Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My Word...Portrait

Now, don't be hating on me Paul, but for my first word I have chosen the word Portrait. Now, I know that this is one of the most general ideas/topics/words of photography and art, but I feel that it's incredibly applicable to my work and I will try to go as in depth as possible with it.

Portrait: 1. a likeness of a person, esp. of the face, as a painting, drawing, or photograph: a gallery of family portraits.
2. a verbal picture or description, usually of a person: a biography that provides a fascinating portrait of an 18th-century rogue. (www.dictionary.reference.com)

I have a few quotes that are very good to my work, by none other than Richard Avedon:

"A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth."

"A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he's being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he's wearing or how he looks. He's implicated in what's happening, and he has a certain real power over the result."


Artist 1, Michal Micku:

Reason for Choosing:
I chose Michal Micku because of his techniques and his subject matter. He shoots completely abstract portraits or things that can be construed as portraits. The technique is one of the major factors that led me to him. He is from the Czech Republic and his photographs are called "gellage". Apparently that means that he lifts the emulsion from a silver gelatin print (I believe) and creates these incredible photographs with them. I chose him because I would like to distort and abstract my photography somewhat like his, to convey this sense of distress and emotion, just with the technique and then have the subject matter take it over the top.

Image #1: "Untitled" Carbon Print No. 32, 2005. 14 x 12''
Image #2: "Untitled" Carbon Print No. 1, 2004. 14 x 12''

Outside Review:
(By Vladimír Birgus, Prague, February 1996)
Czech photography has a very good reputation in the world today, thanks not only to famous authors such as: František Drtikol, Josef Sudek, Jaromír Funke, Jaroslav Rossler, Josef Koudelka or Jan Saudek, but also to many photographers of a younger generation, whose works came out onto the international scene after the revolutionary changes in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of 1989. Among young Czech photographers with an ever-growing international reputation is undoubtedly Michal Macku, whose original photography aroused great attention at a series of both separate and group exhibitions in Europe and overseas, and they were also housed as collections in a few distinguished museums and galleries.
Michal Macku took up photography by the time of his studies at grammar school and then at Technical University in Brno, when he was concerned, above all, with various static motifs. His first mature works created at the Institute of Creative Photography during the years 1986 - 88. At this time he started - after earlier attempts with a symbolically oriented smaller series of photographs with only lightly suggested multisignificance action - to use and personally develop technology of drawing-off the gelatine emulsion from negatives. He named the results of the procedure "gellages". This demanding technique fully satisfied his ever-growing interest in crossing traditional borders between separate arts and his strengthening struggle for a metaphorical reflection of various weighty themes which can rarely be expressed in words. Already his oldest gellages, which were the final work at the Institute of Creative Photography, took up the theme of the perfect symbiosis of content and form. Highly expressive motifs of human body destruction, symbolising themes of violence and cruelty, as well as mental depression were given an extraordinary impressive form which perfectly utilised the possibilities of subjective reality stylisation by a resourceful arrangement of moist gelatine including its breaking up, spatial distortions or elimination of disturbing details. Through this method were created sensually extraordinary cogent pictures, whose motifs contained warning messages and dramatic metaphors of anxiety and brutality. Many motifs emerged later in an existentially mooted short film "Process" (1994), which Michal Macku made in co-operation with a Czech TV studio in Brno. The film is an allegorical portrayal of human life using very impressive (not only unusual) animation possibilities of photography emulsion, but also original music by Irena and Vojtìch Havel.
After a series of gellages with motifs of broken bodies, followed more exalted works and motifs of crying heads, in which Michal Macku first used the multiplication of the same motifs. Multiplication achieved the basic principle of the following set with repeated archetypal figures of men, whose raised hands evoked, not only feelings of defencelessness but also some mysterious signs from a magical exorcism. Scrimmages of identical figures create visions of crowds of lonely people, who are losing their individuality in a crowd, which according to the author's words "does not behave as a group of individualities but as a separate dangerous organism". Macku here resourcefully used an abstract background of a nearly compact grey area, which creates a sort of empty yawning scene out of concrete space and time, which still more clearly expresses the atmosphere of eradication and nothingness. There were also new changes of figure dimensions from the same negative, which were also used by the author in many other works.
Michal Macku - with only a few exceptions - uses himself as a pattern for his figures because he knows intimately his own body and that is why he can express himself more precisely than by taking photographs of someone else´s body. It is understandable that this self-recognition and self-searching has a metaphorical impact on his pictorial themes. Out of which grows the author's interest in extrarational spheres of recognition, some aspects of Buddhism and other philosophical and religious systems, in a dualism of corporeality and spirituality.
It can be very expressively shown on a free cycle of gellages with motifs of figures and their silhouettes, in which the silhouettes represent a sort of ideal, whose qualities real bodies do not reach. In spite of an undoubted resourcefulness and emotive impact of such works, it clearly emerged that there were considerable problems of the coherence of the author's and beholders mind. This problem got even deeper in a further picture series with motifs of communicating parts of the bodies or whole figures. Too much coded content had the result, that significant sections of beholders perceived, above all, the technically precise production and a small part of decorative conception, in which there was a considerably suppressed dramatic character and expressive extremity of preceding photographs, but they escaped deeper meaning of these works. More recently, the author - following an imaginary spiral - came back to the motifs and themes of his oldest gellages, with expressively deformed individual bodies, as well as more figures in which the problems of relations between people are often symbolically emphasised. At the same the author's interest in non-traditional forms of gellage presentation becomes apparent. This is also connected in some installations with music and three-dimensional objects, as well as his interest in other experiments in the area of film animation."


Artist 2, Hendrik Kerstens:

I have chosen him because of his references to Dutch paintings in portraiture. His subject matter has been his daughter as well, and that's about it. Throughout the time she's grown up, it is his daughter that has been the most profound thing to capture his eye. But her deadpan expression, or lack of expression is key to this type of portraiture. The gaze of his daughter is profound and incredibly powerful and seemingly unchanging throughout the years of photographs from her father. This type of work attracts me due to its references in art history, a topic that at one point, I wish to pursue. But, the lifeless expressions are very captivating to me and they will influence my work.

Image #1: "Bag" C-Print, 50 x 60 cm , 2001
Image #2: "Weep" C-Print, 50 x 60 cm , 2005

It was unusual for Hendrik Kerstens to want to document the life of his daughter, Paula. As he notes on his Website (hendrikkerstens.com), he simply wanted "to be there" to capture "the fleeting moments that fade from memory all too quickly." What is unusual is the way this Amsterdam-based fine-art photographer goes about that task: by evoking the paintings of Dutch master painters, especially Johannes Vermeer. "It's a way for me to shake up the concept of time," he says. "I'm taking someone today with modern tastes and portraying her in the style of 17th-century artists." In doing so, Kerstens literally immortalizes his daughter, "as if to stop time and oblivion."

The project came about one day after Paula had returned from horseback riding. "When she took off her hat, I saw that her hair was held together by a hair net, and it reminded me of the portraits of the Dutch masters," Kerstens says. What fascinated him about those paintings, he says, "is the way [they can be] seen as a surface which can be read as a description of everyday life, as opposed to the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, which usually tell a story. Northern European painting relies much more on craftsmanship and the perfect rendition of the subject. The use of light is instrumental in this." Kerstens himself crafts his portraits with a Toyo 8x10 view camera.

So far Kersten's work has been seen mostly in Europe, but it was to be exhibited at the Scope New York art fair from February 23-26. -Jeffrey Elbies


Artist 3, Robert van der Hilst:

I chose him because of of his deadpan photographs of "Chinese Interiors." In these photographs he shows us interiors of Chinese homes, some without people, but most are environmental portraits of their inhabitants. I am really attracted to all of the people's lifeless or contemplative poses in the images. He was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands and studies photography in The Hague. He has traveled many places for his photography, including most of central america, cuba, china, and japan and made many photographs of their people, their culture, and interiors/living spaces. This aspect is something that I really latch onto, I love travel and documenting and trying to understand cultures through photography. His environmental deadpan photographs are incredible, and I feel that I can take some knowledge from his images.

Image #1: "Chinese Interior 3", Digital Inkjet Print on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Paper, 110 x 131cm, 2004
Image #2: "Chinese Interior 1", Digital Inkjet Print on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Paper, 110 x 131cm, 2004

Well, his "Chinese Interiors" project isn't yet complete but he has done other work in China, so i will use a review of that.

Solo photography exhibition
February 16 - March 21, 2008
m97 Gallery
No. 97 Moganshan Road 2F
Shanghai, China 200060
m97 Gallery is pleased to announce "Shanghai: 1990-1993," a solo photography exhibition by Dutch photographer Robert van der Hilst. The exhibition runs from February 16 to March 21, 2008, and m97 Gallery will hold an opening reception for the artist on Saturday February 16th from 5pm to 8pm.
Robert van der Hilst's color Kodachrome photographs from "Shanghai: 1990-1993" captures the early roots of this large metropolis as it readies itself for the great thrust forward towards modernization. Bringing a strong sense of color and composition to his work in the streets of Shanghai, Robert's work, now viewed some 18 years later, brings a sense of historical reflection after the past two decades of breakneck development in China's financial capital. His subjects and sceneries are at once both familiar and foreign to the viewer. The subtleties and textures of the photographs, as well as the overall appearance of the city and its people are captured by the Dutch photographer as he first encounters a city poised on the edge of a newfound greatness. First traveling to Shanghai in 1990 on assignment for Vogue Magazine to feature a reportage of the city, Robert became fascinated by his first encounter with China and later made a total of seven trips to Shanghai in the course of three years.
Robert van der Hilst lives in Shanghai and Paris, and is currently working on a large-scale photography project titled "Chinese Interiors". He has worked as a photographer in Europe, South Africa and North America and his monograph "The Cubans" was published in 2001. Robert van der Hilst's 64-page full color "Shanghai: 1990-1993" book published by m97 Gallery to accompany the exhibition is available for purchase in the gallery or online (15 Euros + shipping).

Artist 4, Cathrine Balet:

I chose Cathrine Balet not because I feel that her portraits are necessarily strong, but rather because her photographs deal with identity, a topic that I wish to discuss trough my photographs. Although, she is showing how teenagers are identified by the clothing they wear and their backpacks which they customize with patches, pins, etc.. I believe that this topics is a big concern for me, because I feel that I need to point it out with my self portraits, because, after all, that is what I am dealing with, self-identity and expression. So, I think that she'll be a good referencing point for me.

Image #1: Untitled. 2004. Digital Inkjet Print, 23 x 29cm
Image #2: Untitled. 2005. Digital Inkjet Print 23 x 29cm

"In January 2004, at a time when the French government was debating the banning of religious and political signs from schools, Catherine Balet started taking pictures of signs, labels, codes and icons that have a social and aesthetic significance in the world of teenagers. Extending the project from Paris to London, Berlin, Barcelona and Milan, it quickly became a record of the dress codes in European schools, referencing the tribal subdivisions. Teenagers in their struggle for identity and self-esteem and troubled by an urgent desire to be different, usually adopt the codes of a group, often inspired by music trends. In each city Balet discovered the same music, fashion, brands, bands and labels. Only details are different from one city to another as they reflect the complexity of the history of one country and the influence of its migrant population. In London and Barcelona, where the uniform is a school institution, Balet captured the way these young pupils customised their outfits.Casting her subjects in the street, she composes large portraits always framed in the same way. Only the background reveals the location. Richly descriptive, these portraits combine a documentary style with a poetic sensibility, capturing this complex mix of fragility and determination in the eyes of the portrayed teenagers."

Artist 5, Richard Avedon:

Well, this is one of the most obvious people to have chosen, he's basically the king of portraiture. His masterful 8 x 10 negatives shot on an all white background, it's just perfect. Now, I'm don't really know if you think that he's not contemporary enough, but most of his memorable work was shot in the 80s, so I feel it fits the timeline well. In my opinion, he's definintly the best at portraits. His influence of fashion and real life portraiture is just astounding, he's perfect at what he did.

Image #1: Red Owens, oil field worker, Velma, OK. 1981. Silver Gelatin Print, 136 x 114.5 cm
Image #2: Ronald Fischer, Beekeeper, Davis, CA. 1981. Silver Gelatin Print, 136 x 114.5 cm

In the American West was the brainchild of the Amon Carter Museum ’s first director, Mitchell A. Wilder. Richard Avedon had become world famous for elevating fashion photography to an art form. But when Wilder saw Avedon’s July 4, 1978, portrait of a ranch foreman from Ennis, Mont., he asked the artist to continue making photographs of that type under the sponsorship of the Amon Carter Museum. He gave the photographer free license to photograph his view of the American West.

Avedon agreed to Wilder’s proposal. From 1979 to 1984, he traveled through 13 states and 189 towns from Texas to Idaho, conducting 752 sittings and exposing 17,000 sheets of film through his 8-by-10-inch Deardorff view camera.

Focusing on the rural West, Avedon visited ranches and rodeos, but he also went to truck stops, oil fields, and slaughterhouses. Rather than playing to the western myths of grandeur and space, he sought out people whose appearance and life circumstances were the antithesis of mythical images of the ruggedly handsome cowboy, beautiful pioneer wife, dashing outdoor adventurer, or industry mogul. The subjects he chose for the portraits were more ordinary people, coping daily with personal cycles of boom and bust.

Instead of glamorizing these figures, he brought their various human frailties to the forefront. All of them were pictured against a seamless white backdrop that removed any reference to place, and many of the portraits were dramatically oversize, shocking in their stark detail. Visitors to the exhibition in 1985 came face-to-face with images that shattered stereotypes of a glorified region.

Artist 6, Gerard Rancinan:

Now, I have picked Gerard Rancinan because, to me, he's a jack of all trades on the photography front. He does commercial work, editorial, fashion, and art. But, the thing that makes his stand out from everybody else is that his work is so universal, that it can speak to everyone. He's shot for Sports Illustrated and is currently selling a photograph of his for around $90,000! ANd, the $90,000 photograph is an art historical reference to "The Raft of the Medusa." From odd fashion shoots that are incredibly creative, to stunning complexities in his fine art work, Gerard is making quiet a name for himself. He's even shot survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear blast from world war II. The way he lights things, and the moods created by his images amaze me, and made me talk about him in my blog.

Image #1: "Rapt of Illusion" 2007. Digital Archival Print. 102.4 x 70.9 in
Image #2: "Yan Pei Ming in Red" 2007. Digital Archival Print. 70.9 x 69.3

Gérard Rancinan was born February 18, 1953, in Talence, southwest France just a few ocean-sprayed meters away from the picturesque port of Bordeaux. "When I was a child I remember seeing boats moored at the end of streets, horizons that seemed to stretch on forever. And without realizing it at the time, I breathed a mixture of perfumes from all four corners of the world - a calling to travel, you could say."

After a short but "pretty unbearable" period of study, Gérard directly entered the world of photojournalism as apprentice lab technician in the photographic department of the Bordeaux-based "Sud-Ouest" newspaper. After three years of working in the darkroom, Gérard became, at the age of 18, the youngest photojournalist in France, and was assigned coverage of the local Bordeaux news. "The best hands-on experience ever. You imagine covering three rugby matches all starting at the same time every Sunday afternoon, 15 miles apart. There's no time for rnessing about!" Wanting to climb the echelons quickly, some considered the "youngster" as just a bit too ambitious, and definitely overzealous for the somewhat tranquil routine of a picture department of a provincial newspaper.
Aged 21, Gérard was sent to the local agency of the newspaper in Pau in the Pyrenees region. "I started my career rather spoilt between two winners of the Albert Londres prize for journalism, Jean-Claude Guillebault and Pierre Veilletet. Our boss Henri Amouroux, made it quite clear that the best policy was head down and go for it. So of course, when I arrived in Pau, a clean, quiet town and about as boring as they come - I realized I had to prepare myself for a different kind of future."

"Whilst covering a range of events Gérard made the most of his spare time for producing his first major assignments in Kuwait and Portugal. Noticed by the newly-formed Sygma agency, he chose to be distributed by the latter in 1973. "Not only did I know about the work done by Sygma's major photographers, but I was faultless on LIFE's and Magnum's photographers, too. You could ask me anything you wanted about the photos of Cartier Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, Larry Burrows, Ian Berry or Co Retminster - they held no secrets for me. Not surprising really when you're in the deepest Pyrenees and you've got time to dream away."

After five years "... of razor sharp training in the adventure of photography", he was appointed staff photographer at Sygma in Paris. He not only covered worldwide current events such as earthquakes in Algeria, the incidents in Poland, war in the Lebanon, riots in England, but also sport - the Olympic games, the World Cup, the world athletic championships. Gérard Rancinan also photographed film shoots - Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Beneix' Betty Blue, Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, and covered features on people in show business, the fashion world, and movies. He took a keen interest in everything.
"Variety is the spice of life. 1 want to have a go at everything even although I feel more confident in certain areas. Change keeps you on your toes. It's like light pervading a house."
Gérard Rancinan rapidly became one of the agency's figureheads. His photographs were published in the most prestigious magazines in the world.
He won several major prizes including the first prize of the World Press four times over, once as runner-up and once as third, as well as the European set photographer's prize. At this point he decided to withdraw from competitions, and refused any form of distinction bestowed upon him.
"Pretension is like blinding light. I fear it will be like a constant reminder of the past, like looking in the rearview mirror. I want to be challenged by the present."
Concurrently with his aim for hard and fast current event coverage, Gérard Rancinan started composing reportages tuned to worldwide issues, and increasingly involved himself in the stories he had to tell. "I want to make use of the world about me, of its people, of the existence that unfolds before my eyes. I want to portray the world, dive in head first. I don't want to become an objective photojounalist, I want to involve myself completely and utterly. I want to give a personal view of a moment I capture, and reflect this as a player in the progress of civilization. I'm only interested in the present. I'm happy to relinquish the past and my future as well.
I take photographs to relate what people or events inspire in me. And more than anything I want my pictures to be shown and understood by as many people as possible. I don't know whether the photos describing the events I portray are exact, but they are true to life. Publication in revues has become my sole objective, the sole reward I enjoy."
Gérard left Sygma in 1986 to set up his own agency, but lightning success and the commercial intricacies of business rapidly demoralized him. "It was too proud an undertaking, too sublime, too complex to manage, too costly, too pretentious. I had lost sight of my only goal."
Three years later, he left the agency to become freelance. "As light as a feather, as free as a bird." He now scours the planet at a frenetic pace, leaping from one subject to another, producing the most incredible sagas coherent with events on our planet. Gérard hops from Tokyo to New York, to Munich to Madrid to Hong Kong to Rio.
Top magazines publish his work over dozens of pages. "I've made myself the biggest gallery in the world, the most prestigious museum." Although he is not a portrait specialist, his style and themes mean that he captures the most significant personalities of the world on film. "A true butterfly collector, snaps destined for eternity..." Over the past few years he has published his work, photos, words, and film under the title "Voyage au Pays de l'Homme".
Gérard Rancinan lives to the full on the planet Earth ...

Artist 7, Nadav Kander

I chose Nadav Kander's advertising work over his art work. I really like his work that was shot for Absolute Vodka, it's portraiture and advertising and fashion all rolled into one. He puts this asian men and women in ridiculous costumes (I guess it's fashionable?) and puts them into scenes of nighttime activities/cityscapes. The photographs are incredibly absurd, and that's what's so interesting about them, they don't say anything about alcohol, but they do sell the product really well. The lighting, the location, and the people really put together a extremely stunning photograph. I also like the fact that i'm being influenced by commercial photography, and not just fine art photography. It's relieving in a way, that I can take influences from other aspects of visual art.

Image #1: Untitled, Absolute Ad, 2001, Size 8.5 x 11?
Image #2: Untitled, Absolute Ad, 2001, Size 8.5 x 11?

You feel Edmund Burke and Nadav Kander would have got on, somehow. "The ruling principle of the sublime is, in all cases... terror," wrote Burke, distinguishing between sublimity and mere beauty. Kander, a 40- year-old Israeli-born photographer, toes the same line. His recent book, Beauty's Nothing, took its title from a poem by Rilke: "Beauty's nothing/but the first touch of terror/we're just able to endure/and we endure it/because it serenely destroys us."
It seems an odd note for a man who spends his time working on Absolut vodka campaigns and for Dazed and Confused magazine. But then Kander is odd. Those sweet-faced girls in Beauty's Nothing are Cuban prostitutes; the handsome black man, up to his picturesque nose in water, may be posing for a shot or he may be drowning. Kander's pictures of them ask all kinds of questions about the act of photography: about exploitation, culpability; the coldness of the photographer's eye in finding beauty. And they have things to say about terror. The genius of Kander's pictures has always lain in their capacity to use physical presence as a way of suggesting spiritual absence - among others, in people who take photographs for a living. Those Cuban jiniteras aren't there for love. They're there for money, whether it's paid by a client, a photographer from Islington or a firm of Swedish vodka-makers.

Now, Kander has decided (as it were) to cut out the middle man by cutting out people. A new series of pictures at London's Shine Gallery find their terror in absence. This one, Chinos Junction 2, Los Angeles, is devoid of everything. Its light-source is, in photographic terms, natural; which is to say, not produced in a studio. It even looks like the sun or stars. Yet this new firmament is as entirely artificial, as sickly green, as the theatrical gaslight loved by Degas. The place it illuminates is a non-place, on the way from nowhere to nowhere else; a capitalist dystopia.

But the scariest thing about Chinos Junction is that it's beautiful. More, it's frightening because its beauty is empathetic. The same commercial ruthlessness that makes motorways and motorway- lights makes good photographs. This isn't the picture of a landscape or a pleasing abstract composition. It's a portrait of coldness, and it's a self-portrait. Burke would have called it sublime, and he would have been right.

Artist 8, Pierre et Gilles

What I like about Pierre et Gilles's photographs is the fantasy element to them, they're so vivid and colorful that it just sucks you into the photograph. The use of props, color, and scene craetes this balance and mood that captivated the viewer, the work is very close to commerical, but the process is completely fine art. Many of their photographs are hand colored, to create such articulate colors. They try to create alternative universes in their work. Pierre is the photographer, who's been shooting for over thirty years and Gilles is the retoucher, who paints the photographs. Their work seems to glorify their models turning them into timeless icons.

Image #1: Dans le port du Havre (1998), painted photograph, reproduced many sizes
Image #2: Le Petit Communiste (1990), painted photograph, reproduced many sizes

For thirty years, Pierre has been taking photographs and Gilles retouching them with paint. In contrast with the somewhat smooth quality of contemporary photography, the duo has invented a unique style and technique that extols an exuberant and ornamental material and glorifies the models, transforming them into timeless icons.
In self portraits or portraits of unknown people as well as celebrities from the world of pop, rock, film, fashion or nightlife (Andy Warhol, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Arielle Dombasle, Kylie Minogue, Catherine Deneuve, etc.), they place the figures in a baroque setting inspired by ancient mythology, religion, and pop or gay culture.

Saturated colours and kitsch settings: Pierre et Gilles make their taste for superficiality clear, and although recent photographs may refer to the war in Iraq or race and immigration in France, it is never in a directly militant way. However, behind the apparent "childlike naivety", the over-emphasis in the images (too pretty, too well-behaved, too sophisticated...) leads us into a strange world that is sometimes disturbing.

From 26 June to 30 September 2007, the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris is holding a huge retrospective called "Double Je" (1976-2007), which pays tribute to their thirty years of living and making art together. At the same time, German publishing house Taschen is publishing a new book on their work "overflowing with superlative beauty" according to French art critic Paul Ardenne who has written the text.

Artist 9, Joel-Peter Witkin

Now, I know that he's not known as a portrait photographer, but I do feel that when he does shoot people, he does it in a manner that nobody else can or will attempt to do. His images are beautiful and grotesque at the same time, his work is meticulously thought out, almost like a flemish painting, where everything is there for an exact reason. His work has to do with freaks, dwarves, amputees, disfigured, and trans-gender individuals that volunteer for his photographs, so he does not exploit them. He shoots them is a completely surreal way, and manipulates them via the darkroom, by scratching the negative and altering the printing process. They're usually toned when finished and create a surreal, yet completely real, depiction of set individual. His work is unapoligetic and frightening, but controversially awesome.

Image #1: Satiro, Mexico. 1992. Silver Gelatin Print. 16 x 20
Image #2: Gods of Earth and Heaven. 1988. Silver Gelatin Print. 16 x 20

Joel-Peter Witkin is a photographer whose images of the human condition are undeniably powerful. For more than twenty years he has pursued his interest in spirituality and how it impacts the physical world in which we exist. Finding beauty within the grotesque, Witkin pursues this complex issue through people most often cast aside by society -- human spectacles including hermaphrodites, dwarfs, amputees, androgynes, carcases, people with odd physical capabilities, fetishists and "any living myth . . . anyone bearing the wounds of Christ." His fascination with other people's physicality has inspired works that confront our sense of normalcy and decency, while constantly examining the teachings handed down through Christianity. His constant reference to paintings from art history, including the works of Bosch, Goya, Velasquez, Miro, Botticelli and Picasso are testaments to his need to create a new history for himself. By using imagery and symbols from the past, Witkin celebrates our history while constantly redefining its present day context.

Visiting medical schools, morgues and insane asylums around the world, Witkin seeks out his collaborators, who, in the end, represent the numerous personas of the artist himself. The resulting photographs are haunting and beautiful, grotesque yet bold in their defiance a hideous beauty that is as compelling as it is taboo. Witkin begins each image by sketching his ideas on paper, perfecting every detail by arranging the scene before he gets into the studio to stage his elaborate tableaus. Once photographed, Witkin spends hours in the darkroom, scratching and piercing his negatives, transforming them into images that look made rather than taken. Through printing, Witkin reinterprets his original idea in a final act of adoration. Joel-Peter Witkin lets us look into his created world, which is both frightening and fascinating, as he seeks to dismantle our preconceived notions about sexuality and physical beauty. Through his imagery, we gain a greater understanding about human difference and tolerance.

Joel-Peter Witkin has been called ‘part Hieronymous Bosch, part Chainsaw Massacre.’
His photographic tableaux, carefully arranged and painstakingly printed, offer us the chance to transcend subject matter, and enter what Witkin calls a world of ‘love and redemption’."

Somewhere between depraved and divine, Joel-Peter Witkin has created a space that’s occupied by no other living photographer. His latest book, The Bone House, documents his progression from child photographer to where he stands alone today. Heady words, true, but deserved. Joel-Peter Witkin is a fearless image-maker.

Somewhere between depraved and divine, Joel-Peter Witkin has created a space that’s occupied by no other living photographer. His latest book, The Bone House, documents his progression from child photographer to where he stands alone today. Heady words, true, but deserved. Joel-Peter Witkin is a fearless image-maker.

The book itself is a beautiful piece of work. Green cloth in a gray slipcase, it’s the perfect vehicle to carry his disturbing, yet compelling images. Witkin is nothing if not a study in contrasts.

What distinguishes Joel-Peter Witkin from his contemporaries is a restlessness and desire that leads him to places others fear –the dark side where every glimmer of light is authentic. His milieu is nothing short of the greatest mystery that’s occupied humanity since its very beginnings, the ultimate question of life and death –questions that by their very nature are ultimately unanswerable, except in those personal, brief, and experiential moments when art bridges the gap between the senses and the intellect. No one occupies this ground better than Witkin.

Witkin makes art that can’t be dismissed or ignored. In fact, it achieves the status all art yearns for: no one, on seeing a Witkin image, can remain ambivalent. But this isn’t only a product of what Witkin chooses to photograph. No, it’s in how he takes this material and transcends its limitations. Using cadavers, hermaphrodites, hunchbacks, and others commonly known as freaks in general society, Witkin creates visual paradoxes that challenge our perception. Often criticized for sensationalism and the exploitation of his subjects, he actually lifts and redeems them –makes them central to his spiritual quest. Once photographed, they enter the eternal stream of art.

It’s impossible to conceptualize a Witkin image in a single glance and then dismiss it. Each image, after careful darkroom manipulation with razor blades, pins, and other implements, forces us to question our ability, viscerally, to understand. A Witkin image can, like the best poetry, be read again and again and always remain a mystery –one that feels just outside our grasp. A line from Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind, “and [we] looked and looked our infant sight away.”

Joel-Peter Witkin knows that, contrary to popular wisdom, we are not rational creatures, but subject to our senses. He uses sight, our most privileged sense, to unnerve and instruct us. Witkin’s images do not merely shock, they enlighten, if only by forcing us to embrace what we’d rather leave unexamined.

Much of discomfort arises because Witkin’s subjects (excluding his very earliest and very latest images) usually wear masks, eye-coverings, or false faces. In doing so, he denies us the signal indicator of personality –the countenance—only to replace it with another. What’s seen, what’s felt? Irreconcilable duality existing in a single entity. A constant pull of emotion against the intellect, and vice versa. One more reason to feel, almost, as if what we see can be understood. Take Portrait of Nan, New Mexico, 1984. In it we see a draped woman sitting on a draped chair facing us. Many elements of the image are interesting: the tiny skeleton off to the right, the way her hair has been twisted into semi-braids and attached to the wall behind her, the animal fetus she holds on her lap, but what jars is the T-shaped mask the photographer has imposed over her features. Our sight tells us one thing, our emotions another, and there’s no way they can be reconciled. No matter how often one looks, this phenomenon never changes, never sets us free. In fact, given our need for human reconciliation and integration in all that surrounds us, this delicious discomfort, abstract and concrete simultaneously, can be savored safely –a testament to one of art’s many functions.

Unlike many photographic artist, whose vision is concentrated solely in their photographic or darkroom efforts, Witkin uses titles worthy of literary aspirations, but this valuation of the literary is never for its own sake. Each title transcends mere labeling, a charge that might be laid at the feet of many otherwise fine photographers, and adds a dimension to images that already bear multiple shades of meaning.

If all creation can be said to be godlike, then the creation of these images assumes a spiritual quality most readily sensed in Witkin’s images that use cadavers and body parts. Witkin, in photographing the dead, brings their quickening essence once again to movement and expression, takes what we would ordinarily dismiss as the past, and enlivens it. In this way, what these cadavers achieve is nothing short of a new life, another chance to commune with the living, and even more striking, a chance for the living to commune with the dead.

The Kiss (Le Baiser), New Mexico, 1982, is an image of a single autopsied head that’s been sliced in half down the middle, and posed as two separate beings locked in a kiss. There is no mask. Witkin freely allows the dead what expression their countenance assumes. How strange, and yet how comforting. A kiss, being inherently pleasant and associated with joy, disarms the viewer, even as the intellect denies the possibility that this head can feel anything. That each half of the head is achieving what it had in life, wholeness, if only metaphorically, doesn’t diminish the sense that it is so. This fact renders it no less powerful. Of course, there are many other levels of potential meaning, but the most significant event of the image is in how the dead, in the face of reason, can be said to breathe, to communicate.

Considering how Witkin’s images resist categorization, perhaps the one single truth that can be said of all of them, is this: in every Witkin image there’s something that won’t let a viewer go, something that won’t allow us to dismiss what we see or to completely accept it. We leave a Witkin image with the feeling that significance has been glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, although the eye has been fully engaged in bold frontal sight These images are nothing short of an attempt at saying the unsayable, a task Thomas De Quincey once called “the burden of the incommunicable.” In the company of Goya, Bosch, Blake, and the other great artist of the ineffable, Witkin, in The Bone House, has created an inexhaustible and essential book.


Artist 10, Albrecht Tubke

Now, what I enjoy about his portraits are that the subjects/people are so mundane that it just works. The people are the most normal people i've seen in a photograph, they seem to be middle aged people that are just going for a walk around town, where then they run into Albrecht Tubke and get their portrait taken. It's fascinating, how normal these people are, their imperfections, their fashions, their makeup. their attitude and body language express normalcy, more any other photograph that I've really seen. That's what draws me to these pictures, the mundane subject matter shot in a creative and colorful way.

Image #1: "Untitled" From "Citizens Series" C-Print, 2001. 47 x 37 cm
Image #2: "Untitled" From "Citizens Series" C-Print, 2001. 47 x 37 cm


When Albrecht Tübke began to photograph people he encountered in the cities of Europe and the USA, he became part of a long tradition of documentary portraiture. Like his illustrious forebear August Sander, and more recent practitioners such as Judith Joy Ross and Rineke Dijkstra,, Tübke has a gift for allowing his subjects to perform in their own solitary drama. "Many people", he writes, "try to hide their emotions and feelings as they go about everyday life. This public persona is often calculated to mask what is within, creating a veneer of individuality, a fabrication to hide behind." In "Citizens", Tübke has created, from real life, a cast of characters who play their parts in the urban drama. All of the people he has photographed pose in the same way, directly facing the camera, in front of a background of concrete or stained brick wall. A man in an oversized blazer and a paisley scarf, a woman in a white tracksuit, a middle-aged red head in a cerise mac, and urban cowboy, a dark haired woman with a vintage suitcase, a dishevelled man with a shopping bag. These are people with their own secrets, joys; anxieties, dreads and anticipations, but we can only wonder as to what they are. Tübke's photographs are cool and beautiful enough to be fashion images, a studied reflection of street style, but in the end, this is belied by the democracy of their vision.

Looking through these photographs, it is difficult to detect an underlying agenda. This is not a search for "types" or a Sanderesque study of society. There are no judgements made in these photographs, no division made in the ways in which the old and the young are studied. Perhaps most obviously, there are no extremes -however different they are from each other, Tübke's subjects are all in control of their urban environment; they stand confidently, hands on hips, confronting the camera, playing their part in these subtly and carefully choreographed scenarios. But, democratic as Tübke's vision may seem at first sight, closer examination of the photographs reveals that, in his search for "ordinariness" the quotidian of the urban experience, he has selected (from the thousands of people he has surveyed) men and women who have an undeniable sense of presence. There is, without a doubt, something strange and mysterious about all the "Citizens" who Tübke has photographed. It is as if they have cast themselves in some unknown drama of the urban, assembled their outfits that morning as if they knew that they would, that day, be stars. A young man in an artfully baggy suit, dark shirt and narrow patterned tie, rucksack slung carelessly across his shoulder, becomes the epitome of how young city dwellers see themselves, dandies in the concrete, 21st century flaneurs. But Tübke is adept at both suggesting and then refuting such simple suggestions-another young man, rumpled and gawky, tie askew and hands held awkwardly by his side, hairstyle outdated, anxious even at the thought of being photographed, proves that our dearly cherished myths about the city exist to be challenged, and, ultimately, refuted. But Tübke views both young men with equivalence-neither has more value than the other in this eerie grey landscape; they are all "Citizens".

But however democratic Tübke's vision may be, however skilfully and thoughtfully he has avoided and refuted the cliches of fashion and "real life" photography, he is nevertheless attracted to certain motifs, distinguishing marks of these strange tribes who occupy the cities of the western world. Tübke is attracted to the small gestures of taste and style, which indicate that the individual, far from being lost in the mass, makes continuous signals of personality and character. A woman in a patterned blue suit wears a flower in her hair and chooses her umbrella to match her ensemble, another dresses all in vibrant pink, with a blinding cerise streak across her hair, coats are carefully matched to bags, shoes tone in with ties, the casual is juxtaposed with the formal. Even those who we would not classify as glamorous are sending signals about how they would wish to be perceived- an old man in a big red shirt, a blonde woman in a scarlet jacket and glossy trousers. When people look into Tübke's camera lens, there is a kind of defiance- "look at me, here I am" which has little to do with fashionability. And undoubtedly, Tübke is attracted to the dandy, whether male or female, the urban cowboy with his black and white pattered short and stetson, the dude in his slick suit and patent leather shoes, the city woman cool in grey business suit and high heeled shoes.

As one of a new generation of young photographers, operating across the borders of Europe, Tübke is asking questions about identity, society and the role which photography plays as a documenter of our times: "In this work I am investigating the boundary between self portrayal and real identity. The choice of subjects is limited to those people where I imagine that I may be able to reach beyond the superficiality of external appearance, the constructed image, to something of what lies beneath." The choice of subjects is carefully controlled, and there is a deliberate avoidance of naming or description. Perhaps it is symptomatic of this new generation that the photographers who belong to it see photography as an act of subjective recording rather than as a dramatisation of real life. Like the photographers of the 19th century, who saw photography as a magic tool for capturing likenesses, Northern European photographers such as Tübke, Rinkeke Dijkstra (Netherlands), Pekka Turunen (Finland) and Alexander Honory (Germany) have all adopted a cool yet interested gaze, fascinated by the differences within sameness. Tübke has written: "I want to show people from a variety of different backgrounds, as I am interested in the range of ways in which people present their public face. Though constant exposure to the multitude of public personae with which we are presented, we have become anaesthetised to the range of individuals that surround us. In this project, I am attempting to distil out something of the essence of that individual."

Dalliendorf, Albrecht Tübke's first published project (2000) is a series of portraits and documentary photography made when Tübke visited his home village after a period of absence. Although the methodology of his portraiture was much the same as in "Citizens" these were people he knew intimately, people he had grown up with. Yet in confronting these familiar figures, Tübke laid the foundations for "Citizens", for there is no more familiarity in the gazes which the inhabitants of Dalliendorf direct towards this "visitor" than there is in the expression of the city dwellers he has sought out in the great metropolis of Europe. Perhaps it is that photographers are always alien beings, inquisitive, scanning the surface looking for the visual signs of identity. Like visitors from another planet.

Citizens, with its careful notation of style, dress, attitude and bearing will, almost undoubtedly, take its place as a seminal recording project of our time. The people in Tübke's photographs have moved on now, may well have changed their way of being, altered the visual messages they send out the world. Pink hair may have changed back to brown, the scarlet jacket may have been discarded for something more muted, the vintage suitcase may have been rejected as an affectation. The people in Tübke's photographs, seeing themselves on the pages of a book or on the walls of an exhibition may wonder "was that really me?" And thus the conundrum of photography continues, as its irrefutable documentation of the here and now becomes a history of times past, an ongoing drama of the photographed and the photographer, a bewitching combination of loss, desire and memory.

Val Williams is a writer and curator, currently Research Fellow at the London College of Printing and the London College of Fashion. She lives and works in London, England.


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