Elisabeth Neudörfl, Untitled, 2010, gelatin silver print, 19 5/8 x 15 1/2". From the series “Habitat,” 2010.

Elisabeth Neudörfl, Untitled, 2010, gelatin silver print, 19 5/8 x 15 1/2". From the series “Habitat,” 2010.

Elisabeth Neudörfl

Barbara Wien Wilma Lukatsch

Elisabeth Neudörfl, Untitled, 2010, gelatin silver print, 19 5/8 x 15 1/2". From the series “Habitat,” 2010.

In a text describing the methodologies and conceptual concerns that comprise her “topographic” approach to documentary photography, Elisabeth Neudörfl has written that “a fundamental strategy of photography is exclusion.” With its high-contrast black-and-white images of housing blocks and the neglected green areas and dead spaces that border them, the artist’s recent series “Habitat,” 2010, documents—from varying distances and angles—those elements that make up an unidentified residential area, while intentionally denying a representational cohesion or narrative logic. The immediate effect is that the viewer is left to search for the images’ elusive subject matter and to wonder what, exactly, these photographs are meant to show.

The refusal of legibility is intentional. The series was originally produced for “Ruhrblicke” (Ruhr Views) at the SANAA Building at Zeche Zollverein in Essen, Germany, a project for which curator Thomas Weski commissioned eleven photographers to produce work depicting the coal-mining and industrial region in western Germany that began to rapidly decline in the 1960s but that today is the subject of a revitalization effort that has transformed many of the area’s industrial relics (like those famously depicted by Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose work provided an important historical reference for the exhibition) into theme park–like attractions and cultural-event venues. Uninterested in the obvious visual signifiers of the region’s tumultuous economic and cultural history, Neudörfl purposely sought out a banal, nondescript site for her photographic survey. The sequence of images follows the route of a pedestrian wandering through the area, a set of anonymous eyes casually yet intimately noticing shabby building facades, walkways strewn with leaves, and gardens that sometimes appear more menacing than inviting. Neudörfl’s use of artificial lighting produces an eerie effect: Against a blanched sky overhead, the geometric patterns of functional modernist architecture take on a graphic quality, while the textures of trees, shrubs, and foliage stand out in almost microscopic detail that seems to indicate a careful attention to minutiae but fails to determine a focal point. Cropped and fragmentary, these landscapes are empty and petrified by a stillness broken only by small traces of the presence of the buildings’ unseen inhabitants, such as graffiti or satellite dishes—markers of class that offer the only available prompts for narrative invention, about, for example, the failure of utopian housing projects of which postwar Germany’s hasty urban development offers so many examples.

Stacked in two horizontal rows, the seventy-two images are mounted in sequences of two to six photographs divided by empty spaces that create irregular gaps, sometimes pushing one sequence over onto an adjacent wall. Like blank pages in a book, these gaps are meant to give pause, to provide a beginning and an end for each group read left to right. Exhibited alongside “Habitat” are three unique volumes from Neudörfl’s substantial collection of artist’s books, including Burn, Warehouse, Burn, 1993; Vencerémos (We Will Prevail), 1994; and Der Stadt (Of the City), 1998. But while each sequence revolves around a particular area, there is never any traceable progression, no clear point of entry or departure. Instead, there is an aimless movement around architectural and organic motifs that are familiar and yet appear strange to the eyes of the observer recording them. It is a self-effacing perspective that, despite its technical precision and haunting aesthetic effects, offers few clues as to motives. What is evident is only that there is a physical, subjective presence behind the camera, which constantly refers back to an embodied experience of being in this place while ultimately suppressing the synthetic, didactic impulse of the photographic document.

Michèle Faguet