My counterpart is my motif - Remarks on Gudrun Kemsa’s New York Pictures
In a short text connected with the picture series Manhattan, the artist makes the following statement:
“Urban architecture becomes a stage on which the protagonists act. The light in Manhattan is bright and clear and it seems almost as if it was only created to perfectly illuminate the whole scenery of this huge stage in a natural way…”
Particularly in cities, the world is a stage on which infinite performances of people moving purposefully or casually and freely take place each day. Reality occurs in the plural; we never obtain just one single picture of this world. Everything is in a state of flux, as the pre-Socratics taught us. Everything fluctuates, and nothing remains; there is only an eternal becoming and changing. Time and movement thus become our constants. The pictures visualize in their way what we conceptualize as movement and impermanence. Beyond coincidence, one conceptual inspiration for Gudrun Kemsa might have been when she decided to generate moving pictures with her photography. In the photos, again and again we encounter individuals who walk quickly or slowly, turn around, stand still, meet others, and
stop at a traffic light at some point, to then start moving again a short time later.
Gudrun Kemsa observes. She has a counterpart. That is her motif. She is the one side; her counterpart is the other. She observes while others take action: a peculiar asymmetry, Niklas Luhmann would say. Silent observer and moving partner, whereby the latter become the actor in these pictures quite involuntarily. Gudrun Kemsa has visited New York repeatedly, and, indeed, at very different times. That Midtown in particular delights nearly all visitors to the city is clear. We find ourselves in the center of high capitalism. This part of New York generates pictures of at times endless beauty on its streets and squares. Another part of this island that never sleeps reveals a totally different, very specific aesthetic: Downtown, Little Italy, or Harlem—these parts of the city are also frequently photographed and found in innumerable films. But they inspire narratives that are not Gudrun Kemsa’s focus. These areas are where myths of heroes, mafia bosses, and brilliant jazz musicians develop—narratives that have provided material for all kinds of films, from romantic movies to brutal gangster films. New York offers the best place in the United States for exaggerations and neuroses, from Wall Street to Woody Allen’s favorite film locations.
Gudrun Kemsa’s observant eye perceives actions that we miss due to a lack of time or interest. We do not see her motifs, or to put it more correctly: we do not perceive what happens on the street with her eyes. To participate in these fluid worlds, which do not produce any substance, one needs time. When time is available, the play with the ephemeral world of the street becomes more fascinating. Time is the condition for Gudrun Kemsa’s photography. We as viewers generally pass by the stagings that the photographer effects. But she masters the principle of juxtaposition and connection. Gudrun Kemsa observes the opposite side of the street with concentration, and waits until people she does not know come together and provide her with a motif for a picture. At this moment, they are eternalized by her
briefly pressing the shutter release.
Concretely: in the picture 42nd Street 3, 2018, two people who perhaps do not know each other meet on the sidewalk in front of a Prada store. On the left edge of the display window, a man is looking to the right at an elegantly dressed woman walking toward him. It is this decisive moment, to use the
words of Cartier-Bresson, that inspired Gudrun Kemsa to take a photograph of the two people, neither of whom she knows.
Both individuals—the male tourist with a cap and 3/4-length trousers on the left, and the female New Yorker dressed in a green dress and talking on her cellphone—are actors in front of a massive concrete architecture at the moment they are photographed. They emphasize the vertical dimension of the
building. When the woman on the telephone has nearly reached the Prada store, another woman is standing behind her on the right, still within the frame of the entrance area of building No. 724. A man is standing on the left, vertical edge of the store. The shop with its display of mannequins is itself quasi
inlaid in this bright concrete architecture. A principle in Gudrun Kemsa’s photography today is revealed here: she composes her photographs with baselines, with verticals and horizontals. They are supplemented with windows as frames for passersby and door entrances with a strict geometry, which serve as master axes: traffic lights, columns, a bus stop with an information stele, lamps hanging down on buildings, and so on.
Photos that do not have a “flat” counterpart of an architecture as a basic motif but instead show a corner situation require a differentiated look. On the one hand, a different depth is offered here; on the other, the framework for action is expanded. People walk from left to right and vice versa, cross the street at traffic lights, or stand still for a short moment. The large store situated behind them does not have as much presence anymore. Here, one might ask whether a narrative structure is inherent in this kind of street photography. What can be determined is that we have an image that reproduces a happening in these pictures. But this is not a classical narrative, since there is no actor relating something. Here, people who do not know each other encounter one another on the street, or on steps in the subway, and are reported on visually at a particular moment. In the series of pictures Subway of 2018, the coincidences are emphasized even more strongly. Here, in the subsurface of the city, the anonymity seems to be even greater than up on the street.
With respect to the three classical units of time, space, and action, which Aristotle considered necessary in a drama, we find a correlation in the pictures of Gudrun Kemsa. The people
photographed find themselves at the same place at a particular time, and take action. At the same time, no drama in five acts can be retraced in these pictures; the basic tenor is instead the ephemeral. It is therefore not possible to speak of the concept of narration in the classical sense, since what we are dealing with here is a non-binding narrative. The photo brings together people who could be part of a narrative at this moment. At the moment the shutter is released, each figure takes on a specific
role. There are individuals standing, walking, waiting, reading, and so on. All are in one picture, but a narrative about all of them is not provided; they are merely portrayed.
Everything that is depicted participates in a world dedicated to outer appearances, including the fantastic stores on prestigious Fifth Avenue and the grand architecture, which we also find in
Paris (La Défense), Berlin, London, or Dubai. Gudrun Kemsa has made her way to all these places and partaken of their respective atmospheres. She did not photograph a situation in rainy weather at any of the locations, and definitely not at Venice Beach or Al Merraija (Dubai). Rain is not part of this photography. When it rains, people sometimes act in a frenzied way and are—above all in industrial nations—rather impatient. Sovereignty of movement is impaired; the freedom that Gudrun Kemsa captures in her actors is no longer a given. We encounter a salient example of unimpaired scope for action in the photo 5th Avenue 3, 2009. At the far right of the picture, a man is leaning on the wall of a high-rise building, holding a shopping bag and sunning himself for a moment. We see his shadow extending toward the left in an almost fantastical way, stretching over the section of the architecture that he occupies. The woman in a light-colored coat walking past this young man from the left continues this shadow. From her left foot, we see an elongated shadow on the sidewalk, which also marks her walking direction and leads toward the entrance of a shop.
The precise observations explicated here exemplify Gudrun Kemsa’s artistic intentions. It is the beautiful appearance of this world of Manhattan symbolized by magnificent Fifth Avenue that is highlighted again and again. No dirty objects, all of which the photographer consistently retouches, fit into this immaculately tidy world. The beautiful appearance exists in a distinct present. The German word for appearance, Schein, is derived, as is generally known, from the Middle German schîn, so that today this term is translated as shine or light phenomenon. These light phenomena, along with the powerful geometry of buildings and the movement impulses of the protagonists, are part of the artist’s alphabet for bringing us closer to the urban life in metropolises in a specific way. She is the director who presents reality to us based on her imagination. Buildings, passersby, and so forth undoubtedly exist; it is the interplay of all this that gives rise to the synthesis of this art. Beautiful appearances are
the counterpart to the conceptual reality and/or truth. People are naturally fascinated by beautiful appearances. Without such appearances, there would probably not be any art, particularly not in the Western sense. Throughout the twentieth century, beauty was repeatedly fractured by ugliness or destruction. Aesthetics, once a profound engagement with the conditions of the beautiful, are also regarded with general suspicion in our present. The beautiful is no longer a general guiding principle for creativity. Gudrun Kemsa inverts this distortion with her own visual vocabulary. Her reality of the moment fascinates.
in: New York New York - Gudrun Kemsa, Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld 2020