Book Review Stadtbilder Cityscapes 1979–1985
Photographs by Ulrich Wüst Reviewed by Blake Andrews “These milestones have come after a long, low-key career in the trenches of photoland, during which his profile raised barely a blip outside of Germany. If he’s been overlooked by the international photo community, that’s just fine with Wüst…”
Photographs by Ulrich Wüst
Hartmann Books, Germany, 2021. German/English. 160 pp., 105 Illustrations, 7¾x10¼”.
At age 73, Ulrich Wüst’s star is on the rise. On the heels of his first-ever U.S. show in 2016, he was included the following year in Documenta 14, where “his atmospheric black-and-white images of abandoned East German cityscapes at the heights of Brezhnev-era stasis foreshadow the inevitable end of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.” In 2019 this series was included in the compendium The Freedom Within Us. Now he has followed it up with a monograph. Stadtbilder, designed and released by Hartmann Books, collects cityscapes of the former East Germany between 1979 and 1985.
These milestones have come after a long, low-key career in the trenches of photoland, during which his profile raised barely a blip outside of Germany. If he’s been overlooked by the international photo community, that’s just fine with Wüst. His commentary on the art world (as relayed in Stadtbilder) is telling: “I became aware of how strange it was, and I felt quite comfortable about not having to join in this dance.” Even before arriving at that judgement, he took his sweet time settling on the “weird hobby” of photography.
Born in 1949 in Magdeburg, Wüst studied architecture and civil engineering at Bauhaus in Weimar, then worked as a city planner and a photo editor. He tinkered with his own photography but it wasn’t until 1984 that he took the plunge into it full-time. By then he was already well into shooting the photos which would form Stadtbilder. The complete book, which wound up including the original series plus 50 added photos, documents various East German cityscapes roughly a decade before reunification. By Wüst’s measure, it’s a visual study of Germany’s environmental “psychotype”.
Stadtbilder captures the German Democratic Republic in vernacular limbo. It had emerged from the wreckage of WWII, and was largely rebuilt and reinhabited. But in some respects, the country had come out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the Soviet Iron Curtain cast a grey pall throughout. Wüst’s frames are decidedly uncheery. He did not often photograph people, so there are no human smiles to brighten up the frames. In their stead, stern marble busts of Marx and Lenin are set against brutalist architecture and post-war ruins. A stifled dreary mood pervades amid signs of a past that can never quite be forgotten.
Wüst visited many East German cities, typically on magazine assignments where he might shoot his own outtakes in addition to whatever was commissioned. He usually carried a single 35 mm film SLR and 50 mm lens, which he handheld in landscape format. This setup — “my ridiculous equipment”, as he calls it — was an unusual and somewhat idiosyncratic choice for static cityscapes, even back in the heyday of small format film cameras. But it suited him fine. He became intimately familiar with his equipment, and it became a near bodily extension.
Wüst approached most street scenes head-on, camera leveled, paying close attention to verticals. He generally aimed broadside at facades, curbs, and other traces of the built environment. Several photos in Stadtbilder are spiced with open roadways receding to the horizon, their frames knit with fencing, statuettes, and industrial adornments. All have a blunt descriptive power that falls somewhere in the aesthetic neighborhood of Lewis Baltz, Joachim Schmidt or Stephen Shore (just don’t compare him to the Bechers and their “unremarkable compositions”). “Wüst is the phenotypical observer”, comments Matthias Flügge in the opening essay, “turning even the most inconspicuous street corner into an incident transcending futility.”
Stadtbilder might be a mere visual memento if approached as pure documentary. But its photos are pushed beyond contemporaries through clever twists. Time and time again Wüst injects witty layering and visual confusion, all enhanced by the homogenizing effects of greyscale monochrome. In a photo of Leipzig 1982, for example, trees, cars, and brick blend into a 2D chiaroscuro. A shot of Berlin 1982 performs a similar trick with window frames, utility poles, and distant apartments, their forms dancing to an ambiguous rhythm. Photos of Karl-Marx-Stadt 1982, Magdeburg 1982, and Dresden 1985 repeat the magic. Wüst is irredeemably playful. Wherever he looks the buildings blend into puzzle pieces. He just can’t help himself, it seems. Thankfully he’s in good company. Luminaries like Lee Friedlander and Gerry Johansson face the same existential crisis every time out, with equally beguiling results. Why do forms line up just so? Won’t the world ever settle down into stasis? For a photographer of cityscapes, these are good problems to have.
As with Friedlander and Johansson, dense visual textures are typically encoded in tight prints. The book is modestly sized, and its reproductions are scaled down even further to fit horizontally, perhaps 6 inches across. Thankfully the small enlargements don’t detract from the power of Stadtbilder. With several dozen bantam photos, there’s no use pixel-peeping. It’s more fun to flip the page and lose yourself browsing. The hardback binding features full-extension cardstock covers running flush with the internal pages, an elegant design touch. In addition to the informative essay by Matthias Flügge, the book features a recent interview of Wüst conducted by Katia Reich (all texts are in both German and English). The wily master comes across as playful and intelligent, a diligent observer who has always pursued his own dogged path. With Stadtbilder, photoland can finally see what Wüst has been up to all these years.
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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.