Michael S. Honegger, The Need to Know

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Blow Up Press (here). Clothbound hardcover with embossing and tipped in photograph, 160 x 220 mm, 100 pages, with 54 photographs. Includes various inserts, 10-page leporello, essays (in English) by Barbara Honegger, Brenton Hamilton, Aline Smithson, and George A. Reisch, and acknowledgements by the artist. Design by Aneta Kowalczyk. In an edition of 800 signed/numbered copies. (C0ver and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Using scavenged photographs from family albums and other archival sources to piece together a definitive version of the past is inherently a process filled with some amount of frustration and difficulty, but it’s a journey that many photographers embark on for one reason or another. Of course, many pictures have generally been saved, while others have disappeared, or were never taken in the first place, so whatever visual record now exists for any particular family is necessarily partial and incomplete, and this is before we even begin looking more carefully at the photographs themselves. From a distance of several decades or generations, the nuances that the photographs do faithfully document become elusively opaque and open-ended, with the expressions, poses, and circumstances surrounding the scenes often difficult to entirely identify or understand, even with the benefits of hindsight. Armed with whatever pictures do exist, we can interpret the “evidence” as we see fit, sometimes inadvertently telling ourselves the stories that we want to hear.

For the German-born photographer Michael Honegger, the gaps and subtleties in his family history were actually more mysterious than most of us can boast. Honegger’s father Frank worked for the U.S. Air Force, and was posted to Germany between 1959 and 1963, at the height of the Cold War. So Michael, his mother, and his siblings bounced around from city to city and military base to military base following his father’s job, spending a good portion of time in Kassel, a city in what was then the American occupied zone, but which also bordered the Soviet occupied area. Honegger’s father was a linguist and worked in military intelligence, but what that actually meant was generally left unspecified.

Given that he was a young boy at the time, the artist’s memories of those years are spotty and episodic, with particular incidents and moments of inexplicable weirdness sticking in his mind. There was the time a strange German man arrived late at night and slept on the couch, only to leave without warning early in the morning. There were the late nights when he discovered his father listening to the short wave radio, transcribing strings of German numbers on a pad of paper. And there were the family excursions to various places around Germany, where his father would disappear for a few hours during the visit and return later without explanation. When asked by his son what was going on, his father’s response was always an enigmatic “do you have the need to know?”

At the time, the artist probably didn’t need to know what his father was up to, but as the years passed, and his father retired from service and neared the end of his life, Honegger did feel the need to know about the past with more urgency. And while it was eventually confirmed that his father was a “spy”, or perhaps more specifically a special agent in counterintelligence, that knowledge left all kinds of new questions unanswered, especially in terms of the artist’s own life and how his own memories of that time might or might not conform to what was actually going on. Honegger’s photobook The Need to Know is an inspired artistic effort to wrestle with those unresolved ghosts and uncertainties.

A handful of family snapshots provide the foundation for Honegger’s reconstruction efforts, but with the knowledge of his father’s double life simmering in the background, each seemingly mundane image seems to want to tell multiple stories. We see the artist’s parents standing in a formal garden, the kids and mother on the deck of a ferry, the entire family on the balcony of their apartment, dad standing on the beach with a beer in hand, and another posed family portrait in front of some frothy waterfalls. None of these scenes feels immediately off, but then what do we really know? More mystery surrounds the snaps of his father “at work”, like getting off an airplane in his uniform, making a speech at some kind of conference, posing with a group of suited men in a living room, standing with various other unidentified men, and ultimately receiving a commendation medal from an unnamed official. Each of these pictures feels almost illicit, in that we want to know more about the people and places they document, but their secrets remain largely unrevealed.

Honegger has used these family images as the basis for a scrapbook-like amalgamation of visual materials, the entirety of which tries to add richness and context to these unknowable dark spots in Honegger’s life. Like a dogged detective, Honegger visits the Spy Museum in Berlin and makes photographs of the relics of spycraft, including recording devices, miniature cameras, and other disguised objects. He travels to safehouses in East Germany to document secure phones, safes, and radio transmission stations. He returns to various places he once lived, trying to rediscover the apartment blocks in the family pictures, and revisits places like the Berlin Wall, where the snapshots, his memories, and the contemporary realities all intermingle. And he gathers up various loose ephemera that might hold clues to the past, from passports and movement orders to newspaper clippings and airplane schematics.

The Need to Know ultimately takes shape as a kind of photobook dossier, with all of these images and materials sequenced into one integrated flow. In terms of design and construction, the photobook is surprisingly varied from spread to spread, with glue ins, inserts, foldouts, and image overlaps creating a dialogue among the materials, with old and new mixed together without particular notation. Essays at the back of the book and on a loose leporello provide some additional narrative context, but the photobook remains filled with unexplained mysteries, including two pages with codes hidden inside perforated French folds. Folders of documents are left in opened safes, roads lead past barbed wire fencing, holes peek through walls, and buildings are seen in wavy reflection, with cast shadows, metro stops, guarded border checkpoints, and missile diagrams left without further explanation. How it all fits together remains tantalizingly unclear, which is perhaps an apt characterization of the artist’s own understanding of his past.

What I found fascinating about The Need to Know is that most dig-in-the-family-archives autobiographical photobook projects assume that whatever is unearthed is a representation of the truth, and that by looking at and understanding these rediscovered images, we can eventually come to know ourselves. Honegger’s photobook directly contradicts that all too easy assumption; in fact, every single photograph, document, and piece of found evidence in this book (from both past and present) is essentially presented as unreliable. Fact and fiction are indistinguishable, with every picture seemingly showing us one thing but likely leaving out several others that might be important. This pervasive ambiguity must have been maddening for Honegger as a child, and he’s smartly translated that feeling of instability into a photobook that refuses to offer any conclusions. The more we look at The Need to Know, the murkier it becomes, its stubborn silences opening up wide spaces for imagination.

Collector’s POV: Michael S. Honegger 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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Read more about: Michael Honegger, Blow Up Press

One comment

  1. Michael Honegger /

    Many thanks for a perceptive review of my book…you managed to comprehend my intentions precisely. I truly appreciate the keen insights.

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