Review: Sommerherz by Thekla Ehling


Book Reviews, Photobooks


Just like Doug Dubois’ All the Days and Nights, Thekla Ehling’s Sommerherz is a portrait of family life. Unlike Doug, Thekla focused on her own children and on friends.

Children, of course, add another dimension to all the pitfalls of family photography: Most children are so adorable, aren’t they? Especially your own ones, who just have to be the most adorable creatures, even surpassing kittens and all other (furry) baby animals! And childhood is the very best time of one’s life, isn’t it?

Except, of course, that all that is not true, because while children can be very adorable, often they are not; and childhood is also a time of immense disappointments (“No, you can’t eat all that ice cream, you’ll be sick”), of pain (remember all those unpleasant illnesses? the teeth? remember falling and breaking the skin on your knees?), of having to do things in unpleasant ways… We tend to forget this, because in retrospect childhood always seems like the time when life was just great. When there was nothing to worry about.

So there us always that danger for a photographer to take photos of his or her own children from his or her own mindset: Aiming to present childhood as that care-free, happy time in life - which is, of course, just short of how childhood is presented in commercials or in those magazines that cater to affluent suburbanites.

Here’s a theory. I think there is a reason why many photographers who very successfully portrayed childhood - Sally Mann or Tierney Gearon come to mind - ran into trouble at various stages. I’ve always thought that the complaint about the children’s nudity in Sally Mann’s or Tierney Gearon’s photography was more than that: I’ve always thought that it was a veiled complaint about the photographers not using rose-tinted glasses to portray childhood. The nudity is then just a convenient hook, a convenient way to express a grievance. Of course, I could be wrong; but I’ve heard many muffled complaints about some of the imagery Tierney Gearon produced, always to the effect of “Children don’t do that” or “Children don’t like that”. Guess what, children are also afraid of clowns - which doesn’t prevent us adults from giving them clowns and expecting them to have fun.

So here’s Thekla’s Sommerherz, and given the nudity in some of the images, we can expect to hear some of the old complaints. To which we should respond by all turning into teenagers for just a second: Whatever!

Sommerherz is a wonderful book, that is very different from many other depictions of childhood and family life; it’s very lyrical, and there’s a sense of melancholy maybe: After all, if you take photos of your children how can you not compare this all with your own childhood?

With its bilingual text and exquisite printing, Sommerherz clearly appeals to an international market (it’s a German publisher who deserves much wider recognition - and credit for not publishing Karl Lagerfeld books every year!); and the imagery will maybe surprise many people whose idea of German photography is that it’s all very sterile and cold. It isn’t.