In this time of COVID-19, there have been no shortage of photographers taking on the task of documenting the changes the pandemic has brought on in communities around the world. In doing so, few have achieved the lucidity and clarity of storytelling of Ingmar Björn Nolting.
In his series, Measure and Middle, Nolting focuses his lens on German society as a whole. Since the beginning of the country’s outbreak, he has traveled around Germany documenting scenes on the frontlines as well as within the private and public lives of regular Germans. The title of the project comes from a term used by Angela Merkel when the outbreak began, outlying a strategy of cautious and rational moderation in managing the country’s pandemic response.
Nolting’s pictures take us through doctor offices and expanded health service centers. He shows us ordinary citizens socially distancing in backyards and public parks, along with the ways in which churches, governmental bodies, and healthcare workers are adapting to new realities. All of these scenes have become familiar to us, but rarely are they presented outside the boundaries of either dramatized reportage photography or crudely produced citizen-journalism.
As a photographer, Nolting discovered a ‘new normal’ in his way of working too. “I worked under strict precautions to keep my work as safe as possible for myself and others. I talked to health care workers and doctors before I started and asked for advice,” the photographer explains. “I reduced my contacts to an absolute minimum, slept in empty holiday homes or at houses of people that I knew where I could separate myself whenever possible.”
What we find in Measure and Middle is a formalized rendition of the new, and hopefully temporary, German society. Nolting’s pictures are composed with elegant and economical visual prose, and are conducted with soft contrast and muted colors that quiet the activities in his frames. The resulting pictures characterize German society as a delicate one. Perhaps the color scheme alludes to the solemnity of these changes in lifestyle that we now endure, or maybe the scope of the tragedies this pandemic has inflicted—with so many lives lost and families left to grieve—calls for a more sober visual aesthetic that withholds the sensory joy of vibrant color and light.
In one image, a couple is seen together standing upon a sloping hill and playing a trumpet and trombone, seemingly, for an audience of trees. Nolting’s narrative acumen pulls back from this couple and illustrates their empty surroundings. It is a bitter sweet picture that simultaneously illustrates the solitude of social distance and the hopeful attitude of making the best of the circumstances.
In another, more ominous picture, a large exhibition hall stands quietly, packed with hundreds of empty hospital beds waiting to be filled. The scene takes on an uncanny resemblance to a graveyard, showing us a tragedy that hasn’t yet happened, but which is expected to come quickly. In this, we find the strength of Nolting’s narrative force. A picture doesn’t need to show a threat directly, only the changes in ourselves that the danger prompts us to enact.
While the clean and structured compositions of Nolting’s work could be considered as a very rational and orderly means of storytelling, it begs the question of whether these narratives may reflect more fantasy than reality. In the midst of a larger global condition that has become fraught with irrationality, both in global politics and in failed responses of certain major nations, the pictures of Measure and Middle may also amount to a vision of an alternative world governed by cold facts and reason. While the pictures reflect a seemingly rational response in Germany, as an American writer I cannot help but think that if Nolting had made his pictures in the United States, they would be considered more as wishful fiction than documentary realism.
Editor’s note: We discovered Measure and Middle in the LensCulture Critics’ Choice Awards 2020. Check out the rest of the winners for more inspiring work!