Christina Stohn, Höllental und Himmelreich

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Another Place Press (here). Softcover (230 x 173 mm), 64 pages, with 42 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Eugénie Shinkle. Design by Sarah Fricke. In an edition of 200 copies. (Cover and spread shots below).

Comments/Context: The moment we leave home, our relationship with it changes, doesn’t it? The nature of that change is hard to predict, but it seems to be shaped by how we leave and why, by the physical and emotional distances we embrace or overcome, by the roots we grew, rebuilt, or never had. Home, of course, is a term as vast as “sky” – tangible in its experience, yet defying exact limits. Imbued with the histories and cultures it is part of, it has different connotations in different languages. Home, though, no matter how distant or close, foreign or familiar, often reveals itself in a sense of place and belonging. It is something we know, find, or recognize, at times strangely and bewilderingly so. Höllental und Himmelreich – Valley of Hell and Kingdom of Heaven, the latest photobook by Christina Stohn, astutely captures this latter feeling of quiet estrangement.

The book comes as a succinct edit, alternating photographs of facades and interiors, flower arrangements and religious imagery, and, perhaps most importantly, of people. They stand alone or in small groups, facing or turned away from the camera, all of them dressed in traditional garments or historic costumes, some of them wearing masks. It is stillness that speaks from the world that Stohn portrays and evokes – one that runs deep and beyond the mere appearance of things; it lingers from within, like a secret, resisting to escape the book’s pages.

The first image of Höllental und Himmelreich is a landscape, in which a small train heads toward a tunnel, carefully bored into a forested mountain abutting grassy pastures. The illusion is almost complete, if it wasn’t for the trees standing stark and awkward against the hand-painted background of more mountains and a pale-blue sky, confining this model railway. At the very end of the book, Stohn presents another landscape, but this time it is real and covered in snow, with ranks of dark pines surrounding the houses of a small village, like a legion of giants. There is a tangible weight to these photographs – a weight that connects them – and it resides in the uncanny threshold between what is real and imagined, naturally given and human-made. This weight inhabits most of Stohn’s images. It manifests in the taxidermy animals and wooden furniture, the crosses and vernacular murals, in the empty but neatly set restaurant tables – creating a place, an atmosphere, that feels stuck in time, or existing outside of it.

Born and raised in the Black Forest region, Stohn grew up in Germany’s largest, contiguous low mountain range, and one of the country’s most visited vacation areas. Its dramatic landscapes and picturesque villages have become symbols of an unspoiled and idyllic life (something that not even the increasing influx of high-tech companies can challenge) and that Stohn decidedly rejects. “I’ve always been annoyed by this idea about ‘all-encompassing-idyll’ and never connected to it,” she said in a recent interview. “So, my series is a bit of a challenge to everyone expecting these stereotypes.” Home, as Stohn sees it, is defined by the deeply rooted customs and local traditions of the Black Forest. And it is precisely these customs and traditions that began to appear and resonate differently, once she moved away.

Stohn began this project in 2012, while pursuing her BA in Photography at the University of Westminster in London, under the working title Paradise Lost – clearly alluding to a sense of alienation. “Living abroad, I began to see things I had not previously been aware of,” she says. “Every time I went to visit family and friends, I felt the urge to document this place and its people, based on my feelings of distance and displacement.” And while much of her work documents communities from an outsider’s perspective, this one was different, because it was autobiographical. Perhaps, as a result, she began to analyze forms of expression in the Black Forest, soon shifting her attention to regional customs of Christian origin: carnival, religious processions, and seasonal festivals – which, to a certain degree, have become tourist attractions in their own right.

There is nothing touristy, though, in the way Stohn has captured them. This may seem ordinary when it comes to a procession of altar boys carrying banners we cannot see, or a fully equipped marching band winding its way into the valley with no audience in sight. It is surprising, however, when it comes to the region’s famed carnival costumes. Often alone and in front of non-descript backgrounds, we see sharp-toothed witches, growling wolfs, long-nosed jesters, and other colorful creatures, who seemingly escaped a tale by the Brothers Grimm, to roam the streets of an empty town. What are they looking for? Perhaps, the young girls or unmarried women, recognizable by their red pom-pom hats – and most beautifully captured in a delicate profile of a fair-haired girl, whose elegant posture and bead-decorated overcoat could easily compete with those of a Renaissance portrait. It is pictures like these – of female bodies at ease, and sometimes less so, in the costumes as once worn by their ancestors – that puncture Stohn’s more muted photographs of isolated churches, biblical wall paintings and mosaics, and floral altars.

Stohn’s photographs aren’t critical, nor are they parodies or nostalgic; this becomes particularly obvious when compared to works such as Cuckoo Clock and Cherry Cake by Anne-Sophie Stolz, questioning the need for seemingly perfect world of fading customs, or Thomas Ruff’s Interiors, a series about the homes of family and friends in his, also native, Black Forest. All of these images speak through the varied language of documentary photography. Still, I’m not really sure who to compare Stohn to, and maybe this isn’t needed, because, for this body of work, she clearly knew what she was looking for, and found it on her own aesthetic terms.

Höllental und Himmelreich is a book about tradition, folklore, and religious beliefs in the Black Forest. But it is also one of co-existing opposites. In book form, this dialogue resides in a nuanced layout, in which the images do not compete with one another, not even when they share a spread or differ in size. Instead they converse, as they do with the minimal titles accompanying them – indicating the locations where they were taken, but not describing their content. Of equal importance is the title itself, which is based on the names of two actual villages located in the southern parts of the Black Forest. Valley of Hell purportedly received its name from the fervent resistance by the local population when the French tried to conquer the territory in the 18th century. Another story emphasizes its (once remote) geographic location and, as a result, the lingering fear of merchants being robbed by thugs. If making it through the valley unharmed, one considered oneself in the Kingdom of Heaven (from which the next town over gained its name) – biblical concepts that made it into the vernacular of language. Stohn continues to be intrigued by this biblical antagonism. “It is a paradox that is seemingly insurmountable,” she says. “However, geographically, the valley of hell and the kingdom of heaven lie next to each other.” You may call this poetic justice or divine intervention. How could it not be?

Collector’s POV: Christina Stohn does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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