maandag 7 september 2009

Black Smoke Im Ruhrgebiet Chargesheimer Documentary Photography

A Review of Chargesheimer, Im Ruhrgebiet by Robert L. Jones ...
Böll, Heinrich (essayist) and Chargesheimer (photographer): Im Ruhrgebiet (In the Ruhr District). Frankfurt am Main (Germany): Büchergilde Gutenberg, , 1958, 28 pages of text, 121 plates.

It is so rare a treat to discover a photographer that has been lost to us. The homogenization and insularity of the fine arts photography world (in the United States, at least) has generally set up a dichotomy of the Great Old Masters (Adams, Stieglitz, the Westons, Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, etc.) versus the so-called "cutting edge" of such ephemeral and forgettable charlatans as Anne Geddes, David Lachapelle, Karl Lagerfeld and the late Herb Ritts.

This false set of alternatives offers little to choose from aside from those acknowledged and revered giants whose portfolios are recycled endlessly by Aperture on the one hand, and vapid, sophomoric, gimmickry faddists on the other.

Thus, when a great photographer somehow cannot be pigeonholed within either paradigm, those slavish worshippers of dead legends and fawning adulators of the celebrity haven't the foggiest notion of how to react, usually because their ignorance precludes them from being able to respond with a genuine and unlearnt emotion.

This criticism I've proffered applies to me: Like many, I do not actively seek out the forgotten or the innovative. I am quite content with being quite gemütlich within my bookshelves' well-traveled circles of Evans, Robert Frank, Youssef Karsh, Man Ray, James Van Der Zee and Saint Ansel.

Nonetheless, I also flatter myself that I at least have an open enough mind that when something novel my way comes, that I can be receptive to its visual import without my over-jaded cynicism imposing upon my eyes and kup.

It was in this manner that this volume came to me. It was presented as a gift to me by an older friend from the Netherlands, who described it as "socialist propaganda, but nevertheless very charming photography" (she did not mean "socialist" to be a sobriquet, as she falls on that side of the fence politically).

The photographer Chargesheimer (which is a contraction of his given name, Karl Heinz Hargesheimer, trading the "K" in Karl for a "C") forges a deceptively dreary portrait of the industrial zone "zwischen Dortmund und Duisburg" that lies in the Ruhr Valley. Primarily taken with a handheld Leica rangefinder, using what must have been the rather grainy Agfapan Rapid or early Adox Kleinbild film of the mid-1950s, the photographer presents a grimy yet enchanting visual document of the hardscrabble region and its people.

Chargesheimer, who after the Second World War worked as a photographer for Stern magazine in Germany and as a free-lance photographer in Paris, had already fashioned a master photographer's vision by the time he tackled this work. Im Ruhrgebiet presents the reader with an antidote to the European travelogue of pruned gardens, towering cathedrals and genteel nobility which so typifies the era in which he worked.

The strongest quality Chargesheimer imparts is that he intuitively grasps that photography is as much about what is unseen as what is seen. If the photographer's maxim is lux et veritas, then Chargesheimer operates on the premise Dunkelheit ist Wahrheit.

The f/64 zone system cultists would have a field day dissecting this volume, for Chargesheimer's tonal palette falls mostly within the baritone-to-bass range. Sunlight rarely intrudes upon the fog, smoke, clouds and shadows of his dim visual universe. Im Ruhrgebiet is the still-photographer's equivalent of the postwar cinema verite that was emerging in Italy and France: Gritty and unadorned, stark and foreboding.

His portraits are his most striking works, and the polar opposite of the blatant propaganda of the Soviets, and the Nazi Germany of just a decade before. Here, Chargesheimer does not give us Aryan super men or proletarian heroes, but simply shows people as they really are. From the matter-of-fact photograph of blue-collar men walking their bicycles at a crosswalk while smoking (plate 15) to a bored foreman, resigned before his task of minding a factory motor (plate 19, insightfully titled "Automation") to the extreme close-up of a workman's grimacing face caught during some grueling task (plate 20) to another soot covered day laborer working a pneumatic drill (plate 50), Im Ruhrgebiet captures these low country Germans at their industrious best, during the reconstruction period under the Marshall Plan.

Just as strong are Chargesheimer's photographs of the Ruhr people in sundry other everyday pursuits. A middle-aged Hausfrau delights in freshly-cut willows on a spring day (plate 61), another woman sits quietly nursing her drink, eyes closed (plate 41, aptly titled "Bored") while another Gasthaus patron sleeps off his drunk (plate 42); a well-dressed, youthful couple walk along a country lane on a brightly-lit (rare exception) spring day (plate 72). My favorite of all is of three bundled children on their way to school on a cold winter's morning (plate 32): One girl gives the photographer a cold, withering stare, while the other looks at him askance, wary. The little boy walking between the two girls is smiling, but it's ambiguous -- the viewer can't tell whether he is happy or just smirking at the photographer's folly.

His still-lifes are equally compelling. His landscapes flaunt the region's industrial schmutz. Brimming over with cobblestones, girders, smokestacks and railroad yards, Chargesheimer's talent for finding beauty in the mundane comes to the fore, reminiscent of Albert Renger- Patzsch. Yet, amongst all the soot and ruins, his work intimates hope, not doom: Under a filthy and graffiti-splattered concrete viaduct, two boys cheerfully pose with their scooter (plate 33); as nightfall descends upon the row houses and apartments of the Industrialgebiet, a shimmering strip of sunlight illuminates a line of tenements in the middle of an otherwise charcoal-grey landscape; a man stoops animatedly on a wooden bridge that traverses a smoldering slag heap (plate 64).

Chargesheimer continued to photograph mainly in the Ruhr area, particularly in Köln (Cologne), the city of his birth, until his untimely death at the age of 46 in 1971. To me, his photography represents the German counterpart to such important mid-century photographers as Robert Frank and Louis Faurer. His aesthetic is just as refined and his perspective as distinctly honed. However, his photography is much less reserved; Chargesheimer does not come off as some quiet observer the way Frank and Faurer did. (This is not a criticism of these two masters; being immigrants to America at a relatively later age, they could never have been part and parcel of the New York streets the way Chargesheimer took to the factories of Essen or the beer halls of Gelsenkirchen). In this regard, Chargesheimer reminds me more of a German version of Weegee (Arthur Felig): He basks in the tawdry, the prosaic and pedestrian and elevates it to high art.
He also had Weegee's eye for satire: Chargesheimer's portraits of the Ruhr's bourgeoisie strikes easily recognizable parallels to the stogy- chomping tabloid shutterbug's contemporaneous candid shots of wealthy dames attending the Metropolitan Opera.

What an amazing find! It is almost criminal that Chargesheimer is unknown in the United States. I conducted a poll of many photographic acquaintances over here, and not one has ever heard of him. I asked three German friends about him, and they were all quite familiar with his work. In fact, if you do a Google search for "Chargesheimer," not one page in English will be among the results!

As for the text, Böll writes out of a sense of love for his homeland. He mixes anecdotes and impressions of these Volk deftly, lacing his text with prosaic tales of the everyday lives of these people, told in a gentle, poetic vein.

One such charming story is of a three year-old girl found washing potatoes. When asked why she is washing them, she replies quite seriously: "Because they are dirty. I need fresh water to make them green. They must be green!"

This edition, though hard to find, can be had for about 100 Euros at, as can all Chargesheimer's other books (prices vary). The printing is first rate: The paper is nice thick stock and has hardly yellowed at all over time. The printing is gorgeous. Rather than half-tone screened, it is printed in the currently little-used rotogravure process, so that the plates do justice to every grain of Chargesheimer's dramatic original prints.

A fine website preserving his legacy for posterity is The Chargesheimer Society (Chargesheimer Gesellschaft) at:

Hopefully, fifty years hence, Chargesheimer's genius will be a matter of common knowledge worldwide. However, given the current climate with such "clever" and narcissistic works as some guy who's photographed all the contents in his house like product shots with a digital camera, I ain't counting on it.

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