Review by Gerhard Clausing •
New Bern, North Carolina, is certainly an interesting town of some 30,000 people. Named after Bern, Switzerland, it was founded in 1710 by an ancestor of the photographer. Both cities share the same bear figure as a coat of arms, with the American version lacking one anatomical detail. The internet presence of the town is certainly a lively one, with attention paid to its history of 300 years, which includes accounts of the historical treatment of and contemporary pride in the contributions of its African-American population. Any documentation of the town as a whole would need to reflect this mixture of cultural elements as it impacts our present time.
The cover of this photobook proclaims that the population of New Bern is “conspicuously composed of 55% white and 35% black citizens.” Perhaps in a tradition of separation into categories in the manner of census questions or even social and residential behavior patterns, this labeling can be understood, but a reduction to categorization by skin color seems like looking backward, not forward. Just how “white” or “black” are the skin tones of the individuals in this town (or any other); it seems to me there are many shades of skin color in between the two extremes of the spectrum. I would advocate just counting people per se, regardless of skin color.
So let us see what the Swiss photographer Michael von Graffenried found for his documentation project. He visited New Bern a number of times over a fifteen-year period. At first his access was primarily to the groups descended from Swiss, German, and other European ancestors. He soon recognized that there were also other parallel (minority) activities going on, which he eventually was able to document as well, the African-American community of New Bern. And lo and behold, there was also just a bit of mixing of the “white” and “black” groups, especially in the areas of sports, education, and official celebrations.
Michael von Graffenried here uses an unusual aspect ratio, measuring approximately 2.66 to 1, reminding us of cameras like the Widelux. This applies to all the images throughout the book, each of which is presented across a double-page spread. The effect is that the viewer feels an immediate presence and is as close to the goings-on as is possible in a book. Occasionally there are collages of four such “wide-screen” images, to show a greater variety of activities or contrasting groups. The majority of the images thus measure a generous 23 x 8.5 inches, or approximately 58 x 22 cm.
The viewer certainly gets the sense that von Graffenried is a sympathetic outsider looking in on this town. The title of the book reminds us of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, in which a ‘manager’ leads us through the lively history of the townspeople. In a similar manner, von Graffenried leads us through various ups and downs of daily life in New Bern, in two somewhat parallel communities within that town. As expected, in their religious activities the groups are separate, while sports, schools, and the military are less conscious of heritage and are composed of mixed groups. Some of the moments of other leisure activities, such as relaxation and hobbies, as well as stressful moments (arrests) are depicted. It can be said that von Graffenried is objective in his overall coverage, as all groups and individual seem to be engaged in similar activities. Not all of it is what tourism-based publications would want, in that the less well-to-do are also shown, but then that is the realism of everyday life. Especially after the Black Lives Matter movement called for an honest confrontation of issues, in New Bern and elsewhere, the universal applicability of this photographic project is obvious.
It is my hope, particularly in an era of more honest assessment after demonstrable mistreatment of minorities, that such photobooks as this one, portraying a city with people of diverse backgrounds and clearly showing even stronger future possibilities, can contribute to a period of resolved issues and greater collaboration and mutual respect, not only in towns such as New Bern but everywhere, and that categorization along meaningless criteria such as skin color will one day be a thing of the past. To get in touch with our shared values will let us reach the compromises that will allow us to forge ahead together.
Gerhard Clausing, PBJ Associate Editor, is a photographer and author from Southern California.
Michael von Graffenried – Our Town
Photographer: Michael von Graffenried (born in Bern (Berne), Switzerland; living and working between Paris, Brooklyn, and Switzerland)
Publisher: Steidl, Göttingen, Germany; © 2021
Texts: Brief intro remarks by the author
Hardcover, illustrated, cloth-covered, sewn binding; 240 pages, unpaginated, with 120 images; 31 x 24.5 cm / 12.25 x 9.5 inches; printed and bound in Germany by Steidl. ISBN: 978-3-95829-883-5
Photobook Designers: Michael von Graffenried; Holger Feroudj / Steidl Design
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