The places and spaces of Bärbel Praun

There is a German term that defies translation and the meaning of this term is the core of Bärbel Praun’s work. I’m speaking about the word Heimat. Best translated with the english word home it is in itself overlayed with a multitude of meanings. Unlike the English home, Heimat does not etymologically refer to the buildings we live in. Heimat marks more a feeling than a place, although we long to connect this feeling to a place most of the time. We say “This is the house where I grew up. This is Heimat to me.” But we also say “The smell of my grandfather’s aftershave means Heimat to me.“ Some people never had a Heimat because they never felt safe in the world. Some people deny the importance of Heimat, as they believe that when we stick to that feeling too much, we loose flexibility both in mind and life. Some people are constantly searching for a place they can call Heimat.

Looking at Bärbel’s photographs one gets an idea of searching for special places. During her travels throughout Europe and Africa, Bärbel is always photographs in a highly subjective manner by paying close attention to the surfaces of the environment. But she doesn’t use her camera in a Stephen Shore-way by emphasizing on structures, symbols and signals of the commonplace due to analyzing society; instead she focuses on the sensual qualities of different surfaces: a small rowboat wrapped in blue canvas lying upside down in a birch grove in Finland, white plastic fabric in a landscape, two beet roots on a crinkled paper tablecloth in Lithuania, remaining snow on a glacier in Switzerland already surrounded by green grass and daisies. Led by the idea that there is beauty in everything, Bärbel’s photographs show us a sensitive approach to the world that is not at all less conceptual than an analytic one.
Furthermore her work also deals with place as a discursive matter. In theory, the term place never appears without his twin-word: space. For geographer Andrew Merrifield, place is to space what solid is to fluid, form to process: an anchor, a grounding. Places are detectable, space is dynamic and mostly immaterial. Spaces get constructed through the social use of places. You can recognize this shift in an early work of Bärbel called gruß und kuss – die berge sind schön (hugs and kisses–the mountains are beautiful) where she travelled the Alps, depicting view points where tourists can have a look at the panorama from an equally beautiful and safe angle. The hundreds of pictures taken at these places will further construct the image of the Alps; perpetuating it into a space of meaning, into a symbol. As you can see, the mentioned shift is a back and forth movement: space gets constructed by the use of places, and places get re-shaped by the metaphorical space that they create. In fact, the movement is more one of a constant circular motion and Bärbel’s photographs stop the wheel for one moment in time.

The places in her recent work this must be the place speak another language. Here it is not about the reciprocal relationship between images and reality but more about the feeling of Heimat. This series has an other tone than her previous work. It is more open, more abstract, even more sensual, and thus personal, than everything Bärbel did before. When I asked her how she would define this change she answered: I’ve decided to allow myself more closeness.
I would like to suggest a double reading on that quote. First: this closeness refers to the camera position. The photographer allows herself to come close to her objects at the risk of loosing a proper image buildup. Secondly: this closeness refers to the photographer’s state of mind. By allowing herself more closeness to the world she lets herself become a part of it: it is her hand that we see stretching out and trying to catch snow flakes; it is her pregnant sister that sleeps naked turning her back towards us; it is her sketch book that shelters a down feather between its sunlit sheets. In every image we feel an enormous closeness between the photographer and her surrounding. She literally is IN the world, she lets it rush through her; through her camera. By getting as close as possible towards her objects the photographer is able to depict their inherent structures. We see roughness and delicacy, softness and hard edges, darkness and glow. May it be the mountains, the sea, a cave, a room or a field – wherever Bärbel turns her attention to, the place becomes her. And when we ask ourselves once again where this place could be – this place called Heimat – we should think of the lesson Bärbel has taught us with her photos: that Heimat is an place within.

This text is part of Bärbel’s new book THIS MUST BE THE PLACE.
You can purchase it over Tipi Bookshop here.

See Bärbel flipping through her book on vimeo here or see her website here.

The following images are all spreads from the book and copyrighted by Bärbel Praun.

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