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.