Rosa Smalen, Berlin

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Art Paper Editions (here). Softcover, 21×29.7 cm, 304 pages, with 304 black and white reproductions. With a short essay by Taco Hidde Bakker. In an edition of 400 copies. Design by 6’56”. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The cover of Rosa Smalen’s photobook Berlin looks like a blank composition notebook, the ordinary kind used to jot down notes, or recipes, or books to read, or really anything else worth recording. A few empty lines even offer a place to write in your own title.

What Smalen has put inside are her visual notes from a four-day walk through the city – some 300 lushly tactile, full bleed, black and white photographs she took while walking around, each one a straight down shot of whatever was underneath her feet at that particular moment. Berlin is a satisfyingly thick book, so we immediately feel the weight and duration of this project – she clearly covered quite a bit of ground in her journey, and the aggregation of images borders on the obsessive. Page after page (after page) is filled with close examinations of sidewalks, pavements, and other surfaces underfoot, the effect akin to an extended performance, or a compulsively attentive travelogue of the overlooked.

Urban street photographers have long been entranced by the surprising visual worlds to be discovered on the sidewalk and in the gutter. The photographic godfather of such imagery is likely Aaron Siskind, who consistently transformed cracks, paint spills, tar ribbons, and other gritty detritus into lyrical Abstract Expressionism. More recently, Ethan Greenbaum has both explored the vibrant colors of scarred city pavement, and molded the topographies of those battered sidewalks into sculpted, three dimensional studies. So the street itself never ends as a subject for photographic exploration, and Smalen’s recent contributions fall directly into the context of what has come before.

As a city, Berlin has seen its share of traumatic history, and its streets certainly reflect that roughness. Smalen’s photographs document the patchwork of paving techniques haphazardly intermingled over decades – asphalt, concrete, brick, cobblestones, tiles, even crumbled rock and smooth marble – and the layers of use, repair, and reuse that have been worn over time into a single contiguous surface. Her photographs are meticulous examinations of this relentless urban recombination, particularly of the subtle all-over textures that largely go unnoticed by ordinary pedestrians.

Shot straight down, and always in a vertical orientation, Smalen’s images feel noticeably bounded by the rectangle of their frames – we can almost see her arranging her compositions within this rigid geometry and aligning the features of the pavement below within its crisp edges. This ordering creates a controlled space for improvisation, and Smalen makes the most of unexpected finds to enliven the predictable expanses of dark grey. And by cropping away extraneous information, she reduces the sense of space and scale, pushing the compositions toward abstraction.

At their simplest and most pared down, Smalen’s photographs consider the nature of surface. In many, the primary subject is all-over texture, with tonalities that have subtle variation, grit, or speckled randomness. She observes these surfaces with methodical patience, looking at worn areas, cracks, marks, edges, and regular patterns. And she then begins the process of arrangement, finding angles, shapes, geometries, and contrasts of light and dark that anchor and order her abstractions.

Her photographs get more complicated as she centers in on transition areas, repaired sections, and combined zones where multiple kinds of pavement interact. From there, stains, spills, puddles, scratches, and painted marks of various kinds (lines, dashes, arrows) add a sense of improvised gesture to the structured foundation, and interruptions like manholes, tram tracks, drains, grates, and the bubbled tiles to aid blind pedestrians introduce unexpected materials and shapes into the mix. And even in this hard rock world, hints of humanity and nature sometimes sneak in: footprints through paint and sand, tire tracks, cigarette butts, graffiti, bottle caps, and even seed pods fallen from nearby trees in the spring. Within the bounded universe of her camera, all of these things become possible subjects which can be reshuffled into seemingly endless abstract combinations.

What I find most engaging about this photobook is its sense of walking, seeing, and thinking as a flow or process. Each page turn is a new challenge, a new set of visual circumstances that Smalen has molded into a composition, and she does this again and again, testing herself as the streets pass underneath her. This is a book that wants to be flipped quickly, as there is no linearity to the sequencing – while it may indeed be chronological (and we can’t be certain), it doesn’t matter, as page flips pleasingly reshuffle the contents, creating new resonances and visual echoes. Each photograph is like a quick (but surprisingly controlled) sketch, and I can easily imagine them individually printed small or extra large, and hung in grids or massive arrays to create the sense of comparison.

In Berlin, Smalen has taken a subject that we might have assumed to be nearly exhausted (the urban sidewalk) and found a way to make it her own, and for that, she should be congratulated. This is a photobook that revels in its formality and strict artistic problem solving, but still feels unexpectedly approachable. Even after we have understood the task she has set for herself, the images still offer a stream of surprises, encouraging us to walk along with her a few miles more to see what she finds.

Collector’s POV: Rosa Smalen does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the artist directly via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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