Monthly Archives: October 2013

The State of Portrait Photography, 1987

Recently, I posted a gem horror of a photograph of myself on my private FB. As was expected, the echo was deafening – remainders of a long gone past are always extremely entertaining to look at and invite much comment. And photography does it so well, transporting us back to the place and time where a picture was taken. No other medium can match that – film, although similar, has too much information between moving image and accompanying sound; painting or sculpture obscures the past by layering a veil of art over the documented subject; sound is not as potent as voices do not change that much over time. A photograph, however, puts us right there, back in October 1987, in a small town photo studio.

Sonja 1987

Moi and my twin, 1987

This was not my first visit to a photo studio in order to have a picture made of myself. As a baby and toddler my mum regularly took me to the then ubiquitous “Pixi Foto” studios that were the go-to places for having pictures of your children taken. On this occasion, the photos were intended as a Christmas present for my grandparents, and the local photographer was the professional of choice for the shoot.

It was a memorable experience and I thank the heavens that I was then not yet interested in photography as a career, cos by Cod – if I had decided to become an apprentice photographer then, my aesthetic sensibilities might have been traumatised by that time-warp of vignetted, artificial-pose cheesiness. Even though it doesn’t look it, I had dressed up for the occasion – freshly ironed green-and-white stripy blouse and my dark blue blazer. Invisible in this shot, the photographer actually matched the colour of the background – a translucent sheet of paper with some white latticing in front of it (the illusion of a lattice window, presumably) – by sticking a green gel in front of the light that illuminated the backdrop from behind.

We tried a number of poses – this is arguably the cheesiest one. I am casually lying on the ground, leaning on my left elbow. My blazer is artfully slung over my right shoulder just as you would do if you were lounging on the ground, all debonair. *coughs* Associations of posh Oxford students come to mind, enjoying a summer’s day out, punting on the Thames, picnic basket with a ice-cold bottle of champers at their feet and a few watercress sandwiches – no crust! – just out of sight. “I say, old boy! What a jolly day!”

Is this the ultimate cubist photography that has so far eluded me in my search for artistic expression? Because here we have not only my regal profile but also a near-frontal mirror image of my grin. All made possible by the clever inclusion of a *gasps* mirror. This has been cunningly disguised by some iridescent, clear plastic foil – the height of 1980s gift-wrapping fashion – which snakes its way over the mirror frame, all but disguising the brown wood. *fail*

Are you wondering about my elusive Mona Lisa-smile, full of hidden promise and infinite mystery? Well, there is a reason for that. You see, even at 17, I was already blind as a bat. Minus 4.5 dioptries, roughly. For the purpose of this shoot, the photographer actually sent me to the  local optician’s. Not to have a quick laser surgery of my failing eyes, but to borrow an identical set of my classic 1980s glasses – sans lenses! The clever photographer wanted to make sure there were no reflections from the flash on my specs. For clever read “lazy”! And thus, I lay there, practically blind, trying to react to the photographer’s direction. “Move your chin up a bit. Look towards you left. And now look at my camera through the mirror!” Her camera? Where the fuck was her camera? I could see feck-all in my imposed state of batty blindness. I could literally only grin and bear it. I mustered all the fake confidence a 17-year-old teenager has, applied what I thought was a fitting facial expression on my baby-fatted cheeks and showed some teeth, praying that this ordeal was going to be over, soon. Or at least before my hips and elbow were killing me from the awkward pose on the hard floor.

As was usual in those days, it took a good while for the photos to be developed and printed. No retouching, of course – just check that weird tan line on the edge of my jaw and cheek. I swear, it was the sun – spray tans did not exist in pre-history! When they finally came back, they were presented in a fancy, glossy pocket with embossed shiny gold lines and cut-out oval passepartouts. The apex of photographic presentation of the day. Practically ready to display on the mahogany integrated wall unit in the parental drawing room. This screamed “classy” from the sophisticated pose of the model to the exquisite display pocket. Boy, was this worth the 80 Deutschmarks or so we coughed up for it…

Luckily, this particular image was never deemed the highlight of the shoot by my parents, and thus never saw the light of the drawing room. It languished, forgotten and pardoned, in its pocket sleeve in the bureau-section of said mahogany wall unit. Until last weekend. With 25 years down the drain, I now love the involuntary humour of this shot. A case for AwkwardFamilyPhotos, if ever there was one. Maybe I should submit – I might go viral.

PS: Here is a little bonus story for all lovers of my fancy 1980s glasses, unconnected with photography, but too good to ignore. Big glasses with colourful plastic frames were the dernier cri back then. I always liked to make a statement with my specs, and so the funky blue frames really appealed to me when I chose them in the shop. Only I hadn’t realised quite *how* spectacular these specs were going to prove. – I had had them for a couple of months when I took them on their first outing to the local disco, “Infinity”, a bland, generic country-bumpkin hang-out generally known under its nickname “The Bunkerwhich is a pretty accurate description of its in- and exterior. (Yes, kids, the term “club” in those days was reserved for regular meet-ups of grey-haired ladies playing Bridge, a gaggle of stick-wielding hockey players, or dubious establishments where ladies of the night plied their trade. We knew our dance halls as “discotheques”, preferably in the ritzily sophisticated Francophone notation.) Anyhow, as we entered the disco, I could see a look of surprised horror crossing my companions’ countenances. They tried to conceal their sniggers, but the suspicion was raised. Turned out that my harmlessly blue plastic frames turned luminously bright-neon blue under the customary black-light in German provincial discos. AWKWARD! Suffice to say, my disco-dancing days were over until the fashion in specs changed…

To Make Or To Take, That Is The Question

These days, when I travel home, I don’t even bother taking Marky Mark with me anymore. Too cumbersome to carry when going to a place that I have been to many times and that has been captured on film by me endlessly. But invariably I nonetheless end up photographing my surroundings. Hail the iPhone! When looking at the images from my most recent trip to Bremen, it occurred to me that they were classic examples of pictures taken, not made.

I definitely *took* that picture
Windmill in the “Wall Park”, Bremen

Taken and not made? Is there a difference? Yes, there is, apart from what you may perceive as the idiomatic misuse of the verb in the phrase “to make a picture”. In a previous life, long, long ago, I was an English teacher, and as a sucker for grammatical correctness, I squirm every time I hear the phrase “to make a picture”. To me, as a native speaker of German, it smacks of interference with my mother-tongue (in which the German equivalent of the verb “to make” is used in the translation of the phrase “to take a picture” – ein Foto machen – as opposed to the literal translation ein Foto nehmen). But I ought to get used to it because this phrase is by and large replacing the previously used “to take a picture”.

The reason for that is slightly academic and harks back to critical theory. “To take a picture” basically implies the uninvolved “grabbing” of a slice of life, a mere mirroring of a real-life scene. It can be interpreted as displaying a negative attitude towards the process of photographing, in the sense that it subconsciously associates “stealing” or “appropriating”. The phrase reflects the previously generally accepted idea that photography is documentary in nature. Despite the long established “pretensions” of photography as an art form, it was thanks to the ground-breaking theoretical writings of thinkers like Barthes, Sontag, Berger etc in the second half of the 20th century that photography was finally acknowledged to be more than just a visual recording of a given subject or object but a conscious creative process that demands more than a simple capturing of a scene. Therefore, the phrase “to make a picture” implies a deliberate decision of the image creator to photograph something. It takes into account creative choices such as size of image, framing and composing, focussing, timing and even the decision to shoot b/w or colour. It places the emphasis of the process of photographing onto the creator of the image and not on the reality she photographs, or the hardware she uses to do so. A photograph is made by the photographer, not by a camera.

The often quoted worst insult you could ever throw at a photographer is the well-meant but utterly offensive little compliment “Your photos are great. You must have a great camera!” No! *I* make great pictures; my camera merely takes them! Except, I guess, when I am using my iPhone. Then *I* take a picture. There was no conscious decision about colour format, sizing, framing, exposure, when I took the above tourist picture in Bremen. Ok, there was a little attempt at framing and composing the image in an aesthetically pleasing way, but how much creative choice have you really got when you use a cameraphone? Certainly very little for the initial capturing of a scene. Since the latest iOS update, the iPhone also offers some picture editing choices – cropping, filters, the usual digital gimmicks that Instagram, flickr and the like had already incorporated a year ago. Does that mean, we will soon be making images with our cameraphones as well?

Sincerely? I doubt it. While I love the handyness of my cameraphone – always at the ready, quick to pull out of the pocket, quick to shoot with no lengthy fiddling with manual settings – it remains to be used as a tool for documenting rather than interpreting. It is a bit like visual note-taking as opposed to the creating of a statement with the proper camera. It will always be useful to me. But I will never make a photograph with it.