A silver lining in the grays of Rīga

That Rīga, our Rīga, might one day be seen as one of the more beautiful cities in Europe, seems perhaps hard to accept. Perhaps it takes an outsider to tell Latvians what they take for granted.

German photographer Rolf Reiner Maria Borchard provides the reader of this book, Riga, with such an outsider’s view. Borchard, who studied architecture and now is a professor at the Muthesius-Hochschule in Kiel, fills this coffee-table book with more than 100 black-and-white images of the Old City, with occasional forays into other districts of the Latvian capital.

The photographs are arranged in a series of somewhat disconnected mini-excursions through Rīga. Following an introduction to Rīga’s architecture written by journalist and architecture critic Manfred Sack (in English and German), the first image is of Āgenskalns Bay. Immediately after come two seemingly obligatory, tourist-like shots of the rooftops of Rīga taken from the tower of St. Peter’s Church.

But what Borchard supplies is not a tourist’s guide, nor is it a collection of "art" photographs. The book, after all, is a presentation of Rīga’s architecture, of its buildings flavored by Baroque, Art Nouveau, Stalinism and other styles.

What Borchard provides, in fact, is difficult to define. The photographs are at once the work of a technician, of an investigator and of a photographer. So many images are static, devoid of people (did he shoot most of these on a Sunday morning?), the better to see the buildings that after all are the subject. While the lack of life in these images is marked, the ability to stare at some of Rīga’s wonders is to be savored.

Borchard is not content just to show us the obvious; he walks into courtyards, ventures behind buildings and explores corners most tourists never see. Most images were taken on the east side of the Daugava River, but Borchard does also show us some of the interesting architecture found in old fishermen’s homes on Ķīpsala.

And he certainly understands the ability of the lens to capture angles and moments pedestrians seldom encounter. In one image, looking down Trokšnu iela in the Old City, the reader feels suspended just above the street. In an another, a Cartier Bresson-like view across the Dom Square toward the Rīga Stock Exchange, we see a young boy running but appearing to leap off a cafe’s fencepost. And in one surprising picture, Borchard wants to make a point about the English neo-Tudor style of the Great Guild and Little Guild buildings. He makes the reader not just look skyward, but crane one’s neck back in a most uncomfortable position.

Did I say black-and-white? I meant gray. Or perhaps silver. The images don’t lack contrast, but about the only snappy whites you’ll find are of the paper on which the plates are printed. The first time I paged through Riga, this bothered me, perhaps because I had just returned from the city and its gray winter. In fact, many of the photographs in the book were taken in winter. On reflection—and perhaps this is the power of gray—the initial drabness of these photographs is soothing, drawing the reader in, forcing one to look at details.

I’ve gotten over the gray, but the final pages of the book remain unsettling. The first pages of Riga present us with almost a matter-of-fact "this is Rīga" introduction, but the last pages show us several of Rīga’s best known cemeteries, focusing particularly on memorial sculptures. Why? One has to read the comments (in English and German) to the photographs to find the answer. The last two images, from the Forest Cemetery (Meža kapi), reveal the power of these sculptures that are not mere headstones. Says the photographer: "A friendly paradox: the living drawing strength from their dead."



Rolf Reiner Maria Borchard

Stuttgart, Germany:  Edition Axel Menges,  1999

ISBN 3930698617

Where to buy

Purchase Riga from Amazon.com.

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Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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