Peter Pflügler, Now is not the right time

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by The Eriskay Connection (here). Hardcover (24 × 29 cm), 112 pages, with 46 color photographs. Includes a fold-out poster glued to the rear of the book. Design by Sybren Kuiper. In an edition of 750 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of Austrian photographer Peter Pflügler “centers around the dynamics of secrets, intergenerational trauma, and silence,” and his interest in these subjects stems directly from his own personal experience. In his first photobook titled Now is not the right time, he digs into the secrets of his own family and its hidden histories. 

When Pflügler was two years old, his father left for the forest with “the intention of never coming back.” His suicide attempt failed, but the lingering trauma remained. Pflügler was too young to remember any of this, and his parents hid the details of the incident from their children. Pflügler had a seemingly happy childhood, with his three siblings and two loving parents, but as he grew older, he felt the weight of inexplicable grief. Unable to explain the pain and the strange atmosphere he and the rest of his family had felt for years, he eventually confronted his parents. He was twenty-one when he finally found out the family secret, and with this knowledge came a sense of huge relief. His photobook documents his intimate journey through the labyrinth of this secret, examining how pain can be inadvertently inflicted out of love.

Now is not the right time is an elegantly designed book. The title appears on the front cover with all of the vowel letters shifted out of alignment and printed the same grayish color as the cover, adding a hint of suspense and mystery. The main narrative moves forward as we flip through the pages, one photograph per spread, as Pflügler tries to figure out the source of the imbalance in his life. The book includes hidden texts and images, placed between the pages (the pages are uncut at the bottom, creating a pocket at the top between pages), creating a parallel story that explains the family secret through the personal diaries of various family members, notes, and additional photos. 

Pflügler’s visual narrative follows the traces of this silent story, considering its effects on his parents and the family. His photographs create a dual space somewhere between seen and hidden, comfort and irritation, love and pain, and this duality is reinforced by the narrative placed inside hidden pages. A photograph of a starry night with trees framing the bottom opens the book, offering both magical starry night and scary gloomy darkness interpretations. The following spread contain text reading “today I am 2 years old” in a large font, and in a smaller font at the bottom – “from the diary of my father.” 

A few pages later, a vertical image depicting a close up of a stream of water is placed next to four dates, the same date but from four different years, starting in 1989 (the notes are from the diary of the artist’s father’s mother). A look inside the hidden pages provides additional context – the first date is the day his father attempted suicide, “Robert hospital 3 pm, Oh god help him.” Then the page turns to a photograph of a house surrounded by a lot of greenery. Perhaps this is Pflügler’s tidy childhood home. As we move through the book, one photograph shows small rocks placed on top of each other forming a tower slightly leaning to one side, maybe even caught in a moment of collapsing. This sense of instability is juxtaposed with the calm order of the wood paneling in the background and soft sunlight.

Over the years, Pflügler saw a therapist, and at some point there was a period of silence, when he felt he couldn’t say anything else. During one of those sessions, his therapist said “papa”, and Pflügler started crying, without entirely understanding the connection. But that moment led him to confront his father and to start a more complicated conversation with his parents.

Pflügler’s compositions consistently create a sense of vagueness and imbalance: a strange tree trunk with branches and green leaves placed inside a sunny kitchen; a couple dozen colorful plastic balls on a kitchen floor next to two brooms; a boy standing on green grass in the sunlight hidden under white crocheted fabric; a light blue hose placed in a geometric flower shape on the grass; and hands holding a door covered with family photographs out in the yard. These and other images try to come to grips with emptiness, mess, and other blockages. In one literally unbalanced photograph, Pflügler appears in the backyard against a white backdrop, and he is balancing with one foot on a chair with the top of his body out of frame. The photograph placed in the following hidden page is a full spread shot of a little boy gently wrapped in a blanket, seated on a chair next to the white background, making further parallels with the artist’s childhood trauma. 

Another hidden image shows Pflügler’s mother on a bed as she gently touches her son. A note from her diary on a nearby spread reads, “I still see it exactly in front of me… I sat on the couch, cried snot and water and said over and over again:  “My poor boy, what he had to suffer all this time while I didn’t notice.” I had such feelings of guilt, and I was so sad.” Pflügler clearly felt that the weight of the trauma, as though it had stayed physically present in his body. 

The very last page unfolds into a full sized poster, depicting the artist’s father on a chair, shirtless, and his mother sitting on his leg in her underwear, as their warm hug conceals their faces. The background drapes behind them reference the presence of a photographer. As the story comes full circle, Pflügler’s parents are seen in an embrace, reflecting both their love and their grief, but now with nothing to hide, in the presence of their son. 

Photographers have often translated personal trauma and its effects into their work, and a younger generation of contemporary artists have similarly turned to photography to deal with their personal traumatic experiences. In her book Ký úc//Memento (reviewed here), Simone Hoang considers the limits of personal memory as she reconstructs fragments and faded memories of her childhood, and Mariela Sancari rebuilds memories of her father in Moisés (reviewed here).

Seen as one integrated expression, Now is not the right time is a considered and thoughtful photobook. Through its use of duality, its constant feeling of being off balance, and its allusive associations, the photobook visualizes the artist’s vulnerable emotional state caused by the unspoken secret in his life. And while the project is deeply personal, it touches on more universal issues related to the ways silence inflicts trauma and pain; ultimately, Pflügler says that now is the right time to talk about the damage in his family, finally breaking the circle of suppression and concealment. This moving personal project also demonstrates how artistic creativity can be channeled in healing ways, where photographs tell charged stories that would have been difficult to otherwise verbalize.

Collector’s POV: Peter Pflügler does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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