Wolfgang Müller- Karat, Sky over St. Petersburg
On my tutor’s recommendation I looked at the work of, German photographer, Wolfgang Müller. In particular, he suggested he publication Karat, Sky over St. Petersburg (2003) as a good example of narrative through photography.
The photographs tell the story of various groups of Russian children and adolescents who live on St. Petersburg’s rooftops and in the sewers. While the images show how the children’s daily lives are marred with violence, drugs and prostitution they also show the friendships they have formed and elements of their daily routines. Müller captured the series of work over a period of 10 months between 2000-2003.
I wasn’t able to get hold of a hard copy of the book but did find 25 photos from the series on Müller’s website.
The opening photograph, 1/25, shows the profile of a statue, Lenin with his arm outstretched. He is surrounded by power cables, which run in various diagonal lines across the frame. In the distance we can see the rooftop of one of St. Petersburg’s decorative buildings. I thought this was a very strong opener for the series for several reasons. Firstly, the power cables and the visible rooftop decoration in the background helps establish the setting as being elevated. Secondly, the statue appears to be of Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, which also helps the viewer establish a sense of place. Thirdly, the diagonals created by the power cables encourage the eye to move across the image between foreground and background. And last, the one arm raised gesture the statue holds could be interpreted as friendly and welcoming. Overall, I feel as though the muted colours and simple composition make this an attractive image, which contrasts strongly with the content of the next picture.
The second image, 2/25, shows two boys, possibly in their teens, perched on a red-tiled rooftop, next to a chimney. They sit facing each other, one boy injecting a syringe into the others arm. When seeing this image for the first time I initially felt confused by the out of context location of the children, “Are they really on a roof?” Confusion was then quickly replaced by shock as my eye noticed the blue syringe.
Later, when I looked at the images in more depth the terms studium and punctum, which I have been researching recently, came to mind. Roland Barthes, a French essayist and semiologist first introduced these terms in his 1981 book, Camera Lucida. I read extracts from this in Wells (ed, 2003, Chapter One). Barthes describes the studium, a Latin word, as concerning ‘application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment’. He continues by noting that it is by studium that he is interested in many photographs, participating in them culturally, the figures, faces, gestures, settings and the actions. The punctum, Barthes continues, is what pierces or punctuates the stadium. While the stadium belongs to language or culture, the punctum does not. It is personal, an element that grabs the viewer and is poignant.
I considered that perhaps I viewed the first image-using stadium. I encountered the photographer’s intention of establishing place and interpreted the gestures of the statue.However, in the second image the children on the roof provide the punctum. It was not only their location and actions that both confused and shocked but also the boy’s serious, but relatively calm, expression.
The photographs that follow are none less provocative. Amongst other places they show the children and young people in on rooftops, in attic spaces and in sewers. They are seen playing, fighting and interacting as well as participating in drug use and prostitution.
The eighth photograph, 8/25, in the series focuses on two children inside an attic space. Prominent in the frame is a young girl wearing a green coat. She holds a plastic bag, probably containing Karat, to her face as though inhaling the fumes. Karat, referenced in the project title, is the name of a shoe-polish containing solvents that the children sniff. Her left hand is out stretched and holds a cigarette that a young blond-haired boy is puffing on. The boy looks into the camera lens, his face almost expressionless. One imagines that perhaps he has already partaken in the Karat. While shocking, the image on a whole seems very sad and hopeless.
While recording the lives of these children and young people, it was important for Müller not only to show the children as pure victims but also to show the moments of fun and happiness and portray. I feel as though image 22/25 manages to convey this. It shows a kitchen scene where a teenage girl and boy stand, embracing. The girl’s profile can be seen and she is smiling. There is a stove to the right, on which a pot containing food is bubbling away. On the left of the frame we see the edge of a table, holding plates of food. Behind the couple, someone lies asleep on the floor on top of a blanket. We can see affection, food and shelter. On a connotative level this image suggests to me hope. It also suggests the idea that while these children have been failed by corporate Russia they have, in someway, still achieved a degree of happiness.
While I found the content of these photographs to be quite disturbing, I also found them to be very thought-provoking. Müller has portrayed the children as real people, not only just surviving, but also living. Müller brought the children food and shared the photographs he took, however one can only imagine that it was the time and patience he invested that allowed him to gain the children’s trust. Trust that would have been essential to achieve the candid shots.
I read on a fellow OCA student’s blog , who has viewed the hard copy of the publication, that in the book, the photographs are accompanied by text that relays the individual children’s stories. He notes that the text magnifies the impact of the images. With this in mind, I hope to be able to view a hard copy of Karat in order to note the effect that the addition of text has on the overall narrative.
More information on this project and others by Müller can be found on his website. http://wmueller-photography.de/index.php
Wells, L. (2003) The Photography Reader. Oxon: Routledge