December 31: New Years Eve is traditionally, but completely arbitrarily, a time to make life choices. Chargesheimer, born Karl-Heinz Hargesheimer, made the wrong one. He died, either intentionally or unintentionally, on either 31 December 1971 or 1 January 1972, alone.
His despair was compounded by a midlife crisis over relevance; a sense that he was too old to matter any more. It is a sentiment familiar to me and one all too common amongst the ambitious of art. I’m interested to see how Chargesheimer’s work might have been transmitted to artists of a younger generation. He would now be ninety-three but if he were still alive he might have mentored several generations of new artists. Deceased, is it still possible that his discoveries and his artworks might have some relevance to young artists working now, far away in Australia, such as those exhibiting now at New Matter: Recent Forms of Photography at the New South Wales Art Gallery, until February 2017?
Well known as the photographer who had, more thoroughly than his predecessors, Chargesheimer recorded his City of Cologne; besides portraits of its residents, he documented the reconstruction of the city in the post war years, the daily life of the city and of the industrial areas like the “Ruhrgebiet”
Renate Gruber is the wife of Leo Fritz Gruber (1908-2005 ) who was a German advertising expert, journalist, collector, curator and founder of the Photokina, who mentored Chargesheimer. She recorded in an interview in May 2016 called him “A big, young talent”…”after WW II he tackled photography with force and verve. He made grandiose, important books at an early age.” His first of 14 books on different topics such as the city, landscapes and theatre photography was one on street photography, but of a particular street; the Unter Krahnenbaumen, a little street in what was then the heart of Cologne “where you could walk up to your neighbour in slippers, a bathrobe, and ask for an egg, some sugar or the like. He took exceptional, tender, critical black and white pictures of it. What followed are great volumes like Romanick am Rhein has a special place in my heart.”, said Renate Gruber.
Later came books on Hanover and Berlin. He was a formidable portraitist who made an election-winning image of Konrad Adenauer in 1957.
His portrait of Edward Steichen, director of Photography at MoMA, was made when the curator visited Europe to scout for images from European photographers for his Post-War European Photography exhibition in 1953 at MoMA, and his 1955 The Family of Man.
He took pictures of the entire music scene fostered by the West German broadcaster in Cologne, and an Italian restaurant, “Gigi Campi, the first ice cream parlour on the Hohe Strasse – back then in the centre of Cologne. Gigi Camp loved jazz and Armstrong, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Ella Fitzgerald and other greats who visited; all of them were portrayed wonderfully by Chargesheimer.”
Chargesheimer started constructing robots with little cogwheels which developed into what he called the Zimmerlinden, after an African plant that women in Cologne grew in front of the art nouveau buildings and apartments.
Chargesheimer then built machines of all sizes, kinetic objects he called Meditationsmühlen, sculptures with turning gears that spun small hand sanded blocks of polymethyl methacrylate, which in turn made some lights go on and off. “Those were wonderful sculptures. For years a larger one of them stood in the foyer of the Cologne Opera.”
For his last book Köln 5 Uhr 30 Chargesheimer drove through the city with a camera mounted on the hood of his car ironically documenting what he regarded as the architectural aberrations of the post-war era. “Rightly so!” says Gruber. Raised in pre- war era in Cologne with its medieval plan of winding streets and where everyone knew one another Chargesheimer was alienated by the resurrection after the war when a pompous Modernism was introduced and with it, car traffic; “Signals, arrows, lines, pedestrian crossings are mean to function as a substitute for human life” Chargesheimer. complained. So 5:30 in the morning, when the streets and squares are deserted and car free he made his documentation. At the exhibition at the Photokina in 1970, Chargesheimer himself glued these pictures to the floor for people to walk on, and onto the pillars.
DuMont Shauberg published it as a book with text by Chargesheimer. The work presages the New Topographics that was to become a dominant influence after 1975.
A square near the remains of Unter Krahnenbaumen has been named Chargesheimerplatz.
In the end, as he was entering his fifties he found he was no longer the enfant terrible and that young photographers were coming up behind him. He took to drugs and drinking and was an unhappy man who before was so positive and energetic.
Renate Gruber relates, “He came to us unannounced and threw some prints on the table saying ‘Here, you may find a use for these. I have been taking pictures of basalt on the Eiger…the oldest stones the world’. It was the last time we saw him. It was right before Christmas. The sad news, that he was found dead in his flat, reached us on New Years Day.”
Especially intriguing is Chargesheimer’s darkroom imagery. Around 1949/50, Chargesheimer started to experiment with surrealistic photomontages but also with light and chemicals directly applied onto negatives or photographic paper; photograms and cliché-verres.
In Sartre he has applied liquid – weak fixer perhaps – to the surface of the paper or film and then exposed it to raking light, removing the liquid and then repeating the process to create these interlocking anamorphic forms reminiscent of the Orphic Cubism of Miro.
Often the manipulation is carried out on the film itself. In this image the emulsion has suffered reticulation, distorted, exaggerated ‘grain’, through the application of too-hot chemicals and/or boiling the film after development. When the silver gelatine is scratched and peeled with a razor, black lines result where the surface has been fiercely scraped away altogether while lighter scratching shows up as grey. Prints are then made from this negative. While the technique is different from Sartre, similarities in the abstract forms provide continuity through the series.
Often the images are indistinguishable from paintings; they might be varnished or marked with paint, or the print itself subjected to sgraffito.
After the Second World War, Chargesheimer studied graphics and photography at the Cologne Werkschulen (1942-43) where he pursued a range of interests in various arts, such as opera, dramas and stage play, costume design and painting, but mainly photography, and at the Bavarian State Institute for Photography in Munich (1943-44). He launched his career in 1947 as an independent photographer for various theaters in Germany.
Towards the end of the 1940s he was in contact with the photographic group fotoform and in 1950 he participated in their “photo-kino” exhibition in Cologne and also in the legendary exhibitions of “Subjective Photography” in 1952 and 1954.
How relevant is Chargesheimer’s work now?
In Sydney there is a current exhibition New Matter: Recent Forms of Photography at the New South Wales Art Gallery, until February 2017. Art Gallery of NSW assistant curator of photographs, Isobel Parker Philip, said the works “proposed new ways of reading a photograph”. Rather cryptically she claims that they “direct attention away from pictorial content by camouflaging the subject or rendering it illegible and by embracing non-representation and the abstraction of form”.
The attitude of the exhibiting artists Jacqueline Ball, Walead Beshty, Matthew Brandt, Danica Chappell, Zoë Croggon, Christopher Day, Charles Dennington, Cherine Fahd, Deb Mansfield, Todd McMillan, Luke Parker, Kate Robertson, James Tylor and Justine Varga, she says challenges “the assumption that a photograph is born with the click of the shutter, these artists shatter a conventional understanding of the photographic gesture”.
In other press releases the show is announced as:
a collection of AGNSW’s most abstract and illusory photographs by Australian and international artists…that challenge the viewer to examine photography in a new way – as art itself, rather than a tool for representing other objects realistically. The artists’ experimentation with form forces this radical reinterpretation as it obscures what we would initially view as the ‘true’ subject of the photo.
Just how ‘accepted’ and how ‘conventional’ uses of photography have come to be, we might consider by setting examples from this show beside the work of Chargesheimer from half a century ago.
Melbourne photographer Danica Chappell experiments with alternative processing methods and “is interested in framing performativity as a photographic device”, in the words of the exhibition blurb.
To look at Light shadow (5.5 sec : 15 hrs : 15 sec + 45 sec) might unpack that artspeak. It is a photogram. It is presented in its frame tilted and wrapped around a convex right-angle corner. It is made on light-sensitive type C material, not digital media. Its title refers to time durations (‘performances’ one might say) and to the idea of light as it moves across an intersection of the walls of a room perhaps, though the ’15 hrs’ might also represent time spent in the darkroom; Chappell says she works “intuitively”, so feasibly that interpretation might be as correct, while the times in seconds are those a darkroom worker might scrawl on the back of the paper as tests are made of different exposure times.
As can be seen from this installation shot from her solo show Nudge Into Form held at
Walker Street Gallery 8 February – 2 March 2014, Chappell is not afraid to venture into three dimensions in her work, while the traces of her process in them infers the fourth dimension; time.
Chargesheimer’s Meditationsmühlen might be seen as an extension of his photograms and chemigrams, the rotating translucent volumes being modulators of light representing an automated, evolving photogram. Being three-dimensional, they can be seen as a prior solution to the problem that Chappell sets herself.
Also included in New Matter: Recent Forms of Photography is Christopher Day, another Melbourne photographer, born 1978. Two of his works are included in the show.
Day also uses ‘analogue’ photography, normally 35mm black and white film which he processes and scans in preparation for montages that often include portions of “up to thirty negatives.” In the untitled image above the background image is of concrete blocks in someone’s backyard. A peach or nectarine tree has dropped its fruit in a recent rainstorm so that the dark concrete is bespattered with split and squashed stone fruit and torn leaves amongst which are scattered smears of imagery.
The other of his exhibited images uses as a starting point a snapshot of girl’s legs emerging from a sleeping bag which lies on more concrete or perhaps asphalt. Several of Day’s pictures from his solo show Permanent Deferral, at Utopian Slumps, Melbourne in 2013 included imagery of young women’s legs and shoes, so it is my assumption that these legs are female too.
The two images below, the first from New Matter, the other from the Utopian Slumps show, use this same background image, and different imagery is montaged upon it, though some of this is repeated; paired cartoon-style tongues form winged shoes in the second image while only one is used in the first, small jelly-bean shapes are scattered across both (though in different places), the stretched formica patch from the concrete block picture is reused, and in both different scraps appear such as segmented apples, and a man crouching before supermarket shelving.
The first image is paler, washed-out so that the legs almost disappear, leaving a pair of sneakers, the only blacks are a tick logo, left like the Cheshire Cat’s smile. I’m old – sixty-six now – so logos are lost on me. I am relying on the exhibition blurb to know that “There are obvious references to pop culture in Day’s works, such as Nike shoes or sections of cartoon faces taken from shopfronts”, because that is not obvious to me. The clue of the supermarket shelves is missing from the latest iteration of the girls in the sleeping bag, and the only brands that have ever been desirable to me are ‘Leica’ and ‘Nikon’, and neither have logos, and I have never worn ‘big label’ fashion. Would I have realised that information by myself, I shall now never know. It helps me though to appreciate Day’s disdain for these tokens of capitalist excess as he squashes and smears them. The title Permanent deferral chimes with ‘delayed gratification’ as a means of escaping the rat race of consumerism.
I’m sure that the Chargesheimer of Köln 5 Uhr 30 would relate to that.