Frank Rothe

Frank Rothe is interested in people and their stories. He looks tenderly at the quotidian details of ordinary lives and anticipates connection with his own. In a recent statement, he describes his own neighborhood: “I can see the sun set, it gets dark in Berlin, slowly. People on the other side of my street…turn lights on in their flats. They sit in front of their TV´s, or cook a meal in their kitchens or do nothing, maybe staring at the light in my flat. It’s an ordinary moment, very normal, nothing special in it. But life is like that - waking up, going to work, coming home and doing something else, meeting friends, talking with their wives or husbands, playing with their children."
German Guns is about ordinary people and the objects they own, but neither the people nor the objects can appear without inferences. Germans, for many of us, continue to carry the horrific legacy of Nazism; a German with a gun is somehow more frightening than a Czech, a Belgian or a Dane with one. At the same time, today’s Germany is not associated with violence. We are used to the stereotype of gun-loving Americans; the German equivalent runs more to beach-chair appropriation, bureaucracy, and sausage.

In any hand the gun is a transformative object. It changes power in relationships. Yet in the portraits of ordinary people that Rothe has made, the gun often appears incongruous to the point of ridiculousness. A young adolescent girl, with pre-raphaelite hair, pale skin and an air of vulnerability looks wistfully at the camera, her slight form dwarfed by an enormous rifle, the barrel of which appears to be so long as almost to exceed the photographic frame. In another, a delicate man with impeccable posture stands in the woods wearing a perfect ensemble that would not have seemed out of place in the 19th century---a Tyrolean-style Loden jacket, matching hat and a dainty bird rifle. The ironic tension between what we know the pictures to be and the way they look is part of the power of these images.
These portraits are beautiful and affectionate. Their ability to disturb depends on the ordinariness of the people depicted. They are without polemic but they are not a-political. Rothe's tribute to the value of ordinary lives,quoted above, ends thus: "These scenes you will find world wide. And therefore I´m against war." By making pictures that engage us both intellectually and emotionally, and by valuing the commonplace above all, Rothe comments on his history and his present circumstances, and illuminates our own.

(an Essay by Alison Nordström Curator of Photographs George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film Rochester, New York)

German Guns II
As a species it is remarkable how much creative energy we have concentrated on the design of devices that so clearly identifies us as beings whose core is based on fear and aggression. These primal emotions, existing at the edges of our consciousness, have followed us as we moved through time. The notion that we are advanced creatures is unveiled as delusional when we take a sober look at our collective past; confirmed by our present and does not offer much promise for our future. As individuals we are the defective cells that carry the ‘violence gene’ responsible for infecting our societies and governments. Frank Rothe’s photographs place us under the microscope of his vision.
Rothe states he decided to photograph Germans for this series because, “…Germans are widely unknown with weapons in their hands.” And, “…Americans with weapons are known…and are often loaded with a certain stereotype.” While these statements reflect his motivation for producing this body of work, the viewer is confronted with ‘human beings’ with their weapons of choice because there isn’t anything in the images distinguishing the subjects as specifically German. In fact, it is fascinating to me that one subject is wearing a ‘Harvard’ sweatshirt, another with a hat that reads ‘Subway’ (the sandwich shop chain), someone has a ‘Wind Surf Group’ t-shirt, and yet another subject is wearing a ‘Rag & Bone Denim’ shirt. If the photographer didn’t inform us the people in his photographs were German we would believe we were looking at Americans. This is the result of the overwhelming international impact television, the news media and Hollywood has had on how we think. Rothe’s ‘Germans’ with their weapons are unable to escape the powerful gravitational pull of our externally influenced preconceived notions. In this way we are reminded of the many contributions American culture has made to our violent world.
In many of his photographs we are shown skillfully designed images that refer to the mythologizing of the subject; the Hero, the Warrior, the Hunter and the Fool.
We also see people we might think are Gangbangers or criminals, the elderly who feel they need to protect themselves, and children learning about a culture of guns at an early age – one, in particular, appears to be practicing his sniper technique. As a photographer, who happens to be European, Rothe sees these weapons in his photographs as disturbing elements, but for me, as an American, I see the weapons in the hands of his subjects as familiar – a kind of contemporary fashion accessory related to their interests. The photographs depict average citizens wearing everyday clothes – not police or military uniforms normally associated with weapons – yet, his subjects seem to be very comfortable holding objects that can kill.
The individuals in the photographs are presented in a neutral state. Their expressions give us few clues to what is going on inside them, and they are not in the act of firing their guns or drawing back their bows. This in-between state holds back information from the viewer related to what the subject’s next move might be. Rothe’s photographs ask important questions concerning ‘potential’, in this instance, the human potential to inflict great harm. There is a profound appreciation for the skill of the archer or the marksman. But, while the Zen of their actions are understood as the desire for perfection, we are also aware of witnessing the ability to accurately hit the center of a target as easily as a human heart.
I am reminded of Adolf Eichmann’s War Crimes trial in 1961. He was wearing a suit and tie as he stood in the bulletproof enclosure provided for his safety. A concentration camp victim who was testifying against him suddenly collapsed after taking the witness stand. When revived the witness explained, “It wasn’t until I saw him for the first time without his uniform did I realize he was human”.

an Essay by Steven Benson (USA)
 

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