Sommerherz, später

Summer Heart, Later

My heart, upon which my summer burns, short, hot melancholy, over-blissful: how my summer heart longs for your coolness!

Friedrich Nietzsche

A season, a bodily organ. Combined into a word which contains only three syllables and yet has its own poetic sound: the German word Sommerherz (Summer Heart). It is an artificial word, full of promise that ultimately almost demands to be associated with those sumptuous hot days of July and August that are etched into our memories of childhood, days that make our hearts beat faster.

Summer Heart: An evasive memory and therefore a promise, perhaps even a task which causes pain. That is because those who decide as adults to search for the full scope and depth of life cannot achieve their goal without looking back at their own early years, reawakening those spheres of childhood experience in which everything was permeated with the magic of experiencing things for the first time. It was a magic that could sometimes be a thorn in your side. ‘There is no age in which everything is experienced in such an amazingly intensive way as childhood,’ Astrid Lindgren once noted while at the same time indicating a collective task for development in later life. ‘We grown-ups should remember how things were then.’ Today, because the societal construct of childhood is reduced to a mystery of intensity in an abbreviated, naive way, retrospective thought can become a distorting projection screen. Being a child takes different forms in retrospect, bounded by glorification and taboo, the folly of longing and surreal trauma. Overcoming one's own childhood identity, which is supposed to shape the personality so strongly, is so emotionally charged that it is only possible through a distorting mirror that holds the memory for us. It is a mirror which shows those images of the ego which are generally considered gaps when seen in retrospect, as you flip through your first photo album. Losses are inherent to them. That which was remains strange, that which is cannot be explained. At the beginning of her novel Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood), Christa Wolf writes: "The past is not dead; it never even passed. We separate ourselves from it and estrange ourselves from it." 

My Heart is Missing Something

Summer Heart (Sommerherz) is the title of a photo book by portrait photographer Thekla Ehling published as a limited series in 2007. She lives in Cologne. Actually, as she noted at our first meeting, she originally intended to give the book a different title. ‘ My Heart is Missing Something’ (‘Es fehlt etwas im Herzen’) is what her daughter said when she felt melancholy for the first time; a childhood loss which was then experienced on a physical level and later  served as the leitmotif of the photo project. For several years, Ehling accompanied her two daughters and their friends and cautiously used her familiar relationship with them to explore the inner and outer spheres of their experience. To her amazement, she was faced with images of her own childhood. She emphasizes that there were moments of déjà vu everywhere, and not only because the retro look of the 1970s had come into fashion. On the contrary, she rediscovered images which had long been etched on her memory. They were images full of questions. Who was I then? Who am I now?

When asked about her own childhood, Thekla Ehling talks about the period when she grew up in the rural environment of Bielefeld in Westphalia. People banded together back then. The world of children was their own while adults remained on the outside. Later, in her early twenties, she worked as a camp counselor on a camping trip on Vogel Mountain and was amazed that so little had changed for children in their leisure time. ‘The world simply continued to exist.’

After interrupting her training as a bookbinder, Ehling studied photography in Dortmund under Gisela Scheidler and Arno Fischer. She stresses that she learned a great deal from both of them. Fischer, who frequently visited from Berlin, once dropped by with an impressive photo portfolio. It was by Margrit Emmerich, she remembers, and Fischer was able to make photos of the photos themselves before the photographer escaped to the West. Her main theme addresses puberty. It became more and more obvious to the student that she too could not escape this theme. In her thesis project, however, she focused her efforts on documenting several youth clubs in Berlin and Cologne. It had the characteristic title Interim Time Span (Zwischen Zeit Raum). 

I’m There in All of Them

Superficially, Thekla Ehling's Summer Heart (Sommerherz) makes use of a genre of photography prevalent in the 19th century, a conscious dialogue with one's own flesh and blood being sought in the technically-determined medium. In 1865, for example, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed her sleeping grandchild Archie in a sequential photo series. She later used the intimate motif as a preliminary study for religious depictions of the Holy Family. As her current sources of influence, Ehling mentions in particular Susan Andrews and Robin Grierson from Great Britain and Nicholas Nixon and Sally Mann for the US, who attempt to capture powerful images of their children in pointedly situational indoor settings. The photo collections Family Pictures and Immediate Family by the two Americans are among the bibliographic milestones of a reflective view of the family from within, exploring the complex relationship of identity, closeness and distance by focusing on the photographer’s own child. To create such intimate studies, it is important that the photographer should in no way find himself on the outside of his individual position within the family structure. Araki became aware of this when looking at a photo of his dying wife Mrs. Yoko and noted, ‘...photographers have to love their subject.’ Lee Friedlander summarized what becomes evident from photos of people whom he loves within his own environment: ‘I’m there in all of them.’

Summer Heart makes clear that Thekla Ehling has long internalized the specific premises of family photography. She has identified the two Dutch photographers Hellen van Meene and Rineke Dijkstra as points of reference. She says that in her portraits are ultimately about doing justice to her subjects. She feels that whether she is working with adults or children is irrelevant. Finally, Ehling mentions that her favorite book is Robert Frank's retrospective photo collection The Lines of My Hand, which has been reprinted in various versions over the years. Instinctively, one thinks of the plane crash in which Frank's daughter Andrea perished in 1973. It is she who led the photographer to create the intense work that represents an artistic expression of grief. His son Pablo died several years later. Yet very little mourning is detectable in Ehling's images. ‘Melancholy can smile but mourning cannot,’ she says, spontaneously citing a German expression.

Empty Glances

It is perhaps the melancholy of this saying itself that best captures the tone of the atmosphere prevalent in Summer Heart. Ehling's images often show moments of isolation in which a young soul appears to glance at itself, as if in a trance. There are empty glances in which a current experience is clearly compared with something previously experienced. Ehling, however, emphatically refuses to decide how far these mechanisms of the unconscious are associated with the discovery of one's own identity. Whatever the case may be, the stuffed rabbit remains tightly in the child's grasp. The scenarios of daily life encountered here forcefully reflect the reality that everything is in a state of flux in the early phases of life. There are images of the raindrops that trickle down the window pane, obscuring the view out, snowflakes that get almost imperceptibly caught in long hair and a wading pool that beckons on a green summer meadow. Ehling continually finds new motifs, fragile embodiments that have an almost mythical way of consolidating elements of natural moments. Childhood to her, it seems, is a question of temperature.

In almost every cycle of the seasons, an intense experience for which Summer Heart provides the structure, the question arises of where one is coming from and where one is going, almost inevitably giving the photos an existential dimension. Thus, the series of images begins and ends with black and white photographs each of which show a human navel. In Omphalos, the core meaning can be found in children's identity — or at least this is what the photo collection suggests. 

Let Them Be

At the end of the conversation Thekla Ehling finds herself faced with the question of how her children would have reacted to the photos. ‘Very differently,’ she says, as she speaks of the sensitive relationship of closeness and distance that portrayal of one's own children entails. During a vacation in Ireland, for example, her older daughter refused to be photographed from the front. Of course, Ehling accepted this, she says. After all, it is essential to let children be themselves.

One photo she created during that holiday shows the girl in the middle of a green landscape, glancing into the distance. The sky is blue, only a few clouds are visible. Her hand attempts to grasp a wire fence.

© Christoph Schaden, 2007

Published in: Thekla Ehling, Sommerherz, Köln 2007, o.p.

Thekla Ehling

text published in:

Thekla Ehling, Sommerherz,
Köln 2007, o.p.

Website Stichworte (Sitetags)

Syndicate content