December 31: Though it is so arbitrary and overhyped, New Years Eve is traditionally a time to make life choices.
Chargesheimer, born Karl-Heinz Hargesheimer in 1924, made the wrong one. He died, either intentionally or unintentionally, on either 31 December 1971 or 1 January 1972, and 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 the younger artists working now, such as those being currently exhibited in Abstract! 100 Years Of Abstract Photography, 1917–2017 until January 14 at the The Finnish Museum of Photography?
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 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, said Renate Gruber;
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 which have a special place in my heart.
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 that he developed into what he called the Zimmerlinden, after a fast-growing African plant that women in Cologne commonly planted 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 gelatin 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 theatres 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?
The exhibition, which does not include him, at the Finnish Museum of Photography shows contemporary Finnish examples of abstract photography in the context of the inventions of classic workers and pioneers in non-representational manifestations of this realist medium such as Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy.
Sami Luukkanen (*1967) expresses a maverick attitude in his large-scale, rather impertinently titled, chromogenic colour print Pizza Puke of 1996, and works also directly with photochemistry like his predecessor Chargesheimer, and like him, intends a challenge to the conventions of ‘straight photography’;
I use traditional methods of photography in my work: light, film, chemicals and photographic paper. Developing photographs is a disciplined, technical process, which you can strictly follow to create images that correspond to reality.
When, however, you mix up the process, come up with your own rules, and are open-minded and experimental, the result is an unexpected and surprising adventure. What you see in the image then is a riot and chaos of light and chemicals on the surface of photo-sensitive material. It is this process of chance that I …seize.
On the left behind the panel holding Luukkanen’s mural work above, is an image by one of the two youngest artists in the show who are both 30. Kira Leskinen (*1987), working from from Helsinki, Finland and with an MA in photography from Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, pursues interests in abstraction, colour and sound.
She explains the process behind her 2016 work Amante;
I combine traditional paper-collage technique with the digital expression of a flatbed scanner. As raw material for my images, I use paper and cardboard of different colours, cut or torn into different shapes, from which I then sketch the images on the scanner’s glass platen. During scanning, I pull, lift, and turn these image elements. As my movements are combined with movement of the scanner head, various digital distortions and deviations appear in the image. It is these deviations that give my images their final form.
There are echoes of Chargesheimer here too, with the use of the scanner yielding results in Tuum of 2014, that are similar to his manipulations of film emulsion with a razor.
Noora Sandgren (*1977), also of Helsinki, reminds us in Fluid Being: Dialogue 15.10.2015 (30 min) of 2015 that even the oldest of photographic processes may be renewed.
In spring 2015, I found a box of my father’s photographic papers from the 1960s and 1970s at our summer house in Hiidenvesi. The house has a garden that became my studio. I was interested in the world of corporeal experience, in which the artist is present in an extreme way, being absorbed in the image. I developed a slow process that I continue to apply from one season to the next: I sit in the garden for half an hour, letting the weight of my head fall on [a sheet of my father’s old photographic paper].
The image emerges from interaction: my breath and the heat from my skin both colour the paper surface, and tears, moisture from my lips, wind, snow and insects leave their traces, as the sun creates outlines. I’m going back to the roots of photography, Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawings, and the fundamental elements: light, time and a reactive material that resembles the skin.
The temporal layers of the work are the age of the paper, the first exposure by the sun, and the second, digital exposure on a scanner, during which the scanner head simultaneously carves out the image and destroys it. The original unfixed image, then, continues its metamorphosis.
Like Chargesheimer’s photogram experiments in the darkroom, the results of Sandgren’s self portraits cannot be seen until after they are made, but her original ‘negative’ is made to vanish, obliterated in the process of scanning. As with several of the other artists’ procedures, abstraction here is the result of a temporal factor.
The spirit of Chargesheimer’s experimentation lives on without him.