Category Archives: Sonja

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…

That’s Not Me

In the past I have talked occasionally about how uncomfortable I feel in front of the camera. It is actually a sentiment felt by many photographers – even though that species adores taking pictures, it abhors being in them. Occasionally, the wish to become a photographer grew from the practicality of avoiding being photographed by actually being the one who takes them. An easy way out – just “hide” behind the camera…
Nonetheless I have appeared in photographs (*gasps*), preferably though in self-portraits, because even if they are a painfully laborious enterprise, at least one has *full* control over them. And I have occasionally also sat for other photographers’ projects which included getting dressed up and styled. Not because I am keen but because I am ready to support. I have posed as 80s white American trash in a tacky tourquoise blouse with gold pin stripes and my hair styled into a side-braid. I have sat with a strip of gorilla tape plastered on my mouth which had the word “Nazi” written on it. Today I pretended to be an Irish farmer’s wife from the 1960s, complete with polyester house-coat and pink headscarf. What a hoot. And such unflattering images of myself, too…
I’ll admit that part of the reason I don’t like being in photographs because I am vain. But I quickly came to realize something that helps me accept being in those photographs: The person in there is just not me! With the help of a ludicrous get-up I can completely distance myself from the person that is pictured. I do not wear a headscarf, ergo non sum. Once you have realized that, being photographed actually becomes quite fun. How liberating to fool around in front of the lens, when you know that the result will not be a likeness of yourself but an entirely constructed, fictional character that merely shares some facial similarities with me… You can let go and be as ugly as you want.


Maybe that’s the approach to take, even in bona fide photographs. Whether snapshots or photographic portrait – put on a stupid face and claim afterwards that it was all deliberate! Who knows, I may after all become quite camera-keen…

Sanity Photography

My lecturer Michael Durand last week explained a concept to us that I knew without having a term for it. Michael is a photographic artist who has had a lot of commercial and artistic work commissioned which has been critically acclaimed. Particularly his series of images for the Central Bank made waves in Ireland. Working on commissions is – however much it is a photographer’s own project – still work. And photography can be hard work, involving a lot of preparation, organising and even physically hard work (although that is why you have an assistant who carries the lights and sandbag stabilizers from one set-up to the next *ggg*) – not to mention the mental drain that working creatively leaves in its wake.
It is therefore essential to have what Michael called “therapy photography” to keep you happy as a photographer. I call the same thing “sanity photography”: It describes the photographs that I take for no other reason than my own enjoyment or for projects that are close to my heart. Something that takes my mind off the projects I have to work on for college. I wouldn’t say that the latter are only “work” and no “play”. Of course I enjoy taking *any* picture. But the lightness of experimentation and just simply “snapping” is all but gone when you feel the pressure of “delivering”. And with the high standards of contemporary art criticism breathing down our necks, a beautiful landscape or a glowing sunset are unfortunately deemed irrelevant, tacky and unoriginal nowadays. Yet those are the images that would keep me happy and sane. Therefore I call the process of taking pictures only for my own enjoyment “sanity photography” – because it keeps me sane in the face of deadlines, technical intricacies, hardware problems and conceptual wanking theorising.
My sanity photographs are often holiday snaps. Just taken for the sheer memory-assistance that they will provide in years to come. Or projects like “Friends of Analog” where we were dabbling with film photography despite most of us being very busy with college deadlines. Or a return to my first ever photography co-op with my friend M___ which resulted in a successful private exhibition a few years back. Or simply snapping anything that catches my attention without it fitting into a project or a highly theoretical concept.
Conincidentally, this “sanity” image has a rather calming, therapeutic feel to it. I think. Probably wouldn’t be altogether out of place in a nice little brochure, advertising the services of a retreat center or some such institution. All blurry dof and then the water droplet that contains and concentrates the world in 3ml of water… Ooooh, I have to resist the urge to develop a whole highbrow superstructure of concept for the pic… I am obviously already damaged by college *haha*
Anyone know the feeling? What do you take pictures of when you want to relax?

Two Pics A Week…

… is title and programme of this blog. The concept is easy: I will be posting two pictures a week – all my own work: experiments that went spectacularly wrong or were satisfyingly successful, images which are subjectively noteworthy, fun captures and personal highlights. All of them will be accompanied by my private ramblings musings, mainly on photography, but also on life in general.

So who am I? I am a photographer and journalist, currently studying for a BA in photography. Writing this blog is giving me the opportunity to combine my two great passions for photography and writing. Creativity is my middle name, so to speak 😉 , but I also answer to Sonja. I write this blog from Dublin, Ireland, but am not an Irish colleen but a German Fräulein Frau.

I would love to hear back from you, readers – with suggestions, applause, criticism. Well, maybe not on this posting – not much to comment on here. But I’ll give you my first picture for 2picsaweek – an image that is meant to describe the current situation: snowed in in Dublin.

More pics soon!