Simple gods: the new illustrated book by photographer Christine de Grancy.


The book title “Über der Welt und den Zeiten” sounds distant, somehow floating, also a bit sentimental, in short, quite Christmassy. After all, this is what the next few days will be about: close the door, please stay outside everyday. No traffic light messages, no Hello Fresh delivery, no extremely heavy parcels for the neighbors. And the photos by Christine de Grancy, who gave her new volume this title, are ideally suited for this purpose: to immerse yourself in a harmonious, pleasantly deserted world of images. Roof landscapes, angel wings and stone idols from Vienna, the most soulful city in the world. Great. Another sip of tea, turn the pages, one contemplates the beauty of submerged greatness.

But it is not quite as blissful as it is in the past, at least not when it comes to Christine de Grancy. The famous photographer, with white curly hair and from the magazine Photo Voted one of the 100 best of her guild, she will soon be eighty, but she is extremely lively, even if she no longer climbs the highest roofs as she used to. The Viennese commented with low mockery that her phone gave off a penetrating crackle just at the time of the agreed conversation. “You think analog is better anyway” – no way you’re switching to mobile communications. Which is of course a nice irony when meeting a convinced black and white photographer. This is also what makes her book special: the renunciation of color is now a rarity. “Black and white signals a completely different level of seriousness and concentration,” she says. There are already enough pseudo-artists who make themselves interesting with the “Monochrome” app on their smartphones.

Photography: Nike, the goddess of victory over the Burggarten (1980).

The goddess of victory Nike over the castle garden (1980).

(Foto: Copyright: Christine de Grancy)

And black and white is probably the only appropriate sphere for gods, and they are Christine de Grancy’s big topic. The trained ceramist and graphic artist was fascinated by the unearthly not only in the current book – which partly rearranged older works – but rather early on in her second career: the winged beings, thundering patriarchs, clever women of Greek and Roman legends, after all they are surrounded by them in Vienna. They populate portals, domes, cornices. “I think there is no such thing as a European city,” says de Grancy in a light singsong, “which deals with this world of gods as excessively as Vienna”. Heavenly breath, so to speak, is constantly blowing through the Ringstrasse between the Burgtheater, Heldenplatz and Karlskirche.

Handling is nicely said because, on the one hand, it expresses the purposeful thinking of the builder – usually someone wants to erect a monument for himself with an Apollo or Zeus on the roof. And the term also shows that the colossal figures are not colossal for themselves, but actually very hands-on, approachable and, above all, “insanely human”, as she says. That means that the gods and goddesses are vain, sometimes ridiculous, get lost, make huge mistakes – the classic world of legends is full of stories of failure. And that’s exactly how de Grancy photographed them, fearlessly on the highest stairs and balustrades: unheroic.

Sometimes the weathered face of a winner looks rather melancholy up close, sometimes a putto with a fat baby bottom of a deadly serious group of figures high above Karlsplatz takes away the solemnity. And when construction workers abseil the goddess Fama with heavy chains from the Hofburg for renovation, the dignity is over anyway. Also great is the picture in which Nike seems to dash through a fluttering scaffolding net with her triumphal chariot. “Über der Welt und die Zeiten”, published by “Die Zwei”, is only superficially a book about imperial splendor. It’s actually about the small in the big. That fits in well with our time, which is not particularly suitable for heroic sagas. Christine de Grancy took Apollon and Pallas Athene off the roofs for a long time. But they are still beautiful with her.

Photography: Empress Maria Theresia, in the background the sun god Helios on the dome of the Natural History Museum (2007).

Empress Maria Theresa, in the background the sun god Helios on the dome of the Natural History Museum (2007).

(Foto: Copyright: Christine de Grancy)

The question of perspective, says Christine de Grancy, “has always been on her mind since I started taking photos”. Not only in the artistic sense with the search for the right image details and proportions. Rather, it concerns the balance between power and powerlessness, between above and below. She always approached the people whom she photographed on her major reportage trips through Russia, Asia or African countries, always at eye level. “I’m the one with the camera, so the stronger one. I never wanted to take advantage of that,” says de Grancy. Even the enthroned Maria Theresa as an imperial monument loses the unapproachable and appears human, almost naked, which is perhaps also due to the unclothed sun god Helios in the background.

The photographer’s reluctance begins with the equipment. Instead of relying on bulky lenses, she prefers to travel with the compact Leica M. And in her pictures of her mother in Niger, who proudly braids her daughter’s hair for a party, she comes as close as Chinese factory workers and the Burgtheater diva Erika Pluhar. Or the beauties in fur in Russia, four mannequins who are about to strut into the somewhat shabby factory in the background to take pictures, but first they pose for the reporter from Austria. “That was a special moment, I was charmed by them. And they apparently by me,” remembers de Grancy. The photo has more atmosphere, intensity and coolness than any fashion shoot could produce.

Photography: On the way to the fashion show: women wearing fur in Tatarstan (1996).

On the way to the fashion show: women wearing fur in Tatarstan (1996).

(Foto: Copyright: Christine de Grancy)

Being on the move, the variety of subjects, the curiosity about encounters: Probably, she thinks, it also has something to do with her own biography. “Basically, I’ve been traveling all my life.” Born in 1942 in what was then Czechoslovakia to a Berlin mother and an Austrian father, after his death shortly before the end of the war she came to her grandmother in Graz via detours through the Lüneburg Heath and Bavaria. As a young girl, life there seemed narrow and oppressive to her, “that was a brown city at the time”. She went to Vienna in the early 1960s, made contact with painters, actors and bon vivants. “We were a rebellious group of friends,” she says. In the 1970s she began to take photographs, including at the Burgtheater. Christine de Grancy has published her work in numerous books and shown it in exhibitions in Hamburg, New York and at the Perpignan Photo Festival.

Photography: David Bowie visiting the "Art Brut"-Artists' colony in Gugging (1994).

David Bowie visiting the “Art Brut” artist colony in Gugging (1994).

(Foto: Copyright: Christine de Grancy)

One of the many highlights in her life as an artist was meeting David Bowie in 1994, which she talks about very calmly. Still, a superstar, but it was a very special get-together and it didn’t turn out to be a superstar photo. André Heller, with whom de Grancy has a lifelong friendship, had invited the singer for a trip to the small town of Gugging, a center of the Art Brut movement and known for the artistic work of patients in a mental hospital. The photographer accompanied the trip; she doesn’t say a lot about Bowie. “He was nice, kind, with no allure.” The photos are all the more impressive. They show the then 47-year-old in encounters with the artists that Bowie seems concentrated, reserved, almost shy. It fits in with the fact that Christine de Grancy kept the photographs under lock and key for decades, even after the singer’s death in 2016. It wasn’t until a year later that she showed the pictures in a Viennese gallery. She thought it was the right time. “Sometimes it’s good when things stay where they are for a while.”

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