Chargesheimer: Im Ruhrgebiet (a review)

Discussion in 'Education' started by robert_jones|8, Aug 29, 2004.

  1. B�ll, Heinrich (essayist) and Chargesheimer (photographer): Im
    Ruhrgebiet (In the Ruhr District). B�chergilde Gutenberg, Frankfurt
    am Main (Germany), 1958, 28 pages of text, 121 plates.

    It is so rare a treat to discover a photographer that has been lost
    to us. The homogenization and insularity of the fine arts photography
    world (in the United States, at least) has set up a dichotomy of the
    Great Old Masters (Adams, Stieglitz, the Westons, Walker Evans,
    Cartier-Bresson, etc.) versus the so-called "cutting edge" of such
    ephemeral and forgettable charlatans as Anne Geddes, David
    Lachapelle, Jock Sturges and the late Herb Ritts.

    This false set of alternatives offers little to choose from aside
    from those acknowledged and revered giants whose portfolios are
    recycled endlessly by Aperture on the one hand, and vapid,
    sophomoric, gimmickry faddists on the other.

    Thus, when a great photographer somehow cannot be pigeonholed within
    either paradigm, those slavish worshippers of dead legends and
    fawning adulators of the celebrity haven't the foggiest notion of how
    to react, usually because their ignorance precludes them from being
    *able* to react.

    This criticism I've proffered applies to me: Like many, I do not
    actively seek out the forgotten or the innovative. I am quite content
    with being quite gem�tlich within my bookshelves' well-traveled
    circles of Evans, Robert Frank, Youssef Karsh, Man Ray, James Van Der
    Zee and Saint Ansel (and I also flatter myself for having taste
    enough to fastidiously avoid the above-mentioned schmaltzmeisters).

    Nonetheless, I also flatter myself that I at least have an open
    enough mind that when something novel my way comes, that I can be
    receptive to its visual import without my over-jaded cynicism
    imposing upon my eyes and kup.

    It was in this manner that this volume came to me. It was presented
    as a gift to me by an older friend from the Netherlands, who
    described it as "socialist propaganda, but nevertheless very charming
    photography" (she did not mean "socialist" to be a sobriquet, as she
    falls on that side of the fence politically).

    The photographer Chargesheimer (which is a contraction of his given
    name, Karl Heinz Hargesheimer) forges a deceptively dreary portrait
    of the industrial zone "zwischen Dortmund und Duisburg" that lies in
    the Ruhr Valley. Primarily taken with a handheld Leica rangefinder,
    using what must have been the rather grainy Agfapan Rapid or early
    Tri-X Pan of the mid-1950s, the photographer presents a grimy yet
    enchanting visual document of the hardscrabble region and its people.

    Chargesheimer, who after the Second World War worked as a
    photographer for Stern magazine in Germany and as a free-lance
    photographer in Paris, had already fashioned a master photographer's
    vision by the time he tackled this work. Im Ruhrgebiet presents the
    reader with an antidote to the typical European travelogue of pruned
    gardens, towering cathedrals and genteel nobility which so typifies
    the era in which he worked.

    The strongest quality Chargesheimer imparts is that he intuitively
    grasps that photography is as much about what is unseen as what is
    seen. If the photographer's maxim is "lux et veritas," then
    Chargesheimer operates on the premise "Dunkelheit ist Wahrheit."

    The f/64 Zone System cultists would have a field day dissecting this
    volume, for Chargesheimer's tonal palette falls mostly within the
    baritone-to-bass range. Sunlight rarely intrudes upon the fog, smoke,
    clouds and shadows of his dim visual universe. Im Ruhrgebiet is the
    still-photographer's equivalent of the postwar cinema verite that was
    emerging in Italy and France: Gritty and unadorned, stark and

    His portraits are his most striking works, and the polar opposite of
    the blatant propaganda of the Soviets, and the Nazi Germany of just a
    decade before. Here, Chargesheimer does not give us Aryan super men
    or proletarian heroes, but simply shows people as they really are.
    From the matter-of-fact photograph of blue-collar men walking their
    bicycles at a crosswalk while smoking (plate 15) to a bored foreman,
    resigned before his task of minding a factory motor (plate 19,
    insightfully titled "Automation") to the extreme close-up of a
    workman's grimacing face caught during some grueling task (plate 20)
    to another soot covered day laborer working a pneumatic drill (plate
    50), Im Ruhrgebiet captures these low country Germans at their
    industrious best, during the reconstruction period under the Marshall

    Just as strong are Chargesheimer's photographs of the Ruhr people in
    sundry other everyday pursuits. A middle-aged Hausfrau delights in
    freshly-cut willows on a spring day (plate 61), another woman sits
    quietly nursing her drink, eyes closed (plate 41, aptly
    titled "Bored") while another Gasthaus patron sleeps off his drunk
    (plate 42); a well-dressed, youthful couple walk along a country lane
    on a brightly-lit (rare exception) spring day (plate 72). My favorite
    of all is of three bundled children on their way to school on a cold
    winter's morning (plate 32): One girl gives the photographer a cold,
    withering stare, while the other looks at him askance, wary. The
    little boy walking between the two girls is smiling, but it's
    ambiguous -- the viewer can't tell whether he is happy or just
    smirking at the photographer's folly.

    His still-lifes are equally compelling. His landscapes flaunt the
    region's industrial grime. Brimming over with cobblestones, girders,
    smokestacks and railroad yards, Chargesheimer's talent for finding
    beauty in the mundane comes to the fore, reminiscent of Albert Renger-
    Patzch. Yet, amongst all the soot and ruins, his work intimates
    hope, not doom: Under a filthy and graffiti-splattered concrete
    viaduct, two boys cheerfully pose with their scooter (plate 33); as
    nightfall descends upon the row houses and apartments of the
    Industrialgebiet, a shimmering strip of sunlight illuminates a line
    of tenements in the middle of an otherwise charcoal-grey landscape; a
    man stoops animatedly on a wooden bridge that traverses a smoldering
    slag heap (plate 64).

    Chargesheimer continued to photograph mainly in the Ruhr area,
    particularly in K�ln (Cologne), the city of his birth, until his
    untimely death at the age of 46 in 1971. To me, his photography
    represents the German counterpart to such important mid-century
    photographers as Robert Frank and Louis Faurer. His aesthetic is just
    as refined and his perspective as distinctly honed. However, his
    photography is much less reserved; Chargesheimer does not come off as
    some quiet observer the way Frank and Faurer did. (This is not a
    criticism of these two masters; Being immigrants to America at a
    relatively later age, they could never have been part and parcel of
    the New York streets the way Chargesheimer took to the factories of
    Essen or the beer halls of Gelsenkirchen). In this regard,
    Chargesheimer reminds me more of a German version of Weegee: He basks
    in the tawdry, the prosaic and pedestrian and elevates it to high art.

    He also had Weegee's eye for satire: Chargesheimer's portraits of the
    Ruhr's bourgeoisie strikes easily recognizable parallels to the stogy-
    chomping tabloid shutterbug's contemporaneous candid shots of
    wealthy dames attending the Metropolitan Opera.

    What an amazing find! It is almost criminal that Chargesheimer is
    unknown in the United States. I conducted a poll of many photographic
    acquaintances over here, and not one has ever heard of him. I asked
    three German friends about him, and they were all quite familiar with
    his work. In fact, if you do a Google search for "Chargesheimer," not
    one page in English will be among the results!

    As for the text, B�ll writes out of a sense of love for his homeland.
    He mixes anecdotes and impressions of the hardscrabble folk deftly,
    lacing his text with prosaic tales of the everyday lives of these
    people, told in a gentle, poetic vein.

    One such charming story is of a three year-old girl found washing
    potatoes. When asked why she is washing them, she replies quite
    seriously: "Because they are dirty. I need fresh water to make them
    green. They must be green!"

    This edition, though hard to find, can be had for about 100 Euros at, as can all his other books. The printing is first
    rate: The paper is nice thick stock and has hardly yellowed at all
    over time. The printing is gorgeous. Rather than half-tone screened,
    it is printed in the now-unknown rotogravure process, so that the
    plates do justice to every grain of Chargesheimer's dramatic original

    A fine website dedicated to Chargesheimer is The Chargesheimer
    Society (Chargesheimer Gesellschaft) at:

    Hopefully, fifty years hence, Chargesheimer's genius will be a matter
    of common knowledge worldwide. However, given the current climate of
    such "clever" and narcissistic works as some guy who's photographed
    all the contents in his house like product shots, with a digital
    camera, I ain't counting on it.
  2. RM L:

    Yes, have had problems. Apparently, the software character set recognizes umlauts all through the process up until the moment the writer "confirms" it. My paragraph breaks got lost in the shuffle, too. Sorry about the "word diarrhea."

    Nope, not advertisement or PR. Just my own personal review of a long-out-of-print book that, yes, I happen to love. As for terms such as "paradigm," "ephemeral" and "fifty years hence," they are perfectly good and functional words going to waste in unread dictionaries whilst our current generation of youth inserts the dreadful "like" where commas *ought* to be.

    I'm not even forty yet, and am already a cranky old man! :p

    Will publish a cleaned-up version with "ae," "oe," and "ue" in place of the umlauted vowels.


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