O, collecting eggs despite the times (2017 – present)

O is a series of photographs and a documentary film based on Max Schönwetter’s egg-collection and correspondence. A photo book will be released early 2022. All photos are pigmented fine art prints, size 42 x 42 cm, edition 8 + 1 AP. More information about the film at the bottom of the page.

I have just returned from an offensive against the Russians
in Northern Finland and have collected a few eggs there which seemed to
me to be interesting and which I am sending you herewith
.”
(Schäfer to Schönwetter, 21 August 1941)

Despite the turmoil of the twentieth century, Max Schönwetter (1874-1961) devotes himself to his passion for the science of the egg: the oology. For more than sixty years, he works with great scrutiny on his life’s work: the scientific handbook of the egg. In his house, he collects 19.206 eggs of 3.839 bird species, carefully categorised in seven chests of drawers. Eggs with a vale brown colour, or dark grey eggs covered with black spots, or with a blue high gloss. 138 drawers filled with eggs: matte or shiny, white or coloured, spotted or speckled.

For the continuous expansion of his collection and the acquisition of knowledge about the egg, Schönwetter corresponds with ornithologists, oologists, expedition members, museum staff, collectors, and soldiers. It is a frantic collecting, ordering and systemizing, in spite of the chaos of times. The passages from the correspondence form a polyphonic collage of voices, with Schönwetter as soloist.: the ‘kammerspiel’ of Schönwetter’s small world contrasts with events on the world stage.

“Dear Mr. Schönwetter, I have just sorted out your eggs, details as per attached invoice. You will see that I have sent you practically all that you have ordered. I realise the difficulty you have in transferring money and believe me, I am the last one to even suggest that you break any laws of your country. I know that each person in Germany can only send out 16 Reichsmark per month and my suggestion was that possibly Mrs. Schönwetter and some of your friends could also send monthly payments, you reimbursing them for each remittance.”
(Gowland to Schönwetter, 22 November 1935)

Method of working
My documentaries are frequently based on, or inspired by, archival material. I prefer images and/or descriptions in which ‘small history’ is recorded. In the third thesis of “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin writes that “Nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history,” [1] to which the Belgium philosopher and expert on Benjamin, Lieven de Cauter elaborates: “That is why the historian must have an eye for the insignificant, the forgotten, the marginal, because above all that must be saved, if only from oblivion.” [2] It is insignificant and marginal details that reduce major historical events to susceptible thoughts. And when individual experiences are intertwined with historical events an “intimate chronicle”[3] is created.

It provides me with the opportunity to link the abstraction of historical events to memories; a link which completes and nuances history, and provides new perspectives. According to Benjamin “The past exists as something that can be reconstructed, not as it really was, but how it is remembered. And this memory changes and enriches the past.”[4]

 

History and Nature
As Hannah Arendt points out, since the Ancient Greek, a distinction has been for centuries made between the linear course of history for humans and the cyclical development of nature: “Men  are ‘mortals’ […] for animals exist only as members of their species and not as individuals. The mortality of man lies in the fact that individual life […] with a recognizable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life.” [5] For a long time, the idea prevailed that natural laws underlying cyclical development could be discovered through “allegedly absolute objectivity and precision of natural scientists “. [6] Did Schönwetter believe that he could discover the mystery of the egg by means of “absolute objectivity and precision” when he writes:

“The more I study them, the more the conviction grows that from the egg shell there are still many riddles to be solved. […] 200,000 eggs must have been studied and 50,000 of them must have been weighed and examined with a magnifying glass, and many must have been compared over and over again.” (Schönwetter to Von Boxberger, 4. July 1935)

As Arendt points out, the supposed objectivity is now obsolete: “The confusion in the issue of ‘objectivity’ was to assume that there could be answers without questions and results independent of a question-asking being.” [7]

 

O, collecting eggs despite the times
The selected passages from the correspondence provide a highly subjective view of history: events described from the point of view of a group of oologists and ornithologists. It is a reconstruction of the past from this remarkable perspective. The selection of eggs from the collection is similarly subjective: most of the eggs were selected because of they were mentioned in the correspondence: thus creating a link between eggs and history, the drama that resounds from the words of the ornithologists is translated into how the eggs are portrayed.

It is the drama of a world of contrasts, a world of black and white, with little room for nuances. Instead of documenting the eggs in an ‘objective’ way, where they are evenly lit and photographed with a ruler that indicates the size, my approach deviates from this traditional image. The colours of the egg shells, which are very prominent in various bird species, I have strongly reduced in the majority of the eggs. This makes the eggs equivalent to each other, because, similar to the ‘choir of oologists and ornithologists’, I am not concerned with an individual egg and the characteristics of the species, but with a select group of eggs linked to historical narratives. By placing the eggs in a dark environment, they are stripped of any sense of size. The lighting with great contrasts against a dark background also links up with the drama that comes through in the correspondence.

 

“That was a terrible time! On the night of 24/25 July, Hamburg was bombed for the first time. My department, the Eppendorf University Hospital, was destroyed, as well as my house in Elise-Averdieckstraße. Everything was destroyed here, my collection and library. […]
Now I ended up in a small farming village near Halle, where I put up my wife and little grandson. Now everything is gone, my whole life’s work is destroyed! But I will certainly start again, and it will be built up better than I had before. As a sign that I am ornithologically unbroken, I want to tell you that on my arrival here I immediately examined two nests of Hirundo rustica and found that they were sitting on weakly incubated eggs – per nest with 4 eggs. This is just to show that I am still fully awake.” 
Moebert to Schönwetter, 4 August 1943

 

Ab ovo
The egg is frequently used as a metaphor for life. The Latin pronunciation Ab ova literally means ‘from the egg’, but is often used in the idiomatic sense of ‘from the very beginning’. Ab ova also stands for a linear narrative method. In my project, the egg becomes a vulnerable metaphor for life and everything that nature brings forth and what is subject to human action.
Although in various passages of the text it seems as if a separation can be made between the events on the world stage and the Kammerspiel in the egg collection, they are inextricably linked. O is about the connection between history and nature, and man’s place in it.

 

Schönwetter’s egg-collection is part of the zoological collections of the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg.

 

 

[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ 1940.
[2] Lieven de Cauter, ‘A storm rages from paradise’ Trouw news paper September 6, 2000.
[3]  In his book ‘Story of a German 1914-1933’ Sebastian Haffner describes his autobiographical text as an ‘intimate chronicle’.
[4] Lieven de Cauter, ‘A storm rages from paradise’ Trouw news paper September 6, 2000.
[5] Hannah Arendt, ‘Between Past and Future’, Viking Press 1961, page 42.
[6] Hannah Arendt, ‘Between Past and Future’, Viking Press 1961, page 48.
[7] Hannah Arendt, ‘Between Past and Future’, Viking Press 1961, page 49.

O, collecting eggs despite the times
duration 80 min | colour / black and white | DCP | dialogue German, English | Subtitles in English
Voice overs (German version): Ulrich Matthes, Philipp Hochmair, Richard Gonlag, Martin Wehrmann, Jakob Lindenberg, Daniel Montoya, Frank Steinheimer, Michael Harringan, Alexander Weise,  Michaela Hinnenthal, Nico Birnbaum, Jens Lamprecht, Olaf Jelinski, Francois Smesny, Andreas Sparberg, Olaf Baden
Casting: Gonny Gaakeer and Richard Gonlag
 
O, verzamelen van eieren in weerwil van de tijd
80 min | kleur en zwart/wit| DCP | 5.1 | Nederlands gesproken
Voice overs (Dutch version): Pierre Bokma, Marcel Hensema, Richard Gonlag, Peter Bolhuis, Mike Reus, Ilari Hoevenaars, Stijn Westenend, Wolter Muller, Francis Boekhuijsen, Gonny Gaakeer, Xander van Vledder, Sieger Sloot, Harpert Michielsen, Ronald Top, Dic van Duin, Rene van Asten
Casting: Gonny Gaakeer
 
Re-enacted scenes: Frank Steinheimer
Schönwetter’s egg collection: Zentralmagazin Natuurwissenschaftlicher Sammlungen, Halle
Bird taxidermy: Museum Heineanum, Halberstadt
 
Director, script, editor: Pim Zwier
Camera: Jair Mahazri
Additional camera and visual effects: Martijn Veldhoen
Additional photos: Pim Zwier
Sound: Christian Schunke
Production: Moondocs
Producer: Carolijn Borgdorff
Line Producer: Charlotte Pas
Production assistent: Floor van der Meulen
Voice-over recordings: Mixwerk Berlin, Johannes Wronka
Additional voice-over recordings:  Klangfee Halle (Saale), Florian Marquardt
Sound design and mix: KLINK Audio Amsterdam, Paul Gies
Post production visuals: Loods, Lux & Lumen Amsterdam, Ruud de Bruyn
Colour grading: Petro van Leeuwen
 
The film was supported by:
The Netherlands Film Fund
Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
Zentralmagazin Naturwissenschaftlicher Sammlungen der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

Verein zur Förderung des Naturkundlichen Universitätsmuseums Halle