Jul 2012 Journal

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From humble photos to powerful images (exhibition review)

‘TRACES’
Austrian Cultural Forum, London

Reality is not simply there, it does not simply exist: it must be sought out and won Paul Celan, 1958

The discovery of two small family photographs in an old suitcase that had belonged to her great-uncle Hugo Hecker was the event that sparked photographer Julia Winckler’s project to witness, seek out and preserve the story of Hugo’s family, most of whom had perished in the Holocaust.

Winckler’s quest became a remarkable story in itself – involving multiple photographic explorations, journeys to Cracow and Auschwitz, and research into historical records. Her scrupulous methods of visual and imaginative enquiry have brought the loss and absence of these lives into a new presence, and in this extraordinary exhibition Winckler’s story and the traces of Hugo Hecker’s family are woven together into the most compelling visual poetry.

Robert Lowell said that ‘A poem is an event … not the record of an event.’ This show is an event because it enables the viewer to re-realise loss and discovery, absence and presence. Winckler meticulously re-photographed each of the individuals from the original photos, in order to respect and resuscitate their identities. The resulting images are monumental in their realism and in their abstraction. The closer you approach them, the more they disappear, anew, into memory.

Winckler’s work sings with love and art, and a delicacy and care that are rare and moving. She truly brings back to life some essence that had vanished. There is once again presence in the absence - in these haunting faces, their eyes dark and sunken, their expressions so recognisably and universally human. The appearance of these people, their disappearance – both are present, and somehow miraculously reintegrated. Several days after I saw the show, I was still waking each morning with the faces clearly in my mind.

The show is curated with great attention to detail, consistent with the entire project. I appreciated the fact that the images were not captioned. It made me use my eyes properly, relating one image to another rather than to a string of words.

How bold to tackle a theme as well documented as the disappearances of the Holocaust and how creative to approach it like this - making the private public, the individual universal, transforming the most humble photographs into images so utterly powerful.

Clare Best

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