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Process People Product: Reviewed by Brian Arnold

Book Review Process – People – Product Photographs by Henry Leutwyler, Timm Rautert and Juergen Teller Reviewed by Brian Arnold "The company photobook is a genre in and of itself, given an entire chapter in the great history of photobooks by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr. There are many legendary examples by photographers as diverse as Lee Friedlander, Andrea Modica, Man Ray, Lewis Hine, and O. Winston Link..."

By Henry Leutwyler, Timm Rautert & Juergen Teller.
Process People Product
Photographs by Henry Leutwyler, Timm Rautert and Juergen Teller

Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2021. 272 pp., 11¾x8¾".

“The subject of the company photobook is interesting because it is so rarely discussed. Photographers would rather talk about their political commitment, their social awareness or their artistic integrity than about their links with raw commerce and filthy lucre.”

— Gerry Badger and Martin Parr, 

“The natural sciences provide the most solid foundations available to us for such fundamental doubts in a world full of semblance and opinionating.” 

— Sibylle Anderl, Process People Products

The company photobook is a genre in and of itself, given an entire chapter in the great history of photobooks by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr. There are many legendary examples by photographers as diverse as Lee Friedlander, Andrea Modica, Man Ray, Lewis Hine, and O. Winston Link. Many of these books were developed to highlight the technical and scientific achievements of the companies behind them, but also serve as markers of our cultural development. Think of the great book by Lee Friedlander, Cray at Chippewa Falls, which documents a specific hi-teach company in Minneapolis, but also shines a light on the emerging computer and technology industries that reshaped American culture during the end of the 20th century.

The new book by Steidl, Process People Product, seems timely in a similar way, as it documents the 150th anniversary of Sartorius, an international pharmaceutical and laboratory equipment supplier based in Göttingen. Despite this publication being about Sartorius, it also offers a look at the medical supply industry while the world is still trying to grasp the impact and magnitude of the COVID pandemic. Process People Product was developed collaboratively and includes photographs by Henry Leutwyler, Juergen Teller, and Timm Rautert, with text by Sibylle Anderl, a science writer, editor and philosopher based in Germany.

The design and production of the book are superlative (no surprise coming from Steidl). It comes housed a white box with a small handle, which could easily be mistaken as a first-aid kit or a box for collecting specimens. The book is actually a collection of three books and a saddle-stitched paper pamphlet, all bound together in a linen slipcase. Each photographer has his own book, with Rautert photographs illustrating Process, Teller’s People, and Leutwyler’s Product. Like the slipcase, each book is bound in high-quality linen, wonderful to the touch. Anderl’s text pamphlet is similarly luxurious, printed on a rich, tactile paper. Each of these is also produced to anticipate the content of the books and the mission of Sartorius; the linen, while soft to the touch, is a humble, institutional grey, presented cleanly and efficiently, much like a laboratory. The text pamphlet is illustrated with microscopic imagery of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and non-small cell lung cancer, printed in light, ghostly tones. Bound together in the gray slipcase, Process People Product appears like a solid grey block, and could be mistaken for an industrial building block.

, the book photographed by Timm Rautert, documents the facilities and resources at Sartorius. The photographs in this section show the labs and equipment used for producing medical and pharmaceutical products. Trained as a photojournalist, and with a particular interest in how people work, Rautert opted to work entirely in analog processes for this project. In his statement, he suggests that the steps necessary for producing chemical photographs reflect the processes illustrated in his pictures, equal parts science and magic. The pictures are all black and white, and presented with cool objectivity, as though the photographer wanted to distance himself from the pictures and allow the objects and facilities he photographed to speak for themselves. This is quite effective, as the equipment used in manufacturing medical devices and materials is complex and fascinating. The pictures in Process are presented in a consistent and predictable manner; printed in one size and with one photograph per page, they mirror the systemic rigor of the environments depicted.

Juergen Teller’s contribution, People, offers a much more playful and spontaneous approach. Rather than making formal portraits of the people working at Sartorius, Teller gives a broader perspective of life on campus, complete with people, flowers, cafés and ice cream. It’s easy to imagine a medical research and manufacturing facility as being only stoical and sterile, but instead, Teller shows an environment full of color, laughter and friendship. The pictures in People are arranged in a fast-paced, syncopated manner, reproduced in a variety of sizes and arrangements across the page spreads. By juxtaposing pictures of the labs, campus grounds, snacks and researchers, Teller portrays a collegial and celebratory environment behind the scientific rigor.

The third book of this publication, Product, is photographed by Swiss photographer Henry Leutwyler, who is most well known for his portraits of luminary figures such as Michelle Obama, Iggy Pop, and Tom Wolfe. For this publication Leutwyler presents a series of still lives showcasing the goods produced by Sartorius. In many ways, I find these the most beautiful pictures of the group, presented simply and clearly with beautiful lighting (provided only by a ring flash) and minimal backgrounds. Much of the beauty comes from Leutwyler allowing the objects to present their own formal elegance, inventiveness, and utility. I’d be hard-pressed to identify any of the objects or their functions — though a list of all the items photographed is included in the back of the book — nevertheless, they are presented with great curiosity, and like the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, their utility also creates wonderful and unexpected shapes and configurations. Leutwyler was given access to the Sartorius archives, and photographs the products and innovations they developed over several decades. In the book, they are presented in reverse chronological order, with the newest products. This book closes with photographs of early patents by Sartorius, dating back to 1875 and 1890, which adds a remarkable perspective to all of the books in this set, suggesting that the history and importance of the work presented here goes well beyond the here and now, and that all of it is part of a much larger process of discovery, understanding and invention.

Collectively, the three books that compose Process People Product portray an innovative clinical environment that produces cutting-edge medical technologies — and is run by ordinary people. With a history spanning 150 years, Sartorius has been involved in the medical and pharmaceutical industries for most of the modern era, and has both witnessed and aided in many of our most difficult medical issues and advancements. Throughout Process People Product, I was reminded of a wonderful quote by the iconic American scientist — a fan favorite during the pandemic — Dr. Anthony Fauci: “I consider myself a perpetual student. You seek and learn every day: from an experiment in the lab, from reading a scientific journal, from taking care of a patient. Because of this, I rarely get bored.” While still reeling from an unprecedented year of life under a global pandemic and medical crisis, I found it refreshing and educational to look through these books, to get a fuller grasp of the magnitude of medical research, discovery and invention behind the scenes of so many of the issues at the forefront of our current dilemmas.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer and writer based in Ithaca, NY, where he works as an Indonesian language translator for the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. He has published two books on photography, Alternate Processes in Photography: Technique, History, and Creative Potential (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Identity Crisis: Reflections on Public and Private and Life in Contemporary Javanese Photography (Afterhours Books/Johnson Museum of Art, 2017). Brian has two more books due for release in 2021, A History of Photography in Indonesia: Essays on Photography from the Colonial Era to the Digital Age (Afterhours Books) and From Out of Darkness (Catfish Books).