In the studio with Katrin Koenning

All images © Meg De Young.

We visit the home studio of Katrin Koenning in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Prahran, where the artist connects with the local community to develop her many varied projects

Nestled in an old European-style building, on a quiet side street, Katrin Koenning’s expansive first-floor apartment acts as a retreat and workspace. As I walk to meet her on a sunny autumn morning, I wander through the suburb of Prahran, just a couple of miles south of Melbourne’s city centre. Prahran (pronounced ‘Pran’ in the local vernacular) got its name from the Indigenous Boonwurrung word for the local river, and sits a short distance from both the river and the beaches of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. Prahran occupies an important place in Australia’s photographic history as the location of the famous Prahran Technical College (now closed) which saw students like Carol Jerrems, Susan Fereday and Bill Henson walk through its doors in the 1970s and 80s.

Koenning’s apartment is her creative haven. Multiple pinboards decorated with test prints, illustrations, newspaper clippings and collages are hung around her home creating an energy of inspiration and productivity. A large photobook collection occupies an expansive and light-filled wall in one room. Another room is devoted to processing and scanning her negatives, which she still does herself – a mark of how important process and consistency is to her practice. And, in a different part of the apartment, in a glass sunroom, rows of tagged and numbered black-and-white negatives hang from the ceiling in their dozens. Yet despite all this activity, each zone in Koenning’s apartment feels ordered, vast and intentional. There is no place for any clutter or matter out of place.

“I make work every single day,” Koenning says. “I make multiple projects at the same time, and I would describe what I do as a web of projects that are interconnected and overlapping.” From the stacks of boxes of negatives and prints – carefully stored, catalogued and organised – one can assume that Koenning is what might be called an ‘obsessive image-maker’. Hers is a healthy, daily practice of photography, just as running or yoga might be for others.

We pass the morning chatting over multiple cups of tea, then continue through lunch. The word that we keep returning to in our conversation is ‘community’. Not only are community and interconnectedness a key dynamic of Koenning’s work, defining how she approaches almost all her projects, they are also fundamental to the way she operates day to day. Moving to Melbourne from Brisbane well over a decade ago, and before that from the Ruhr region of Germany, Koenning has built and nurtured multiple networks for herself in different parts of the world. Over 10 years, Koenning has immersed herself in education, teaching at universities in Australia, and engaging with workshops and masterclasses supporting young photographers in the Asia-Pacific region. She has been a regular at Angkor Photo Festival in Cambodia over many years, offering her time to lead workshops for emerging Asian photographers. She has done similar work and mentored young photographers for Photo Kathmandu (Nepal), Myanmar Deitta (Myanmar) and The Lighthouse (India). This October she is running her first workshop in Europe at Palm Tree Workshops Space (Greece), following Jason Fulford, Mark Power, David Campany and Max Pinckers.

“I often return to run workshops at the same places over and over again, I form strong bonds,” Koenning says. “Much like my image-making, I love returning to things and revisiting them. I very easily fall in love with places, things and people, and then have no choice but to return.” One of her newest projects, still in progress, is based in a small, regional town located six hours’ drive from Melbourne, which Koenning has been visiting regularly since December 2020. “Robinvale became a place of interest to me through research,” she explains. “I was reading a lot about what it means to live rurally or remotely, and I became interested in communities that live out of the spotlight.”

“I make work every single day. I make multiple projects at the same time, and I would describe what I do as a web of projects that are interconnected and overlapping”

Due to a seasonal farming industry, Robinvale’s population is one of the most diverse in Australia. Located on the Murray River (Australia’s longest), the town is at a confluence point of five different Indigenous language groups with a strong First Nations presence. This new work has seen Koenning build connections and unexpected bonds with the people she has met. She has even been accepted as an unofficial town chronicler, invited to all the town’s events, and to family parties and gatherings. This has, like her other projects, allowed her to delve deeper and to start to tap into the complexity of stories that exist in Robinvale. Its history is plagued by the legacy of colonisation and settler stories and traces of dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Today, contemporary narratives are formed by new international migrants, and other issues such as drought, the environment, and more broadly, how humans live together in and build community. “Robinvale came unexpectedly into my life, and has changed me,” Koenning says.

The photographer’s work is currently on show in the massive Melbourne Now exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), which features over 200 artists and runs until 20 August 2023. The featured series, titled while the mountains had feet and curated by NGV’s Maggie Finch, is partly extracted from a large body of work titled between the river and the sea, which she began at the end of 2019 as a response to a number of traumatic experiences, including the devastating bushfires and the death of a loved one. As she made the work, it evolved and became about processing melancholy and lightness, intimacy and grief, and exploring community, geography, walking, similarity and difference, and witnessing over time. The photographs exhibited at NGV are taken from four different projects. “I call them ‘migrant pieces’,” Koenning explains. “I was interested in exploring a constellation on the wall, creating a dialogic space that enables a fellowship of images.”

The result is a fluid presentation echoing Koenning’s artistic process. It is about accessing and delving into different stories, and working simultaneously across fragments and multiplicities that ultimately find connection. “I’ve always been really interested in clustering, layering and reassembling,” she reflects. “As Teju Cole says: ‘Artists have a duty to be weavers and repairers of stories’.”