British photographer Mike Chick has traced his family history along the Oder-Neisse border. The photographs are now on show in the Tempelhof Museum. By Jonas Lages.
It was only after her father had died that Barbara learnt he was Jewish. Mike Chick meets Barbara on a trip to Stettin. She tells him about "aunts and great aunts who were murdered during the war". In her flat, Chick photographs the wall where the family pictures once hung. Only one remains: her parents' wedding photo. Yellowed marks on the wallpaper indicate photographs that are no longer there. Like "the lost members of the family", he says.
Mike Chick's photography shows how to make the invisible visible. His Oder-Neisse series is currently on show at the Gallery in the Tempelhof Museum. He was inspired by the origins of his own family: his great-grandfather came from Stettin. Chick, the son of a British father and a German mother from Berlin, travelled to the German-Polish border region for three years. As an Englishman, it is inconceivable to him "that borders can change so radically".
Sometimes he follows concrete ideas, sometimes chance decides the motif. But he is always on the lookout for the consequences of history and the signs of a lost time, be it in a landscape, in a place or on a face. His pictures often show the absence of things. For example, when he photographs the site of the former synagogue in Szczecin and all you can see is a brick wall with snow-covered bushes. Or a view in Lower Silesia where a man and a woman stand like two hikers above the sea of brown coal. They are looking into the wasteland of the Turów open-cast mine, where the 600-year-old village of Reibersdorf once stood.
Chick has an eye for the offbeat and unseen. He questions the testimonies of history and makes their places speak. In the exhibition, one sees a bombed out bridge, a derelict shipyard, an empty theatre stage. The spectacle of history is reflected here in supposedly trivial things. It is contemplative photography in which the viewer can immerse themselves. In the age of Instagram, the patience required for this cannot be taken for granted. "It's a luxury as an artist to expect the viewer to dwell on an image," he says.
Mike Chick grew up in Marlow on the Thames in southern England. His parents met while working above the clouds. He was an English pilot, she a German secretary, and the matchmaker British European Airways. Childhood was "not completely bilingual", says the 51-year-old. "My mother didn't want to raise a German boy in England". To this day, you can hear that his mother tongue is not that of his mother.
Sometimes, when he sees the pen following his words, he slows them down. Then slight creases form around his eyes, as if he were looking through the viewfinder of a camera. They are lines of experience, the kind a life draws, in which there is as much to think about as there is to laugh at.
For instance, in Oxford, where he studied modern languages, or in London's advertising industry, where he subsequently worked. An advertising job took him to Hungary at the end of the nineties, where he later returned privately to make his first portrait series called "Szállo" (Hostel), inspired by Richard Avedon. After that it was clear: he wanted to become a photographer. A second degree later, he travelled the world and documented cycling races from Bolivia to Burkina Faso as a commissioned photographer. In 2013, he moved to Berlin, his mother's hometown.
"Oder-Neisse" is his first independent project as an artist. "Deeper, more philosophical, more fundamental," he says. Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", the story that Francis Ford Coppola transposed from colonised Congo to the Vietnam War in "Apocalypse Now", was an influence. A view of the Neisse, in a valley not far from Görlitz, sparked this association. "An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest": Conrad's words became his motto. And indeed, some of the river landscapes that run through the series as leitmotifs seem as if Colonel Kurtz were waiting around the next bend in the river. The fact that Conrad, a Pole who emigrated to England, wrote at a time when Poland was not to be found on the map of Europe is another thematic resonance. Chick jokingly remarks that the protagonist in "Heart of Darkness" has the same name as his hometown: Marlow. They do occur, these coincidences in the lives of the Chick family.
Before Mike Chick's father flew passengers for British Airways, he carried bombs for the Royal Air Force as a young pilot. Chick's mother was a toddler in Berlin while his father flew in the skies above the capital. As a Pathfinder he made 48 flights to 26 cities. The final destination in 1944 was Stettin. Forty years after the end of the war, Walter Thompson, his father's Canadian comrade, wrote "Lancaster to Berlin", a book about their shared experiences.
In his latest project, Chick now wants to trace his father's path. The concept is as simple as it is personal: he is following his father's log book. He wants to photograph all 26 cities at night. The work has already begun. They are deserted shots, juxtaposed with nighttime aerial photographs of the bombers, which often only show streaks of light due to the long exposure times. "The concrete present and abstract history come together here," says Chick.
One of the photographs from the Oder-Neisse series shows how concrete history looks in the present. In it, you can see a knee-high wall made up of various stones. After the end of the war, building material was so scarce that bomb debris was used for reconstruction. A black triangle stands out from the light-coloured stonework. It bears an inscription: "God, Mother, Sister". It is the fragment of a gravestone.
Tempelhof Museum, Alt Mariendorf 43, until 18 March.