During a three-month artist residency in Dresden, Germany in 2002 and over the next 4 subsequent summers, I explored the city and its outskirts, finding myself increasingly drawn towards photographing empty structures overlooked in the rebuilding, reconstruction, and renewal process still underway. Encountered during these many extended walks throughout the now familiar city, my efforts concentrated on photographing the detritus of human culture discovered in the decaying interior spaces of vacant factories, abandoned apartments, and hotel rooms. The Dresden Project demonstrates the juxtapositions and ironies still abundant in the post-Socialist world, showing the old and the new as well as the grandeur and the decay of these once-majestic buildings.
Concerned with cross-disciplinary issues of aesthetics, contemporary history, cultural & political geography, this long-term photographic project is my most mature and overarching. Combining a sense of Post-romanticism with traces of the remains of the Russians, the East German military-industrial complex in the uninhabited Wilhelminian buildings left behind, the Dresden photographs convey a mixture of melancholy and beauty, even tenderness, without sentimentality. I felt on the front edge of recording history as I documented these scenes of anonymous human stories.
The scope of this extended series, photographing a city steeped in tragic history, required significant leaps in my creative practice to depict the core focus––the human condition. Contrasted with panoramic photographs of both sweeping grandness and of industry in decline––the Baroque to the Postmodern––the later work concentrates on interiors made first in black & white, then exclusively in color. Not focusing on people directly, but upon their artifacts, on structures and objects bearing their imprint, the photographs I created within these vacant, unassuming factory and apartment building interiors transcend the intimate traces of unknown inhabitants whose individual work and lives were subject to a broken system of regiment and surveillance.
The grim mental picture of the former East Germany we imagined––a place gray and oppressive, a society thought to have no state sanctioned religion and little color––was not simply a product of Western Cold War propaganda of the period. However, what I discovered within these apartment interiors was not at all what I expected. Once the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and people, with a new freedom to move about, appeared to have simply walked away. Vacant apartment buildings are clear magnets for vandalism and graffiti. Dresden is no exception. I attempted, especially in the last chapters of interior work in 2005 and 2006, to reference the color aesthetic of these phenomena, the inevitable patina created through the passage and blurring of time notwithstanding. What was of keen interest to me was the pure medium of color––in terms of the evident personal use of color, of painting and its application by anonymous individuals in the private spaces I encountered.
Two decades since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, life in the former German Democratic Republic remains largely unfamiliar to the West and the American experience. Many of the buildings I have photographed in Dresden will likely be rebuilt, transformed, or reduced to parking lots in the months and years ahead, devoid of any real, discernible past. Concerned with transitions of the physical as well as the psychological, my intention is to provide a visual record of this historic period before its traces––and cultural memory––disappear.
“Pictures should look like they were easily taken. Otherwise beauty in the world is made to seem elusive and rare, which it is not.” This statement by photographer and theorist Robert Adams was quoted by Fredrik Marsh in November 2003 at the opening of his second exhibition in Dresden — at the then unrestored Hellerau Festival Theater that still breathed the kind of atmosphere of self-assured decay often portrayed by Fredrik Marsh in his works.
At the time, Marsh still worked mainly in black and white, often choosing the Noblex camera he had successfully used in the expanses of North American deserts to capture elegant panoramas in the style of Ansel Adams or Edward Weston. In Dresden, he now applied this technique from landscape photography to the urban landscape. Having initially allowed himself to be seduced by the touristic surfaces of the reconstructed sights, he very soon moved beyond the historic center and found places where history had left quite different traces. First he sought out abandoned barracks and disused factories in the north of the city. In the black and white panoramic view and the gentle light, they are covered by a conciliatory veil that almost obscures the fact that these are remnants of a world that vanished along with the Cold War.
Over the following years, Marsh made regular return trips to Dresden, the city he had long since identified as a long-term artistic project. He expanded his range of activity to the west of the city where he went in search of motifs in empty tenement blocks. Here, too, he began by foregoing color, letting the contrasts speak for themselves, contrasts between broken objects and traces left by the former inhabitants. Like the decaying army facilities and industrial ruins, these places, too, revealed an overwhelming and inescapable beauty — a “terrible beauty” as Marsh himself has called it, that appears sublime, distanced, elaborate, and in some cases even staged.
But the impression of having been taken with ease as called for by Robert Adams — and the corresponding sense of ubiquitous beauty — really only set in when Marsh decided to work in color. This switch, which represents a major caesura for any art photographer, was also critically influenced by the transition from working out of doors to working in closed spaces. Fredrik Marsh tested his familiar approach in the interiors before changing it. With the move from black and white to color, his compositions gained significantly in both three-dimensional depth and authenticity. Instead of coming across as historical evidence of a distant age, they now appeared as stages with close links to life, the protagonists having just shut the door for the last time or taken a last look in the already crooked mailbox. Marsh himself called them: “Places in a state of flux … Each of them was the previous scene of tumult, activity, human toil, and work — the stuff of daily living, through the complexity of a thousand political and social circumstances, now oddly at rest, in decline, in a state of decay, some utterly abandoned, yet still cared for, still tended. Human presence is pervasive throughout each piece.”
This living presence — in spite of all the lifelessness — is maintained by the matte yellow tiles beside the cooker, the pale orange patterns on the wallpaper, the outline of the sink in brown tape, and the bright red doublet of the young boy by Pinturicchio on a forgotten poster. But Fredrik Marsh resisted the temptation to document especially surreal moments (of which there is no shortage in empty dwellings), concentrating instead on arrangements which are endowed with a certain dignity and which do not leave the viewer alone on the one-way street of purely sentimental interpretations. He thought very carefully about how far he could go with these motifs without the results becoming overly simple, merely replicating the usual clichés of condemned buildings. And he came to the conclusion that in their silent isolation, images like that of the mangled mailbox or the leather-upholstered door take on almost monumental or heroic qualities. In this way, the everyday beauty of these pictures looks just as casual and effortless as Robert Adams demanded.
Fredrik Marsh lives and works in Columbus, Ohio. He attended The Ohio State University, earning his BFA in Photography in 1980 and MFA in Printmaking in 1984.
Marsh was awarded a Guggenheim in 2008. He has been included in over 200 competitive and invitational exhibitions since 1978. During his career, he has received fellowships from Arts Midwest/NEA, Greater Columbus Arts Council, Ohio Arts Council, Saxony, Germany Ministry for Science and Art, and an artist residency in Dresden, Germany.
Selected collections include the Cleveland Museum of Art; Guggenheim Foundation; IMP/GEH, Rochester; Kupferstich-Kabinett Museum, Dresden; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Milwaukee Art Museum; Museet for Fotokunst, Odense; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; MFA–Houston; Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and Stiftung Moritzburg Kunstmuseum–Halle among others.
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