Oświęcim Album
The disappearance of pictures

Cornelius Lange

Dr. Jeremy Gaines
To “get the picture” or “be in the picture”. These formulations have something to do with understanding and communication in the truest sense of the words. However, no words at all are actually necessary to ‘be in the picture’ because, in the linguistic sense, pictures are speechless media. But how reliable are they? Is it at all possible for a picture to tell the objective truth? Is it not the case that at the moment its contents are fixed, the artist is effecting a manipulation?

Pictures are parts of a sequence of events, they capture a situation and remove the latter from its context. The picture itself is the innocent party in this process, it is never more than a picture.
It has an effect on the viewer quite independently of whether the author was aiming at portraying things differently from the way they are in reality. The observer, too, is included in this reception process. He is a reflecting surface and becomes part of the communication process, independent of whether we are talking about truth or fiction.

Reality is the totality of all events. We can never possess comprehensive knowledge of it because, as perceiving it entirely in all its complexity is beyond our abilities. Objective reality is something that evades our capabilities for taking things in. At best, we can perceive, take in and come to terms with only a part of it. Media reality is an excerpt from reality. Media reality is subjective because, by selecting events (for example, by means of editors in the mass media), it arrives at conclusions reached following certain criteria (e.g., proximity, scope, newness, feelings, conflict, drama and so on). Media science refers to these criteria as the news value theory. Nowadays it is more than ever before the case that what we perceive as reality and associate with objectivity, completeness and credibility is determined and communicated by pictures.

There are comfortable pictures, the kind that we understand easily. The kind of pictures that we enjoy looking at because they entertain us and give us the opportunity to take part in a positive, socially congruent dialogue by taking notice of them. There are also uncomfortable pictures. These are the kind that we do not want to see, that we turn away from because they contain things that run contrary to our need for congruence. These pictures show things that trigger incomprehension because they are too complex, too demanding and repugnant, because they appear strange and frightening, isolate us. Seen in these terms there really should not be any uncomfortable pictures in art. It really is the case, however, that uncomfortable pictures can also be attractive, because they confront us uncompromisingly and with our human imperfections and helplessness.

Which of the two archetypes, though, is the more important? I cannot say, but whether the pictures are comfortable or uncomfortable, they do have one thing in common. Only the pictures that we see and take note of can become part of our memory, because it is only what we remember that exists – and it is only through memory that we have a history. Remembering and forgetting: from the dynamics that exist between this pair of terms something develops, something that we store up as individuals or as part of a social whole, the events with which we identify ourselves.

In art, pictures are free, but not free of manipulation. The artistic process is a deeply manipulative one, because the artist is just as incapable of being objective as media reality. Pictures are media. They convey personal perspectives. Art is a dialectic process and one that only works if there is a beholder. Without viewers art is self-referential, only concerned with itself. Of course, the artist has sovereignty over his own art but only for as long as he leaves his work under lock and key, keeping it away from the eyes of outsiders. As soon as he makes his work public a free and public reception process is also set in motion. Totalitarian social systems lay claim to sovereignty over the information and opinion-shaping processes, in other words, to news as well, and to pictures and the selection and interpretation thereof.

Under such systems, the collective consciousness is influenced by the disappearance of pictures that conflict with the prevailing doctrine. This is why propaganda makes not only uncomfortable pictures but also uncomfortable people disappear, because they represent a danger to the system.

This has been a long introduction. I hope that it will be helpful in allowing us to understand what Holger Schmidhuber has to say with his latest work.

Schmidhuber’s cycle is based on something known as the Auschwitz Album. As if by a miracle, Auschwitz survivor Lily Jacob chanced upon it in the abandoned SS barracks where she was housed after she had been liberated. On the photographs Jacob discovered herself and her family. She kept her find safe for decades; it was not until 1980 that she surrendered this unique document to the Yad Vashem memorial site. Referring to the fate of a group of Hungarian Jews who arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau in June 1944, the preface to the album states: “On the pictures we can see women, men, old people and children leaving the painfully overcrowded train, traumatized and frightened after their long, arduous journey. (...) anybody looking at these photographs will discover the dreadful secret of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as it presented itself to the eye of the camera the first time. (...) The photographs are arranged in chronological order: the train arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, leaving the train at the ramp, confronting the Germans and the prisoners, joining the long line, the selection, separating out onto the left and the right sides, those chosen as forced laborers arriving at the camp, waiting in the wooded area next to the crematorium and heading for the gas chambers.”

Schmidhuber traveled to Oświęcim in February 2010. He took his camera with him as he did the question of whether it is at all possible to create an artistic work from the context of the Auschwitz Album. In his search for answers he concentrated primarily on the wooded area, the place where a number of the last and the most haunting pictures in the album were taken – harrowing documents of the distanced and coldblooded brutality of the SS photographers.

Holger Schmidhuber was determined to find this wooded area and to make it his own, so to speak, as a projection into the present. It took him three days. Thanks to the original pictures he was able to identify the topography of the area, thus heading straight for the place where the SS photographer must have stood when he pressed the shutter before the families were herded into the gas chambers. Today, there are still trees on this spot. Where people once rested on the grass, exhausted and frightened, in Schmidhuber’s 2010 photographs there is snow lying, a kind of projection area indicating the site’s topography particularly clearly, helping to localize the spot and to rediscover the people in it. The death camp’s fences can just about be discerned in the background of the photo. There can be no doubt that this is the same place – in a peaceful, atmospheric time. The pictures look like peaceful landscape photographs. Nothing about them points to the unique character of the place, there are no references to the scenes of destruction that took place here on a June day 67 years ago. Only the informed, those in the know, can decode these photos and get an idea of the meaning behind this highly explosive subject. For the uninformed it is and remains a wooded area covered in new snow, without any visible traces. Above it, a bright blue sky. The situation Schmidhuber has entered in upon is heightened to the point of becoming paradox. He has then transferred his photographs to large-format sheets of an aluminum compound. These form the basis of the Oświęcim Album that he later produced in his studio.
A cycle of works, the majority of which keeps to a matte black color but a few of which are in brilliant yellow. Between the photographs and the pigment strata are layers of microscopically small glass particles that refract and reflect the incident light and give the work of art depth. Initially, the application of the fog of pigment establishes a distance between it and the photo beneath it; the recognizability of the photographs subsequently loses focus. However, when viewers take a longer look at the monochromatic expanses of color, parts of the motif do become recognizable because the eye reconstructs the still existent contours, outlines and shadows.

It is the moment when the layers of pigment are applied – that paper-thin dimension with its strong color where Schmidhuber releases his energy, gathering together recent history in a masterly fashion, consolidating the levels of repressing, forgetting and disappearance that link us with this wooded area, with the suffering of the people, with the Auschwitz Album photos, with the Holocaust. The glass crystals direct the light into the pictures, to the historical, visual and metaphorical levels, like millions of laser beams, guiding our gaze. In these pictures, the sections, the fragments of memory of the Holocaust that we carry around with us in our heads start a new life. They fit together in a new way and complement one another.

It is important to our understanding of Schmidhuber’s Oświęcim Album to know how he turns the disappearance of the pictures into a discussion topic and how he confuses the issue by inverting the process of the erosion of memory, transforming it into the opposite of what it originally was. Perhaps Schmidhuber allows pictures to disappear by creating new ones. However, he also calls back the pictures that have vanished. His technique allows him to take a sophisticated approach to several layers: the first layer is the picture that has vanished, this forms the historic basis of the work of art. The second level is the photographic documentation, the rediscovered wooded area. The third level made up of layers of pigment and glass crystals seals the other levels, these are schematically visible through the pure material. Anyone not looking carefully remains unaware of the effect of the work’s visual geology. Independent of how intensively exploratory or indifferent the viewer’s approach to these pictures is, this effect is always there. This is what is intended by Schmidhuber’s technique of “covering, overlapping, making invisible”; his aim is to preserve the work from superficial pathos. Schmidhuber’s Oświęcim Album only reveals its full dimensions to the viewer when the latter is in possession of information on the events at Auschwitz in June 1944. Without this knowledge, the pictures’ message remains veiled – it disappears, so to speak, before the viewer’s eyes. This is an integral part of these pictures’ message, at once a complex and uncomfortable part. Only those who remember have a history.

Today, what links us with Auschwitz? Is the picture we have of it correct? Or will the memory of the crimes committed against the European Jews disappear from our consciousness because it is uncomfortable? Looking at the Oświęcim Album, these questions may come to mind because the veil of pigment on the pictures already indicates the imprecise nature of our blurred memory and symbolizes a process of decay that Schmidhuber is making his subject before our very eyes. With his work he is creating a new type of memory, one triggered by the greatest trauma in our history and one that, in my opinion, is one of a series of impulses that have been sent out in this respect in recent times. The monument in Berlin to the murdered Jews by architect Peter Eisenman is one of these, as is sculptor Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks).

Schmidhuber’s Oświęcim Album is a monument in a very special way, possibly not, in the narrowest sense, a memorial site for souls mourning in public. His work does, however, posses a vibrancy that expresses not only the inadequacy of words, horror and sorrow, but also dignity, sympathy and clever artistry. “It is important to me to step back completely here. I want my person to disappear from the work, although I am its creator,” are Schmidhuber’s comments on his personal attitude.

Considering the dimensions of the Holocaust, which go far beyond anything ordinary human beings can imagine, any attempt to represent it by conventional means are doomed to failure. Schmidhuber’s Oświęcim Album is a brave attempt to open up more space for memory and remembering. Space in which the power of art crosses boundaries that appear insurmountable. And we need artists like Holger Schmidhuber to open our eyes to this.