Josef Schulz


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Release and Transition

Rolf Sachsse, translated by Alison Shamrock

The Greek telos, from which the German word Zoll (Engl.: toll) is derived, denotes the objective and the end point of a journey; crossing the border and continuing one's journey might not be possible until a levy has been paid. This also applies to the other worlds beyond our physical existence, as the mythical telos always implied. Josef Schulz has photographed customs houses and border stations which have, each and every one, become redundant: They are located on borders which, if they exist at all, are only virtual. As a traveller between two states he himself, like many his older contemporaries and fellow globetrotters, is familiar with borders. He has become aware of them through numerous undertakings, not to mention memories of his own border crossings.

Border stations are places of waiting, mostly until we become aware of a kind of futility – firstly that of the border lying in front of us, later often of our own attempts to cross it and hence a creation of meaning in reaching faraway goals, just beyond the prevenient border line. Empty customs buildings, when we look at them, magnify the futility of drawing borders. They are simply in the way and, more often than not, accompanied by superfluous road markings enforcing no longer necessary stops. As they have also given rise to rather unconventional buildings, they provide a double code in the pictures. On the one hand they are architectural collector’s items, compiled by Josef Schulz with remarkable diligence. On the other hand, by their becoming bereft of meaning, picture by picture they mark the myth of a telos, and raise the question of what stories might well be told beyond the borders drawn here.

This is the very doubling of the indexing code which identifies every single photograph: Not only does it show the object portrayed, but it is also, always, an image itself. In this respect it is more than a mere trope of medial metaphorology that the photographs by Josef Schulz have been slightly, yet visibly, manipulated: The background of the buildings disappears in a digital fog of precise dodging which, in analogue photography, could only have been achieved with enormous effort. Seen as a technique this manipulation is in itself unremarkable, not, however, as part of the pictorial concept – it highlights the fact that the borders in Europe were falling at the very moment when analogue photography was beginning to disappear, and with it the myth of the absolute faithfulness to reality of pictorial mimesis. In all antique myths telos will disappear when mimesis disappears.

In this respect Josef Schulz pays a rather high ‘Bildzoll’ (image duty) for his images of transition, that of his credibility as a photographer. What he gains is defined by the German expression ‘Lichtbildnerei’ (photography; literally translatable as composition made using light): a sculptural usage of lighting in order to create space. Some of the small customs houses cast strong shadows, others are almost swamped by the light coming from behind, and yet others disappear into the image area without casting any shadow and develop their spatiality through their details. What links the picture series through manipulation permits a more detailed view of the presented realities: The architecture becomes increasingly inhospitable, increasingly absurd, the more recent its construction date. Where a Domestic Revival style tiled roof on a square floor plan at least suggest the ambience of a residential home, where the oval outlines of concrete-roofed constructions dividing roads are still somehow reminiscent of 1950s kiosks, where one cannot figure out whether the numerous canopies are bus stop or border post, the road remains the normative quality of the crossing and at least intellectually there is a path that goes further than this border. But at the point where blue-tiled cubes are functionalised using prefabricated conservatory elements the path can no longer be seen. In these cases the area marks the point of complete standstill, the meaning of the idea of crossing a border has become completely void.

With the picture series of crossings Josef Schulz has seemingly without effort achieved something which otherwise, in the history of photography, would have dominated an entire oeuvre: He adopts a technique of presentation and implies – with Heidegger and Sloterdijk his dependable witnesses – an entirely different actuality. The forsakenness of the old buildings at the border crossings denotes the other aspect of the lack of borders, the total loss of telos, the aimless wandering in post-modern arbitrariness. In Josef Schulz’s photographs our eyes fasten – and this is characteristic of all his work so far – on small, otherwise rather insignificant details with whose help we desperately try to determine our own position. These might be notices, logos, traffic signs, areas of colour or other such paraphernalia of vision, yet they offer no help when faced with these vacant windows, useless turnpikes and empty thoroughfares. Now it is we, the viewers of that photograph, who have to pay a charge: Our ‘Bildzoll’ consists of having to decide, when confronted with this visible crossing point, where we would like to go to, and subsequently to discover that it does not matter which way we turn. How lucky was Orpheus at the borders of Hades when he had to choose his telos – he knew where he wanted to go…