About photographer Branko Lenart and his two significant series of photographs: Styrians (1970-1974) and Augen:Blicke (2002) which were published (in Italian and German language) in the book entitled Sguardi sulla Styria and exhibited at the Sale Esposotive della Provincia C. so Garibaldi in Pordenone, Italy (16 September – 10 November 2013).
Branko Lenart is one of those photographers who, beside developing a specific artistic practice, is lucidly oriented towards constant questioning of the nature of images. He is recognised as one of the most significant chroniclers of his time and place. His intuitive documentary photographs thus complement the conceptually-based, pre-thought out and entirely constructed ones. Whether his motifs are taken or constructed, he always shows a pronounced personal and artistic view of the phenomena selected from his own immediate surroundings. In both cases one recognises an approach characteristic of a number of artists – to leave traces of the artist and of the people portrayed by the artist, within the work. With the passage of time, these traces have become increasingly significant and fascinating. They have become relevant (subjective) documents.
Like many artists, Lenart’s work is largely characterised by the environment in which he lives and works. During the past one hundred years, the wider area of Styria (Steiermark) was subject to enormous political and, consequently, demographic and cultural changes that are in evidence at various levels of society and the environment even nowadays. This once multicultural region, positioned on the border between Germanic and Slavic cultures and at the intersection of German and Slovenian speaking territories, had undergone fundamental changes and schisms in the first half of the 20th century, during the period of great geo-political shifts, that is, the time of two world wars. After the bloodshed of the World War I and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire the southern parts of Styria came under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, in 1941 Styria became an integral part of the Third Reich, while after 1945 it belonged to the Republic of Slovenia within the federation of socialist Yugoslavia. Every one of these changes has brought far-reaching consequences on both sides of the border, delineated in 1918, consequences that have been vehemently reflected in the daily lives of so many local inhabitants. The multiculturalism that was once there has been replaced by sharp ethnic division anchored at the administrative borderline between the two states, Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia) and Austria.
In this atmosphere of constant change several stories stood out, concerning a number of individuals and families who were directly affected by the political situation, including the family into which Branko Lenart was born. During the time of German occupation (1941-1945) Lenart’s family was deported to a labour camp. In the years following the war, due to the nationalisation of their assets, Lenart’s moved to the other side of the border and settled in Graz (Austria). Being extremely resilient creatures, human beings are able to adapt to new situations very quickly and easily, even if they can’t influence them. So when Lenart took up photography as his main creative medium in the mid 1960s, he started working on several series for the most part dedicated to his immediate surroundings: on the one hand he was documenting the urban pulse of Graz and its major cultural protagonists, while on the other hand he was recording the parallel world of local rural areas where concurrency and contemporaneity did not always occur in linear succession. When juxtaposing the Augen: Blicke and Styrians series on a formal and conceptual level, one detects significant differences, however, one also notices certain similarities. While both series narrate localised stories from Styria they nevertheless touch on broader geographical and social implications globally as they outline the duality of economic and social developments taking place between urban and rural areas. The Styrians series of photographs show everyday scenes from rural lives of ordinary local people, depicting their poverty and unenviable social status. The series draws a covert comparison to the new prospects and possibilities of the 1970s by showing the underdeveloped rural areas in contrast to the accelerated development of urban areas. In contrast to the Styrians, the Augen:Blicke project is above all a tribute to the people who were, at that particular time, recognised as the intellectual elite of that society.
If the former were recorded in a manner of engaged reportage photography while performing their everyday tasks (based on the relationship established between the photographer and the portrayed), the latter are presented as the official portraits trying to capture the essence of their character. Both series, produced 28 years apart, the first in the period 1970-1974 and the second in 2001-2002, contain the essence of Lenart’s entire body of work, whereby he usually follows the principles of process and continuity. From this perspective the Styrians series (1970-1974) which was only published in 2009, 35 years after its completion, is likewise very particular. Even though the work was very up-to-date (also) at the time of its creation the artist has only recently decided to open this chapter in the history of his work, which due to the passage of time, has acquired completely different contours and meanings. At the time, the photographer’s journey through the countryside of Slovenian and Austrian Styria was marked by great enthusiasm and the need to document a rapidly changing environment. Today these photographs are inevitably viewed and read with the clear notion that, in the meantime, many of the motifs (and people portrayed) have simply disappeared and that their zeitgeist is irreversible. However, this is not an act of romanticising or nostalgia, but rather a simple anthropological observation upholding the notion that some parts of the rural population ultimately remained similar to each other despite the aforementioned administrative border and regardless of the different languages and cultural identities. In a sense it testifies to their rootedness in tradition and their endemic relationship to the land. There are only a few pictures in which the punctum clearly defines the political and social features of one or another area shown (Yugoslavia or Austria), on the basis of the artist’s annotations that indicate the time and place of these documents.
Even though the Styrians series formally refers to the photographic travelogues of Walker Evans or even more so to Robert Frank’s The Americans series, the essence of the result is fundamentally different. In Lenart’s photographs the engaged content is expressed on different levels since the images of Styrians do not point to the social and economic distress as much as they simply show everyday reality which these people either did not want to or otherwise could not change. Seemingly, the notion that there exists a parallel world of technological and social progress very close to them, which brings with it entirely new values, is not a source of frustration for them. Based on a similar assumption, a decade later the Das Land series (1981-1993) was conceived by Manfred Willmann, a photographer who portrayed people and places from these same rural areas without moralising or pitying them. Concurrency of intentions in the early 1970s in the field of documentary photography is also shown by Stojan Kerbler’s the Haložani series dealing with a particular area from the same region (Haloze hills) and indicating a similar approach of recording anthropological characteristics which were steadily fading away and changing in the following years. Which of the photographers deserves recognition for the pioneering role in dealing with these topics is at this point far from significant (both series were supposedly created in parallel at the same time, with artists being unaware of one another), however, what is exceptionally relevant is the question: Why was there such a strong need – at that particular time – to record these marginal realities, representing a kind of time capsule within the contemporary world?
Although historical facts and social contexts are strongly present in the undertones of Lenart’s work, they are often thoroughly blurred. History is, to a great extent, relative and left to every individual for reading and interpreting. The main focus of the Styrians series is actually based on the idea of transnational integration of the people and places documented, reflecting the profound importance of place as one of the pivotal indicators of different identities: national, ideological or cultural. These are often met, intersected and overlapped. Even if Styria has retained its deep-rooted tradition, perhaps somehow, the life, that is inexorably subject to continual change and constant creation of new contexts, goes on its own way. Like every single nation or region, Styria too is a constructed formation that has and is constantly changing its borders and outlining new demarcation lines, throughout the course of history (and in the present).
In contrast to the directness of the Styrians, the Augen:Blicke series shows formally sophisticated portraits that are attached to much more contemporary contexts of reality. Studio photographs of Austrian writers who were in one way or another connected to the region of Styria show people who belong to the other side of the aforementioned parallel world. Unlike the nameless portraits of Styria’s rural inhabitants the literates are accompanied by a very clear context determined by their names, role and social status within society. The carefully constructed and well thought out portraits are designed as diptychs and consist of asymmetrical halves of the faces, reflecting a wide range of meanings. Imperfect but nevertheless very meaningful faces of the writers testify to their character which is connected to their work, thereby revealing fragments of local cultural history. These two-piece photographs show people who are – like the artist himself – important chronicles of their time. Both, images and literary works represent the subjective documents that shape the perception of a certain time and place. The potential documentary impact of literature and visual art, in combination with sufficient distance of time, can create crucial added value to the particular work of art.
Written and translated by Miha Colner, proof read by Ana Čavić.
© Miha Colner, 30 July 2013