Rules Without Authority – an Interview with Juergen Bergbauer

I first encountered Juergen Bergbauer’s photobook Studies After Nature (Fotohof Edition) when it came out in 2008. Despite struggling to grasp the book’s complex logic, it quickly became a favourite, so when his second book, Le Chiffonnier (Roma Publications), appeared in late 2022, I immediately ordered a copy. Like Studies After Nature, it is an enigma – there is much more to the work than meets the eye. I spoke to Juergen in April 2023 – we talked about images, archives, rules, and whether or not he is really a photographer.

Eugenie Shinkle: I did a very short review of Studies After Nature when it came out in 2008. At the time I didn’t really understand it very well. Maybe you can explain it to me now?

Juergen Bergbauer: Every time I drove to Leipzig on the autobahn, at the rest places, there were these huge rocks to stop you parking on the verge. I was intrigued and they reminded me of Caspar David Friedrich’s Rock Studies, so I started to photograph them.

ES: So what look like small stones on the pages are actually giant boulders that you’ve carefully cut out from their background?

JB: Yes. There’s a postcard in the book, showing one rock in situ. It’s the only time we (Till Gathmann designed the book) called it by its name – all the other times we said ‘object’.

ES: I got quite misled by the images that make them look like piles of cobblestones.

‘Nature III’, from Studies After Nature, 2008

JB: The full frame pieces (Nature I-VI) are composed of images from the archive. In order to be able to stack them on top of each other and have a convincing perspective, I shot each rock in at least three different views. That’s how the book’s archive came into existence.

ES: So these images that look like piles are digital composites?

JB: Yes, all images in the book are composites. When they are printed large, you can see that there’s something weird going on with the dimensions.

ES: But in the book, you can’t really tell. Was that intentional?

JB: I tried to make it pretty convincing. I thought it would become clear that these are always the same rocks or objects, and that they are just arranged in different ways.

ES: Maybe I’m just not sharp enough! The statement at the beginning of the book states that they are ‘different roadside objects taken from different angles, sorted by shape and applicability.’ I never grasped that these were multiple images of the same object.

JB: That part of the statement refers only to the archive. It explains how it was structured. Shape of course means the form of the object: eg. is it cubic or round? Applicability means the perspective the object is photographed in and how it can be used, whether it has to go at the bottom or the top of a composition. Basically I ordered the archive in a way, that I could easily use it in the process of making the composite images. There is also a list of components in the book; rows of numbers referring back to the archive. It tells you which object has been used for each composite image.

ES: Ah, that’s really interesting. Yet so much effort seems to have been made to remove that context and just to give it back selectively in enigmatic ways. This postcard is the only place where you understand the setting and the scale of these rocks, but it’s something that a lot of people might necessarily look past – often you get a postcard in a book and it’s just a little bonus from the publisher. I wonder how many readers would work out your system just on the basis of that one image? The system makes perfect sense to you, but might not be as clear to your reader. This sense of enigma runs through Le Chiffonnier as well.

JB: In both books I tried to remove something from its context to give it a new, elaborately constructed one. Le Chiffonnier started in 2011. I was in the south of France, and friends of mine took me to flea markets. I started taking pictures of weird arrangements just for fun. After a while I started looking for them. Around this time, a friend of mine gave me a book on Andre Malraux and Le Museé Imaginaire. Through this I stumbled upon the French photographer Andre Vigneau. Malraux and Vigneau had created different rules how to photograph artwork for a private museum in print: how the lighting should be, where the camera should be, whether it should be an atmospheric image or just as plain as possible. So I started to look at my own archive and thought ‘Ah, I have a set of rules here too.’ With Studies After Nature, I created my own rules to guide the compositions. With Le Chiffonnier, it was the other way around, the rules came from the photographs.

ES: One thing I noticed about Le Chiffonnier is that the images seem to move from documentary to something more formal. When I got about two thirds of the way through the book, I started to realise how carefully composed all of the images were, but in the beginning, it’s not that obvious; you think that you’re looking at a documentary image of an item in a flea market. That shift of attention from the object that’s being documented to the way that the photograph is composed takes place really subtly. At some point I realised, ‘Oh, okay, I’m meant to be looking at these differently now.’

JB: I don’t think I thought about it like that. I just realised I have all these different types of images of stuff. I didn’t want to make a book just by choosing certain images; instead, I created all of these categories, and so images which I wouldn’t have selected became part of it. In terms of what goes into which category, there is this little disclaimer on the second or third page: ‘Although the listed criteria are based on formal observations, the assignment of photographs to a specific chapter may in some cases be devolved to the authors subjective choice.’ 

ES: The disclaimer is tucked away on the back of the second page, right down the bottom, in a place that many readers will overlook! Just like Studies After Nature, the clues are there, but they’re not easy to spot. And there’s all sorts of other little clues as well: there are three establishing quotes at the beginning, and then there’s one at the back that really intrigued me because I’d been thinking it as well: ‘The design of this book is very similar to Rome-Malibu by Ari Marcopoulos.’

JB: I sent the work to Roger [Willems of Roma Publications] because he’d done Rome-Malibu, and Batia Suter’s books, and I love books like that, books which I can open any time, any day and find something new and maybe need a year to really grasp what’s going on. And I was completely surprised that within 12 hours he said, yeah, let’s do a book. Five years later there was a book, continuing the design concept of three books Roger had done before.

With Studies After Nature, I created my own rules to guide the compositions. With Le Chiffonnier, it was the other way around, the rules came from the photographs.

Regarding the quotes – I enjoy researching as much as taking pictures; maybe I should have become a scientist! I researched the context of the flea market and from André Malraux, I came to Walter Benjamin and Baudelaire’s Le Chiffonnier, the ragpicker. I liked the connection. Then Roger suggested that the book needed a text, so I found this lecture Walter Benjamin gave on unpacking his library, and there’s a reference to Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer (1857) and the collector’s passion. The passage in Le Chiffonnier is about someone being led through a vast collection within many rooms – I thought it was interesting as a subtext for the book. The visitor comments that it looks like nobody’s using this collection.

ES: There’s a lot of description in Stifter’s text that is actually quite difficult to visualise because it’s so detailed, and the spatial arrangement of the rooms seems very complex as well. The writing doesn’t suggest a clear picture of the space, or of the things in it.

JB: That interested me as well, this confused jumble, and the attempt to describe it with words. And this text is also about possessing things, just having them to show that you’re educated. I thought it made a lot of sense together with the flea market, which is a place people sometimes go to find something unique.

ES: The nature of the objects you’re photographing and potential ways of classifying them seem at least from your two books, to be more interesting to you than the objects themselves. So you’re not drawn to an object because you think, ‘oh, that’s really interesting, that’s going to make a great photograph.’

JB: Yes, I think I’m more interested in changing the way you look at something, and the process that makes that happen. But, I am drawn to art historical subjects in general, because you need to know how something is looked at before you can change that. I do a lot of stage work as well, like projections and stage design for theatre. I like creating worlds from existing material. I’m not even sure if I’m a photographer!

ES: Why is that?

JB: I think I’m more interested in the appearance of photography… like now, I’m doing a lot of scanner works. I’m recreating historic photographs of architecture by scanning folded parchment paper.

ES: Interestingly, although a flea market has lots of different things in it, almost every photograph in Le Chiffonnier is a picture of a picture. There are very few that aren’t.

On my website I have a quote from Stephen Jay Gould where he talks about how the human mind delights in finding patterns, and that it’s the sign of a small creature that’s trying to understand a world that is not made for it. I love that so much because that’s me, and maybe all of us, trying to categorise and understand and then put a name on it and order it.

JB: Pictures are especially interesting in the context of the flea market in the way they are ‘presented’ there, surrounded by other objects. They’re lying in the dirt or sitting on the pavement. Quite different than the way we are used to looking at them. That does have this illusionary quality that I’m drawn to from my stage design work where you create little makeshift worlds and illusions through backdrops.

ES: Does it worry you that many readers will not put all the pieces together?

JB: When I did the book, no! But on the other side, like with Batia [Suter’s] books, I don’t think I will ever completely understand how she did the sequencing and why she chose things. I see those formal parallels and I do enjoy looking into a world of somebody else’s. It’s like language for me a little bit. We’re talking now, but that doesn’t mean that we understand each other completely. Photography is a language as well, and you’ll never be able to communicate exactly what you want. So maybe don’t even try, and just make sure it makes sense for yourself. But I find it interesting that you wrote about my ‘obscure’ rules in your review of Studies After Nature. For me, they’re not obscure at all! They’re totally logical.

ES: But that’s the thing about these complex, logical systems that are peculiar to collectors. What goes on in a collector’s mind is absolutely clear to them. But when you look at it from the outside, sometimes it seems chaotic. What belongs in a collection and how it fits is a very personal choice. 

JB: Benjamin called the order established by a collector a “state of hovering above an abyss“. So maybe you are right. A friend of mine got a copy of Le Chiffonnier and she took it apart and put some images on the wall. I thought, why not? It is hers now. I think the most interesting part of the way I sequenced it is that once I decided that the pictures needed to be similar in each chapter, I then had combinations I never thought about, and it became so much more interesting and complex. I’m trying to figure out how, if ever there was an exhibition, this work would look on the wall, and I have a really hard time! I guess somebody else has to decide that.

ES: After around page 110 of Le Chiffonnier, the categories start to shift slightly from one chapter to the next, and I want to talk a little bit more about how that came about. There also seems to be a lot of overlap between categories and the decisions about what belongs in which category. Sometimes it’s obvious and other times it’s not obvious at all.

I do like rules without authority. I enjoy creating all these rules and sets and making a world out of it.

JB: This is what happens when you try to make a system of order finer and finer. Within each chapter it seems like it still makes sense, but when looking at all the chapters together, suddenly some images could just as well be in another chapter. The borders of the system start to dissolve. Image and/or object became a criterion, as well as arrangement: how many things are there to see? Is there are foreground and a background or is it completely flat? Is it cropped? How did I take the picture – straight or from an angle? These are aspects that can be observed. The flea markets where I took the pictures are so cluttered, it’s a pointless undertaking, but still interesting to attempt as a way of sequencing.

ES: I notice that some of these criteria refer to the object in the picture, and some of them refer to your actions as a photographer. And it’s by going through the images one by one and looking at them and starting to make these connections that you work that out. For an archivist, on the other hand, their rules almost always refer to the objects they’re archiving. They’re not organizing the archive on the basis of whether they picked up an object with their left hand or their right hand, for example.

JB: Yes, an archive needs to be useable and comprehensible. Here it is just the idea of an archive. Very seriously pretending, though. That started with Studies After Nature. I do like rules without authority. I enjoy creating all these rules and sets and making a world out of it.  

ES: And the rules are very fluid. The first category is ‘images and/or objects’, and I found myself thinking. ’Well, okay, all of these framed pictures in the photographs are also objects’. It’s only as you get towards the end of the book that your photographs start to become more obviously ‘images’ – in other words, the identity of the objects in them becomes less important than their function as formal parts of an image. And again, that transition happens quite slowly.

JB: That is because the photographs get tighter towards the end. The photographed objects lose their surrounding. From Chapter VII on, they are what I called ‘flat’ in terms of the spatial context. But what does ‘flat’ mean? I think that was the only thing I was worried about. I’m trying to be exact, but I can’t be too exact – if I was, I’d lose half of the images! On my website I have a quote from Stephen Jay Gould where he talks about how the human mind delights in finding patterns, and that it’s the sign of a small creature that’s trying to understand a world that is not made for it. I love that so much because that’s me, and maybe all of us, trying to categorise and understand and then put a name on it and order it. So in a year I might look at the categories for Le Chiffonnier and I might not understand what I did, but it made sense at the time.

ES: At what point did you think, okay, I need to change the categories? Was that the point at which the remaining images no longer fit these criteria that you’d used to select the first batch, for instance?

JB: The categories developed during the process of sorting the photographs. Every time a picture I liked would have been left out of the book because it didn’t fit a category, I came up with another. So it got more and more complex, and it got more subjective, and more about sequencing than about an archive that follows rules and has to be comprehensible. At the end I had fifteen categories, and fifteen piles of images. I felt free to sequence these chapters as I wished. I thought, okay, let’s go from far to near – so in the first chapter I’m furthest from the photographed objects, and in the last chapter, I’m closest. Being so close, suddenly a shadow disrupts the depicted subject, and it is as you said, more obviously an ´image‘, and less a document. The individual chapters I sequenced so that the appearance of a logic is created, but there is still room for surprises. It’s a bit like being at the flea market – I look from a distance, then maybe go a bit closer, and then I step back again, and then I look down or at something completely different. It’s a little bit like movement.

ES: So the categories are masquerading as something scientific, but in a way they’re just descriptions of your process and your thought patterns.

JB: I did a lot of art history teaching, and image analysis, and I’ve always loved that we can talk about art objectively if we are in the same cultural sphere, at least to a certain point. We can say what is depicted and how, and maybe how it affects us, so we actually have the language to talk about a picture for hours. There’s a bit of this in Le Chiffonnier, I think.

ES: But categories like single or paired or grouped; that’s so subjective because that’s related to which images, or which parts of the image, you happen to be focusing on. There are some in the first chapter, for instance, where I’m wondering, well, were you taking account of the object that’s behind this object? Is the lamp post that this painting is resting against, part of the discussion?

JB: Yes. This shows the limits of language. What is the definition of these formal aspects we talk about – what is ‘flat‘? And the index describing the photographs at the end of the book is another problem. Do I have to name the table an object sits on? What can be left out? I decided, well, if it is important for how I perceive the photographed object, I’ll call it by its name. So it became subjective whilst trying to be objective. It plays with the idea of ‘I’m an archivist, I know where everything belongs, and I’m telling you.’ It was the same with Studies After Nature. I’m trying to be serious; but with a little smirk. It’s ok for me that sometimes my rules might be misleading. I’m not in government. I’m not a rule.

Juergen Bergbauer
Roma Publications 2022

All Rights Reserved: Text © Eugenie Shinkle/Juergen Bergbauer
Images: Juergen Bergbauer/Roma Publications/Fotohof Edition