A conversation with Gerd Sander 

By Julian Sander


One of the least understood and most complex German artists of the post-war period, Chargesheimer was a multifaceted artist and a master of the photographic medium, pushing it to extremes in every sense of the word. Gerd Sander talks to THE FEROZ PAPER about the artist and the boundaries of his work.


JULIAN SANDER: So, we are showing in Paris a group of light graphics and a chemical negative Chargesheimer made, and part of Chargesheimer’s reputation is that his pictures are poorly done on a technical level, which as far as I have understood from our conversations it is not all true. As a matter of fact it seems to be very much the opposite.

GERD SANDER: I think it is true. He was a great technician, he had a lot of knowledge about chemicals and he experimented. He used, like many photographers in the 30’s, the 40’s, the 50’s and up to the late 60’s, what we call farmer’s reducer (in German: rotes Blutlaugensalz), which was meant to lighten up prints, to take out the black background of a print. And of course, if it was deeply black then it was impossible to get it out completely, and so sometimes you have markings or yellow stains on the print where the print was originally black. Now, the key is to understand that you cannot repeat that exactly the same. Each of these prints, which have what some people say “fouls”, is a unique piece. It was quite normal that you make a 30×40 cm print and if you said: “ok, the print is so-far-so-good”, then you would fix it and then start with the farmer’s reducer to remove the highlights, the backgrounds, whatever…

JS: After the print was fixed?

GS: Yes, it had to be fixed first, fixed and washed.

JS: So, it was a post-development process?

GS: Yes, absolutely. It was a post-development treatment of the finished print, which would be just a regular black and white print. And sometimes you used it, depending on what kind of paper you used, to increase the contrast because it would bleach out the highlights. And the grays, which were mostly in the face in some portraits (The Dancer comes to my mind), you see that the face is almost white. I am sure it wasn’t in the original print like this. You enhance it by taking the rest of the gray out. That had to be done very carefully because you can destroy your print very quickly if you are not sure of what you are doing.

JS: There is one particular print that I am thinking of, which is a man looking kind of sideways with a moustache and dark hair, and his face is really white and the background is light but it is brown, and it is very specific, meaning that…

Chargesheimer, Hubertus Durek, ca. 1950

GS: Is it a profile?

JS: Yes.

GS: That’s Hubertus Durek. He was the director of a private theater in Cologne named Theater am Dom, which is in the Schweizer Landenstadt. It still exists, you know…

JS: That print, for example, I’ve noticed that his face is white and in other areas of the print there is brown, which for me is an indication that he was not only careful but it seems that he even used the reaction of the paper, the tonalities that were developed in the process, or the chemical burning if you will, to alter the image, to make it different…

GS: That was the idea. That is why each of these prints is unique. All of them are unique works.

JS: It ends up becoming almost a multimedia work because it is originally a photograph and then, it becomes a painting with chemicals on a photograph.

GS: Yeah, we call it “taking away”, remove certain things and enhance others. It was a technique of which he was a master, an absolute master. In the 50’s most photographers used this kind of technique. You can find that even in some Walker Evens photographs from the 30’s, some of them just turned yellow.

JS: That’s why they turned yellow, because of this technique?

GS: Yes, I mean, sometimes he didn’t have the right paper to get the contrast he wanted, so he overexposed the print and then lightened it up. Sometimes you did that to get contrast.

JS: Because that was the process that was being done at that time? At that time no one was thinking about pictures lasting a thousand years…

GS: No, it was not even meant to be…

JS: Let’s maybe step into the topic that both you and I have discussed often before, the durability of this prints, because as I’ve shown some of these prints to people I receive comments like: “oh, but if this is brown now, or if this is faded now it is just going to go downhill from here”, and I keep telling the people that it isn’t the case, that this was intentional…

GS: Maybe in five hundred years they will look different, but we look different then to…

JS: Fair enough…

But the key is: it is not deterioration; it is a purposeful act of intruding into the material of the photograph.

It is a chemical process, which now with all this Photoshop craziness, you don’t need this anymore. But it was pretty common to express yourself this way, to use these kind of material.

JS: You talked about chemical process; in Paris I am showing chemigrams and light graphics. The light graphics, as I understand them, are basically an in-between step between the chemigram, which we understand to be a manipulated piece of photo paper or a cameraless manipulation of photo paper with light and with chemicals, so that the print would end up creating an amorphous, organic representation. And the light graphics were an in-between step, no?

GS: No, wait. The light graphics ere done from a glass plates. That was the first step. The plate was an enlarger, and then enlarged onto photo paper and then developed. That was the step, so he did both. For example, the portfolio, the book, these are pure chemigrams. There are ten images in the books and they all have more or less the same structure. At that time I had four of five of them, because I wanted to show all, I wanted to have ten but I never achieved that, to open up one page in each book and have all of them next to each other. It is clear that he had a certain idea of what kind of form he could put on the paper, because he has no negative plates, just the photo paper.

JS: Just paper and light, and chemicals.

GS: Paper and chemicals…

JS: And light…?

GS: No, it doesn’t have to be light.

776.209.SG (743.1106.CHAR)

JS: So where do the tones come from?

GS: Well, from the chemicals. And you might have maybe a very soft light in the corner somewhere…. [Laughs]. It is a really tedious process; you need a lot of knowledge about chemistry, which he had because he studied photography in Munich during the war. He knew a lot about chemistry and he used that knowledge. And of course, the easiest thing to do if you do light graphics is, for instance, to have a 20 watt-bulb in the room, put a piece of paper on a glass plate (and perhaps you put some water first) and then you start drawing with a brush and you just develop it. You have maybe one or two different developers, a strong one and a soft one, because the paper isn’t exposed to light so the minute you put the developer on the paper, something appears. Light gray, or black, or whatever…

JS: And then through the solarisation process…

GS: Well, solarisation…

JS: I thought solarisation was done during the fixing process…

GS: No, solarisation is done when they put the print is developed and then you switch on the light for a very short time. And then the pieces that are white on the print get gray, or black. Solarisation was mostly done with the negative and the enlarger; you made a print, and then you turned on the lights and certain things turn around. The light drawing, there was no images, no negatives involved, nothing. So you would just draw on the unexposed paper with the developer. And that would leave forms, and you could also mix certain products, like a little bit of fixer so that would stop some spots… It is a real creative process, but for that you need to have the knowledge about how the chemicals work. And how different chemicals work together. Which chemical attacks the photographic image in which way? And what colors come out?

JS: What about the light graphic negative that I am showing?

GS: That I have no idea how he did that…

JS: It is multicolor, so maybe he used paints…?

char_light negative_300dpi_sm

GS: No, there are no paints, it is all chemicals. Different kinds of chemicals which he put on the glass plate. I don’t know in which way because we never talked about it, because at the time you didn’t talk about these things, they were there. I have them because we did enlargements from them for his book Zwischenbilanz. And he would say, “ok, of course you can make a black and white print of that with an enlarger”, and when the prints were done he gave them to me, like “you can have that”. I’ve kept them for 50 years. The book Zwischenbilanz came out in 1960 so he was at the height of his career then and since we were about five minutes away from where he lived. He liked my father, and the young people, and the girls, you know… He came back quite often, and said: “look, I am going to do this book and I need layout prints” and that’s how it all developed. Nobody was thinking of art or whatever, it was a novelty.

JS: Chargesheimer worked in a lot of different subjects. He did street photography, he did abstract photography with camera, he did cameraless photography, and he was a sculptor. How does it all fit together?

GS: He was a multifaceted person. He was never happy with just having a profession, a one-line profession. He loved theater; he even acted in a film. He directed an opera in Cologne: Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza.

I think it is quite simple, he was a curious person, he was curious to do something new, something challenging.

You have mentioned street photography before, street photography is such a strange word, if you want to make a documentation about a city you have to go out to the street. But there is a difference between new street photography, when you photograph an event, a car crash or whatever, or if you as a photographer try to visualize what you as an artist consider the soul of a city. Basically that is what he tried to do in all aspects of his work. The idea with the light sculptures; I remember when they started because we build the transport cases in my father’s studio and I asked and he said: “I just started, I polished the pieces…”. It was all Plexiglas, he cut them himself, he polished them himself, he put the motor in and they grew like a mushroom. There was no drawing, no plan or anything. There was an idea that they could function, they were all electrically driven. But they just developed. There are no sketches. It is just a piece, like when you go out and you photograph, you see something and you make one picture, you go on and you make another one, and another one. Art in general, in my opinion, is a process that is on-going. You are never finished.

JS: Like this process with the chemigrams…

GS: The chemigrams, the books he made, the sculptures he made, the operas he conducted, the theater design… There was never an end to it. He did a wonderful presentation for Photokina for Agfa at the height of amateur photography; there were new color films available.

But what he said: “for the monkeys you have to create a jungle”. And with the monkeys, you know what he meant…

So he created a jungle at Photokina. True jungle! Out of plastic bamboos and trees and everything… He sent one photographer, Charles Compére, who went to Africa with an 8×10 camera mounted to a jeep to photograph wild animals on an Agfa film. And these negatives were enlarged to almost life size, put into the jungle and lit from the back. I mean, you have to have an imagination, first of all to think of the idea and second of all to sell that idea to some rather simple-minded executives, because that installation costs a shit load of money… But it was the best booth I have ever seen, ever! This is the kind of creativity he had. That has never been surpassed. Next year they did something about the history of photography, which was kind of boring. But to say, “for the monkeys you need a jungle”, and you create that jungle and to have the photographs on color transparency photos, huge, 2×4 meters built into the jungle, lit from behind and next to that were sounds from Africa, loudspeakers (qua, qua….). You walked in and I thought you went to Africa. Unbelievable!

And in this period, Cologne 5:30 was also created, at Photokina, with all the street cross-sections and the destruction of the city was now concrete. It was his voicing his disgust about how his beautiful old city (Cologne), which was bombed to rubble was rebuilt with a so-called “new spirit”, forgetting that there was an old spirit and that it should be preserved.
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Its best manifest in what he did as an introduction of which there are only very few, but they are very clear: there are no characters, in the back you can see where it was. He went out in the morning, you know, he woke up at 3-3:30 in the morning, in the summer, when the light was up early, because he wanted to photograph the city naked. No people, no cars, no streetcars, nothing. There were only 2-3 hours in the morning when that was possible. He knew the city well. He had one camera, the Plaubel Veriwide, 100 degree angelon lens, a wonderful lens, 6×9 film which was larger than a normal 6×9 film, had around 8 exposures on the film. It was all very simple.

So, that was the last project he did. The last big project. He did the sculptures and won a prize for that, he did the opera, he acted in a movie by Jean Marie Straub, an avant-garde filmmaker and it was called Nicht versöhnt. You will see a scene there where he sits in a Nazi uniform…

JS: Chargesheimer in a Nazi uniform?

GS: Yes, as a soldier. And he says: “Ich komme heute hier: Ich habe einen Kaffee, ein brötchen, zwei Scheiben Wurst. Ich komme morgen hier, ich habe das gleiche, ich komme ubermorgen hier, ich habe das gleiche, ich komme uberubermorgen hier , ich habe das gleiche”. You have to try to find it, Jean Marie Straub, Nicht versöhnt. His father was pretty much a Nazi, and he himself was against the Nazis and against the block heads that were running this country and ruining it. And he was revolting, he was a “revolting” person. I think he had no chance, no use, and he tried not the get drafted, which he managed.

JS: How?

GS: It’s all a mysterious story… The diversity of his work comes from his hunger to do something different, something new, to experiment. Not to know, ok now I know how to do chemigrams, I will do chemigrams for the rest of my life. No, that was done at a certain time and he went on to the next project. And sometimes it came because of a publisher that said, let’s do a book about this or that, you know… And there was never much money in it but he always knew how to survive, he had great friends in Cologne, L. Fritz Gruber, Adalbert Wiemers, Gigi Campi was another great, great supporter…

JS: He used to go to the Campi Café… Sit back on the corner and have his coffee.

GS: Yeah, sure! He had his reserved seat. That was different Cologne, it doesn’t exist anymore. That’s the true of history, nothing exists forever, and everything changes. And he is part of history, a reviver of the history of this city; the Jazz Club, the Jazz concerts: Ella Fitzgerald, Billlie Holiday, he photographed all of that. Unbelievable! And of course, Gigi Campi was always the best place to go. Gigi quite often organized these concerts.

JS: He was the Jazz guy of Cologne.

GS: Yes, he was. And he was in the middle of it. I was too young. Chargesheimer was born in 27 so he was an adult when all that happened. I was just an upper teenager. I was involved in it and all, but I did not understand everything. It comes now in reflection, when you look at the photographs.