It doesn’t matter who Chris Fletcher is––that’s the first thing I have to say and the last thing worth saying. I know he is British, from Birmingham. If I’m pressed, especially when I find an occasional selfie he’s made, I’ll probably admit that I imagine him as an actual person––before reprimanding myself for being sentimental again, and reminding myself that his actualness is beside the point.
Chris Fletcher is the name presiding over a Twitter account, a Facebook page, an Instagram feed, an Etsy store, and a private website featuring his photographs. All of his domains feature his photographs. He is prolific, and has been getting more prolific. From what I can tell, he began photographing about 2011 when he got himself a DSLR, and has been getting more and more serious about it. Mostly he makes landscapes, which is to say he likes wide views, vibrant color, and dramatic light if he’s lucky enough to get it. A person less generous than me would call them clichés. Chris Fletcher thinks of them as art, which is to say fine art, or more to the point, Fine Art. And so do the people who run a website called Fine Art America, which Chris Fletcher joined on May 18th, 2014.
In the mind of the Chris Fletcher of my imagination, the capitalized words Fine Art bestow honor and accomplishment when attached to one’s work. What would otherwise be a quick forgettable like on Instagram is suddenly made suitable for framing and giving to your mother for the spot above her radiator. We don’t quite have specific language for the common experience of photography as instant disposable visual pleasantry. (There is, maybe, plain old “photo,” though even that word seems too elaborate for the digital age, and I would suggest we should go with “pho”––except the soupmakers got to it first.) However, for photographs with class––to give pictures class––it just takes a couple of words. Fine Art America knows what they are, and so does Chris Fletcher, whoever he is.
Chris Fletcher’s store on Fine Art America has exactly 811 pictures divided into 22 galleries, with names like “On the Canal,” “Treescapes and Woodlands,” and “Flora and Fauna.” Some of these galleries have place-specific names, like “Canada” and “Croatia”––Fletcher is a bit of a traveler. For any picture in Fletcher’s store, the website automatically generates several categories of merchandise printed with the image. You can buy prints and pillows and curtains and towels and bags and rugs, cups and cards and t-shirts and phone protectors and yoga mats. The merch list comes up automatically. Chris Fletcher wants to sell you a picture, and Fine Art America makes it easy for you to customize his desire.
The very last gallery in Fletcher’s store is called “Black and White,” and the very last picture is the one I’m interested in. Fletcher uploaded the picture on September 7th, 2014––and given that his “About” page tells us that he joined Fine Art America on May 18th, 2014, the image was among the first he made for sale, maybe the very first. The photograph shows the unloading platform at Auschwitz Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland, and resembles countless similar pictures made by visitors to the former camp. Type “Birkenau Gate” into Google and you’ll see it––the Birkenau Gate meme.
Some people like to juice up their Birkenau Gate pictures to make them different from the rest, for example this person, who put what looks like a Chinese watercolor landscape behind the gate.
This photograph takes the trope of the heavy sky further than most, using it to supplement the most essential element of this picture––a symmetrical composition made by standing directly on the tracks, which I think many people treat as a historical metonym for standing in the middle of the Holocaust. It’s an extension of the same thinking that led this photographer to create an artificially heavy sky using a heavy hand with the burning tool.
Fletcher was given a heavy sky without having to work for it, and so he came up with a different solution to the problem of adding saccharine to the image. He has desaturated the picture, except for the red brick facade of the entry building. (My friend Rob Salkowitz used to give numbers to Photoshop effects like this, referring to the page number of the Photoshop manual that taught you how to do it––this from the days when you would get a printed book to teach you how to use Photoshop, in other words the technique has been around a long time.) Bricks, red bricks, red bricks of Birkenau, red bricks of bloody Birkenau, this is the only picture that is allowed to violate the rules of Chris Fletcher’s Black and White gallery.
So Chris Fletcher of Birmingham was a tourist at Auschwitz, and made a hackneyed picture of the kind that so many tourists to Auschwitz make. And yes, to state the obvious, the world’s most notorious site of mass murder is now a site of mass tourism, the word “mass” in part referring to numbers and in part referring to the condition of anonymity. Chris Fletcher, whoever he is, is one slightly less anonymous figure among the masses of the anonymous dead and the anonymous spectators. And I hasten to add: I make no judgment of Chris Fletcher or of any other visitor. I myself have been to Auschwitz many times over two decades, and I have no blueprint for what a meaningful experience there should be like for another person, or what pictures made from that experience should look like.
If anything, I feel some sympathy toward the Chris Fletcher of my imagination for a post to his Facebook page made three years ago on the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27th. Fletcher reached back into his archive and uploaded a picture from the Auschwitz 1 site, which I deduce was made the same day as the picture for sale on Fine Art America, sometime in November 2012. I think he intended the post as a gesture of respect.
If all Chris Fletcher did was make a touristic trip to Auschwitz, make a bromidic photograph of the Birkenau Gate and then make it even more bromidic by souping it up in Photoshop, I would have nothing to say. That he tries to sell it is, to me, crass, but then the tourist industry surrounding Auschwitz is already crass. If I were writing a song about it, I would be tempted to rhyme “mass” with “crass” with “alas.” Special deal?
What makes the case of Chris Fletcher interesting to me is what happens when e-sales technology starts to act on his image. Fine Art America automatically generates images for any of the products for sale, and with Fletcher’s Auschwitz picture, the results make your fingers clamber for the W, T, and F keys.
Most extraordinary to me is the Auschwitz shower curtain. It’s not a Gas Chamber shower curtain, but pretty close. The e-commerce photograph unwittingly veers from the surreal to the too real when you notice that the legs of the frame holding up the shower curtain visually align with the tracks, extending them from the image into the world beneath your feet.
Fine Art America takes product visualization seriously. Not only do you get a too-true-to-life picture of the shower curtain, there is a virtual reality-esque 3D effect in which you can grab the image and spin it in any direction you want. What would it be like stand inside your own private shower cabin memorial to the asphyxiated, starved, diseased, electrocuted, bludgeoned, experimented-upon anonymous dead of Auschwitz? You can almost know.
Chris Fletcher isn’t your only source for Auschwitz merchandise. On a website called Redbubble, there are dozens upon dozens of Auschwitz items are for sale––mugs, tote bags, and pillows seem especially popular.
And at Teepublic, there is a wide variety of Auschwitz apparel. You can even buy an Auschwitz onesie for your baby.
The question here is the muddying of intentionality. Chris Fletcher and others like him upload pictures to a photo e-commerce site with a pipeline to the industry that my old friend David Morrison used to call “trinkets and trash”–––David, an honest person who made his living selling branded items to corporations. Sentimental me, I don’t want to think Chris Fletcher and the Chris Fletchers of the world have a stake in selling Holocaust shower curtains or yoga mats or beach blankets. Rather I think he was stupid, and maybe well meaning, and didn’t think things through––didn’t grasp that the site would do to his Auschwitz picture what it does “for” the other pictures. (“For” them: someone might want one of his poppies on a tote bag for the farmer’s market, who knows?) And the merch production industry doesn’t know Birkenau from basketball. It doesn’t matter who Chris Fletcher is. Chris Fletcher’s moral interiority is his own business, and Fine Art America is just business. And between them––between an amateur photographer’s percolating commercial ambitions and the machinery of contemporary web automerch––is a decidedly unsentimental actuality, a double mindlessness.
Before long, I suspect that Chris Fletcher may decide this picture shouldn’t be for sale anymore, so go look at it while you can. And if you dare buy something, did I dare you to––despite myself?
Atlanta, February 4, 2019 / With thanks to Klaus Illi, Asya Fruman, and Magda Rubenfeld-Koralewska