As I grow older, I wonder more and more about the place of family in my life. When I was younger, I was sure the point of being young was to escape where I came from, to become something bigger. Now, the more distant from my family I grow, the more I realize their importance in my life. I am both my past and present, knit together in one tight braid.
In “Abendlied,” Birthe Piontek’s strange and intimate exhibition of photographs on view at Blue Sky Gallery through April 2nd, this inseparability of past and present seems to haunt each image. Now living on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish Peoples in Vancouver BC, Canada, Piontek compiled “Abendlied” over the course of six years whenever visiting her family in Germany. The resulting series—the book compendium of which was nominated by Time Magazine as one of the best photo books in 2019—aches with nostalgia, yearns for what once was. Viewing each photo feels like flipping through an old family album, full of photos of people who have since changed or died, in whom you will always recognize a fragment of yourself.
At the same time that it reaches backwards, “Abendlied” also vibrates with the dread of impending loss. Because the series captures the last years Piontek’s parents lived in her childhood home before moving due to her mother’s dementia, each photo hovers somewhere between art and memento. The work also seems to challenge the idea that there is any separation between the two.
More poignantly than any other piece, Two Dads (2018) probes this idea. In it, Piontek’s father sits on the stairs, shoulders slouched, and holds his childhood headshot before his face, leaving us to wonder—would his wife, Piontek’s mother, recognize this face? Could she pick it out of a crowd? Does she remember falling in love with it? I also wonder at both how much and how little people change, over time.
Each photo delicately considers form, color, and composition while repeating the question, what is change? What do we leave behind, as we age? And what can’t we? Piontek in particular dances around the latter suggestion—that there are some things about our past that we just can’t shake—with her sometimes playful, other times bizarre staging.
In some photos, Piontek stages the strangeness of memory using objects, as with Cups (2018), in which Piontek wraps a teetering stack of fine tea cups in what could be pantyhose—a material which, because of some soft light, appears webby, almost ectoplasmic. An eerie hybrid between still life and sculpture, Cups leans into the abstract without committing to it, arranging the everyday in a form just unfamiliar enough to disrupt any sense of recognition, like the quiet realization that things forgotten are lost forever.
In others, Piontek meditates on memory in photos of her family members. In Karin (2018), two figures lean against a window sill with their legs dangling over its edge. The figures appear to glance at the camera but a curtain obscures their torsos and faces. Whoever they are, a sense of erasure looms overhead—a nod to her mother’s dementia, perhaps, or just a nod to things lost over time.
In a similar composition, Shadow (2018), a boy sits on the windowsill. His face is visible through the curtain this time but the curtain provides a sort of screen for his looming shadow. Here, the curtain isn’t a thing that obstructs but something like a film that separates.
Many of her photos return to the ideas of separation, erasure, and yearning for reconnection. This play with obstruction and focus on expression suspend the viewer in a state just shy of recognition, asking the viewer to lean in close but not too close.
Along these lines, Embrace (2018) makes me feel like I’ve interrupted a private moment. With the grandmother’s back to the frame and the boy, who kneels in her lap, only partly visible, I find myself waiting for one of them to turn around and notice I’ve entered the room.
I suppose, in my mind, that is the difference between good and great photography. While one is interesting, even compelling, the other confuses the separation between seer, seen, and scene. This effect makes room for one’s own memories to mingle with those exhibited in a gallery space.
Embrace (2018) reminds me of my mom, whose hair is the same gray. It reminds me of the times she sat on the edge of my bed to ask about my day. It reminds me how effortless those childhood conversations felt, how that effortlessness has changed and not changed.
Because of this effect, “Abendlied” feels homey, even familiar. Her use of soft light lends her work humility, transparency. On the other hand, Piontek’s masterfully gestural staging focuses her reflection on family on the precarity of memory. Without being too open handed, she invites her viewer to sit with her in the present, to slip into the same meditative state which seems to mark each installment in the series.
In the end, this effect of Piontek’s work is what lingers most memorably. In the stillness of each scene, she slows time to a patient, contemplative march. Not forward, not backward, but inward.
Blue Sky Gallery is located at 122 NW 8th Avenue and is open Wednesday through Saturday from 12-5 PM. “Abendlied” is on view through April 2nd.