In a very large solo exhibition of Sibylle Bergemann’s work, C/O Berlin is showing 140 Polaroids by one of Berlin’s most well-known contemporary photographers. This immense show comes shortly after Bergemann’s death in November of 2010, offering a rare look at several decades worth of images ranging from intimate portraits of young girls and women to very still rural and nautical landscapes. The massive volume of images exhibited is initially overwhelming, requiring several visits to fully enjoy the artful attention to detail and ephemeral delicateness present in virtually all of Bergemann’s haunting images.
What becomes quickly clear from even a brief glance at Bergemann’s Polaroids, is that she was a master of composition and intimacy. The beauty found in the way she captured ethereal light and tones in nearly every image, speaks to Bergemann’s exacting skill as a composer and photographer, especially in a medium that provides the technological capabilities to completely change an image with a variety of digital and analogue post-production tools.
Bergemann’s small and quiet moments both stand alone as individual works while simultaneously creating a dialogue with her other images, which seems to produce a broader narrative structure to the decades worth of work shown. The arrangement of the exhibition does appear to be producing a story, but this arises more from curatorial decisions considering that each room of the gallery is largely organized according to subject matter rather than date. This curatorial choice then illuminates Bergemann’s major themes of interest throughout her many years of employing the Polaroid.
Beyond the captivating quality of her work embodied in the patient attention to detail and arrangement present in every image, what is perhaps most interesting about this focused retrospective of only Bergemann’s Polaroids is the medium itself and how artfully it is exploited. As a now antiquated technology primarily reserved for narcissistic Myspace-style self-portraiture, Bergmann’s images step far away from this contemporary employment of the Polaroid, instead functioning as small and entirely singular relics of a precise moment in the past. The absolute uniqueness of a Polaroid works to capture a moment in time in an entirely different way than other photographic techniques simply by being irreproducible and unchangeable.
In a quote describing the main thrust of her photographic project, Bergemann states, “it’s the fringes of the world that interest me, not its center. The noninterchangeable is my concern. When there is something in faces or landscapes that doesn’t quite fit.” By using the Polaroid’s ability to record a very specific moment photographically, while also functioning as an almost sculptural object with its own physicality, Bergemann entombs permanently yet ephemerally the past present of these “fringe” spaces and subjects.
This rare look at such a vast collection of a single artist’s project in a singular medium that has largely fallen out of use, yet that when employed skillfully creates truly incredible results, is well worth the visit. Bergemann’s Polaroids can be examined and appreciated from a multitude of vantage points; providing superficially beautiful works that also produce a space to begin questioning and reflecting on the medium of photography itself, how we remember and preserve a particular moment of the present for the future, and the manner in which we approach and unpack the work of an artist who is no longer with us.
~Collin Munn, a writer living in Berlin.
(Images: Sibylle Bergemann, Untitled, 1979-2010; Nachlass Sibylle Bergemann/OSTKREUZ Agentur der Fotografen, Berlin and C/O Berlin)