Our first ‘In Focus’ of 2022 shines a spotlight on the life and work of German artist Katja Liebmann. The ‘In Focus’ allows the reader to find out more about the background, career and working practice of the artist through an interview, accompanied by her poems and images from different bodies of work.
Katja Liebmann was born in 1965 in Halle an der Saale in East Germany. She grew up in Berlin and studied at the Kunsthochschule Berlin, the Academy of Fine Arts, Nuremberg and the Royal College of Art, London. She first gained critical acclaim for her series Gotham City, which was acquired by the Saatchi Collection. Katja describes herself as ‘painterly soul’, citing Rembrandt, Turner, Poussin, and Titian as her inspiration.
Katja’s work records the energy, alienation and solitude of urban life whilst maintaining a reflective, dreamlike quality. She was nominated for the 1998 Citibank Photography Prize (now the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize) and was awarded the prestigious DAAD scholarship in 1995. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Royal College of Art, London; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Charles Saatchi Collection, London; the LzO Art Collection, (Landessparkasse zu Oldenburg), Oldenburg; the Bishkek Art Centre, Kyrgyzstan; and the Omsk Museum of Visual Arts, among others.
She is a lecturer in printmaking and historic photographic processes at Carl von Ossietzky University, Oldenburg. She has been a visiting lecturer at the London College of Communication, Royal College of Art, London Camberwell College of Art, London; Kent Institute of Art and Design and the Haccetepe University in Ankara.
Q&A between HackelBury Fine Art and Katja Liebmann
HackelBury Fine Art: Nostalgia seems to pervade your work. You use words and titles like Abyss, Erase and Indecipherable. Can you expand?
Katja Liebmann: My work is not very nostalgic and there is no fear either. Back then, more than 20 years ago, I had the view of an outsider in the large cities in which I lived, unknown to me. I took any old camera and absorbed what I saw without knowing what to do with the recordings – there was only a faint vision to filter this reality given to me by the camera. I stored all of the negative film material in a black box and took it with me wherever I lived.
Today, looking at the large blue cyanotypes, based on those early negatives – I recall some words… Abyss, The Glowing Cold, Erase, Indecipherable. Beautiful words, magic spells, frozen in a poem, dedicated to the early recordings which I brought to life.
HBFA: Some of your works remind me of x-ray images, creating the sense that one is looking into a world which cannot otherwise be seen with the human eye? Is there a desire to see close-up yet be anonymous?
KL: I feel the need to comprehend and condense the past in finding images for it, synonyms, sometimes a few words.
HBFA: What made you choose the medium of photography? With this medium there is a distance between you and the subject matter – was this a deliberate choice?
KL: There is some form of distance in every artistic medium. A chance of a relationship and at the same time objectivity. After studying in Nuremberg and Berlin, I moved to London for my MA at the Royal College of Art. In London I devoted a lot of time to printmaking and discovered my interest in a way of seeing things graphically. The result was a curiosity about printing with light, about photography.
I realised in using painting, I would never be able to grasp what I see. So it came about that I taught myself all the basic skills which I needed to grasp the medium of photography from it’s origins. My mission was to capture the “spirit of London”, to come as close to this place as I could.
I began to build myself these large light tight boxes to capture traces, to let light shine into them. This way I conquered photography and I conquered London. It was inspiring to me that pinhole cameras don’t have a viewfinder. So I considered every single image the box recorded a mysterious gift out of the dark. I have to accept it and can give up control.
To me, photography has similarities with painting and I like to think that my work is as much at home in painting and printmaking as well as in the medium of photography. Creating a cyanotype for example has a very graphic, as well as a painterly side to it. This process enables me to create images which combine the visual language of painting, printmaking and photography.
– we see
You do not see what you see
you see right through
images of your memory
of my memory
we see right through
we see the unspeakable
HBFA: You use blurred images in your work which create a visualisation of the passing of time – the images become like memory snapshots. From where does this interest in memory and the impermanence of time come?
KL: It comes from melancholy. If we think about the passage of time…we know that everything passes and the more time passes, everything comes closer to death. We will have to let ourselves fall into this abyss – nobody gets out of here alive.
HBFA: In your recent work you have returned to working with images made over 20 years ago. What made you choose to recollect the past?
KL: Sometimes more happens in my head than in my life, and my archive reveals even more… memories, thoughts, associations, deja vu. Returning to look at my archive, I inevitably turn to the topic of time, try to decipher the recordings, to find words. In the end the work becomes more and more condensed. These images are symbols for something indescribable, something indecipherable. Just as the objects around us are all symbols, we live in symbols. It´s the essentials which remain, the concentrate.
HBFA: Can you talk about your interest in memory and time and why you choose the historic cyanotype process which provides a timeless quality?
KL: It is more about questioning harmony and beauty, about the way of looking at something which seems to disappear. If I use these historical photographic processes, I do not see it as anachronistic. The haunting cyanotype process – the velvety surface, the magic deep blue, toning it in many shades…. All this is the painterly part.
HBFA: Your interest in the archive of images can be likened to the archive of memory. Our memory has a habit of idealising past experiences. What do you see differently when revisiting these images today compared to 20 years ago?
KL: It’s recognising my early self in looking at these images – I see tiny traces point beyond themselves, new layers do form. Fine scratches and traces perpetuated themselves in the picture ‘Dust in the Wind’ for example and I had this song in my head while working on the image, it feels as if the yesterday and the today has come full circle for me.
HBFA: Can we talk about your artistic career? You studied painting in Nuremberg, painting and printmaking in Berlin and printmaking in London. What made you choose to move to a different city each time?
KL: I wasn’t someone who could just pick and choose where ideally to study. It finally came about through the political events in East Germany at that time. Before the wall came down, I grew up in East Berlin and later went to Leipzig with the intention to study art. But then, I left East Germany and started studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Nuremberg. After the German reunification, I continued my studies in Berlin. Finishing that, I had the opportunity to go to London for an MA in printmaking at the Royal College of Art. So around this time, I was “out in the open”.
HBFA: You are evidently good at adapting to new situations and changing places. Is this an important part of your work?
KL: This is a normal fate of our time. I think it was the other way around – I suddenly found myself in this western world and had to discover what was going on. It was a constant process… to get to know a different social order, a language, a place which could mean something to me. I saw it as a privilege and wanted to deal with all that.
HBFA: Is the work which focuses on windows, doors, dwellings and houses an illustration of a longing for belonging?
KL: In these huge old cities, I find myself between endless walls of houses. Walls that are strange and forbidding. You come in through a door, but you can’t quite get in… when you go in, there are more and more doors, open and closed. It’s a labyrinth. It is walking through a closed area which has its secret, I feel magically drawn to it, I may want to unclose it to belong.
– we leave
There’s a time
a time to leave
an hour to immerse in early landscapes
urban landscapes you always been
an unknowing part of
and always be invisible in
HBFA: How have these different cultural experiences, living in different cities and countries, influenced your work as an artist?
KL: In these years, I saw myself as just somebody who perceives the surroundings like an apparatus, a seismograph, exchangeable, just capturing the essence of the cities – and then see what happens.
HBFA: Why is the urban landscape so important to you? Much of your recent work focuses on big cities – Berlin, London and New York. The human figure becomes indecipherable. Is it the anonymity of these big cities which attracts you?
KL: When moving anonymously in big cities, I feel closest to myself and others pass me by like shadows. When I look into their eyes, I think to myself that I am now immortalised on their retina and vice versa.
HBFA: Your use of public transport also reinforces this idea of being somebody who can melt into the background. Are you an observer rather than a participant?
KL: In observing it from a distance – houses, people, means of transport merge and form a blanket of memory on which to work.
HBFA: Did you use the same bus or train route each time you took a journey and was there a specific choice for the route or was it a more random process?
KL: I boarded somewhere in the city and always travelled to the terminus, to the end of the line.
HBFA: I am interested in the chance encounter you have with your environment. If you travel on public transport to take these works you clearly have no idea what you will find?
KL: Painting is a lonely process whereas the camera is a participation prothesis – the camera gives me something indifferent, a starting point from which I can begin and continue to merge our views of the world.
HBFA: What is the creative process involved in making your work? Is it planned ahead or a more intuitive and organic process?
KL: The idea comes into my head as a subconscious extract. I decide intuitively whether the work will appear as a negative or a positive image in the end. People seem to be gone or if visible, mostly as a negative.
HBFA: Does your work draw on other cultural influences? You have talked about the influence of German romanticism and Turner.
KL: I find the early masters with their bold enigmatic paintings, their view on the world and on their work encouraging. To me the medium of photography has a lot to do with the medium of painting – my images are paintings.
HBFA: The fleeting image in your work brings to mind, the late Impressionist painters and the late works of Turner. Turner’s abstract compositions, as with Constable and Caspar David Friedrich, became for them a re-evaluation of the natural world. As the writer William Vaughan says in his book on Friedrich “divine creation, to be set against the artifice of human civilization”. Does this ring true for your work?
KL: The divinity in Caspar David Friedrich’s images is about nature, whereas in most of my work you see man-made facades which I transfer to a surreal level. The images speak for themselves.
HBFA: In some work the raindrops become part of the composition. This brush with nature feels very raw. You also talk about ‘printing with light, raw light’. Can you expand?
KL: I love the dark rainy days of winter – whereas the images are created in the gleaming ultraviolet light.
HBFA: Do you enjoy the limitations of your tonal range using cyanotypes? Can you talk about the different blue tones in your work and what they symbolise i.e., the soft blue and the harsh blue?
KL: Working with just a range of warm or cold shades of blue is sufficient. The different shades feel like different periods of time. Sometimes a harsh blue seems to be the right decision to push things further into a new dimension.
HBFA: How do you want people to respond to your work?
KL: People should react as they want, I do not have expectations in that regard.
HBFA: Can you talk a little about your upbringing in East Germany?
KL: Living life takes a lot of time – and I had a lot of time in my East Berlin childhood. I painted and dreamed a lot, wrote and read a lot. Today, in retrospect, it is a dreamlike idea that an individual can have so much undistracted time for themselves. Those childhoods seem to be gone.
My mother is a writer, an uncompromising and free soul, my father was a documentary film maker. My mother’s independent mind and imagination, her attitude that beauty and a certain harmonic order should be taken seriously was a nice thing to grow up with.Back then it made no difference in which part of the both Germanys I grew up – it simply was the way it was: always full of life.
HBFA: Are there are any childhood influences that have had a significant impact on your work?
KL: I remember delightful jaunts with the family, in nature and the beautiful Berlin surroundings.
HBFA: Do you have a daily routine or ritual which helps you find a structure in your work as an artist?
KL: In the evening I always look forward to the next day. In the morning I start living the life I live, mixing the chemicals I need
HBFA: Is there a particular photographer who has had a major influence on your work?
KL: Jewgeni Chaldej, the Soviet photographer and war correspondent and his terrible and yet so truthful photographs which testify to love and humanity. What a great human attitude and courage behind these images which show the truth of a deep impression.
I am also touched by the work and the fate of the Hungarian photographer Imre Kinszki. The subject of art is truth and a work of art must be truthful. The artist’s approach to this is individual but ultimately generally applicable.
HBFA: Where do you feel at peace?
KL: I feel at peace when I can oversee the situation as a whole.
Much of Katja’s work is printed using low tech nineteenth-century processes. The Gotham City works were created with the Van Dyke brown process. The negative is contact printed using sunlight to produce rare and timeless photographs. The Journeys, Dwellings and Dust in the Wind series feature cyanotype prints, one of the oldest photographic processes. The technique uses a mixture of iron salt solutions which, when exposed to the UV light and washed with water, turn blue.
Katja’s use of early photographic techniques is a part of her exploration of the theme of time, reflecting on tools of the past to emphasise the fleeting nature of the present. Katja’s use of the historic processes, however, she stresses, is not nostalgic. Instead, it is a study of our continual progression over time.