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Child of Age

On Ingar Krauss' Western-Eastern Portrait Project
by Ulf Erdmann Ziegler

Late in 2004, as the Ukrainians were preparing from a presidential election, the president-dictator of Belarus decreed to the children of his state that travel to Western countries would be banned, because, as you might have guessed, they would be spoiled by the values of consumer society. There was a strong reaction in Germany, where all kinds of institutions criticized the decree, pointing out that they were helping these children - many of them still suffering from the effects of the atomic reactor accident at Chernobyl - by bringing them to visit families and churches in the West. For the many people not involved in such efforts it was surprising that there are actually hundreds of humanitarian entrepreneurs who regularly donate the cost of flights, make two-day bus journeys to pick up groups of orphans from Belarus so they can spend Christmas or the summer holidays with German families, or drive truckloads of donated goods there. And that is just Belarus; there are similar unsung examples of humanitarian aid to Russia and the Ukraine.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union took Western Europeans by surprise. Only slowly did they relearn names like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Some have returned from the city formerly known as Leningrad - St. Petersburg -calling it "fabulous". Berlin, in the nineties, saw an invasion by the Russian mafia. Scandals involving prostitutes from Eastern Europe have mushroomed everywhere. As Western politicians, journalists, and humanitarian helpers visit hinterland towns, villages, and farmland communities, they are becoming aware that the “Space Age” U.S.S.R. has left its own people behind with ploughs and horses, in conditions bordering on the medieval.

Before Ingar Krauss came back with his portraits of Russian adolescents, he made a series of photographs depicting children in Germany, which was shown in Berlin almost immediately. The show was a surprise, insofar as Krauss had essentially discovered photography in making these pictures; they show his photographic career in its infancy. What is at once apparent is the strong bond between the photographer and the children who pose for him – they are serious and melancholy. It’s summer in the countryside and the props include a fish, lilies, a cat, a dog, a sword. It becomes clear that the photographer is looking for the door to childhood. Everything converges in a single image of a girl – maybe eleven or twelve – with long hair, standing in the daylight halo of the entrance of a pedestrian underpass in a winter coat, her body in profile, the pale face turned toward the camera, her eyes closed. Maybe almost closed, it's hard to tell. The picture is romantic and slightly discomforting at the same time. It’s urban, it’s vague; there is something fashionable about it as well.

Berlin’s city government gives travel stipends to artists and photographers on application. Some request London or Pasadena, but Ingar Krauss asked to be sent to Moscow and spent the summer of 2002 in the Russian capital. There his icons of childhood changed immediately. Yes, there were woods, there was water, and children played. But in his photographs they had stopped playing. All the props were gone. From the sitters, one senses a demand in this work – not to be photographed, but to reveal something, to slide a password from the past into the present.

You see, Krauss is not a Westerner by birth. Growing up in East Berlin he was sent to a socialist kindergarten and attended socialist schools. He saw Moscow for the first time on a school trip during the reign of Leonid Brezhnev. Western history knocked at the door when he was twenty-four; all of his memories are from an era which has become the subject of nostalgic comedy in German cinema. East German goods with their pale color palette have become collectible to ironic enthusiasts. Krauss doesn't share in the nostalgia. His photographic quest, in black and white, brought him to backstage Russia, where life still resembles the nineteenth century.

 

 

 

In the first sixty years of photographic history, up to 1900, there are only a few people who can be identified as predecessors of the modern photographer, as they pursued a certain interest - from above, war - and simultaneously pushed the limits of technique and aesthetics. While photographers of this period don't reveal much like Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. Not even Lewis Carroll can fill the gap: his writing is powerful and lasting, while his photography remains a bittersweet footnote in the history of the medium.

Although the twentieth century invented "youth" through co-ed social movements - hikes, lakeshore nudity, singing around the campfire - and "the new photographer" was ascendant at the same time, not a single modern photographer, up to 1965, has been uniquely linked with the image of children or adolescents, or was widely known for the subject.

Then, ironically, just as the "baby boom" in Western countries came to a sudden halt, the imaginary museum of children began to fill, with Lennart Nilsson's floating embryos, Helen Levitt’s New York sidewalk childhood, David Hamilton’s Côte-d’Azur reveries, Will McBride’s West German “Show Me!” kids, Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s studies of healthy children in derelict houses, and Arthur Tress’ “Dream Collector” project. There were single icons like Diane Arbus' close-up of a crying baby, her haunting image of twin girls, Cartie--Bresson's eternally happy French boy (wine bottles under both arms), Nick Ut's scared-to-death and naked Vietnamese girl, and a girl on a bed, taken from Roman Vishniac's pre-war archive, staring at us from a long gone European ghetto.

Then there was a second wave: Sally Mann's aggressive garden (the meaning of black-and-white already skewed), and a third wave, in Rineke Dijkstra's beaches-turned-stages (with moodily colored swimwear as daring as national flags). The imaginary photographic museum of childhood was becoming crowded. Suddenly, people would think twice about "lending" their child to a photographer. The photographer’s set was beginning to look like a film set, and Hollywood was reaching out to six-year-old leads.

As Ingar Krauss transgressed the line that separates family picture from public portraiture, he was aware that this had become an important genre. He tried the soft images of childhood that led him to the girl in the underpass, titled Hannah, Ediger-Eller 2001. The following year her was making pictures with titles like Russia 2002. he made a sharp turn away from children with names to anonymous kids. He changed his mind in Moscow.

Children were very different in Russia, as was childhood. Krauss, who learned Russian at school, began to do research. He photographed in the suburbs, in a summer camp, in a children’s home. He returned the following year and took pictures in youth penal colonies. There are three for girls in all of Russia, he was told. The girls at these colonies make clothes from themselves, which do not look like uniforms, and for the boys at the other penal colonies, which do.

It was not easy to get access to such places. There were always guards around, or educational staff, and some of the kids wondered "Why Me?," which became the title of Krauss’  first Milan gallery show. The photographer chose beautiful kids and ugly kids, shy ones and outgoing ones, some sensitive, others what we would view as hardened. In the penal colony Alexin, the location he used was a whitewashed outer wall, with a couple of weeds reaching into the picture frame. It becomes clear that he made the boys, one after the other, stand in the same spot to be photographed. In that spot, Krauss altered the position of his camera from vertical to horizontal to photograph two boys who look alike.

 

They are about fourteen, with round faces, dark eyes, and short hair, one facing the camera, the other not. For a moment the viewer would think that this is the same boy, depicted twice, but even as one realizes they are actually two, they still represent, pictorially speaking, different emotions of a single being. It is almost impossible not to read the double portrait as a sequence, as something happening in time, before and after. While the boy looking down represents childhood lost in a tragic instant, the boy facing the camera represents the grown-up who will miss a feature of his own childhood called innocence. It is a child and not a child - a child of age.

The most memorable photographic material coming out of Russia within the past ten years has been the work of Boris Mikhailov. He depicts impoverished people with serious health problems, aggressively showing off their nudity in desolate places, in summer and in winter. There images seem to shout out loud that below the order and discipline of Soviet Russia, there was always something which was ugly and perverse, tucked away, denied, a pathetic humanity without class and without pride. Krauss, too, is aware of the many faces (and grimaces) of Russia’s newly discovered individuals, but this is not what his work is about. He is looking for kids who live in sort of miniature version of a state that once comfortably played the role of punishing father. He recently traveled as far as Arkhangelsk to meet some very young Sisters of Mercy, in the white dress of their orthodox order, and cadets from the merchant navy. It is clear that the photographer is as much interested in the rituals, rules, and pressures of collectives as in the single human who, voluntarily or not, conforms to them.

These indoor portraits put us in contact with a very different tradition in photography: that of the official photograph, or even of the images taken of prisoners, without consent, to be publicly displayed on "Wanted" posters. In this context, the meaning of black-and-white in Krauss’ project has changed, now reminiscent of some recent past in which the black-and-white photograph was standard, something akin to the mechanics of printing. Krauss, of course, does not catalogue faces, and is anything but a paid anonymous photographer (the operator of the machine). One might put him in line with Lewis Hine and Walker Evans, who both kept their intense feel for the powers of individuals while looking closely at their models' living conditions. Indeed, the more seriously you seek out individuals, the more you will see what they lack; although, of course, not having enough to eat and being locked up in prison are not at all the same thing. Krauss has chosen a very special path, comparing Western children and their slightly narcissistic games with the uniform life of kids who have missed out on childhood, a state of being, described in literature as having sold your own shadow.

The modern concept of childhood, from Piaget to Steiner to A.S. Neill, calls for a soft approach to pedagogy, making sure that the child has time to mature, to travel to a point in life at which he or she boards a ship and leaved behind a continent, realizing on looking back that it’s not a continent, it's an island garden. Then, legitimately, a child begins to age. Krauss, like some photographers and writers and painters before him, has noticed that age can overtake maturity. As the individual has hardened with its loss, the institution hardens its approach to pedagogy. Krauss himself was raised in a society that used a soft approach for those who conformed, and an authoritarian approach for those who would not. That may explain the intensity of his Russian portraits, as if any explanation is necessary.