By the time newspaper comments appear in book form, their charm is usually gone, and their sharpness is gone. If they are taken out of their fleeting context, they have to prove that they are more than they should be.
It’s different with Katya Petrovskaya. Seven years ago she began writing descriptions of her photographs in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung”. Reflections on pictures from exhibitions, from books: people, lines, landscapes. These short texts – now barely three pages long – unfolded in the newspapers in a quiet and powerful range. One reason people are so grateful for this Sunday reading is that Katya Petrovskaya has barely published anything since her novel “Maybe Esther” (2014), which won the Bachmann Prize. Likewise, the disappointment was great when you had a sheet in your hand without a picture of Petrovskaya.
The West looked the other way
“The picture looked at me.” The title from the Suhrkamp library (256 pages, 25 euros), which includes about sixty images and their texts, refers to the image of a miner from Donbass. Cigarette smoke floods his face and the whites of his eyes stand out. I found the photo on the Internet and saw it again at the Ukrainian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The column on this topic was published in June 2015. There was already fighting in the Donbass, which was hardly noticed in the West.
“This book is not about war, but embraced by war. The first text was written when Russia attacked eastern Ukraine,” Katya Petrovskaya wrote in the epilogue: “At that time I started writing about pictures because I was powerless to stand up to violence. Russia today is destroying Ukrainian places.”
The pain of knowledge
What are these words? Miniatures, short stories that you have to think about for yourself? There is an old man standing in front of a wrecked apartment building. “At first I thought it was Berlin. But it is Prague. I didn’t know that Prague was bombed so hard by Warsaw Pact forces in August 1968.”
Elsewhere, at another time, a German army soldier photographed a burned farm in Ukraine. He documented the German genocide campaign. Putin’s army uses brutal Nazi tactics in Ukraine. History unfolds before our eyes.
The issue of photography and empathy is naturally associated with Susan Sontag’s essays. With Katja Petrowskaja, almost every time you enter a new graphic space, you feel the pain of realizing that the future really lies in the past. The pictures they found are pretty scary now and here because they show what could have come as well. So the photos themselves have a second look.
The photo with the little girl and her father is from the Petrovskaya family archive. That girl realized that she was drawing a picture with her left hand. You no longer know. “However, the possibility of me being left-handed was so close that it stayed with me quite a bit.”
At some point, the viewer asks: “Is beauty something we see – or rather what is not visible behind it?” Katya Petrovskaya was born in Kyiv in 1970. She lives in Berlin and Tbilisi. Her novel, perhaps Esther, is looking for her family’s history, and this is inevitably the story of the twentieth century. In this time period, photography and film are the media and marked memories. In “Flower News” Petrovskaya shows a brown photo of a strangely luminous plant. Reminiscent of the first attempts of the pioneers of photography in the 19th century, but it comes from the volume “Chernobyl Herbarium”. It was discovered radioactive, mutated, in a store in New York.
One cloud in the blue sky fascinates the viewer. Lying on the grass at Volkspark Friedrichshain, she thinks the shape of the cloud that has moved in front of the sun is “perfect” and takes a picture. “I just photographed them, and I was as happy as if I had made them myself.” This is pure poetry and also some poetry, exceptionally bright and written with a smile.
But the darkness, deadly enough, comes from the inexhaustible supply. In an undated photo, probably from the 1970s, two children stand in a port on the Black Sea. They look anxiously at the water. For Katya Petrovskaya, this picture hides “an unpredictable future, beyond our vision, the size of a slowly approaching ship that could fill the entire horizon. It emits a signal of communication. The children hear it, but we do not hear it.” There is so much in all these pictures that await. to be noticed. Human imagination is constantly being exceeded.