Text by Markus Lehr
Notes from the rust belt, 2014
The Ruhr area used to be the heart of Germany’s heavy industry. With the decline of coal mining and steel production in the last decades of the 20th century it suffered a fate similar to the American rust belt. The term “rust belt” isn’t used in Germany but I chose it, because I thought this title would be good to set the tone for the series. I haven’t been to this area of Germany before but ever since I have discovered the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, I am fascinated by it.
My main interest as a photographer is in exploring the transformations of our environments undergo through change and cultural influence. Specifically I am looking for dialogues; the dialogues between foreground and background, objects and subjects, past and present…
As you can easily imagine, the Ruhr valley is teeming with industrial sites – the earliest ones dating back to the 14th century. A lot has been done to preserve the history and the industrial heritage of the area leaving a lot of the old structures intact or in some kind of intriguing transitional state.
Preservation and transformation also used to be two of the main principles of photography; the first one as a reason to do it and the latter as a chemical process to achieve it. One of the forces of attraction for photography is to preserve a memory while the reality around us changes all the time.
While I was shooting this series in a short row of four days and nights the most striking experience I made was the difference in how the various communities have been dealing with this transformation. Some were embracing it, others turning it into a museum and some simply put a fence around it.
Just like in photography, we can record and document a place, try to tell the story of a place, try to make it look good and try to sell the remains.
I was visiting the locations of this series in the day and in the night because the colours of light are very important to me. The character of a derelict industrial site might be grim and desolate in the light of a grey day and then suddenly changes into something cinematic at night. You can never know before what you might find adequate in the end.
Going there also meant a bit visiting my childhood dreams. As a young boy I was fascinated by stories about space crafts and friendly aliens coming to visit us. And so while I was there the images I captured oscillated between the fantasies of the young boy and the melancholy of the grown-up person. The factories are empty now. Nobody works there any longer. “Everybody moved to the new world” like I titled one of my images but I don’t see this as a loss. It is a new beginning as well and you can feel it in the Ruhr valley very intensely. I hope I have succeeded saving a sense of wonder a bit.
Markus Lehr (1959) born in Bayreuth, Germany, studied communication at the University of Arts in Berlin. He has been working in advertising, marketing and new media ever since. He started with projects in night photography in Summer 2012 and published his first photography book, Fairytales and Nightingales in December 2013, reached one million clicks on his images in 2014. Lehr will take part in a photography group exhibition in Berlin in January 2015.