Frank Berger »Oxford Street« 2004

Contemporary art’s gallery goers have long become familiar with the rooms of projection installations. In these darkened spaces, the visitor is faced with moving images, usually videos, that are ‘beamed’ by a projector onto the wall. The current boom in projection pays witness to art’s fascination with the narrative power of film and the cinema as a site of great illusions. Furthermore, the engagement in these works with a second hand reality, recycled from various media surfaces like television or the Internet, seems especially to correspond to the aesthetic of the video beamer.

In the spaces that the Leipzig photographer Frank Berger fills with his slide projections, in contrast, the spectator is confronted with an abrupt intrusion of external reality. As if through a shop window, the large format photographs show a view of an urban, seemingly everyday scene, in which constantly new, slightly varying constellations of the passing street life come into focus in the series of projected images. For the presentation of his new work Oxford Street, Frank Berger has transformed the project gallery of the Kunstverein Leipzig into just such a display of the urban.

Oxford Street is comprised of a sequence of sixty highly detailed photographs (slides, 6 x 7 cm) projected in a large format, filling the wall; the images are linked to one another using dissolves. In terms of reference, the photographs of Oxford Street only show a single, relatively short stretch of London’s famous shopping mile. They repeat one and the same shot of the camera, directed from the opposite side of the street at the wide sidewalk before a department store. On the level of representation, the photographic ‘still’ translates the flowing coexistence of passers–by, vehicles, and architectural backdrop into a synchronous visibility: everything stands still and can be seen with an unusual clarity. At the same time, however, as a series of images the projection seems to reanimate the street scene; it turns the frozen time a step further, thus lending the work a latently cinematised structure. It is precisely this immediate proximity that makes it possible to perceive the difference between photography and film.

The insistent look of the photographer transforms a stretch of a city street into a visual stage, and on this stage only the scenery of display windows, traffic lights, bicycles, and garbage cans outlasts the varying cast of the image. One element that seems part of the set is a woman, who during the time (on the days) when the photographer was taking his pictures held a wooden sign advertising a neighbouring bar to the passers–by, reifying herself as a living billboard. This evokes associations with the ’sandwichmen’ from the Great Depression, those men who pushed through the streets hung with advertising signs, and which Walter Benjamin already then saw as a prosthesis of capitalism and the ’last incarnation of the flâneur’. As the projection continues, this figure proves in her inane activity to be the ’constant factor’ in Berger’s urban theatre; her reliable presence in the images stands in restful contrast to the contingency of everyday life that is fixed by the photographs.

The image of the street, the contingency of the photographic selection, the detailed richness of the shot: these are characteristics that allow the work of Frank Berger to seem as a specifically photographic position in the context of contemporary projection art. Since its emergence in the second half of the nineteenth century, the shared off–spring of the magic lantern and the camera obscura, slide projection, has developed as a form of presentation that is uniquely able to produce the excessive information content of the photograph. After its careers as a pedagogical teaching instrument and a preferred medium of private evenings at home, and its use in commercial musical forms, the slide show proves in retrospect – at the end of the photographic age – to be a deeply photographic way of presenting photography and a multifaceted medium.

The works of Frank Berger turn not least around a central point of disagreement in photographic discourse that we might call the epistemological value of the visible. While according to Siegfried Kracauer, the particular character of a photographic (as well as cinematic) aesthetic lies in the ’redemption of physical reality’, at the same time prominent critics of the ’simple reproduction of reality’ deny that the photographic has any farreaching epistemological value. Social reality is too complex, they argue, to a analyse from a photographic representation, behind which, no matter who sober it might appear, often a mere cult of the visible is concealed. This kind of fetishisation – an accusation made of the large photographic panels of the Düsseldorf School, for example – cannot be found in Berger’s works. In projection, the photographer found a form of presentation with a transitory structure that delivers its own doubt, the doubt about the right moment and the validity of the visual claim that he constantly formulates. Behind the strict sequence of the images, rich in its illusionary quality, something paradoxical becomes visible: on the one hand, a construction of the photographer that presents us the constant repetition of the same as not a deeper understanding of reality, but at best its compact representation, and at the same time his fierce, unrelenting determination to provide us with something of this reality to see.

Florian Ebner (translation Brian Currid)

© 2008 Frank Berger