Saturday, October 5, 2019

Crit: Kleinstadt by the Mahlers

Thanks to the great generosity of one of our long time friends on this blog, I have in my hands a copy of Kleinstadt by Ute and Werner Mahler (Thank You!)

I have talked obliquely about this book before, here and here, all sparked by a review of the book from Colberg, which you may peruse here.

The book is extremely atmospheric. To a nearly absurd degree. The photographs are closely linked in both in content and in the deployed tropes, and they are all on a mission. First of all, the overall impression is given by the handling of tonality. Every picture looks like it was taken on an overcast day, even the ones that were not. They all look like these pictures of Bellingham, which I have bashed into an approximation of the look the Mahlers are using here. I will return to these pictures shortly.

The content is endless banal architecture, mixed in with fairly peculiar pictures of young people, which portraits I will return to shortly as they seem to me to constitute the core idea here.

The major visual trope is reflections, things seen through fences or over walls, and a few other ways to double the picture. There are a couple places in which there is large picture on fabric in the scene (you know, the big poster of what the development will look like, hung on the fence surrounding the construction site). There's a painfully clear theme of one surface with one picture, one imagining of the world, and another surface or imagining with a contrasting picture.

One form or another of this duality appears in, by my count, 33 of 65 photos, and certainly the majority of the non-people pictures. Not all, however.

The people shown are young, and invariably wearing a neutral expression which sometimes seems to veer into grim. There is only one person, a small figure in a large group, that might be wearing a slight smile. The group pictures generally look slightly forced, as if poorly directed, which lends a further sense of gloom. The poses are so awkward that what appears at first glance to be a group of friends dissolves into an ambiguous situation. One might even go so far as to ask do these people even like each other?

But the book opens and closes with pictures of couples, the first ambiguous but leaning toward probable affection, and the last one, the closing picture, perhaps the only unambiguous photo in the book. He loves this girl.

What does this all add up to?

It is possible that what we are looking at is a bunch of shit. It may simply be that the Mahlers are terrible at direction although possessing a reasonable eye for form, and wind up with ghastly photos of people. Perhaps they mixed these, essentially failures, up with a bunch of glum-looking, lazy, architectural shots, making sure to throw in a lot of reflections because that's what hacks often do. This is, I regret to report, entirely consistent with the content of the book. It is an uncharitable view, and it is a view which leads to nothing, no insight. Therefore, let us set it aside.

So, what else might this add up to?

Well, first of all, the book an obvious construct, a slice of meaning slivered off of the whole. I suppose any book about a theme is going to be a slice in much the same way, but this slice appears particularly narrow. The sensation of ennui is thoroughly pervasive, there is really just a single emotional note throughout the thing. Everything from the greyness of the tonality to the expressions in the faces of the subjects points in the same direction. There is an almost maniacal singularity of purpose.

My pictures above are a piece of a little project I am half-heartedly pursuing to show Bellingham, the same town, in three completely different ways. This way is a sort of gloomy, overcast, depressing way. A couple of posts back I threw up some geometrical photos, showing Bellingham as, well, as nothing in particular except a maze of line and form, a sort of modernist photography-forward look without much reference to the actual city. There is also a vibrant, life-filled, joyful version, which utterly contradicts the "Kleinstadt" version here.

Three completely different slices of the same city, each in its way "true," none of them complete, and only one of them in any meaningful way representing my authentic emotional response to the city.

I will note in passing here that the banal photograph of architecture is incredibly easy. If you're looking for those dual pictures so loved here by the Mahlers, you have to look a little harder, but fundamentally you can bash these things out all day without much effort. The Mahlers do exhibit an eye for form, but honestly, that's just not that hard. The pictures without people in them strike me as profoundly lazy, irrespective of how deliberately and carefully (or not) the book itself was made.

Discussions on the previous remarks I have made on this, cited in the first few lines above, suggest that there is an essentially German version of despair, of gloom, of joylessness, which is being depicted here.

This joylessness is represented more or less symbolically by the architectural photographs. Buildings are not sad or happy, it is the pictures of them, and the repeated trope of the second picture, the reflection, the tree behind the wall, that which is maybe beyond reach. So this is deliberate symbolism, deployed over and over. Possibly the repeated little satellite dishes are also something here, or maybe they're just so ubiquitous it's hopeless to get them out of frame.

The joylessness turns up again in the photos of people, but is at the same time belied by those same photographs. The groups are of young people clearly depicted as "Hanging Out" frequently in or around cars (although bus stops turn up quite a lot as well). Maybe German teens "Hang Out" and drive around with their friends looking hangdog all day, but I doubt it. The scene shown to us is one of maybe aimlessness, but not joylessness. One has no trouble imagining that when the photographer folds up her tripod the kids will have a bit of a laugh about the whole thing, even though they're looking studious and glum for the lens.

Perhaps I am merely unwilling to grasp the depths of German Existential Despair, but I have a hard time imagining that a group of teenagers, having driven off someplace in a couple cars and now sitting around in, on and near those same cars outside having a smoke and a chat, are actually glum. At some point someone's gonna tell a joke, and also the beers are going to appear and to be opened. Surely?

This picture:

(which unlike the earlier photos does appear in Kleinstadt, where it looks even greyer and flatter than here) strikes me as the most ungenerous photo in the book. I didn't like it earlier, and while I have softened toward it, I still find it to be ungenerous.

You can see here the awkwardness typical of these photos. They have clearly been asked to "move in closer" or similar, and are thus in this odd semi-embrace, and have probably also been somehow directed to not smile, but to look serious, or bland (possibly by the photographer simply taking a very long time, or shooting many frames, which is also a form of direction.) They appear, though, to be "Going Out" possibly to "Hang Out" and most likely don't look glum and awkward all the time.

I find it interesting that they are posed as if the photographer is struggling to get them both in-frame, and yet the frame has gobs of space around them. It's actually this family snapshot, which we recognize instantly as of a type, I think

... tucked into a much bigger frame. Having performed this cropping exercise, I have to admit that I am mildly shocked by the result.

The text on the back of the book reads, in part,

Wir sehen Hoffnung. In den Augen der Jungen: Die ganzen welt. Enge und Nähe. Das Leben eben.

which is translated for us as:

We see hope. In the eyes of the young ones: the whole world. Tightness and closeness. Like life.

which seems to be a pretty fair translation, but deserves clarification. I think that the "hope" is intended in the obvious, positive way, and that "Tightness and closeness" is clumsy and perhaps means something more like "community" or similar. I suspect that "Enge und Nähe" is not something that translates well into English. Both words translate literally into something about nearness, but there are obviously different clouds of connotation around each.

With a few exceptions, the only thing visible in the eyes of the young ones photographed here is are you done yet? You can see this, I think, pretty clearly in the photo of the two girls. Apart from the framing, they look for all the world as if Mom is insisting that they stand still for just one more photo. The photos are all 5:4 shaped and grainless, which is consistent with a fairly boring session for the subjects. That said, other people have been photographed with a 4x5 without appearing so dour.

So here we have a peculiarity. The photographs are clearly set pieces intended to produce a specific emotional flavor, which flavor appears to be opposed to both the stated authorial intent, as well as to the likely reality in play.

I don't know what to make of this. The book is unrelentingly gloomy, and it appears to have be made deliberately and single-mindedly to so appear. The authors seem to have gone to a great deal of trouble to make a single-minded expression of gloom and joylessness, an artifice to be sure, but a perfectly clear and direct artifice. Yet, they claim on the cover to have seen (and felt?) hope, somehow.

This does come back around to the theory expressed earlier. Perhaps the Mahlers saw and felt hope, but were unable to commit that to film, and wound up with, well, this. Perhaps this isn't a deliberate single-minded expression of one idea, but rather a swing and a miss, at another idea.

Perhaps you have to be German to see hope here, I don't know.

Do I like the thing? I kind of do. As a single-minded expression of an idea it absolutely works. It strikes me as a little unkind, a little ungenerous, to the people photographed, but the photo of the two girls is the worst of that, and it's really not too bad.

Would I recommend it? Eh. I think it's a good example of the form, but it is a cheerless, vaguely depressing, thing, and the flavor is artificial. It is a very well made cake, if you will, flavored and colored with good quality pure artificial color: Glum and equally distilled artificial flavor: Dour. I like cake, but I don't much like this cake. It could use a little chocolate, and a little natural butter.


  1. The photos were made in Wilhelmshaven, a city along the North Sea coast of Germany. During WWII it was the primary U-Boat base for the German Navy. I grew up a bit to the east, along that same coast in a much smaller town, which I have visited periodically over the decades. Frankly, I can’t identify with the overwhelming Weltschmerz that permeates this book. Sure, northern Germany has pretty depressing weather much of the year. But having lived in a really small town I just don’t buy the gloom and doom pictured here. Me thinks that the approach to the photography was inspired by Robert Frank's The Americans, but falls way short of accomplishing that.

    1. There are, I think, at least a couple of different locations. One of the photos seems to have been made in Zehdenick, which is out east someplace. I was unable to firmly identify other locations, but a Homburg license plate turns up in one photo, and there are a few other hints of other locations.

      I will buy the melancholy as something like "My strongest impression was of.." but not as a "every moment of every day was..."

      But as you can probably guess, I am unsure of the book overall.

    2. I have not checked, but I thought Colberg wrote that is was photographed in Wilhelmshaven, that is where he is from. I agree with your take on melancholy.

    3. Oops, I was wrong. The photos are not from Wilhelmshaven, where Colberg grew up, but from truly small towns. Having lived, and photographed, for the last three decades in a town of about 700 inhabitants,in Florida,not Germany, I agree that there is despair and loneliness, and opportunities missed, but there can also be tremendous vitality and sense of place. It is a very mixed bag, and really depends on the individual locals, and to only show one side of it to me is a bit problematic, and in many ways, an easy way out.

  2. Looks like a book you read few hours before committing suicide. Probably a more expensive method than drug overdose, but the book is reusable at the same time. Highly recommended for group suicide, as there is only one book to buy and to read together.

    1. It's not THAT bad! It might set the mood, but it's not going to actually do the job!

  3. Is there an artists' statement in the book? I'd like to know a little about their motivation; I guess it must be fairly well formed and substantial having put so much effort in. As for the young people, they appear to me wholly inauthentic, their poses artificial and contrived. My (not inconsiderable) experience of young people in groups is that you can rarely shut them up even if you wanted to, so the Mahler direction must have been pretty firm. Laura Panack does similar stuff, in colour, but she manages to allow her subjects to own the frame.

    1. The text on the back, in translation, reads:

      At first it seems as if no one is there. But there is something. Life and traces of life. Signs. Houses. Windows. Gardens. People.

      Small towns are satellites of the metropolises. Closed to the outside. Inside, completely at one with themselves. Mostly quiet. Among their own kind, open to the inside.

      Hardly any work. Fenced-in life. Serene stillness. Increasing emptiness.

      Houses like locals. Dreaming shop windows. A place without events, without sensation.

      There are small towns everywhere in our country. Everywhere, where there seems to be hardly any hope. Where the roads lead into the countryside. Out of here. Away.

      Only those who remain can understand small towns. We were there. We looked around. We took our time.

      We see hope. In the eyes of the young ones: the whole world. Tightness and closeness. Like life.

  4. If you want to see all 70 photos in the book, reproduced at better quality and scale,

    I think seen this way, and considered in context of the rest of their ouevre (other books), the project makes more sense to me, not having seen the actual book.

    On a related note, the book designer knows their way around type

    I'm not sure the cover design, while bold and eye-catching, is very successful in terms of relating to the content/photos, but I suppose that would depend on seeing the page layouts, in isolation it just feels very post-modern-generic -- maybe it's meant to reflect the architecture of this Kleinstadt, but it isn't really clear how (or why).

    1. The page layouts are very spare. There is zero text until the very last page, which lists designers, publishers, and so on, very much in the designer's typical style. Sans font, text-as-graphics in big blocks wandering over the page. German in black, translations grey.

      The pictures are all the same, narrow margins on white paper, verticals one per page and horizontals invariably across the gutter.

      The horizontals are given to us oddly, the gutter is clearly placed deliberately, as there is no consistency to how the frame lies on the spread. Sometime left, sometimes right, sometimes a little further left, and so on. And yet, the gutters seem to be, if anything, placed in the worst possible places.

      I don't know if the designer was merely being cute, or was just trying to give some variation without much regard for the pictures, or if there is a deliberate conceit here.

    2. Whalp, if I was designing this book cover, I would likely use your close crop of the two young ladeez full bleed on the front, with reversed-out (white), small-scale titling. Also, I wouldn't run horizontal pictures across the gutter (as you describe), but maybe use fold-outs that at least open flat instead. PUT THAT IN YOUR PIPE AND SMOKE IT, MISTER LAMM.

  5. I'm pretty late to the party on this one, sorry.

    In general, I found the book to be pretty sympathetic to the people photographed: the subjects aren't treated like freaks, a la Sloth, in spite of the odd looks from the corners of the subjects eyes at the photographers. It's honestly easier to define this book as what it is not: not a work in the tradition of Koudelka's Gypsies, Jindrich Streit's work, or Martin Parr. There is a lack of grit, and no irony.

    For the bulk of the work, to be honest, I find it rather dull, as if the Mahlers intended this book to be an allegory on life in a Kleinstadt. Certainly, when one drives through European 'dormitory' towns, during the day, in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, there is not much see. Having said that I find that less weird (i.e. less existentially horrifying) than driving through the 'burbs.

    The low contrast of the photos adds to the dullness. The black and whiteness is so grey, I would be more convinced by the greyness if it were in colour.

    Your comments on the nature of teens are pretty much spot on, Andrew. I don't find German Existential Despair really exists, although German Alcohol Induced Suicidal Tendancies certainly did exist in the small town I lived in in 2001-2002.

    The last photo in the book recalls the last photo in 'The Family of Man' in a way, it is sentimental and optimistic. This must represent the 'hope' that the Mahlers describe.

    1. Early, late, or right on time your thoughts are always welcome and I appreciate them now, as always, greatly.

      Thank you!