Founded as a fortress in the 5th century, the Armenian capital city of Ani had grown to a population of 100,000 by the 11th century. It lay to the north of the Silk Road and was known as the “city of a thousand and one churches”. Having survived a succession of changes in the balance of power between Bagratuni, Byzantines, Seljuk, Kurds, Mongolians and Christian Georgians, its fate was finally sealed by an earthquake in 1309. Today, the ruined city of Ani is a cultural monument that lies on the Turkish-Armenian border. Its survival is threatened by vandalism, by earthquakes and by earth tremors from detonations in a quarry on the Armenian side of the border.
Apart from the city walls, the principle remains include the Cathedral of Ani and the Menuçehr Mosque; Jörn Vanhöfen photographed these abandoned monuments as if they were embedded in the landscape. Rising above the river bed, some of the towers and fortifications stick up like tree stumps from a stony plateau that has the same fawn colour as the architectural remains. Thus seen, the attraction of this ruined city is that the historical material remains of the former Christian and Islamic monuments can hardly be distinguished in form and character from the fields of scree that surround them. One has the impression that the city was built with these self-same broken stones. The transience of culture and nature can be seen as a cycle of decaying stone extending over thousands of years (p. 47 – 51).
The Cairo Necropolis or “City of the Dead” is an Islamic cemetery, some four miles long, lying at the foot of the Mokattam Hills in southeast Cairo. It consists of closely ordered rows of mausoleums (p. 43). Today about 300,000 people, driven either from the city or the land, live there in the family graves. The masonry buildings are protected from decay by the people who live in them and there is also what might be called a stone-recycling system in operation. The stone charnel houses have become habitations. A further 600,000, the poorest of the poor, live in Mansheya Nasir, a neighbouring slum built largely without planning permission. Here the Zabbaleen “garbage collectors” used to operate a comprehensive rubbish-recycling system for the entire city. The Zabbaleen, mostly Copts, herded their pigs through the rubbish heaps, feeding them on organic refuse and selling the resulting pork in Coptic markets. The inorganic rubbish, mostly plastic, was shipped to China where it was turned into plastic toys and fleece jackets. In 2009 Mubarak had all the pigs slaughtered, ostensibly to prevent an outbreak of swine flu, so depriving the Zabbaleen of most of their livelihood. Instead of pigs, they now keep goats and cattle, stabling them on their rooftops; the recycling rate has dropped from 90 percent to 10 percent (p. 44 – 45).
Marble is formed by the mechanical and thermal transformation of chalk and is surrounded by an aura of luxury. The marble slabs were cut from the quarry and from there they went straight onto the façade of a Cairo bank near the Tahrir Square, where they made handy projectiles during the Egyptian revolution. The stone, snatched from the bowels of the earth, was first used to decorate a building and then used as a weapon in the fight against tyranny. It was broken into pieces, crumbled, pulverised and scattered on the four winds (p. 40 – 41).
Like the city of Ani and the poorer quarters of Cairo, the buildings on the peninsular of Worstrow also have an eventful history but, in this case, it was changing political conditions that brought the area to a standstill. In 1932 the entire peninsular was sold by its aristocratic owners to the military, who erected Germany’s largest anti-aircraft artillery school there. After the Second World War it came under the control of the Red Army who cut this military area off from the outside world. After the Soviet troops pulled out, the area was restored to a reunited Germany and in 1998 it was sold to a company that closed it off again in 2004 — this time for reasons of safety. In the meantime the terrain has been reclaimed by birch trees. The concrete roads are breaking up and Nature is taking over the barracks. It seems probable that some time in the not-too-distant future the buildings in this no-mans-land will have vanished completely (p. 35 – 39).
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). Not only Man himself, but the works of Man will also return to dust. The inorganic part of Nature is no exception to the general cycle of creation, decay and re-creation. The planet earth will survive as long as these processes continue, as long as stone is formed, eroded, dispersed and formed anew. The dams, tunnels and other developments in inaccessible areas such as the Alps may still stand firm, their gigantic monoliths may still protrude like foreign bodies or may merge harmoniously into the mountain landscape, but their final fate has nevertheless already been etched into their surface. Just as concrete and asphalt were formed of ground up stone, so they will be transformed to rubble again — sooner or later (p. 25 – 29).
Vanhöfen’s pictures bear witness to the metamorphosis of material; to both small and gigantic upheavals. The melting of the glaciers cannot be prevented, not even by cleverly applied layers of insulation. Areas of the earth are now being exposed that were covered for thousands of years. New continents make their appearance while vast tracts of coastline are about to vanish from the map. But this future is not an apocalyptic vision, but rather a vision of Nature that will inevitably re-conquer its domain in some future post-human era.
Optimistic metaphors for the natural cycle of construction and deconstruction were already set out in Vanhöfen’s series Disaster and Aftermath where human constructions break down into small pieces from which new things will be made. The fine details of things — bedrock, snow, stone — were already present here as a recurring pattern. Compositions that often rely on symmetry, compositions that produce monumentality and grandeur; both point to the re-circulation of all things. The vision presented by political landscape photo-graphy was often gloomy but never hopeless.
The starting point was a year-long stay in South Africa, made possible by the mareverlag in 2006. Vanhöfen was able to observe the cultural changes taking place in the countryside on the South African coastline, twelve years after the end of Apartheid. His record of the spoil heap of a diamond mine, a forbidden zone blocking access to the sea for some 125 miles, showed the direction in which he was to go (fig. p. 7) — his first scenario of chaos, sterility and solitude that leaves behind a vague feeling of apocalyptic melancholy. Following this, Vanhöfen photographed other sites of devastation, of transformations, of deep encroachments upon Nature, symbolising Man’s leavings after a phase of exploitation. They are landscapes of the debris that remained when the earth had given all there was to take — pictures of the time-after. The images represent themes of global significance and have the aesthetic power to engender outrage at the immoderation of human avarice and thirst for power.
Vanhöfen’s pictures intentionally allow for some associative freedom; they offer alternative interpretations and awaken curiosity, although one remains ignorant about the background content and is left to imagine what might be missing. Flut (fig. p. 15) is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Eismeer, where a ship lies jammed beneath buckled pack-ice as a symbol of frustrated enterprise. The beauty of a frost-covered mountain of old tires gives no hint that the white foam came from the water that was used to extinguish a catastrophic inferno. Pyramids of piled-up blocks of scrap metal lead us to the theme of recycling — but there are many ways of dealing with inherited waste. Asok (fig. p. 13) shows a high-rise building site where the roof appears to be engulfed in an outbreak of fire. But the orange lights are in fact building-site floodlights. Together with the yellow light of the setting sun on the green gauze that covers the building, they produce a seductive clash of complementary colour. Today it is an abandoned site in the centre of Bangkok.
It will soon resemble Carabanchel, the torture-prison in southwest Madrid (fig. p. 14), before it was torn down. Despite massive protests, the government could not allow such a gigantic memorial of the Franco regime to remain standing in the Spanish capital. Even colossal buildings like this will be reduced to dust like the desert city of Ani — sooner or later.
Vanhöfen sometimes uses pictorial devices of the Romantic period without producing romantic pictures; his documentary narrative style avoids obvious sensationalism. In the tension-filled interplay of terror and beauty and the inter-play of horror and seduction, it is the aesthetic pattern of beauty that casts its spell on the observer and delivers the content. The seductive elements still horrify — even when their touches of grandeur turn out to be an intentional false trail.
In his series Die Elbe, Vanhöfen showed that he could do more than expose mismanagement and catastrophes; he could also mix his critical observations with more conciliatory, hopeful tones. He himself describes it as one of his more emotive works. Having ended his photographic training at the Folkwang School in Essen, in 1989 he continued his studies at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig. In 1991 he went to Berlin, where he worked as a -photographic journalist and had the intense experience of reporting about East German themes in Berlin and Leipzig during the post-reunification period. In 1996 he was commissioned by the Swiss journal DU to make a book about the changes taking place in eastern Germany by following the Elbe, a river with a profound influence on East German history. Vanhöfen undertook intensive -research to understand and explain how the political changes could bring about the ecological rebirth of this national waterway. From his point of view, the collapse of real socialism and the closure of many factories ended decades of massive pollution and introduced a new economic orientation and ecological methods of production.
With his middle-format 6 × 7 cm Plaubel Makina, a camera he still uses today, he bathed his detached view of the landscape, with its misty monochrome -nuances, in the warm early morning light — lending it an added emotional draw. Vanhöfen’s visual vocabulary with its romantic perception of Homeland became his trademark. In Germany this was his unique trademark, his only rival being fellow student Peter Bialobrzeski whose book Heimat unleashed a controversy in 2005. Together, their work helped open the door to a less loaded view of German history.
Anyway, the socialisation of the 1980s encouraged students at the Folkwang School to emulate the American New Color Photography while the political perceptions of the time produced a politicised imagery. Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places and Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects convinced Vanhöfen’s student generation that, using colour and a distancing large-format camera, one could make an artistic statement just as well as in black-and-white. Meanwhile -photographers like Robert Adams and Richard Misrach added an ecologically critical aspect and, at a time when the Green party were first being elected to the Bundestag, this was taken up with enthusiasm. But British photographers like Paul Graham and Chris Killip also influenced Vanhöfen’s attitude towards the social role of photography — a role that went beyond a photo-journalistic statement or a mere functional image.
So this is where the foundations of Jörn Vanhöfen’s pictorial language lie. A supra-individual documentary photography, with a detached point of view that demands empathy. A sober description of historical blunders, without drawing a moral. The critical vision of a future that does not end in an apocalypse. Sublime landscape compositions with subtle colouring devoid of cloying sentimentality. The combination of areas of local small-scale texture to form a unified whole. The lively contradiction of tension-filled peace, encompassing all that is, all that was and all that is to come. The salt of the earth. That will outlive our human race. Sooner or later. (The Cycle of Things – Christiane Stahl)