Sunday, January 18, 2009

Totenstill - Dirk Reinartz

Last year I mentioned Dirk Reinartz among a group of German Photographers. Reinartz died too young in 2004 at the age of 57. Wile he is probably most well known for his collaboration with Richard Serra, photographing Serra's sculptures, it was an eight year body of Reinartz' work that caught my attention.

I finally tracked down a library copy of his book Totenstill - or Deathly Still - as the English version is called (unfortunately out of print from Steidl). Reinartz spent eight years photographing the sites of 26 of the Nazi Concentration Camps spread across Europe.

I've seen this described as one of those projects where the locations of some event: battles, horrors, crimes etc. are photographed but, but nothing remains of the original event and we are invited to use our imagination to reconcile the (usually) ordinary scene with the extraordinary event.

While the book does have some such photographs, there are many more that are of what either remains or has been reconstructed of the concentration camp. More often than not we are given fragments of these. And every one of these fragments seems to resonate. There are the heather and birch tree lined paths of Bergen-Belsen and a portion of one of the many raised mounds that cover the ground - but he never gives us the didactic stone facing on their fronts with their "HIER RUHEN 5,000 TOTE. APRIL 1945".

The almost manor-house-like main building at Flossenberg, where the brilliant German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for his opposition to Hitler and his part in a the bomb plot to assassinate him.

There is a white tiled autopsy table.

Or the record room at Theresienstadt, with it's neat rows of index card filled pigeon-holes

And there are hooks. What are taken for ordinary hooks in walls - coat hooks, tool hooks - and indeed, some probably are just that. You don't notice them at first. On the edge of one picture here, the top of another here. And the realization comes, almost imperceptibly, that some are far more than just "ordinary" hooks. Such a mundane, everyday thing, almost unnoticed, yet a thing that can be imbued with such a sense of horror and disgust.

It is indeed a very "Still" book, but it is one in which the tension of dread and abhorrence gradually rises to the surface as the book proceeds. Yet the sense of stillness remains as a bass line.

Totenstill is also a book this isn't easily put down.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. A couple of years ago I wrote a preface for a photography book by Grant Delin, titled "Lebensraum" with exactly the same premise. As I am unlikely to come across a copy of "Totenstill" I would be interested in a comparison if you come across "Lebensraum".
Preface written under the name "Victor Carroll", a story too long to go into here.


Anonymous said...

n 1994 Reinartz published the photo-documentary deathly still, a pictorial analysis of the Holocaust that evokes memories of that tragic era while prompting reflection on present-day conditions. In observing these images of what the sites look like today, our sense of alienation comes not so much from the immediate immanence of the motifs themselves, but rather from the ordinariness and apparent meaninglessness of woods, fields, roads and overgrown walls that were once mute witnesses to unspeakable horrors. Our sense of unease comes from knowing that these scenes were photographed in concentration camps, with all the associations thus evoked.

Deathly still was exhibited for the first time in 1994, at Galerie m Bochum, and has since been on display in 20 museums all over the world.

If you would like to know more about Dirk Reinartz and his photograhic work you can have a look on the website of the gallery

There you can also find a statement of the artist concerning deathly still.