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Photographic long-term projects: Setting up a perception instrument

Position by Meret Wandeler

Meret Wandeler, born in Zürich in 1967, was educated in photography at the former School of Art and Design Zürich (hgkz, now Zürich University for the Arts ZHdK) and the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1990 – 1995. She works on artistic research projects in the field of photography and spatial development in Zürich. Wandeler also realises actions as a performance artist and other artistic projects as a freelance photographer.


The perceptibility of a phenomenon is a basic precondition to address and to question it: what we do not perceive, we cannot explore in science, we cannot discuss in political or social debates, and it cannot be represented in the arts. Since its invention in the 19th century, photography is one of the fundamental means – both technically and artistically – to make things visible and therefore perceptible.

Photographic visibility often gives the impression of being something natural, something that is just there to be seen, something that just happens by itself. However, photographic visibility is always produced, generated, manufactured. What we see and perceive through photographic images is made perceptible by the use of certain aesthetic and technical strategies. Images are taken in a specific context, from a particular point of view. The question of how to make something visible by photographic means, which aspects of a phenomenon to focus on, which visual strategies to use and to what end, are fundamental questions for artists working with photography. They are also the starting question for the artistic research projects in the field of photography that we pursue at the Institute for Contemporary Art Research IFCAR at the Zurich University of the Arts.

Even though the changes in the urban landscape in Switzerland have been massive since the middle of the 20th century and are still taking place at an amazing speed, they are too slow to be perceived by the human eye. On site, living in a place, passing through a village, a town, a city, hiking through a landscape, the built space surrounding us is perceived as solid, stable, still, permanent, the immobile background against which live is happening. However, this built space is constantly in motion and undergoing drastic changes, due to economic growth and industrial spread, mass motorization, the development of the suburbs during the construction boom in the 1960s and 1970s and processes of re-urbanization and densification in recent years. Photographic images enable us to make this change perceptible. In contrast to the monitoring of spatial change through maps, plans, data etc., photography operates on location. The photographer has to be on site, he or she looks at space at eye level, not from the bird’s eye view of a planner. Photographic images can establish a connection to the experience of the lived, perceived space (Henry Lefebvre). Contrary to the abstract space of urban planning, it addresses the sensory and emotive aspects of the urban environment. This potential of photography is the starting point for two research projects in the field of urban landscape photography at the IFCAR: “Archiv des Ortes” (Archive of the Place) and “Fotografische Langzeitbeobachtung Schlieren 2005-2020” (Long-term photographic observation of Schlieren 2005-2020). Both projects aim at making visible and therefore perceptible the extensive transformation of Switzerland’s everyday environment. How politics, urban planning and architecture, art and design can react to these urbanization processes, how the polycentric new urban landscapes that emerge can be understood and interpreted is a fundamental question both in urban studies and in society in general. We believe that showing how urbanization processes affect the everyday environment, in a particular place, on site, can contribute to a deeper understanding of these processes and can (and should) be an integral part of researching them. For photographic images not only document the changes in the urban landscape, they also shape our ideas and concepts about these landscapes.

Agglomerations and suburban areas tend to be perceived as places without identity or history. Yet a majority of the population in Switzerland (as well as in Europe) nowadays lives in these new polycentric urban regions. As the examples of Schlieren and the Upper Engadine in our research show, the relationship between overall tendencies of development and the qualities of a specific place are quite complex. Our approach intends to establish a gaze that focuses on those aspects of the experienced, lived space that tend to go unnoticed in the “official” visualization of swiss landscape or swiss urban environment: the imagery which is produced by tourism and city marketing, or in the promoting of large-scale building projects by architects and construction companies.

Long-term photographic observation of Schlieren 2005-2020

Project design and management:
Ulrich Görlich, Meret Wandeler, IFCAR/ZHdK

Ulrich Görlich, Elmar Mauch, Christian Schwager, Meret Wandeler


The project started in 2005 and documents change processes in urban development in Schlieren, a  suburban community to the west of Zurich, over a period of 15 years. The municipality in the Limmat Valley, which borders on the city of Zurich, has developed from a farming village into an industrial location and is now a centre for technology and services. In the 1980s, the city suffered the departure of large industrial enterprises as a consequence of globalisation. The resulting industrial wasteland found various interim uses, primarily for second-hand car dealerships. Since the 1990s, foreigners and low-income population groups have increasingly been relegated to the agglomeration area. Schlieren was considered a “non-place”, a typical agglomeration community with traffic-dominated public spaces and a poor image. Since 2005 Schlieren has been actively engaged in its spatial, social and economic development through its urban development concepts. From 2005 – 2013, an urban development concept put together by the planning company Metron AG was implemented. This concept was one of the starting points for the photographic long-term observation. Schlieren was one of the first agglomeration communities in the Zurich region to have a comprehensive urban development concept put together by an external planning company. Since 2008, a massive development boost took place in Schlieren. Current consolidation processes characteristic of the suburban area can be observed on the basis of the Schlieren case study.

Schlieren 2005

Schlieren 2010

Schlieren 2015

The photographic long-term observation operates with two contrasting ways of perceiving space: overall views and detailed views. The overall views aim at illustrating spatial relationships. In contrast to architectural photography, it is not individual buildings that take center stage in the pictures: the images show changes in the interplay of buildings, street spaces and green areas. Overall views are re-photographed at 63 locations every two years under the same shooting conditions. The resulting series of images show urban transformation as a continuing, ongoing process. In these series, it can be traced how the interventions and interactions of the various stakeholders, users and residents and their interaction change the quality of a given spatial situation.

Detailed views of selected areas are photographed every five years. These images show selected objects and situations that are characteristic for the use and atmospheres of different areas and districts in Schlieren. Ulrich Görlich and Meret Wandeler developed this photographic observation concept in close cooperation with Metron AG and the City of Schlieren during the first phase of the research project in 2005/06, which was funded be the SNF (Swiss National Science Foundation).

The long-term photographic observation develops a new tool for the monitoring of urban development. Small communities in the suburban area normally do not document their history in the same way and with the same financial and infrastructural means as big cities. Planning companies do not follow in detail and over a long period of time, what the impacts and consequences of an urban development concept might be.

As an artistic project, the long-term observation is situated in the fields of contemporary documentary photography and conceptual photography. Contrary to photographic projects that document a place (parts of a city, a town, a landscape) at a certain moment in time, the long-term observation does not perform a “photographic cut” (ein fotografischer Schnitt) through space and time, but makes perceptible an ongoing process. From an artistic point of view, the slow, barely perceptive changes from image to image, at locations where not much is happening, where things just stay as they are, are as interesting as the massive changes due to the building of whole new residential areas.

The project explores the possibilities of the method of re-photography itself: the very specific way of looking at space, the particular gaze it produces. There is not just one relevant, single image for a given location, but for each location (or in the case of the detailed views, for each district) a series of images – there is not one “decisive” moment, not one “correct” or “accurate” image, but a process of looking: the photographer goes back to the same place, to see, again, and again, and again. Although the project is limited in its practical realization, potentially it could go on infinitely. Each series shows a different rendering of time passing: at places without much change, time seems to more or less stand still, it is stretched, while at another location with a lot of “action”, a lot of change, time seems to be compressed, condensed into the series of images.

In the first photographs from 2005, we had complete control as photographers over what is included in the frame (at least as far as this is possible – a completed image always shows more than what the photographer has been able to perceive in the moment that he has taken it). With the ongoing project, we lose this control over the image: it is space itself and its movements and changes that compose and define what is recorded within the frame. This interplay between control (the very strict, impersonal photographic method) and coincidence and contingency will be the focus of an artistic interpretation of the Schlieren image archive: addressing issues of selection, juxtaposition and presentation of series from different locations at the end of the research project.

The method of re-photography to a certain extent also has an effect of decentralization (Dezentrierung) and dehierarchization (Dehierarchisierung) of the gaze of the viewer. While comparing a series of images taken from the same point of view, one starts to look for modifications and correspondences: What stays the same? What changes? This comparing way of looking can shift the focus from the obvious – prominent buildings, streets, squares etc. – to that which is usually neglected, overseen: the state and texture of a façade, the asphalt on the pavement of a street, the growing of trees, bushes, and their being cut again at regular intervals, small interventions by inhabitants and users, the “furnishing” of public spaces, advertising and traffic signs etc. It is a gaze that both subverts the conventional hierarchy of valuing the elements that make up the built space, and the hierarchy of the photographic image, with its structure of foreground – middle ground – background, image center and image border/fringe (Bildrand) that directs the gaze of the viewer.

Archive of Place (Archiv des Ortes)

Project design and management: Ulrich Görlich, Meret Wandeler, IFCAR/ZHdK
Scientific assistant: Lydia Lymbourides


“Archiv des Ortes”, 2008-2010, covers a longer period of time. It addresses urban change from 1945 to the present in two selected regions in Switzerland – Schlieren again as an example for a suburb in the midlands, and the Upper Engadine around St. Moritz as one of Europes most renowned holiday areas. The project for the first time systematically viewed local inventories as a source of images that could document urban change processes: archives of construction firms, architectural and planning offices, locally based companies, postcard presses, municipal offices, regional publishers, and also local cultural-history archives and private collections. As an artistic research project, its methodical background are photographic strategies that do not take new pictures, but use already existing photo archives, particularly of applied photography (print media, advertisement) and amateur photography. In the work of artists like Peter Piller, Hans-Peter Feldmann or Richard Prince, one can study the potential of artistic strategies of decontextualizing and recontextualising images to detect new layers of meaning and aesthetic qualities in apparently trivial and ordinary photographs. Carried out in cooperation with the Swiss National Library’s Print and Drawing Collection, one of the goals of the project was to develop collecting strategies for this national collection of photographs of swiss landscapes, cities and villages for the time after World War II.

Result of the project are two photographic collections, one for Schlieren and Upper Engadine with each containing about 2000 images from 1945 to the present. All these images can be viewed online.

Archiv des Ortes, Montabella, Oberengadin 1, 2, 3.
Archiv des Ortes, Pitsch AG, Oberengadin 1, 2, 3.

Archiv des Ortes, Schlieren. Bachmann 1, 2, 3
Archiv des Ortes, Schlieren. Furrer 1, 2, 3

The book “Auf Gemeindegebiet” (On municipal ground) by Ulrich Görlich and Meret Wandeler Auf Gemeindegebiet by Ulrich Görlich and Meret Wandeler, Scheidegger & Spiess 2012explores the potential of the photographic sources that were examined during the research project to develop a new way of depicting spatial change. In the two photo spreads on Schlieren and Upper Engadine that the book contains, two parallel transformation processes are superimposed: that of the photographed object and that of the photographic perspective that different local actors take on them. Spatial transformation creates the occasion for local actors to document it: both those who promote it (e.g., construction firms), and those who are subjected to it (inhabitants). The flow of the images creates a many-voiced photographic history from the perspective of named and anonymous photographers on site. The workers at the construction companies and the area’s residents who took the pictures are not trained photographers, but experts in their own area of spatial practice. Local professional photographers are at home in the region. The documentation by on-site actors is determined by their interests, rather than being defined by a predetermined cultural or art-historical canon. This results in a unique and precise view of their surroundings.

The photos show “tempered spaces” (“gestimmte Räume”, Gernot Böhme). In addition to the main subject, whatever was in front of the camera was also recorded. This excess of information is particularly great in applied photography and amateur photography. The images show the juxtaposition of buildings, streets, sidewalks, parking places, landscape and minor elements such as billboards, traffic sings, benches, sign posts, ticket machines, flowers beds or trash containers in great detail. They make visible how materials, colors, states of preservation and the design of these elements change over time. The images focus not on cultural monuments or unspoiled nature, but show everyday environments as they are inhabited and used. The parallel presentation of photographs from two different types of agglomeration areas (Upper Engadine statistically can be understood as an agglomeration and is a completely urbanized area) works out similarities and differences, manifold relations and parallels in the development of the two areas over the past 50 years.

Long-term projects in private life

Long-term projects through their rhythms not only structure what they represent, but also the lives of the artists and photographers who accomplish them. The long-term observation of Schlieren with its fixed rhythms of re-photographing every two and five years in this way structured both my life as well those of the other participants. In addition, my photographic/artistic and private life is structured by two other long-term projects: “Vater und Kind” (“Father and Child”), since 2007, and “Das Häkelobjekt” (“The crochet-object”), in cooperation with Regula Michell, since 2004.

In “Vater und Kind”, I document the upbringing of our daughter and the ways her father, my husband, is involved. As a work in progress, the continuously increasing archive consists at the moment of around 70 photographs for the years 2007-2016 which can be edited according to a given context of presentation. The series focuses on the relationship between my child and my husband and the various ways they spend time together. Images of family life tend either to be idealized depictions, in editorial photography of women’s and parent’s magazines and in advertisement, or they tend to focus on difficult or emotionally disturbing situations, as in social documentary and concerned photography. I am interested in observing everyday situations: not the dramatic, emotional moments, anger or joy, or outstanding events in family life, but ordinary situations, which usually go unnoticed and are rather not photographed in conventional family albums with their focus on portraits and the touching or funny. What does it mean to take care of a child while it is growing up? What does this “work” consist of? How do closeness and distance structure the relationship between a grown-up and a child? The two figures that appear together in each picture, father and child, are depicted from a certain distance. This allows to also observe what kind of rooms, spaces indoors and outdoors, one spends time in once family life starts. Although I am the mother, my gaze, my way of looking at my loved ones keeps a certain amount of reserve. The camera is not a tool to get closer to a reality, to bridge a gap, but to stand a step back from it in order to be able to ponder: what is it that is happening when we are doing our job as parents, in our daily life? How can I be able to perceive how time is passing? What is happening while nothing seems to happen? How are recurring situations, the cyclical passing of time, intertwined in the linear process of growth and ageing?


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