Throughout the modern era humankind has learned to remember the recent past through images and photography has been a perfect tool for preserving memory. It possesses the power to document and perpetuate things that will soon disappear. It is therefore the tradition of documentary photography to record the (vanishing) phenomena that are pushed to the margins of society in order to reveal the invisible or ignored side of everyday life. From that perspective the recently released photobook by Vienna-based photographer Klaus Pichler and journalist Clemens Marschall entitled Golden Days Before They End is not a particularly innovative piece of work per se, however, it is a very stunning work because it touches on the highly relevant issues of today. For one, the authors of the book bring about a specific way of looking and seeing that demonstrates their genuine interest in local (Viennese) history being played out before their eyes.
For two years Pichler and Marschall have been exploring the shabby and somewhat cheap bars, taverns and bistros around Vienna. These are not ordinary café bars that casual passers-by might call on but are effectively social clubs with a regular clientele. Even though public opinion is not in favour of such places, they nevertheless have an important role in communities that are slowly dying out. The creative tandem, Pichler and Marschall, perceived this with perfect timing and they adopted a rather journalistic approach. Pichler being a documentarian with the camera, hung out with bar regulars and photographed them while Marschall interviewed the bar owners whose role is much more significant than one might think: they are the personification of their bars, constantly present and in an on-going love-hate relationship with their (often problematic) guests.
These types of bars, found in any urban environment across Europe, are a true remnant of the past, which is irreversibly disappearing. Traditionally intended for the working classes who used them as a meeting place and a getaway from poor living conditions, their rough and chauvinistic atmosphere also attracted various misfits and outlaws. However, with the end of industrial era that shifted into post-industrial and consumerist society, these bars are increasingly becoming obsolete. In the spectacular new world there is no place for different, rebellious and self-destructive characters such as the (mostly) elderly, full blown alcoholics who frequent the bars in order to find cheap drinks and some company as well as to hide from the outside world. Now they are living in a bubble that is about to burst.
In 2018, Austria – one of the last among European states to do so – will introduce restrictive anti-smoking legislation that will indiscriminately prohibit smoking in all public spaces. This will probably be the final blow for cheap taverns and bistros, which are already being widely closed down due to lack of clients and real estate market pressures. Pichler’s photographs might be the last to show the last generation of mavericks and outlaws who had the luck to claim their own spaces in rapidly changing urban environment. In the future they might also be forced out onto the streets or to the privacy of their own homes in order to make public life even more uniform and controlled.
Pichler and Marschall systematically visited a number of bars, slowly getting to know their clientele and their owners (the barmen). Pichler’s photographs, comparable with the works of any of the greatest documentary photographers, capture the essence of these places, their sometime seemingly gloomy and tragic, sometime very cheerful and heartfelt atmosphere, simply showing life as it is, with all its ups and downs. There is no trace of cynicism or irony in these photographs. Instead, it is more or less clear that the photographer was only an observer who did not take an active part in the eventful happenings. Pichler also managed to depict the barflies’ relation with the outside world, with its aesthetic and social norms, which slowly penetrate their secluded environment.
All these features are emphasised to great effect by superb editing whereby photographs are subtly grouped in sections that make the viewing of the book even more factual and visually appealing. The authors conducted thorough, anthropological research that testifies to global changes on a localised scale and with a distinctive group of people – outlaws, hustlers and misfits. The interviews with the owners, for their part, merge perfectly with the pictures. They are very telling and revealing even through the reader gets only short excerpts of the conversations–the result of skilful editing. The interviewees reveal their relation to the bars and to their guests explaining their complex and powerful role within the community.
The tandem, the photographer and the writer, have managed to immortalise these places before they become extinct or otherwise turned to museums of curiosity serving the tourist industry [that constantly strives to offer authentic experiences of places and in doing so, knowingly destroys their very authenticity]. The rare remaining bars might thus become cultural heritage and their clientele museum artefacts. However, neither the users of the bars nor their owners are naïve. They know their time is limited and they are not being pathetic about that. Aware that the zeitgeist is beyond their control, they seem to be resigned to their fate on the one hand and spirited on the other; they are still (as always) rough, sharp and humorous about it. Or as one of the bar owners put it: “You are a little late! I’ll be closing at the end of the month – after 52 years. Takings are down and costs are going up.”
written by Miha Colner, July 2016