When you see the Sad–Eyed Lady in Harf Zimmermann’s latest photography book of the same name, a nod to Bob Dylan’s 1966 song “The Sad–Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, it is not the blue of her painted face that the eye focuses on, but the thickness of the ink with which her photo was printed. Printed by Gerhard Stiedl, dubbed by The New Yorker as “the printer the world’s best photographers trust most,” the book is not just a series of photographs, but itself a work of art.
Zimmermann’s photographs document the ruins of the Berliner Luftund Badeparadies bathing center in Berlin. Opened in 1985, the center welcomed seven million visitors before closing in 2005 due to hygiene complaints. Zimmermann chronicles the death of the space with its graffitied walls and overgrown grounds. He peppers the pages of the book with commentary, describing the area as “somewhere between enchanted and bewitched.” What’s extraordinary about the place is also unsettling: the unbridled regrowth of vegetation; the steel bones of a former greenhouse; an amoeba-shaped pool now full of debris.
Zimmermann hails from Berlin, and his connection to place is evident in his treatment of the photographs. He makes a deserted structure, one devoid of any cohesiveness or true beauty, into something worth examination. The photos are studiously absent of people, though Zimmermann references visitors to the area in his captions: “fans of lost places and ruined architecture” and “Turkish rappers, with two or three bands turning up each night.” The Sad–Eyed Lady is a face of a woman, spray-painted in blue onto a building’s facade. To Zimmermann, she is “a thoroughly mysterious creature stranded on my new home planet,” one who was eventually wiped out in the fire that swept through the area in the midst of Zimmermann’s documentation.
Just like Dylan’s song, you’re not quite sure what to make of the Berliner Luftund Badeparadies. Many critics were baffled by Dylan’s lyrics when his song was first released, arguing that it was senseless and unintelligible. Zimmermann’s photographs can be equally baffling and unearthly. In the end, it is Stiedl’s printing that elevates these photographs into something striking, with ink printed so thick it looks 3D, the paper matte and uncoated. It is the feel of the pages in your hand as you turn through the book as much as the image on the page that stirs something more than just passing interest, that makes “The Sad-Eyed Lady” something wonderful to behold.