Cologne—Several Years

Köln 2004, © Frank Dömer

Photographies by Frank Dömer
between 2002 and 2011

Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, 2011
Translation by Rebecca van Dyck, Hannover


Life occasionally takes us to places we do not seek out, but which engage our attention and arouse our curiosity and which we learn to discover little by little—often a decisive experience that requires sensitivity and openness, yet usually associated with only short-lived impact. Since ordinarily, the more familiarized we become with an environment, the less it appeals to us, the less it concerns us, and its contours and details seem to increasingly fade—an effect that may simplify the order of everyday events but which makes us blind for many things standing at our own door. We often do not notice changes in our immediate environment unless they occur by leaps and bounds and directly affect our own spheres of life, be it in a positive or a negative way.

We experience a city we move to in order to live and work in a completely different way than one we visit over the weekend and explore with the help of a guidebook. The perspective we seek, our own interest in the place, is channeled in an altogether different way, and individual predispositions thus also cause us to perceive varying aspects.

He or she setting up an apartment in town scrutinizes the new neighborhood, for instance, the surrounding buildings, speculates about the people who live in them, keeps an eye out for stores or a newsstand, asks about the nearest school or playground for the children, about bicycle paths or the bus to university or work. The demands associated with life in the city are infinitely numerous and have to be adapted to the available possibilities. In the long run, the overall atmosphere should be right, and this is definitely a subjective component that can only be controlled to a limited extent.

Weekend tourists look at things differently. Whether of their own accord or trained by modern travel habits, they first and foremost seek out prominent sights, striking panoramas, cultural institutions like museums or theaters, restaurants or shopping facilities, and only by way of exception do they walk or drive through residential or commercial areas that have an influence on everyday life and the image of places on the outskirts. If the city of Cologne is one’s destination, the important coordinates and thus the categorical photo motifs include the Cathedral, the Romanesque churches, the Glockengasse, the Rhine promenade, the Hohenzollern Bridge, historic downtown, and the modern river port architecture.

Frank Dömer is familiar with the “hot spots” that distinguish Cologne as a tourist metropolis. Yet because he has lived and worked in Cologne since 1995, he has a sober attitude toward these attractions. They only appear in his photographs incidentally; at most, he associates the city with those sights that are neither generally well known, nor do they correspond with the notion of an ideal vacation as illustrated in a travel brochure. And yet they are no less noteworthy. These include those regions that lie somewhat outside town with their approach roads and wide open terrain, as well as allegedly unspectacular districts with their apartment buildings, small businesses, bars, back courtyards, or even barren green spaces—places that for all their ordinariness seem strange. Aware of the fragmentary quality of his photographic images, Dömer looks less at the depiction of an overall setting, concentrating instead on the isolated view of individual moments in their respective contexts. For example, when he considers places such as areas around the main train station or the airport, which in contrast to Cologne’s medieval city gates represent the modern border gates for visitors from throughout the world, he draws attention to a uniquely complex, functional anonymity that corresponds neither with an individual image of the city nor with an inviting atmosphere. They are topographies noted down in accurate detail that tell of well-planned, necessary structures and affluence, but which also highlight coincidence, randomness, discrepancies—a mixture that for all of its photographic verisimilitude appears to be surreal and collaged in places.

Trained as a painter at Frankfurt’s Städelschule by Thomas Bayrle, Raimer Jochims, and Per Kirkeby, Frank Dömer has also engaged in photography since the early 1980s. He primarily takes pictures of landscapes and architecture, both in his immediate environment as well as during his repeated trips to Switzerland or the United States. He experiences the urban surroundings less from the outside and more from the inside, explores them with the camera as the environment and resonance chamber of his own activity or of all of those who have or had an influence on a place and have left behind more or less visible traces. In this respect, in his photographs of Cologne, which were taken over a period of several years, Dömer presents cityscapes that unite numerous different facets and show a terrain that has been shaped, ordered, used, neglected, improved, enjoyed, and renewed by numerous generations—hence a kaleidoscope of any number of interdependent processes that inextricably connect the different dimensions of time. What is visible as well—so natural that it almost goes unnoticed—are fundamental climatic and geological circumstances: for the most part changeable, gray weather conditions and trivial lowland, whereby the configuration of the soil is hardly discernible due to the wide expanses of asphalt and developed areas.

If we accompany Frank Dömer on a walk through Cologne, we encounter a plausibly evolved world on the one hand, and a uniquely inhomogeneous urban structure on the other. While Dömer includes the historically valuable medieval fabric, he above all shows us a mixture of styles that emerged in the course of the city’s development, influenced by the destruction caused by World War II, reconstruction, temporary solutions, and modern notions of architecture that extend into the present; architecture that experiments with new designs and materials and relies less on consistency than on renewal that can be achieved in the short term as well as constant economic growth—outwardly effective, even frequently concealing its type of use. One repeatedly comes across colorful advertising or traffic signs, two- or multilane streets, bridges, railroad lines, and elevated sections that guarantee the rapid transport of people and goods. In this way, Frank Dömer’s photographs also indirectly reflect and link numerous coexisting and contrasting needs as well as values, desires, successes, negligence, wrong decisions, but also newly evolved initiatives.

Frank Dömer finds his own order in this thoroughly complex overall situation. Due to his analytical gaze, his feel for atmospheric constellations, and his interest in the forces that visibly, deliberately, or unintentionally contribute to the cityscape or the periphery, a variety of “stage scenery” almost seems to open up before his camera. In addition to the landscape and urban planners, the construction and automobile industries, public transportation services, and building material manufacturers have played a part in shaping the city’s image, as have designers of all kinds, whether they are responsible for advertising, public garbage receptacles and park benches, for pieces of furniture and sunshades in the food and beverage industry, or for the front doors of and the curtains hung in apartments. Finally, residents of all ages, of all social and cultural contexts play a role, including those people only in town temporarily. However, Dömer does not portray them as personalities, but takes photographs of them as figures related to the situation, characteristic of the goings-on one chances on in the streets and squares and which paint a picture of the local way of life.

It is primarily all of those things people leave behind in their city that he records in his tacitly concentrated images. One need only look at the heaps of parked bicycles—often suggesting confused, almost avant-garde sculptural agglomerations—or at graffiti on a public elevator, whose enclosure is at first glance reminiscent of a bus-stop shelter and spontaneously prompts the question of just where the way downward leads. Dömer directs one’s gaze toward walls or the façades of buildings, street markers or signs; he discovers small stickers on lampposts or window blinds that have been raised to different levels, pieces of laundry or packaging that have been left lying on the ground. He sometimes encounters mysteriously bizarre things during his rambles, for instance a television set left on the sidewalk clad in bright pink fur—it almost makes one feel a bit sad.

This varied world of motifs is incorporated into a sensitively balanced composition that avoids collapsing lines or spectacular perspectives. Some of the pictures were taken from elevated positions, affording an almost cartographic overview yet also requiring viewers to put themselves at a greater distance to the image. They alternate with photographs whose continuous foreground allows direct entry into the image. Dömer often chooses the central perspective, which suggests spatial depth and enables a clear structuring of the view from the center of the image and accommodates the readability of the respective photographs. Time and again Dömer happens across sequences, repetitions, patterns, and structures in urban situations, be they testimony to an all-embracing creative drive or due to the necessity of accommodating various different interests. He observes them in street canyons, lined with façades from the 19th century; in modern glass and steel structures in a business park, awkward special-purpose or decorative architecture between subway station stairs and urban green zones; in train tracks and pylons, the blocks of houses and lots in a development area, or the faint signs of a regatta course on a lake. A sense of order has automatically been established even in places where there is still open or leftover space, such as a site used as a parking lot. There is hardly an urban location that hasn’t quickly been made use of, occupied, and in some way—and be it to unload trash—parceled and absorbed. When Frank Dömer takes up those urban motifs in his documentations that are unintentionally characterized by principles of function and order, he also discovers a structured and layered distribution of area for his photos. Transferred to a smaller scale, a section of reality becomes apparent that at the same time supplies a new entity; a picture that is an individual, distinct cosmos and is in turn capable of disengaging itself from a concrete template, in this way broadly depicting an artistic object that opens up new points of view.

For Frank Dömer, coloration, be it in his painting or his photographs, undoubtedly plays a crucial role. Yet depending on the medium, it requires he take a different approach. While he is largely capable of regulating the color himself during the painting process, in the analog photograph it is at first prescribed by the motif and dependent on the existing lighting conditions. Only the processing of the print to some extent allows a subsequent interpretation and manipulation. In keeping with his maxim to deliver realistic photographs, however, Dömer orients himself toward the visible object and aims at the reproduction of natural and unaltered coloration. He prefers those circumstances and spaces characterized by the neutral gray of asphalt or an earthy tonality but enlivened by radiant points of color, for instance bright yellow, red, or blue, for the most part in the form of traffic signs or billboards, promotional paintwork, cars, or other functional constructions. A comparison of Dömer’s photographs with his clearly more abstract paintings may be relevant in particular where it comes down to the adequate implementation of different consistencies and varying materiality, which in urban areas coincide over and over again at every turn. Accordingly, Dömer also captures the numerous constellations and their different qualities in his photographs, such as the hardness or unsoundness of stone and concrete, the smoothness and coolness of metal or glass, flowing water, the transparency of light, the fluffiness of clouds, or the branching of trees and bushes.

The series Cologne—Several Years proves to be a photographic sketchbook that reflects the artist’s affinity with and exhaustive knowledge of the city as well as his distance to the subject being observed. He deliberately stops time in his photographs, lengthens a brief moment in the present, gives us an opportunity to take a look, an individual stand, reassure ourselves of our experience and memories, as well as scrutinize the objects which surround us. He once more demonstrates how wonderful, dense, and inspiring the frequently underestimated everyday aspects of reality can be, and his photographs point out byways and intermediate spaces. The broad spectrum of his finely nuanced neutral and bright colors guides us through an urban environment full of expressive details and contours, full of the insight that everything is related, is unique without necessarily being interdependent, and allows associating and anticipating countless possibilities.

When some of his photographs suggest outlying areas, extensive industrial landscapes, as well as traffic networks, one suspects that further metropolitan areas follow and similar things can be observed. Frank Dömer sees Cologne as a model for a major European city with a checkered history, one in which different stylistic eras and political, social, and cultural relations as well as the impact of the prevalence of global economic and media structures are easily perceptible.

Circumstances and perspectives change; a vast field opens up that reawakens our attention and curiosity and is eager to be discovered little by little. There’s no question about it: to be continued.