It seems appropriate that German photographer Diane Vincent has produced a book such as Oben.
Growing up in East Germany, and first attending a school specializing in music, the monochromatic images that form the series both reflect the greyness of a concrete city, rebuilt and reformed in a new architectural language, and the need for that city’s inhabitants to rise above the ground-level noise and find peace and a certain kind of freedom in the serenity of a silent sun-bathed rooftop.
Accompanying the images of the self-published handmade book is a poem of simple gratitude for the discovery and consolation of finding an escape to the roof: “It’s thirty-six degrees…” begins the poem, which not only sets a tone for the dry summer heat that the photographer is attempting to gain relief from on the ground, but also suggests the motion of mathematical resolution of algebra, and the geometrical construction of abstract shapes that dominate the scenery of Oben, particularly the recurring motif of the satellite dish.
Having met Diane at the portfolio reviews in Dublin during PhotoIreland Festival 2014, we discussed this work and the layout of the book itself. It was not a very difficult task as the author has paid careful consideration to the individual structure of each image while also employing her poetic intuition to influence the overall edit which is adroit without being plane. Little details like the delicately drawn pin-point maps at beginning and end, the waxed string used to bind and the stylish print design on the brown card cover all bring subtle flourishes to the book that is required.
The rooftops of Oben become unique stages, or platforms on which the viewer can literally be a viewer – free to peer beyond the confines of the city walls, beyond the cornered windows, extractor fans, the din of satellite television and pressure of daily existence. One notices an urge to run and jump, to skip from block to block, imagining a soft summer breeze gently caressing while an occasional bird glides overhead. It is about feeling the light on ones face and opening up to the great beyond. Remembering that each of the nearly four million people that live in Berlin have dreams and hopes and fears of their own. That despite the lumbering cement giants and steel-framed titans that loom above cyclists, motorists and pedestrians there is always somewhere to feel human again.
With double and single-page spreads a rhythm evolves within the book; one image can lead to another by virtue of the photographers placement and eye, we begin to recognize one building in the distance from the previous page. Indeed we also begin to recognize metaphors such as the ladder that rests effortlessly against a chimneystack leading ever higher to the pale grey of oblivion. There are quite a few of these little tricks at play in Oben, another being the over-hang handles of a metallic escape ladder precariously close to our own gaze, slightly blurred against the backdrop of hard lines and reflective glass of the towers standing firmly behind. There is a surprising image near the very end of the book that visualizes all of this bittersweet contemplation quite elegantly in the manifestation of a slightly overgrown roof garden. This is a strange safari complete with its very own mirage.
In essence, Oben relies heavily on the relationship between line and form (one is reminded of the formalist work of Lewis Baltz), between natural chaos and manmade order, between the individual and the group. Those thirty-six degrees mentioned in the poem speak of heat and shape, but more importantly to the project they speak of coordinates – of the placement of the photographer, viewer and other within a given space at a given time. Oben reflects our contradictory desire for escaping such rigidity yet celebrates the steadfast security it can often bring.
You can purchase a copy of Oben directly from here.