Text from “Autoportraits”

“for a while”

For a while, particularly in Europe in the 1990s, portrait photography was increasingly at risk of becoming ‘big-name photography’. The history of photography is marked by a recurrent ambition to convey an individual’s intense presence and the experience of that individual’s subjectivity, yet in the works and the formats of many photographers this tradition has been replaced by a staging of their viewpoint, their subjective position and their (in part standardising) style. Not to mention the trend of everyday photography, always extant yet steadily growing in the glut of images, to use the human face or the human person to create tendentious emotional effects which can thus be produced easily and cheaply. Both approaches became increasingly questionable, not only from an aesthetic viewpoint due to the sensationalist means they employ, attributable more to the realm of the trivial than that of art, but also from an ethical viewpoint due to the manipulative way in which they deal with their ‘objects’. For photographers with high artistic and ethical aspirations the impression was that portrait photography was a field best avoided.

In fact it seemed particularly risky to portray people in supposedly everyday situations, in everyday surroundings or at least together with everyday objects. If, in addition, there was a possibility that these everyday objects could be (mis-)construed through some form of psychological interpretation, the final mystery that might arise from the portrayal and the portrayed was ultimately banished, and the field of banal truism finally reached. In this book the photographer Torsten Hattenkerl has therefore undertaken quite a delicate venture. He shows us people together with their cars, and in doing so runs the risk of entering that very field of truisms, either through some high-gloss aesthetic borrowed from advertising or some banal psychological interpretation of the relationship between man and machine. Of course anything of this nature is taboo for any serious artistic intention. Yet, in art as in life, the crucial difference lies always not in what one does, but how one does it. Hattenkerl succeeds in re-exploring the supposedly familiar and using the representation of people in the context of that ‘everyday fetish’ – the automobile – to develop a distinct quality of what is tellingly circumscribed with the concept of the portrait, namely achieving not just a pure image but a subtle characterisation of the person portrayed, opening up a space for the presence and experience of that person’s subjectivity. He does so neither by adopting a ‘Look at this: this is what he or she is like!’ approach, i.e. patronising condescension, nor by appealing sentimentally to the senses; instead, he uses all his artistic detachment and, in spite of at times ironical undertones, avoids any facile discrimination of his object, be it the man or ‘his’ machine.

To do justice to the photographs, it pays to take a moment to look and see how he achieves this. At first glance they may appear like snapshots, with no clearly perceptible interventions on the part of the artist. But very quickly key structural elements emerge in the sequence of photographs. The photographs are always taken outdoors; the persons portrayed are always standing to the side of their vehicle, and always near the front wheel; and while the vehicles are always depicted side-on, in profile so to speak, we are usually able to look at the portrayed face-on. Also, there is nearly always a continuous horizontal background structure, which brings us to yet another key compositional element of these photographs: buildings or landscapes which at the formal level reprise the horizontal line of the car and contrast with the vertical of the person portrayed, who is nearly always standing. The buildings and landscapes, along with man and machine, are therefore the third essential means of representation, delimitating the space more or less pleasantly, sometimes opening it up into the depth of the photograph, or at least broadening it. The diagonal hardly plays any role. Horizontal and vertical lines and planes are the fundamental formal compositional elements that shape the photographs. Although a great uniformity is achieved in the series of photographs as a result, these recurring and ‘simple’ means are not conspicuous. This is due to the fact that the photographs make an exceptionally individual impact in spite of the considerable formal cohesiveness they possess, both as individual images as a sequence. No building, no landscape, no car type occurs twice. Each representation consisting of the aforementioned basic elements is unique, characteristic and deliberate, even if the composition appears spontaneous and in some cases utterly quotidian. This applies in particular to the mood of the photographs. At no point is any attempt made to create an overarching atmosphere or colouring. It is never about achieving a contextual uniformity alongside the formal uniformity. There is no single uniform feeling emanating equally from all the photographs. It is not about basic obsessions, loneliness, the sadness of people, the pride they take in ownership or their vanity; not about their would-be or actual greatness, or the pleasure they derive from their machine. By avoiding any potential uniformity in the way in which he looks at what he portrays, Hattenkerl takes a big step back from his work, regardless of how consciously he may have arranged the photographs. You could almost say he extricates himself completely. At the very least he does not colour what he portrays with his emotions or his mood; rather, he makes way for the portrayed. So when a photograph does have a clear emotional colouring, it appears to stem more from the person portrayed than to reveal something about how the photographer feels or the way in which he intends the scene to be interpreted.

The result with regard to the author of the photographs is a discretion vis-à-vis his subjects which at times is almost odd and bordering on self-denial. Any dominance in the arrangement and interpretation appears to have been avoided, even though the uniformity of the formal structure betrays the fact that there must have been such dominance. And yet, it is not reflected in the contents and is limited to formal aspects. It is this lack of dominance on the part of the ‘doer’, who does not actually appropriate for himself that which is portrayed, who does not actually allow it to become something personal, but instead merely shows it in a careful and considerate way, which accounts for what is unexpected and perhaps even irritating about these photographs. Even if subliminally we think we perceive something of the photographer’s relationship with his objects, whether it’s the persons themselves, the vehicles or the landscapes and buildings, it is never about his relationship with them, but the interplay between them that appears to unfold in such a mysterious way. It is only in this interplay that we are able to find out something about those portrayed; yet it is not what the photographer thinks or sees or would like to portray, even though everything is done and therefore thought out, seen and shown by him, but that which is ‘revealed’ as if by itself in this interplay, or wishes to be revealed by the person concerned. In fact, it is what they would like to conceal which is sometimes revealed to us in a body movement, a facial expression or a look at, or away from, the lens. What’s more, none of the people portrayed is photographed at close quarters, which means that even the space between them and the photographer seems to amplify not only their independence but in some cases their insecurity or even their loneliness. These individuals, once placed in front of their car or against a particular background, are compelled, and to a certain extent able, to ‘shape’ the way in which they choose to present themselves, in most cases no doubt subconsciously, but in some cases consciously, allowing a great deal of immediacy in doing so.

We are so used to artists telling us what we should be thinking, even when they vigorously deny any such intentions, that we find Hattenkerl’s approach quite alienating; we stand there and ask ourselves what it is he wants to tell us, until we understand that it is the people in the photographs themselves who are doing the talking, who are communicating to us, in a lucid act of surrender, not just to the photographer but to us, too. This act of surrender is in fact made possible by the photographer’s ability to withdraw, by this particular interplay between distance and discretion, by his shying away from any dominance over his ‘object’. It is not based on a demeaning ‘Show me what you’ve got, baby!’, which does indeed degrade the persons portrayed to the status of objects, not only in the photographer’s eyes but also in the eyes of those viewing the pictures; instead, it is enabled by the ‘inter’-space which the photographer leaves between himself and his figures and indeed everything he portrays, for all the conscious selection he makes with regard to formal structure and the background of his pictures. That may well initially unsettle both the portrayed and the onlooker; it does however salvage their subjectivity from the questionable let-down which would inevitably result from their demeaning to the status of mere objects for the artist and onlooker alike. This in turn transforms the inter-space as an initially perhaps unsettling distance between the photographer and his object into a bid for freedom. Irrespective of how contrived the situation might be, it opens up precisely the sort of space a person needs to ‘show’ himself, from whatever side that may be. He is not restricted by the photographer’s overbearing dominance, nor is he left alone by his detachment; on the contrary, he is comforted by that distance and not least by the arranged nature of the situation. Trust is established in this way at every level of the relationship, that between the photographer and the portrayed, between the onlooker and the portrayed, but also between the onlooker and the photographer. Astonishingly, that trust is based on the distance and the discretion maintained by the photographer. Indeed they are the guarantee that the subject will not, at any time, feel threatened in his subjectivity. The photographic result differs accordingly from the surrender that would be exacted by any form of dominant invasiveness on the part of the photographer. While it would be far more obvious, as a forced surrender it would always remain ‘false’, dishonest and purely demonstrative. By contrast Hattenkerl’s pictures have the advantage that the persons he photographs are able to showcase themselves more honestly, albeit perhaps more coyly.

A fundamental problem of photography is thus avoided. Originally perceived as the ‘better’ representation of reality compared with painting, over the past century (and all the more so since its digitisation) we have come to see photography as the medium of make-believe, and at worse the medium of falsehood. It is also one of the reasons why ethically sensitive artists, particularly in the medium of photography, have tended to avoid the all too manipulative use of portraiture, or even dispensed with it altogether. Hattenkerl’s approach serves to grant people a form of representation which does not demean them and allows them to be true. And as we have seen, this does not preclude actually sorting and selecting the photographs. As he tells us on the cover of the book, he always chose from several photographs, ultimately selecting the one which he felt seemed to hit the mark. But even this selection process is not described for the sake of the process itself; it has its function not in the sense of a narcissistic portrayal of the works, but in the sense of an honesty that helps us to follow his involvement in the creation process and to incorporate it in our assessment of the result. So it, too, owes much to an ethical impulse. He wants us to know what he has done, not because he did it, but so that we can take it into account, in one way or another.

The result is impressive. Indeed, for all the formal rigour, a profusion of people unfolds before our eyes in great variety. There are the men of course, as you would expect, their pride, their braggadocio, their identification with their machine and the attitude they adopt as a result all clearly visible. Yet they do not fit the cliché of the prancing peacock, with the car as surrogate plumage or, as a hackneyed psychoanalytical interpretation would have it, with the power-packed machine as the expression of potency. Not at all; instead, Hattenkerl succeeds in breaking the all too obvious and banal representation of male posturing. There is a tiny hint of insecurity, of something slightly awkward about the movement or twist of the body, a shyness in the gaze, a slightly inhibited posture, a perhaps barely perceptible contradiction between the ungainliness of the body and the elegance of the vehicle (or indeed vice versa); and already the simple relationship between the man and the display of his might dissolves into and reveals something else. Where this effect is not achieved by the person portrayed, it is accomplished by the background, which features an aspect that is perhaps too inhospitable, too technical, too smooth, too romantic or too close to nature for the obvious homespun psychology to be credible. Hattenkerl operates in different ways with the ambient factors with which he surrounds man and machine. Sometimes they serve to contrast, for instance by evoking the contradiction between a somewhat extravagant car and a rural-rustic landscape, in turn contrasting both with someone who looks rather middle-class. Elsewhere Hattenkerl might contrast the particular plainness of a vehicle or the somewhat modest way in which a person portrays himself with a particularly exuberant and lush summer landscape or an ostentatious building. Or he might use a factory-like backdrop as a contrast for someone who looks ordinary and natural or perhaps more high-brow. One particularly striking example of this is featured in the photographs in which the contrast is more extreme, for example when a particularly self-assured pose is broken by a seemingly totally inappropriate or ironically over-emphasised background. In many cases, however, the background does not serve to contrast at all, but rather to underscore or highlight once again an aspect of the person portrayed: for example emphasising the expression of sadness or even hopelessness conveyed by a person by showing a walled-up, impenetrable or steeply sloping background; or emphasising the impression of established sedateness by placing person and vehicle in front of a ‘matching’ building; or symbolising the pent-up strength coiled within a person by using a particularly muscular building or structure or a landscape in full bloom; or underscoring a certain smoothness and impenetrability or aloofly aesthetic coolness of a person by using a particularly evenly structured or even ‘designed’ looking background; over even intensifying the palpable longing of people to be able to leave the constricted environment of their world and their surroundings by using roads or landscape that disappear into the distance or lines that open up into the depth of field.

In this context, Hattenkerl’s portraits of women deserve a special mention. It is probably fair to say that never before have women been portrayed as abundantly and consistently in conjunction with cars. Indeed, they hold their ground with complete equality alongside the portrayals of their male counterparts; in fact, in their cautious approach, these photographs might even be a touch more insightful. Here dispensing with any form of high-gloss representation and stylised aesthetics has a particular positive effect. No differently from the men, the women are seen standing next to their cars, relating to them in different ways, but never as smitten and eroticised playmate models. Even more than in the portrayals of the men, the complexity and involvement of person and life and their reflection in vehicle and landscape are all the more clearly apparent. In a way, we sense a great deal of diffidence, insecurity and weightiness, not to mention pain, and we even believe we can somehow make out futility and renunciation. As an onlooker we even run the risk of replicating that cliché of the woman as victim. Yet there is in many of these women an impressive display of strength, a proud tenacity, a natural and barely presumptuous autonomy, and for all the suspected suffering a great and, at the same time, unobtrusive determination and joie de vivre which becomes apparent in the matter-of-course way with which they address their vehicle, no differently to the men. Whereas a critical-ironical look is more often directed at the men using the interplay between the elements of each picture, with the women a clarification and subtle understanding of the complexity and even contrariness of their emotional orientation predominates. This does not by any means preclude eroticism; rather, it makes eroticism possible in the first place, one where it is no longer plain object-based and mechanical, but where two prickly, vulnerable individuals fully aware of all of life’s difficulties strive for a closeness in which longing is not a consequence of being driven, but the expression of attentiveness. In fact attentiveness, if anything, probably best describes the relationship between the photographer and the people he portrays. Perhaps we sometimes feel that it is more clearly perceptible in the portraits of the women than in those of the men, but it is to be found there, too, in an impressive way, particularly in the representation of fellow artists. Here the backgrounds to the photographs once again have a special significance. They broaden the field of vision by containing allusions to the artistic orientation or central problem in each case, not least through the use of carefully placed vanitas motifs. Even if this is not directly recognisable to the outsider, overall it does come through in the vibrancy of these Autoportraits. If in conclusion we try and sum up their overall impact once again, we should mention, alongside the understanding that functions without any trace of presumptuousness and the avoidance of any form of cliché, the high level of differentiation achieved in the photographs. Particularly in the highly diverse interplay between individual, vehicle and background there emerges for all the formal uniformity such a dense structure of relations that not only do the persons portrayed become perceptible in the wealth and complexity of their existence, but repercussions also emerge in the relationship between the photographer and his objects and therefore ultimately also in the relationship between the onlooker and his pictures. Indeed Hattenkerl’s combination of respectful distance, sympathetic discretion and differentiation that does justice to the difficulty of concepts of life ensures that in his photographs we find subjects and not projections (however beautiful and erotic they may appear). Even though we subtly enter a space of intimacy, become closely acquainted with the persons portrayed, even to a certain extent to the point of experiencing and seeing through them, they are not reduced to exposed puppets or oversized babes; instead, they become genuine counterparts who at no time lose any of their uniqueness and subjectivity. And it is precisely because the other remains “an other” that the onlooker is able to achieve a certain recognition, a recognition that contains no embarrassment, has nothing to do with ‘exposure’, nor with identification plain and simple. We, as the onlooker, remain in that same sense unique subjects in the same way as those portrayed. There can be no better way for an encounter to succeed, or for photography to ‘work’.

Stefan Nagel