N°96 Capricious

Young photographers

21 January - 4 March 2007

nieuwsletter-96.pdf (2.22 Mb)

‘Capricious’, in Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, takes its title from the photo magazine that is edited and distributed in Amsterdam and published in New York. Each issue of this periodical offers six to twelve pages of exposure for an average of dozen highly individual, up-and-coming photographers, one photo per page. At the most, the accompanying text is comprised of a brief editorial introduction at the beginning and still shorter biographies at the back of the magazine, printed on the thick cover stock. Moreover, each mat-finished photo page can be individually detached. This design makes it absolutely clear that this is not really so much a magazine as a collection of individual photographs, which anyone can hang up at home as they please.

Capricious got me thinking. Most museums and galleries dish up photographs for the visitors on white museum walls, as if they were paintings. The most important facts that the autonomy of the image serves to underline here are the format of the work and the amount of white space around it. But if a magazine like Capricious can accomplish the same thing in a relatively much simpler manner, why is this modernistic form of exhibition still chosen so often? Wouldn’t one be better off to begin experimenting with photography – a flexible medium par excellence – and try to open up its great potential for various possible presentation forms? And shouldn’t art photographers themselves exploit that flexibility more by making these presentation possibilities an integral part of their work, as so many artists do?

The group exhibition ‘Capricious’ presents the work of a number of young photographers – some of whom have already shown in the magazine Capricious – who are searching for an alternative way of dealing with their medium – a way that is expressed not only in their choice of subjects, but particularly in the manner in which they want to present their photography. Content and presentation cannot be seen apart from one another.

Katja Mater (b. 1979) works the most directly with the medium-specific qualities and boundaries of photography. Like the artists in the 1970s who reduced painting to its ‘fundamental’ qualities by making the choice of paint, paint application and support their subject, in Mater’s recent work one specific element that is almost exclusively restricted to photography becomes central: flash lighting. In these photographs its presence – or, on the contrary, its absence – is made obvious. This leads, for instance, to photographs in which a flash is emphatically seen, which overexposes the surroundings being photographed and renders them invisible; or, on the other hand, to a subdued photograph in which we indeed see the flash apparatus, but not the object that should or would have been illuminated. The flash can both literally illuminate things, and hide and deconstruct them. Making the flash central also leads to films. For example, in a dark booth we hear someone running through a building panting, but only when a flash unit goes off now and then do we see the interior of the building ( flash film #5: present absence). In fact, the light of the flash shows us the brevity of the photographic moment, while the sound provides for a more cinematic suspense.

Marianne Vierø (b. 1979) is still best characterised as a still-life photographer for whom the physical still-life is sometimes as important as the photograph of it. The object photographed can be given the nature of a sculpture or installation, as we could encounter it in a museum, and, much more often, as a reproduction in an art book. The photographic representation of art has become something without which it is impossible to imagine contemporary discourse on art. We know installations almost exclusively from photographic reproductions, even though the physical experience of installation art is one of its most essential aspects. Vierø demonstrates that, by regarding an installation and its documentation as one inseparable entity. You cannot have the one without the other. Without the installation, the still-lifes would have no meaning as documentation photographs. In turn, the installation is meaningless without its photographic complement. At the same time, the experience of the installation can hardly be reconciled with the images in the photographs.

Melanie Bonajo (b. 1978) was for some time a co-editor of Capricious. Her photographs often arise from prompted, staged situations. The bondage series was created over the course of several years, with a wink to the kinky erotic genre. But rather than working with models and a lot of black leather, Bonajo’s Polaroid variations are in fact records of situations for which a lot of her girlfriends and acquaintances have let themselves be tied up in their own living room or bedroom, naked or half-naked, with vacuum cleaner flexes, clotheslines and drying racks, a motley collection of phallic balloons, vegetables, candy and toilet paper. In the same way Bonajo got all sorts of acquaintances to shamelessly assume the craziest poses for ‘Action Heroes’, the main action being the ingenuity with which these photographs are staged. Paradoxically enough, Bonajo’s absurdism goes hand in hand with considerable intimacy. For instance the weeping photographs entitled Pearl in the Pain, which strike one as almost caricatural, are authentic self-portraits, made at emotional moments. Series like this are however also definitive for the impression that here work treats established and ‘artified’ photo genres such as the portrait and fashion photography in an ironic manner. Bonajo photographs primarily with 35 mm slides, which determine the manner of presentation: an intimate, domestic slide show, which gently forces the viewer to endure picture after picture. Only then does the extensive and very personal control behind the apparent spontaneity and playfulness of the photographs become visible.

The contribution by Paulien Oltheten (b. 1982) to this exhibition consists of a one-time performance with slides. She presents a lecture based on photographic reportage which she makes during her travels, for instance to China. She attaches a commentary to the images, describes them and accompanies them with partially fictional stories. The reportage can also take the form of moving and still images from a video camera. In Oltheten’s street photography, what matters for her is not so much the ‘street commitment’, but more human movement and conduct in public. You can find a ‘performance’ on every street corner, and whether you recognise it as such depends on the manner in which it is recorded. The urban environment offers a rewarding location for this and at the same time functions as a backdrop against which interesting configurations and compositions can arise. Oltheten subsequently adds captions and imaginary narratives that make them into parts of a whole. In this way she adds new meanings to what were in the first instance brisk records of street life.

For Linda-Maria Birbeck (b. 1974) too text is an important component of her documentary photo work. She is in search of characteristics in specific communities that we are inclined to regard as proof of low culture or low life. But rather than exaggerating these elements, with deep empathy she brings them to the surface and transforms them into ambiguous, aesthetic jewels. The series Hot Wheels shows young, heavily made-up girls sitting in the back seats of big American cars. At first glance the photos look like a glamour shoot or automobile advertising – until it appears that these are the daughters and girlfriends of men who make the rounds of auto shows with their customised cars and, apparently under the influence of the same glamour and advertising photos, prefer to show off their cars with women in them. From the accompanying lines of text we learn how aware the girls are of their subordinate position, and what an absolute drag it is to sit there. Birbeck also did a photo essay in a squat inhabited by street kids. She presents some of these photographs as large posters. In this way a young squatter takes on the stature of a photo model and the messy bedroom of an adolescent is transformed into the chic suite of a pop star.

During the exhibition Sema Bekirovic (b. 1977) will be presenting her photo essay Koet, which will then be appearing in printed form from Veenman Publishers. In her photos Bekirovic concentrates on visualising the confrontation between nature and culture, something which is often most clearly manifested in an urban area. For Koet she followed a pair of coots for months as they built and maintained a nest in Amsterdam. She tried to influence this process by ‘feeding’ the animals with flashy odds and ends, strips of celluloid film and photos clipped from art magazines and other sources. The animals indeed incorporated these in their nest. In their way they channelled the concept of ‘visual culture’ by giving a new significance to all sorts of things that had first been the personal property of the photographer, who attached a totally different value to them.

Like Bekirovic’s coots, the exhibition ‘Capricious’ seeks to manage the flood of images. Those entering the exhibition at first don’t see any photographs at all, thus no images; they have only the experience of the total space, within which enclosed places are personalised with presentations by the individual participants. As such, the exhibition is the spatial counterpart to the aestheticising two-dimensionality of the magazine Capricious. The magazine itself has been given a space in the new reading room in the entrance hall of Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, designed by Joris Brouwers. In addition, the work of Oltheten and Bekirovic is presented in the exhibition space at pre-announced moments, together with lectures about photographic history and theory by specialists.

Jelle Bouwhuis Curator, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam

With special thanks to Melanie Bonajo and Sophie Mörner, editor-in-chief of Capricious. See also www.becapricious.com