Viennese personalities on stage and on rooftops
Her workload is greater than ever: the exhibition at the Theatre Museum in Vienna, with accompanying catalogue, needs to be prepared; further book projects are planned; and the archives have to be maintained. Even so, there will still be time to celebrate. In addition to the exhibition vernissage, the Burgtheater in Vienna is dedicating an evening to Christine de Grancy, where the great storyteller will be honoured, as well as given the opportunity to present her new book, dedicated to her theatre photographs. Her unique style of theatre photography was shaped at the Burgtheater. Mingling, virtually unnoticed, with the actors during rehearsals gave rise to imagery that is immediate and direct. Christine de Grancy is counted among the great photographers of our times – as both a sensitive observer, during her many travels across the globe, and a chronicler of her home town, Vienna. She takes a particular interest in exploring the rooftop landscapes of Vienna, finding completely new and formerly unknown perspectives for the many figures up there.
You’ve been living in Vienna for around 60 years. Which are your favourite areas?
Everything around the Ring. Parts of the city centre; in particular, my “village”, which is the 7th District Neubau. I like Vienna’s very diverse districts. If I was wealthy, I would like to live on the banks of the Danube, and be connected with this fascinating river – this wonderful symbol of eternal flow, of ever-changing life.
How have you experienced the transformation of the city?
After the fall of the Iron Curtain on the Hungarian border, you could soon feel the changes in Vienna. From every perspective, the city became more open, younger, livelier. For quite a long time, the separation from the East had been doing Vienna no good. It hadn’t done Europe any good. It was Mikhail Gorbachev who made this fortunate change possible. Unfortunately, those who came along afterwards haven’t taken care of the house known as Europa. The current war next door reveals the criminal neglect. However, we need this open space – humanly, culturally and economically – with or without gas.
Vienna played an important role on your path to photography, didn’t it?
I started taking snapshots when I was 14 years old. While I was working as an art director, my interest in photography grew continuously, over the years. Back in the sixties, I was already taking pictures of old businesses: with their colourful, golden, and black signs, some of which hailed from before the First World War, they had a simple promotional effectiveness that I liked a lot.
What did you find lacking in the work for an advertising agency?
For me, it wasn’t enough to follow the conformism required. I missed the lively reference to our existence. I wanted to escape from having to constantly serve the normative standards that can suppress, even destroy, authenticity. Last but not least, my experiences with photographers and people, during various commercial productions, strengthened my desire to become a photographer myself. Capturing life-affirming moments, and using my own visual language to speak about them, became important and essential to me.
Which camera models do you prefer to work with?
I’ve been working with Leica cameras since the mid-eighties: with an M6, an R7, and now a digital M10.
You’ve been on countless trips, exploring the world. In Vienna you are drawn to rooftop landscapes, in particular. Why do you find them so special?
You can get a feel for the atmosphere of the city in our Ringstrasse, for example. This self-portrayal of the Habsburg Empire’s metropolis was created at the end of the monarchy. The builders, and co-designer architect Theophil von Hansen, still felt a connection to the world of the ancient Greek deities. Working with many sculptors, they managed to erect something like an Olympus, with colossal figures overlooking Vienna. Divine sobriety and southern cheerfulness hover at times over our city. I wanted to get closer to these gods, who had been banned forever to the roofs of important buildings. The change of perspective is amazing and enticing. It was never easy to get up there, but you shouldn’t be swayed from your intention.
What new understandings of the city did you acquire through the views and the rooftop landscapes?
In general, the ‘power – powerlessness’ game; and how we humans, whatever our position, can be part of this inconceivably serious, bloody, occasionally cheerful, as well as generous, hustle and bustle. I don’t believe there was any European city in the 19th century that was as engaged with the World of the Gods as Vienna was. Coming to terms with Greek antiquity was a plus!
You have a particular connection to the figure of the Goddess Fama on top of the Hofburg; right?
Fama, the Goddess of Rumour, a five-metre colossal figure on the Neue Hofburg, had to be brought down to the Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square). The iron plate connected to the base had rusted through. Once down on earth, a metal restorer thoroughly refurbished her and made her ready to return to the heights. According to Ovid, Fama, the messenger of truth and lies (the contents of which are indistinguishable from one another), is not a deity in the proper sense. In Greek and Roman mythology, she is more of an invention of poetry. The proof for this is that everything that is spoken about is also in the world! So Fama is enthroned on the Neue Hofburg – and opposite her is Fortuna, the unreliable Goddess of Luck. Whether by chance or consideration on the part of the builders of the Neue Hofburg, this duo – left and right, high above the infamous “Hitler Balcony” – didn’t bring the last Habsburg Emperor any luck.
At the moment you are busy preparing an exhibition at the Theatre Museum in Vienna. What were the biggest surprises or discoveries, during the preparations?
You keep far more than you can ever show. I consider important aspects of theatre to be found in many other places than just the spotlight. There are many co-workers and wonderful handicrafts, behind the scenes, that are necessary for an evening’s success. I wanted to capture all that, as well.
You’ve done away with classic frames, and have opted for a particular form of presentation for your prints at the museum.
Yes, they are free-floating images, bundled together into small stories. I am presenting pieces that I took as of 1979, during the time when Achim Benning was director; and beyond, up until 1991. The visitors are not only allowed to touch the pictures – they are encouraged to do so!
What does taking photographs mean to you?
I always consider my work as an attempt to come into living connection with my vis-à-vis; to give space for the authentic between us. To create something that is touching, because it wants to honour, respect and encourage the human in us.
Many thanks for speaking with us, and many happy returns on your birthday!
Christine de Grancy was born in Brünn (today Brno in the Czech Republic) on May 18, 1942. She grew up in Berlin and the Lüneburger Heide (Germany), before moving to Graz (Austria) with her mother. There, she studied Ceramics, Pottery and Commercial Graphics at the School of Applied Arts. She has been living in Vienna since 1963, where she worked in advertising agencies as a graphic designer and art director. In 1977, following a stay of several months in Patmos, she began to dedicate herself to photography. Her travels have taken her to Greece, Japan, Portugal, Algeria, China, Tibet, Pakistan, Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Niger and Mali, among other places. Her pictures have appeared in many magazines, photo books and exhibitions. De Grancy prefers to work in black and white.
The Sturm und Spiel. Die Theaterphotographie der Christine de Grancy (Storm and Play. The theatre photography of Christine de Grancy) exhibition will be on display at the Theatre Museum in Vienna from June 3 to November 7, 2022.
Last year, Die2 published Über der Welt und den Zeiten, a photo book about Vienna’s rooftop landscapes.
Issue 4/2022 of LFI presents Christine de Grancy in the Leica Classics segment.