June 9: Shadows, the oldest form of ‘photograph’, project memories.
Open today at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, 404 George St, Fitzroy, Victoria 3065, Australia is Andrea Grüetzner‘s Tanztee and Erbgericht, open until July 23.
The CCP building is a single storey building with galleries which directs audiences through a spiral layout, terminating in a small space most often used for projections. The space is ideal for the presentation of Grüetzner’s exhibition which is devoted to the architecture of an historic country guesthouse at Polenztalstraße 74, 01844 Neustadt in the village of Polenz, in rural Saxony, Germany, 38 km East of Dresden.
Andrea Grüetzner (*1984, Pirna) remembers the building from her childhood; “Ever since I can remember, we celebrated almost every family celebration in this house,” and her mother and grandparents spent their younger years at dances, theatrical productions and sporting events in its hall.
She concentrates her attention on its details to emphasise the way it is a collage of construction, renovation and redecoration built up over the years and now centuries, during which one family has owned it for five generations since 1889, since before the invention of photography.
Using a Linhof 679cs with a roll film holder for 6x9cm transparencies she is able to use its tilts and shifts to precisely align the disparate architectural elements of this historic building. It can also be fitted with a digital back that would permit a preview essential when using flash as she does. “The camera was very important for my style,” explains Grüetzner.
Each photograph becomes an exercise in precise geometric composition, made in only one shot without retouching or digital alteration, though at the CCP showing the prints are inkjet, not analogue.
Here the photographer is seated on the staircase of the grand old building in an interview (in German) in which she describes her process…
…and below is an image from the Erbgericht series taken from a similar angle. Grüetzner’s careful alignment centres a vertical line that divides the image. A further, horizontal, division is created by the placement of the next landing of the stairs.
The photographic composition is now divided, and is still further segmented by triangles at the top and bottom left. Flash is added from just left of camera that penetrates the depth of the space into a room on the other side of this stairway through the top and bottom landings, themselves lined up sharply against rectilinear or angled forms of the foreground.
It is the addition of electronic flash, to light the interior to both flatten frontal surfaces and create sharp shadows, that further confuses our perception of space and depth in these images. Strongly hued gels (filters) are placed over the flash heads (below).
By aiming a second, coloured flash at the shadow side of the turned wooden balustrade, and by cutting its power in relation to the white foreground flash, Grüetzner is able to colour the shadows themselves while retaining neutrality in mid and high tones. Like painters like Bonnard, Vuillard and Matisse, but more specifically Wayne Thiebaud, who each built on discoveries by Monet and other Impressionists and colour theorists Leclerc (1743), Hassenfratz (1802) and Chevreul (1854), Greützner knows that shadows are not grey, however in Grüetzner’s work it seems the shadows strive to escape the objects that project them;
Shadows are traces and marks that have a direct relation to the object, but through the projection, these objects can appear twice as big or transformed and changed, they take on their own lives…they work a lot like memories.
The effect is not merely graphic but is also a manipulation of a spatial comprehension, and affect; the red shadows of the balustrades graduate in red intensity to the foreground and that thrusts the plane behind them forward in the overall composition, and reverses the logical spatial relations.
Furthermore, images are inverted or turned on their side to further confuse any sense of orientation, and though these pictures are hung together or on facing walls in the CCP exhibition, at close range it is hard to convince oneself that they are of the same subject.
The photographs become an inquisition of this building that discovers the secrets of its accretion of voids and planes. The viewer becomes aware of peering into the nooks and crannies of a mysterious place first encountered with delight by an inquisitive child.
What might be the ceiling turns out to be the floor and as we peer up between the curtains we find hidden under the pelmet the cryptic tracks of curtain rails.
The use of colour is thus formally transformative but also introduces an emotional overlay. A guest house in the country is a place of resort, full of fun and festivity for those on holiday from nearby Dresden for example; consequently Grüetzner’s saturated colour and strikingly original viewpoints are anything but Neue Sachlichkeit or Bauhaus.
That’s the shadow of a novelty hat rack in the shot below, with the scalloped edge of a mirror which surprisingly occupies the same room, and the green around the water pipe is an effect of coloured flash. Your attempts to piece together the actual layout and appearance of this fun palace teasingly engages you in an unsolvable jig-saw puzzle.
I remember well my own childhood excursions into the Dandenong ranges to Marysville to just such a place, altmodisch, built in the early 1900s, where television was replaced for a week by games of table tennis and billiards, and communal charades and improvised plays to piano accompaniment. Here is another of Grüetzner’s squared compositions that includes a similar battered piano.
It is the series Tanztee that is shown side-by-side with Erbgericht at CCP that confirms the affective intent.
Tanztee is German for ‘tea dance’ which is held at the Erbgericht guest house on a Sunday afternoon. Grüetzner’s representation of it is in a grid; an allover pattern of artificial fabrics and aged hands which appear grasping at each other in warm affection. Not a face is shown and Grüetzner’s cropping is identical in each of these shots, as concise for the human subject as it is for architecture, and restricted to chest level; yet how much can be read from these few clues!
These are the hands of our own grandmothers. We remember the age spots, the sinews and bulging veins under sagging flesh, tanned in the vegetable garden and amongst the roses, strengthened by tons of laundry over half a century or more, fingers stunted by arthritis, hands with the consistency of soft, worked leather that clasped our own childish fingers in an amazon grip as we crossed busy roads.
Under the synthetic colours soft and yielding bodies collide in joyous embrace. A detail common to nearly all the shots is the wristwatch, marking time while the owners waltz, variously displaying the hours between three in the afternoon and six, in time to break off and return to grandmotherly duties after an all too brief escape in the company of dear friends.
Andrea Grüetzner lives in Berlin and since 2015 is a member of the photography collective Exposure Twelve. She earned her Master of Arts degree in photography from the Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences in 2014 and subsequently has shown at festivals, and in solo and group shows. Work from this show has been exhibited throughout Germany and worldwide, including London, Brussels, New York, Luxembourg, Beijing, Belo Horizonte (Brazil), Amsterdam, Seoul, Mexico City and now Australia. She spoke at RMIT:ART:INTERSECT at RMIT University School of Art on 25 May this year and presents a floor talk tomorrow at the CCP exhibition.
Grüetzner received the PhotoVision Sponsorship Award and the Source Cord Prize in 2014, as well as the LEAD Award (silver) in 2015. She was a winner of Gute Aussichten 2014/2015 – young German photography prize, and most recently FOAM Talent 2016, on view at the Unseen photo fair in September. Kerber Verlag recently published a monograph das Eck (The Corner) which was developed during the course of her scholarship in Koblenzer Stadtfotografin 2015.