The Abyss Beneath Us: Anton Kusters’ The Blue Skies Project
Ulrich Baer (2020)
“Whoever walks on his head has the sky as an abyss beneath him.” This perplexing sentence is found in the Jewish poet Paul Celan’s poetic manifesto, “The Meridian,” delivered in 1961 in Germany as an impassioned and desperate defense of poetry’s capacity to bear witness to trauma and survival. For the Romanian-born Celan, who had lived through the Holocaust but whose parents did not survive, poetry had to turn on its head the tendency for aestheticizing and generating meaning out of absence to bear witness to trauma and survival. By walking on one’s head, Celan proposed, we have the precarious chance to recognize the sky as the abyss it actually is, rather than have this natural sight serve as the anchor for a metaphoric, transcendent shelter of existence. There is no such overarching order or greater meaning called “Heaven,” Celan proposed, playing also on the fact that the German language, which he chose to testify to the Holocaust in his poetry, knows no semantic distinction between heaven and sky. We must disabuse ourselves of the comforting notion of heaven as anchoring a greater truth and transcendent meaning also promised by “art,” Celan said, in order to recognize our humanity after the Holocaust’s devastation. The idea of an overarching meaning for humanity embodied by the sheltering sky above, Celan said, was one of the delusional fantasies that had led to the disaster.
What does it mean to bear witness to unimaginable suffering without integrating this loss into an overarching idea of life itself? What would it mean to regard the blue sky above us as an indifferent “abyss” that radically exposes rather than protect us, and not as the canopy that sublimates pain and loss into something meaningful from which we can learn?
For the past several years, Belgian photographer Anton Kusters has traveled the continent of Europe to photograph the sky above the sites of former Nazi concentration camps. Instead of photographing the few marked and officially tended memorials at the well-documented camps, including Auschwitz, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Terezín, or the frequently unmarked, often desolate, razed or overgrown sites where several million innocent people were incarcerated, starved, tortured, subjected to disease, and systematically murdered in basement cells, pseudo-medical facilities, gas chambers and countless unmarked places, Kusters turned his camera upwards, to the sky. The resulting images, I propose, show the sky not as the comforting cerulean canvas lined with hope but as abyssal. By taking only polaroids, themselves fragile paper images in need of constant care and curation lest they fall victim to forgetting and neglect, Kusters draws our eyes into a recessive blue that seems to emerge from a halo of darkness. This basic technical effect of image-making with a Polaroid camera also tells us a truth: our blue skies and the earth’s atmosphere fall (or rise, since there is no direction in the universe) at the speed of about 1.7 kilometers/hour through a cold, dark, meaningless void. There is only abyssal darkness without meaning, direction, or purpose in which we perceive and invest with tremendous meaning, a patch of blue.
At first glance, Kusters’ grid of so many subtly varied blue and a few clouded patches of sky above the 1,078 camps operated by the Germans between March 10, 1933, five days after a coalition including the Nazi party was elected, and May 9, 1945, when Nazi Germany was defeated by the Allied Forces in Europe, seems to have little in common with Paul Celan’s surrealist image of a poet walking on his head. But Kusters re-orients his and ultimately our point of view, turning the usual perspective literally on its head, in order to account for the magnitude of the crimes committed by the Nazis, during a moment when the last generation of survivors is dying. The first step toward such a perspective is to turn our heads and eyes away from the temptation of revisiting sites and scenes of horrific suffering in search of finally understanding what happened there. What happened there, also, is the fact that despite the enormous and painstaking efforts to research, record and remember, no historical, artistic or other work will ever reconstitute all that was destroyed and lost. Many of those persecuted by the Nazis were murdered and their remains cremated in industrial ovens. They, in Paul Celan’s haunting and deliberately disturbing line from his 1944 poem, “Death Fugue,” found “a grave in the sky where it’s not too cramped to lie.”
I took several trips to the sites of former camps in the 1990s and also a few months ago. After visiting these places, some meticulously documented and now massive visitors’ destinations and others completely forgotten, unmarked, and overgrown, I understood less than at the moment of departure. I had spent years listening to and transcribing hundreds of survivor testimonies at the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Survivor Testimonies at Yale University, read countless books, conducted archival research, and published several articles and books on the representation and commemoration of the Holocaust. But I had gone in search of understanding, not fully realizing that understanding is too close to explaining, too close to embedding the Holocaust into a larger, overarching order of human existence we variously call history, morality, or the truth. What I had to unlearn was the desire for closure, for understanding and through understanding for history be laid to rest. But I also had to unlearn, after recognizing its existence, the temptation to succumb to a cynical or supercilious attitude of post-modern relativism and moral defeat. I had to recognize that the suffering, loss and silence of the Holocaust but also the stories of survival and life will not become part of a unified historical narrative like so many places under the blue sky but will continue to haunt us. I had to learn that prevalent morality and dominant historiography does not explain what happened, but that giving up on morality or history would hand victory to the perpetrators. In fact, I had to unlearn the very gesture and purpose of learning, which all too often means to understand and master things in order to keep them from transforming us. I had to experience each of these sites on its own terms, as if each location were topped by a completely different sky, even though all of the sites were constructed by the same murderous regime and ended up, overwhelmingly, with suffering and only sporadic and hard-won instances of survival.
Kusters’ project, I think, chronicles a similar journey, from the desire to understand to the failure of understanding that is shattering but nonetheless different from defeat. In the vast canon of Holocaust photographs and post-Holocaust art, Kusters’ project is also a work of humility and respect. The Holocaust, in spite of the Nazis’ obsessive efforts to conceal their crimes, was widely documented by photography and film. The vast majority of these images, with some crucial exceptions in the form of clandestine Jewish archives and resistance photos, were taken by the perpetrators. But reprinting those archival images can inadvertently repeat the original gesture of humiliating the victims and survivors, unless the picture are meticulously re-framed, properly re-captioned, and wrested from the ideological and aesthetic Nazi point of the view. Even the famous images of liberated camps by Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller, Mikael Levin and other professional photographers who arrived at Dachau and Buchenwald with the American Armed Forces in 1945 can become icons of destruction rather than testaments to survival and life. Then there are the post-war images of empty landscapes and voided and destroyed sites, by photographers such as Mikael Levin, Dirk Reinartz, Judy Glickman, Jegor Zaika, and others. Though powerful, these photographs of emptiness also risk producing a kind of political indifference in viewers by satisfying the inchoate obligation to confront past atrocity without having to do the work of researching its vast dimensions and its implications for the present, including listening to survivors.
Kusters turns his camera away from the sites of Nazi crimes, many of which are unmarked and entirely forgotten today outside of historians’ circles and the personal memories of those who were imprisoned and tortured there, or did the imprisoning and torturing. From the meticulously indexed camp locations stamped on his images that are also, in many instances, burial grounds with countless unmarked graves, he turns his camera directly up, to the blue skies above. But this turn is not a turn away from atrocity. In many of the 1,078 locations Kusters has visited, there would be little to see. Even in the publicly maintained memorial for camps such as Dachau, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sachsenhausen or others, he would have to resort to pictorial conventions to achieve whatever point he aimed to make, for instance of landscape photography, documentary image-making, or using filters and varying exposure times. Instead of relying on the formal and technical repertoire of image-making, Kusters turns his camera at the emptiness in which we find ourselves, always. He photographs the empty blue above in order to break with the nightmarish repetition of spectacular suffering, and to counter the disastrous seduction of perfectly composed shots that resemble, on the formal and aesthetic level, the totalized systems where everything makes sense and the final solutions without a remainder that led to genocide in the first place. There are successful projects of depicting former Holocaust sites, but what does “success” mean in this context? By refusing to produce effective pictures of a genocide that had been frighteningly “effective,” Kusters produces an archive of the unseen. Looking into the sky, once we look at Kusters’ project through the spectral lens provided by Paul Celan and other survivors who broke with conventional art in order to bear witness, means to glimpse the human not as the site of complete self-understanding but of self-difference and self-loss. It means to see the project of knowledge production and its formal expression in image-making as leading not to closure but to countless disparate and not randomly interchangeable encounters with the abyss. By producing 1,078 polaroid shots of the blue sky, each stamped with the geospatial data that allows even those camps to be indexed which official history has forgotten, Kusters’ typological project shows that even emptiness, even loss, is never the same.
Are these skies mocking us with their cerulean beauty, since underneath their cruel indifference human beings inflicted abominable acts upon innocent people? Or are they meant to comfort us in the wake of inestimable loss? I locate Kusters’ work in a place slightly adjacent to but not entirely removed from these moral concerns. His 1,078 blue polaroids challenge our all too human need for closure and consolation. They provide a space for contemplating, quietly and gently, a crime of such horrific dimensions that its scope often threatens to snuff out the intimate and deeply human stories contained therein.
But there is a second, technical and historical rather than philosophical and psychological dimension to Kusters’ project. From the inception of photography in Paris in 1839 by the pioneering work of Nicéphore Nièpce, it has proven difficult to photograph both the sky and the landscape underneath without over- or underexposing one part of the picture. For the first few decades of photography, the daguerrotypes but also later images are topped by a milky white where we imagine the sky to be. In 1858, the French photographer Charles Marville won a prize at the World Exposition for being first in successfully capturing a sky dotted with ethereal clouds on the same print as the Parisian rooftops below. Until that time, photographers had glued together two images, of the sky above and the earthly scene below, to show our world as spanned by a recognizable natural sky above rather than being suspended in a void. This practice of stitching together an image with other shots of the sky taken at different exposures persists to this day. But our ability to interpret especially black-and-white photographs as filled not with emptiness but simply with the presumed absence of the recessive blue that normally draws our eyes into space is learned rather than natural. We have learned to mentally fill in the skies in black-and-white photographs because we assume that the sky, unless it was overcast and obscured by clouds, is blue. With pictures dating to the period of the Holocaust, this is different. There the absence of a sky looks like a reflection of the circumstances rather than a merely technical effect. Kusters now tells us, in over 1,000 images, that the skies were sometimes of a deep azure, a midnight navy, or a breezy cerulean above Neuengamme and Auschwitz-Birkenau, above Ballenstedt and Plawy. It’s a blue the people imprisoned there also saw, perhaps as the final vista they ever glimpsed. Even the few images we have from inside the camps and those taken by Soviet army photographers and American professionals such as Bourke-White and Miller show everything above the barracks, the skeletal survivors, the evasive, tight-faced remaining guards, and the mountains of corpses to be a place emptied of visual content. By painstakingly supplying the blue above the many sites for which no photographs exist, Kusters movingly restores something that had been missing.
This can be said differently: the sky has no history. By arranging his polaroids of varied shades of blue in a grid Kusters shows that the sites indicated on his pictures in the form of GPS data must become part of history through our actions, rather than by virtue of the natural passage of time. They must be actively remembered and inscribed into memory rather than just be registered among all of the things that happened. The sky captured in his polaroids is timeless, in the sense of not belonging to a human notion of history. This allows Kusters to open with each image our present moment onto the past, rather than commemorating the past as a sequence of events that leads in a straight line to our presence but is irretrievably lost.
He photographs the enormously fine gradations of blue above each former camp site because we have been taught, either through archival images or the contemporary practice of photographing the camps today, to assume that the sky above Auschwitz and the 1,037 other camps was a washed out, bleak and colorless empty field. It was not bleak but continued in its indifferent blue. But he also shows, once we have realized that these skies were blue, that each camp was topped by different hues, and that our longing for an over-arching explanation that envelops everything and for a historical narrative that contains all past events, is an illusion.
In a subtle and deeply sensitive practice steeped in painstaking research, Kusters restores the blue skies that photography has failed to record for the camps. What official, Nazi-sanctioned photography overwhelmingly failed to record was the tremendous strength, courage and hope that persisted, in spite of everything. Contemporary artists and filmmakers such as Dariusz Jablonski have pried Nazi-authored images out of the visual regime of oppression to counter the perspective of subjugation with an empowering point of view. But the washed out emptiness in the majority of archival photographs has unwittingly become a visual symbol of memory’s defeat in the face of irrecuperable loss. It has become the implicit symbol of the camps as places of no return, which is horrifically true for so many millions. But this implicit symbol risks effacing the memory of those who were murdered without a trace and of the survivors whose stories were not publicly acknowledged. Of course nothing lost and destroyed in the camps can ever be fully restored. The destruction of the means to commemorate the Holocaust, in fact, was part of the Nazis’ deluded master plan. They executed their crimes specifically to prevent commemoration. By side-stepping the usual impulse to photograph sites of atrocities in order to learn, Kusters’ pilgrimage across the European continent bears witness to this loss rather than trying to fill it in, or letting that loss be forgotten.
In his “Meridian” speech which remains indispensable for understanding the challenges of creating poetry after the Holocaust, the poet Paul Celan, who died of suicide in 1970, had sounded an unexpected note of optimism.
Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of your breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way – a way of art – for the sake of just such a turn? And since […] the abyss […] seem[s] to lie in the same direction – it is perhaps this breath turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? […] Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?
Anton Kusters’ 1,078 images, made over the span of seven years by turning his camera upwards, like a poet turning his breath, sets something “free” in this paradoxical sense meant by Celan. These images of various blue skies set us free to “sort out the strange from the strange.” They allow us to recognize what is strange and even abyssal, without allowing this strangeness to become a site of fascination or exclusion, which is a frequent response to trauma. They allow us to make distinctions between what is strange but could become familiar through experience or knowledge, and what is strange in every human but must never be assimilated or made to conform. They let us see 1,078 patches of blue sky as singularly empty and thus radically “strange” in this second sense evoked by Celan, rather than as fragments of a transcendent whole into which everything can be integrated. These images let us reflect on the Holocaust without our being disabled by trauma but also without integrating its events into a unified historical story. They register irredeemable loss without continuing the logic of relentless documentation aiming for mastery and complete knowledge also employed by the Nazis. They confront us with emptiness without giving up on partial understanding and the hope it brings.
— © Ulrich Baer, New York 2020
Ulrich Baer is Professor at New York University and writes regularly on literature, photography and culture. His books include: Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (MIT, 2002), Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation (2018), and What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth, and Equality on Campus(Oxford University Press, 2019).
A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in the catalogue of the 2020 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, published by The Photographers’ Gallery in London, UK.
The Eternal Present and the Contested Past
by Fred Ritchin (2019)
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
Blue Skies: A Conservation View
by Jane E. Klinger and Joan M. Walker (2019)
Photographs are ubiquitous in our daily lives, from food shots to selfies to kittens. In this digital age, hundreds of images can be easily produced and then casually deleted. Cameras are carried daily as a matter of course and have an alternative function as communication devices that would more aptly be called cell cameras rather than cell phones. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, however, photography was fully ensconced in the analog world, reliant upon a system that produced a negative from which the physical positive was printed. Both components required careful chemical processing in a darkroom in order to produce a usable negative and a high-quality print. Within this context, “instant” film products, made by Polaroid and other manufacturers, were a revelation. Suddenly, an image could be captured and magically appear in one’s hand within minutes.
Invention and Commercialization of Instant Prints
In 1948 Edwin H. Land, the visionary scientist and founder of the Polaroid Corporation, introduced the first camera and film system that produced instant prints: the Land Model 95. Land cited his young daughter’s impatience to see a photograph as soon as it was taken as his motivation to invent the instant print. The earliest systems produced only black-and-white prints; color instant film was not introduced to the market until 1963. Although all were commonly called “Polaroids,” both Kodak and Fuji entered the instant print market in the 1970s and 1980s. Beginning with the rise of digital technology in the 1990s, however, all forms of analog photography have faced a steep decline. The Polaroid Corporation filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and ceased manufacturing cameras but continued making film until 2008. When Polaroid announced it would stop production of its instant film, amateur users, artists, and photographers who were committed to analog media all decried its passing. The Impossible Project (now known as Polaroid Originals) quickly announced its formation and the goal of continuing the production of instant film in the same formats and configurations as those of the Polaroid Corporation, following the Polaroid patents.
Fujifilm has been continuously producing instant film for almost forty years, starting in Japan in 1981. Until the appearance of Polaroid Originals, Fuji made one of the few remaining pack films, called FP-100C, that could be used in the vintage Polaroid cameras. FP-100C film was popular with enthusiasts and professionals, not only because of the clarity of the print, but because the negative could be recovered, cleared, and used for making further prints. Fujifilm ceased production of FP-100C professional instant color film in 2016 but has continued production of the Instax system in multiple formats, primarily geared towards the amateur market that remains fascinated by the magic of a photograph appearing before one’s eyes.
Black-and-White Instant Prints
The Polaroid Land Model 95 camera produced finished black-and-white prints in a few minutes once the shutter was pressed. The system comprised a roll of negative paper that incorporated a light-sensitive silver halide, a positive paper with no light-sensitive component, and a developing agent. After the negative paper was exposed to light through a camera, it was pressed in direct contact with the roll of positive paper in the presence of the developing agent. The silver not used to form the negative diffused to the positive paper to form the final print. This method evolved into an integrated system featuring a self-contained film pack to expose, develop, and fix an image. Each individual film pack was enclosed in a black envelope to prevent light from fogging the components.
Cassettes of film packs were easily loaded into the camera and exposed by the consumer. While the various types of these integrated pack film systems vary in the details, they all have the negative and positive components plus a pod containing a viscous developing and stabilizing chemical reagent mixture. After exposure, the film assembly is pulled from the camera. This action causes the pod to burst, releasing the reagent. As the film passes between the rollers, the reagent spreads between the two papers, developing the negative. The negative component, pressed against the positive sheet, releases its unused silver halide, which diffuses to the positive film to produce the image. Processing continues outside the camera over several minutes (from one to ten minutes, depending on the film type) until the negative is peeled away from the positive, revealing the final silver print. Chemical reactions will continue in the photograph until the alkaline developing agent is neutralized with an acidic material, which was originally applied by hand to the print after the negative was peeled away. The coating hardened as it dried, providing a significant degree of protection of the image from physical and chemical damage.
Color Instant Prints
Polaroid introduced Polacolor, the first color instant print product, in 1963. Deceptively simple, the chemical processes required to produce an instant print in color are among the most technically advanced in the history of photographic technology. While the fundamental positive-negative concept and reagent pod with roller-transport system of Polacolor are similar to the black-and-white products, the chemistry involved is vastly more complex.
Instant color systems consist of up to twenty layers within and surrounding the negative and positive components. These layers contain all the dyes, developers, reagents, fixatives, and various polymers that are required to render a stable, color-balanced image from the light entering the camera. Diffusion of the reagent that develops the image, the reactions needed to fix the photograph, and the drying of the protective surface layer must all be carefully timed to produce a viable image without the intervention of the photographer. Simply put, the photograph as a positive print results from the diffusion and transfer of an array of image-forming components from the negative layer by the release of a developing agent. The presence of carefully designed components causes all chemical activity to start and stop at the appropriate times. When the negative is peeled away, the print comes in contact with the air, and the surface dries and hardens to form a glossy, protective coating.
In 1972, Polaroid introduced SX-70, a one-step process that did not require the negative to be peeled away. It is called an “integral film” because all the chemical components that formed the negative as well as the final image reside within a sealed plastic envelope. Because in integral film there is no separate negative, the developing reagent had to be neutralized within the plastic envelope in order to stop all the chemical reactions from continuing but still yield a lasting photograph.
Use and Conservation of Instant Prints
Instant film was marketed for use in situations where it was undesirable to have to wait for conventional film to be processed and printed, such as for passports and other identity documents. Instant films in various formats up to 20 × 24 inches and formulations producing transparent, translucent, or opaque images were manufactured for different uses. But from the beginning, Polaroid encouraged the use of instant film by artists and even developed a direct relationship with Ansel Adams to test and review instant film products. It was a relationship that lasted several years and influenced Polaroid’s research and further development of the company’s products. Other artists, including Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Robert Mapplethorpe, became enamored of the simplicity and immediacy of the technology in creating artworks. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Lucas Samaras experimented with putting their own stamp on the final image by manipulating the prints in various ways, such as unevenly coating a print in order to encourage localized deterioration or selectively applying pressure to an SX-70 to distort the image.
With many well-known artists experimenting with instant film to produce unique works of art comes the inevitable passage of the photographs from studios to collectors and cultural institutions. Once these sensitive photographs move into the domain of the museum their preservation becomes imperative. Instead of enjoying the immediacy that made instant prints popular with artists and the general public, the museum must focus on their preservation and comply with high ethical and professional standards to ensure the longevity of the objects in its care. The chemical instability of instant prints is well documented, but comprehending their material composition and pathways of degradation is complex. Further complicating the analytical study of instant prints and their conservation is the fact that, unlike conventional color photographs, the dyes, processing chemicals, and reagents that remain in instant prints may cause unpredictable changes, such as fading.
As with traditional photographic film and prints, color instant film contains more layers than the black-and-white versions. Three of the negative image forming layers are silver halide emulsions, each sensitive to a primary color. Other associated layers contain dye developers or dye releasers in complementary colors. In addition, there are various interlayers, processing reagent layers, neutralizing and fixing layers, as well as the image receiving layer and various protective coatings. The specific compositions of the layers are proprietary formulae, further complicating the full understanding of how a given print will degrade or how the dyes may shift in value over time. Such information would greatly aid in being able to predict which conservation treatments might successfully address any deterioration.
Blue Skies at the USHMM
From 2012 to 2017, Anton Kusters used Fujifilm FP-100C peel apart instant color film for the Blue Skies Project. Because of the sensitive nature of this medium, each time the work is to be shown Kusters requires an ‘act of conservation’ by the exhibiting institution. In the case of the exhibition at the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 2019-2020, conservation staff decided to test the sensitivity of the photographs to the specific environmental conditions to which the work would be subjected.
A quick daylight test was performed to ascertain how quickly the prints were likely to fade. A test print was placed into a black mat board sleeve with part of the image exposed. This was mounted directly onto a south-facing window and examined periodically for any fading or color shift. Light at the window averaged 750 lux during daylight hours. After forty-four days, an easily perceptible amount of fading and color shift had occurred, confirming the light-sensitive nature of the prints and the need for further investigation (Figure 1).
A test print placed into a black mat board sleeve with part of the image exposed.
The exhibit case with a data logger to record temperature, relative humidity, and light levels.
In making preservation recommendations, museum professionals consider many variables, e.g. temperature, relative humidity, and light exposure, that may affect a work of art while it is being stored or on display. In order to understand the possible effects of exhibition on the photographs, two of the test prints were mounted in a small exhibit case on the wall where Blue Skies was to be displayed. Black mat board covered half of each photograph to prevent light exposure. A data logger was included within the case to record temperature, relative humidity, and light levels; readings were set to record at ten minute intervals (Figure 2). Such “real life” testing not only can indicate light sensitivity, but also may highlight the effects of variations of temperature and humidity. Testing occurred over ten weeks, from mid-August until November 2018. Recorded data showed light levels peaked at 650 lux during the brightest parts of the day, slowly dropping to 50 lux by evening. Overnight light intensity averaged 27.5 lux as only a few work lights are on in the building. The light levels then began to gradually increase at sunrise with a jump when general museum and exhibition lights turn on. Temperatures inside the case were shown to be within acceptable limits as the area is fully air conditioned. As relative humidity is not controlled in this space, it did fluctuate beyond recommended limits, as high as 65% on humid or rainy days and below 45% on cooler, drier ones. Slight color shifts were noticed by comparing the covered sections to the exposed sections of the instant prints, but no planar distortions from the fluctuations in temperature and humidity were detected, possibly due to how the prints were mounted with the mat board cover.
Microfading to Predict Color Change
While these tests provided basic practical feedback as to how the instant prints would stand up to exhibition, further information was needed to determine the fading rates and color shifts that could occur before displaying the prints by Kusters. Microfade testing (MFT) is a well-established method for predicting the behavior of museum objects, including photographs, upon exposure to light. During MFT a high-intensity light source is focused upon a very small area approximately 0.4 mm in diameter. Some of this incident light is absorbed by the object, and some is reflected, giving the object its color. The color is measured with a spectrometer that collects the reflectance spectrum in the visible range and is monitored over time to detect any changes in color caused by the light. Because the instrument’s light is intense, the microfading test only takes a few minutes. Based on the rule of reciprocity, it is generally accepted that this short period of high-intensity exposure will approximate a lower-intensity exposure over a longer time. As the potentially altered area of the object is too small to be seen by the unaided eye, MFT is considered minimally invasive and is widely used in museums, libraries, and archives.
The microfade tester used to measure the instant prints provided by the artist is configured based on the design by Whitmore et al. It consists of a 75 watt xenon arc lamp and filters that remove ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) radiation. The lamp output is directed through a 0.4 mm fiber optic and is collected using a 0.6 mm fiber optic mounted in a 90° illumination/45° observation geometry. The reflectance spectrum is collected by a spectrometer in the range 400 – 700 nm every second. The spectra are converted to color values (L*, a*, and b*) and are transferred in real-time into a spreadsheet. These individual components represent grayscale value (L*) and coordinates on the two color axes that run from red to green (a*) and blue to yellow (b*). The total color difference (deltaE) is defined under the 1976 CIE L*a*b* equation using D65 illumination and 10° standard observer. Measurements are carried out for approximately five minutes; however, real-time monitoring of the deltaE value allows the operator to abort data collection and remove the high-intensity illumination from the object at any time to prevent noticeable color change. ISO Blue Wool (BW) standards on an eight-step scale are used for comparison, with BW1 fading most quickly. Objects changing more slowly than BW3 are generally considered suitable for normal museum display under carefully controlled conditions.
Microfading data were acquired for several areas on the prints supplied by the artist for testing, and the rates of color change (deltaE) were compared qualitatively to those for the ISO Blue Wool Standards. All image areas tested changed much faster than BW1; an additional non-image area in the white border measured between BW1 and BW2 (Figure 3). Specific information about the nature of the overall color change can be gained by looking at the changes in the component L*, a*, and b* values. The light blue areas of the image showed an increase in a* and a decrease in b* (Figure 4). These changes indicate that the photographs are susceptible to color shift during exposure to bright light.
Microfading data for several areas on the prints, showing the rates of color change (deltaE) compared qualitatively to those for the ISO Blue Wool Standards.
Color photographs contain magenta, cyan, and yellow dyes, all of which have different photochemical reactivities. It was difficult to test the different colored dyes individually in these prints because of their uniform blue appearance. The black areas, which contain all the dyes, do not reflect enough light to produce data of sufficient quality. However, at the extreme edge of the image area on one of the test prints, there appeared to be a flaw that had an orange coloration. This edge area was tested and proved to be highly fugitive. The traces showed a sharp increase in a* and decrease in b* over less than 60 seconds (Figure 5), indicating that the magenta and yellow dyes may be even more fugitive than the cyan.
Information about the nature of the overall color change in the light blue areas of the image can be gained by looking at the changes in the component L*, a*, and b* values.
Information about the nature of the overall color change in the edge areas of the image can be gained by looking at the changes in the component L*, a*, and b* values.
A product information bulletin available from Fujifilm’s website provides extensive technical details about the FP-100C film, which is a peel-apart type of instant print. In brief, the final positive print consists of several backing layers and an image receiving layer containing cyan, yellow, and magenta dyes, with a clear surface layer that is intended to protect the object from both physical abrasion and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The manufacturer states that the product exhibits “improved light-fading characteristics…allowing long-term storage under direct sunlight” due to the UV-blocking layer and a new dye stabilizer. However, it goes on to recommend, “For optimum preservation during long-term storage, keep photos in a dark, dry and well-ventilated location away from harmful gases.” Generally, recognized guidelines for museum exhibition light levels for photographic materials place instant prints in the “very light-sensitive” category and recommend conservative display.
Conservators are charged with the preservation of the material object. They do this by advising on best practices in making the collections available for use, recommending cautious display, thoughtful storage practices, and when necessary, addressing any damage through careful laboratory treatment. As instant prints are known to be very light sensitive, conservation staff recommended proceeding with caution. How quickly these particular prints would fade and what color shifts would occur were unknown. Such questions often necessitate working with conservation scientists who perform analyses and determine probable pathways of deterioration.
Data from the microfading tests showed how quickly both fading and a color shift could occur, especially in a space with predictably high light levels. As a result, there was concern that the public would be presented with skies that would not truly be blue. In the case of the exhibition at USHMM, the decision was then made to work with high quality reproductions on a more stable medium.
Conservators do not work in a vacuum, but as part of a team including conservation scientists, curators, and exhibition specialists. By working collaboratively with experts from allied disciplines and institutions, as well as a thoughtful artist, the conservation team was able to strike an appropriate balance between the preservation of the original instant prints and faithfully presenting the Blue Skies Project to the public.
Jane E. Klinger is Chief Conservator of Conservation Management at the National Institute for Holocaust Documentation, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is also a Coremans Fellow of the Preservation Studies Program at the University of Delaware. She earned her Masters in Conservation at Rosary College Graduate School of Fine Arts at the Villa Schifanoia in Florence, Italy.
Joan M. Walker is a conservation scientist at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. She earned her PhD in Inorganic Chemistry at Indiana University.
Constance McCabe, Senior Conservator and Head of the Department of Photograph Conservation, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Emily Olhoeft, Paper and Photographs Conservator, Conservation Management, National Institute for Holocaust Documentation, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Sarah Freeman, Jim Drusik, Marc Harnly, and Christel Pesme, “Monitoring Photographic Materials with a Microfade Tester.” ICOM-CC 17th Triennial Conference Preprints, Melbourne, 15-19 September 2014 (Paris, France, 2014).
Fuji Photo Film Co., Ltd., Fuji Instant Color Film New FP-100C/FP-100C Silk, https://www.fujifilm.com/products/instant_photo/pdf/fp_100c_datasheet.pdf (9 December 2019).
Shinsaku Fujita, Organic Chemistry of Photography (Berlin, Germany, 2004).
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Constance McCabe, ed., Coatings on Photographs: Materials, Techniques, and Conservation (Washington, D. C., 2005).
Debra Hess Norris and Jennifer Jae Guierrez, eds., Issues in the Conservation of Photographs (Los Angeles, California, 2010).
Sylvie Pénichon, Twentieth Century Color Photographs: Identification and Care (Los Angeles, California, 2013).
Ronald D. Theys and George Sosnovsky, “Chemistry and Processes of Color Photography.” Chemical Reviews 97, no. 1 (1997): 83-132.
Sarah Wagner, Constance McCabe, and Barbara Lemmen, “Guidelines for Exhibition Light Levels for Photographs.” Topics in Photographic Preservation 9 (2001): 127-128.
Paul M. Whitmore, Xun Pan, and Catherine Bailie, “Predicting the Fading of Objects: Identification of Fugitive Colorants Through Nondestructive Lightfastness Measurements.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 38, no. 3 (1999): 395-409.
Henry Wilhelm, The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures (Grinnell, Iowa, 1993). http://www.wilhelm-research.com/book.html (5 December 2019).
This essay originally appeared in the published monograph “1078 Blue Skies / 4432 Days” by Anton Kusters
Anton Kusters: The Blue Skies Project
by Martin Barnes (2016)
Over the last five years, Belgian photographer Anton Kusters has dedicated much time, travel and sensitive thought to a project relating to the Holocaust.  It is probably the most documented event in history, and one of the most complex and difficult subjects that any artist can choose. Towards the completion of his project he concludes that it is a failure. Recognition of failure is not usually an artist’s preferred resolution. Yet this realisation does not seem to fill him with disappointment or regret, only a humbled sense of acceptance. The apparent failure in Kusters’ project is not through misrepresentation of his subject, or through any lack of commitment or productiveness. Rather, it is an inability, encountered by many who engage at a conceptual and expressive level with the atrocity, to truly comprehend it. This kind of ‘failure’ is in fact a profound resolution of sorts and should not be judged solely and restrictively within conventional cultural terms. For the subject of horror and trauma with which Kusters has carefully grappled has always tested the very limits of representation.
Kusters’ Blue Skies project was initially prompted back in 2007 with the death of his grandfather and a mysterious story concerning his time during World War Two. Although he was neither Jewish, nor a member of the Belgian resistance, Kusters relates that his grandfather was nevertheless targeted for deportation by the SS in 1943, when they came specifically looking for him in his small Belgian village. However, he was able to flee the night they raided his house and was never captured. Kusters was not able to ask his grandfather about the details before his death; and so a link with this unresolved past and a trail of speculation was established. What if his grandfather had been captured, and where might he have been taken? What would he have witnessed and remembered?
Kusters began researching the Nazi’s sites of detainment and official concentration camps, using major publications dealing with Nazism and the Holocaust: the German, Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. (The Place of Terror: History of the Nazi Concentration Camps); and the US-published Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945.  Until these multi volume publications appeared in 2005 and 2009 respectively there had never been such a comprehensive listing of the Nazi’s sites of detention, persecution, forced labour and murder. The information the encyclopaedias contain is overwhelming and the locations of the crimes much more widespread and varying in their scale than is popularly understood. The well-known sites and numbers of estimated deaths at them are of course listed; but many smaller sub camps and centres appear too, some hidden in the heart of towns and cities. Kusters has taken the data in the encyclopaedias and turned it into tangible visual form, echoing the publications’ process of research and taxonomy.
Traveling to 1,078 locations in Europe listed in the encyclopaedias, Kusters decided not to make a forensic set of descriptive or documentary images, as might be expected with such a research-based project. Instead, he made just three unique 8 x 10 cm Polaroid photographs as close as possible to each site. These he tagged with the GPS coordinates and the number of deaths estimated at the location. The numbers are blind-stamped into the photographs by the hammers of his manual typewriter. Such stark data and his systematic approach make a chilling reference to the catastrophic efficiency of the Nazi’s programme of extermination. Yet the subject found in the images eludes expectation. Here, we see no rooms, buildings, streets, landscapes or people. No signs, scars, reference markers or discernible traces, if any could be found, of a traumatic history. Instead, planning his visits to each site according to the weather forecast, Kusters waited patiently for days on which he could point his camera directly upwards, aiming for a cloudless blue sky.
By keeping the camera settings the same for each shot, the varying luminosity of the sky itself dictated the levels of exposure. The images therefore vary individually from bright to dark, creating a subtly shifting range of tones within the colour blue when seen together. To enhance this effect of individuality within similarity, one original Polaroid from each of the 1,078 locations is arranged and displayed to make up an imposing framed grid. The images alone contain no other visual information than the sky and occasional clouds, and appear therefore abstract and disembodied from time and place. Only the ruthless typed data captions anchor them. Except for our crucial knowledge of their meaning, the numbers are as innocent as the skies. The digits are deft markers of gathered evidence; the heavens are a poetic evocation. Together they form an axis of distant but connected poles, between objective data and suggestive resonance.
Our first common associations with blue skies – freedom, expansiveness, and the spiritual realm – may sit at odds with what we know about the trauma and murder perpetrated at the sites. This, coupled with the deliberately ‘empty’ images, and their capacity to be read as abstract compositions – or a backdrop ‘screen’ for personal discovery – might suggest an inappropriately aesthetic approach that poses ethical and moral questions. Kusters was intuitively drawn to, yet troubled by, this subject choice. After a long journey of photographing the skies he found legitimacy in a surprising eyewitness account, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, the memoir of eminent Israeli historian Otto Dov Kulka.  In 1943, at the age of ten, Kulka was deported with his family from his home in former Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz-Birkenau. His sister, mother and father perished but Kulka survived. It was not until some seventy years later that he wrote about his childhood memories:
‘There is almost no return to that Metropolis, with its somber colours, with the sense of the immutable law that encloses all its beings within confines of allotted time of death; that is, there is almost no sense of a return to that world without a sense of return to those wonderful colours, to that tranquil, magical and beckoning experience of those blue skies of the summer of 1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau.’ 
As one reviewer has noted of Kulka’s memoir, ‘… even in Auschwitz there are moments of protest, black humour and beauty … like the bright blue of the sky over the camp that Kulka’s childhood mind snaps and files away like a photograph.’  Kulka’s evocative account fuses the fragments of childhood memory and experience with his adult historian’s understanding. In their multiplicity within the arranged grid, Kusters’ simple images poignantly imply the millions of other such ‘snapshot’ memories of individuals who did not survive.
It matters in this case that the photographic paper of the unique Polaroid is an analogue process that leaves a chemical trace. Kusters’ choice of process implies a parallel between the sensitive surface of the paper and the receptive memory or psyche of the individual who receives a similar imprint. He suggests that his photographs, like the sky above which they depict, might at some infinitesimal level contain the last molecular traces of the individuals who died at each site. Even if these are only poetic ideas rather than scientific facts, it is clear that Kusters’ journeying to each location is crucial to him and the meaning of his project on several levels: as a mode of personal, individual commemoration for his grandfather; as an act of witnessing; as an attempt to understand the Holocaust; and as an offering of respect.
Writer and theoretician Ulrich Baer has written incisively about the problematic intersecting relationships between contemporary art photography, the subject of the Holocaust, and what might be construed as ‘disaster tourism’. He has outlined a concern for a reliance on ‘the auratic “experience of place” to commemorate the destruction of experience and memory’; and noted that we risk, ‘a promise that we can transcend the photographed void to reach some comprehensive, and thus consoling meaning’.  The Holocaust, he implies, is too complex and extreme in its trauma and erasure to be contained in either memory or forgetting, or for us to locate within it traces of redemption. Kusters’ images do deal with both ‘aura’ and ‘void’, but crucially his typed captions introduce a closely researched specificity. In combination, these elements illustrate, as Baer has argued, that even if we can quantify and pinpoint a sight of trauma, ‘we are forced to see that there is nothing to see’.  Showing the emptiness however still triggers a response, a range of emotions and questions. The skywards perspective posits questions that are both formalist and conceptual. Where is the proper vantage point in relation to such places freighted with violence, trauma and historical distance? Does averting the camera’s lingering gaze upwards offer relief, denial or a necessary distance giving room to assimilate? Blue Skies therefore demands an engagement from the viewer beyond a superficial glance. Kusters’ view without a fixed point of perspective is exactly the point. In this way, seeking a physical and moral perspective, the observer becomes implicated and involved.
A common trope in writing and imagery concerning the Holocaust is to describe it as ‘unspeakable’, ‘immeasurable’ or ‘inaccessible’. It is a realm where neither immense accumulation of knowledge nor metaphors of the void seem able to attain closure. While too much focus on evidence risks overwhelming the space for personal reflection, too much abstraction risks ignoring the evidence and repeating the injustice of denying victims singularity. In Blue Skies, Kusters includes both the measurable and the immeasurable, and aims for a point between abstraction and specificity.
As the last survivors of the Holocaust now reach old age, the modes of both capturing and imagining their experience are shifting. In her book, After Such Knowledge, writer and academic Eva Hoffman charted each generation’s prevailing response: the 1950s ‘latency’ phase of forgetting or even denial; the 1990s ‘memory period’ of museum construction and anniversaries, when remembering seemed perhaps more important that reflective thought.  Now, the descendants of survivors and the wider public are inheriting a legacy that in the 21st Century is further removed. Facts become separated from the living embodiment of a person. Memories of experiences are no longer first-hand, and are filtered and interpreted through technological media. Perhaps Kusters’ Blue Skies are reflective of this new generation’s response. A tail-end analogue project realised in a digital age, it marks a transition from direct engagement with trauma, evidence and memory towards a more abstracted and contemplative form of representation.
At their most fundamental, photographs record traces of light and time. They are often seen as mute witnesses of events, envoys from the past, and generators of memory. The photographer inflects them with meaning by a choice of subject, framing and technique. Ultimately though, the images rely on the viewer to give them voice, seeking an echo of the photographer’s intention and the residue of the place and moment that was captured at their time of making. Images become activated by the interplay of components: the location and event at the moment of exposure; the photographer’s literal and conceptual viewpoint; the additional information we are provided with or discover for ourselves alongside the images; and the personal histories that we bring to those images as individuals. Sometimes, as in Kusters’ Blue Skies, the equation becomes more complex, fraught by a tangle of historical, aesthetic, moral and personal questions. The event that he set out to explore and capture is already a fading memory. The places, even if they can be accurately located, refuse to be contained, and cannot be encompassed by a single point of view. The artist has chosen to witness at the spot the event’s vanishing and most intangible residue in the form of reflected light. Yet between the fractures of evidential specificity and the abstracted trace, a space is opened up for reflection. This is a space to judge, grieve, remember, learn, and perhaps to understand. Kusters has only ‘failed’ by journeying far enough to encounter the boundaries of representing catastrophe. Yet he has succeeded in balancing the roles of both a witness and a creator. And his tragic, beautiful and haunting images encourage important questions about ethical ways of seeing.
– Martin Barnes, Senior Curator, Photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1. I use the term ‘Holocaust’ throughout, recognising however the contested nature of the term and the use of other terms such as ‘Shoah’ and ‘The Final Solution’.
2. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel, Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, published by C. H. Beck, 2005. Geoffrey Preaut Megargee (ed.), Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, and Indiana University Press, 2009.
3. Otto Dov Kulka, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections of Memory and Imagination, translated by Ralph Mandel, Published by Allen Lane and Harvard University Press, 2013.
4. Kulka, op. cit. p.75-77.
5. Arifa Akbar, book review, ‘Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death’, The Independent, 25 January 2013.
6. Ulrich Baer, ‘To Give Memory a Place: Contemporary Holocaust Photography and the landscape Tradition’ in Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London England, 2002, p. 66-67.
7. Baer, op. cit.
8. Eva Hoffman, After Such Knowledge: Where Memory of the Holocaust Ends and History Begins, Secker and Warburg, 2004.