December 3: Futures

Date #3
December 3: Photography is so expert at seizing the now, but can it imagine the future?

Peter Bialobrzeski (*1961) has works in several current exhibitions. Eight images from his The Raw and the Cooked will be shown at Foto Forum, Weggensteinstraße 3F, I – 39100, Bozen, Italy from tomorrow. At Robert Morat Galerie, Linienstraße 107 10115 Berlin, he opened his solo show City Diaries on November 15th 2018 and it continues to January 12 2019. Until February 17, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, 30 Samcheong-ro, Sogyeok-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul 03062, Korea, continues their mega show Civilization: The Way We Live Now, which includes Bialobrzeski’s work among that of 130 artists, one of them Australia’s Anne Zahalka.

Étienne Neurdein, born on this date in 1832 was the brother of Louis-Antonin (1846-1914). They were sons of Jean César Adolphe Neurdein, known by the pseudonym Charlet (1806–1867). All three were photographers, and in some cases the bothers’ photographs are credited just ‘Neurdein’ or ‘ND’. However, it is known that it was Étienne who reproduced this quite remarkable photograph from a bi-plane, on a postcard, though it is doubtful that he was the photographer, being by then in his eighties. I can find no indication of who might have been the actual photographer.

Étienne Neurdein (between 1904-1914) Promenade sur Paris en aeroplane: Vue are la Grande Roue et la Tour Eiffel par le traverse en avant d’un biplan. (A tour of Paris by aeroplane: view of the Ferris Wheel and the Eiffel Tower over the transom of a biplane.) Postcard.

The photograph is dated 1904 to 1914 and there are few clues on the ground as to the exact date, as the Eiffel Tower was already in existence when the Grande Roue de Paris was built in 1900 for the Exposition Universelle world exhibition. 1904 is hardly credible as the first passenger, and the first woman aviator, did not fly until 1908, and not until December that year did the first Paris Aeronautical Salon (exhibition) in the Grand Palais open, with the Wright Brothers signing for the sale of aeroplanes to a French syndicate. 1909 was the year the first pig flew in a predictable stunt, and Louis Blériot crossed the Channel. In 1910 French aviator Georges Legagneux flying over Paris became first to reach over 3,000 meters.

Tom Aitken (attr.) c.1916-18 Bombers on a mission, Western Front, showing rear of a Handley-Page bomber, with another following.

So is this photograph a fake, and if not, when was it taken? Despite some retouching, on the evidence of other aerial photographs taken during WW1 (left) that include focussed parts of the plane in the foreground, the sharpness of the fore-wing struts and wires is quite feasible; they haven’t been pasted, drawn or montaged. They provide some evidence that the photograph could date from around 1911, when the canard fore-wing was being abandoned in biplane design. By 1914 aeronautical engineer W.E. Evans commented that “the Canard type model has practically received its death-blow”.

Judging by the intersection of the horizon with the Tower and 100 metre ferris wheel, the plane is flying at below 80 metres, a height now illegal over populated areas, so this is a view unique to the era. It was then more modern, futuristic even, than views from the International Space Station are to us now. Its title ‘Promenade’ imagines the prospect that in a not too distant future, the Parisians of 1920 would roam their city in their own planes. Yet still we wait for our jetpacks!

The Neurdein photographs reach also into the past, leaving us a high-quality catalogue of Romanesque and Gothic buildings in France as they stood before WWI, well-known monuments as well as those in far flung departments of smaller regional sites (see Horste, K. (2002). ‘The Neurdein Fréres and the photography of medieval architecture’. History of Photography, 26(4), 276-295.).

Étienne Neurdein (before 1914) Marseille; La Porte d’Aix. Postcard.

Neurdein is known from 1875 for the postcard business he set up on his own, before he joined with his brother to form a company in 1885 publishing cards marked with an ND logo. The Neurdein company was the largest French publisher of postcards until the end of WW1. His now 100-140 year-old panoramic views, and those he commissioned from other photographers, of cities in several countries, provide an excellent correspondence with what Peter Bialobrzeski is photographing now.

Peter Bialobrzeski (2008) from Paradise Now

Bialobrzeski returns us to the ground, but maintains the long view to take in cities unfamiliar to his audience in the West, and from viewpoints that are probably unknown to most of the inhabitants. After graduating from the Theodor-Heuss-Gymnasium in Wolfsburg, and having studied Politics and Sociology before he became a photographer for a Wolfsburg newspaper, his frame of reference is political; ” I am advocating photography as a cultural practice, not so much as fine art,” he says. Travel in Asia provided further experience on which he drew when he went back to study photography and visual communication at the Folkwangschule in Essen and the London College of Printing, and since.

Peter Bialobrzeski (2008) from Paradise Now
Peter Bialobrzeski in Vietnam with Linhof camera

His series Paradise Now, made on film with exposures of between 1/15 sec to 4 minutes with his 4″x 5″ Linhof view camera and between October 2007 and March 2008 in Hanoi, Jakarta, Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, discovers remnant stands of vegetation between the vaunting high-rise lit by an unholy phosphorescence of mercury vapour and sodium lighting and the warning lights of pivoting construction cranes that work through the night.

The series, published in book form among seventeen others over seventeen years, won him a World Press Photo Award (Nature, second prize stories) in 2010, after a previous win in 2003, and international acclaim, with his 2001 series Neon Tigers: Hong Kong on radical changes in Asian cityscapes. It was was glowingly described as The Emerald Megacities of Southeast Asia in the title of Vicki Goldberg‘s review in The New York Times APRIL 11, 2004 in which she highlights Bialobrzeski’s debt to the 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner;

If ”Blade Runner” was set in the desolate aftermath of technology run amok, the new cities have managed desolation without much outside assistance, right next to bonanzas on stilts. Accompanying the jewel-box pinnacles and necklaces of diamond-bright windows are intractable pollution caused by industry and automobiles, severe unsanitary conditions and unsafe water, all of which are scarcely visible to financiers, tourists or a camera drunk on intoxicating hues.

His work from more recent series currently on exhibition returns to Asian and Middle Eastern cities to correct that perception by emphasising these extraordinary inequalities.  He sets the dwarfed human scale of ‘raw’ architecture next to the gargantuan skyscrapers ‘cooked’ by well-financed developers for hugely wealthy corporate clients.

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Peter Bialobrzeski (2017) from series Wuhan Diary
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Peter Bialobrzeski (2017) from series Wuhan Diary

The condition of the less privileged citizen is most visible in his series of pictures of ‘Nail Houses’, earmarked for demolition, that are still inhabited even as parts of the structures are being torn away. Some corrugated structures appear to bulge with the densely packed habitation of the families inside and forlorn lights mark their presence as their home is being nibbled away by the demolition machinery. They remind us that contrary to utopian visions, the past, present and future must co-exist in cities, evidence of fault-lines that run through them.  

Most distinctive in Bialobrzeski’s imagery is his control of exposure to convey a sense of the otherworldliness, the forbidding futurism, of these cities. High-rise blocks radiate such that they vanish into dazzling incandescence that rivals any natural light.

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Peter Bialobrzeski (2012)  from The Raw and the Cooked
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Peter Bialobrzeski (2012)  from The Raw and the Cooked

Ironic and often jarring juxtaposition is an ally applied in all of Bialobrzeski’s series. He does not spare his own country his attentions to the universal social phenomenon of overcrowding. For Germany’s ageing society. Heimat, (‘homeland’) is a sentimental yearning for a lost paradise, for home, and in Die zweite Heimat (‘The Second Home’) mere vestiges of the ‘Nature’ of German Romanticism cling on, as do the ageing pensioners, the traditional architecture or the lost teenagers, among the concrete and steel of this series.

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Peter Bialobrzeski (2011-2016)  from Die zweite Heimat

Peter Bialobrzeski since 2002 has been professor of photography at the University of the Arts in Bremen, Germany and he runs workshops around the world. Represented by Laurence Miller Gallery in New York, LA Galerie in Frankfurt, he also shows with Robert Morat Gallery in his hometown Hamburg, as well as at m97 Gallery in Shanghai. In 2012 he was honored with the Erich Salomon Award by the German Society of Photographers (DGPh).

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