Anders Petersen, Color Lehmitz @Fotografiska

JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 large scale black-and-white photographic prints, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against red walls in a series of rooms on the third floor of the museum. The exhibition was curated by Angie Åström.

While little detailed supporting information was provided (no specific print dates, dimensions, or processes), in summary, the following works were included in the show:

  • 6 single image black-and-white photographic enlargements with color
  • 5 two image black-and-white photographic enlargements with color
  • 3 three image black-and-white photographic enlargements with color
  • 2 four image black-and-white photographic enlargements with color
  • 19 black-and-white contact sheets with color
  • 1 black-and-white film (Palle Lindqvist), 10 minutes, 21 seconds

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the casualties of the analog to digital transition in photography has been the contact sheet. Of course, there are digital thumbnail equivalents for this handy photographer’s tool, but nothing quite replaces the experience of seeing an entire roll of film on one single sheet – sprocket holes, misfires, and all.

For many photographers of a certain age, the contact sheet was a crucial intermediate step between shooting and printing, where the contents of an entire developed roll could be evaluated at a glance, and the images worth printing could be selected. In most cases, the contact sheets themselves were never meant to be displayed or considered as end artworks, and many were marked up with grease pencils, markers, and other arcane notations, the photographers often circling and checking the particular frames worth further review.

When contact sheets are included in exhibitions, they encourage us to get beyond single well-known images to see the variants that came before and after, and to more broadly consider the photographer’s working process. Did the photographer make just one “perfect” exposure of that subject? Or were there several close variants of light or movement, as if the artist knew something good was taking place in that moment and wanted to make sure the image was captured? Or did he or she methodically make multiple exposures – circling the subject, tuning the mechanical details, and refining the composition? The answers to these questions can tell us something about how a photographer sees, and about the specific balance between serendipity and intention that led to being in the right place at the right time to capture something wondrous.

This exhibition uses contact sheet enlargements to rediscover Andres Petersen’s now-classic project Café Lehmitz. Made between 1967 and 1970, the Swedish photographer’s images document the goings on inside a neighborhood bar in the port area of Hamburg, Germany. Petersen was in his early twenties at the time (and at the very beginning of his life as a photographer), and his sensitive black-and-white pictures capture the daily interactions of a cross section of people: sailors, dock workers, couples, aging locals, prostitutes, and drifters from out of town, among others. These same images were later published as a photobook in 1978, and it was this book that launched Petersen’s career.

This show doesn’t present Petersen’s original contact sheets from the 1960s and 1970s as artifacts, but instead enlarges those contact sheets into wall-filling (modern) prints, mixing full sheets with edited groupings of between one and four images. These contact sheets have been expressively marked with white and yellow grease pencils, round red and yellow stickers, blue, red, and black ink marks (often Xs, Os, check marks, and cropping lines), and yellow and red tinting. When these selections and edits were made, and what the various symbols and colors actually mean is never explained, pushing them toward the realm of mysterious decoration. William Klein overpainted (and reinterpreted) his contact sheets with improvisational swoops and gestures, and as shown here, Petersen’s sheets edge toward that kind of embellishment. The slightly misleading title of the show, “Color Lehmitz”, doesn’t refer to any images Petersen actually made in color, but to these effusive markings.

For fans of the original Café Lehmitz photobook, most of the notable images have been reproduced here (no wall labels are provided to help with individual titles), either as single images (now covered by Petersen’s accretions and markings) or as contact sheets, where the more famous image is now surrounded by variants and outtakes.

What emerges from examining the sheets is that Petersen wasn’t a surreptitious one shot invader but an extremely patient witness, who was seemingly trusted and welcomed. For most of his encounters, there are multiple if not a dozen frames taken, with the subjects most often fully aware of his presence, and if not entirely performing, at least unbothered by his camera. His picture making feels determined and purposeful, as if he was searching for just the right way to capture a couple laughing, a kiss, a joke being told, or a brawl breaking out. His results are consistently warm and respectful, full of tenderness and intimacy, which is of course somewhat surprising given the venue. Many of the outtakes and lesser known images are filled with dancing, laughter, and flirtatious playfulness but there are equally many quieter moments of personal introspection, where the subject’s guard seems to have fleetingly come down and Petersen was allowed into see glimpses of loneliness, weariness, and anxiety. He was clearly a participant in this world rather than an outsider, which allowed him to see the patrons of the bar with such humane immediacy.

Fotografiska always seems to choose experiential drama over curatorial rigor when installing its shows, and this show is once again heavy on colored walls and spotlights and light on supporting detail and thoughtful context. A short film fills in much of the relevant backstory, noting names, telling a few anecdotes, and following Petersen around his studio, so for those that want more information, this is essentially the only place to get it.

But I’ll certainly admit to being a sucker for the behind-the-scenes presence of contact sheets, and seeing the outtakes and variants to so many classic photographs offers its own pleasures. In this format, each singular image becomes part of a series, making the effect far more cinematic. The contact sheets force us feel the time passing, as the tiny incidents and dramas of the bar unfold before Petersen’s camera. The evenings pass, the laughter rings out and dies down, and we’re left with an indelible cast of characters, captured by a young photographer filled with an unexpected reserve of generosity and compassion.

Collector’s POV: Anders Petersen is represented by IBASHO Gallery in Tokyo (here) and Jean-Kenta Gauthier in Paris (here). His work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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