo in Austria today. Beyond platitudinous nationalistic attitudes and over and beyond well-known clichés ÖsterreichBilder showcases some of the realities of everyday life in Austria, underpinned by the artistic contexts of each particular work.
Thomas Weski (ed.): Siemens Fotoprojekt 1987–1992, Berlin: Ernst & Sohn 1993. (A)
François Hers, Bernard Latarjet (eds.): Paysages, Photographies. En France, les années quatre-vingt.
La mission photographique de la DATAR, 1984–1988, Paris: Édition Hazan 1989. (B)
William Stott: Documentary Expression and Thirties America, 2nd revised edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1986. (C)
Paola De Pietri, Walter Niedermayr: Parco Casse d’espansione del fiume Secchia, Rubiera: Linea di Confine 1997 (D)
Richard Pare (ed.): Court House, A Photographic Document, New York: Horizon Press 1978. (E)