Review by Gerhard Clausing •
Abendlied (Evening Song) is a project that is very personal, yet has universal meaning. The concept seems simple: as we gradually take leave of our parents we have memories of events and feelings from long ago; things come back to remind us of what we experienced with them in the past, going back to our childhood. The reality of it can actually be rather difficult: it is not just good vibes, but also some less pleasant things, maybe even what therapists call ‘unfinished business’ and family ‘secrets’ that emerge. What’s more, these parents of ours are themselves declining in physical and possibly also in mental ways, and may have never known what bothered us, and certainly would probably not be able to deal with it now, in any manner that might be beneficial to them or to us.
So there are the various memories, tied to locations, objects that can have symbolic value and feelings that arise. If one of the parents is increasingly suffering from dementia, as in the situation with Birthe Piontek’s mother (and as I also experienced with my father), the attempts at holding on to bits and pieces of what was once fully present become a huge task. If your parents live in another country, this can add to the feelings of anxiety and sadness as well. Perhaps we as photographers have an effective way of dealing with such life events: we can visually document and interpret what we see and feel. The use of art has certainly proven to be therapeutic for ourselves as well as for others who share in our art, and is well established as an accepted tool in therapy.
Birthe Piontek is certainly up to the task. This photobook is a very effective narrative of interactions between the various generations of her family, as they deal with changes in their lives. We are able to share moments of love and tenderness between family members. We can see moments of uncertainty and anxiety. We find objects left over from former times that may have meant allegiance to a long-lost cause or devotion to reading or other hobbies no longer practiced. The contrasts of young and old, whole/ordered and damaged/in disarray are used to confront us with the inevitable passage of time, inevitable because there is no halting it, and with the only variable being one’s own attitude toward it all. She also depicts moments of humor, and we know that those moments lighten the task a little bit at times. The essay by Nich Hance McElroy adds an important personal touch of poignancy to the project.
Piontek is a gifted artist in her portrayal of her family’s journey, through her mind and heart, and using her camera as the vehicle. This photobook holds your attention from beginning to end. It is a worthwhile trip – it lets the viewer get in touch with a universal experience that only varies for each of us in some minute particulars.
Birthe Piontek – Abendlied
Photographer: Birthe Piontek (born in Germany, resides in Vancouver, Canada)
Publisher: Gnomic Book, New York, NY; © 2019
Essay: Nich Hance McElroy
Hardback, fabric cover, sewn; 112 pages, not paginated, with 70 color images and one bound text insert; 18.5 x 25.5 cm (7 ¼ x 10 inches); edition of 500; printed in the Netherlands