Abstraction of the real

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Oliver Hartung’s images present a view of the Middle East that sometimes gets lost amid images of war and conflict. His are images that privilege found objects on urban streets, and subtly call to attention colourful street paraphernalia – posters, graffiti, statues, and murals – to show a quieter, more ordinary side of life in these troubled regions.

Hartung’s recent book Iran, ein Kinderbuch, (images from which are shown in the above slideshow), was shortlisted for the 2014 Unseen Dummy Award in Amsterdam, and also for the Dummy Award Kassel 2014.


The book, whose titles translates as ‘Iran – A Children’s Book’, is a work-in-progress, he explains, which “examines the visual culture of Iran, and the result of (so far) three journeys to Iran between 2011 and 2012. It comprises images that have profane political or religious content, taken from propaganda, murals, war cemeteries and advertising, [and] is part of an ongoing personal long-term project on the Middle East, which I started in 2007.”

When Hartung, a former freelance photographer for the New York Times, and current lecturer in photography at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig, began photographing in Middle Eastern countries (Lebanon and Jordan initially, where he conducted workshops with Arab and German students, and later Syria and Iran, among others), the Arab Spring had not yet taken place. Using a ‘documentary-style’, but not photographing as a photojournalist, Hartung instead concentrated on capturing the colour and light of the places he visited.

“I didn’t want to show tourist sites or things that speak of crisis or conflict – at least not in a direct way,” he tells BJP on the phone from his home in Germany. “I want to show a small slice of what it’s like there – to show an appreciation for the three-dimensionality of the spaces, the light, and for the sculptural qualities. The work is about photography as much as anything else, and I try to make images that exist as single images – almost as paintings. I use a documentary way of working, but I don’t think too much about it. I would never change what’s in front of the camera to make a better composition, but I try to get the best angle, composition and light that I can.

“I don’t have an official mission to make a big change,” he adds. “The pictures are more abstract and [deliberately] out-of-context – they don’t explain or show anything, and there is no extra information about the image except [in some cases] the place name. I’m far more interested in the photographic image combined with a geo-political background… Maybe the intention of the war photographer is to show what’s going on [but] one thing that became obvious to me when I started travelling in Iran, was how strong our preconceptions about the country are, and how different it really is, plus the politics involved in creating a portrait of Iran… I try to find images that neither support oriental clichés nor the usual crises-related coverage in the western media.”

While Hartung may not address political contexts directly he does offer hints to common talking points via his choice of subjects, and the way he frames them. “There are small [references to] oil and petrol in some of the images, a major topic when people talk about the Middle East”, he gives as an example of this.

Drawing influences from American photographers Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Robert Adams, and Lee Friedlander, Hartung says he was inspired by Friedlander’s The American Monument (the title of his book, The Arabian Monument, published in 2012 by Berlin-based The Green Box, is a “direct reference” to this, he says). “You look at those pictures, and the topic of the monument is not important anymore. You start to look at the background, the composition, the landscape, and the feeling of the time in which the pictures were taken, which becomes more interesting.”

Hartung’s own often people-less images possess an eerie calm and an uneasy sense of uncertainty; piles of tyres on a desert highway in Jordan take on a sculptural quality in one image, while in another, the carcass of an abandoned wheel-less bus lies by the roadside. Elsewhere, a peacock struts regally by a cluster of caged cockerels, while tin cans are piled up with Gabriel Orozco precision in Syria.

“The last pictures I took in Syria, for example, were in 2009,” he says. “I would seek out monuments of President Assad, or things dedicated to the leader, because I thought they were diverse and absurd. Often they were in the middle of nowhere. [In light of the recent conflict] it’s likely that many of those places no longer exist [but] they’re part of the cultural history of Syria. The images that became Syria al-Assad, published earlier this year [2014] by Spector Books, are funny and strange, and in a way quite naive, but when you think a out what’s going on now, they become horrific… I’ve had people say to me, ‘how can you publish this work now?’ One justification might be that the book offers an insight into Syria that you don’t get in the daily media, and gives a sense of what is to come.”

To date, Hartung has travelled to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey as well as Iran with the project. Although taken in different countries, there is a commonality to his images, and some even draw on American landscapes. “I look for similar environments and points of interest with the US, and in a way there is a connection between my American series [These Colors Don’t Run, which saw the photographer present a glimpse of life in the States in the months leading up to the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004], and The Arabian Monument – in terms of the concept I think, although the photography is not so different either – places that are between the urban and the rural, unfinished, and changing all the time.”

Images from Iran, Ein Kinderbuch are on show at the Vice Versa Showroom in Berlin until 10 October.

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