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Thursday, December 13, 2018


My ideas about this book from the Mahlers are somewhat up in the air, see the comments on the previous thread for a lively, if not terribly conclusive, discussion!

It comes does to this. I cannot shake the impression that the young women in this photograph

Photo by Ute & Werner Mahler

have been made to look like provincial rubes, on purpose.

From that starting point I am now unsure where to go, and what to make of it. But that starting point remains, for me, unshakeable.

ETA: I continue to struggle to make sense of what I see, in the light of comments! Thank you all!

What I see is beautiful but awkward young women, painfully, self-consciously, aware of both. They're putting out quite a lot of effort to look, well, like something. The makeup and hair are thoroughly finished, as are the outfits, but the overall effect is cheap and ill-done. They look like they are trying to be fashionable, but are not. The clutch purses strike me, somehow, as a desperate and therefore pathetic attempt at sophistication. I don't know if everyone follows me this far, but I feel like it's not much of a stretch?

Is there something of "stupid small town girls" in here? Or is this really just the archetype of the 19 year old woman everywhere that western culture touches?

This is where I part ways, I think. I feel that a Berliner or a New Yorker or even a Chicago girl might miss the mark, but somehow differently. They might make more sophisticated clothing choices, but I feel like whatever they did they would wear it with more... bravado, maybe.

And then, of course, I feel like this difference -- which perhaps I am imagining entirely -- is the point of the picture, the deliberate slight offered to these two kids.


  1. You may struggle to have another view, but if it helps, I have one to offer: I see them as two beautiful young people looking a bit out of place, though perhaps no more so than many others their age, who are on the verge, perhaps, of leaving a geographical area as well as a temporal one (their childhoods). I think it is an elegant and elegiac picture.

    1. It does not hurt, that much is certain. Thank you for your take!

  2. As a 60 something senior who regularly photographs my 20 something nephew's rather successful band I would say these two women are emblematic of this age group. I do not see what you see. I believe they are at that awkward age (it certainly was for me in my teens) of becoming adults.

  3. I am not sure whether this belongs to the current or the previous post. Anyway, the pictures from "Kleinstadt" I've seen in the "Zeitmagazin" - I don't know what to make of them. On one hand, the Mahlers are keen observers. They certainly have a good eye for views and details which they deem typical of a small city, and the pictures are interesting. On the other hand, what is "typical"? In my opinion, the authors overemphasize the doom and gloom of a small city severely affected by rural exodus. The social component of a life in a small city - what one of the commenters to the previous post called a feeling of "Heimat" - is, in my opinion, underrepresented. It would have given "soul" or depth to the work.
    Probably this is owing to the modus operandi of the Mahlers. As they explained in the accompany interview in "Zeitmagazin", they first researched which small cities to visit, and then spent three days in each selected city. Each day was spent by walking around and photographing everything that caught their eye and was considered "significant". I am doubtful as to whether it is possible to get an impression beyond the superficial confirmation of already present expectations within three days. For me, this would definitely not work. If it was my project, I'd concentrate on a single city, and stay for, say, a year or so. Anyway, it's their project, not mine. Possibly I didn't understand the scope of the project.
    But don't get me wrong, the pictures I've seen were interesting - but this didn't make me buy the book.

    Best, Thomas

    1. I have to a agree, that process sounds appalling and I also do not see how it could do more than confirm preconceptions.

      How do you know what is "significant"? Why, it's what fits your notions, isn't it? You need time to develop ideas true to the place, as I see it.

      But, you know, maybe they're really good at entering a space with openness. Perhaps they've been doing it professionally for decades, and they really just can so it. In the same way that an experienced portraitist of the right sort can nail it surprisingly quickly?

  4. True confession: I often struggle to see -- or is that impute? -- many of the things you (and Colberg, as well as many other critics and bloggers) do in the various photos and photobooks you discuss.

    In short, I agree with the comments of both Patrick and Jim regarding this photo and have no clue how you managed to arrive at such a vastly different conclusions about its content and context. (shrug)

  5. Thank you all. I do believe you, and at a kind of a remove, I see what you are seeing. My eyes, though, refuse to give up my reading despite it all.

    Perhaps what I am seeing is truly just the awkwardness of youth, but when I mentally imagine this same picture in Berlin, it doesn't quite work. It's... something. The purses really get me.

  6. The interview Thomas mentions is here:

  7. I must admit that when I first saw the image, I too felt something was — undefinably — “off” about it. I came to the conclusion that it must be a cultural issue; their dress, makeup, or body language is simply foreign to my own experience.

    And yet, I'm still not convinced of my own explanation.

  8. Further to your additional comments, my guess is those girls were trying to create a "big city" look, but only have access to the resources of the small town where they live, so couldn't quite pull it off.

    When I was a teenager, my family moved from a wealthy suburb of Chicago to a not-so-wealthy small town in rural West Virginia because my father's job transferred him there and I saw this happen a lot, as the teenage girls there tried to mimic the looks they saw in magazines and television shows, but were limited to using only whatever items they could scrounge locally.

    I imagine the same thing still happens in small towns today, only the influences are now Instagram photos and YouTube videos instead of magazines and network television shows.

  9. I've lived for the last 20 years in Germany (Johannesburg/Ruedesheim and Hamburg), France (in a village), Austria (villages), Czech Republic (Prague, with extensive time out of town), Belgium (Brussels) and Hungary (villages). I have not spent much time in Berlin.
    The two girls look pretty typical to their age to me, and I agree with others that they look awkward because they are young. There is a bit of an Arbus-like awkwardness to their pose, which might be what you're picking up on. I've seen girls similarly glammed up in big cities.
    In the background of the photo, the houses in the photo also look pretty typical to me, and could, I think, be found in pretty much any country I've lived in, near to any large city, or in a smaller satellite town. They do not speak of rube-ness to me. The gate and damage to the plaster on the house makes it look a little bit former DDR, but I haven't travelled widely enough in Germany to make a good call on that.
    The 'clutching at purses' brings any number of connotations to mind.
    I found the interview fairly 'sympathetic', as one would say in German.
    I think it's fair to say we collectively looking at one image of many, perhaps endowing it with Single Iconic Image properties, while not having seen the whole thing in sequence (and thus context). I intend to remedy that next week!

    1. Just to clear up (maybe) a point of terminology - a "clutch" or "clutch purse" is simply a chic style of purse that has no strap.

    2. Noted, I tend to freely associate words.

  10. And sometimes a picture... is just a picture?

  11. Part of the fun of photos is the mystery behind them. They say so little, but suggest so much. This is one of my daughter and her boyfriend that I like... And you can read a lot into it or not...


    1. That is a delightful photo. I especially like the shirt demanding the release of a woman who's been freed for the last 46 years! What an interesting artifact, worn as, I assume, a statement of political/fashion in some way?

    2. Yes, and it was a gift. So many young people are intensely aware and smart these days. She’s had that same intense look since she was a baby.