Illustrated book: Michael Tewes photographs German autobahns – journey

Even this first photograph contains everything: Michael Tewes is standing next to a motorway – and yet right in the middle of the scenery. You can see both lanes, each on the side edges of the picture. The crash barriers. You don’t see any cars. But trees, shrubs, bushes, a mangy meadow, hard earth. All of this together: a median so wide that you could build another lane on it in both directions.

The picture shows a section of the A 555 near Raderthal in western Germany. This was once the first German autobahn, on the left bank of the Rhine, from Bonn to Cologne. It was inaugurated in 1932. In his volume “Auto Land Scape”, Tewes portrays the German Autobahn as an organism that stretches across the country like the mycelium of a mushroom, only on the surface. A meandering, branching network, sometimes fitting discreetly into the landscape, sometimes overgrowing it, building bridges, boring tunnels.

In his foreword, the journalist Claudius Seidl makes the very apt observation that Michael Tewes manages the trick of leaving the interpretation of the photographs to the viewer: the pictures can be read as criticism of a gigantic form of natural subjugation. But you can also read it as “admiration for the power that is in this building”. Seidl continues: “Michael Tewes sees the form where we drivers always only see the track.” Because he stops, takes his time, because he looks at the freeway from the outside. This is not only a question of perspective, but also of speed.

Of course, this is irritating at first. Motorways, photographed from the side, from below, also from above. If you can see the tarmac at all, it’s mostly empty. Vehicles can only be seen in a few shots, and when they do, it often looks as if they too have stopped.

Stopping, however, “is defined as a traffic jam or a breakdown,” says Seidl, “at most as a short break.” The volume “Auto Land Scape” is in this respect a curiosity. Because it shows the familiar from an unusual perspective. It comes at just the right time, as fuel prices are rising more than they have been for a long time, so that the state feels compelled to intervene to regulate it. At the same time, people are heading south, just like before the pandemic, to finally spend their holidays there again. There is a struggle for a turnaround in transport, for the switch to the train, for electromobility, for the mobility of the future.

Such an illustrated book naturally encourages you to philosophize a little about the Autobahn as a place and non-place at the same time, because of course it really exists and needs more and more space, but on the other hand you want to be as fast and far away as possible, so you never really get stuck on a certain part of the Autobahn stops, but only sweeps over it. Seidl and then Thomas Zeller and Alexander Gall also deal with the history and aura of the autobahns in their essay, especially in Germany.

In a floodplain near the Duisburger Kreuz, under the A 40 – the bridge is called “Krücken” – cows graze. Photographer Michael Tewes discovered them by accident.

(Photo: Michael Tewes/Michael Tewes)

That’s clever and Seidl also witty – and yet these texts take off a little. Michael Tewes uses his photographs to bring the subject back down to earth in a very real way. He grounds it. Also in those pictures in which the motorways suggest a lightness, through bold bridge constructions, through an elegant course. The heaviness, the immovable never disappear from his pictures.

Travelogue on Autobahns: Cars are rarely seen in his pictures - and even more rarely so many as on the Berlin A 100 city motorway.

Cars are rarely seen in his pictures – and even more rarely so many as on the Berlin A 100 city motorway.

(Photo: Michael Tewes/Michael Tewes)

Tewes has a keen eye for comedy. In the Ruhr area, he tracked down a herd of cows grazing under a motorway bridge. In Beihingen, a go-kart track right next to the A 81, at the Jagstal Ost rest area a semi-trailer truck with a new car – both images in which a whirring impatience can be felt. On the go-kart track it’s the young drivers that one assumes to be here, on the articulated lorry the brand-new cars, each ready for the longed-for use on those roads that are reserved exclusively for cars.

There is a photograph of the A 70 near Altenreuth, on which three double-lane lanes first run parallel to one another and then turn away from one another. All three disappear without one being able to see where exactly, in a hilly landscape. There is no vehicle to be seen, it is one of those images that play most clearly with the question of the usefulness of what is shown. Of course, everyone knows what highways are for. However, when one sees photographs like this one, one cannot help but get the impression that there is something very absurd about this autoland landscape – as one must probably read the book’s title – whenever the usefulness is not overtly evident.

Michael Tewes: Auto Landscape. Verlag Hatje Cantz, Berlin 2022. 180 pages, 48 ​​euros.

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