Josef Schulz


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Kerstin Stremmel, translated by Alison Shamrock


The ’present’ is only the ‘obstacle’ when journeying from the past to the future, and present and future to us seem to be this and that of the existence of time.
Daniil Kharms from: About time, about space, about existence

Transition is an appropriate title for Josef Schulz’s latest photo series for more than one reason. On the one hand it reminds us of these borders within Europe which are in the process of disappearing, and whose meaning and impact the photographer traces in his comprehensive project. On the other hand the word also implies change, the subject of this work and the decisive factor for choosing the formal means.

The photographs both in Übergang (Transition) and Schulz’ other series address our world in rigorously structured bodies of works and simultaneously transcend their findings by means of artistic development. To this end, for example in Centre Commercial, he assembled scenes from those functional shopping centres, which proliferate on the outskirts of cities and represent a form of Americanised shopping culture exceedingly unpopular with the Bourgeoisie, in images measuring up to 55cm in height and up to 4m in width, mostly in front of a perpetually blue sky, colourful and seemingly artificial panoramic views of mostly single storey warehouses. With these photographs Schulz was intent on taking pictures of locations which cannot be captured with conventional photographic means and which nonetheless, at first sight, present an apparently convincing picture of reality. In the groups of works Sachliches (Matter-of-fact Things) and Formen (Shapes) the manipulations, however, are far more apparent. The storehouses and production facilities look decidedly artificial, almost virtual, like brightly coloured, hermetic toy-models with which no one chooses to play. Schulz also manipulated the surfaces upon which these functional buildings stand – a concrete floor of such homogenous grey or grass with the appearance of having been trimmed with nail scissors is only too familiar from model railways. The basic structures do actually correspond to reality. The photographs analyse the confrontation of particular spaces and also examine the sculptural qualities developed by selected real and rather unspectacular shapes.

The consistent continuation of his theme - the tension between reality and meaningful manipulation - with this act of disfiguring things until they become recognisable, is also evident in Übergang. This series, in the clarity of its perspective portraiture more reminiscent of the typology of his Düsseldorf professors and, like them, aiming for attentive, comparing observations, consists of a multitude of European border posts. Some look like petrol stations bordering endless highways, others like bus stops at which no bus ever stops, yet others resemble small houses whose shutters will forever remain closed. Occasionally they have been decorated with graffiti, advertise the now obsolete opportunity for exchanging currency, for example between Spain and France, or they are tagged, seemingly modern, with the web address Border guards no longer emerge for inspections from these functional buildings which, despite their functionality, are surprisingly varied. Yet looking at these photographs – labelled pragmatically with a system of abbreviations using the two first letters of the respective border countries and sequence numbers - recalls that anticipation of being subjected to scrutiny any moment now, as well as the still palpable surprise upon passing them that these proceedings, in the geographical field portrayed here, are now a thing of the past.

Schulz evokes the feeling of not really being anywhere when he uses blurring to render the background indistinct. The effect is more that of fog than of overexposure. As soon as one sees the harsh shadows cast by some of the border huts it becomes quite obvious that there is no fog: Josef Schulz also takes his photographs when the sky is clear and blue. This effect of precisely captured buildings and surroundings, which takes the buildings out of context, has been staged on purpose. It delays the hasty onlooker and makes him wonder about the purpose of these by now useless relics, these disintegrating “monuments”, and also about which borders still exist today. What becomes apparent as well, despite the faded shades, is the variation in flora: conifers and palm trees, vineyards and snowcapped mountains form the background of the precise architectural structures which give rise to the question of to what extent the dissimilarities between nations might manifest themselves in their architecture. The levelling of the surroundings also makes us question the importance of regional identities once national borders have lost their meaning. As beautiful as some of the plants are, as much as they awaken our wanderlust, their photographic dissolution also makes us feel melancholic.

The obvious artificiality in these photographs is an expression of Schulz’ interest in a new way of dealing with documentary material. Step by step he composes a new image using the available photographic material, entirely in accordance with that integration of photography in the domain of graphic art proposed by Peter Lunenfeld in his essay “Digital photography. The Dubitative Image“*. Thus the analysis of photographic evidence becomes the main characteristic of Schulz’ photographs. He does not intend to disown the authenticity of the photographic image. What interests him is the stage between reproduction and digital processing which uses manipulation in order to make discernible that which actually exists and, remarkably, to turn blurring into clarity. What determines the quality of his photographs is the fact that the means used never develop a life of their own, but are subordinate to the documentary will. This gives rise to the strange phenomenon of truth being established by a manipulation of art that identifies itself, and through this does not disavow the matter portrayed, despite the fact that the aesthetic impact of the photographs with their consistent colouring is strong – a beauty in transition which makes the decay of what it documents visible and in this way also implies the future process.

And yet another form of transition becomes visible through this kind of photographic approach: Sometimes interior and exterior appear to be translucent – nature is so intensely reflected in the windows that one is almost led to believe that the vegetation actually continues inside. This can, for example, be perceived in oesl01, where the colours of the reflection are so much stronger than those outside. In this way the precise architectural variants seem to incorporate some of that which surrounds them and resist a maybe only hypothetical similarity, they rather point to a difference which will remain visible throughout all changes. As a result every building shows “physiognomic“ personality which affords each individual photograph an interest which transcends the serial concept.

* Snap to Grid. A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures, (Cambridge, Mass. 2000), 55 – 69