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February 16: Grit
February 16: Representing gritty reality is one of photography’s talents which it delivers through both subject matter and form.A book is launched at Bildband Berlin, and an exhibition opened at Fotofabrik Bln-Bxl, in Berlin today which exemplify each of those approaches.Birte Kauffman’s The Travellers series manages to break through the barriers that this persecuted group has set up against the rest of society of Ireland to shelter itself against ostracising and virulent xenophobia.She was inspired to investigate this subject after a chance encounter in 2010 on a trip with friends in the Irish countryside where she saw caravans and horses that reminded Kaufmannn, who is German, of Romany camps in Europe. However, her Irish friends told her to forget the idea, that she’d never get into this ethnic minority.Having tried to make contact with them through welfare groups she decided the only way was the direct way.
Approaching one of the ‘halting sites’ where they are permitted to camp on the outside of town (though often they must camp illegally by the roadside). She found her way barred by barking dogs, one of which bit her.
She spoke to a young woman but couldn’t understand her accent, but persevered, expressing her interest in her and her people and that managed to break the ice sufficiently to be invited for a cup of tea. She took photographs of the grandfather.
Then in 2011 she returned in a VW camper van with prints of the portrait and her cameras, in the hope that she could camp near to the family and photograph them as she gained their confidence. It took three weeks of daily visits before they allowed her to camp with them and share the campfires. She returned frequently over four years and eventually settled in with them. With patience, she became so well accepted that she was taught some of their language, Gammon.She found she was in a very traditional society with strict gender roles and little communication between the men and women.
Emily and her brother dressed for the wedding of their sister at the haltingsite, County Offaly Ireland
The Travellers had traditionally depended on itinerant farm labouring jobs, horse-breaking and trading. Kauffmann’s photograph record the fact that with such opportunities becoming rare, the men were often idle. It was photographing the men she found most difficult, since they would not speak to her in public, but learning some of the language meant they accepted her presence as they hunted and went to horse fairs.
Birte Kauffmann; A dead hare suspended on a temporary clothes line at a roadside camp.
Her strategy as a photographer is to immerse herself; the resulting images give the appearance that she is invisible to her subjects as she looks over their shoulders or stands amongst them and their activities. Direct portraits are few. She handles the tiny margins and mobile domestic spaces in which these people exist by shooting through windows and doors. She felt that the Travellers project had come to a conclusion in 2015 when she was photographing less and socialising with her subjects more.
Released as a book in 2016, The Travellers has been featured by National Geographic and other magazines. Kaufmann, born in 1981, began her studies in social work with a focus on media pedagogics, which did include photography; “It was the area of photojournalism that interested me the most and I became influenced by works such as those from the early magnum photographers (as well as minimally conceptual documentary work).” She was encouraged to go on and in 2009 she relocated to Berlin’s small and specialised Ostkreuzschule where her tutors included significant German documentary photographers Werner Mahler, Ludwig Rauch, Thomas Sandberg and Jonas Maron.
Werner Mahler (1975)Working underground at a coal mine in Zwickau, Saxony, GDR
Ludwig Rauch (2005) Catherine David, Berlin
Thomas Sandberg; Living with Thomas
Jonas Aaron Brandenburger Tor
She lives and works in Berlin, and positions her work as neither strictly photojournalism nor documentary, but as visual storytelling to relate social issues. Her work has earned her several awards and grants, and has been exhibited worldwide.
Incidentally Károly Escher, who died on this date in 1966 was a Hungarian photographer and cinematographer who photographed the Romany in his own country, and compatriot André Kertesz who is significant for his essays on the gypsies will be amongst several photographers newly acquired for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and on show there today in Star-Vu: 10 jaar foto-aanwinsten dankzij Baker McKenzie
Kauffmann’s perspective on this ethnic minority, of whom only 20-30,000 remain in Ireland, banishes prevailing stereotypes.
Soldat, who just recently published her monograph Empire, containing 102 photos from the past 15 years, works mostly on film with 9 different cameras, though her favourite is her old old Contax G2 rangefinder (produced 1996-2003). One of her earliest series in 2001 also documented the Romany and was titled Gypsy Family.
It typifies the phantasmal quality of her work which is now almost exclusively monochrome, and titled only by the series rather than as individual works.
Sordat’s printing is so contrasty that a reflection of a figure in an armchair in the Kosovo window glass though which she photographs seems to have been superimposed, almost montaged onto, the house. The figure of the old man which is severed by the bottom of the frame shares the posture of the reflected figure.
The high contrast printing and missing midtone detail generates a claustrophobic compression of space in Sordat’s work that disembodies it from the real so that it becomes like the abbreviated vision we normally reserve for our dreams.
Damien Daufresne both draws and takes photographs. Of his preference for working on film rather than digital he says;
I don’t do digital prints, I develop my own photos, I always have. Nowadays it’s almost become a hinderance to work like this. Film is very expensive, and increasingly rare, chemistry and films are complicated to find. But it allows me to work in black and white, which I could hardly do otherwise. In any case the result is not the same and we do not make the picture in the same way.
In joining Sordat for this exhibition, Daufresne introduces images which are even further distressed in the processing and printing.
The picture above is printed from an extremely ‘thin’ or underexposed negative which is perhaps chemically intensified or push-processed, the image barely registering on the paper even with a high contrast filter or paper grade. We become aware of the film as a surface though which we discern the image, scratched and scarred, with its sprocket holes visible. The resulting quality certainly is close to a charcoal or conté drawing.
Film renders effects akin to mezzotint, aquatint or lithography and as the decades pass and fewer practice chemical photography, is acquiring something of the antique patina of these printmaking processes, and gaining similar prestige and likewise gathering rusted-on acolytes. Printmakers talk of ‘graining’ their plate, and this is the distinguishing feature of film, one of the reason for its remaining attractive in a digital age. While it is relatively easy to generate grain digitally, it is only as an overlay, a filter. In film photography grain is th every substance of the image; the result of the clumping of the individual particles of light-struck silver halide suspended in the emulsion, crowding to form the highlights and thinning out to a mere speckling in shadow areas.
The duo present us with moments from reality, certainly, but captions are not added, nor any other explanation other than series title to guide our interpretation. We comprehend that we are looking into the harshness of the real world, but our view is an impression by the photographer, a fragmentary, ruptured, but poetic reading of the evidence.