The Eternal Present and the Contested Past
by Fred Ritchin
Recently, outdoors in a Parisian park surrounded by tables of used books for sale, I began discussing a volume of black-and-white photographs of children living in the 1950s with a man in his sixties, a bookseller. He could hardly wait to tell me a story provoked, it seemed, by these pictures. When his son was small, the man recounted, he asked his father an extraordinary question. He wanted to know if, when his father was a child, the world itself was in black and white. The bookseller’s eyes were shining while he looked at me to confirm his own pleasure in such an imaginative leap – his now distant childhood as having been conceived of in shades of gray!
Anton Kusters’ 1078 Polaroid photographs emphasize color, particularly the color blue. To make them, he “traveled 177,828 km, 95% alone, to every corner of the former Third Reich” over five-and-a-half years. He researched the existence of the 1078 former official Nazi Germany SS concentration camps, including 110 early camps first established by local authorities as well as the six mass extermination camps that were built later, based upon information gathered in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum seven-part Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945. He employed a geo-positioning device to locate the sites and weather apps to find out when the skies over them would be blue. In an age of billions upon billions of uploaded images, he limited himself to making only three peel-apart Polaroid images of each largely cloudless sky, the camera always set at the same exposure to uniformly record the reflected light.
Kusters is aware that, unlike digital files, one day these film-and-paper images will fade away. He is happy about that and aware that photographing the past can be paradoxical. “There was nothing left to see at over half of the places,” he says, and many of those living in the vicinity were unaware of the camp’s previous existence. “Often I was hopeless along the way.”
One might then imagine another child asking a question about the past similar to the one posed by the bookseller’s son: When you were young, was the world, or at least its skies, always in blue?
And the hypothetical answer, although hopefully one would never talk to a child this way, might be: No, not at all. But these 1078 photographs are of skies that still hover over the 1078 places where millions of people were rounded up to be tortured and starved to death, to die of disease or to be executed within hours of their arrival, many of them in gas chambers and vans.
But these are the same color skies under which I play football every Sunday, or go to see grandma, or sit in the grass, the child might then insist, not understanding. This is the point, of course. No one understands. The blue skies underline the impossibility of comprehending such horror by anyone with a modicum of what might be called decency.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp,” wrote Elie Wiesel, deported to Auschwitz with his family at the age of fifteen, “which has turned my life into one long night. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”
For those traumatized the horrors persist, often daily, and the seemingly discordant existence of a blue sky can become a reproach. “My favorite tile for years was a simple blue tile with two small silhouettes of the Twin Towers in black with the words, ‘THE SKY WAS SO BLUE…’ written across the top,” Christopher Bergland wrote after the September 11, 2001, attacks in Psychology Today. Newspapers at the time also similarly referenced “a crystal blue bowl of morning sky” (The Hartford Courant), or “the kind of bright blue sky that people who love New York love best in New York” (The New York Times), to describe what seemed at first to be a serene, beautiful day. “It was not just blue, it was a light, crystalline blue, cheerful and invigorating,” George McKenna wrote in The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism.
The canopy of the blue sky seems at the very least incongruous, as if heaven and hell should not be able to co-exist in the same frame.
Sometimes the blue sky can also be thought of as the last fragment of hope, a gesture of redemption. When it came time for an older woman from Homs, a Syrian city that had been incinerated by war, to describe her own home to a group of other refugees, “she paused for a moment, held her arms aloft as she looked at the ceiling,” Coco McCabe wrote on OXFAM’s website, “and managed just one sentence before sobs of longing shook her to her core, ‘The sky is so blue,’ she said.”
World War II concentration camps are usually depicted in photographs that are made up of shades of gray. Upon the publication of these photographs after the war many were shocked by them, with their depictions of extremely sick and emaciated people as well as those who guarded and tortured them, masses of corpses, piles of eyeglasses and shoes. Susan Sontag, a critic known for her commentary on photography’s relationship to the suffering of others, famously remarked, “One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945. Nothing I have seen – in photographs or real life – ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about….”
A large number of Holocaust photographs were made for bureaucratic purposes to keep records destined for Nazi archives, not to arouse the viewer’s empathy. They became part of a methodical attempt at genocide with the Orwellian label of the Final Solution. First published in 1960 in German as Der gelbe Stern, and later in multiple languages (in English as The Yellow Star, the identifying badge that Nazis forced Jews to wear), this book of nearly 200 images contained many such forensic-style photos from German sources as well as a variety of textual materials from archives seized at the end of World War II.
Gerhard Schoenberner’s book shocked much of the German population with its clinical renditions of mass killings and other atrocities accompanied by extracts from documents including field reports from SS officers and concentration camp directors. In the abstract introducing his article, “Pictures of Atrocity: Public Discussions of Der gelbe Stern in Early 1960s West Germany”, Robert Sackett remarks that these images became part of what historian Habbo Knoch called “the return of the pictures”, referring to the atrocity photographs that the Allies had forced many Germans to look at right after the war’s end but were later largely avoided.
West German newspapers and magazines reviewed the book overwhelmingly favorably, Sackett reports, with a “consensus that its pictures would stir viewers emotionally and lead them to ‘the truth’ about the Third Reich and its crime against the Jews.” He added that “there was also an appreciation of the role of pictures in conveying historical understanding and, it was hoped, in educating West German youth.”
While certain kinds of horrors were not shown, Sackett’s description of the book is chilling. Readers “will see a human brain exposed by ‘surgery’ at Dachau, scalp and skull cut away (p. 158), will see photos of women awaiting their murder naked, forced to undress at the shooting site (pp. 96-97), or will see children, the elderly – face after face – in scenes of abuse.” He argues that for the book’s author, selecting such imagery for publication was risky, “an extreme wager on his and his viewers’ ability to overturn the intention for which these pictures were taken and replace it with compassion.”
These images did, finally, provoke disgust and horror, managing to accuse the executioners, even if after the fact, and enlarged the historical record. But they emerged in an era when the photograph was still thought to both record essential truths, “the camera does not lie”, and to do it with extraordinary detail, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Like all photographs, however, they were made in a specific moment to be seen eventually as the past. And as the reader’s knowledge of the larger context in which they were made begins to fade over time, the significance of the events that they initially depicted can become sidetracked. As the English critic John Berger put it, “All photographs are of the past, yet in them, an instant of the past is arrested so that, unlike a lived past, it can never lead to the present. Every photograph presents us with two messages: a message concerning the event photographed and another concerning a shock of discontinuity.”
Part of the shock is what Berger calls the “abyss” separating the time when the photograph was recorded and the moment when we view it, and the diminished meaning that may result. Another aspect can be the relative powerlessness of most viewers to actively respond to the events that are depicted. The photograph, then, can both serve to help establish a trace of events in memory as well as to detach these traces, in some ways similar to Plato’s concept of writing as a means of forgetting. Berger argues in About Looking, “The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.” Referencing Sontag, Berger suggests that this is “the god of monopoly capitalism.”
Interestingly then it was the 1978 four-part, nine-and-a-half-hour American miniseries called “Holocaust”, a televised docudrama mixing fact and fiction, that is said to have reintroduced the horrors of the Holocaust and made them palpable for much of the West German population along with many others. Centered on the wartime experiences of two German families, one Jewish and one Christian, some 50% of West Germans are said to have watched the miniseries when it was aired in early 1979. Following each televised episode historians answered some of the thousands of questions phoned in by often distraught citizens asking how all of this could have happened. It became the acting of Meryl Streep, James Woods, Michael Moriarty and others in a semi-fictional drama that placed the historical record into a national conversation. Subsequently, “Holocaust” was named the German Word of the Year.
But not all responses were positive. As a survivor, the novelist Elie Wiesel was outraged by the broadcast, writing in the New York Times, “The witness feels here duty-bound to declare: What you have seen on the screen is not what happened there. You may think you know now how the victims lived and died, but you do not. Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized. Whether culmination or aberration of history, the Holocaust transcends history. Everything about it inspires fear and leads to despair: The dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy of nor capable of recovering.”
Like Wiesel, the German novelist W. G. Sebald felt that “the recent history of his country could not be written about directly, could not be approached head-on, as it were, because the enormity of its horrors paralyzed our ability to think about them morally and rationally,” as Mark O’Connell wrote in the New Yorker on the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death. “These horrors had to be approached obliquely.” As a result, O’Connell asserts, “the writing itself, gives the impression of being only the faint, flickering shadow of its actual referent. What Sebald seems to be writing about, in other words, is frequently not what he wants us to be thinking about.”
It is as if Sebald wanted to consciously put us within Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where images flicker, easily disconnected from ideas. Sebald himself made photos with a small camera and visited flea markets to collect photographs, postcards and other visual paraphernalia, which he sprinkled within his novels. There they were used in dialogue with the text to further narratives that appear both to be concretized by these documents and called into question; what the uncaptioned photos depict is often unclear.
For Sebald, these photographs can serve a palliative function as well. In one novel, Austerlitz, the eponymous central character, himself of uncertain origin, “is always taking photographs and he entrusts his collection,” Rick Poynor writes in Design Observer, “which ‘one day would be all that was left of his life’, to the narrator, who uses them to assemble his story. After Austerlitz has a breakdown, some of his photographs play a therapeutic role, helping him to reconstruct his ‘buried experiences.’”
The perceived authenticity of the photograph can have a therapeutic effect on people who, due to trauma, have lost access to certain memories. For example, the book Riley and His Story is a 2009 collaboration between a medic who served in the US military in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, with Monica Haller, a college friend who helped him put together a book of his own photographs and text. She subsequently collaborated on some fifty books with other veterans, their families, and civilians.
“Many events in my time in Iraq were too complex, too horrific, or beyond my understanding,” Riley writes. “There were simply too many things I witnessed there on a given day to process, so I stored them as photos to figure out later. Pictures create a concrete reality. At least I know these things happened. They continue to serve that purpose.” Haller describes the volume they produced together as not actually a book but, using a military term, as “an object of deployment.” It is also, she writes on the book’s all-type cover, “an invitation, a container for unstable images, a model for further action. Here is a formula: Riley and his story. Me and my outrage. You and us.” In the attempt to restore memories lost to war, the photographs and accompanying text become an accusation.
Indirectly, Sebald’s novels also probe large-scale societal ruptures through what one might consider as parallel universes. His discussion in Rings of Saturn of a film about silk cultivation in Germany early in the Third Reich is “not so much a way of understanding the Holocaust, so much as it is a way of making us think about how we can’t understand the Holocaust,” O’Connell points out in the New Yorker, citing Sebald, “We see the hatching, the feeding of the ravenous caterpillars, the cleaning out of the frames, the spinning of the silken thread, and finally the killing, accomplished in this case not by putting the cocoons out in the sun or a hot oven, as was often the practice in the past, but by suspending them over a boiling cauldron. The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is completed.” This description of slave labor and mass extermination echoes the barbarities of the Holocaust without serving either as explication or metaphor.
Similarly, Kusters, with his 1078 Polaroid photographs of recent blue skies, each 8 x 10 cm and stamped by a manual typewriter with both its GPS coordinates and the number of victims estimated at each location, depicts a universe parallel to the horrific past below. As the images and their metrics advance within the book, every page is calibrated to represent ten days between 1933-45. Here the blue skies that are shown do no more to explicate the vicious horror of the Holocaust some seventy-five years before than did the sky that Wiesel remarked upon in Auschwitz in 1944. Kusters tells us one story, like Sebald, while asking us to imagine another.
His pictures ask how these skies could appear to be so tranquil after having provided a ceiling for genocide, and in turn, how could we not reflect upon whether similar horrors continue to exist under other blue skies? And, in posing these questions, Kusters also challenges the paradigm of the twentieth-century photograph. He argues for it to be amplified beyond the direct recording of events to grapple with the unfathomable cataclysms of recent times, particularly in the current era already enmeshed in the vertigo of “post-truth.”
Many consider that photographs of the Holocaust, which once served as powerful testimony, now tend to banalize what happened, particularly given the small number of these images that are shown repeatedly as representative of events so that they lose their specificity. Some argue for their removal from wide circulation so as to regain more of a unique, sacred status – a goal which in the era of easy digital reproduction may be impossible to accomplish.
In a larger sense as well, and for a variety of reasons, photographs no longer are perceived as society’s reliable arbiter of events, capable of providing trustworthy descriptions of the physical world that could at times provoke empathy and engagement with issues. Today the photographs may be perceived as digitally altered or otherwise modified, as primarily an expression of opinion, as a product of a journalistic establishment towards which many are skeptical, as essentially a form of branding within the aura of social media, or as too ephemeral, disregarded as well simply because of the sheer volume of competing images that can be found online.
In the twentieth century, the photograph might have confronted the pubic with evidence that was difficult to refute and by doing so challenge the morality of wars, highlight the failures of civil rights protections, or provoke a profound concern for the environment. For example, a single color photograph made on Christmas Eve, 1968, “Earthrise”, depicting this planet from 240,000 miles away as fragile and vulnerable in outer space, stimulated the emergence of the environmental movement, with the inauguration of Earth Day following just sixteen months later. (When Life magazine published the photograph as a double-page spread soon after, they included a poem in the issue by James Dickey ending with the lines, “And behold/ The blue planet steeped in its dream/ Of reality, its calculated vision shaking with/ The only love.”) Unlike half of a century ago, now there are few if any iconic photographs to rally around, and a rapidly diminishing number of front pages of newspapers or magazines upon which to display them. And while previously photographs were often considered to be lynchpins of personal and collective histories, including in family albums, that could displace and override an individual’s own memories; now there is an enormous surfeit of imagery that, like selfies, is largely dedicated to a striving for status rather than exploring complexities.
Kusters’ photographs work differently, resonating symbolically with what Alfred Stieglitz called “Equivalents”, his description of the abstract photographs of cloud formations he made early in the last century. Stieglitz meant his images to be viewed as formal expressions that elicit emotional responses rather than descriptions of an actual physical space. Critic Andy Grundberg asserted in the New York Times that, “The ‘Equivalents’ remain photography’s most radical demonstration of faith in the existence of a reality behind and beyond that offered by the world of appearances. They are intended to function evocatively, like music, and they express a desire to leave behind the physical world, a desire symbolized by the virtual absence of horizon and scale clues within the frame. Emotion resides solely in form, they assert, not in the specifics of time and place.”
In the digital era, photographs have become more quantum-like, perceived as being more of what might have been and what could be rather than reliable recordings of events and people. And in a larger sense as well society’s relationship to the real has evolved, on multiple levels. The “reality-based community”, for example, is a phrase attributed by journalist Ron Suskind to an unnamed official in President George Bush’s administration who used it to denigrate a critic of the government’s policies as someone who bases their judgments on facts. In a 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine, Suskind wrote, “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’. […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”
In the current moment frequently labeled as “post-truth”, with surreal propositions of “alternative facts” and destabilizing allegations of “fake news” prominent in the public discourse, devising alternative approaches to describing and exploring events becomes increasingly urgent for people utilizing documentary or journalistic methodologies. In this vein, Kusters’ collaborator on the Blue Skies Project, musician Ruben Samama, devised an immersive sound installation to provide the metrics that help to tether Kusters’ images to actual events.
He used the same data as Kusters to create a sound piece lasting 4,432 days, the amount of time that passed from the establishment of the first concentration camp in 1933 to the closing of the last one in 1945. His piece generates an individual tone for each victim in the 1078 camps over a dozen years, the pitch changing according to the camp in which each person was held, forcing the viewer to confront time’s passing and the eventual death of millions.
When Samama’s piece was played at a conference lasting several hours in a New York museum, by the time the discussion ended an enormous number of people had died in the parallel universe of the Holocaust created by this installation; one could ask for an exact count of the victims. Afterward, one has only to turn on the news to realize that certain horrors continue that are contemporaneous with our existence today – one may think of Syrian refugees in boats, or people and trees in the Amazon forest, or Uighur Muslims in massive Chinese detention camps. Samama’s piece was created with the software program Excel, widely used by businesses to calculate profits and losses; its architecture mimics the bureaucratic, systematic executions of Jews, gays, Romas, political dissidents, the physically and mentally disabled, prisoners of war, and many others, during the Holocaust.
Kusters considers the collaboration with sound “crucial to bring the work back to an individual experience.” It also unites the spatial, the skies, along with their intimations of the earth below, with the temporal, as time’s passing is linked to civilization’s unraveling. Teun van der Heijden, the book’s designer, replicated this effect by placing ten equidistant notches at the bottom of each page, each notch representing another day, the background colors changing to light blue to introduce another main camp, then becoming dark and violent as the extermination camps accelerated the killing towards an unimaginable, industrial scale from 1942 onwards as part of Operation Reinhard. The book is largely abstract, but it charts a calibrated progression within the metrics of a ruthless horror as it unfolded. The book reflects on time and space, and the barbarism that can emerge within their vastness.
The alternative strategies that are utilized in this project and many others can be considered to be “conceptual documentary.” They emerge as we find ourselves on the cusp of a potentially even deeper rupture in media. The credibility of lens-based and other recording media will soon become even more suspect as easy-to-use software emerges that employs artificial intelligence and machine learning to synthesize new forms of media easily camouflaged as the older forms that they so closely resemble. Recently, for example, the website “thispersondoesnotexist.com” appeared, allowing viewers to continually refresh their screens to see a stream of photorealistic, camera-less images of people who were never alive but look as real as one’s neighbors and friends. There was a similar website created that presented photorealistic imagery of non-existent cats, and another for non-existent Airbnb rentals with texts written by computers to describe the fabricated imagery.
A video of former President Obama appeared online during which he was made to say things that he never said, while highly realistic audio has appeared of former President John F. Kennedy giving the speech that he was supposed to give in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the day of his assassination. Realistic-looking photographs and videos will soon be routinely generated of people and places that never existed. And one tech company recently decided, for the first time, not to release a new software, a writing program created by artificial intelligence, because they felt that it could destabilize journalism by generating masses of realistic but false articles.
All of this will make it increasingly difficult to verify descriptions of not only contemporary events but the historical record as well. For whether such software has actually been utilized or not in a specific instance, its potential use will call into question much of what is viewed online, heard on the radio, watched on television, read in news publications, or taught in history classes. Instead of “the camera never lies” the popular phrase may well become “it’s only a photograph.” As one user of such synthesizing software commented, “If anything can be real, nothing is real.” Or, as technologist Aviv Ovadya, who has gathered a consortium of colleagues in the tech industry to respond to these challenges, asked, “What happens when anyone can make it appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did?”
Faced with these challenges, there is growing consternation among both tech and media professionals. One tech veteran, Mark Pesce, wrote a disturbing, 8000-word essay on the impact of digital media, “The Last Days of Reality.” And after reporting on the growing ability to create fake videos, New York Times writer Kevin Roose remarked, “And there’s probably nothing we can do except try to bat the fakes down as they happen, pressure social media companies to fight misinformation aggressively, and trust our eyes a little less every day.” Or, as Zeynep Tufekci asserted in Wired magazine, “The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself.”
And then there is filmmaker Wim Wenders, who remarked that “The digitized picture has broken the relationship between picture and reality once and for all. We are entering an era when no one will be able to say whether a picture is true or false. They are all becoming beautiful and extraordinary, and with each passing day, they belong increasingly to the world of advertising. Their beauty, like their truth, is slipping away from us. Soon, they will really end up making us blind.”
Photographs and videos of people on the verge of being slaughtered, for example, no matter how visceral, may provoke little in terms of a pragmatic response, as the New York Times’s architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, commented in an anguished article entitled, “Aleppo’s Faces Beckon to Us.” He quoted German Chancellor Angela Merkel as saying, “When a free-trade agreement with the U.S.A. drives hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, but such horrible bombings as in Aleppo do not trigger any protest, then something is not right.” Similarly, the 55,000 photographs smuggled by a military policeman codenamed Cesar out of a Syrian prison where 11,000 young men were tortured and killed elicited a very modest reaction in the world – a sobering corollary to those who hoped that if only more photographs had been circulated of the concentration camps during World War II then governments would have been provoked to respond militarily. Today, flicking a finger on a cellphone to instantly discard an image of such suffering can be profoundly obscene.
Kusters is asking the viewer of his images to be what Roland Barthes called the active reader, the one who abandons passivity and joins the author in determining meaning. By not presenting historical photographs or depicting the camps themselves, Kusters opens a new terrain that evokes a simulacrum, a map without a territory, and argues that it too can be linked to the unfathomable, to a particular territory that both “transcends history,” as Wiesel put it, and resides within it. The hovering blue skies can then recall other issues that need to be addressed, among them the extraordinary and urgent challenges of climate change.
Every viewer knows that one day these photographs will disappear, but the blue skies they depict will not fade into the past; they will persevere no matter what occurs below. Intuitively then, Kusters has created photography of the eternal present that hangs over an incomprehensible and highly contested past.
And in the meantime, as Charles Simic put it, “The world seems to be divided today between those horrified to see history repeat itself and those who eagerly await its horrors.”
Looking up, the blue skies peer down at us.
— © Fred Ritchin, Paris 2019
Fred Ritchin has worked as a writer, teacher, editor and curator for over four decades on the relationship of visual media to the understanding and potential betterment of contemporary societies. He is Dean Emeritus of the International Center of Photography.
This essay is reproduced in full from the published monograph “1078 Blue Skies / 4432 Days” by Anton Kusters