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photo-eye Book Reviews: Aftermath

Aftermath, Photographs by Jörn Vanhöfen.
Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
Reviewed by David Ondrik
Jörn Vanhöfen Aftermath
Photographs by Jörn Vanhöfen
Hatje Cantz, 2011. Hardbound. 160 pp., 70 color illustrations, 13-1/2x11".

Aftermath is a book filled with photographic evidence of how we're screwing up everything from the economy to the ecosystem. There are giant trash piles, recycle yards, abandoned ocean liners, dumped tires, the Chicago stock exchange, mega-malls, and roads to nowhere. They're all expertly photographed in gorgeous color, and printed at an impressive 9.5" x 11.5" so they're large enough to get lost in the details. It seems certain that Jörn Vanhöfen is a large format photographer of some sort, either film or pixels, and it's a good thing, as these images rely on a high level of detail to communicate effectively. Most of the work is straightforward documentation of various decrepit or soulless environments. Port Elizabeth #8865 shows a multi-level street system as it winds through an urban environment. There is an obvious stratification of wealth and power from the dark, filthy lower levels to the light, airy apartments in the upper side. It reminds me of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and although it's not 2019 yet, Vanhöfen makes the case that we're getting closer to dystopia every day.

Aftermath, by Jörn Vanhöfen. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
Aftermath, by Jörn Vanhöfen. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
There are a few images where Vanhöfen exhibits a dark sense of humor. Glory #2964 makes a somewhat obvious but still chuckle worthy juxtaposition - in a supermarket named Glory, a proletariat mural reminiscent of Diego Rivera languishes next to a stack of neon colored soda. The worker's glory has brought us an obscene amount of unnaturally colored corn-syrup water, to quench our thirst and widen our waistline. Other images, especially Italien #51, indicate indebtedness to the Surrealist movement: a giant ball of fire blooms in what at first looks like an unburned field. It seems totally out of place until we realize that the background of the image is choked with it smoke. So the event itself isn't as surreal as the photograph of the event.

Aftermath, by Jörn Vanhöfen. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
And that's a problem this kind of photographic work has a hard time avoiding. These images only record that something happened - this pile of tires collected, this building is abandoned, that person sleeps on the street - but they can't (or at least they don't) tell us anything about why these things happened. Why is that building abandoned, how is the stock exchange exploitive, what caused that forest fire? You won't find the answers here, and you won't find them in the accompanying texts. Author Hans Christoph Buch writes a somewhat engaging essay tying Vanhöfen's images to Classical ideas of man's destructive nature. While it's instructive to learn that Antigone and Aftermath share a dismal view of our destructive potential, it's not clear that this knowledge adds to the understanding of our current global conundrum. These photographs are a cool and detached observation of the terrible aftermath of our collective belief that short-term gain beats long-term sustainability. The problem here though, is if the photographs are intended to inspire us to change our ways, there are no practical solutions suggested here to help us do so. And if our destructive propensity is inexorable and inevitable, why bother mourning the damage we've caused?—David Ondrik

David Ondrik has lived in Albuquerque since the late 1970s. He was introduced to photography in high school and quickly appropriated his father’s Canon A-1 so that he could pursue this exciting artistic medium. He received his BFA, with an emphasis in photography, from the University of New Mexico and has been involved in the medium ever since. Ondrik is also a National Teaching Board Certified high school art teacher.