Boston University Unveils Ulrich Mack’s Island People Exhibition at Boston University’s 808 Gallery

Contact: Laura Mikols, 617-353-3666 |

(Boston, Mass.) — For the first time ever, one of Germany’s foremost photographers, Ulrich Mack, will mount all of his Island People photographs in a public exhibition. He has chosen Boston University as the first venue for his show that opens Friday, November 17 at the university’s 808 Commonwealth Avenue gallery. The exhibition will then travel in the United States and Germany between 2001 and 2003.

Island People is the first known cross-cultural photographic study depicting inhabitants of two small islands. Mack shot half the pictures at Pellworm, off the coast of Northern Germany, and half at Harkers Island off the coast of North Carolina. Together, the 144 black and white images reveal a striking shared humanity among people of different nations.

In 1968, Mack, then photographic reporter for the German magazine Stern, went on assignment to Pellworm Island. The drama and melancholy of the land drew Mack back to the island 10 years later. Between 1978 and 1981, he created a group of photographs of the island’s people, as individuals and in small groups, at work and at home.

The project sparked Mack’s innate curiosity about people; he decided to search for an island community similar to Pellworm in a different part of the world. Thousands of miles away he discovered its parallel in Harkers Island. “It has a lot of similarities to Pellworm,” he said at the time. “It’s small and isolated, not yet fully tied to or influenced by mainlanders, and not yet spoiled by tourism … it has a sense of purity that makes it a perfect companion to Pellworm.” He shot the other half of his photographs in 1984 during a nine-month visit.

The resulting book of images, Island People, the basis for the exhibition, presents the people of these two islands as Mack came to know them. “We are more similar than different—that is what I discovered,” says Mack. “Individual human experience does more to shape a person’s character than national heritage alone.” Youthful boys, elderly women, or fisherman, to name a few, share more as a group than do German women or American men. His photographs, he says, are proof of his thesis.

Every photograph from Harkers Island has a parallel image from Pellworm, but it is for the viewer to find, says Mack, who refuses to make a standard series of two-photo mounts with one representative image on either side. A teacher at heart, Mack believes people will come to see through their own discovery process that the similarities are far more striking than the differences.

“The photographs craft a rich sociological and aesthetic document of the two communities—testaments to the unifying bond peculiar to the lives of the island inhabitants,” says John Stomberg, director of the Boston University Art Gallery. “In the juxtaposition of Mack’s American and German subjects’ respective realities, viewers witness a closeness that transcends particulars of dress, language, ritual and culture.”

Mack stands apart from other photographers in the extraordinary measures he took to emphasize the unique nature of his subjects. His use of Polaroid instant film in a view camera was indispensable to this process.

“I would shoot and hand him the picture; he changes or corrects his pose, his expression; he repositions himself, crosses his legs or arms differently,” says Mack. “The person must present himself as he wants to be seen. Most photographers take the picture he wants of people … the photographer gets his picture. I do the opposite. I take their picture.”

Mack breathes life into each image with full captions identifying people’s names, occupations and rich, detailed aspects of their lives. The subjects display a casual dignity that reflects their comfort in the photographer’s presence. Ultimately, the understandings of the subtleties of presentation evident in these portraits will be as unique as the people who view the exhibition.

Curatorial Assistance, in Pasadena, Calif., will travel the exhibition after the Boston debut.

What: Ulrich Mack: Island People
Exhibition dates: Friday, November 17 through Sunday, January 28
Where: Boston University’s 808 Gallery 808 Commonwealth Ave., Boston
Hours: Tues. – Fri., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sat. and Sun., 1-5 p.m.
Opening Reception: Friday, November 17, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The exhibition and all Gallery events are free and open to the public. For information call 617/353-0922.