The Irrefutability of the Image
The photography of Ludwig Rauch
The hermeticism of history is the result of the laziness of the present. What we know, we copy from our predecessors. When Boris von Brauchitsch in his “Brief History of Photography” explained that in view of “the millions of excellent photos” that have been produced since the emergence of photography, that mostly wanted to surprise the experts “who always present the same artists with the same works of art”, he had good reason to make his selection “radical and subjective”.(1) I work with this in mind by referring to the photography of Ludwig Rauch.
The photo of the “Karl Marx Brigade, VEB Elektrokohle Berlin” (p...) is a traditional commissioned work for a traditional group portrait. It was created for the Neue Berliner Illustrierte (NBI), a widely circulated weekly magazine in the former GDR. The purpose of the project was to give the ruling class an image that represented their right to rule and make this “Überbild”, or “meta-image”, credible through the authenticity of photography. Ludwig Rauch hung around at the factory for half a year until he got to know the workers and had a result that he was satisfied with. The publication of this photo was prohibited. The photographer along with it. A publication ban was placed on him, and it remained until he left the country.
The reasons for the rejection only seem obvious. Of course, the victors of history don’t look like this. This is not because Rauch could have photographed the workers differently. The problem is much more that there are no victors of history, but an image of them. The clients had a preconceived image, fixed in their minds, of the paragon that was to appear in public. The cliches are always in existence, long before someone comes along to confirm them. Any artist who wants to meet such demands of a client must, after all, fail, and indeed, less in his craft than in his expendability. However, this tendency to withdrawal of self did not merit consideration for Ludwig Rauch because it was (and is) his conviction that the dignified form of the image emerges from the dignity of the subject.
Unlike the client, the workers had no image of themselves. For them, the dirty clothes could have no significance for their performance because they no longer noticed them. It is exactly this open and unintentional self-certainty that the photo reveals. The strongest effect of this image is that it profoundly affirms: portrait-maker and subject signalize an overall acceptance and achieve something in the image that could be called harmony, because nothing in the photo goes beyond itself. What you see is a darkened group of four workers, and an illuminated group of four workers. The boss, standing on the right, makes the ninth figure and closes the semi-circle of a carefully composed staffage. The portrait succeeds because the image succeeds. The ordering of the positions shows the hierarchy of the workplace, the props of the work how the toil levels them all. The lighted area opens to the machinery, dissected in great detail. Like the workers, it appears to belong to a bygone era. However, it is not the museum setting of the exploitation (of labor) that is interesting, nor the representative aura of history, but rather the poverty of the time in which it was preserved. Right before the viewer’s eyes is that atmosphere of bare survival, more akin to the epoch of early, brutal capitalism, of that perpetual post-war society that one has to recognize as the GDR. To showing life in these relationships as an existence that was not objected to was a subtle aim that required no dissident spirit. The problem for the client, therefore, was not some kind of message, but the irrefutability of the image.
This early work has to be considered in such great detail because it provides information on a basic visual thinking that also determines the later lines of inquiry the photographer would work in. Portraiture, documenting, and reporting remain the traditional domains of his work. In addition to these are material experiments, image compilations, macro studies, and open series. No matter if Ludwig Rauch is on the road as a photojournalist or working on a freelance project, the precision of the system of all-revealing image elements remains likewise as critical as the nonjudgmental, as it were “white” devotion to that which should be visible in the light-dark of the gray values or in the color levels and contrasts of an atmosphere. A successful image for him can only be that which is “true” in a comprehensive sense when compared with the visible. A motif is selected, not found. Its emotive value is based on its uniqueness. The emotive value of the image, however, is communicated in the signs of its coming into being. For Rauch, the word “release” always has a double meaning: in it is the desire to release something. For this reason, he has no desire to freeze images in time and to detach and shift them into the abstract structures of form-based rhythms or under concept-specified prerequisites. The objects in his images always refer to a custom and therefore always carry their history and that of the photographer with them.
With his departure to West Berlin he became aware of this essential imprint to the character of his work. What Ludwig Rauch had to leave behind at the beginning of 1989, not yet 30 years old, forced him for the first time to search for constants among his conceptualizations in order to make his way in an alien world with strange images. And that happened yet again when a few months later the East collapsed and prepared to close in on him again. Unlike for many of his colleagues, this double focus on a caesura in his biography created inner certainty for him. It released him from the forces of unwanted companionships of necessity. Rauch was well-equipped for the loss of ties because he had learned to work just as adeptly at photojournalism as at artistic photography. According to his self-conception, there was really no difference between them that needed legitimizing, as can be seen in the brigade image.
In the 1990’s he worked for “Tempo”, “stern”, and “Zeitmagazin”. In 1991 he co-founded the magazine “neue bildende Kunst”, which existed until 1999. Led by art historians, this review journal reflected on international art events. For those nine years Rauch was responsible for image editing and created a vast amount of material on the milieu of the art world that he continues to build on today. The topics range from reproductions and artist portraits to scenic images of art fairs and installation shots. In addition to studies of the general public, there are still lifes on the exhaustion that remained behind on the fringes of the hectic circulation of money. The result was a panopticum of unique, hermetic spheres of life that held everything for a photographer that could be expected from the “Human Comedy” and that beyond that did all it could to make the art world itself into art.
It was above all museums, regardless of whether they collected art or natural history, that draw his interest. Wherever he found himself in his travels, he sought them out as the secret location of an unquenchable desire, which is what they are everywhere. Mankind’s need for beauty, knowledge, and uniqueness, our hunger for a glimpse of the everlasting, and the unquestionably significant interested him no less than the staging of their preservation. The extensive forms of presentation of memory, with their silk tapestries, marble pedestals and crystal showcases, serve to make visible an eternity that photographs capture for only an instant. The photo, an image of an image, does not preserve the works, but rather the inadequacy of the visitors’ glance, which the lens also follows in its special way. The question that engages Ludwig Rauch is what connects his own art to that which he has stumbled upon.
With the huge, multi-faceted material from years of work collected from the various areas there unfolds an overall body of work that makes the photographer well-suited to communicate his knowledge as well as his doubts. Today, Ludwig Rauch works as a lecturer at the Ostkreuz School of Photography. He has therefore resumed work in which he was last preceded by his teacher, Arno Fischer (1927 - 2011). And so a circle closes. Fischer and Evelyn Richter (born 1930) set the standard for an entire generation of photographers in the 1980s and established a position at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig. Part of this important context was also Sibylle Bergemann (1941 - 2010), who co-founded the Ostkreuz agency in 1990.
This name is associated with an epoch in which East German photography emerged and made an unassailable contribution to European fine art photography. Ludwig Rauch, even though he achieved with his own paths, he professes these origins. And it would be easier to say this had the debate about meaning, function, and significance of GDR art been long silenced owing to its dullness. The irrelevance of today’s judgments is the result of the irrelevance of its current reasons: The ahistorical use of ideologically-based concepts of freedom and autonomy leads here too, again and again, to a system of the same names and works, without the examples that are advanced for their internal contexts being sought for their causes and intended impacts. The horizon line is drawn much too flat because the art history reference, to which photography in the GDR refers, remains hidden. The positions in Leipzig thus corresponded with global art, for example the works of Gyula Halász (known as “Brassai”), Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Josef Koudelka. This type of photography no longer establishes and documents in the sense of the New Vision and of the objectivity as anchored in German tradition. It encouraged much more a subjective photography that seemed, as a reflex to the fixed imagery of society, to give the only plausible answer. American journalistic and documentary photography from the 1950s and 1960s had a similarly strong effect. Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, particularly in his series “The Americans” from 1955, as well as Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, buried the “American Dream” in highly emotional photography. Even this world couldn’t keep its promises. The deficiencies in the promised glories of the West, which photographers suddenly made visible, could be understood much more as a parallel for the disenchantments in the East. A photograph such as the brigade image by Ludwig Rauch was possible only in Berlin, but it was in line with the social documentary portraiture being made in other parts of the world.
In this sense, photographers like Ludwig Rauch from the GDR have not only left behind a permanent document of a life that has since been forgotten; they have also revealed an image far more radical that the painters of a social order that dominated a large part of the world for more than 40 years. The photographs from this intellectual environment show a way of life holding on amidst decay, the concrete everyday routines of which were attuned to practicing techniques for getting through it, and the aspirations to happiness of which were not content to adapt to the inalterable. Thus, in Rauch’s photography, one encounters everywhere the clasped-at signs of an indestructible humanity that is articulated nowhere as clearly as in the conglomerations of its self-assertiveness reaching across the generations: stool, bed, closet, comb, back yard, store, and street life.
Ludwig Rauch was able to convey this existential approach to encountering the world, regardless of whether he was in Berlin, New York, Venice, Paris, Madrid, Istanbul, or Havana. The view of Moscow is the view of the vitality of an urban self-destruction of unfathomable dimensions, and not just the farewell of a global empire whose symbol, the star, still continues to tower over it (p....). This diverse, or if you like, noisy panorama in the depth of a fascinating downfall provides a counterpoint to the stunning image of the dead rollercoaster at Coney Island (p....). The gigantic wheel has broken down, yet stands in the shining light of a peaceful fall day that arches across the view of a leisure playground fallen silent with the hopeful sign of a rainbow. The image crackles and sparkles with a view to something that only seems to have come into being in order to stagger towards this glittering death. The sensation of the motif stirs, at its limits, a pathos of the bewildered. But it is subdued by the awe that beauty can also trigger. Rauch did not give up searching for this balance between extreme mood swings when, as a photographer, he said farewell to his own life as citizen. The “New Germany” (editorial note: „Neues Deutschland“ - socialist daily newspaper) that had disappeared, remaines in a deserted area at night. (p. ...). Everyone left, went missing, struck out on the road to somewhere else. Only the snowflakes are left untroubled. They trickle through the dismay with gentle poetry. It is the evening before his departure to the west.
All these images are thanks to a stir of emotion that need not be that of the observer, but still is not easily dismissed in pleasing agreement with a shot of schnapps. Even so, if the fall of the Wall made world history, Rauch’s images surpass the limits of reporting on events because they crystallize the motif in contrasts and organize a powerfully composed tracking of the eyes. Thus, in the rush to the West, a border officer is washed over by a wave of people in flight, as if by the inflamed hopes of a delirious nightmare (p. ...). The glimmers of unfocused movement on the surface, which show the image of a whirl of excited people, flow from this onto a guard who wants to be at the centre of events. His illuminated forehead is the only part of the image that, in the decisive moment of a global rupture, stayed sharp, even motionless. The photography of a rite of initiation in Marrakech comes from another continent and, as a photographic event, from another epoch (p. ....). The connection with the image of the fall of the Wall arises solely from the vision of the photographer, who here too focuses on a single point, a single actor, in the chaotic, incalculable throng of excited people. It is the figure of father and son on the towering gray horse. They seem to float in the line of sight of the observer while pushing a swath of light in front of them; they arrange the storm from light to dark, like a musical score. The precision of the choreography of the image develops, in both cases, an inner narrative that transcends the outer, motif-lending narrative.
In such crisp images the world shines out, yet as a fragment of the self-perception of the photographer, who, so to speak, creates traces of his life’s journey on the road. At the same time, he chronicles events that would remain unbeheld were they not elevated into a pictorial event. The images therefore frame and capture not simply the overlooked, those things that an attentive eye should view carefully because otherwise no one would. Rather, they seek in the moment the event that defines the era, to give it a countenance.
With “countenance”, the central concept in Ludwig Rauch’s work is broached. For him it is about the countenance of the context in which he moves, the countenance of things that come to the fore there, the countenance of the people that he encounters in all of that. His images fill an entire archive. There are series that have been wrapped up and there are ongoing, long-term projects related to the milieu, like the portraits from the international art industry. The appeal of all of these images, however, is that they skirt the core concept of the genre, representation, in a significant way. The chimera of the “likeness”, the similarity, the display, the retrospective figure delineated by itself, is disintegrated, as the photographer allows its counterpoint steadily to exert itself and therefore drives towards the point at which the image contains its most complex density of assertions. The exhibition space for the portraits is always a room for movement for details, attribution signals and attributes that, with the person, create the aura of an associated environment or a self-referring gesture.
This is how functions of the portrait of Heiner Müller functions.(p. ....): when he poses next to the Brecht sculpture by Fritz Cremer, the sculpture initially speaks about the connection of one poet to another. The sculpture of the dead predecessor, however, does not bear comparison with the living figure of the successor. Müller’s presence contradicts the memorial because he shows: I am alive. This then means: Only I am here. Müller makes clear with his defensive gesture that he wants neither a bronze statue nor a photograph as his memorial. He laughs at the art, and, with the unequal contiguity, points to the difference between his position and that of his predecessor.
If nothing else, it shows that Ludwig Rauch is always concerned with the “fruitful moment” that Lessing made famous on an antique sculpture and that he declared to be the root of the visual arts.(2) For the enrichment of the most large-scale contexts, for the effecting of a configuration of unsurpassable saturation, the image is predestined as a subject in a special way because it must be realized in the split second of an event, regardless of whether the photographer has time to arrange his protagonists, or be maneuvered into a position by them.
An example of the latter is the portrait of Ernst Jünger (p....). The subject doesn’t know that location, time, space, and ambience could intensify the image of him into a portrait. The writer, a conservative authority of an era, stands in an installation from Christian Boltanski built as an archive at the Biennale in Venice in 1993. The images, alienated from the material, pertain to the cultural context of the Holocaust. The author, whose diary narrative “Storm of Steel” had made him famous 70 years previously and whose name is burdened with the many doubts in circulation about the role of the German elite, stands with a magnifying glass in front of images that he may recognize. The portrait brings to mind a fragile, attentive, but not innocent old man, showing profound pain. A portrait of Ernst Jünger could hardly be more sensitive. In the context of art, he acts as an observer whose perspective he also takes on in his writing gestures, as if to say of the horrors of the time: take a stand.
The counterpoint to such portraits, which are the result of alertness, are the images of friendship (p. xx to xx) that take on an idea. A person is meant to reveal something about him or herself by bringing his or her best friend into the picture. The “friends” harken back to a romantic topos and bring it forward to the present day for the staging of a self-reflection. Rauch worked on the concept for about five years. In 2010, excerpts from it were published in “stern” with the associated commentary. The gestures and configurations are left to the subjects, the hidden depths of the decision as well. It’s a matter of the forming of a mental concept of connectedness that is at least as complicated, even problematic, to define for the person queried as the singling out of the person with whom, besides himself, he wants to personify the topic. “Friends” portrays a dichotomy that not only leads to the question of why the decision was made, but also lets the viewer search for the authenticity in the joint affirmation. The portraits are profoundly unsettling because, as manifestations of the decision, they postulate an uncertainty that, in this image, they seem to overcome, just this once. As a result, these dual portraits are also individual portraits, depending on the point where one pauses to reflect. They flip the genre into an existential basis by placing the difference between representation and imagination on the thin ice of an avowal.
The difficulty in navigating between a life plan, a lifestyle, and a life story is delineated as the actual theme of the portrait. In that respect, the most recently created, forced, confrontational “friends” series is not much different from the first series that Ludwig Rauch created at the time in which the brigade image also came out: The images of retirees from 1986 (pp. xx to xx) show passersby in Schönhauser Allee who let themselves be portrayed and at the same time are asked about their previous professions. The images uncover the magic of rounded stories, as they get at the question of whether one finds mirrored in the image that people give off the image that one expected. The innocence of the clear point of view almost takes the pain out of an exposure that those who are observed in that way submit to indeed without hesitation. Through this exposure, the portrait detects the accidental and is profoundly touching, because it confronts the question of the futility of our desires with the adoption as one’s own of a self-assertion.
Taken all together, it is not difficult to recognize that Rauch’s view of photography is not bothered with the boldness of advanced artists. Much that he admired he did not contemplate for his own work. And much that others contemplate he does not admire. The gloss and coldness of still-life photography, which emerged in the 1980s from the New Düsseldorf School, moves in its own tradition, one which Rauch was as little affected by as he was by all forms of spectacular self-staging or concept-based infiltration approaches. Fixing the subject of his images in erratic strangeness or emptying them out enigmatically on fantastically manipulated surfaces, as Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth, or Thomas Ruff execute with exhausting consistency, would be outside of the range of his will.
The switchover from analog images to the digital pixel world also take a different direction for him. Indeed, the field of the available media with abstract numbers behind the pixels has expanded endlessly. With his requirements, the significance of what was made visible also shifted. The digital image no longer has within itself an origin and an ending point. It loses the motif when, as with the magnificent large panoramas by Andreas Gursky, it refers only to defined symbols. The authority of the creative impulse is totalized in order intentionally to negate the authority of its subject; with it, however, the quality of formerly analog intrinsic values must also be maintained when the shutter is released. The digital photo thus guarantees its trend toward self-elimination as photography. The lucky configuration, the quality of the point of view, the moment as the most sincere appeal to the transient no longer make sense when they lose their image-worthiness. The photographer as pixel painter ceases to be a photographer.
This fundamental turning away from the source of the medium is a consequence that Ludwig Rauch accepts, but does not support. Even if the technical means to do so are available today, he does not see it as his task that his autonomous inner artist should respond to the misunderstanding of every uneducated observer who sees only the duplication of reality in photography. The notion that photography is to reflect the occurrences of the outer world and is therein authentic has been the error of the medium from the very start. The image never has been and never will be authentic; rather, only the photographer, whose image would never be anything but an image, is authentic. The mechanical production of photography with lenses, apertures, and shutters does nothing to change the reality that recently one only got shots from an event that one had to bring about oneself. The promise of reality in a photographed motif has its deepest meaning not in throwing light on something that is already present, but rather on clarifying on the screen that this presence is due to a rendezvous with it. The image motif always shows the reaction of someone who saw something. What he saw and how the response to it turned out are the two poles between which the observer orients his view. If in this way a realized vision is omitted, the reference point for the fantasy is missing from the play with the illusions of the image. It is exactly this point of the participation, or the tolerance of emotionality, that matters to Ludwig Rauch. Thus he also photographs with digital cameras, but for him they remain, like his Leica, instruments for creating worlds of images for which he has already clarified the relationships of the encounter, long before pixels were just talk.
This can be seen in the three compiled structural images (pp. xx to xx). Powerful individual images question, within a set frame, the contexts of a life’s work. Each of the photos is taken from different series, working compilations, and commissions. But here it is associated without the intended starting point of a systematic grounds for formation that would be common to the new configurations. The compilation is done retrospectively from the existing material and coalesces into a new image that follows its own design rules. Filmstrips are created, the facets of which are held together by formal points of view emancipated from the motif. The individual images are converted into the parcels of an overall composition, while at the same time other images in the vicinity are nullified. A light box sets the frame and allows the tremendous charisma of a transparent pictorial work.
That’s brilliant. But what happens here? The utterly fascinating aspect of the image conglomeration makes the question of the meaning of the images evident, in principle. To make the individual photos into fragments of another context means nothing other than re-aestheticizing that which they, as a single photograph, aestheticize – in other words, to alienate themselves. At the same time, they are ensured survival with this expropriation of occasions that they otherwise might no longer have. For this reason this “triad” can be seen as a lighted altar that symbolizes in their secular, or technical way, the end of a confession. With them, the thinking about the analog world of images is celebrated again, without complaining about the flood of images, the pixel craze or the dubious nature of the art industry. Ludwig Rauch opens in this newest work his entire oeuvre and holds it in a light that fades out all the reasons for the origin and existence of his pictures. They celebrate themselves – in changing configurations.
(1) Boris von Brauchitsch: Brief History of Photography Stuttgart 2012, 10
(2) Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Lacoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1776) Stuttgart 1994