With cameras as commonplace as body parts, what constitutes photojournalism? How does one present images that now seem easily replicated in purpose, content, and style by the average citizen? That seems to be the question implicitly asked in Martin-Gropius-Bau’s retrospective Barbara Klemm: Photographs 1968–2013. Gathering fifty years in some three hundred photos – including political journalism, travel snapshots, scenic visions, and celebrity portraits – the exhibition clearly invests not only in presentation but in quantity in an attempt to solve that puzzle. Whether the viewer is ultimately rewarded with the solution is another question, yet the show still delights as a fitting memorial to the power of memory and offers surprising insights into the Klemm anthology.
The curation gives the visitor surprising flexibility on how to traverse the space. At least two separate visits are recommended to accrue a mature interpretation of this massive collection, which contains both stand-alone images and excerpts from their published counterparts embedded in newspaper print. Entering from the right one finds landscapes, intimate portraits of artists, documents of James Turrell’s Roden Crater, and a film screening. The left entryway leads into a chart of historical happenings, an almost literal global map spanning decades. Embarking from pre-reunification Germany, the photos capture life in Berlin and other German cities such as Stuttgart and Frankfurt am Main, then cross into other European countries, Asia, and South America, finally concluding with a stark juxtaposition between Africa and the United States.
Barbara Klemm, Stuttgart, 1972; © Barbara Klemm, Courtesy of Martin-Gropius-Bau.
Student protests and routine banalities in Cold War Germany dominate the first two rooms, peculiar in their similarities, which include near identical marches and poses. Humor, especially delight in coincidence and contingency, shade much of Klemm’s compositions: a billboard wryly commenting on a gaggle of girlfriends trotting down a New York City street; a statue watching over synchronized slumberers. Along with a smile and a laugh, such visual play raises issues of the extent of environmental influence. It is hard to say whether Klemm consciously made these stylistic choices to create similar compositions, yet they affirm a sort of universality and interconnectedness of human movements, apt in a rapidly globalizing world. The stylistic consistency manufactures a personalized standard that seems in part a justification for photojournalism. Unlike the rhizomic collections of photos contributed by amateurs or interim freelancers, the body of images originating from a single viewpoint creates a reliable timeline due, in part, to its inherent reflexivity.
At Martin-Gropius-Bau, the photos run the risk of getting lost in the redundancy, easily glanced over by the average gallery goer, a situation all the more exaggerated by the sheer number of images, their relatively compact dimensions, the monochromatism, their clinical distance from the lens, and the curation’s Fordian linearity. Many photos look more assertive and compositionally stable anchored between headline and newsprint in the publication samples from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. One might wonder if Klemm-the-journalist prioritized the interplay between her images and the text they would accompany, the ease of content legibility, rather than maximizing the stand-alone beauty of individual photographs.
Barbara Klemm, Wrapped Reichstag, Christo, Berlin, 1995; © Barbara Klemm, Courtesy of Martin-Gropius-Bau.
Not to say that Klemm lacks poesis. In fact, the prosody of the visual documents accentuates their nostalgic value, manifesting a plain candidness like a chance cell phone photo now would. But examining the other half of the exhibition, it becomes even easier to see how, when, and where Klemm divides her talents as a narrator and artist. In the remaining photographs, Klemm shows a proclivity for stark geometry and sparse, often reflexive environments, often weighed down by a single visual element, whether it be Joseph Bueys’ lone figure or Turrell’s tremendous crater. In these images, the distance between Klemm and the isolated subject emphasizes the monumentality or the uniqueness of the latter, resulting in intense, almost mystical images saturated with an artist’s persona or the mystery of a shape. Of these, the most moving is of Klemm’s father, Fritz Klemm, seen as silhouette against a window of light, the frames erecting a cross emerging from the head, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It marks the intersection between the physical and psychological, dreams and the difficulty of their substantiation, while maintaining remarkable pathos: quintessential Klemm, and one of her finest works.
(Image on top: Barbara Klemm, Fritz Klemm, 1968; © Barbara Klemm.)