Lothar Osterburg’s Imagining New York: a melancholic picturing of the past
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How do we engage with old photographs or with images that appear to be “old?” Moreover, how do we relate to the past through such images? These are questions I explore through a series of photographs created between 2007 and 2013 by master printmaker, Lothar Osterburg (German, b. 1961). For Imagining New York, Osterburg worked purely from memory, building models of the city from found and everyday materials and composing them through the frame of a fixed camera lens. As his look through the lens suggests, Osterburg’s New York stems, perhaps primarily, from memories of images. His final images, printed as photogravures, may create a similarly memory-fueled experience for the viewer. These images may look and feel quite familiar, but they resist easy identification; the strange artificiality and generic nature of the model may bring to mind any number of associations—real and fictional—spanning the turn of the twentieth century, each slipping into the next. Thinking Imagining New York through Sigmund Freud’s potentially productive melancholia, and Walter Benjamin’s melancholic “historical materialism,” I suggest that the ambivalence of Osterburg’s images—their particular fixation on the past—invites a mode of viewing that produces a certain distance, a critical remove not only from habitual viewing practices, but also from the viewer’s own relation to the past. But how is this melancholic movement productive today? Osterburg’s images may point to a collective experience in seemingly personal “historical processes” of reflection; emphasizing the status of the past in the imagination as image, it may become something that—together—we actively access and construct to inform the present. And through the critical distance they prompt, these images suggest “work” that is productive in acknowledging, specifically, the misrecognition of the social. During this process of prolonged disjuncture of temporality and space, the viewer quite literally “sees” these images differently. Or rather she may “see” herself seeing them, to become aware of her active role as viewer, as an active presence in the present. And in turn, it may be that the past—a kind of cultural experience—becomes an active, present social formation.