It was the Head On Photo Festival that gave Katrin Koenning her first big break.
Ten years ago, she won the attention of veteran Australian photographer and critic Robert McFarlane, who presented Koenning with his Critics Choice Award in the 2011 Head On Portrait Prize.
The winning image, Sleeping Woman, was from her series Transit (2007–2014), which featured travellers in private or public vehicles. The dream state of the somnolent subject is evoked by the green light that paints her brow. Its origin is mundane - just the sunlight filtering through a tinted windscreen, but the colour rhymes rhapsodically with that of the grass verge seen outside. And then we notice the driver; we are moving. Streaked with movement through the effect of relativity, it’s the landscape that appears to rush by, as speeding observer and observed seem still, and its viridian infiltrates the body of the sleeper who, in dreaming, is not there.
Katrin Koenning, Sleeping Woman, from the series Transit, 2007-2014
Koenning is a peripatetic; born in Bochum, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, and at 25, moving to Australia where her father and aunt had emigrated in the late 1990s.
Her Steiner education and hiking with the Deutscher Alpenverein youth program initiated a love of travel and saw her presenting at conferences and teaching photography in Bangladesh, Germany, Cambodia, New Zealand, Nepal, Myanmar, Vienna, and as a lecturer at RMIT University and Photography Studies College.
Katrin Koenning, from Pott, 2012-2018
Another traveller features in her work. He turns up his collar and stares into a grey, cold void. It’s from Koenning’s series Pott, (the German coal miner’s term for a pit) made on return visits between 2012 and 2018 to her homeland, the Ruhr, once the centre of German industrial might and now, as she describes it, the site of a transition from which diverges either progress or poverty.
Katrin Koenning, from Pott, 2012-2018
Koenning’s work is not ‘easy’, but watch - like music or poetry or a bud - the series unfurls, modulating grey-blue through fog, the murk of drain-water, the dark skin of a girl at dusk, a discarded paper plane, interrupted by the dirty orange of a captive flamingo that becomes garish crimson lighting a mirror ball. A dusky red satin curtain opens on a sky blue that seeps into a stucco surface on which rest halves of a blood orange. Bluish strobe kisses lovers in identical brown hats, and youths in blue t-shirts arrive in a forest clearing on their motorbikes before the series brightens, at some points almost to overexposure, on more youths, some standing waist-deep, peering into in the river.
Scenes lead through urban streets punctuated by a coda: the same red in billowing curtains, shop signs, and a handkerchief poking from the pocket of the pasty, moustachioed bartender. A discarded magazine tells us “Reise” (Journey) before we are arrested by a shadowy crucifix above a shrink-wrapped wedge of watermelon. A young waitress rests her head, blankly staring, on the café table, and we discover her brown lanky limbs among those of the bare evening trees of the final image.
To appreciate such deft and knowing control of her medium, of colour and exposure whose gamut she fearlessly exploits, and her lens, watchful and ever-ready for intuitive connections, one has only to survey the diversity of Koenning’s works. Among them is a triptych, imagery from return visits over a decade to evidence the effects of the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires: a long-form work in stills and video concerned with human impact on Australian ecology; road trips in Australia; seemingly cinematic, ambient lighting momentarily spotlighting Melbourne city pedestrians; and Indefinitely shot between Australia, New Zealand and her native Germany over eight years, which presents the condition of her geographically separated family.
Katrin Koenning from the series Indefinitely, 2007-2018
My first, deeply affecting encounter with Koenning’s work was at Castlemaine Art Gallery this year, where she showed Dear Chris (2012 - 2013), dealing with the apprehension and aftermath of suicide. It comprises several pictures from family albums, beside her own: pictures ‘of something’, of things as they are, certainly, but ‘invested’ by Koenning’s photography, just as ‘investment’ in lost-wax sculpture is the process of building a rock-hard shell around the hand-modelled form - so that when the wax has been melted out, the investment will serve as a matrix to receive molten bronze.
These exemplify her array of location-specific works on human interconnectivity. It’s also her method, employed in her first book Astres Noirs, a collaboration via Instagram with Sarker Protick in Bangladesh, Koenning in Australia, and their publishers in Paris; monochrome images printed in silver on black.
Katrin Koenning, from the series Swell, 2015 ongoing
Currently, Koenning is working on Swell, concerned with Australian government interference in, and resistance to, climate activism targeting the Adani company's vast Carmichael Coal Mine. The connection of images is the strategy to show the indelible interrelatedness of ecologies and senses of place and people threatened by the scale of the coal project and the division caused by the power structures around it. By overlapping images to follow a compositional dynamic between them, placing picture in picture, or by setting stacked rocks next to an x-ray of a human patella and knee joint, she suggests the domino effect that the Adani incursion may set rippling across country.
Header image: © Katrin Koenning
About the author
Dr. James McArdle is an artist and researcher who interviews photographers, publishes biographies of photographers, and writes reviews of books by and about photographers. He writes the blog On this date in photography.
Katrin Koenning is a documentary photographer and teacher based in Australia