Photographer Barbara Diener uses photography to understand her relationship to death, spirituality, and her German family and cultural heritage. Her new series of images, The Rocket’s Red Glaze, takes as a starting point the narration of the lives of the first two rocket launchers, and questions her complex feelings in the face of a fragmented family memory.
I’ve been wanting to make photographs since I was very young. I remember walking through an animal sanctuary park in rural Germany where I grew up and telling my friend what I would take pictures of if I had a camera. There is an image of me that my mother made where I am standing on a rock in a bathing suit and holding up a Rainbow Brite cassette tape case. I was pretending that it was my camera. For my eighth birthday, my grandmother took me to Toys R Us and I was allowed to pick one thing, anything. All I wanted was a little hot pink point-and-shoot camera. I was obsessed.
I pay a lot of attention to light, natural and artificial, in any scene I photograph. That is very important to me. I often default to a straight-forward, deadpan approach to making a photograph while also framing my images to be ambiguous and function on an allegorical level. I regularly include elements like fog, fire, smoke, and water as metaphors for something that is hidden beneath the surface of what the eye can see. In all of my work, I am interested in the tension between photography’s perceived ability to tell the truth and the simultaneous lack of being able to do so.“The Rocket’s Red Glare” is a 3 years series. How did conceive it through the years?
While researching my previous body of work “Phantom Power,” I repeatedly came across a fascinating character named Jack Parsons, a pioneer rocket scientist from California who was also an avid occultist. Around the same time, my pre-existing interest in the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun deepened, and I saw a connection in the type of person they both were—especially in their interest to travel to, explore, and even conquer space. Through further research I learned that their lives had actually intersected when they were teenagers. Both active in rocket clubs, they talked on the phone for hours about their home-grown explosions and rocket fuel tests.
“The Rocket’s Red Glare” uses the parallel lives of von Braun and Parsons as a metaphor for the selective way history is told. This series challenges the often dual retelling of significant 20th-century events, starting in Nazi-era Germany and culminating in the moon landing. My interest in interpreting this chain of events, specifically von Braun’s story, comes from my own reckoning with history and my complicated German heritage surrounding World War II.
I was born and raised in Germany to an American mother and a German father. The latter, who passed away in 2007, was a young boy during World War II. It was hard for him to talk about the war and therefore unclear to me how where my family fit into that horrific historical moment. As far as I know, my grandfather and uncle did not join the Nazi Party but both fought in the war for Germany. My uncle was 18 when he was wounded at the end of the war and died of his injuries.
My complex feelings about my heritage are embodied in von Braun’s life. A Nazi turned NASA scientist, von Braun’s life was filled with as much contradiction as his groundbreaking rockets were, which were used as missiles and spacecraft alike. Much of his Nazi past was classified for decades in order to celebrate his contribution to the U.S. space race. On the other hand, Parsons was written out of NASA’s history for decades because of his erratic behavior and ties to Aleister Crowley’s infamous cult.
To weave together a sense of these two complicated stories, I photograph places of significance to von Braun and Parsons, make portraits referencing existing images, and appropriate and alter archival material related to the scientists’ lives and careers. The titles of some of my photographs are taken from an untitled poem written by Parsons.
I often manipulate and retouch archival images, changing how we understand them in the context of time, geography, and the records about von Braun and Parsons’ lives. I am drawn to the final product for its ambiguity and potential to take on new and unexpected meanings. For example, by removing a figure from its original context and placing it into a different landscape I merge the two places—Germany and the United States—and the two different timelines to create a new representation of geography, truth, and national identity.
Rather than presenting a complete view of this history, I leave intentional holes in the narrative. These gaps serve as questions, looking at how stories pass through generations and how facts are distorted, embellished, or undermined.
While my practice is rooted in research and adjacent to contemporary documentary, my most successful images—or at least the ones I am most drawn to—are often unplanned. I learned early on to embrace the happy accident and to be open to unexpected opportunities. I usually research the history of a place, but once I am there I might make photos that are completely different from what I expected.
In “The Rocket’s Red Glare,” my experimentation lies in collage, montage, and digital composites. A significant part of the project consists of archival images that I found in the Wernher von Braun Archive in Huntsville, AL, which I composited into my own landscape photographs.
Some early influences include German Romanticism and painters like David Caspar Friedrich and Johan Christian Dahl. I keep coming back to those kinds of enveloping landscapes. As a portraitist, August Sander and his lineage has been a huge influence, and similarly professors and students from the Düsseldorf Akademie—Joseph Beys, Gerhard Richter, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Candida Höfer, etc. These German artists, especially the latter group, have had their own reckoning with history, which I can relate to.
Collier Schorr’s photographs made in Germany, photographing the landscape, ephemeral flower sculptures, and portraits of youth wearing Army and Nazi uniforms alike have also been a huge influence on me.
Dealing with archival materials for “The Rocket’s Red Glare,” blurring the line between fact and fiction, I also turned to artists like Joan Fontcuberta and Christian Patterson for inspiration.