Klaus Frahm German, b. 1953



The term ‘Grey Area’ refers to an undefined situation or legally ambiguous zone, and also to the Zone System that Ansel Adams developed for measuring tonal ranges in analog black and white photography. Klaus Frahm’s work from Grauzone – Grey Area (1981-1996) explores both of these possibilities. The photographs, made in the tradition of large format film, celebrate the high art of photography through a patient analysis of Frahm's subject, "St. Pauli"; An old quarter of Hamburg commonly connected with the harbor and the red light district along the "Reeperbahn."


Years before starting his project in 1980, Frahm accompanied a friend who was in charge of an insurance company collecting monthly money for people's burials, a common practice at that time for poorer people. The regular access to many different homes made a strong impression upon him and with this in mind, Frahm began to take photos of dilapidated houses, barren backyards, and crumbling firewalls, which hadn't seen paint for many years, occasionally with the presence of inhabitants.


Often the photographs appear like scenery for the theatre or a film, as if the actors had just left or eventually might appear. But the absence of people never feels strange or alien as they are always present in symbolic visual elements. The fidelity of large format photography allows the eye to wander around the image and discover minute details.


To capture and preserve a vanishing world soon to be forgotten is an important motif throughout Frahm's work, while always trying to distill each space’s inner humanity. Occasionally we see old inscriptions, then backyards or voids with firewalls, scars left behind by demolition or bombs and soon to be painted over or used to build new and better homes. For Frahm, this had to be delicately documented while observing the poetic qualities within.


Looking at the photographs, one might feel like a witness to the post-war era more than the 1980s. Frahm, it seems, is trying to take us back to a time of transition. The recording of history and our collective memory, inherent qualities of the photographic medium, are also enduring themes of his later works from Grauzone, always made through subjective and sensitive documentation.


In the 1990s, when Frahm returned to his project, his fears from a decade prior had become true. Many traces of the past had been erased and lost forever. The loss inspired a change of focus from the living quarters and backyards, to the sideshow of St. Pauli among the Reeperbahn and adjacent streets. The cracks forming from both social and architectural friction which were visible before were even more evident now. A warm and sometimes nostalgic atmosphere embedded in the images of domestic life behind the scenes changed to cold, bright light on the main stage, the Reeperbahn. The marketing aesthetics of sex and fantasy is now the dominant visual theme of later photographs.



Within Frahm’s project, we find hybrid elements of Humanist street photography and the documentary style of concerned photographers, as well as the influence of Urban Landscape and New Topographics work. Each genre only applies in part, but parallels with historical and contemporary photographers can be seen. Along with Walker Evans, Frahm sites inspiration from Georg Koppmann, who like Atget in Paris, went out to photograph the historical areas of Hamburg in the 19th century. These were the early years of photography and the owners often proudly presented themselves in front of their homes, acutely aware of their special moment. They would probably also buy a print.


Frahm sought a similar challenge while trying to compose people within the scenes without directing or staging them. Technically this can be problematic as his vintage lenses require long exposure times, especially in low light. Additionally, the camera requires a set of physical adjustments before the plate can be exposed – meanwhile, the whole situation might have changed. The so-called “Decisive Moment” of spontaneous street photography as practiced by Cartier-Bresson, William Klein, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, among many others, used mostly small, handheld 35mm cameras making spontaneous, candid shots possible.


However, the large format process has certain advantages that compensate for its laborious functionality. Frahm was often mistaken for a survey-engineer, with his wooden camera and tripod, hiding under the dark cloth, a setup few people know or understand beyond an occasional movie scene. But this slow pace and natural appearance of working in analog create trust and even collaboration. With another kind of more invasive, immediate tool he might have been received with skepticism, as someone not belonging to this place.


Sometimes it happened that the observer was now observed. While setting up the camera and tripod people were so fascinated that they didn't notice the click of the shutter or having become part of the image. But the main reason for using this tedious technique is the precision of compositional control and resolution, which results in a profound richness of contrast and detail. The camera firmly on the tripod, removed from the eye, is prepared for the right moment. The Flâneur seldom has an aim, only to discover beauty in the profane, when he strolls his path. In Grauzone, Klaus Frahm has taken us along for his walks through a forgotten world, sharing his patient perspective on a fleeting reality.