Pictures and Images
Friedrich Tietjen

What does photography mean here? The term refers equally to the products of a pinhole camera and a digital camera, a slide projection, and a book illustration – in short, to a general technical process as well as an individual print. Although an unambiguously defining relationship between the term and its various manifestations is apparently impossible to formulate, photography is nonetheless perceived as an abrupt slice through a continuous present that objectifies, stops short, and kills off what is depicted. But the shutters of even the most advanced cameras need time. Though they can record faster than the human eye, they do not register infinitesimal points in time but, rather, moments. Time is divisible just as atoms are. Moreover – like its objects, photography is a time medium, or more precisely, subject to various times. The time of the imprint overlays the times of observation, and both in turn underlie the unnoticed but continuous time of decomposition. Not only the photographic objects age but also their representations: the light that is fixed by the photo loses its traces over decades, until the photograph is fully developed and nothing remains of the picture but an empty sheet.

Like its objects, photography definitely has a life of its own because it is not simply representation but also an object and ultimately its own subject. Conceiving it as mortifying, stilled, and stilling, is a remarkably truncated abstraction. It not only disregards the materiality of the pictures but also tacitly assumes that, during the brief time of photographing, photography is capable of capturing an object entirely and drawing all the life from it in order to communicate it in unlimited reproduction. Despite the knowledge that photography can be manipulated and is fleeting, this assumption leads to the idea that photography can produce true and eternal pictures, pictures that show what was and what is, and that become so dislodged from their status as objects as to apparently lose sight of the meaning of photography.

For Maria Hahnenkamp, photography means first and foremost: materiality. She does not claim to show reality; she shows how photography shows and creates its reality – as something transitory, bound to specific material vehicles. But she does not leave off with a modest reflection of the medium that could be practiced with any subject whatsoever. Apart from some shots of sparsely furnished rooms, her subject is almost exclusively the female body, which, the medium of photography, since its invention, has helped to aestheticize, fetishize and typologize. Seen individually, and removed from the exhibition context, all photos could work uniformly as representations. Maria Hahnenkamp begins to disrupt any such standardization process in the exhibition context by choosing two photographic forms of presentation for two different motif groups. Studio photos set up by the artist (in which she occasionally appears herself, although unrecognizably) are displayed as more or less large-format C-prints, while reproductions from fashion periodicals, pornographic magazines, photo albums, and art books appear as slide projections. This contrasts materializations of the medium whose differing valences and applications are both accepted and subverted. Formally, framed prints come close to the notion of autonomous art works suitable for a museum, though this is contradicted by the serialization of motifs. Slide projections on the other hand – gradually ousted by videos as the medium for western holiday snaps – carry an odor of banality. Maria Hahnenkamp uses slides to re-reproduce images of female bodies that have become invisible through over-familiarity and to render them visible as pictures. This differentiation is consistent with the materiality of both media: whereas photographic prints still retain a minimum of haptic presence, slides are elusive to the point of non-recognition. When you hold the little piece of framed film in your hand, you can hardly see anything, certainly not the details; they only become visible when put into a projector. This weave of contrasting media, materials and subject motifs is taken a step further by that which the individual pictures show.

The C-prints partly show the walls of bare rooms photographed vis-à-vis the pictorial surface ("Rooms/Walls") and partly the backs of the heads and sometimes the torsos of women wearing intense reds which fill the entire picture ("A woman/Two woman"). Neither the location can be identified (Hahnenkamp’s studio? A half-empty flat?) nor are the people recognizable. (If one is the artist, who is the other?). In both cases, the subject or representation is so reduced that the gaze, accustomed to the way cameras are used for private and journalistic purposes but here left alone without commentary, threatens to stare into a void in a desperate search for something recognizable, and finds itself involuntarily examining the surface of the pictorial vehicle. Though the interior pictures suggest photographic depth, in that narrow strips of floor are visible, walls shot in conjunction with the representations extend over the entire pictorial surface of the prints, and the eye searches in vain for a focal point, the images of the women, on the other hand, seem remarkably flat from the outset. However, a closer look explains why: places where clothing and hair have been flattened indicate that the pictures were taken through a pane of glass. Both here and there, the subject and the photographer seem to make contact on the surface of the paper. But whereas a projective look at photography generally tends to neglect the photographer in favor of the subject, here they begin to oscillate between the two, because the self-evident equation of the medium with its object simply fails.

Whereas a self-contained photography void of context is available in these works, it is totally suspended by the slide projections. Pictures appear on empty walls, only to give way to the next shot after a few moments making visible both the transitoriness and the permanence of photography. Photography records the ephemeral in an ephemeral way; it registers appearances and movements which, in their specific constellations, are non-repetitively past, but, being photographed, are comparable and remain at least as images, preserved for a time from the ultimate death of being forgotten. “Grandma looked like that? … In the end it was not at all (her) that was reproduced but her friend, who looked just like her.”1 That’s how Marilyn Monroe looked at any rate; her name inseparably associated above all with her photographic image that became an icon of the blonde woman. And though all photos betray that the subject, aware of the presence of the camera is therefore posing, they are at the same time the traces of phenomena that today are sometimes no longer known but certainly readable. The fashions of the 1950s and 1960s are currently undergoing revivals, but many gestures could be older and more durable and, though not produced by photography, may nonetheless be conveyed by it. Hahnenkamp contrasts photos of Monroe with amateur shots of an unknown, dark-haired woman that were clearly taken around the same time ("Slide projection 3", 2002, overlapped slide projection). But whereas the photos of the actress became and become icons reproduced many times over, the pictures of her counterpart were only accidentally rescued from the dustbin. Placed thus in pairs, the slides emphasize contingent and involuntary correspondences, from the cigarette in the mundanely angled hand to the mole above the mostly smiling mouth. The two women begin to resemble each other like Kracauer’s grandmother resembles her friend, without one appearing as the model, the other as the imitation, which becomes completely evident in one pair of pictures. In this, Monroe is photographed beside another dark-haired actress, the unknown woman beside a blond friend in such a way that the scenes become interchangeable. Overlapping each other at the borders, the double projections run smoothly into each other, while individual projections accord both women the same status, both as subjects and objects of photography.

Whereas this series of slides still has the charm of snapshots despite all the posing induced by the camera, the traces of an assumed innocence are lost in another pair of projections. Here, side by side are productions of fashion adverts and pornographic magazines, and the interchangeability and similarity between Marilyn Monroe and her counterpart become visible as a methodological basis for pictures of women arrested by photography in staged poses. ("Slide projection 4", 2001, double projection) “In photography, exhibition value begins to push back cult value all along the line. However, the latter does not yield without resistance. It is withdrawing to the last entrenchment, which is the human face… Where the human has been withdrawn from photography is where exhibition value first manifests superior force to cult value.”2 It is scarcely an accident that the women in both the fashion and pornographic photographs are euphemistically called ‘models’; models that generate photographed images. The retrenchment which Benjamin saw in early portrait photography has long been unavailable, and cults, which sometimes develop around both fashion and pornographic stars, are based on nothing more than the use of their bodies as projection surfaces – nameless faces, with a fixed iconographic repertoire of full, smiling lips, inclined heads, and direct gazes into the camera, look like versions of the same mask. Their bodies look like their own reproductions, carry clothes to the market like a second skin on top of their own. Details that in the first series of slides indicate biography and history here become chance accessories used as a setting.

What does photography mean here? Certainly it is not the idea of true, eternal photography without a context. Maria Hahnenkamp’s works prove that is it not the medium that objectifies, stills, and kills the subject but the gaze, which sees the picture not as a picture to put in place of the subject, a gaze that looks for pictures that dispense unresistingly with their materiality, pictures that do not look back and are not taken aback. The search for the “actual” essence of photography can scarcely do more than reproduce this gaze, and thus fail. It relates to the object of its critique like a negative to a print, like the slide to its illuminated shadow. Instead of this, Hahnenkamp leads photography unobtrusively yet emphatically back to its superficiality and transitoriness and thereby back to its materiality. An alternative or additional picture is imaginable for every one of her pictures, and this in itself reduces the mortifying totality ascribed to photography. In its place, there is at least the possibility of perceiving seeing as an act that creates pictures from representations – in short as an activity in which their limitedness is evident, if not accessible, from a reflection of their conditions.
  1. Siegfried Kracauer: Die Photographie (Photography). In: Das Ornament der Masse, Frankfurt 1963, p. 21f.
  2. Walter Benjamin: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (Art Works in the Age of their Technical Reproduceability). In Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 1, 2, Frankfurt 1991, p. 445.

Published in: „Bilder und Nachbilder – Maria Hahnenkamp“, Martin Hochleitner, Bernd Schulz (editor), 2002 Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg

Friedrich Tietjen – Born in Leer, Germany, in 1966; lives in Vienna/Maastricht; art historian, critic, journalist; publications on the theory and history of photography, radio and packaging as a commodity; currently a researcher at the Jan van Eyck Academie on photography as a scientific image medium in the 19th century.