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Manfred Leve: Glances and Sights, Photography from Five Decades at Gallery Ficher Rohr
Photograph by Manfred Leve.

BASEL.- Manfred Leve was born in Trier, 1936- German. His photographs are more than documentary records. As a co-creator, camera in hand, his status is not restricted to that of a participant documenting events. Through his input the reality of the situation is imbued with a higher visual meaning, absorbed into a dimension whose quality becomes very apparent when one compares Manfred Leve’s photographs of Actions with those of other artists who only started to work in this field much later on. Importantly, his aim is neither to capture the interplay of artistic Action and audience reaction as proof of the permeability of the course of the Action, nor is it to characterise the fleeting nature of the event by highlighting moments in the Action as fixed points and presenting them in such a way that the image blurs on the coarse-grained paper, pulling the rug out from under the feet of figures in prints on torn photopaper.

As calculatedly uncalculated overviews, Manfred Leve’s photographs preserve the context of the events he is involved in. They show the whole Action and the audience, in so far as its members are not merely immobile recipients. And it is clear to see in these photographs that the protagonists are not solely concerned with the game that is underway, with provoking the unexpected and with reacting to the unplanned, but rather that above all they are initiating an interactive event in which the coming together of individual aims releases a whole new level of meaning. While the Action-artist fulfils his role, the artist-photographer observes him in the context of the other participants in the proceedings and describes the divergent intentions of different actors, the diversity of their collaboration, the difference between different strands of Action art. Towards the late 1960s, however, when it became fashionable for other photographers and film-makers to document Actions, Happenings and performances, Manfred Leve ceased to work in this field. He turned his attention instead to the task of the photographer – in dialogue with art and artists – to uncover, to collect and to record different modes of expression and the marks left by certain pictorial aims.

On the basis of his particular experience and natural empathy Manfred Leve has been able to create fully-formed artistic works from his concept of a sequence of portraits showing an artist in action. He presents the latter – as does the subject himself – either reserved and all but motionless or dynamic and intensely active. In all cases he has observed the subjects for lengthy periods, sighting them and taking photographs at intervals of his own choosing. The portrait sequences of Blinky Palermo, Nam June Paik and Sigmar Polke are outstanding exceptions in the realms of modern portrait photography. As in his photographs of Actions, Manfred Leve has shot sequences of images of his subjects with stoic composure. It was never his intention to pick out the joker from a whole stack of images. On the contrary, he has always worked with a series in mind. As one of the few photographers who remain faithful to their subjects, Manfred Leve produced continuously shot series documenting the working methods of artists such as Emil Schumacher, Gerhard Hoehme, Nam June Paik, Günther Uecker, Klaus Rinke, Karl Otto Götz, Peter Brüning, John Cage, Joseph Beuys and, not least, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. It remains to be seen whether the photographs of these artists by Manfred Leve do not in fact encapsulate their individual art theories. For these images contain nothing less than the contextualised continuity and ruptures of the artistic process.

During the course of many events, Manfred Leve also photographed art professionals, gallerists, collectors and intellectuals. He has captured on film the interaction and collaboration of gallerists, journalists and art writers. And we have Manfred Leve to thank for images of art mediators such as Will Grohmann, the doyen of art critics, who was already championing the work of Paul Klee in the 1920s and became his ‘main’ writer. He also took photographs of many others, including Albert Schulze-Vellinghausen, Pierre Restany, Julien Alvard, Jean Paulhan, Anthony Thwaites, Ernst Bloch, Anna Klapheck, Hans-Georg Gadamer and – from the younger generation of art critics – Rolf Wedewer, Manfred de la Motte, Karl Ruhrberg and Willi Bongard. Like his portraits of gallerists such as Jean-Pierre Wilhelm, Alfred Schmela, Hans-Jürgen Niepel, Konrad Fischer and Réne Block, these images of writers document the mores of several generations of one profession. In effect Manfred Leve was their ‘in-house’ photographer.

In a certain sense, Manfred Leve’s series of photographs are related to August Sander’s cycle People of the 20th Century, albeit with the difference that the earlier photographer was creating a photographic cross section of his own time and as a rule only made one picture of each of his subjects, whereas Manfred Leve repeatedly photographed the various members of the art scene he knew so well. While Sander developed the notion of a ‘scientific photographic series’ to create a ‘social portrait of the Weimar Republic’, the photographic sequences Manfred Leve took over a period of almost five decades amount to nothing less than a representative cross section of (predominantly) the German art world. August Sander never took a photograph casually, nor does Manfred Leve. But whereas Sander achieved his aims by preparing his subjects and presenting them against a specially selected backdrop, the subjects Leve sights are already in a wholly artificial setting. By deciding to concentrate solely on motifs from the art scene, as Leve himself once said, he excluded whimsy from the subjects he chose for these photographs of his own time. As in every art form, Leve’s photographic sequences reflect the history, the tastes and the spirit of their own time; but in addition to this the reproductive nature of photography serves their maker’s creative faculties, with the result that the viewer responds to the image as a locus for dialogue in which not only the facts of the matter can be identified, but he or she can also empathise with the motions of the mind grappling with them. As Manfred Leve once wrote, his photographs show the Da- und Sosein – the ‘being there and being thus’ – of his subjects, who live on in these images and will remain forever present. And that certain aspects of their work only survive in these images is all too apparent from the photograph Joseph Beuys. Lichtzeichen 1963 from the series FESTUM FLUXORUM FLUXUS, Musik und Antimusik – Das Instrumentale Theater. After the event, scarcely any of the participants – when asked – remembered that Joseph Beuys had transmitted a series of light signals during the performance. It could have been quite forgotten. Manfred Leve captured this moment before and during the ‘Blendung’. Thanks to the sight that he glimpsed at the right moment, posterity knows what happened.

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