Book of the Month: Erde Feuer Wind Wasser (Earth Fire Wind Water)

Damian Michał Heinisch

November 23, 2021

This time, our Book of the Month is comprised of no less than four volumes in a lavish slipcase box presentation.
This time, our Book of the Month is comprised of no less than four volumes in a lavish slipcase box presentation. The cover of each individual book comes in a different colour, with a simple typographical design; the photographer's work is only revealed once the reader opens up the large-format volumes. Anyone who then expects to see pleasing landscape pictures, revolving around the elements of earth, fire, wind and water, will soon realise that Heinisch's imagery is actually very different: the title conceals the results of a long-term documentary project; one which centres around and reflects upon the story of the photographer's family.

It is a complex project: in each volume – symbolically embedded in the context of the four seasons and emphasising the cycles of life – the photographer focuses on family members from different generations, over the past 75 years. In Erde (Earth) the protagonist is the photographer's grandfather, who died in a Soviet forced-labour camp in Ukraine at the end of the Second World War. He had kept a diary from February 16 to September 10, 1945: each of its sets of double pages is filled with tiny script, and is reproduced in its original size on the right-hand page; while the text appears in readable print on the left-hand page. Reading through the entries represents a depressing immersion into the dramatic situation the author, Walter Heinisch, was living through – the diary leads up to his death on October 5, 1945. His grandson, Damian Michał Heinisch, has now cleverly inserted his own explorations of his grandfather's fate in this photo book: the pages where the diary has been reproduced also unfold, revealing motifs – photographed using an autochrome process – that were taken in 2014, when the photographer travelled through Ukraine, in the footsteps of his grandfather. Past and present interweave. The fact that the current war in Ukraine began shortly after the photographer's trip represents another link to contemporary history.

The accompanying texts provide the necessary information about the family and historical contexts: in each of the books there is an essay by media and art scholar Sophie-Charlotte Opitz, as well as an interview with the photographer. Thus opens up an exciting process, involving the functioning and dynamics of memory and culture, which transcends national borders and generations.

The other three volumes offer further chapters in the photographer's family story. Feuer (Fire) talks about how the family emigrated from Poland to West Germany in the seventies. Wind deals with the photographer's widowed father in Germany, with motifs photographed in black and white. In Wasser (Water) the photographer completes the four-volume compendium by questioning his own identity in his adopted home country of Norway.

Each family has its own language, codes, and behavioural patterns. Even so, fundamental comparisons can be detected. Consequently, this project reveals itself as a multi-layered, exciting tetralogy that delivers a challenging interpretation of an individual life and family story; while, at the same time, working with the most diverse forms of photographic expression. The photographer has a broad repertoire: he works with a variety of techniques and cameras, analogue and digital, in colour and black and white.

It is precisely this very personal approach that allows us to derive general considerations concerning perception and memory. The project is neither easy to digest, nor simple to browse through; yet, it is the necessity for the viewer and reader to give the books time and attention that reveals the project's convincing and emotional power. The balance between effort and content has been achieved, with great success. (Ulrich Rüter)

Damian Michał Heinisch: Erde Feuer Wind Wasser
Four volumes in a box
Texts by Walter Heinisch, Sophie-Charlotte Opitz, and Kristian Skylstad
Designed by Andreas Rød Skilhagen
Edition: 600 copies with signed and numbered offset print
516 pages, 12 unfolding pages, 278 colour and 15 duplex pictures, 27.1 x 30.3 cm English/German
ALL IMAGES ON THIS PAGE: © Damian Michał Heinisch

Damian Michał Heinisch+-

Damian Heinisch-portrait
© Damian Michał Heinisch

Born in Zabrze, Poland, in 1968, Heinisch studied at Folkwang University in Essen, and Photography at various institutions in Oslo. 45, his first publication, received the Mack First Book Award in 2020. The books 45 and Erde, Feuer, Wind, Wasser are based on works which have already appeared in numerous solo and group exhibitions. Heinisch is a Leica Ambassador in Norway, and a large portion of the pictures in Erde Feuer Wind Wasser were taken with analogue and digital Leica cameras. More


Book of the Month: Erde Feuer Wind Wasser (Earth Fire Wind Water)

Damian Michał Heinisch