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Monday, 22 October 2018

Exploded Views and Story Arcs, Let's Start at the Very Beginning


It was lovely to go to Brussels and be, with Emilie Lauwers, Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez, one of the first speakers at the new Recyclart of the brilliant and super-lovely Vincen Beeckman  and many others. The setting was a room in an old printworks on the edge of Molenbeek, just across the canal from the West African car market (where cars are bought and sold and shipped off to West African ports). It's a great location with a great feeling.

I talked about my work, from Sofa Portraits to My German Family Album, and the dilemma of how to tell a story. And it's a dilemma I feel along with everybody else. It's the dilemma of having a mass of choices and having to make a choice. It's a problem I experience all the time - choosing is difficult.

That's a particular problem for the German Family Album. About 5 years ago, I casually mentioned to my mother (who was born in Germany) that I remembered these family pictures with Nazis in and did they still exist. Six months later she came back to me with a back with a bunch of albums and pictures in - from the 1920s through to 1943. From Sander and White Ribbon through to Leni Riefenstahl and Stalingrad. I looked at them and was stunned. They're great pictures, at a very different level to most family albums of the time because a) manyalbums were destroyed or at least censored in after-the-fact visual revisionism (that being said, there are still loads of albums still in existence) and b) they're great pictures in a way most family albums simply aren't..

So what to do with it. In the Sound of Music, there's the doh-ray-mi song which goes,

'Let's Start at the very beginning, it's a very good place to start. When you write, you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with doh-ray-mi...

And it is a very good place to start. It keeps things simple. And simple is good. Start at the beginning. Start with the best pictures, start!

Starting at the very beginning is what Gerry Johannson does with his books. He sequences them chronologically, and it seems to work very well for him. It's easy, quick and people understand it.

It's all very linear and easy to understand. And in a world where understanding is at a premium, maybe that clarity of understanding is something we should aim for.

So this picture could be, and has been, the first picture in My German Family Album. It's a picture of my grandparents. It shows them apparently in love but they're not. Or if they are, it's one-sided. He's in love and she's disappointed. He's too old, too serious, too political (conservative with a small c), uninterested in the arts. She's the opposite.

That could be the starting point then. Here she is enjoying the sun - and I could show her in the sea, or the garden or at the zoo.

And here to hammer the point home is my grandfather, altogether different. The pictures back up the stories that are told. The pictures are true then (pictures have no truth value, let's clear that one up). The stories? Let's take them as being reliable.

Then it becomes a kind of love story in decline that flows down in a chronological manner as the two of them grow even further apart as she finds solace in the secret, platonic love of Bund, an army officer fallen on hard times who now tends the gardens of the local water castle.

It's even got an end point, written on the back of a picture - get food - which sums up where we are going and the gradual decline not just of a relationship, but of the very essence of being.

But chronological can be dull, linear can be dull. Last week I read this passage by Robin Wood on Satyajit Ray on the making of the Apu trilogy.

'In the West, we are conditioned primarily either by the classic Amecian cinemma with its taut narrative structures  in which when a sccen has made its point, we are carried swiftly on to the next, or by the European 'art' cinema with its tendency to intellectual thematic structures. We may feel, with Ray that we have already got the point when we are in fact continuing to miss it, for 'the point' may not be an extractable themastic or narrative issue but the total experience a character is undergoing.'

And so there's a cinematic way of looking at the story, with different characters (my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, or my uncle, perhaps most of all my uncle) in it, different voices, different points of view, different ways of telling the story.

You have those possibilities and they appeal because the pictures are very cinematic. That's embedded into the images as are photographic references. You get the feeling my grandfather, who took most of the pictures, was channeling a little bit of August Sander at times, or was influenced by neue sachlichkeit.

He worked for Siemens too, so you start seeing some Germaine Krull in there (and he would have seen them) and the pictures take on a very different sheen with the whole metaphor of family, power and Naziism making for visual and political overlaps.

    (Siemens workers)

The love story takes off too as my grandfather is increasingly absent, as children are born (my uncle, my aunt, my mother) as my grandmother spends more time away to be with her needy mother - and the understanding Onkel Bund - seen on the left below.

   (Onkel Bund with my grandmother and aunt)

And then tragedy. Bund is caught stealing a bag of potatoes from the water castle. He is publicly shamed and, virtually destitute, is forced to leave his most basic room in the castle.

Rather than face an uncertain future, he kills himself by laying his head on the train track outside the gateway to the Baron's property. His head his severed, there is blood on the tracks and my grandmother is heartbroken. When she dies in 1975, her children find an old box of her belongings in the attic of their rambling home. Included in the box is the bloodstained shirt that Bund was wearing when he died, still there forty years after the event.

That's not in the pictures, that's the story that is told. So how do you tell that, how do you incorporate that into the images so that the one riffs of the other, so there are gaps and pauses and arcs and a bit of emotional satisfaction going on. And everyone likes a love story, they're universal, so you know you're reaching an audience.

Things are complicated by the time. It's the 1930s and the Nazis are coming to power. That's in the album, it's the first thing you notice. It's there in the view from the window of my grandparents' apartment in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), as Nazis march down the street on Hindenburg's birthday in 1932.

  (view from the family apartment window, 1932)

And it's there in salutes, swastikas and uniforms that suddenly tap into the visual and political history of the time (and are in many ways the least interesting part of the album) - the map below is from 1933 and details the number of impromptu SA torture camps set up in Berlin in 1933.

The Nazi imagery seeps in everywhere. It's there in the company days out my grandparents took at Siemens, a company heavily supportive of the Nazis, it's there in the replaying of Olympic medal ceremonies that Leni Riefenstahl filmed in Olympia, it's there in the gymnastic displays my grandmother performed. It's in the oak trees, the mountains, the water, the games, it's everywhere. And it's generic and it takes you into a different place.

And most of all it's in the way in which my uncle embraced the Hitler Youth from an early age, flicking what my grandfather called his 'Nazi paw' at all and sundry with his best friend Lothar (on the right below), son of the local SA chief.

    (my mother's christening)

My grandfather hated this. He wrote letters to the papers complaining about it, saying that the only good thing about a Hitler Youth uniform was that for the kid the lederhosen were made of thick material which protected their backside from the regular beatings they should all be getting.

There is a bit of redemption in the story. By the time he was 14, my uncle was reading books and taking self-portraits of himself as an intellectual. When the war started, he refused to fight and was signed up to the signals department and sent to the Eastern Front. He was at Stalingrad, but caught measles and was on the last plane out. So the story goes.

  (the Siemens Boat)

So there's that. There are pictures and stories, and there are the things that people bring to the pictures.

No picture is innocent, we bring our global knowledge, our library of images to them when we read them. So in the German Family Album, a train is not a train anymore, a row of low barracks in winter is something altogether different, a leather coat is as sinister as you want it to be. We've seen these things before, we think we know what they are, they infest our thoughts.


And that's interesting. Where do those images come from (the answer is fairly modern cinema), how do they pop up in our minds, how do they create memories of something we have no experience or knowledge of?

Before you know it, a simple story of an unhappy marriage and unrequited love has become a story with all these multiple elements and multiple characters wrapped around them, tying in to the before, during and after of the rise of the Nazis and all that went with it.

To take it all in, you'd need to work at a  reflexive level like the Act of Killing or Pictures from Home, but with a meta commentary - so Meta Maus on a much smaller, less tragic scale - told from the wrong side. Then the project becomes about the making of the project, about the images and how they tie in with the rise of the Nazis, how fascist ideology was embedded into everyday life, wasn't something merely contained in the salutes and the uniforms and the swastikas, but was there on a daily basis. It becomes a didactic, educational tool where you lay everything on the line. It's good to lay things on the line, to take things back to square one.

But that makes for an even more difficult choice. I spoke about this with Andrea Copetti at his brilliant Tipi Bookshop and he gave me the exploded view as a solution to the problem, as a possible structure.

This an exploded view of a guitar.

Here you have multiple parts and multiple choices. The complexity can be endless but it is given a structure, links are made by the original blueprint which forms a overlying edifice which the viewer can navigate.

What's good about this way of looking at things is that you can include everything if you want, as long as it fits into the broader structure and makes sense. you can have stratas, you can have a hierarchy of comprehension and meaning, you can make things opaque, you can make them transparent. And then you can redesign as you go, streamling your structure to make it as functional as possible.

The other thing is you can take things right back to basics and start at the very beginning. There are plenty of people who don't know who Hitler is, who have no idea of the Nazis, of the Holocaust, of any of it. So you can address the assumptions we make about what people know or don't know.

The problem with the exploded view structure is that it does limit the audience. It's a very structured, ordered, initially emotionally distant view. So it doesn't exactly draw people in. It's a view that preaches to the converted in some ways because it is meta..

The emotional story, in contrast, is universal, it draws more interest, it gets a much bigger audience and it does get the curiosity going. It's got the immediate recognition factor of a boy meets girl story arc. That appeals. The Sound of Music has a basic boy meets girl crossed with a man in hole story arcs. It's boy meets girl (with the complications of kids, a convent and Nazis). Mines boy meets girl, with complications of kids, Nazis and Siemens. But no happy endings.

So we're back at the beginning again. And that's a very good place to start... again.

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