By the time newspaper commentaries appear in book form, their charm has usually vanished, their sharpness gone. Taken out of their ephemeral context, they have to prove that they are more than they should be.
It’s different with Katja Petrovskaya. Seven years ago she began writing her picture descriptions in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung”. Reflections on photos from exhibitions, from books: people, typefaces, landscape. These short texts – now barely three book pages – unfolded in the newspaper a quiet and powerful range. One reason why people were so grateful for this Sunday reading is that Katja Petrovskaya has hardly published anything since her novel “Maybe Esther” (2014), which won the Bachmann Prize. Likewise, the disappointment was great when you had a sheet in your hand without a picture of Petrovskaya.
“The photo looked at me.” The title from the Suhrkamp library (256 pages, 25 euros), which brings together around sixty photos and their texts, refers to the portrait of a miner from Donbass. Cigarette smoke clouds his face, and the whites of his eyes stand out. She found the picture on the Internet and saw it again in the Ukrainian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The column on this was published in June 2015. There was already fighting in the Donbass, which was hardly noticed in the West.
“This book is not about war, but it is embraced by war. The first text was written when Russia attacked the east of Ukraine,” writes Katya Petrovskaya in the epilogue: “At that time I started writing about photos because I was powerless in the face of violence. Today, Russia is razing Ukrainian places.”
What are these lyrics? Miniatures, short stories that you have to think through yourself? There’s an old man standing in front of a shattered apartment building. “At first I think it’s Berlin. But it is Prague. I had not known that Prague had been shelled so heavily by Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968.”
Elsewhere, at another time, a burning farmstead in Ukraine was photographed by a Wehrmacht soldier. He documented the German extermination campaign. Putin’s army uses brutal Nazi methods in Ukraine. History unravels before our eyes.
The question of photography and empathy naturally connects with the essays by Susan Sontag. With Katja Petrowskaja, almost every time you enter a – new – pictorial space, you feel the pain of realizing that the future already lies in the past. The images they found are so frightening of now and here because they show that what was is also what can come. So the photographs themselves have the second sight.
The photo with the little girl and her father comes from Petrovskaya’s family archive. The woman that girl was realizes that she was drawing a picture with her left hand. She no longer knew. “However, the possibility of being left-handed was so close that it stayed with me a little bit.”
At one point the viewer asks: “Is beauty something that we see – or rather the invisible behind it?” Katja Petrowskaja was born in Kyiv in 1970. She lives in Berlin and Tiblissi. Her novel, Maybe Esther, searches for the history of her family, and that is, inevitably, the 20th-century story. In this period of time, photography and film are the defining media and memories. In “News of Flowers” Petrovskaya comes across the brownish photo of a strangely shaped, glowing plant. It is reminiscent of the very first attempts of the photographic pioneers in the 19th century, but comes from the volume “The Chernobyl Herbarium”. Radiated, mutated, discovered in a store in New York.
A single cloud in the blue sky fascinates the viewer. She lies in the grass in the Volkspark Friedrichshain, thinks the shape of the cloud that has moved in front of the sun is “ideal” and takes a photo. “I just photographed them, and I was as happy as if I had created them myself.” This is pure poetry and also some poetology, exceptionally bright and written with a smile.
But the dark, fatally enough, comes from an inexhaustible supply. In an undated photograph, perhaps from the 1970s, two children are standing in a Black Sea port. They look anxiously at the water. For Katja Petrovskaya, this photo hides “an unpredictable future, beyond our vision, as big as the slowly approaching ship that can fill the entire horizon. It emits a calling signal. The children hear it, but we don’t.” There is so much in all these pictures that is waiting to be noticed. The human imagination is constantly exceeded.