Berlin Blue or Göran’s Blues

Haus am Kleistpark, 16 July 2020
Jochen Stoeckmann

Göran Gnaudschun is an idiosyncratic photographer and he becomes – with this exhibition – a very difficult case, wonderfully complicated.

But I hadn’t made the beginner’s mistake of asking him about the camera he works with. But even before we started our joint course, the photographer explained to me:

“Mobile phone photos, photos taken with the very expensive digital camera, with the analogue Hasselblad and with a small Olympus MJU II, such an analogue soapbox – the work could actually be from five different photographers”.

That would be a hell of a job, five different photographers in one – hopefully not too long a speech. Although: with Göran I have carte blanche, he always finds my five minutes on the radio “much too short”, especially when it comes to photography.

And finally, I have the “central statement” about this selection, which differs from the usual series of portraits or the thematically focused series:

I have consciously avoided a style that runs through my work as in my previous ones. Cyanotypes” – we will return to this old technique – “colour, black and white, blue, plus the clear and the wild and the fuzzy – this confusion follows life”.

Hence the wind: I follow rivers – the photographer follows the river, the rivers of life. And I thought it was all about streams of images, the digital flood of images that Göran follows – not panting after them! – to bring out individual pictures, his pictures, to save them, so to speak:

In the same way that one of my favourite poets quickly writes down his impressions, in order to preserve the special intensity of these moments, these not only visual experiences. That sounds like this:

“Paths; blood-red spots of dark stonecrop, vines of the clematis, warmth of the setting sun. (Philippe Jaccottet)

Only a few words, but as if made for the pictures of this exhibition: sparse and therefore so haunting poetry, no explanations or explanations – they would change the moment, disturb the pictures, destroy the impression.

But it is the picture itself that Göran is concerned with, not a distinctive style. He achieves this only by hanging, by combining five or six formats – framed in oak wood or nailed to the wall as light, almost fluttering 160g paper. And through this mix of motifs – which follows a secret, possibly unconscious order. Aesthetic, formal, content-related? We don’t know, fortunately – because too much knowledge harms curiosity.

So first of all, just look – at this gaudy blue that dominates everything, whether it’s wild Petersburg hanging or a carefully balanced sequence. This is the cyanotype I mentioned earlier. The photographer made a few attempts with it – and found exactly what he was looking for: to create a picture that is indefinite, like the painters. In other words, not deliberately photographing out of focus – something Göran, as a spectacle wearer, does not like at all – but rather, in retrospect, when taking a print, printing or enlarging, leaving the meaning as vague and undefined as possible, opening the picture to associations.

So this blue covers the pictures like a veil – and that was not so easy, because with cyanotypes – according to Göran – “very crisp pictures” are possible. The difficult thing was to bring this sharpness back, to get it streaky, undefined.

“I have tried a lot, you can create very crisp images with it. But the difficult thing was to bring it back. To get it back so streaky again, so vague. Because cyanotypes are unique, the same picture cannot be produced twice. After all, you don’t go – I follow rivers – into the same river twice”. Which brings us back to the title, in Göran’s view:

For him, these 63 pictures mark life situations in which radical changes take place. Where one is also disoriented. Where inner images – without a camera – are created: The photographer stands in a landscape with a cloudy sky, cannot orientate himself to the sun, does not know the direction. If you then try to find orientation, you should – according to the scout tip – follow rivers. Because they eventually lead to inhabited dwellings.

But until then, we – the viewers of these pictures – move around in an indeterminate, approximate way – under a cloudy sky. And the photographer plays – the cyanotypes stand out in the so-called “Berlin blue” – and Göran plays his blues. In French, the blues is called “vague à l’âme”, literally translating as the soul in the wave … or in vague, approximate.

Don’t worry, there are a few clues, no pictorial explanations, no interpretations, but subtle hints: Like this photo of a light-coloured railing leading to a dark brown somewhere. Göran selected it from a pool of pictures that has been taken “by the way”, so to speak, along the side of the road since 2015, because he likes pictures that go into the dark, where you can’t see exactly everything, can’t see the foreground exactly. These pictures that plunge away, where a gorge opens up within an exhibition wall, meet photos that have a great clarity.

Another “source of tension” are the formats. The smallest photos are about the size of a Polaroid, appear – unframed – casual, playful. But not playful, because especially these pictures have a central function: they signal that the photographer does not take himself too seriously, does not play the foreground. And that is important, because he is concerned with feelings, with small pictures … and big words like melancholy and lightness, joy and sadness, love and pain. That ends – as a “request” or intended “statement” – quickly in kitsch. But not with this photographer, who puts all his money on risk, on his pictures. And on laconic titles with place and year.

“Streetlight, Potsdam”, that is banal. “Bed, Lisbon”, there might be more to it – or someone? – behind it. That remains speculation, because when Göran charges his pictures with meaning, he always does so in fine doses. So that he himself, without vanity, can say and claim:

“Charged with meaning? Yes, maybe so. But if the work is good, it gives the viewer more freedom than I, the photographer, can give. The viewer may well be smarter than I, the photographer.”

And he is not taken by surprise, the viewer. But on one, on many tracks set by seemingly random picture combinations: Wings, golden angel’s wings, next to hands in close-up, that surely has something to mean. But what? The photographer himself was not aware of it at first. Something struck him years ago. He photographed it – and only now, when sorting a selection of 300 motifs already “steamed together”, does he see why it was important to take this picture. Then the picture is combined with other photos, put into proportion.

And suddenly repetitions appear. Clouds or sunrises. And that, says Göran, is not a slip-up, that was meant seriously at the time. And today it is important that these motifs are repeated. Preferably as a pair: two shot glasses, two people, two sunsets, two grey hooded jackets. They stand, laconically photographed, all by themselves – and for an attitude to life:

“What dissolves, finds itself again, comes together again. New possibilities that open up.”

So says the photographer literally – and almost philosophically. And then Göran explains in his well-known, vivid way: “There was no concept from the beginning like in the ‘Work Are You Happy?’ in the form of: I photograph a certain area and am curious about the people who are there. With this exhibition it’s more like I’m looking at what’s inside me.

And that’s where I start thinking, thinking a little further, so to speak: Rome is and remains important, because you should experience a city for yourself, you have to search for your own experiences in order to find something authentic, something that is not mediated. Otherwise, photographs seem like a surrogate, like a substitute for reality that makes one’s own view superfluous.

Worse still, photographers who convulsively orientate their search for motifs to their own, entrenched pictorial ideas and switch off the “inside” are faced with a fatal immunisation, a compartmentalisation: they become image-blind, are no longer awake and open to the visual experience that matters.

Here, with this exhibition, the viewer is awakened against this. For example, through the photo of a glaring flame next to the seemingly banal shot of a living room door. This door, the photographer says, magically attracted him in a museum in Rome, in the house of the war-disabled, furnished after the First World War. “Behind the door was the director’s office, he had no hands and was blind. And he had an assistant who held the cigarettes to his mouth. That was in the 1930s – but it still smelled of smoke inside,” Göran found fascinating.

How can the viewer guess that? He can’t smell it, he can’t see it. But he might sense the photographer’s impulse: an enigmatic door, a banal but very clear picture. That arouses curiosity. And that was the main work: not the content of the picture that attracts – or overwhelms – but the meaning behind the picture, perhaps a little hidden, which is then teased out again by the hanging.

For what is “making pictures” – and above all “exhibiting pictures”? How or where does the photographer (the author stranded in the universe of images) move in the fragmented space of cyberspace. Even if, as a Don Quixote figure, he negates the mindless and soulless image machinery of the (not even surreal) shining & glittering “reality”, isn’t he then torn apart by increasingly drastic mercantile, commercial interests? Is the independent, artistic photographer an anachronism?

He is, as long as he ignores the essence of the image, as long as he does not make the medium in and with which he moves the compass of his approach.

Not about making pictures, but about making words, about writing, William S. Burroughs said as early as 1966 that he considered the word to be a cumbersome instrument, that at some point it would become obsolete, “probably faster than we think”. NOT-reading, therefore, does not have to mean ignorance, but refers to a mental state of silence and stillness and to a state that allows thinking in images, a non-alphabetic, non-linear thinking. A thinking that could also be called cerebral navigation, because THE BRAIN IS AN INSTRUMENT OF NAVIGATION. Well, Arno Schmidt called some other writers “brain animals”, here we have an “eye animal” in front of us. Göran probably knows this, but doesn’t say it directly. Instead he goes on record (I have it on tape!):

“Stephen Shore, for example, who is working on the image composition, waiting for hours for the right light. I am simply there and take a picture. Intuitively.”

It’s only good that someone like Katja Dannowski doesn’t work on the image composition, but on the exhibition structure – like-minded & with a similar view. Not with the same view – that would be effective and time-saving, but it would not help.

After all, it’s all about feelings, and to exhibit them you don’t need metaphors or symbols, but two poles for an exciting, crackling atmosphere. That “atmosphere” which nobody defines exactly, but which everyone can share as a mirror of their own memories and feelings of life. In the pictures that we are now looking at together. Well, not all at once, but at most five of us. But that’s already enough for a conversation behind masks.

That would be the next challenge for the portrait photographer.