At the age of nineteen, Philipp Ebeling packed his bags and left Germany to start a new life in England. But in 2008, the London-based photographer returned to his home village of Mellendorf in the north of Germany, and began to reconnect with old friends and family. During his two and a half month stay, Ebeling photographed the people and places of his past, which was, as he writes in his new monograph, “a form of catharsis”, a way of working through his feelings about the place he’d once called home.
“Despite my long absence from the village, it still occupies a central part of my identity,” Ebeling writes in his new book, Land Without Past. “It has indelibly shaped my sense of the world, who I am and how I function… I still call this patch of earth home and I doubt that will ever change.”
The sense of striving to reconnect with one’s past, and exploring the notion of home, personal memory and identity, lies at the heart of Ebeling’s 80 page monograph. By combining colour images – portraits, landscapes, and still life scenes – with found black and white photographs from his family’s photo albums, the photographer constructs a picture of both a past he remembers and one he can only reach through photographs.[bjp_ad_slot]
“At first I was just taking my own pictures, but I found it difficult to talk about what I couldn’t photograph – the desire to leave the past behind,” Ebeling told BJP in April last year. “I thought that if I could find pictures that described what life was like in my village and show them alongside mine, I could reconnect to the past and try to get over the feeling of there being ‘no past’.”
Germany’s struggle to come to terms with its history is an important theme in the book – one that Ebeling weaves throughout its pages alongside his own attempt to make sense of personal experiences and feelings. “Germany was a place obsessed with making new – new roads, new houses, new cars,” he writes. “As if by making new we could somehow undo the past. When I was a schoolboy, the years 1930 to 1950… overshadowed everything else… Returning to my village, I knew the past needed to become part of the work. So I went over my family’s photo albums.”
The carefully interspersed found images alter the pace of the edit by subtly inviting the viewer to contemplate Germany’s history: a young soldier stares vacantly out of the frame in one image titled simply Neighbour, 1943, while in another, a group of soldiers hold a Nazi flag. In an image near the start of the book, a boy of around seven or eight is slumped in an armchair; he is from another era but almost symbolises a young Ebeling. In between, colour landscapes, portraits and interiors taken by Ebeling, unsettle and provoke: a man stares directly at the camera in one – his name is Werner, but this is all we know; elsewhere we see flowers brightly lit in a window, a lone caravan parked eerily on a dank road, and so on. It is not clear exactly what these images are or where they were taken, but this sense of not knowing gives the book its intensity.
“The work is about memory, how we cherish and suppress it,” says Ebeling, for whom producing the book was a way of “making peace with the ghosts of his past”. Physically, it is designed to resemble a photo album – a nice touch – and each copy comes with an original photograph attached by photo corners on the back cover. On the front of the book empty photo corners demarcate where a photograph should be, but isn’t; a subtle reference to the missing photographs in the photo albums Ebeling scoured. “Along with everything else from that time, pictures have firmly disappeared from German life… nobody seems to have kept any pictures at all from the years 1933 to 1945… I found many empty pages in [photo albums] with just the photo corners left.”
Land Without Past, priced £32, is Ebeling’s first publication on the Fishbar imprint, which he co-runs with his wife, the photographer Olivia Arthur. A book launch takes place on Thursday 24 April from 6pm at Fishbar Gallery in Dalston, east London, which also marks the opening of an exhibition of the work. For more information visit www.fishbar.ph.