Shoot Film UK is delighted to share with you the following collaborative series created by Berlin based photographer Julie Meresse, Paris based critic and journalist Caroline Châtelet and Lukas Viznar, 1st assistant director from Prague. The international trio have spent many months meeting on the boarder of Germany and Czech Republic in an area known formerly as Sudetenland, researching and documenting the metamorphosis of an area once thriving in industry. The series beautifully combines images of architecture and intimate portraits with their accompanying text to tell a fascinating story of life, loss and the history of Sudetenland.
We spoke to Julie about the series and her international collaboration:
"This ongoing project is a journey in what was once an incredibly dynamic region,
hidden in the beautiful nature of the former Sudetenland, between Germany and
Czech Republic. The old factories, some in ruins, some still in function, others
waiting for a new life, former workers, neighbours, all are testimonies and wear the
marks of the Great History.
I aim to draw lines between past and present, to figure out what is going to be the
future of this border region, which went through industrial boom, Second World
War, communist era, Velvet Revolution and globalization."
Steamplant, Krásná Lípa
This factory is a steam plant, built in the 1980's to heat the collective infrastructures of Krásná Lípa , such as hospitals, schools, administrative buildings and even a few factories. Even though it looks semi-abandoned, its operations are still running and heat is still produced and sold to a few private clients.
SFUK: Hi Julie, can you tell us about yourself and your background in photography?
JM:I grew up between Paris and South of France, left for London when I was 18 for a year, came back to start studying film in Montpellier then I moved to Paris. I did a third year of Film studies at the University Paris 1-Sorbonne, and, by chance, turned to photography: a friend of my former flatmate offered me all of his darkroom equipment as he was himself turning to digital, which was quite new at the time, in 2001! I think I really started to think about making a living out of photography at this point... I had a Canon EOS 500 film camera (an AF SLR camera) that my dear grandfather had given me for my 16 years old birthday.... He was so proud, and I was so disappointed! I had dreamt of those vintage all-manual cameras.... My grandfather was a real photography lover, I had been his favourite model for many years. For him, this camera was a symbol of progress and modernity! Later, he would be the first person I knew, in the mid 90s, to have a computer, a scanner, Photoshop... and Internet!After spending many years in my darkroom - I had a small atelier at the 6th floor of a very typical Parisian building, with view on the rooftops-, I started working as a studio assistant and changed completely my practice. No more black and white, no more darkroom. I spent a few years assisting photographers, in fields as diverse as fashion, advertising, portrait and architecture, then got my own jobs as a still life photographer, or covering events or living arts. I moved to Berlin, had my children, and now I split my time between personal projects of documentary photography and freelance projects with architects and designers, events, portraits. Besides my digital camera, a Canon 5D Mark II, I have a Pentax 67 and a Mamiya 7ii, so two medium format 6x7 cameras, and i'm still very attached to my Polaroid cameras: a Landcamera 180 and a Mamiya 600SE.
StreetView, Krásná Lípa
Krásná Lípa used to be one of the main textile centers of Bohemia. The village was founded in 1361 under the name of Schönlinde, and was soon colonised by German-speaking families. From the 17th century, the village specialised in textiles and in 1731 the first textile manufacture was founded.
Economic development was further stimulated by the construction of the railway in 1869 and soon Krásná Lípa became a corporate town. It reached its largest population in 1910 with 6930 inhabitants and became part of Czechoslovakia in 1919. Annexed by Hitler in 1938, the region was, after the war, taken back from the defeated Germany by the Czechoslovakian state.
Following the Beneš Decrees, the Germans were expelled, more than 300 deserted houses were demolished, the catholic churches were expropriated and the population divided by two. The new inhabitants were Czechs from the inland regions, Slovaks, so-called repatriates and Romas, the latter being now an important part of Krásná Lípa's population.
SFUK:How did you come to produce this series based on the former Sudetenland between Germany and Czech Republic.
JM: Between 2000-2005, I traveled a lot to Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland; I'm still very attracted to these countries and still have a few good friends there. After moving to Berlin we visited different mountain places at the border with my friend from Prague, Lukas Viznar, who is 1st Assistant Director. We would meet there for small holidays, and we literally fell in love with this region called Bohemian Switzerland, which is the Czech part of a huge national park cut in two by the German border. This beautiful nature, this huge park covered by forests, and on the edges, the remains of what has obviously been an amazingly dynamic region... I couldn't help but asking myself: What has happened here? Most of the buildings had been abandoned much before the more recent waves of de-localisation or economic crises. I proposed the subject to a friend in Paris, Caroline Châtelet, a theatre critic and art journalist. Both Lukas and Caroline were interested by the adventure. We 're all pretty busy with our lives, but we try to meet there as soon as the occasion arises!
Václav Hieke, outside his apartment block, Krásná Lípa
After WWII, Václav's father , who was German, was authorised to stay in Czechoslovakia thanks to being married to a Czech citizen. He was however denied the right to speak German and to enjoy certain collective activities or infrastructures such as sport or libraries. The region was formerly part of the Sudetenland, later called “border regions”, mostly inhabited by ethnic Germans and annexed by Hitler in 1938. After the war, the Beneš decrees ordered the deportation of 2,5 millions of Germans from the Sudetenland. Their goods were confiscated and the factories were nationalised.
Václav worked all his life as a construction worker, mostly employed on industrial sites as a maintenance agent, in particular for the Elite company. Since retiring, he's been very involved in the promotion of the region, collecting information and pictures, and looks after a local tourism Association.
This factory produced rubber bands. After the war, the German landlord was authorized to remain in the town thanks to being married to a Czech citizen, as this region of the former Sudetenland was taken back from the defeated Germany by the Czechoslovakian state. After his death, his son ran the business, later producing zippers. Some serious conflicts occurred with members of the family about the management of the enterprise, and the business started to decline. The son finally killed himself, and the family sold the property. Today the apartments and offices are rented as accommodations, and the very end of the factory is occupied by a small service garage.
The transformation of the village, formerly known as Nixdorf, into an industrial community began as early as 1794. It became famous for diverse activities (artificial flowers, wool, knitting, ribbon and rubber goods) but especially for its old steel industry, with numerous independent forgers and seven large steel goods factories, producing mostly pocket knives, which acquired a world-wide reputation, but also tableware, scissors, daggers and other instruments. From this golden age still remain in Mikulášovice the ancient yet well renovated buildings of the very first knife company Mikov, nowadays the biggest knife company in Czech Republic, a small cinema, and the Gummibandfabrik.
SFUK: You mentioned you are working with a journalist on your latest series. How do you feel this helps your work in terms of creating narratives, your work process etc? What advice would you give to others about making the most of collaborating?
JM: Alone, I probably wouldn't have imagined such a big research, it would have been probably more visual, with just a global explanation of the context and the story. With a team, it's another dimension and it for sure adds great value. Of course, everybody brings their own ideas, and skills, but it's also a great support, especially when, like here, there's such a bit part of unknown, improvisation... Moments of doubts, stressful situations, are much easier to handle: bad weather, car breakdowns, prohibitions (of entry, of shooting), an expected person who doesn't show up.... When time is of the essence, it can be discouraging. Caroline, my partner on the project, always finds the funny or positive side of things, it's a real relief! Of course it demands a good level of complicity and complementary. Too many disagreements can ruin a project; it has happened to me in the past and I never managed to publish it. But I'd say, to make it work, that the best advice is to be careful to leave as much space you can to the other, remain at your place, suggest but not always decide… Space, respect and trust: collaborators know their job. And their enthusiasm brings you strength.
Ivan Rous, historian and researcher at the North Bohemian Museum in Liberec, in front of his house.
Ivan Rous started at an early age to frequent factories and industrial buildings with his father, engineer and construction manager in the steel production. He began studying metallurgy, then stopped his studies to work at the Museum of Liberec ; started an archival training at the University of Hradec Kralove but was quickly offered a job at the Heritage Institut, where he worked a few years. He then returned to the Museum of Liberec, where he's now been working for 17 years, currently as Head of Department, in charge with the exhibitions and the research development, in the field of the Industrial History.
His strong passion, combined with a practice of photography also dating back to his childhood, led him to publish several books, the most recent of which, Postindustrial (2016), explores the territory of Liberec, where there are estimated to be remaining around 150 factories.
In the interview, Ivan Rous evokes the concept of Postmodernism, and the notions of work, satisfaction and laziness; the different uses of the buildings through time, the re-appropriation of the tools by the workers, and the conversion of production sites to singular places (here a storage depot, there a garage, an apartment building, a store). He tells us about the marks of the war, and the existence on the cadastre of more than 103 work camps in Liberec. He explains the complex feelings (nostalgia, failure...) of the inhabitants towards the industrial ruins, which remain as open wounds in the landscape as well as in the human memory, until they are torn down or turned into a new project, acting as a liberation. Finally, he discusses the Urbex phenomenon (urban ruins explorers), and the possibility of tourist exploitation of the industrial patrimony, giving the factories a new prominence.
Although his main research area is his hometown region, Ivan Rous frequently travels to Poland, Slovakia and Romania. His last project has been the research and localisation of the WWII submarine U-206 Reichenberg (Liberec) in the Bay of Biscay; and he's currently working on the cartography and the presence of Hitler's army and war industry on Czech soil.
SFUK: How do you plan on using/promoting your series and what impact do you think it will have? Do you have a plan for the final output, perhaps an exhibition or publication?
JM: I am already applying to competitions, artist calls for exhibitions, projections. It's not easy when the project is not finished, but it helps give the project new energy. And to show a part of it would already be great. Caroline collaborates with different political and cultural revues and there are chances that we can publish a portfolio or a short version of the project. But of course, the aim is an exhibition, with bigger prints, the full texts and interviews, and archive documents. We also plan to contact embassies and cultural institutes of the two countries, museums focusing on industrial history. Having a foot in three European capitals should be an asset, particularly in France where this story is quite unknown: France didn't live under a communist regime, nor had the same experience of WWII. The stories of the industry and the causes of de-industrialisation are also not the same.
For Sale #1, Rybnište
Initially a textile factory, it has then been totally emptied and used as a drugs storage for a while.
SFUK: What can you tell us about your approach to shooting these images? Any particular process you stick to?
JM: I didn't want to emphasise the “abandoned places” aspect, so I avoid making it look romantic, impressive, ghostly, or retro. Whether it is for the buildings or for the people, I like to show a lot of the background; what's around is for me as important as the subject itself and I try to be as objective as possible. But at the same time, I aim to build strong, pictorial, images, that one would like to see on large prints, and not just illustrations for the texts.
Marcela Pytsora in her apartment, Krásná Lípa
Marcela settled in Krásná Lípa at the end of the 1970's. Originally from Šluknov, she always worked in the textile industry. She first followed vocational training courses, offered by Elite (one of the nation's largest producers of stockings), then joined the enterprise and subsequently worked for others companies. Today, she is a production manager at Novia Fashion, a firm partly located in the former premises of the famous brand Elite, which employs around 20 people.
SFUK: Do you have any memorable moments from your series, any stories you're excited to share?
JM: Apart from a memorable car breakdown, where the tow truck, having failed to repair it, just took the car away forever leaving us with no vehicle to go back to Berlin, ten bags, six hours waiting at the train station, to finally miss the plane to Paris … nothing crazy! But, yes: as I shot most of the images from overhead, to avoid perspective problems and to get rid of too much ground, grasses, etc... , we borrowed a tall wooden ladder, used normally for fruit picking, at the house where we usually stay. I find it funny to imagine myself not going anywhere without my antique wooden ladder..!
The Horn Spice Mill, Dolní Chřibská (for sale)
The company, Josef Horn and Co., was established in 1884 in Dolní Chřibská. There was primarily a mill grinding spices, particularly black pepper and vanilla, but the company's owners were also among the first in Bohemia to import and distribute tea. In 1907 they built a new warehouse whose mill was water driven, and the production kept on expanding. In 1924 they also acquired, to extend the site, an adjacent weaving workshop, now destroyed. After the second world war, the company was nationalised and incorporated into a state enterprise, based in Prague. Spices were ground here until 1980. The mill's equipment is still in place today, and the main building and warehouse are for sale.
SFUK: Finally, what can we look out for in the future? Any upcoming projects or release dates?
JM: I wish I had release dates already but we're not there yet; we'd like to have a few more portraits, so we'll probably need one or more sessions there. Meantime, I've started to work on another project, a portrait series of feminist figures of Berlin. New feminism, afro- or queer feminism, are movements that interest me very much; I would like to know more about them and bring support by giving them more exposure. It will also be shot on film, medium format, with large backgrounds setting the scene of their every-day life, and texts, freely written by these women about themselves. Then i'd love to start a series of pure architecture, modern and ecological, but I have yet to find the right partner...