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Source Magazine: Thinking Through Photography - Web Articles - Writers Prize - The Body of Ulrike Meinhof - by Chris Milton. Posted: Fri 21 Jul 2023.

WRITERS PRIZE: 21 / JUL / 2023
by Chris Milton

Victors displayed the heads of the vanquished upon pikes, held aloft for yokel delectation and warning. This photo of Ulrike Meinhof, taken shortly after her suicide in the Stannheim prison mortuary in 1976 for police archives, leaked to the press by a police photographer to Stern magazine, was intended to signal a victory and serve as deterrent to the public. But on its own terms, it fails. How could it not make the viewer question just what could have pushed this famously fervent, iron-willed woman to the point of self-murder? What they did to her? Whether it was indeed suicide and not murder? It is an image that sabotages itself through its very squalor. Instead of the state’s victory, it harshly exposed the true beastliness of the tabloid press and the corrupt relationship between police, press and a vestigially fascist state. Power presenting irrefutable photographic evidence against itself. A de-transfigurating, anti-pieta, the photo has a coldness, distance and dispassion few artists are monster enough to muster. If it can serve as a warning about the end-point of all ideologies and fantaticisms - a futile and violent death, it also exposes the dirty secret of how state power must maintain itself when challenged beyond certain boundaries. Both Marlene Dumas and Gerhard Richter based paintings directly on this photograph, but neither have the power of the source. Oddly, few painters have captured the dirty sordidness of violent death, have achieved the sobering power and revulsion of the black and white photos of the Union and Confederate dead, the smithareened of the trenches, the desiccated, stacked inmates of the camps. A painting is a record of manifold intentionalities and a nexus of meanings and significations, but death is beyond meaning, beyond all irony. This is not the only time state archival photographs have turned against the recording perpetrators. In this case, the effect was immediate. This is an example of how photography flows in discrete streams that serendipitously converge to create moral and aesthetic eddies, the photo-journalism-evidence stream, the icon stream, the art stream, the archival stream, the trophy stream. There may be something in Hito Steyarl’s dismissal of the Baader-Meinhof gang as "dodgy leftist pin-ups"; they were young and good looking, and for years the German press was saturated their images. Press photography played a large and active role in the formation, tragedy and afterlife of the German left in the seventies. The libidinal element of the coverage of the gang’s exploits was noted even at the time. A double-page spread of woman as meat, it perhaps expresses an unconscious truth about those other female double-page spreads. In any case, nothing could be more intimate or invasive. This photo was taken parallel to the body and unaccountably from very close up, and has a whiff of the necrophiliac. Her flesh’s paleness and the slight overexposure evokes funerary statuary upon a catafalque. Inevitably, it encourages that half-forgotten, half-repressed episode in German history surging up guiltily in the mind. As well as Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Esslin and Andreas Baader, Bild and Stern also acted terroristically, even more so, deliberately spreading terror through the German population, for the sake of circulation and the consolidation and increase of state power. The smudged, slightly blurred quality, the result of poor photography and cheap newsprint, only enhances the photograph’s artfulness, and the staples that lacerate her neck a second time, a degenerate desecration of the dead, could be the touch of a sophisticated if cruel artist. More than filthy waste matter of a repressive state, more than a mere historical document, despite itself, intellectually the image works like the very best history painting in that it is not an image of pathos, nor of transfiguration, but one of melancholy, that is, it is pathological.

Image: Body of Ulrike Meinhof, anonymous police photographer, Stern magazine, October 1976

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