REGINE PETERSEN
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Meteorites are fragments of rock and metal left over from the formation of the universe billions of years ago. Occasionally these ancient objects, shrouded in myth and mystery, fall to earth causing ramifications far beyond their physical impact. It is this moment of contact, this collision between ancient object and everyday life on earth, which excites Regine Petersen and acts as the starting point for her photographic project Find a Fallen Star

Each chapter in this three part project is equally complex with multiple trajectories investigating the lives of those affected by the fall. Evolving over a four-year period, Find a Fallen Star saw Petersen travel to many often obscure locations, their randomness mirroring the arbitrary nature by which meteorites fall to earth. Stars Fell on Alabama takes us to Oak Grove Alabama, 1954 and chronicles the story of Ann Hodges who was struck when a meteorite came crashing through the roof of her house. Fragments transports us to Ramsdorf, Germany 1958, and investigates the account of five children who discovered a meteorite and divided it between them. The Indian Iron is played out in Rawatbhata, India 2006 where a meteorite was found by two nomadic shepherds.

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Artist often delve into archives to uncover new perspectives on past events, however what stands out about Petersen’s project is the overall clarity of her conceptual approach. For Petersen these instances of human encounter with meteorites are not just the subject but something that fascinates and provokes further investigation, a gateway into a particular time and place from which to uncover a complex narrative and reveal what lies beneath. In Find a Fallen Star archival material, documents and found photographs are carefully selected, edited and placed alongside Petersen’s own images, each fragment playing an equally important role in the larger narrative. Each chapter is succinctly assembled to reveal a unique perspective on the past and present, balancing layers of history and intertwined stories that are often rooted in failed memory and myth.

Meteorites have intrigued humans for thousands of years. How did your fascination with them come about?
The story of Ann Hodges is what caught my attention in the first instance and it was more the absurdity of the event that resonated with me. I then started to look more closely at the objects themselves, the meteorites, and I realised that they could not only be looked at in museums but that they were quite easy to get access to. I remember holding my first meteorite in my hands and recalling the sheer weight of it. There are several recurring expressions used by collectors and scientists, for example that a meteorite is ‘the oldest thing one can touch’, ‘the poor man's space probe’ or ‘a window into the early solar system’. These notions all refer to the tangibility of an object that originated so far back in time and at such a great distance that it is unimaginable for us. The most primitive of meteorites are made up of the first material that gathered in our solar system, and they haven't changed since. When we look at the inside of a meteorite we look at an index of something that happened more than 4.5 billion years ago.

Is it this expanse of time and space which adds to the mystery and myth that surrounds them?
Absolutely, and there are many other interesting perspectives. Meteorites are religious, scientific and historic objects, they are also objects of desire and projections of a various kind. They fall without warning and remind us of our place in the universe, and I think it is that interruptive force and randomness that has a lot of potential. It is almost as if they light up a stage at a certain place in time, putting random people in the spotlight and letting their stories unfold.

Over the years there have been many incidents where meteorites have fallen to earth, what was it about these individual stories that drew you in to investigate further?
Yes, there are many interesting stories surrounding meteorite falls and these three were not the only ones on my mind. I knew from the outset that it was important to make the work in disparate places, with different cultural settings, in order to position myself in several different ways and to look at some of the similarities and differences. But most importantly the initial story needs to somehow strike a chord with me, and then my choices are mostly intuitive, I go with what gets my thoughts moving and what has the potential to take me on a journey. 

So you took a different approach depending on what struck you about each individual story?
Yes, Fragments developed in an interesting way when I realised how different the testimonies of the witnesses were. The official romantic story of five children finding a meteorite, breaking it into pieces and sharing them in a secret act suddenly developed other levels of meaning. For me it became a tale of hurt feelings among estranged friends, of the fallibility of memory, and of the way that history is constantly being constructed. 

There is also a playful side to the project and an excitement in putting a finger on a particular spot on the map that I knew nothing about and pursuing to get there. Actually, the village in Rajasthan where I researched The Indian Iron cannot even be found on a map, it is so small and far off. The scarce documentation totally contrasted the amount of press coverage in Stars Fell on Alabama. I only had one newspaper article from The Hindu about two shepherds who witnessed the fall and beat the meteorite with sticks. I expected them to be superstitious, because I read of several cases where meteorites were thought of as demons. It turned out the shepherds had much more pragmatic reasons. I also felt India needed to be part of the project because there have been so many witnessed meteorite falls there. It's for the simple reason that there’s less of a chance for a rock to land on uninhabited space. Most of these meteorites are locked away in an old colonial building in Kolkata and they are shrouded in mystery.

The unexpected random nature of meteorite falls means that there is no image of the fall itself, and your investigation always starts after the event, in most cases many years later. In Stars Fell on Alabama and Fragments you are investigating events which happened more than fifty years ago, how does looking back into the past change the way you approach the story?
I was very aware of the passing of time in these two chapters. Many of the main protagonists in Stars Fell on Alabama are not alive anymore. Eugene, Ann Hodges' husband, died two weeks before I arrived in Alabama at the age of 89. This definitely affects the way I go about the research. The events lie in the past and have become part of a myth. People are elderly and don't remember things very well, and it became profoundly tangible for me how history is being remembered and what gets lost in the process. The work is as much about what is inaccessible than about what is revealed. But time is not the only obstacle I encountered, for example in The Indian Iron there too is absence and opacity. As it turned out the shepherds were nomads who were never seen again by the villagers. There are also the obvious barriers of language and translation I experienced. The information is there but it cannot be deciphered. But that is the way we experience the world, in a fragmentary and biased way, and complex histories get lost in time or translation. 

There are many layers of the project: the meteorite fall is the common link between all three chapters, however the individual stories tell us much more about the specific location and society at the time. It is this complexity that, to me, makes the work so interesting. Some of them are quite personal stories, how did you go about what to reveal? There were many decisions to be made. A lot of my time was spent reducing the material. But it is important for me to leave space for thought and to not expose too much about the people in the story, it really is a balancing act. During my research I came across some deeply intimate documents and testimonies, some of which made me very sad and it just felt wrong to show them. There was also a lot of tension present between some of the witnesses and I decided to only occasionally hint to this.

Due to the cameras ability to record we often mistake photography as being able to stand in as evidence of an event. Are you contributing another layer of evidence to the stories and have you now become part of the story yourself? Particularly in relation to The Indian Iron where an article was published in a local newspaper about you that you then included in the work.
Yes, I'm very much part of the story, at least the one I'm telling. Taking photographs for me is a means to reflect my relationship to the world. The work is highly subjective in that it deals with the questions I became occupied with. It does provide a glimpse of what happened, but it's not a reconstruction of the past. The truth lies somewhere outside the frame. That is the problem and the potential of photography, too.


Shoair Mavlian, Assistant Curator Photography, Tate Modern, London, 2015




„Stars Fell on Alabama“ is the first chapter in Regine Petersen‘s series on meteorites, titled „Find a Fallen Star“. It is a configuration of archive press cuttings, eye witness reports, interview transcripts, genealogy and found images, fleshed out with quiet, contemplative photographs taken in the field.

She began the project in 2009, having chanced on the story of the Hodges meteorite. What began as an investigation into a single stone, though, has branched into a lightning rod touching memory, history, magic and mortality; human relationships and religion; race, slavery and colonialism. It also considers the practice of storytelling itself - whether an author/photographer can tell a story without casting their own shadow over its content.

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Meteorites are pieces of asteroid, leftovers from the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. They are highly prized by scientists, who find in their solid, iron and stone mass clues to the infant universe. Of the several thousand that make the fiery plunge to earth each year, most are lost in the sea. Others become cosmic dust and disperse, but each year a great number make contact with the ground. Most fall without consequence. Most that is, not all.

On 30 September 1954, an eight pound meteorite fell on a house in Sylacauga, Alabama. It crashed through the roof, bounced off a console radio and hit 31 year old Ann Elizabeth Hodges on the hip while she was napping on her sofa. A photograph from the time included in Petersen‘s anthology shows the woman with two policemen. Her brow is furrowed, her hands nervous, and no wonder. As well as extensive bruising, the incident brought a Special Forces investigation to her door, a flurry of media attention, a bidding war, a lawsuit, divorce, betrayal and a breakdown. This is the event on which Petersen‘s project pivots, although as we shall see, its remit is much wider.

The rock, still boasting the tar it picked up en route through the roof, now resides in the Alabama Museum of Natural History, where Petersen travelled as part of her research. The curator removed it from the glass case. „He said, you can touch it, you can take it in your hands‘ and I knew he was looking at me and I thought, I have to feel something now, I have to connect to the history of things, and it was just impossible. Later though, when I photographed it, it was quite different,“ Petersen explains. Petersen has compiled eyewitness accounts from the time, detailing bright flashes and fireballs, smoke, television interference and bicycle accidents. In Phenix City a woman thought it was a flying saucer: she „saw a man get out of it.“ The disparity that exists between these reports is something that came to fascinate her. „People misremember. It all starts with an idealised story that sounds a little bit like a fairy-tale and then you go below the surface and it gets more and more complicated.“

She also includes the transcript of an interview with Ann Elizabeth‘s husband, conducted in 2005. Eugene Hulitt Hodges was out when the rock hit his white-frame house, and returned to find some 200 reporters on the scene. He spent months fighting his landlady in court after she sued for possession. Collectors lost interest, so he used it as a doorstop for a while, then Ann Elizabeth donated it to the museum, against his wishes. They divorced a few years later, both citing the meteorite as primary cause.

Petersen photographed the muddy earth of the impact site. She drove to Talladega forest, the local junkyard, defunct marble quarries. Sylacauga is known as ‚Marble City‘ and huge chunks lie everywhere in the dust. „I liked the idea of the two coming together; the black rock from space and the marble from the earth,” she says. Strange things began to happen. On the day she visited the cemetery to find Eugene‘s gave (he had died two weeks before she came to Alabama) men were assembling his gravestone. When she visited an old slave plantation a dog with one blue eye and one brown came out of nowhere and sat in front of her. „The photographs I took are like apparitions. It felt as if everything just came towards me of its own accord.“

The day following the Hodges incident, a 60 year old farm hand named Julius McKinney discovered a second fragment of the meteorite in the middle of a dirt road. His mule shied away from it, and in the dark he thought it was a snake and left it alone. It wasn‘t until he heard about Ann Elizabeth Hodges that he retrieved it, but because he was black, and this was Alabama, and the Civil Rights Act was still a decade away, he hid the rock under his bed, frightened he wouldn‘t be allowed to keep it. Several months later he told his postman, the only ‘official’ person he knew. He arranged for McKinney to meet a geologist, who in turn helped arrange a sale to the Smithsonian. The money furnished McKinney with enough to buy a farm and a car outright.

Petersen includes cuttings from the Ironwood Daily Globe, and Avondale Sun, the last including a photograph of the McKinney family, with the “black-colored pearl“. She also includes a photograph of the original negative, retouched crudely by the newspaper with white paint to cover the extreme poverty the McKinney‘s lived in. In 1954 Alabama, people liked their reality watered down.

Also included are accounts from an 1833 meteor shower large enough to be visible all over America, including Alabama. “I'm interested in these layers of history,“ says Petersen. Prophet Joseph Smith recalls „the long trains of light... like serpents writhing... it seemed as if the artillery and fireworks of eternity were set in motion to enchant and entertain the Saints, and terrify and awe the sinners of the earth.“ A slave recalls her masters „tellin‘ some of the slaves who their mothers and fathers was, and who they‘d been sold to and where... they thought it was Judgement Day.“

It is the way in which Petersen‘s work swings gently between religion, science and superstition that provides the golden thread binding it together. Her own magical thinking for example, or Julius McKinney believing „the Lord gave [the meteorite] to me“ and a postcard sent to Ann Elizabeth Hodges from a church in Bellevue, Kentucky pleading for the rock. Inserted between Petersen‘s photographs of anthills and cotton plants and discarded snapshots in the dirt are scientific images of planetary bodies far away in the night sky, as she switches ably back and forth between microcosm and macrocosm. The fragility of human life in the face of the cosmos lurches into view.

Next, Petersen will travel to India, where a meteorite was witnessed to fall by two nomads in the desert of Rajasthan. She has already completed the second chapter of her work in a town in Westphalia, Germany where five children found a meteorite in the 1950s. Petersen has no idea how far the project will take her. One thing is certain, she has rich pickings ahead. It‘s impossible not to be fascinated by these stories, which contain as much rich detail about human fallibility as the rocks contain about the beginning of the universe.


Lucy Davies, 2012




Was, wenn man auf dem Sofa schlafend plötzlich von einem Meteoriten getroffen wird? Die Geschichte einer Frau aus Sylacauga in Alabama, der 1954 genau dies passierte, zeigt, dass die sprichwörtliche Vorstellung, man könne auf der Straße jederzeit von einem herabstürzenden Dachziegel erschlagen werden, durchaus steigerungsfähig ist. Während der Tod durch lose Hausteile vor allem das Element des Zufalls und die Fragilität des Körpers betont, verdichten sich im Zusammenprall von einem Himmelskörper, der über 4,5 Milliarden Jahre alt ist, mit einem Menschen, der vielleicht gerade mal 80 Jahre Lebenszeit auf der Erde verbringt, aller Sinn- und Unsinn dieser Welt. Vielleicht handelt es sich sogar um ein Zeichen von Gott? Glück hat die kosmische Begegnung der Schlafenden allerdings keins gebracht, auch wenn sie nur leichte Verletzungen davon trug.

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Im ersten Kapitel ihres auf Fortsetzung angelegten Projekts »Find a Fallen Star«, seit 2009, nimmt Regine Petersen den Meteoritenfall in den Südstaaten der USA zum Ausgangspunkt für eine umfassende Recherche. Gleichzeitig nutzt sie das Ereignis gewissermaßen als Vorwand für eigene Fotografien, in denen sie neben den Bedingungen des Mediums auch ihre Position im Universum reflektiert: Eine subjektive Annäherung an das Menschsein in Raum und Zeit, gefiltert durch die Frage nach der Wahrnehmung anderer Menschen und Kulturen. Petersen, seit jeher durch ein großes Interesse für naturwissenschaftliche Phänomene geprägt, folgt der Spur des Meteoriten und setzt dessen zufälligen Aufprall mit ästhetischen Mitteln fort. Knapp sechzig Jahre nach dem Ereignis befragt sie die Einwohner am Fundort und gräbt sich von dort in die Tiefe ihrer Geschichten. Diese fragende Annäherung kennt weder Gewohn- noch Gewissheiten, darin lässt sich eine Art Seelenverwandtschaft zu dem gefallenen Himmelskörper erkennen. Am Ende materialisiert sich die Suche nach Zusammenhängen in einem Tableau von Text- und Bildmaterial unterschiedlicher Herkunft, in der Kontextualisierung von gefundenen Dokumenten und eigenen Aufnahmen.

Eine dem lokalen Zeitungsarchiv entnommene, historische Fotografie zeigt die Hausfrau Ann Hodges, das Opfer. Gesenkten Blicks steht sie zwischen zwei Männern, die in die rechte obere Zimmerecke schauen. In der Decke klafft ein Loch. Der Meteorit in der Hand des uniformierten Polizisten sieht – verglichen mit dem von Petersen selbst fotografierten, schillernden Einzelportrait des gefallenen Sterns von Sylacauga – erstaunlich banal aus, etwa wie ein größerer Pflasterstein. Aus einem Interviewauszug mit Anns Mann, Eugene Hodges, erfahren wir, dass das Ehepaar kurz nach dem Ereignis vom Medieninteresse überrollt wurde; dass es mit der Vermieterin einen Rechtsstreit um die Ansprüche auf das Gestein aus dem Weltall gab; dass Ann schließlich einen Nervenzusammenbruch bekam und sich niemals vollständig von den realen Folgen der Berührung mit dem Außerirdischen erholte: »She never was the same person«.

Eine andere historische Aufnahme lernen wir gleich in zwei Varianten kennen: Als Zeitungsbild stellt sie den Afroamerikaner McKinney im Kreise seiner Familie vor. Dem dazugehörigen Originalnegativ ist zu entnehmen, dass seine ärmliche häusliche Umgebung für die Veröffentlichung wegretouchiert wurde. McKinney hatte seinerzeit offensichtlich Fragmente desselben Meteoriten gefunden, der auch Ann Hodges traf. Im Gegensatz zu ihr hielt er seinen Fund jedoch zunächst geheim, vermutlich aus Angst, er könne ihm weggenommen werden. Später gelang es ihm, das Gestein gewinnbringend zu verkaufen: »I think the Lord gave it to me – but my mule found it and showed it to me.«

Während Portraits der nachfolgenden Generation und einer Augenzeugin die Gegenwart der Vergangenheit bezeugen, lenken ruhige, mit analoger Kamera aufgenommene Farbfotografien unseren Blick auf Einzelheiten in der Umgebung. Eine Schlange auf dem Weg, ein Esel auf dem Feld, Baumwollpflanzen auf dem Rücksitz eines Autos. Diese Bilder lassen sich dem Umfeld des Farmers McKinney zuordnen. Andere Motive scheinen dem Alltag der Hodges zu entstammen, wenngleich es sich ja in beiden Fällen um denselben Ort handelt: Ein schlafender Hund, ein spielendes Kind auf einem Schrottplatz, ein Ameisenhügel, ein frisches Grab – das Grab von Eugene Hodges, wie die Bildunterschrift verrät. Er starb etwa zwei Wochen bevor Petersen in Alabama eintraf, um den Fall seiner Frau zu recherchieren.

Landschaftsaufnahmen berichten vom Marmorabbau in Sylacauga, der unter anderem beim Bau des Weißen Hauses verwendet wurde, aber auch von scheinbar übersinnlichen Erscheinungen wie der schwebende Blätterkreis in Talladega. Eine an Ann Hodges geschickte Ansichtskarte mit christlichem Motiv, auf der ein Reverend um den Meteoriten als Geschenk für seine Gottesdienste bittet, unterstreicht das religiöse Pathos, welches die astronomischen Funde häufig umgibt. Darüber hinaus zeugen zwei weitere Texte von der Verknüpfung zwischen fallenden Himmelskörpern und Spiritualität. Sie berichten über ein früheres kosmisches Ereignis in Alabama, den Great Leonid Meteor Shower von 1833. Der Text des Propheten Joseph Smith schildert das Ereignis als Ehrfurcht erregende, göttliche Erscheinung. Auch der zweite Text sieht in dem Sternenregen ein Zeichen Gottes. Er endet mit den Worten: »But then the white folks started callin’ all the slaves together, and for no reason, they started tellin’ some of the slaves who their mothers and fathers was, and who they’d been sold to and where. They made sure we all knew what happened. You see, they thought it was Judgment Day.« Dabei handelt es sich um die Aufzeichnungen nach einer mündlichen Erzählung der Sklavin Amanda Young.

Ohne explizit nach diesem Zusammenhang gesucht zu haben, offenbarte sich der 1976 in Hamburg geborenen Künstlerin in ihren Recherchen zum Meteorit von Sylacauga die Geschichte von Knechtschaft und Menschenhandel in den amerikanischen Südstaaten, aufs Engste verwoben mit Fragen des Glaubens und der Repräsentation von Herkunft. In weiteren Kapiteln des übergeordneten Projekts »Find a Fallen Star« geht Regine Petersen Meteoritenfunden in Deutschland und Indien nach und sieht sich dort mit anderen Realitäten konfrontiert. Die Vorgehensweise bleibt jedoch die gleiche, eine Methode, die die an der Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften in Hamburg und am Londoner Royal College of Art ausgebildete Künstlerin als Mischung zwischen Schlafwandeln und Denken beschreibt: Eine punktuelle, subjektive, fast intuitive Annäherung an die Welt, angetrieben von dem Versuch, Zusammenhänge zu erfassen.

Für jedes Kapitel aufs Neue erweist sich dabei die Komposition, die Auswahl und räumliche Organisation von Informationen, als die wichtigste Entscheidung – wie beim Akt des Fotografierens selbst. Gleichzeitig muss jeder Versuch, die Welt zu verstehen und abzubilden, zwangsläufig fragmentarisch bleiben, dessen ist sich die Künstlerin bewusst: »Eine Fotografie«, so Petersen, »kann immer nur auf etwas Größeres, Chaotisches verweisen. Sie ist unvollständig, wie eine Erinnerung oder ein Stück Geschichte«.


Britta Peters, 2013




We know from astronomy that when we gaze at the stars in the night-time sky, whether with or without a telescope, we are looking into the past. Because contrary to our perception, many of the stars we can see from earth no longer exist. Due to cosmic dimensions, it takes years, decades or even millennia for the light from distant stars to reach us.

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Like the starry sky that maps constellations from the past, photography also acts as a kind of time capsule for often long forgotten things. In her series of photographs, divided into several chapters dealing with various sightings of meteorites, Regine Petersen therefore combines scientific curiosity with the strategies of contemporary art in an ideal way: Fascinated by the fact that asteroids of all sizes frequently fall to earth, she has for years meticulously collected and archived newspaper cuttings, factual reports and scientific articles on the topic. She has traveled to known sites of meteorite impacts, interviewed experts, eyewitnesses and residents, and combed through newspaper and photographic archives. This intrepid search for clues has produced extremely haunting portraits that say more about the way people deal with these rocky witnesses from the dawn of our solar system than about the meteorites themselves.

Petersen not only finds her subjects in remote places, but also at home in Hamburg and elsewhere in Germany. Different regions often reveal strange similarities in her series of images. Places and living things appear to move closer together, only to be set apart again by small, bizarre secrets. These manifest themselves in Petersen’s photographs like fragments of a coherent story. She finds the motifs for her pictures on her photographic excursions, often spontaneously and almost incidentally. An instant of lucky coincidence gives rise to original, sometimes surreal moments: People and animals are often arranged as equals with little space around them; they become contemplative, dignified protagonists in her colour photos. The tangible calm inherent in her images derives from Petersen’s staunch loyalty to analogue photography with its unhurried technology: Unlike pictures taken with digital cameras, its results can only be seen once the film has been fully developed. This “laid-back” approach to the material she has chosen is reflected in her images. The scenes she captures are tranquil and unruffled, somehow with their own sense of time – much like the light from the stars that does not worry about the timeliness of its information in the cosmos.


Sebastian Knoll, 2015