Stone Witnesses to the Times
It all began in Laboe, a resort town on the Baltic Sea. Ralf Meyer, a photographer from Hamburg, was observing summer vacationers' activities on the beach: sun worshippers, children splashing in the waves – and a kiosk owner who sold not only French fries and ice cream, but also German Reich war flags, with which the children's fathers then decorated their sandcastles.
This thoughtless way of dealing with Germany's National Socialist past was the initial spark that culminated in Meyer's documentary photo series, Architektonische Nachhut (i.e. architectural rear guard), a visual essay on the architectural legacy of the Third Reich.
Ralf Meyer took the first photos for his project in Laboe nine years ago, where the German Navy Cenotaph, begun in the 1920's and inaugurated by Hitler in 1936, also stands, photos of a school class grouped on the beach promenade in front of the cenotaph. From these beginnings, a collection of 130 photos has arisen that is being exhibited in 32 locations in Germany.
|Slide Show: "Architektonische Nachhut" (i.e. architectural rear guard) by Ralf Meyer|
On Dealing with the Stone Relics of the NS PastThe totalitarian NS state completely instrumentalized architecture - as "words in stone" – for its political purposes. The National Socialists not only set in motion a new construction program with monumental, representative architecture for the state and the party, they also took over previously existing buildings from the Weimar period, remodelled them and put them to new uses. And during the so-called "assault on the monasteries " in 1941, the regime confiscated more than 200 monasteries and convents, among them the Benedictine Abbey of Münsterschwarzach, that served as a field hospital during the war – the monks were permitted to return in 1945. Ralf Meyer's images shed light on what every day life looks like today in these buildings, built or appropriated by the National Spcialists; thus also pointing up the ways in which people now deal with the stone relics of the NS past. Unlike architectural photos from the NS era, Meyer's images have no dramatic perspectives, plunging lines or heroic-adulatory black-and-white contrasts. His gaze is sober; he always shoots at eye-level and in color, and the diversity of his pictures' perspectives and motifs – portraits, details, overviews, architectural and landscape shots –reveal his fresh, new response to each location.
The Strata of Time Overlapping Each OtherThus, in his photo series on the monumental "Reichsparteigelände"(the National Socialist Party parade ground) in Nuremberg, Ralf Meyer focuses on a conveyor belt of the "Quelle" company (a popular German department store) that now uses a part of the grounds as a warehouse for dispatching goods. In the Ravensbrück Youth Hostel, once the quarters of the SS guards of the Ravensbrück women's concentration camp, he photographed a cushion placed on a bunk bed, with its upper corners perked up with stony neatness.
The "Piazza" in a shopping center that was opened in the former "Forum of the Gau (i.e. district) of Weimar," built in 1936, seems empty and unreal, like a stage setting. Another picture show a triumphantly happy couple wearing mountain hiking boots, enjoying the view from the Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle's Nest) above the Obersalzberg, the former "Führersperrgebiet" (restricted zone for the Führer) – next to Berlin, this was the second command headquarters of NS power. And in his series on the General Beck Barracks in Sonthofen, soldiers are to be seen at sports early in the morning – they are training in the former "Ordensburg," an elite academy of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers' Party).
In none of these scenes is the NS era visible in any obvious way. Only when the historical context is made known do these images become charged with meaning, the strata of time overlapping each other. "I have no mission, and what's at issue here is not accusation," says Ralf Meyer. But he adds that it is important for us to become aware of the fact that the problematic sites and buildings of the NS era are part and parcel of our present, in many different ways. With his images, Meyer wishes to motivate his viewers to awaken to and face these historical contexts. "Of course buildings from the era of the Third Reich can and should be used in new ways – but not impiously."
Every Place Yields Different AnswersThe quality of this photo series lies not only in the selection and composition of the motifs. The tension that arises when one is familiar with the history of the place where these situations of contemporary every day life were photographed also plays an essential role. Captions inform the viewer about the historical background of the individual buildings.
Roughly speaking, one can differentiate among three styles of NS architecture that were ranked in a strict hierarchy of building functions: monumental neoclassicism for state representative architecture, "down-home, traditional German" regionalism with standardized roof and gables for housing developments, and a typecast industrial modernism for single-purpose buildings and transportation buildings. Meyer's goal was to encompass a representative cross-section of this spectrum with his documentation – with a perspective whose standpoint is clearly located in the present. Whether a documentation center or a shopping center, mindless banalization or conscious, mindful reutilization: "Every place yields different answers to the question of how we deal with the past," states Ralf Meyer. The viewer must deal with this spectrum just as the photographer did – and take a good, close look, over and over again.
Ralf Meyer: Architektonische Nachhut (German and English)
is a free-lance journalist in Berlin
Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe Institute, Online Editorial Board
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