Barbara Auer: A City with no Name

Even a quick glance at the photos by Rut Blees Luxemburg and Martin Liebscher reveals more differences than points in common, even though both artists have made urban spaces – London and Tokyo – the settings for their work. Here two photographic approaches enter a dialogue, in which both – despite their manifest differences, share the hallmark of subjectivity. Neither of the photographers is on the look-out for some specifically British or Japanese ambience; they refuse to assume the documentary gaze, or one fixated on the ,,sights,, – which makes a topography of the buildings, streets and squares virtually impossible. The approach to the city that each of these photographers takes becomes distilled to personal interpretation, which constantly conjures up the myth of the metropolis anew. Whilst Rut Blees Luxemburg’s eye is trained almost exclusively on her adopted home of London, where she has lived and worked for the past decade, for Martin Liebscher Tokyo is but one of the many cities – including Frankfurt, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong – he has visited and photographed over the last five years.

No part of London is as familiar to Rut Blees Luxemburg as the East End, where over the years she has been witness to the structural changes undergone by this unalluring area close to the heart of the metropolis. Whereas once the East End offered cheap accommodation and workspace, and was the nucleus for the internationally feted „Young British Artists,,, increasingly the new building schemes and recently initiated redevelopment projects have ousted the old inhabitants.
At night, when the throbbing pulse of the city seems briefly to halt and succumb to sleep, the artist sets out on her voyages of discovery through the area. Seen from this unfamiliar perspective during the short hours of silence on its deserted streets, the British capital assumes an alien cast. Locations – unspectacular by day, void of any aura – are lent a new countenance by the artist,s hand. Whilst Rut Blees Luxemburg remains faithful to one specific rule of her medium and portrays reality in the classic manner, unmanipulated and just as she finds it, a veil of radiant glowing colour envelopes these unprepossessing areas in their abandonment, giving them a charged atmosphere that removes them from the flow of everyday reality. Seized by their inner tension and emotional power, the observer is whisked into an unknown yet strangely familiar world.
At night, when colour gradually fades before the human eye to produce a levelling grey, the artist sets to work with her 5×4 camera. The motif has long since been determined, the preliminary studies been done with a 35 mm camera, the lighting conditions at the location, which will provide the sole illumination, closely inspected. All that is left is to wait for the right weather conditions before capturing the image on light-sensitive celluloid. Extremely long shutter times create the characteristic palette of these nocturnal scenes, with their brilliance of detail and depth of field. Between the poles of an extremely pale, almost whitish light and the dark coloured zones formed by broad horizons or deep black shadows, the yellows, reds and greens glitter with burnished copper and matt gold, lustrous ochre or smouldering orange, while blazing reds form vivid contrasts with wan, garish or intense dark greens. Blue is used sparingly: in „Cruise Control,, the laser-like flashing blue light of a police car shoots – parallel to the reddish-orange rays of light – like an arrow through this landscape of streets and bridges (ill.p.7). A harsh blue spotlight in ,’Orpheus‘ Nachtspaziergang“ illuminates the interior of a WC cubicle, its door ajar, set on the street. Sheathed in a shimmering bronze mantel, this solitary convenience bathed in cold turquoise unveils itself as a mysterious view into the depths of the „underworld“ (ill.p.15).

Two series, „London – A Modern Project“ and „Liebeslied“ have come into being during the last five years. The photographic method used here transcends the mere lending of visual form to appearances, for it conveys the beauty and radiance of the colours, and simultaneously the latent uncanniness underpinning the scenes, so as to render urban space in both its physical and mental dimensions. At the centre of the work forming the series „London – A Modern Project“ is a subtle analysis of the ubiquitous, monotonous architecture that creates the fabric of so many cities, and that is unsparingly held up as the legacy of the Modern. Where once the Russian utopians and the avant-garde of the Bauhaus championed a more humane form of urban life, today the architecture – with its uniform style, stereotype high-rise blocks, anonymous concrete frontages and bleak multi-storey car parks – has been abased to pure functionalism. The title of the picture “Caliban Towers“ a high-rise block in the East End officially so named by the local authorities, is drawn from the Shakespearian drama „The Tempest“. The artist`s role and her photographic concept have been played in line with the tragic figure of Caliban, who comprehended his ugliness in the moment he saw his reflection. With an ironic undertone – which is perhaps also audible in the picture,s title – the artist considers the ambivalence of these shabby, dilapidated buildings on which she nevertheless bestows such beauty and dignity in the nocturnal splendour of the light. Her pictures revolve around beauty and ugliness, and the ambiguity that they convey subverts any sublime criticisms by evincing her reverence towards these forgotten spots.

The dislocated gaze that is maintained in the first series is discarded in the recently completed cycle ,,Liebeslied,,. The architecture as a whole takes a step back as the artist now penetrates the city and focuses her gaze on minor, faust-like details: the branching shadows of a tree cast on a facade aglow in matt golds play around a window flooded with radiant light (ill.p.17); a bright red steel container, opened to the viewer,s eye and frugally furnished for a meal with a table and chair, shifts like a pique of scenery into the centre of the action (ill.p.ll). These dramatically staged scenes seem to expect a play to begin at any moment – yet it takes place solely in the eye of the beholder.


In 1952 Otto Steinert – the founder of „subjective photography“ – captured not only the streetlamps of the Place de la Concorde in nocturnal Paris, but simultaneously the headlamps of the passing cars by physically moving himself while the film was being exposed in the camera. This photographic experiment, termed a „Iuminogram“, produced wave-like clusters of lines in rhythmic harmonies against a black background. Looking now – almost fifty years later – at the work of Martin Liebscher, one is tempted to attribute his highly wilful, blurred and distorted pictures to the limitless potential of digital processing in the age of the computer. Far be it from so. Martin Liebscher’s photographic practice is highly akin to that of Otto Steinert. Here, too, the sweeping, undulating lines record the movements of the artist during the exposure. The fact, however, that the overall pictorial event is extended to form panoramas of up to nine metres length can be explained by an additional technical detail developed and employed by Liebscher. He modified a 35 mm camera to allow him to continue winding on the film while the exposure is made. Whilst the pictorial framework used by Steinert was, as typical of photography, defined by a single preset unit or frame, in Liebscher’s photographs the framework is extended to between nine and twelve sections.
Anyone who has accompanied Martin Liebscher on one of his photographic expeditions is surprised at the quite unspectacular way in which he takes his photographs. The whole process is completed within a few short seconds: the camera is whipped out, a quick glance is given at the light meter, the shutter speed is set and then the object lens is moved at arm’s length with a sweeping up and down motion about a particular radius. People close by often get incorporated into his pictures, but they rarely grasp the photographic action they have witnessed for what it was. Despite the enormous amount of experience that the artist has amassed with this method over the years. much if not most of the result is the product of chance. Chance can destroy an image, or lend it precisely what it requires to be a picture. When Martin Liebscher refers to his camera as a „dinosaur“ he is saying that the device is equipped with extremely primitive technology – or has very little „brain“. The motif chosen by the artist is scarcely more than an offering to the camera, for he has scarcely any influence over what it actually records during its reconnaissance flight. Disregarding any kind of technological fetishism, the attraction of this method lies precisely in its playfulness and unpredictable results. The final catch is, however, very small; only a tiny percentage of the exposures ends up being enlarged in the darkroom.
As was mentioned at the beginning, Martin Liebscher constantly travels the world, with only short breaks in between. Last year his sojourns included Tokyo, where he stayed for six weeks. With a population of eight million, Tokyo is one of the largest cities of the world. This megalopolis forms the centre of a conurbation some fifty kilometres in radius, containing all of 32 million inhabitants. In this tightly-packed space, the city has reached its apotheosis as a 21st century giant. The city is in constant change, nothing remains static, nowhere else is the dynamism of our times, which sets the pace of the city with swift steps, as present as here.
Amidst this feverish coming and going, Liebscher lets his camera glide along building facades, subway stations and streets teeming with people. A constant alternation between close-up and long distance allows the pictorial levels to intermingle, and the once clear contours of the functional architecture to melt and mutate at sometimes quite drastic angles to form squat organic structures. Set against the bright matt light of day or the night-time sky, they form expansive scenes from futuristic utopian townscapes. The eye has difficulties trying to find fixed points amidst the tumbling stream of colours and shapes, which briefly casts up a concrete form before abruptly returning to picturesque abstraction. Buildings and people caught in the chaos of the interlocking spaces bulge out towards the viewer, only in the next moment to plummet into the depths of the streetscape. The ordering principle of perspective and vanishing point has become irrevocably lost, events are strung together in acephalic juxtapositions – preventing them from being read in any clear order. The observer follows the curves and twists in the flow of images and sees how time, normally determined and made visible by dials and meters, is visualised here as spatial extension. In the light of the four million people who alone pass through Shinjuku subway station each day, the picture „Station“ freezes to a fleeting fragment of reality (p.XII/XIII). A brief 20 to 25 second episode is extracted from the never-ending stream of human life and rendered in nine metres. With the monotonous harmony of their movements, the passers-by surrounded by the fast, sharp staccato of verticals infused with light seem to blend with the station backdrop. At the same time, the visual sequence in „Shinjuku Station“ conveys a certain dynamism as the people on the left-hand edge of the picture“ minuscule in the confusion of zebra-stripes, grow successively larger until, close-up, they come to occupy the entire height of the picture (ill.p.X/XI). Steel, glass, and concrete have dissolved into plays of light and lines. Framed by vertical or horizontal compositions of flowing light and colour, the people caught in the gentle light of day or the nocturnal magic of the neon signs appear as shades: but there, in a passing train, is the silhouette of a woman; for a few seconds a gaze, a smile? a small sign? flashes across – the poetry of the moment, or a
the English essayist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in his autobiography: „There is nothing like a face in a sea of faces.“

Barbara Auer, 2000 in Visurbia 2000

Translation: Malcom Green, Heidelberg