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Kathrin Peters: Statement
Kathrin Peters

In an obituary for Richard Avedon, who, with his large format photographs of people set before white backdrops, ranks among the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, Claus Heinrich Meyer writes, in the Süddeutschen Zeitung (October 4, 2004), filled with nostalgia for a photography he feels is threatened by extinction: « […] the twenty-first century will no longer bring forth such characters, such forms, such ‹still› images.» Unclear, though, is which characters are meant, the photographers or the portrayed subjects.

«They (the portrayed subjects, K.P.) were to be iridescent, to grimace, or behave however they liked. And Avedon, the man beside the mountain of the camera (for his part an ingenious stage director), wanted the utmost transparent facial surface.»

So things have become loud, hectic and brightly-colored. Not only are there no longer photographic artists able to master visual expressiveness, even the portrayed subjects seem to lack any expressive power – we no longer find characters, whether on this side or beyond the mountain of the camera.

If one considers the matter in stages, century by century, there may be some truth in this mutualdisappearance of expressive imagery and ‹photographic artists,› but with a different conclusion: demonstrating the expression of an affect that involuntarily shows something human in a face («the transparent surface») is linked, media-historically speaking, to the photographic image. It was, after all, technical imagery, photography, and film that first enabled us to study the face in minute detail, and to capture and transpose in images what is beyond direct observation. As the myth of the photographic artist has told us for ages, this calls for the kind of photographer also a subtle stage director able to extract a special quality from the subject, able to break through the other’s pose, and able to show, if not the whole truth, at least a portion of it.

Two moments can hinder such an historically-speaking, highly stabile demonstration of a mimetic relationship between facial expression and human character or affect: Firstly: the element of chance surrounding the moment of taking a photograph can also produce totally inapplicable, if not distorted images: What today’s photographic image demands of the optical unconsciousness (Benjamin) can, of course, be physiologically interesting, but not always ideal, or better: rather seldom, agents of expression. This is what makes photographing people eating a meal so unacceptable. It also leads to the bad reputation of the snapshot, which differs from staged large-format photographs as much as it does from images that celebrate decisive moments. Only recently did party photography first become truly chic and usable in the arts.

So one question might be: With a single photograph can anything at all be expressed about a person, and mimicry as expression be made to function as something interpretable? The single photographic image seems too susceptible to coincidence for assigning to it a semantic beyond the established repertoire of expressions, pathos formulas, or even grimaces. A series is needed. A series of images of the same person from which, afterwards, the most applicable, the most expressive, is selected. Expressive strength would then be a selection principle attributed to a culturally-exercised learning practice, for recognizing truths at all, a capacity of the beholder.

Secondly, the supposed equivalent relationshipbetween expression and affect/feeling can become confused by the performance. This happens because the actor himself is a malingerer: he performs facial expression and gestures as though these are real, meaning as though these refer to an underlying, inner state of affects/feelings or character. Motion pictures bank on the reality effect with regard to the performance and the filmic image. Yet neither – the performance or the film’s image – is real, but rather genuinely fake to an extent, and therefore a simulacrum.

This is precisely where the works of Isabell Heimerdinger apply: alongside the acted scenes, she places the ‹controlling takes› in which the authenticity or inauthenticity of a character are shown. When do we see the role, and when do we see the actor, as a person? While viewing these scenes, the movie-watching experience mixes with the viewer’s own perspective. As a result, in Heimerdinger’s settings, the actors Kier and Vogler can never really submit to their own performances because they are being filmed at the same and end up posing again. What we see is a fluctuating state, a back and forth between affect (the affectedness of film) and pose. The banality of Heimerdinger’s assigned tasks turns us into the likes of scientific observers studying guinea pigs in a testing setup and, at the same time, into people watching a performance: drinking a cup of coffee, watching a film, acting waiting.

The tendency to find it hard distinguishing whether this is about a role or the authenticfacial expression and gestures of the person acting is not only strengthened by the participation of professional, experienced and prominent actors, but also (and most of all) by the fact that we are shown controlling takes in the medium of film or photography. To a degree, the staging precedes the shooting situations, even before the camera starts running; they instigate posing, and we are as practiced in wanting to detect the authentic moments in such posing as the performance should be in ideally generating this authenticity.

Leaving the Movie Theater

Roland Barthes once said of himself that he resists cinema. [1] Barthes’ preference for photography over cinema is well-known. His affection forphotography rests on the medium’s stillness and immobility, which allows the beholder to concentrate on a (contingent) detail otherwise impossible to seize in the movement of the film’s images. For Barthes, film is a bait: «I pounce on the image like a beast pouncing on deceptively real shreds of material held out in front of it,» and «The picture holds me captive: I’m glued to the depiction, and this glue is what thanks the naturalness (the pseudo-nature) of the filmed scene.» [2] . Barthes’ way of resisting cinema is not to remove himself from the fascination of the performance/ the performed illusion, or to capture it in shades of ideological criticism or counter discourses; instead, he resists cinema by surrendering himself to the movie as well as to the movie theater. This means seeing the film and auditorium, experiencing darkness, the projector’s beam of light, the bodies of others, the hiss of the soundtrack, and, not least of all, the actors. In this sense, he ‹loves› to leave the movie theater and rise out of the film, since this stage of confusion following the screening belongs to the structural limits of cinema. Encountering cinema – with a double meaning in words, as both a welcoming and a resisting – through the perception of what it surrounds, its materials, its effects.

Because contemporary cinema uses a wide range of materials and animation methods, in her work Isabell Heimerdinger also reacts with computer technology or 16mm film, and even photography, which makes the difference with the role playing and the illusion of suggested spaces. A work positioned at the structural framework of cinema.

© Media Art Net 2004