Michael Kerstgens, 1986: Back to the Present

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Hartmann Books (here). Hardcover with foil stamping, 21 × 27 cm, 176 pages, with 97 illustrations. Texts in English and German by Klaus Honnef, Ralf Beil, and Michael Kerstgens. Design by Michael Kerstgens and Jutta Herden. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Photographs can operate on so many levels that their rudimentary functions are sometimes lost in the mix. But let’s not forget the basics: at root level, every photo is a time machine. Each exposure marks a date, and offers a present window into the receding past. A version of Hubble’s Law might apply here, for the pace of recession accelerates over time. Inevitably some things change while some remain static. Comparisons between past and present become increasingly provocative as photos age.

This facet has been leveraged occasionally in photobooks, several of which are organized as one-year projects. Classic titles such as Garry Winogrand’s 1964, Richard Misrach’s 1991, and Pieter Hugo’s 1994 may have curt monikers, but each encompasses a vast endeavor, hemmed into form by year, and perhaps ready to be filed like an annual report or a yearbook. These are just the tip of the iceberg. One might add Robert Doisneau’s Palm Springs 1960,  Joachim Brohm’s Typology 1979, Anthony Hernandez’s Rodeo Drive 1984, Cindy Sherman’s 2016, Bill Henson’s 1985, Simone Kappeler’s America 1981, and Ari Marcopoulos’s Detroit 2009, to name just a few. The Japanese photographer Jun Abe uses years as a systematic titling method: 1981, 2001, 2002, 2016, and so on. All of these titles range in date and subject matter, most edited after years of hindsight. Their common feature is a tight annual focus.

Michael Kerstgens’ 1986: Zurück in die Gegenwart – Back to the Present slots well into the category. It is a conscious throwback to the titular year, but the impact of the pictures stretches beyond the mid-eighties. The images exhibit a dynamism and aesthetic dimension which feels almost contemporary. Kerstgens made them in the Ruhr region in 1986 as a photo student at the Gesamthochschule Essen, in what was then West Germany. He was in his mid-twenties at the time, with all of life’s opportunities stretched before him and no particular hurry to get there. These circumstances might partially explain his focus: German leisure activities. Befitting the material, his eventual follow through took a languid route to publication. Thirty-five years, to be exact. Now it has finally surfaced in book form.

Browsing the monograph, Kerstgens’s youthful appetite for pictures seems enormous. His shot playgrounds, shopping, sports, parties, swimming, discos, amusement parks, skating, cruising, sightseeing, rodeos, and just plain hanging out. The pages flip easily through one subject after another. Taken as a whole, they capture a nation on the rise. By 1986, the post-war Wirtschaftswunder had lifted all boats, at least in one half of Germany. Life was good. “Free time is the time that a person can dispose of freely dispose of at their own will,” declares the book’s first photo caption, in a somewhat triumphant tone. The adjoining picture depicts the disposal quite literally, with a public ping-pong table shadowing spent beer cans and cigarettes. 

From this initial image, Kertsgens’s photographs meander from this to that, at a pace which is, well, leisurely. We see a man walking his dog, sunbathers enjoying time on the lawn, a photo of well-manicured apartments. By the time Kerstgens settles into a long sequence of interior shots, any critical bite is somewhat muted. Pictures of shoppers sampling fashions and the sterile gym-ratrace capture an atmosphere of conspicuous consumption. But unlike, say, his mid-eighties contemporaries Paul Reas and Martin Parr, Kerstgens seems less interested in consumerism’s underbelly than in blunt documentation. Through photos of football teams, trade shows, and an intimate home haircut, the even-keeled tone continues, with Kerstgens acting as bemused bystander observing a never-ending series of interacting strangers. 

Kerstgens used his youth to advantage. He was able to gain access to young swimmers, concertgoers, dancers, and kids that might have been more difficult for an older, stodgier photographer. The flip side of his relative inexperience is that his pictures had not yet settled into a distinctive style. In some ways this benefits the book, as the photographs incorporate a range of situations and shooting styles. Some pictures blast indoor crowds with flash from just a few feet away. Some are shot out the car door. Humans caught outdoors are strung into various candid groupings. Kerstgens used flash as a general rule, but with distance and mixed lighting, its effect was sometimes faint. Occasionally his exteriors veer into detached irony, as in photos of a hillside castle or scorched picnic bench. These are social landscapes in the mid-eighties mold of Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects, or perhaps a David Graham monograph. For example, a two-page spread of tennis-playing kids and young men playing mini-golf reveals an eye for absurdity and clever juxtaposition. Kerstgens can surely piece a frame together when he wants. But his virtuosity is somewhat diluted by the book’s incongruities. Within a few pages of the mini-golf shot, the flow has moved on to garish roller rink snaps, and shortly afterward he seems to lose the trail entirely, slipping into a sequence of one-off oddities. 

Perhaps it was the difficulty of unifying all of these disparate subjects and approaches which led to the title. Captured under the simple label 1986, the focus of this multifarious work sharpens. Just about any scene from 35 years ago becomes instructive through the lens of history, or at least that was the hope.

For readers roughly my age or older (I am 52), comparisons to one’s personal experience are perhaps inevitable. I did not visit Germany in the eighties but I suspect America was similar in many ways. In 1986, Reaganism, yuppies, and junk bonds were ascendant in the States. Music was synthetic, hair was sculpted, and the “Me” generation was in high gear. World crises may have smoldered in distant corners—Chernobyl, the Challenger disaster, AIDS, Iran-Contra— but for a teenager they were easily subsumed by day-to-day concerns. Not unlike Kerstgens, mine was a world pre-occupied with leisure pursuits (basically, a chronic hunt for sex, drugs, and rock). The same youthful myopia prevails visually in 1986, despite the book’s essays by Klaus Honnef and Ralf Beil which remember 1986 as traumatic. Even Kerstgens himself joins the chorus—“1986 was a catastrophic year,” he declares flatly. But his pictures seem to tell a different story. They demonstrate no trouble, no war, no strife, just Germans enjoying themselves.

As a generational primer 1986: Back to the Present fills in more than a few blanks, and it’s hard not to browse without a tinge of wistfulness. Ah, so this is what was going on in other parts. Photos of rodeos, football games, and costume parties might have been shot in the U.S. The cover shows teens bustling by a concert stage, a global staple regardless of year or country. The end papers are openly nostalgic, scrapping eighties posters and advertisements together into a collage of bygone product placements. For Generation X, pictures of Prince, Jane Fonda, Miami Vice, and a Casio watch will resonate deeply. The book’s captions echo the same spirit, written in the methodical tone of news journalism, and offering a direct channel to past memories. One reports a soccer score. Another recounts a brief history of Monumentstrasse, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Another decodes Depeche Mode lyrics. In what seems a blank generational appeal, one caption lists the top album charts of 1986. For readers of a certain age the names A-Ha, Brothers in Arms, and Cock Robin are sure to kindle memories. And for those seeking to relive 1986 in detail, the book includes a multi-page timeline which summarizes the year’s historic events. 

1964, 1991, 1994, 1986… Each of these annualized monographs reaffirms the same lesson: the temptation to view the past through rose colored glasses. History has accelerated at such a pace (Hubble’s Law for photos) that any bygone decade acquires a patina of simplicity. Kerstgen’s pictures of the eighties seem almost quaint, and it requires conscious effort to recalibrate aesthetic judgement. No Internet, no smart phones, no gene splicing, no post-9/11 security state. For West Germans in 1986, even these major changes shrink before the biggest: reunification was just a few years away. Theirs was an era of antediluvian innocence, though they could not know it at the time. 

For photographers, 1986 has another dimension. The eighties were a time of transition as the old world of monochrome gave way to color. Within the decade, the transformation would be firmly established, and 1986 might be considered a watershed year. Martin Parr’s The Last Resort and Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring landed in libraries with a one-two punch to the old guard. It’s highly likely that Kerstgens saw these books and was influenced. His use of fill-flash and situational spacing is occasionally similar. Parr and Graham were merely the leading edge. Anna Fox, Richard Misrach, Nancy Lloyd, Roger Mertin, Mitch Epstein, and countless others were paving their own paths into color, and 1986 can be viewed as a touchstone referencing a generational movement.

The eighties proved to be the kick-off for photography’s multi-hued future. But ironically for Kerstgens, they marked its end. His photography shifted to monochrome afterward, where it has remained through his first five books (1986 is his 6th). He teaches at Applied Sciences Darmstadt, and remains an active photographer. Looking back now at his early work, it captures not only an epoch but an entirely different visual approach, a two-pronged time machine.

Collector’s POV: Michael Kerstgens 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 his website (linked in the sidebar).

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