Hansgert Lambers
Berlin, October 2014

Beletage: At home with doctors and lawyers

Portraits of the celebrities of the world abound, as do impressive depictions of workers, truckers and hoboes; one need only think of Richard Avedon, who photographed members of both groups to great effect. But there is little photographic record of people in the middle of society. Of course they appear in projects intended to provide an overview of a particular era, such as Christian Borchert’s family portraits, which attempted to show a complete cross-section of the population and ended up revealing a surprising similarity among the different social strata of the German Democratic Republic, at least in their appearance. What is also noticeable about Borchert’s group portraits is that the living environment played a role rarely seen up to that point.

And now Lars Nickel has presented his photos of the “upper-middle class”, in which the interiors are also significant. Photographs capturing the domestic surroundings of the portrait subject are not entirely new; see Tina Barney (The Europeans) or Dayanita Singh (Privacy). But both of these works focus on members of the “upper ten thousand”, as the saying goes. I would go so far as to say that Lars Nickel offers something that has never been seen before.

He discovered his subject for a reason not entirely unfamiliar to photographers: the need to earn a living. He didn’t drive a cab, but instead took up the same career as his father: washing windows. This put him in touch with that segment of the population I have indirectly referred to and for which he has found the elegant shorthand Beletage. In the olden days, doctors, lawyers and senior civil servants lived in spacious rooms on the first floor above ground level, the bel étage, a living situation considered especially desirable. Here Lars Nickel the window cleaner was welcomed as the provider of a needed service at regular intervals. Friendly and outgoing, he was able to win his clients’ trust and bring his other occupation into play, that of photographer. Many of his clients were happy to have him take their portrait within their own four walls. I have seldom seen portrait subjects who look as friendly as in Lars Nickel’s photos; thanks to him, there is a hint of a smile on so many of their faces.

All of the portrait subjects appear relaxed and at ease, which does him particular credit. It certainly also has to do with the fact that they are portrayed in familiar surroundings. One occasionally has the sense of looking at a chamber theater where the players have entered the stage, and sometimes a clever stage manager seems to have been at work, positioning the retail manager next to a gleaming refrigerator, for example, or the office worker next to a throne-like chair. Of the many pictures on the walls, two are completely white, and one frame is empty. Sometimes the person, occupation and furnishings seem inexplicably mismatched; one is tempted to ring up and ask why. This is slow photography, not only because of the medium-format camera and the tripod. The faces and postures convey a stillness that calls for deliberate and careful observation.

As with all good portraits, we as viewers feel no sense of having intruded on the subjects’ privacy; thanks to the photographer’s artistry, we too feel like guests who are welcome to look around. One of those portrayed, a midwife, says: “My apartment, c’est moi.” At the end of the book are brief texts that the subjects felt added to their portraits.

The book also contains still photos absent of people. They demonstrate that, although the interiors were not the main focus, they were still a significant element. They also serve as welcome pauses in the flow of portraits.

About 50 years ago, Sara Haffner painted a picture of a bookcase that could have been mine: Many of the same books were on my shelves, and I felt as if I’d been found out. How many will discover in the pages of Beletage their own Ikea bookcases, their tubular steel chairs, their designer light fixtures? This is another way to interpret Lars Nickel’s photographs: as portraits of our own inner lives and those of our friends, parents and siblings.

Lars Nickel did little arranging. But one thing he insisted on was no slippers, so many of his subjects are barefoot -- how delightful!