One of the photographers whose work I enjoy is Harald Hauswald (find out more about him on his webpage following this link). Much of his work was published by a publishing house called Lehmstedt-Verlag.
When I discovered that yet another recently published book that I very much enjoyed, this time Uwe Steinberg’s volume Berlin (see this link), was also published by Lehmstedt, I decided to study the webpage of the publisher a bit more thoroughly, checking if there was anything else of interest to me.
Unsurprisingly, there was a fair bit that sounded interesting. I was especially struck, however, by one title: Axel Heller’s Maramureş: Rumänien 2005-2014 (see this link). I purchased it immediately, and I was excited to open the parcel, once UPS had actually managed to deliver it (don’t ask…).
One particular reason why I was especially curious to obtain this volume was one of personal interest: only a few weeks ago, I had been to Romania and visited this part of the world myself, and it has made a lasting impression on me with its landscapes, its culture(s), its history, and, most of all, its people.
For copyright reasons, I cannot reproduce the photos of Heller’s book here (well, I probably could, but I was too lazy to ask permission: life is short). A selection of them is available, however, via the publisher’s webpage (here is the link once more).
Most of Heller’s photos, all shot in black and white over a period of ten years, are really striking: they are a mixture of close portraits, scenes, landscapes, and, again and again, religious events, interspersed with random scenes of humping farm animals, slaughtered farm animals, and (human) funerals.
Heller truly managed to get close to the humans he portrayed, and he has a good eye for the perfect moment. All photos also reveal that Heller really took his time to compose his shots carefully and thoughtfully: no element of haste or blurriness anywhere.
A big question is, of course, whether black-and-white photography is actually the best way to capture this region with its vivid colours. Is it possible to do it justice in this reductionist way, if the reduction affects an important aspect of the subject itself? It is relatively easy to make things look old, decrepit, and a bit tired and sad in black and white, and it is easy (as well as tempting) to suggest timelessness in black and white photography, even where there is none.
Much of Heller’s foreword suggests, of course, that this was precisely what struck him in Romania – his discovery of a time capsule, in all its seasons, in the middle of Europe, so to speak. He captures and conveys this feeling in his photos skillfully – and it would be very wrong to complain that he did not compose and publish the book that I would have liked to study.
As I have said on another occasion (read more here), colour photography is not my preferred mode, though I thoroughly enjoy it. I tried to capture some aspects of religious life in the region on Lomochrome Metropolis medium format film (which I’ve tried as 35mm film with pleasing results before: see here). I still like the way in which the noise is muffled in the exposures (photos from the monastery of Bârsana and from Breb):
Perhaps even more successful, to my mind, was to shoot with expired Portra 160 medium format film at the Merry Cemetery (Cimitirul Vesel) in Săpânța, where the bright colours of the wooden monuments, the folkloristic wood carvings, and delightful poems (read more about them here) began to stand out even more due to the degradation of the film’s chemicals:
My main issue with Heller’s book, however, it finally dawned on me, is not the absence of colour in it. I, too, took black-and-white photos in Romania, when I felt that a scene spoke to me and I had the opportunity to do so. My main issue is that, to my mind, Heller’s Romania was turned into a Sehnsuchtsort, a place of longing and yearning, in which a notion of timelessness, hardship, and pre-industrial life could be romanticised and idolised: a past that never existed spilling over into a present that is incomplete, communicating an image that says much more about the ideas and ideals of the artist than about the subjects and objects that he portrays.
The clearest evidence for this I found in one picture – a picture of an old lady leaping over some water – Heller’s image is here. This photo is an obvious evocation of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic photo “Behind the Saint Lazare station” (cf. here) and Eliott Erwitt’s photo of a man jumping over a puddle in Paris (cf. here), transposing the urban shot into a preindustrial rural landscape.
Again, I cannot criticise a book for not being the book that I would have liked to study.
But still, I miss so much in this book – so much of what, to my mind, makes Romania’s Maramureş special.
I miss those millions of stories that need to be told, with genuine love and passion, be they true or made-up or a bit of both.
The stories that are told by locals in folk rhymes and lyrics, with the only expectation that someone listens, interacts, communicates.
The stories that are told by individuals like this gentlemen here, 80-some years old, a basket weaver, in Breb – a man who exudes joy and vitality, not only at an advanced age, but in the face of many an adversity that he encountered during a life full of hardship.
The stories, deep and moving, lighthearted and hysterically funny, told – finally – when someone stops to listen to them, and doesn’t just move on: “We’ll come back later.” – “Yeah, they all say that, and then they don’t come back.”
The stories of a man who told us that “some prince has a house here, a bit further up the road – prince of England, methinks.”
I miss the tradition and folklore beyond the religious.
The folklore that is simultaneously very alive and also fossilised, largely for the benefit of the tourists.
Like the performances of musicians, playing, singing, and dancing the ever same tunes, for those who spend a day on the Mocănița railway.
I would like to find a manifestation of the hopes and ambitions of those who want to do the right thing, of those who want to build something for the greater good – and then are hindered by bad luck, corruption, or lack of support.
In Vişeu de Sus, at the Mocănița railway station, fragments of an exhibition documenting Maramureş villages and architecture, railway history, and even the Jewish population of the area were visible.
Alas, the project appears to be stuck. Derailed. End of the line.
I miss the hope of parents, the joy of children in this book – locals and tourists alike, from the highly educated to the very simple-minded.
A society, alive, in all its facets rather than an ethnographic museum with a static display.
I miss how tradition and modernity, loneliness and connectivity, profound contemplation and shallowness meet.
I miss the absurd clashes of traditional wood architecture and alien constructions of recent.
Like those many U.F.O. churches, with their ridiculously shiny roofs, in the middle of an so traditional, mostly rural and industrial landscape – like this one here in Vişeu de Sus.
I miss to see references to the horror of the communist regime – the horror that has painstakingly been documented at the Museum of the Memorialul Victimelor Comunismului şi al Rezistenţei, the memorial for the victims of communism and of the resistance, in Sighetu Marmatiei.
I miss the many cultural, ethnic, and social clashes and contradictions, all those interwoven narratives and timelines, that are palpable everywhere in this area.
And finally, where are all the dogs…?
What I take away from reading Heller’s book, in addition to the joy of seeing many wonderful photographs and a distinct feeling that his vision of the Maramureş is not mine, is a lesson for my own photography: I must avoid the pitfalls of using black-and-white photography to create clichéd notions of timelessness or, worse, of a romanticising projection of a past that never existed onto a present that is, in actual fact, a fair bit different.
And for that lesson, I am grateful.