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Book of the Week: Selected by Arturo Soto

Book Review The Presence of Something Past Photographs by Ulrich Wüst Reviewed by Arturo Soto "The paper retrospective The Presence of Something Past is a significant effort to disseminate the work of German photographer Ulrich Wüst beyond Europe..."
The Presence of Something Past
Photographs by Ulrich Wüst

Kerber, Germany, 2022. 320 pp., 100 colored and 416 duplex, 8¼x10½".

The paper retrospective The Presence of Something Past is a significant effort to disseminate the work of German photographer Ulrich Wüst beyond Europe. Edited by Gary Van Zante, curator of Architecture and Design at MIT, the book is a late addition to the 2015 exhibition Public and Private: East Germany in Photographs by Ulrich Wüst at the Chrysler Museum of Art. As such, the book is a hybrid of a catalog and a monograph, something to keep in mind when reading Van Zante’s comprehensive (and profusely annotated) texts. His introduction offers a biographical sketch of the artist, expounding on the sociopolitical conditions under which Wüst produced the work in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). As a former urban planner, the bulk of Wüst’s work explores the schism between the representation of urban spaces and how they reflect that defunct state’s moral, economic and political values.   

A deeper engagement with the images is facilitated by Van Zante’s analysis of Wüst’s series, providing insight into his creative process. Throughout his career, Wüst assembled handmade leporello books with images from his archive. Each chapter in The Presence of Something Past shows a selection of spreads to give a sense of the work’s length and complexity (Wüst is prolific, and several of his leporellos contain hundreds of images). When he made the photographs, many of the scenes he focused on would have seemed obvious to those around him. Yet, there is much to take away from his precise compositions, from a diversity of architectural styles to evidence of the political practice of ‘correcting’ history by changing street names (the shelf life of some heroes can be very unpredictable). Many of his pictures depict the status quo through public sculptures or street furniture. For instance, in one of his photographs of Rostock, the sculpture of a family seems to fit indisputably with the new Plattenbau in the background. But the values these two elements stand for — family, progress, equality — are not neutral, and the benefit of hindsight allows us to register the volatility of their semantic status. Wüst’s talent was to recognize how problematic that assumption of neutrality was, making a picture that itself appears neutral by way of its technique and point of view.   

Wüst’s compositions harmoniously interweave form and content. Yet, his curiosity covered such a wide range of buildings and spaces — particularly in early series like the influential Cityscapes (1979-85) — that it is up to us to decipher whether he selected a site because of the visual structure he would enforce upon the scene or because of the histories embedded in the sites themselves. This sense of indeterminacy is also evident in his recurrent strategy of featuring ample foregrounds, which, on the one hand, literally leave more room for thought, and on the other, relate to urban theories by critics like Ignasi de Solà-Morales or Jane Jacobs that argue for the productivity of in-between spaces to promote a self-regulated civic life. On a more technical note, two aspects separate Wüst from his West German contemporaries: his use of a 35mm camera (which he treated like a view camera) and his disposition to photograph under various lighting conditions. These particularities stand in contradistinction with the working methodologies of the artists associated with the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, etc.).  

Because of Wüst’s preferred subject matter, it’s tempting to think of him as Michael Schmidt’s doppelgänger (they even photographed the Wall on opposite ends; Schmidt in Kreuzberg and Wüst in Prenzlauer Berg). While their work shares an understanding of the transcendence of public spaces as a reflection of societal changes, their difference lies in their sensibilities towards the political connotations of photography’s aesthetics. Wüst’s images have a richer tonal range and more traditional compositions, characteristics that amount to a less fatalistic worldview. Conversely, Schmidt was convinced that aestheticizing reality was sentimental and politically suspect. Wüst — not necessarily in reaction to Schmidt’s work, although he was aware of it — problematizes the notion that any aestheticization of the GDR is immediately propaganda. Wüst, in other words, is less prescriptive than Schmidt, as he doesn’t push for specific ethical or political interpretations of the places he depicted. Instead, his deadpan aesthetic allows the pictures to remain ambiguous and aesthetically pleasing, as in the picture of the famous Marx bust in Chemnitz, which is neither critical of the regime nor laudatory of its ideology.   

Talking about freedom in the GDR is often glossed over because it contradicts the standard narratives of oppression, but the fact that Wüst’s work exists proves that some personal liberties could be negotiated or contrived. This tension is more closely captured in his works that don’t focus on the urban landscape. In the series Visitors (1986-90), Wüst documented the wide network of artists, family and friends that visited his studio. Since many of them progressively fled the GDR, the images can be taken as a personal index of the impact of repression. Other works, such as Wiegmann Legacy (1991-92), a visual inventory of objects from the GDR era found in a summer home, exemplifies the concept of Ostalgie — the feeling of nostalgia for the fallen regime — and how it became synonymous with the struggle to adapt to a new life (a tragicomic treatment of which can be seen in the 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin!). Wüst’s work elucidates how difficult it was for artists to uphold their aesthetic vision while circumventing official censorship. Nevertheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, like all great photographers of places, he seems to have photographed with a future audience in mind. The psychological effects of ideology can often be hard to visualize and, in today’s largely homogenized world, even harder to apprehend. The Presence of Something Past is a fantastic overview of Wüst’s work and an opportunity to appreciate how he avoided the expected notes of cynicism and nihilism in his examination of a country that doesn’t exist anymore. 

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Arturo Soto is a Mexican photographer and writer. He has published the photobooks In the Heat (2018) and A Certain Logic of Expectations (2021). Soto holds a PhD in Fine Art from the University of Oxford, and postgraduate degrees in photography and art history from the School of Visual Arts in New York and University College London.