„…as soon as imagination finds a way of expression we feel that reality is nothing and imagination is everything.“  The medium of photography is a fitting platform for the exploration of memory. Since its invention, the photographic medium has been a contestation of truth and evidence, and not just since that great powerful tool called Photoshop appeared in our lives. A photograph was once known as technical and factual proof of a moment captured, an eternal and tangible memory of an occurrence. Of course now we know this is much more subjective. Sarah Steffens series Die Michbriefe plays with ideas of collective memory. Without using any technical trickery, she also puts into question this contested media but through symbiotic manipulation rather than physical interference. Through twenty slightly eerie yet innocuous analogue photographs, Steffens takes her viewer on a journey into a mindscape of oppositions: fiction and reality, innocence versus maturity and past versus present. Preferring to show “not what is there, but what is not”, Steffens sets about making an album from these collective pasts; questioning how much we can “trust our memories”, when “what we experienced during our childhood and adolescence, gets overlaid with collective impressions”.  In a world increasingly saturated by images, a person on any given day may expect to see somewhere between two to five thousand images - an incomprehensible amount of information for the brain to process. As if by a process of osmosis (and one that advertising and marketing know full-well how to use to their advantage) images, which we might not even remember seeing, will often later pop into our subconscious. In a sort of amnesic haze, Steffens presents a series of tableaux or flashes of visions,
. Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, 1971 . John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972  . Accessed 27 April, 2013 
which might be her past, or another’s… We are made to question whether these scenarios actually once took place or is a layering of moments, experiences and infiltration of seen images and impressions from “movies we’ve watched, books we’ve read or stories we’ve been told”, which have filtered through the wonderful and curious thing that is the human mind, to make new these histories that are shown before us. The images are not so far from the truth… however, they are situations one would probably never take a happy snap of in daily life, but of course instead reserve it in that intricate and malleable space we call memory. In John Berger’s famed book, Ways of Seeing, he speaks about the human process of mystification. He recognises that as beings we are not solely objective, but that part of us includes consciousness. We may assume things about the past (objectively and according to fact), but they are often not in relation to our current state and therefore ‘lead to a mystification of the past’, not a clarification  . It is these thought processes that Steffens tries to pull apart. By playing with the idea of memory falsification she questions ideas of what we really “know” of our own personal histories. Bathed in soft light, Steffens images conjure up that nostalgic romanticism we often associate with things past, filtering out the bad in order to only remember the good. Yet the subjects of Steffens images are like a sad family album of celebrations on life and death and the intimate moments in between. A dead fox, new fawns in the snow… Often in the same frame a push and pull of emotions and contrasts take place. Intelligently highlighted by the use of textures and materials, an elderly lady (I am suspecting her grandmother) sits naked, bathed in soft morning light like a new born, a portrait of another elderly lady dressed in (dead animal) furs, a grown woman in bed caressing the wallpaper in a childlike state.
text Lara Merington
Although the images have a linear aesthetic, narrative is contained in each singular photograph and the viewer is not led obviously from one to the next like a chronological album. Sitting side by side in a neat long line on the wall, the very traditional curation leaves the sole focus on the photographs themselves. The smart addition (and there are 25 editions only) of a hardcover, clothbound book is an enjoyable accompaniment to the work. It is in in reality, possibly a much more obvious choice for presenting the work - and is a work in itself. Showing the series of images in its entirety, the book is interleaved with acid-free transparent paper giving it the tangible look and feel of an old photo album - full of memories you can touch. The title of the work Die Milchbriefe (Eng. The Milk-Letters) is symbiotic at least. Milk symbolises purity, innocence, and childhood. In letters we romanticise what is now, a somewhat archaic form of communication. Stories on paper imbued with physical touch, stained with history and manipulated by context. Something that starts out innocently and becomes a twisted whisper over time. Here in particular, and looking at the work I am led to make the association to nursery rhymes; sugary tunes that appropriately hide or evict what are often riddles stemming from darker histories. In fact there is a plethora of meaning one could dissect from this weighty title, as there is a world of stories you can uncover in each of Steffens commanding photographs. Sarah Steffens is a Photographer from Neuwied, Germany. She spent one year living in Tokyo as part of her first degree in Japanese studies and philosophy. Recently she completed studies at the Ostkreuz school of Photography under professor Ute Mahler. Die Milchbrief was her final graduation work and was first exhibited as part of the final graduates of the 2012 “echo’s” exhibition in the European Month of Photography.
Published on May 1, 2013