East End of Europe
by Brad Feuerhelm
This is a lovely book full of promise and suffers little from the exceptional portraits that Patrick Bienert produces. They are sensuous and full of intrigue. The most salient of the portrait studies feature women sitting at tables. They are loaded with pathos and feel very close to how I envision Hannah Collins making syrupy monochrome portrait studies. It’s a shame that this was not more of the focus. Knowing nothing about Bienert other than his skill set, I get the feeling that he is young and I say that be how I read his edit, if not eye. The images of the women within the book for the most part come from a youthful age bracket and they feel for better or worse of a desirous order. The up close crops, the fetish of hair and skin make me think that there is a pathos involved in making these images. There are roughly 5 studies of men, but they kind of feel forced and dispassionate barring one nice study of two kids. This is not problematic, nor am I trying to castigate Bienert’s intentions as crude, but I cannot not notice it. The only other criticism in an otherwise fantastic series of images is that the focus on Soviet architectural remnants in 2015 feels a bit clichéd. I blame all those Soviet Bus stop books.
There is some trepidation that I want to share about the writing in the forward from Florian Illies who suggests that Bienert’s images look without an era or an age to attribute them to. This is not the case, Illies makes some assumptions about how we see monochrome images and how that creates an enforced sentimentality or nostalgia for an undetermined age. I don’t see it that way. That discourse also becomes problematic when we exoticize “The East” as backwards or anachronistic in its monochrome illustration. I think this is understandable if Illies is not from a photography background, but I do feel a slight resentment for having read the text before I took in the excellent images. Illies also passionately opines that these photographs of course must be made in black and white. Im not one who usually picks on writers as I myself am not from that background and know how difficult of a pursuit it is, but in honesty, I have to say, the text actually damaged the book for me. It should have been at the end to alleviate this. In any event, the work is quite strong and I feel that Bienert, if he takes a bit more time with text and editing, could create an incredible work. Text is important in a book. However, its placement and aims should not be seen as something people will read second to contextualize after the images. I tried to “read” this correctly (something I do not always do in fairness) and in doing so foreshadowed the work with a grievous amount of superfluous platitudes and cringey sentimentality. The book is worth the purchase, just go for Bienert’s excellent images first.