by Douglas Marshall

The term Grey Area refers to an undefined situation or legally ambiguous zone, and also to the Zone System that Ansel Adams developed for measuring tonal ranges in analog black and white photography. Klaus Frahm’s work from Grauzone – Grey Area (198?-199?) explores both of these possibilities. The photographs, made in the tradition of large format film, celebrate the high art of photography through a patient analysis of Frahm’s subject, „St. Pauli“; An old quarter of Hamburg commonly connected with the harbor and the red light district along the „Reeperbahn.“

Years before starting his project in 1980, Frahm accompanied a friend who was in charge of an insurance company collecting monthly money for people’s burial, a common practice at that time for poorer people. The regular access to many different homes made a strong impression upon him and with this in mind, Frahm began to take photos of dilapidated houses, barren backyards, and crumbling firewalls, which hadn’t seen paint for many years, occasionally with the presence of inhabitants.

Often the photographs appear like scenery for the theatre or a film, as if the actors had just left or eventually might appear. But the absence of people never feels strange or alien as they are always present in symbolic visual elements. The fidelity of large format photography allows the eye to wander around the image and discover minute details.

To capture and preserve a vanishing world soon to be forgotten is an important motif throughout Frahm’s work, while always trying to distill each space’s inner humanity. Occasionally we see old inscriptions, then backyards or voids with firewalls, scars left behind by demolition or bombs and soon to be painted over or used to build new and better homes. For Frahm, this had to be delicately documented while observing the poetic qualities within.

Looking at the photographs, one might feel like a witness to the post-war era more than the 1980’s. Frahm, it seems, is trying to take us back to a time of transition. The recording of history and our collective memory, inherent qualities of the photographic medium, are also enduring themes of his later works from Grauzone, always made through subjective and sensitive documentation. 

In the 1990s, when Frahm returned to his project, his fears from a decade prior had become true. Many traces of the past had been erased and lost forever. The loss inspired a change of focus from the living quarters and backyards, to the sideshow of St. Pauli among the Reeperbahn and adjacent streets. The cracks forming from both social and architectural friction which were visible before, were even more evident now. A warm and sometimes nostalgic atmosphere embedded in the images of domestic life behind the scenes changed to cold, bright light on the main stage, the Reeperbahn. The marketing aesthetics of sex and fantasy is now the dominant visual theme of later photographs.

Within Frahm’s project, we find hybrid elements of Humanist street photography and the documentary style of concerned photographers, as well as the influence of Urban Landscape and New Topographics work. Each genre only applies in part, but parallels with historical and contemporary photographers can be seen. Along with Walker Evans, Frahm sites inspiration from Georg Koppmann, who like Atget in Paris, went out to photograph the historical areas of Hamburg in the 19th century. These were the early years of photography and the owners often proudly presented themselves in front of their homes, acutely aware of their special moment. They would probably also buy a print.

Frahm sought a similar challenge while trying to compose people within the scenes without directing or staging them. Technically this can be problematic as his vintage lenses require long exposure times, especially in low light. Additionally, the camera requires a set of physical adjustments before the plate can be exposed – meanwhile, the whole situation might have changed. The so-called “Decisive Moment” of spontaneous street photography as practiced by Cartier-Bresson, William Klein, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, among many others, used mostly small, handheld 35mm cameras making spontaneous, candid shots possible. 

However, the large format process has certain advantages that compensate for its laborious functionality. Frahm was often mistaken for a survey-engineer, with his wooden camera and tripod, hiding under the dark cloth, a setup few people know or understand beyond an occasional movie scene. But this slow pace and natural appearance of working in analog create trust and even collaboration. With another kind of more invasive, immediate tool he might have been received with skepticism, as someone not belonging to this place. 

Sometimes it happened that the observer was now observed. While setting up the camera and tripod people were so fascinated that they didn’t notice the click of the shutter or having become part of the image. But the main reason for using this tedious technique is the precision of compositional control and resolution, which results in a profound richness of contrast and detail. The camera firmly on the tripod, removed from the eye, is prepared for the right moment.

The Flâneur seldom has an aim, only to discover beauty in the profane, when he strolls his path. In Grauzone, Klaus Frahm has taken us along for his walks through a forgotten world, sharing his patient perspective on a fleeting reality. 



Don’t Take Pictures,  New York, 2016

Klaus Frahm and Germany’s Magnificent Theaters                                       W.G. Beecher

The auditorium is lit and immaculate, ready for the audience to file in and take their seats. But the front curtain is raised and the stage is barren. In Klaus Frahm’s series The Fourth Wall: Stages, we stand on the stage of a great German opera house, looking out. Photographing from far up center stage, Frahm makes images of theaters as few people have seen them.

A Hamburg-based architectural photographer by trade, Frahm stumbled upon the idea for The Fourth Wall while on assignment for a theater in 2010, when he casually made a polaroid looking out across the stage. It was not until he was reviewing his work later that he saw the image’s potential. Since then, he has been visiting opera houses and large theaters around Germany. With a long and rich history of theater, the nation boasts the world’s greates density of public and private stages. About one third of all operas performed each year are on a German stage.

The Fourth Wall is on one level an exercise in typology. Frahm samples Germany’s grandest theaters, presenting each from the same perspective. The centerpieces of of the images are the auditorium, which has been readied for the theater’s patrons. We are granted an impeccable view of the treasured spaces, and the series is partly a celebration of their extravagant ornamentation. Frahm’s images present us with a unique vantage of their velvet seating, gilded rococo plater work, and grand chandeliers – or in some instances, their clean lines and precise angles of elegant modernity.

This perspective is framed within a parallel typology, that of the dim utilitarian spaces which bring the magic of the stage to life. No matter how ornate the auditorium, the backstage surrounding it tends to be practical and modern. We see stage lights and drapes mounted to metal battens – half hidden in the matte black of the shadows. The lux and the elaborate décor of the house contrasts starkly with these gritty and work-worn spaces behind the proscenium. While they might initially appear lifeless and uniform, upon closer inspection, the personalities of these normally-hidden places becomes apparent.

The bare white walls of „Cuvillié-Theater“ in Munich feel cold and cramped in comparison to the expansive stage of „Semperoper“ in Dresden or the worn black walls of „Markgräfliches Opernhaus“ that have been signed by innumerable hands. By simultaneously photographing both the auditorium and the stage, Frahm’s images allow to plainly see almost the entirety of the theater in a single detailed frame. But honesty of documentary photography is neither the aim nor the effect of The Fourth Wall.

Using a large format camera, Frahm’s photographs exhibit a high level of detail and expansive depth of field, giving equal treatment to stage and auditorium. The lighting, too, is critical. The house glows with a warm radiance from chandeliers and ornate scones, but Frahm eschews the gelled lights of the darkened stage in favor of the fluorescent  workmen’s lights. This decision shows the nearer spaces dimly laid bare, stripped of the magic that a theatrical performance brings.

Rooted in theater terminology, the „Fourth Wallis reference to the division between the performance space and its audience. Actors perform their scene as if the stage were a room, with the audience hidden behind this fictional wall. It serves both portal and bulwark, an imaginary barrier that keeps the performers from interacting with the audience and the audience becoming participants of the show. By pointing his camera squarely at this fourth wall, Frahm seems to be letting the richness of the auditorium join with the stage into a single space.

A number of critics have stated that Frahm’s photographs capture the perspective of the theater performers. This may be technically true, but it oversimplifies the world that he depicts. His inclusion of the floor and stage equipment neatly frames the auditorium through the proscenium arch. Moreover, positioning his camera at the far end of the stage, that we are an audience looking through an alternative „fourth wall“ at the rear of the stage, with the seating included as a part of the set. By flattening and framing the the auditorium, Frahm’s images make it appear artificial, as though it were a theatrical backdrop against which actors  could perform. 

Frahm is often mentioned in the same breath as David Leventi and Candida Höfer, and for good reason. All three photograph the exquisite opulence of theaters head-on in vivid color and incredible detail. More than once, they have stood on the same stages and looked out. But while Leventi and Höfer focus completely on the sumptuousness of the auditorium, Frahm’s inclusion of the backstage separates us from such luxury. That gulf – the stage, the scaffolding and the proscenium – and the vantage from which Frahm photographs, serves to invert the roles that these spaces play in relation to one another, and by extension, their occupants as well.

The Fourth Wall has received a good deal of online media attention as of late. Frahm brushes off this sudden flurry of interest as „a little bit unexpected and not the point“. He continues to work on the series, taking additional time to photograph theaters from new perspectives when he can. The most difficult part about these shoots is securing access to the empty stage. But Frahm is undaunted, and has begun to imagine a time when The Fourth Wall extends beyond the borders of Germany and the cities where it has been shown. And while he makes no promises about which stages will draw his attention next, he coyly adds, „A list for Italy has already been worked out“.

W.G. Beecher is an Editor for „Don’t Take Pictures“.
The article appeared in Issue 6, Spring 2016 in „Don’t Take Pictures“.