German artist Ursula Schulz-Dornburg is often described as a landscape photographer. But there is much beneath the surface of her layered pictures.
Ursula Schulz-Dornburg has always been drawn to the ‘in-between’ places, for example the confluence of the Christian and Islamic in Spain and the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan (little wonder, then, that is in the borderlands in between Asia and Europe where so much of her work has been concentrated). She is also drawn to places of transit, from active bus shelters to long-defunct train lines. These two factors help explain why most of her series, although very different, have – superficially at any rate – a feel of nothing happening in the middle of nowhere. This gives her photographs a consistent visual signature across decades and continents, reinforced by the near-constant presence of the horizon.
Comprising over two hundred works made across more than three decades, Schulz-Dornburg’s retrospective book contains thirteen distinct series of black-and-white photographs made in Europe and Asia. It also includes interviews by the curator Julian Heynen, which shed a good deal of light on the artist’s interests and motivations.
Born in 1938, Schulz-Dornburg is only a few years younger than the late German conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher. This – as well as her work being rigorous, serial, often exhibited in grids, monochrome, minimalist, and generally shot head-on – has encouraged some commentators to site Schulz-Dornburg firmly in the Düsseldorfer school (conveniently enough, the Berlin-born artist now lives in Düsseldorf). But this is a superficial comparison, because there is a great deal more depth to her work than Becher-style typologies.
Firstly, Schulz-Dornburg’s art is profoundly historical. Like all photographers, she takes pictures of what is there. But her images are pregnant with the past, bursting with what was, rather than what is. Secondly and thirdly, they seek out the cultural and they are concerned with politics, as we shall see below. So, although no humans appear in most of Schulz-Dornburg’s photographs, her work is really about people. As such, she is more closely aligned with the American New Topographics photographers than she is with her German contemporaries.
The political, historical and cultural aspects of Schulz-Dornburg’s work is amply illustrated by her comments on just one of her series – photographs of the Hejaz railway. First, the political. “The railway from Damascus to Medina was built by the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s with technical assistance from the German Empire,” she explains to Heynen. “Besides being intended for pilgrims, it was also an instrument used by the colonial powers in this part of Arabia.” Second, the historical. “My initial interest was in the different historical layers of this route,” she continues. “It goes right back to the second millennium BC. Later it became an incense route and a path for Muslim pilgrims, and now it is strewn with the remains of railroad tracks.” Third, the cultural. “All along it there are the same, simple railway stations, designed by a German engineer,” she says. “They look utterly alien in this landscape, as though an exponent of Minimal Art or Land Art had been at work here.”
This fascination with the cultural also pervades Schulz-Dornburg’s work in Iraq. “If you examine the ground there more closely, you can see that the surface is very lively. Here and there it has been broken open and you find shards, some of which even have cuneiform writing on them,” she remembers of Mesopotamia. “If you engage with that ‘nowhere’… you soon see that the ground is incredibly alive.”
These keen cultural observations also extend to her images of Iraq’s marshlands. “You can see it in the photograph of a small, fenced-in patch of field,” she says. “Quite apart from its function or historical significance, I see things like that as works of art.”
Schulz-Dornburg’s own works of art made in these marshes in 1980 have echoes of Wilfred Thesiger’s 1964 book Marsh Arabs (with which she was familiar), especially the respect and sensitivity with which she portrays the people. And while her marshland scenes are more detached and less romantic, visual parallels are easy to draw with P.H Emerson’s Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, published almost a century earlier.
It was Schulz-Dornburg’s interest in the historical and the political which drew her to Syria in the years before the outbreak of the civil war. “So much has happened in this region over the centuries,” she says. “I wanted to get an idea of what Syria and the Ottoman Empire had once been, and of what had happened to Syria when the empire was divided up between colonial powers.”
But more than landscape, history, politics, culture, Schulz-Dornburg’s work is all about looking beyond the obvious. Looking longer. Looking harder. “Even if things do gradually disappear in the sand — there will always be decay, destruction and war — traces still linger on, which we can activate through our observations,” she says.
Words and spread snaps by Simon Bowcock
Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, The Land In Between is published by Mack.
The book won the 2018 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award for Catalogue of the Year.
“Farewell to Shuffleboat River,
I’ve been here a while too long.
And that well-known leaving feeling,
It’s coming on so strong.”
- Michael Chapman, Shuffleboat River Farewell
A channel of water zig-zags across the beach and leaves the shore, just as photographer Vanessa Winship left it. Like the songwriter Michael Chapman, Winship once lived by this river but moved away. But in 2010, she revisited this place from which she sprang and made some photographs.
Irrespective of where she has made them, from the Near East to the USA, Winship’s pictures never shout. They generally whisper, they quietly insist. But her Humber photographs are different: they are all stony silence.
Like Chapman, Winship used to ride on the boats which crossed the Humber before the bridge was built. But in her 2010 photographs the bridge stands silent, as if disused. It’s almost elegiac, with humans apparently erased from the landscape. There is little here but rocks and churned-up concrete amidst the weeds. It’s as if some apocalypse has occurred.
It has been said that all good photographs are self-portraits. If Vanessa Winship's Humber pictures are in any way self-portraits, perhaps they say that whatever there was here for her has now gone. Perhaps it’s been destroyed. Or perhaps it’s just moved on, just as she’s moved on.
From the words of his song, Michael Chapman isn’t coming back to live here. And judging by these pictures, Vanessa Winship isn’t coming back either. But perhaps this is as it should be. After all, none of us can truly go back, can we?
Words and snaps by Simon Bowcock
Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds was exhibited at the Barbican Art Gallery over summer 2018.
The accompanying book is published by Mack.
“The camera never lies.”
- Buck’s Fizz, My Camera Never Lies, 1982.
As we all know, Buck’s Fizz were telling a big fat lie. The reasons it is a lie are legion.
Choices or accidents in making a picture – framing, timing, lighting, and so on – can transform the final result. In a portrait, these are the things that make the the same sitter look intelligent or stupid, evil or heroic, happy or sad, beautiful or ugly. Add to this scenic interference by the photographer – say, annoying the sitter by snatching his cigar away – and we increase the potential for fibs to be told and viewers misled, right at the moment the shutter is clicked.
And all this is before the infinite manipulations possible ‘post production’. Trotsky was disappeared completely from the famous photograph of Lenin rousing the rabble. A curvy Kate Winslet was rendered stick thin on the cover of GQ. These are just two of probably billions of examples across the past one and a half centuries.
But there’s so much more. The single most important determinant of how a photograph is interpreted has little to do with the photograph itself. Usually, it is the context in which a photograph is presented which carries the most weight. In photography as in speech: it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. A Spanish woman looking up at a speaker on a platform in peacetime has become a woman scanning the sky in fear of bomber aircraft. This is just one of innumerable examples since the medium's invention of photographic recontextualization transforming a picture's meaning.
And it seems we’re constantly introducing new variables. Both of the above pictures were taken of the same scene from the same angle at almost exactly the same time, with the same camera with the same settings in the same light by the same person with same intentions. Neither has been subjected to post production. As far as the hapless photographer is concerned, the differences are purely accidental, a result of decisions made by the camera in his smartphone even before it captured the image.
Photographs have always been approximations, fictions, or – if you like – damned lies. But in making life easier for the photographer and entrusting more and more decisions to technology, we are not helping matters. Perhaps in our quest to make things better, we’re actually making them worse.
- Simon Bowcock
The book in the picture is by Stefanie Moshammer and is published by Spector Books. Simon reviewed it for 1000 Words.
It’s there on the cover, and in many of the pictures inside. On the horizon, in the background. Grey, brutal and ugly, it’s coming. And it’s not going to stop.
It’s coming, the smoke and the steel and concrete, but it’s not quite here yet. Here, we still have the makeshift, the ramshackle: make-do-and-mend constructions, ingeniously put together at low cost, created from what’s available. Some look like they have been built entirely from pre-used materials, the architectural equivalent of arte povera. All weathered wood, they fit with the environment, complement it, and look like a natural part of it. These improvised structures have a dilapidated beauty, compounded by a look of triumph over adversity. And each one is idiosyncratic, unique.
The noble, stoic and sombre men in this beautiful but harsh place are weatherbeaten. But they also look beaten, like they know the game is up. Only the boys raise a naïve smile. A community of fishermen still active, but now only just about scraping by.
This is the last outpost. Large-scale industry can be seen creeping into the background. It’s in our field of vision, and it’s advancing relentlessly. Big business will swallow small enterprise, and it will shatter the natural beauty of this place.
They don't peddle any nostalgia, harking back to any mythical golden past. And they may look calm and quiet, neutral and detached. But these are passionate pictures. Ian Macdonald’s lovingly-crafted photographs of almost fifty years ago might be of Greatham Creek – a small marshy area near where the Tees meets the North Sea – but they could stand for the country, the West, even the world.
Perhaps what they show is the end, when the last of the traditional makes way for the industrial, when sustainability is finally eaten by mass-scale production, consumption and environmental destruction. That pivotal moment of transition when globalised business engulfs the the small scale. When the unique is replaced by the homogenous, and the reused is supplanted by the replicated.
The very moment the individual is squeezed out by The Man.
Text and spread snaps by Simon Bowcock.
Photographs by Ian Macdonald.
Many thanks to Craig Atkinson.
Ian Macdonald's Greatham Creek 1969-1974 is published by Café Royal Books.
Phoebe Kiely’s book They Were My Landscape might be the result of intense stopping and staring, but not at some poetic rural idyll. This landscape is generally the more prosaic urban environment which most of us inhabit (she is, after all, based in Salford).
If the concept of ‘mindfulness’ applies to photography, then it applies here par excellence. Some people focus their attention on nature, such as the leaves on the trees as they walk through the park. But Kiely looks longer and harder at her everyday surroundings. She looks at what’s there now.
No snapshots these. This is is the long look. And Kiely’s contemplative metaphysical approach to picture taking is matched by her physical approach to print making: she uses medium-format film and painstakingly hand prints the photographs in a darkroom on fibre-based paper. The images in the book were made from these actual prints, not some JPEGs from a digital camera reproduction, and not even from scanned negatives. So the pictures in They Were My Landscape are the result of a thoughtful and slow process.
They may be slightly smaller and neither quite as exquisite nor as tactile, but the pages in the book are a reasonable facsimile of the prints. True, the richness and the depth of blacks and the texture of the hand-crafted art objects are not quite matched, but the same feelings and thoughts occur to the viewer.
Subtle visual correspondences occur throughout the book: the form of a branch in one picture is redrawn in another by spume on water; the small angular shape in some whitewash is subsequently retraced in a tiny functional graffito; the tattered Union flag is later mirrored by a pert tree stump. There is such delicate subtlety in the photographs that there is something new each time you look.
You hear a lot about slow food, even slow journalism. Perhaps this is slow photography. The time and care invested in making these pictures needs to be matched by time and care spent looking at them.
So stop and look. Really look.
They Were My Landscape by Phoebe Kiely is published by Mack.