by Ulrich Rüter
Pictures and series that focus on urban topography have been an established part of the annals of photography since its very beginnings. Consequently, motifs that depart from the well-known canon of alleged documentation, producing unusual results that not only expand the genre of urban documentary, but, above all, reflect on the medium of photography itself, are all the more surprising and perceptive. The emancipation of photography from pure documentary or pictorial usefulness, is an achievement of great value. Without a doubt, the photos taken by Michael Järnecke, with their highly individual and equally illuminative form of interaction between photography and a specific location, belong to this innovative category. For sure, Buxtehude has never before been captured in the manner shown in the photographer’s series. The image presented of the small town is not only unique due to his particular approach to picture-taking: above all, the interplay of the individual images gives rise to a completely new perception of the town.
The starting point for the project being presented here was a piece that the photographer submitted for the »Künstler und Künstlerinnen sehen Buxtehude« (Artists see Buxtehude) art prize that has been awarded by the town since 2010. In 2015, Järnecke received the prize for his photographic work »Nachtfahrt – Lichttopografische Aufzeichnung des Buxtehuder Altstadtrings / Aufnahmezeit 6 Minuten / Aufzeichnungsstrecke 1,8 km« (Night drive – light topographic pictures of the Buxtehude Old City Ring / 6 minute exposure / 1.8km stretch photographed). The title of this large-format, analogue photograph, taken on the evening of May 2, 2015, already reveals a lot about the artist’s experimental approach; and it belongs to a comprehensive field research project that Järnecke has been working on for around seven years. The art book before you was created to complement the exhibition connected to the award, and was realised in collaboration with the town.
The award-winning motif from the competition – on page 14 of the book – is defined by a diversity of broad, shimmering, dark lines, that are traced from the outer edges towards the centre and dominate virtually the whole picture; only the lower fifth appears somewhat calmer. At a first glance, the image appears surprisingly abstract; however it also reveals a very real connection to the urban space and is, under no circumstances, an invention of the artist. As already revealed in the title, a distance of nearly two kilometres was covered in a period of six minutes, capturing the traces of light and objects passing by as they were exposed on the photographic negative.
The picture was then printed in large format as a negative inversion, which is why the actual light traces are seen as dark, paint-like lines. Most of Järnecke’s light-topographic pictures taken during day and night time drives, are in black and white; in this case, colour is an exception.
Capturing each individual motif is a complex process. The whole car mutates into a mobile, recording apparatus, and the procedure is at times part of a motif; like, for example, when the car’s windscreen wipers can be recognised. Light impulses that are captured during the recording process, produce the dominant traces that appear in this mobile arrangement. Even so, layer by layer, the topographic realities of the town build up on the negative, until the process results in a compacted image. Over-layered, transparent sedimentations arise, and only reveal their creative and artistic aspects in the form of a two-dimensional communication. The exposure time for the individual motifs capturing the small town of Buxtehude diverges considerably – anything from a few seconds to up to twelves minutes for the whole photographic process. In other of Järnecke’s works – taken in a big city such as Hamburg, for example – the exposure time can run for over an hour.
Using this method, where a camera is moved through the town photographing with a long-time exposure, the artist has developed highly unique and unusual picture compositions; and this method strongly contradicts the understanding of a precise record of reality, a demand that some still presume to be the main purpose of photography. Without a doubt, the artist’s images work very effectively against the wide-spread reduction of photography to a simple function of reproduction. On the contrary, it emphasises a more pictorial demand of the medium. The word photography, Fotografie in German, is composed of the Greek words phos (light) and gráphein (to write, to record). This shows that Järnecke, with his light sculpture approach, is working photographically in the truest sense of the word. The artist experiments, intervenes, transforms, extracts and composes. As a result, he is like a director.
Photography has always worked and played with a demand for objectivity. At the same time, every photograph re-questions this supposed objectivity. It is always the photographer’s choice, his or her eye, intervention, approach to reality, that produces an individual imagery. Järnecke’s series is unique in its combination of well-known documentary image patterns and individual, artistic intervention: with its experimental and abstracts forms, it is able to repeatedly confuse the viewer. The pictures’ initially puzzling complexity, ensures that the artist manages to successfully break away from the alleged logic of photographic techniques and the media history that goes with it.
The capturing of movement by moving the camera itself through space, or rather time space, also allows for an association with the medium of film, confirming the commonalities between photography and film. Light images, whether captured with a photographic device or a film camera, have changed our perception of the world permanently. The invention of photography – which records the light reflected off bodies and objects – around 180 years ago, offered indisputable proof at last of something being there. Film added the aspect of movement; it reproduces the dynamics of reality in successive series of images. Photographs stand for the perception of memory; films for the perception of movement. With his work, Järnecke has managed to create an apparent paradox, a fascinating symbiosis between moving and static images. In this manner, the artist generates photographic images that no longer exclusively serve to represent concrete items, but rather to give rise in an elementary sense to drawings of light and traces of light. As a result, the photographic concept of time is also redefined: in contrast to film, Järnecke does not feign a process of movement in a still image, but rather captures photographic »real-time« over a longer period of time, rather than the legendary »moment« in the sense of someone like Henri Cartier-Bressons. It is not the moment but the duration that becomes the image in Järnecke’s motifs.
With his site-related, over-layered structures, the artist explores the limits of the documentary possibilities of photography. In his motifs, space, distance and time enter into a very specific alliance. He does not just photograph his motifs, he »bears« them. »To bear fruit« – an uncommon expression, but it does give a more precise impression of how the process of image creation is to be understood. »To bear fruit« speaks of becoming and of generating, of the passage of time, so that something can develop or, in this case, something can be recorded and captured. The outcome is radically different from our perception; it is barely possible to relate the picture that appears on the photographic paper with the well-known images of our own experience.
The purpose of Järnecke’s work is not, after all, to produce an exact photograph, but rather an image that has captured successive traces of light over a specific time-frame, and condensed it into a picture. The artist surprises the viewer and invites him or her to rediscover the well-known and familiar, to enter into a new interaction with the repertoire of visible reality. In the process, what remains recognisable as the main feature is the wilful transformation of the perception of time and space, which plays with the visual-conceptual confusion of the well-known. With his photographic interpretations, the artist guides the viewer’s eye and opens up new insight and opinions about the town. In the pictures, however, the abstract alienation of the well-known is never simply an end in itself. Järnecke’s oeuvre thrives on its aesthetic autonomy, which underlines the artistic approach despite the scientific-like precision of his experimental path. Distinctive buildings, places, streetscapes, a church steeple, a city wall, a silo, signposts, company names, are still recognisable, confirming the testimonial and demonstrative character of photography; yet the artist finds other images that can tell new stories about a supposedly familiar place. They call up memories of the well-known, but the recognition gained is based on the magical effect of registering temporality as part of those memories. Because the images can not be replicated, the memory remains individual and will be constantly overlaid by new experiences. The title of the series defines it: Really!…Buxtehude! Really?