Rob Hornstra, The Former Capital

JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2020 (here), in conjunction with a show at the Kaunas Photography Gallery (here, originally April 2 – May 2, 2020, reopened May 12 – June 14, 2020.) Stitched softcover, 170×213 mm, 112 pages, with 63 color/monochrome red tinted reproductions. Includes image captions/texts/interviews by Arnold van Bruggen (in English/Lithuanian). In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Kummer & Herrman. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Other resources for the project include The Europeans website (here) and a virtual walkthrough (here).

Comments/Context: We are living in an age when we seem to want all of our photographic stories to fit into neat, easily understood packages. But not every story that is worth hearing (or seeing, or thinking about) can be winnowed down to just one singular photograph, let alone a handful of pictures. Many (if not most) important visual stories are inherently complicated, with layers of people, places, histories, and emotions that defy blunt oversimplification.

Conflicted subjects like these have consistently attracted the Dutch photographer Rob Hornstra and his artistic collaborator/writer Arnold van Bruggen, and over the past decade, they have evolved an unorthodox approach to photography and storytelling that enables them to wrestle more ably with these kinds of sprawling and unwieldy stories. Their methods are rooted in a fundamentally equal balance between photographs and text, where Hornstra’s portraits, architectural studies, and still lifes are surrounded and supported by van Bruggen’s words, which often include quotes from interviews, deeper histories and personal remembrances, and other non-visible but resonant details. It is a slow and deliberate process, taking years at a time and plenty of real human engagement, in a vein similar to that of Dorothea Lange (as seen in her recent MoMA retrospective, reviewed here.) Their results have taken form as both exhibitions and photobooks, their 2014 effort The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (2014 gallery show reviewed here) introducing many to their in-depth brand of engaged visual storytelling.

Hornstra and van Bruggen’s newest project is their most ambitious yet – a composite portrait of modern Europe, told in a series of artistic chapters/photobooks. In a certain way, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s post-WWII photobook Les Européens (from 1955) marks the starting point for attempting to use photography to define what it means to be European, and plenty of water has flowed under the various national bridges since that time. While the European Union is increasingly tasked with maintaining economic and structural order across the continent, nationalism (or populism, or authoritarianism, depending on your definition) is on the rise in nearly every member state. Economic inequality (ranging from prosperity to poverty), disparities of opportunity, wide ranging definitions of identity, cultural differences between the modern global cites and the rural countryside, the steady arrival of open border migrants and immigrants, and a whole host of other nuanced issues complicate the overarching idea of being European, and Hornstra and van Bruggen have jumped feet first into this swirling brew of history, economics, and sociology to try to take stock of how 21st century Europe is changing.

While the larger project (entitled The Europeans) will ultimately wander from region to region within Europe, the first chapter of the effort has taken shape as The Former Capital. Hornstra and van Bruggen have deliberately tried to avoid identifying any particular city or country as the location of this work, in the hopes that readers will step back and see The Former Capital as a universal location in the Eastern European heartland, rather than as a specific place they have documented. (For the record, Kaunas, Lithuania is the likely subject, given the gallery show took place there, it was a temporary national capital between the wars, and the text is translated into Lithuanian). This is initially a little intentionally obscure, but as the pages turn, we quickly get used to the idea of the two documenting the rhythms of a generic European stand-in, one that is filled with people, buildings, economics, and ideas that we can use as a common proxy for life across at least part of the broader region.

The realities that face a place like The Former Capital are subtle, and intricately intertwined and interrelated. Hornstra and van Bruggen find part of the foundation in crumbling or abandoned factories, low paying dead end jobs, and the resulting anxiety that comes from not having enough money or food. Hornstra’s images document grim Soviet block architecture, empty and decaying former industrialized neighborhoods, and old military barracks that are being converted into apartments. They then dig deeper, into the old paper factory (now closed) that not only provided jobs but social connections, and into the stories of workers at the bread and meat factories and of trolleybus drivers. This then leads them to cheap cafes and the soup kitchen, where there isn’t enough food for everyone in need, and to those living on too small pensions or the charity of others. Stanislava, who runs the local food bank, put it succinctly “people either earn well and are part of the global economy, or they earn nothing and make up the underclass of Europe.” The aggregation of the portraits and their connected backstories fills in the larger layers of the picture, in ways that meeting just one or two isolated individuals might not.

The recent history of this region is a seemingly never ending stream of occupations, regime changes, and redrawn allegiances, so much so that the residents have become fatigued and disillusioned by all the back and forth. What Hornstra and van Bruggen have discovered is, given this uncertainty of identity and skepticism for whoever might be in power at the moment, many have returned to traditional cultural values and local customs to help them understand who they are. These take the photographic form of performances by local orchestras, women’s singing groups, and dance troupes, with men like Viktoras playing accordion and Jonas playing violin, and women wearing traditional dress, the songs, instruments, and costumes all being preserved and celebrated. In a sense, this is a search for pride and independence, in lives that don’t feel especially charmed or secure, and this creation of collective experience and belonging is also taking more modern forms, like motorcycle clubs and basketball fan gatherings.

Hornstra and van Bruggen have then followed these bread crumbs several steps farther, finding that these same impulses are manifesting themselves in different forms of patriotism and nationalism. In some cases, the same people who fought various forces of occupation are now once again organizing themselves into paramilitary and other right wing groups, in their minds defending their freedom and independence from new aggressors. Wrapped in the mantle of traditional culture and values, the old insider/outsider divisions are amplified, encompassing everything from embracing strong man leadership and anti-gay harassment, to rejection of foreign students, immigrants, refugees, and even day tripper tourists. The “once we were great” nostalgia is a potent emotional force, encouraging fighting back against anything, including progress and modernity, that might threaten the cultural identity. Hornstra documents these simmering moods in overt, flag toting, camouflage wearing parades and gatherings, and more subtle evidence of prejudice and injustice (mostly in the backstories to attentive portraits) as applied to those in the minority.

As a photobook, The Former Capital is refreshingly modest and affordable, which should make it more approachable for a wider audience. The material has been presented as a photobook, an exhibition, and a virtual walkthrough, all with the same design elements: Hornstra’s large scale color photographs, van Bruggen’s pull quotes, captions, and explanatory notes in red text, and some of Hornstra’s images turned monochrome and tinted red, further deepening the overall color theme. The book functions well as both a stand alone expression of the first phase of the larger project, and a takeaway catalog of the gallery show, and the graphic design is sharp and effective, especially given that it is functioning in two languages.

From just this first installment, we can see that The Europeans has the audacious potential to deliver a thoughtfully considered aggregate portrait of how 21st century European identity is changing, and being actively redefined. On its own, The Former Capital already sensitively teaches us much about how those who are being left behind in the East see themselves and the choices they find available going forward. Hornstra and van Bruggen have gotten underneath the sleek surface of contemporary life to carefully probe the human realities that lie below, exposing some of the impulses, motivations, long buried histories, and emotions that will influence the trajectory of life in Europe going forward. The next chapter (apparently titled The Black Country and slated for fall of 2020) will likely take us even further down this complex road.

Collector’s POV: Prints from this first portion of the project can be purchased directly from Kaunas Photography Gallery (here) or from the photographer directly via his website (linked in the sidebar). The prints come in three sizes. Hornstra’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2020 (here). Softcover with spiral binding, 20 pages, with 14 black and white photographs. In an edition of 50 copies. (Cover and spread shots ... Read on.

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