Between Artist Book and Archive: Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s publications

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg has been photographing forgotten architecture in remote parts of the world for more than five decades. When in 2018, she was awarded Paris Photo Photography catalogue of the year for The Land in Between, it marked a long overdue recognition not just of an ambitious career and contribution to photography, but also to the quality and unique sensibility of her published works. Having published over twenty-five books since her artistic career began in the 1970s, in Germany she is perhaps as well-known for her publications as for her photography. The format of her publications varies dramatically, from large softcover catalogues to small hand-bound booklets of a few pages. Lying somewhere between artist books, photobooks and catalogues, like much of Schulz-Dornburg’s practice, her publications evade easy definition and prove challenging to categorise.

Recent catalogues produced by major publishers Hatje Cantz and Mack, alongside retrospectives at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, have all served to introduce her extensive photographic archive to new international audiences. Last year, Mack published a facsimile of a sketchbook of colour photographs Schulz-Dornburg originally gave to her daughter after visiting the Armenian capital Yerevan in 1996. A new publication of previously unseen photographs of the Spanish colonial archives comes out this autumn. Despite this surge of interest, many of her earlier publications (like much of her wider practice), remain largely overlooked. Reasons for this discrepancy are mostly practical. Many of her books are limited editions, published by smaller galleries and cultural institutions in Germany and thus challenging to find. Language too, has played a role, with monolingual editions less accessible to international audiences. Yet she continues to use her publications to rearrange and recontextualise her photographic works, drawing from her archive to re-examine the same photographic series across multiple publications. In a process which often takes place years after the photographs were originally made, her books form valuable artifacts for understanding the evolution of an archive which continues to shift and respond to political events and historical ruptures. This process is made more poignant by the endangered or vanished status of many of the places and objects she photographed, and their enduring significance.

Schulz-Dornburg’s publications began in collaboration with architect Katherina Sattler. Vörhange am Markusplatz in Venedig (1974) and Palace Pier Brighton (1976) are large format paperbacks, printed in landscape format and reminiscent of an architect’s portfolio. My copies are becoming loose at the spine, but despite their aging condition, their clean, minimal design, complete with aerial surveys, floorplans and elevations, sets out the rigorous formal aesthetic that has come to define her practice. These early monographs contain little or no text. Instead, photographs are contextualised by the diagrams alone, leaving readers to navigate and explore the space for themselves. Like much of Schulz-Dornburg’s work, the architecture in question is caught in an in between state. The Palace Pier, an achievement in Victorian engineering and once popular tourist destination, was by the 1970s, run down and dilapidated. The pavilion at the end of the pier – heavily damaged by a storm, was already awaiting demolition. Like much of Schulz-Dornburg’s work, Palace Pier Brighton has become a lasting record of a now-vanished structure.

Their clean, minimal design, complete with aerial surveys, floorplans and elevations, sets out the rigorous formal aesthetic that has come to define her practice.

A few years later, she would travel to southern Iraq and photograph the architecture and people of the southern marshes – an area destroyed under Saddam Hussein’s regime just months later. But even before their destruction was to impact the urgency and drive of her work, her publications were to play an important role in forming tangible documents for their preservation. In contrast to the reduced and refined selection of images found in recent books, her early publication, Der Tigris des alten Mesopotamien, Irak 1980 (1980), shows a desire to accurately describe everything experienced of the landscape and its peoples.

In 1995, Schulz-Dornburg was granted permission to visit the Vavilov institute, St Petersburg. Founded by visionary botanist Nikolai Vavilov, the institute still houses the largest collection of seeds in the world. There she photographed seeds from the collection using a macroscopic lens. Capturing each seed in isolation against a stark black or white background, her approach is reminiscent of Karl Blossfeldt’s seminal Urformen der Kunst (1929) published years earlier. The resulting publication, Ewiger Weizen (Eternal Wheat) (1995), is a small, hardback book, which takes the form of an inventory, listing each seed by Latin name and country of origin. The book ends with photographs from inside the rooms of the institute. Due to staffing and financial constraints, the institute was already struggling to care for the seeds within its collection. In a world where thousands of species are becoming extinct each year as a consequence of habitat destruction, climate change and increasing monoculture, at its most simple, Ewiger Weizen is an attempt to preserve and make visible seeds from the Vavilov collection. But through its archival form, it also pays homage to the vulnerable state of the archival institution and the need to make knowledge available for future generations.

Obscured by larger, more grandiose publications, some of the small understated books can be the most insightful.

Schulz-Dornburg’s publications have gone on to combine her photography with numerous artefacts. She frequently uses maps and diagrams to situate her otherwise timeless images within a specific time and place. There are a number of publications worthy of mention here, not least the Calendar of Córdoba in Sonnenstand (1992), which connects the inner architecture of Mozarabic chapels in the Pyrenees to the positioning of the sun and rotations of the earth. These visual clues lead us to the complex geopolitical histories which underpin her images. Obscured by larger, more grandiose publications, some of the small understated books can be in the most insightful. Mountain (2016) is bound by a single thread and holds less than nine images. The combination of documentary images taken from inside the Armenian border looking at Mount Ararat, and the abstract images produced by Schulz-Dornburg’s telephoto lens, produces a powerful metaphor for the contrast between the dream of Ararat as national Armenian symbol and the reality of its present position within the borders of Turkey.

Collectively, Schulz-Dornburg’s bibliography traces the outline of an expansive and complex archival practice, one which uses publications both as records and as a way to develop experimental new forms. Like her use of installation, publications become a further layer in a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) approach to book design. For Schulz-Dornburg, a catalogue is never simply a catalogue but a form to be tailored to suit the conceptual demands of her archive.

All Rights Reserved: text © Lucy J Rogers; images © Lucy J Rogers.