Two Rivers. Joachim Brohm / Alec Soth is an exhibition catalog from an exhibition of the same name at the NRW Forum, Dusseldorf, 29 March – 7 July 2019. I don’t recall who or what recommended it to me, and I have all of the Soth works included in their full books (mostly reprints), but was unfamiliar with Brohm and wondered what sort of conversation their works might have with one another.
After reading the essays (three, from Ralph Goertz, Vince Leo, and Wolfgang Ullrich) and looking through the selected photographs from about 25 years of image making from both artists, well…
The catalog opens, following Goertz’s essay, with selections from Brohm’s Ruhr (1980-1983) series side-by-side/mixed with some bits from Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi (2000-2004). Then, following Leo’s essay, there are photographs from Brohm’s Ohio and Flash Ohio series (both 1983-84), Soth’s Niagara (2006), Brohm’s Culatra (2008-10), and Soth’s Songbook (2012-14). And finally, following Ullrich’s essay, there are some digital photographs from Brohm’s Dessau Files (2017-19).
Let me just say right here that I don’t, in principle, mind digital photographs. But the inclusion of the last few pictures seems partly forced and partly only there to justify the inclusion of Ullrich’s essay, which focuses on Brohm’s Dessau Files…
More on that later.
As I mentioned above, I was unaware of Joachim Brohm, and I’m glad to have this introduction to his work. His work in the 1980s is solid, straight ahead, sort of New Topographics type work of the Stephen Shore/Joel Sternfeld variety, with something of a German sensibility, whatever that means. It’s very much on-time or something. Good stuff. His work bears some resemblance to Soth’s landscapes, and, of course, Soth was aware of Shore and Sternfeld and others, but I’m unconvinced that the “two rivers” are anything more than references to the Mississippi and Rhur where the two photographers worked for a time.
Where Soth tries to capture individuals first (with perhaps some limited success), Brohm captures the environment. Goertz, who dreamed up the exhibition, discusses this in some detail in his introductory essay. Brohm’s “…engagement with the Ruhr as a spiritual realm takes his photographs beyond the purely documentary. [It is]… a photographic and philosophical confrontation with the sweeping changes taking place in the palaces he photographs.”* Soth, however, “… was not primarily concerned with the geographical, ecological, or sociopolitical aspects of the river but rather with people and their dreams, and woth the periphery.”**
Um. Why this exhibition/book, then? I could fairly easily put Brohm’s Ruhr and Ohio works against Sternfeld’s American Prospects and see very similar aims and sensibilities. With somewhat more difficulty and shoehorning, I could stand Brohm’s whole oeuvre up next to Stephen Shore’s work from about 1972 to the present and draw clear parallels.
Maybe I just don’t get it? But, I mean, Bonnie is an actual person, and if you know Soth’s work, you can picture her with her hairdo and angel picture, and maybe make some guesses about her predelictions, voting habits, and the like. The only portraits in all the bits from Brohm (the entries in the Ohio Flash set) show some resemblance to Soth’s portraits, but I’d more closely identify them with the portraits in Shore’s American Surfaces, for the most part. Where Soth’s work is, to my eye, intimate and personal, capturing a sense of familiarity or soul or something, Brohm’s portraits have a more archetypal character.
The rest of the book doesn’t help.
Vince Leo’s essay “First Encounters” has a nice passage on the transformation of color photography from the age of Kodachrome (“Gives those nice, bright colors…”) to the rather bland color of 1980s and 1990s print film:
…Joachim’s prints weren’t bad Kodachrome color; they were a critique of Kodachrome color and everything it stood for: leisure, consumerism, cheerful conformity. Drained of color, the fantasies embodied in Kodachrome became the architecture of urban alienation, inhabited by people who seemed more trapped than liberated. Even the River Ruhr felt sapped of energy and vitality, a barren simulacra of itself. … I realized the way the color of consumer culture attempts and fails to make up for lost landscapes, meaningful relationships, and sense of purpose.Leo, Vincent. “First Encounters” in Two Rivers. Joachim Brohm / Alec Soth. Koenig Books, London, 2019. p 73
The last third of the book, Soth’s Niagara, Brohm’s Culatra, Soth’s Songbook, and the tacked-on essay about and selections from Brohm’s Dessau Files is schizophrenic at best, and nonsensical at worst. I don’t see what any of the selected works from one photographer has to say to works from the other. Brohm moves more like Shore, really, while Soth remains Soth the whole time.
Niagara works in something of the same vein as Sleeping by the Mississippi, with slightly more focus on the internal worlds of Soth’s subjects. Culatra reminds me of John Gossage’s pomodori a grappolo in its democratization of seeing, though there’s some focus on color that Gossage doesn’t really have. Songbook, with it’s large format black & white portraits of small town life culled from Soth and Brad Weller’s LBM Dispatch community newspaper project, is the total odd-man out here, well, except for the digital experiments in the Dessau Files work.
The Ullrich essay, “Topography and Photography,” places Brohm’s Dessau work in the context of the rebuilding of East Germany after the fall of the wall, mixed with the move from analog to digital in photography… and it’s a good sort of segue or linkage except for the fact that the wall fell in 1989 and Brohm’s work for Dessau Files was made ~30 years later (2017-19). Sure, rebuilding after 40-odd years of Soviet rule takes awhile, but 30 years? I don’t know. Both the Ullrich essay and the Dessau Files really seem tacked on.
I just really, really don’t get the point of this book or exhibition. Sure, I got an introduction to Brohm’s 1980s work, and it’s good enough that I’ll keep an eye out for monographs of the projects. Hummm… Ruhr was published only in 2007, as far as I can tell; Ohio came in 2009. Hummm…
Overall, Two Rivers earns a below average 2.3, and then only lifted by my enjoyment of and appreciation for the early Brohm work.
Two Rivers is available from DAP and other fine purveyors, but, really, save your money. You can find a copy of Ruhr or a reprint of Sleeping by the Mississippi for about the same price, and Ohio is, sadly, quite a bit more. From the handful of pictures in the Two Rivers catalog, I think this is probably the one to have, though Ruhr also looks good.
If you’re also unfamiliar with Joachim Brohm, go check out his website. There’s a ton of good stuff there.
*Goertz, Ralph. “Two Rivers” in Two Rivers. Joachim Brohm / Alec Soth. Koenig Books, London, 2019. p 15.