Already receiving international recognition, an important and difficult book, “Fragments: Architecture of the Holocaust: An Artist’s Journey Through the Camps,” was just published this year (Fresco, $75.00) in a one-time, limited edition of a thousand copies. It is a collection of art photographs of ten concentration camps taken by the late Karl Koenig of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, who received an advance box of the books just a few weeks before he passed away in early 2012.
The book includes an introduction by Koenig, an essay by Ruth Franklin, senor editor of the New Republic who is considered a foremost authority on the relation between beauty and the Holocaust and is a 2012 finalist for the Sami Rohr award, and an essay by the noted art historian Kathleen V. Jameson, on Pictorialism, a 19th century art movement. Koenig worked closely with the publisher in the book’s design and chose a cardboard cover for the book to suggest an industrial feel. The book was printed in Italy, where the printer communicated to the publisher that they felt honored to be involved in its production.
The book is an extraordinary example of the power of that which is missing. Koenig’s photographs of the camps, taken over a period of ten years, are utterly silent and almost entirely devoid of humans yet curiously filled with their absence. As one person who had visited one of the camps said while looking at a photo of railroad tracks in the book, the photo evoked a great deal more intense feeling in him than the experience he recalled of being there in person. “It was a raw, gripping feeling of that specific location. You knew where those tracks were going, but looking at the photo I really felt what that was about,” he said.
In mid-life Koenig left a lengthy career as a full professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico and where he was Director of the Day Treatment Program for the most troubled patients needing daily attention, to devote himself to inventing an entirely new photographic process, which he named gumoil. The laborious process, which he taught in workshops and described in his book, “Gumoil Photographic Printing,” first published in 1994 by Focal Press, and later reissued in a second edition in 1999, shares some commonality to the etching process and to other alternative photographic processes.
Frances Koenig, also a clinical psychologist, who lost her paternal grandparents and other close relatives to Auschwitz, traveled with Karl on most of the ten trips he made to the camps. Frances has made a number of presentations to bookstores this fall and gave an especially eloquent and personable presentation about the book at the monthly Albuquerque Thursday evening Hadassah group hosted by Vicky Camerlingo.
Frances explained to the group how the images create a cognitive dissonance for the viewer. In other words, the viewer experiences where they stand in relation to the images and learns something about themselves as a result.
This viewer’s experience was to feel tangibly threatened by the images, as if they radiated, and by fascination could overpower one with, the dangerous, magnetic current of death.
Frances also showed some of the original gumoil prints, and talked about when the first exhibit of Karl’s work opened at the Holocaust Museum Houston, there was complete silence as people went from photo to photo gazing at the exhibit. She also shared how Karl, intent on working directly on the prints to create the depth in the images that he wanted to achieve, insisted on keeping his hands in the chemicals without gloves. As a result, he suffered poisoning of the liver that made him severely and painfully ill for the last three years of his life.
A synopsis of the book Frances Koenig has written states, “Karl Koenig, who passed away earlier this year, had photographed Holocaust concentration camps for more than ten years. These photographs, of the architecture and landscape of suffering, he believed, "may have some impact on people who are on the path to indifference." Throughout the series, Koenig explored narrative and visual dissonances in order to highlight the inexplicability of the Holocaust itself. Inventor of the polychromatic gumoil process, a labor-intensive and highly manipulated method, Koenig created monotypes, each existing as a unique object.”
The book is already receiving significant awards, even, as Frances points out, despite the exceptionally difficult obstacle that “It is not an easy book to spend time with.” It received an IPPY award for 2012 from the Independent Publisher Book Awards, taking the bronze in photography, in very good company – first place went to the book Magnum Contact Sheets, published by Thames and Hudson, of photos by the best Magnum photographers over the last 70 years. And, the December 2012 issue of THE Magazine, Santa Fe’s magazine of international art and photography, chose Fragments as one of the top 21 books of 2012 from art books submitted to them from around the world.
The Holocaust Museum Houston has made available a traveling exhibit of 32 of the original prints, with teaching materials, which already has been to England, Australia, and other museums around the U.S. The exhibit is titled “There is no why here,” a reference to a an incident from Primo Levi’s book “Survival in Auschwitz.”
Information is at their website, www.hmh.org. They will have another showing of ten of the prints for a January 2013 dedication of a new library wing where Frances will come to speak.
Frances Koenig is available to talk about the book and Karl’s work to interested groups and may be contacted at 505/266-0025.
This article was first published by the New Mexico Jewish Link, January, 2013, p. 13 and is published here courtesy JFNM. Copyright © Diane J. Schmidt. Be sociable! click Subscribe above. Add your comments! Comment box, scroll to bottom of this page. Schmidt recently won four awards: First place, News, Native American Journalism Award 2012; 2nd place, Public Safety Reporting, Arizona Press Awards 2012, both for Branded and Scarred for the Navajo Times (see also Sentencing followup), and 1st place at the 2012 Society for Professional Journalism Top of the Rockies Region 9 Awards for her KUNM radio commentary Martin Luther King Jr.s Message Important in Corporate Age. Also, a Robert R. McCormick fellowship to attend the Poynter Institute to learn about reporting on child sexual abuse. See Opening to a conversation about child sexual abuse.