Ingar Krauss, Sugar Beets

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Hartmann Books (here). Foil embossed boxed set (22.5x29x3.5 cm), consisting of 36 cards with tritone illustrations on chromo board. Includes a folding poster (64.5×90 cm) and a text insert with an essay by Eugen Blume (in German/English). Design by arc – Bartsch/Grimberg. In an edition of 400 copies. (Cover and contents shots below.)

Comments/Context: Back in the early 1930s, Edward Weston made a series of still life photographs of vegetables. Set against simple unadorned backdrops or tabletops, the cabbage leaves, peppers, radishes, cauliflower, and other vegetables were given the exacting attention of formal portraits, turning the humble subjects from the market into luminous sculptural exercises. Weston’s vegetable images were executed with meticulous precision, using long exposures to patiently capture every curve and detail. Even almost a century later, they remain among his most recognized images, and have become iconic examples of the Modernist ideals of crisply seen straight photography.

Ingar Krauss’s contemporary photographs of sugar beets, as seen in his photobook Zuckerrüben (or Sugar Beets in English), readily reference and recall Weston’s vegetables, combining appreciation and respect for the original craftsmanship of those analog black-and-white images with a few notable differences of intent and conceptual approach.

To start with, Krauss’ s chosen subject, the sugar beet, isn’t exactly a standout photogenic beauty, like many of the sinuous forms Weston selected. It’s a humble and modest root vegetable, often misshapen and dusty like a potato, with a bulbous tapering form reaching down into the Earth. The sugar beet has long been cultivated in Europe, first as livestock feed and later, when sucrose was discovered in the plant in the mid-1700s, as a substitute for imported sugar made from sugarcane. Today, roughly a third of the world’s sugar production comes from sugar beets, with the harvesting and processing coming in the late fall.

Krauss didn’t limit himself to just one or two images of sugar beets in this project, but instead created a decently exhaustive study, represented in the photobook by 36 separate images. Each is compositionally identical, with the individual beet set on a mottled grey ground receding into indefinite darkness, the beet itself posed upside down and lit from the front left, with the leaves cut off and the top resting underneath. The result is a series of vaguely conical grey forms, with the tapered ends reaching upward. Like the rigorous photographs of water towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Krauss’s images of sugar beets feature simple isolation, with distractions kept to a minimum, and when arranged into groups, the beets can easily form typologies, where similarities and differences between like subjects can readily be compared.

Given this desire to reorder the images to create alternate combinations, groups, and patterns, Zuckerrüben abandons the traditional bound form of a photobook, opting instead for a boxed set or enclosed portfolio approach. A cardboard box provides the outer shell or container for the images inside, the expressively curvy letters of the title arranged into a bold grid. Inside, each of the images has been printed on hefty cardstock, with a simple Roman numeral at the bottom to create an initial sequence; these cards are momentarily held together by a belly band, but once this is removed, they can be easily shuffled,  rearranged, stacked, laid out, and otherwise individually displayed. A folded poster provides a thumbnail guide to all the images, and the essay has been included as a smaller insert. As a photobook object, it is cleverly designed and quietly elegant, its construction choices both matching the need for flexibility and encouraging slower, up close engagement with the photographs.

All of this careful thinking inevitably brings us back to the central question of why Krauss is so interested (or perhaps even obsessed) with these forgettable sugar beets. While no specific explanation is provided anywhere in the photobook, we do know that Krauss has been making these sugar beet images since 2017, and that these images continue an approach to still life that first took form in his 2016 photobook 39 Bilder. Krauss’s images speak to a keen attention being paid to the sculptural forms and tactile surfaces of these beets, and of the nearly infinite variations to be found there when observed closely. While all of the beets move from rounded thickness to more tapered delicacy as we move up vertically, each has its own identifying characteristics. Bulky heft, block triangularity, extra limbs, spindly tops, and any number of dents, crevasses, pits, and misshapen bulges can help describe these individuals. Texturally, the skin of the beets is dry and worn, but again, there are tiny variations of color, roughness, indentation, and wrinkling that give the beets an almost ancient cragginess, like weathered hands or fossils. Each photograph is undeniably a portrait, where common homeliness is transformed into dignified beauty by Krauss’s approving eye.

In this digital age, Krauss’s all analog, conventional darkroom, black-and-white process is a bit of an anachronism, but likely these aesthetic and process choices simply mark the artist as a believer in the durable power of methodical photographic craftsmanship. Similarly, Zuckerrüben isn’t like most photobooks, taking an almost contrarian stance to the usual conventions of how photographs are presented in book form. But what emerges from time spent with Zuckerrüben is a growing feeling of being seduced by its calmness and restraint, with Krauss’s persistent interest in the sugar beets becoming unexpectedly contagious. What I like about this book is that it insists that a mundane object can be a valid, and indeed compelling, subject for photographic investigation, and compulsively disregards those who might disagree. It is this kind of eccentric perseverance that can often be found at the root of artistic experimentation, where a small idea (like a still life of a sugar beet) is expanded beyond its natural boundaries, thereby transforming that idea into something richly extraordinary.

Collector’s POV: Ingar Krauss is represented by Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York (here), Galerie Springer in Berlin (here), and Galerie Camera Obscura in Paris (here). This body of work was first shown at Hartmann Projects in Stuttgart, earlier in 2023 (here). Krauss’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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