Maria Sewcz: inter esse
Under the theme of “Photography as you don’t know it,” the Pictures section in the Winter 2013 issue of Aperture magazine presents the work of ten photographers who have been overlooked and undervalued. Among these photographers is Maria Sewcz. The photograph Dalmatian, 1986-7 by Maria Sewcz is now available for purchase as part of the Aperture limited-edition print program.
By Britt Salvesen
The first word that comes to my mind when I look at Maria Sewcz’s inter esse series (1985–87) is concrete. The adjective acknowledges the photographs’ solidity, tangibility, actuality, and materiality—their attachment to a specific place and time. The noun, too, asserts itself in Sewcz’s photographs, many of which feature this composite construction material as used in East Berlin, and all of which emulate its gray tonalities and granular textures via the gelatin-silver process. Neither of these senses of concrete can hold off their antonyms: insubstantial, crumbling, reduced to rubble. The photographs not only document a particular moment but also displace it. Considered as documents, the photographs depict cars, architecture, fashions, and gestures. Considered as displacements, they exclude faces, monuments, and signposts.
Because Sewcz grew up and was educated in the German Democratic Republic, a reference to Friedrich Engels’s definition of realism does not seem out of place. “Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances,” Engels wrote in 1888, setting a standard that was taken up after partition and elaborated as policy in East Germany and other eastern-bloc countries after World War II. Socialist realism had its correlative in photographic pedagogy, coalescing during the Cold War into a kind of anxious humanist propaganda.
The “new Germany” that artists had been asked to extol at mid-century probably meant little to Sewcz, either ideologically or aesthetically; it was simply the Germany she knew. She was born in 1960, the year before the wall went up. She entered the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts (Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst) and studied photography, her enrollment coinciding with a climate of increasing cultural exchange between East and West. The opening of new expressive avenues didn’t necessarily annul Engels’s old definition of realism. For her thesis project, Sewcz made true reproductions of typical characters under typical circumstances in East Berlin between 1985 and 1987. These circumstances were concrete, we could say, but not permanent. The wall came down two years later, beginning in November 1989.
The work of a student in her mid-twenties, inter esse is self-consciously about living in between and on the brink, caught up in observing oneself and the moment, looking for options, wary of predictions. Even today it escapes the stylistic categories associated with that moment in German photographic history. Unsystematic yet rigorous, the series combines notation and memory. Sewcz’s influences are clear; her individual instincts equally so. Thinking further about the work’s concrete aspects brings to mind two art historical points of reference. First, Concrete Art, a proposition more than a movement, was articulated by Theo van Doesburg in 1930 and manifested in so-called arithmetic drawings and paintings in black, white, and gray. More recently, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a theory of Concrete Photography emerged in Germany with an exhibition and publication of the same name. A deferred curatorial coming-to-terms with Germany’s dual photographic inheritances of subjectivity and objectivity—not to mention its dual political inheritances—Concrete Photography claimed to be wholly self-referential and non-representational. Yet Sewcz’s photographs, excluded from a self-consciously stylistic version of Concrete Photography by virtue of their realism, also stake a claim for abstraction in today’s expanded discussion of both impulses. inter esse remains poised on the brink, the artist and the viewer in the act of discovery.
Britt Salvesen is curator and head of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.