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photo-eye Book Reviews: Topographie

Topographie, Photographs by Tom Leininger.
Published by Distanz, 2011.
Reviewed by Tom Leininger
Andreas Gehrke Topographie
Photographs by Andreas Gehrke
Distanz, 2011. Hardcover. 134 pp., 50 color illustrations, 12-1/4x10".

My photographic background is in newspaper journalism, which has instilled in me a belief that a strong picture should be able to stand on its own without the aid of words. Topographie by Andreas Gehrke challenged that notion. On my first viewing of the book, I went through it without reading any supporting texts. Approaching the book this way left me feeling like I was missing something. I needed context to understand why this small patch of wooded land in Berlin, the subject of the book, is so important. Luckily, the two essays were able to fill in the blanks for me. 

The land that Gehrke documented over the course of a year is important in the 20th century history of Berlin and Germany. These are the grounds where the buildings of the SS headquarters stood during World War II. During the period after the war, it was an untouched area near the Berlin Wall. When that came down it has continued to be relatively untouched by the progress Berlin has experienced.
Topographie, by Andreas Gehrke. Published by Distanz, 2011.
I am reminded of the complicated history of Germany; even what seems like an overgrown park is connected to the dark past of the country. I keep turning over a question in my head: Is that unseen history enough of a reason to investigate a place? The answers I come up with feel deficient since I am not able to fully understand what that past means to Germany. Again, I have to turn to the texts by Klaus Hesse and Thomas Seelig for an answer. Hesse explains the importance of land and Seelig places Gehrke's work into the history of the medium.
Topographie, by Andreas Gehrke. Published by Distanz, 2011.
As for the photographs themselves, the book takes us through the seasons starting with desolate and gray late winter. As the seasons change, the images go from heavy to light depending on the state of the weather. Just paging through the book it is clear that it is one location, but it feels different in each season, which is its strength. Had Gehrke solely focused on one season, it would not be complete.
Topographie, by Andreas Gehrke. Published by Distanz, 2011.

The land was thoroughly investigated and because of the change in weather the images do not feel like they are repeating themselves. With the presence of sun or snow, the viewer is allowed a glimpse into how the land changes. The urban setting is merely hinted at; we see where the sidewalk ends or buildings in the background. We get a glimpse of the city, but the book is about the topography of the land that was once an integral piece of the horrors war, and is now a serene wooded sanctuary for meditation on the seasons. This is one of those times where the pictures need the context of words to explain their weight. The explanations are both insightful and the texts force me to think about the idea of land and the history it can hold, even if that history is not clear at first glance.—TOM LEININGER

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TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in Denton, Texas. He received his MFA in photography from the University of North Texas. Prior to that he was a newspaper photographer in Indiana. His work can be found at