Photography has changed our perception of the world and our relationship with reality. More even than moving images or paintings, it is the omnipresent medium of our times, enduring ingredient of our daily lives, confronting us in nearly all situations in life. And with ever more sophisticated technology, we are all venturing to become creative ourselves in capturing our world and – increasingly – ourselves.
Ever since photography was invented in 1839, the question of whether a mass medium can be considered art has been hotly discussed. Even the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) stated: “Photography is a craft. Many want to turn it into an art, but we are simple craftsmen who must do a good job.” Conversely, Henry Fox Talbot (1800 - 1877), who invented the first process for printing photographs on paper, held photography to be clearly a tool for the creative mind and the artist as early as 160 years ago.
Photography received initial recognition as an art form through the epochal photographic magazine “Camera Work”, which was published by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and through the New York exhibition of the same name in 1917. Walker Evans (1903 – 1975) was the first photographer to whom the Museum of Modern Art dedicated a monographic exhibition in 1938. The exhibition catalogue, “American Photographs”, is the first volume in the history of photography dedicated to a single artist. The final breakthrough of photography as an internationally recognised art form came no
later than 1964, aided by the “World Exhibition of Photography”, which was organised that year by nine German, Dutch and Swiss museums. Titled “What is man?”, the exhibition showcased 555 photos of 264 photographers.
Nevertheless, there are even today those who will contest the recognition of photography as an “art form in its own right”. In truth, arguments such as “the photographer can only portray the world, while the painter transcends reality” or “in photography, we cannot speak of an original due to the simple fact that innumerable prints can be made from any negative or digital image” have long been refuted.
The frequent question as to which aspects of the photographic process defines it as an art form has been amply answered by renowned art photographers and their works. Franz Meiller is one of those. His creative expressiveness and his unflappable artistic efficacy impressively demonstrate how the boundaries of perception can be crossed, shifted, explored in the fraction of a second that it takes to press the shutter to capture (= create) a moment, thus dismantling and reassembling viewing habits in the pleasantest of ways. The noble art of photography: SEEING THROUGH that which is found or arranged; PERCEIVING, passionately and/or pragmatically calculating; CAPTURING congenially and to the best of one’s ability with whatever equipment – always aware of the many devices available to allow the observer to take part in the creative process or the interpretation of its result. The two women in the street (Two Women, Munich, 2016) and the actors on stage (Hands UP, Otto Falckenberg School, 2011) are typical of the many images that invite the viewer to let their imagination reign free and to continue – or even rewrite – the story in their own words. This works unfailingly when studying photographic art but rarely so when viewing illustrations.
Meiller discovers, recognises the extraordinary in the mundane, the unique in the familiar – but always the contradictory and ambivalent in everything. His photos from Greenland (Greenland, 2012) or Greece (Covered, Greece, 2008), for example, render empty and in-between spaces clearly visible and, more than that, tangible; the works created in Düsseldorf (After the Show, 2007) and Leipzig (Arrival, 2012), which capture arrival and departure at a theatre, submerse the viewer into a rollercoaster ride between auspicious departure and nascent solitude. The list of dichotomies that interest and occupy Meiller is long. Fascinated by the black-and-white, the dark-and-bright, the colourful-and-grey and the sharp-and-blurred, he also constructs these opposites: Young–old, abstract–realistic – over and over again, naturally, yet completely different each time.
Impressive is Franz Meiller’s manifold and varied approach to the subjects of his artistic desires. The image of the boy standing by a public telephone (Ears, Cuba, 2014) is a “snapshot” that only someone who has retained the vision and spontaneity of a child can succeed in taking. Franz Meiller finds and/or creates scenes, but scenes are also looking to find him.
[2polar] of 2016 – passers-by in front of a Munich hair salon – was created with the delicate precision of a composer. This, by the way, is something that all of Franz Meiller’s works have in common: “There is music in all of them”. When viewing, for example, the girl riding on a moped (Girl on moped, Ho-Chi-Minh City, 2016) or the boy running from a breaking wave (Flight, San Sebastian, 2015), one imagines, much more than just the inherent sounds (of an engine or the sea), a multifaceted soundscape. Meiller’s visual compositions create numerous links and associations in the observer’s mind – from harmonic sound sequences to dissonant clusters. Amongst all these auditive impressions, the confrontation with deafening silence (Procession, Lower Bavaria 2010) comes as a welcome (seemingly) restful change.
A photograph is of little use as a reproduction of reality: any objectivity of a photo is always an illusion. Franz Meiller illustrates this with particular subtlety, regardless of what, how and where he records his images. He seeks out and finds apparently and actually opposing poles that are, nevertheless, always interdependent. Whether next door or out in the wide world, he always looks closely, and always “out of the box”. Whether patiently waiting for the right moment or pressing the shutter at a whim, he never fails to capture the decisive, the unequalled, exciting moment of a situation or even an inanimate object. As already stated: Meiller can tell a story. With the photographs of a girl running from an imposing sculpture (Invasion, Normandy, 2009) and a woman pausing in front of a bunker (Torso, Andalusia, 2013), the artist becomes a political, retrospective chronologist. Meiller quite deliberately juxtaposes these two images. Both within themselves and in relation to each other the works are as contradictory as they are consonant: Though the two people, dressed in red, seem almost insignificant in scale next to the monumental structures, they in fact play a central role in the composition, their mere posture making more tangible the memory of attack and defence, of liberation and aggression.
The trials and tribulations of walking in an inhospitable landscape in bad weather (Homeward, Sicily, 2008) and the water skier’s breathtaking yet focussed thrill (Watersport, Carinthia, 2007) are exemplary for the above-mentioned subject of “What is man?”, which is (of course) also what informs Franz Meiller’s art. With only few exceptions, he creates photographs that essentially examine the condition and contradictions of human existence while also making reference to the greater whole, to nature, to creation. Franz Meiller unfailingly approaches his subjects – be they people, landscapes, horizons, the close by and familiar or the distant and alien – with respect and humility but also with a good measure of courage and an even greater measure of cheer. He shows compassion and empathy to life and treats the moribund judiciously. That is very good and desperately needed.
Large and even larger are Franz Meiller’s preferred formats: dimensions of 3 × 4 metres are standard. Nevertheless, his photographs – whether in radiant colours or in black-and-white melancholy – present themselves light-footed, transparent and bright. It is not inconceivable that his images’ positive energy owe a lot to his particular approach: Whether strictly composing a shot or spontaneously improvising, Franz Meiller creates, crafts exclusively on location. Post-processing and photoshop edits are not his cup of tea.
Franz Meiller is proposing to transform Brennabor art gallery into a place of magic. I’m willing to bet that he will succeed!
Inner Spaces of Others
On the exhibition by photographer Franz Meiller in the Münchener Stadtsparkasse (Munich Savings Bank)
It is rare indeed for contemplation of images to evoke memories of a text. Here, as one looks at Franz Meiller’s new photographs in the Munich Savings Bank premises, recall is instant. And that is not by chance, for the exhibition designed by Meiller and the words of the art and architecture philosopher Franz-Xaver Baier quoted below prove to share an astonishing affinity: “The space in which a person lives, moves and relates to the world remains essentially invisible. Yes, we see the people as they move to and fro in the towns. But we do not see the spaces that inwardly structure them. We do not see what in others’ perception is open and obvious and what is closed off, what matters to them and what does not. We do not see the corridors of space and the individual tight spots, the places that frighten them and the places where they open out again. In short, we do not see the inner spaces of others with their personal maps and we have no direct access to the world of any other person.” (Franz-Xaver Baier)
These statements bring a strange sense of familiarity. But why does this feeling arise? Perhaps because the space theorist Baier uses language to grasp a circumstance that, more than any other, dominates and shapes the daily unceasing flow of our thoughts. Scarcely any other phenomenon poses as many questions as that of the inscrutability and unbreachable privacy of the inner spaces of others. It is a matter of an instant to recognise the truth of Baier’s observations; but not uncommonly a lifetime is spent trying to demonstrate the opposite. For when people meet each other in spaces, that is what it is all about. It is about the imperative desire to establish relatedness where none exists. To satisfy one’s own curiosity with conjectures about the existences of Others. A single energy-sapping loop, round and round That is one side of it. The other side is that the self-contradictory, endlessly repeated endeavour is incomparably productive. It triggers the desire to transmute the endlessly recurring experience of vain effort into something that does not submerge and lose its identity in the thought-flow of the individual. Into language, into sounds, into images. That the inner spaces of others are beyond our grasp is the very reason for seeking a grasp on them. And this is precisely what happens when, here in the Munich Savings Bank, the artist Franz Meiller encourages access to his personal map. The photographic studies arranged by Meiller in the central gallery, most of them in large-format pairs, convey a sense of gazing long into those very aspects of reality that Franz-Xaver Baier calls corridors of space. In them is the culmination point of the totality of all imaginable ways of living and perceiving: a person in the act of leaping, trying to reach the top of a wall; a hand photographed in disturbing reddish tones, scoring deep dark finger grooves as it slides down; the snapshot at a ceremonial assembly, with the image of the orator in full flow eclipsed by enormous radiant candelabras; the back view of a couple expecting something to happen; two half-open blue telephone kiosks from which a child is trying to make a call; reflections on the surface water of a city fountain. By assembling situations so heterogeneous as to unhook all co-ordinates of place and time, Meiller subverts any attempt to spin stories out of the images and situations he shows. What he creates instead, working through both the arrangement and the format of his photographs, is a space of unmanageable simultaneity. It is not his way to present one-off happenings, torn from their context and thus baffling; the true subject of this exhibition is the chaotic flow of memory and perception, examined in its own right. Within that image-rich stream, the contradictions determine the tempo. And then when they are finally resolved, it is to give way to a new mode of perceiving, one that no longer seeks to mark off the inner spaces of Others from those of the perceiving self, but assumes complete and permanent interpenetration. “We do not somehow crop up in space and time: we are ourselves spatial and temporal. Accordingly we must create being and time and space by our existence. That is the radical meaning of reality.” (Franz-Xaver Baier).
The World of the Moment
Franz Meiller has a special photographic view of the world. The mood of a particular moment, the unique character of a structure or a perspective, the fleetingness of an encounter – he thinks these things further, entirely in the spirit of street photography. In this way, beyond the visible, he finds stories, narratives. He doesn’t illustrate the stories but translates them into an image language. In this way he makes the quotidian into something special. Often with a wry, gently ironic eye, and at times too, with cool analytical objectivity. He takes many of his photographs from an unusual angle; he may capture the fleeting moment in a reflected image, or heighten it with the use he makes of a shadow-constellation. Occasionally he will seek out the only angle from which the near and obvious is masked. Just to set the scene for the photo’s subtler content to unfold its effect.
Someone is delivering a speech at a prizegiving, and for the lens his head is hidden behind a candelabra: it’s Meiller’s piquant comment on the speech. And then – a quite wonderful disjunction, this one – there is the butcher, whose head is similarly replaced in the image by a plucked chicken perched on his neck and whose shoulder acquires a chicken leg. At other times Meiller will select his angle in such a way that only a torso is visible, or limbs. The legs of people on a park bench, of young uniformed women seated on a wall, of a man steering a horse-drawn rickshaw, glimpsed through a car window.
Exquisitely captured materiality.
What may look hasty and superficial is in fact the materiality of the significant moment, captured at lightning speed and with exquisite touch. Not one of Meiller’s photographs is staged. Even his stage photography lives by capturing the moment. He never steers an image’s action, and never changes the story except by cropping, moving the camera or choosing his standpoint.
Munich-based Franz Meiller photographs people – and cityscape, architecture, street scenes. Here too he shows his fine instinct for the story behind the story. He has a series entitled Risse (rifts). These rifts or tears become social fracture lines. Or could they be seams?
His photography – in physical terms mostly large-format works which he deploys and orchestrates installation-style for exhibitions – derives its essential character primarily from his unquenchable natural interest and his surroundings.
For these, Meiller has a discerning eye, evident enough in his Munich photographs, but showing at its best when it comes to portraits of unknown people. Even where their circumstances are obviously precarious, he shuns intrusiveness. It makes no difference where the picture is taken – Munich, Hamburg or Berlin, Mombasa, San Francisco or Havana. He allows his subjects always to retain their dignity, and bestows on them through his portraiture a certain quality of rightness exactly where they are. No-one is exposed. His lens pronounces no value judgements, no accusations. Its way of seeing is simply a wide open one that makes us curious, lets us share for a moment in a story that we will never hear but can only approach intuitively. Yet about which Franz Meiller’s photographs will tell us much.
The photographer Franz Meiller is a chronicler. Not in the lexical sense of the word, but in the consistent dedication to a pictorial narrative, a dedication that underscores the mystery of a very specific limitation. Meiller focuses in his photos almost exclusively on events which occur and reoccur in his immediate (private) environment. His paintings revolve around the appearance and disappearance of a very modest number of people, people who gain his complete attention, both personally and as a chronicler of their life histories. From the moments that Meiller shares with these people, he shapes photographic stories about the mysterious relationship between return and change. Why does one encounter certain people in certain places? Which combinations of people remain constant, and which are fragile? Are there certain rooms or spaces in which rituals of encounter are repeated? Do repetitions of emotional states occur? In other words, what does a chronicle of everyday life in Central Europe look like, and what people and places give this biography its decisive impulses, twists and turns?
By pursuing these questions in his photographs, Meiller objectifies his subjective perception of everyday life. His photographic series provide information on relationships that run counter to personal perception and experience. Meiller stands out by documenting circumstances in his life story and, in the truest sense of the word, creating an "image" of himself. And this "image" is hybrid. It talks of norms (rituals of everyday life) and exceptions (travel and theatre photography), it provides information on the diversity and inconsistency of everyday actions and experience. Meiller estranges himself from his own person by opposing the intuitive truth of his feelings and the truth of the image, and it is precisely here that Franz Meiller’s fascination with an artistic project is born. By staging nothing, he chronicles a staging with consequences from which one might wish to shrink, because one cannot control them.
My paradox: “I'm an obsessive person, but my spirit finds it impossible to define itself.” These words of E. M. Cioran, the Romanian author and philosopher, could represent an initial clue to the collection of new photographic works from Franz Meiller at the Gallery Kampl in Munich. A trail that runs exactly along that sharp and barely discernible edge that separates the possible from the unattainable, the dream from the waking state, exuberance from total exhaustion. An edge therefore which is no smooth transition, but an insurmountable rift between two poles of reality. Incompatibility defines the edges of this rift and, consequently, exactly the state in which all available energy needs to be exerted to escape it. Time and again. And repeatedly in vain. Because the action of conflicting forces on thoughts and actions is inevitable, that constantly recurring tarrying at the parting lines and cracks of consciousness inescapable and painful. When Franz Meiller calls his exhibition “Balance-Akte”, or “Balancing Acts”, he generates a cleft in a word which, in his native tongue, is actually written together. He does this because "balancing acts" as a unit do not exist, as no balance is possible on the tip of a knife that permanently separates desire, ability, yearning and experiencing from each other. Accordingly, Meiller illustrates groups of images in his exhibition with extremely contradictory characters. Framed individually or in illuminated boxes, positioned side by side and irritatingly disconnected. They are spontaneous and staged situations, images and documentation of theatre scenes, random events, uncrowded settings and individuals who Meiller depicts facing each other. Tales of paradoxical moods, restlessness, fragile moments of happiness, everyday rituals and curbed passions. Almost all image constellations bear a very specific title: Christmas tree decorations, vacant lot, Prater, pedestrian zone. The simplicity of this titling is disturbing, because it reveals the incompatibility of terminology and perceptions. One title, however, is different: Desirevolution (Revolution of wanting / longing). Although it refers to the novel by Matias Faldbakken and a staging by director Christiane Pohle, when applied to the totality of Meiller’s work, it appears to be the only conceivable bridge which would indicate an accessible connection between the disparate image groupings. This is because the word Desirevolution is an impossibility. And therefore expresses an obsession of photographer Franz Meiller which is perhaps even more severe and deeper than all the cracks and division lines that rigidly polarize human action. An obsession of artistic inventiveness. One that strives to appropriate paradoxes, to twist them and give them new names. This is the only way it might succeed: the Desirerevolution.
Art and dump trucks
2010 Theatre & Photography
2013 Balance-Akte (Balancing Acts) Galerie Friedmann-Hahn, Berlin
2014 Group Exhibition Munich Savings Bank
2015 Franz Meiller Photography Münchener Stadtsparkasse (Munich Savings Bank)
2016 [ 2polar ] Kunsthalle Dresden
2016 [ 2polar ] Kunsthalle Brennabor, Brandenburg
2019 "the wind never thinks too much" Galerie Kampl, München
2011 & 2014 Restaurant Ederer, Munich
2014 Freudenhaus Optik, Munich
2014 Otto Falckenberg School, Munich
2015 & 2016 Zur Schwalbe, München
2016 Little London, München
Art Karlsruhe, Munich Contempo, Art Cologne
Salzburg Festival, Theater Basel, Düsseldorfer
Schauspielhaus, Thalia Theater Hamburg.
Stadttheater Konstanz, Akademie für Darstellende Kunst (Academy of
Performing Arts) Baden-Württemberg.
Kammerspiele (theatre) Munich, Otto Falckenberg School Munich