Heinrad Bäcker – September 27 to January 5, 2014.
Photographs of details: like a loop of metal in a landscape – like remnants of the mining era in the Colorado mountains – are printed so small, so intimate that only one person can stand in front of any one of them and attempt to understand the content.
Some photos appear in a group – printed not much larger than we expect their negatives to be – like a film strip – which implies some time was taken — is needed — to accumulate all the details of one spot.
The imagery is very ordinary: the steel ring, an industrial plate of dark metal held to a wall with ugly square nuts. Another is something like a tourist photo of people standing by a remnant of a tunnel, small as modern tunnels go. The people give it scale; they seem to have just discovered it in a landscape where it shouldn’t be. The photo feels eerie and certainly nostalgic; the tunnel is overgrown, no longer used, but built tough for a purpose.
These images are on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and are by Heimrad Bäcker – who, following the Second World War, spent years documenting its aftermath. This exhibition is called Landscape M and focuses on Bäcker’s works related to Mauthausen, the largest concentration camp in Austria.
The purpose of these photographs isn’t apparent until you know these details. They are not extraordinary as images – not beautiful photographs or even particularly clear as documentary evidence. Their purpose is to document the life of a man who was conflicted by an early joining in to the contemporary groundswell that he found out later was quicksand.
Bäcker was active in the Hitler Youth and later part of the Nazi party but never involved in activities worth a confessional novel. He was like most Austrian citizens – not obviously evil, but unable to feel completely absolved about what had gone down.
We can see from the photographs shown here that Bäcker is in Austria most of his life documenting the remains of the Nazi era. ‘Why?’ and ‘what else?’ are certainly questions that these photographs made me ask. And luckily the Internet gives us some immediate details of this Austrian’s life: doctorate in existential philosophy and a long career in the literature department at the university of his hometown, Linz. So, he is also living an influential life in academia, not just wandering around ruins with a camera. According to the Austrian National Library, he and several colleagues developed what is called ‘concrete poetry.’
From the obsession apparent in the photographs, I can imagine his intense pursuit of a vocabulary to communicate ideas he found relevant. Luckily, we are also allowed to see a result of all this compunction, whether or not they are masterful instances of contemporary photography.
A second gallery in the MCA is dedicated to a work by Bäcker called Seascapes, which is a series of log entries from a German submarine. With each page framed and containing only one log entry, a viewer is compelled to read each word: repetitious headings, latitude, longitude, time, weather. The persistent viewer is rewarded midway through the standing and reading of each entry with an unusual one: survivors of sunken boat are found, fed, not rescued, left to their certain death – and then the viewer is pushed to continue on, to read log entries that return to the mundane, the state of the wind and precipitation.
Bäcker is known in Austria as a poet – a poetry prize is given in his name – and this work is certainly powerful as installed. This power is not generated by the quality of the composition or smithing of the words. It is not poetry made by the poet, but found, a visual lesson in how found words can be made into poetry.