Klaus Honnef


Gudrun Kemsa and the Street Photography Genre


Street photography along with fashion and advertisement photography is one of the few stylistic formats unique to the photographic medium. What differentiates this work from more typical people-centered imagery is the seemingly indiscriminate character of the motif and the ostensible lack of purpose of the people being pictured. The photograph is not engaged with the intentions of the individuals captured by its lens. Their aims are not revealed. The photograph merely interrupts them for a brief moment as they follow their respective pursuits. The personal character of the people, like their intentions, remains hidden. If any conclusions can be drawn at all, they are superficial ones, based on the subject 's appearance:age, gender, gait and clothes.


Like fashion and advertisement photography, street photography is a distinctively urban format. The backdrop of city life sets the stage. A small-town setting would presumably affect a more formalized staging, moving in the direction of portraiture. One of the earliest photographic images was in fact a street scene. Jacque Louis Mandé Daguerre took it on an afternoon in the year 1838 on the Boulevard du Temple. Due to the influence of the popular Boulevard Theater and its interest in illuminating the darkest corners of society, the street became known among the people as the Boulevard of Crime. Besides a street lined with trees, however, only a silhouette was recorded by the light sensitive plate behind the lens. The light was too weak, and the plate was not sensitive enough to capture the motion. The photograph presents the silhouette of a man waiting to have his shoes shined. The dynamic of the urban machine is the prevailing characteristic of street photography. Even in the Great American Depression imagery of the South, by Walker Evans or Ben Shahn, the heat of the midday may bring city life to a standstill, but the dynamic of the urban is perceptible.


In the broadest sense, Gudrun Kemsa's panoramic photographs that capture the passerby in motion, belongs to the genre of street photography. At the same time they are missing the most predominant characteristic of typical examples:the atmosphere of the big-city environment. The images have nothing in common with the photographs of Helen Leavitt from New York or the pictures of Beat Streuli other than that they present people in motion. Rather than existing within an identifiable location, even an indefinite Megalopolis, the people in Gudrun Kemsa's images seem to exist in an indefinite somewhere that is perhaps a nowhere. A light blue sky, occasionally moving towards white, creates an open background without borders, rather than the many faceted architectural signifiers of city life. There is nothing that infers a particular location. The images perhaps relate most closely to the encircling view of a 17th century baroque cathedral dome where playful angels placed along the edges look down on to upward gazing viewers. In fact an earlier group of works entitled ›Moving Pictures‹ presents a postmodern dome filled with people: the glass dome of the Reichstag in Berlin. But also here a clear indication of location is not offered.


The chosen point of perspective and the strong blue-surface coloration further evoke an association with baroque painting. Known as the frog or dachshund perspective it sets itself up quite a bit under the eye level of the subject producing an upward point of view. It is the view that suggests higher spheres of meaning. Looking up into the Pantocrator zenith of the dome, the faithful experienced their own insignificance:servants without power before the master. The rise of photography served to instigate a »Neues Sehen«, a new perspective, that destabilized conventional bourgeois perceptions and demanded a more active experience from the viewer. In the spacious images of Gudrun Kemsa, the meaning of past perspectives intersects with the new, and in an odd way they even cross. The all-encompassing power of an endless heaven and the seeming monumentalization of the people pictured, form a conflicting relationship. At first glance there seems to be no connection between the people and the sky. Concomitantly the figures are mindful of the feather light shadow puppets made out of paper that are found in Asian cultures. Even though the shadow of the clothing and body form strong contours, the almost monochrome background robs them of plasticity. The upward view creates a stage-like platform along which people hurry by. People appear as if they are actors in dramatic personifications of a stage play. An invisible person appears to be pulling the strings, creating a metaphysical relationship between the figures and heaven.


The wide band along the bottom of the image is only seldom revealed as a step. With the right foot a young woman in a short skirt, weighted with two full bags, carefully moves forward. The point of her foot lies outside of the image edge - an unerring sign of a downward tendency. To avoid falling she looks attentively where she is stepping. Another woman wearing pants, who is on the vertex of the incline, grabs her hair with a reflexive gesture. Most of the people hurry along, passing the viewer diagonally or parallel to the surface of the image in rhythms that vary from accelerated to almost motionless. Rarely do we see a frontal view. Some have their backs to the camera while others appear in three quarter or one quarter profile. No matter what the path, it is only a momentary configuration. In our mind the impulse to action continues to be realized despite the static nature of the frame. The figures move within the long, horizontal stretch of the potentially endless panorama - right, left and down, but never up. A ballet of randomly placed protagonists interact, sometimes in a group, sometimes in isolation, sometimes through personal encounters. The figures move in tandem with a choreographed rhythm. The arrangement of the figures across picture plane, emphasizes the rhythmic motion. The planar character of the surface effectuates the sense that the disappearing figures along the bottom edge are dropping off behind the horizon line and are reappearing from a virtual world in the opposite direction.


The back-and-forth movement causes the bottom band at the edge of the plane of the picture to function as a platform or a horizon, depending upon at which point the person is caught. The result is an endless and increasingly irritating change of function within the picture surface. Thus Gudrun Kemsa contradicts the idea of conventional Western spatial order, and is in opposition to the immanent origin of the picture that is preserved in photography. The line of the horizon defines itselfes as a border of visible space as soon as space becomes the theme of the picture. The line of the horizon, depending where it is placed, either narrows the picture plane to a surface perspective similar to the paintings of Francis Bacon, or it opens the picture area up like the paintings of Jan van Goyen or Jacob van Ruysdael. In the latter the image of the earth is separated from that of the heaven. Incline or horizon? The only vertical in Gudrun Kemsa's panoramic images is at the base of the image area, in the foreground, rather than in the background, as one would expect. The slanted angle of the camera reconfigures perceptual organization. The space tilts into the surface, creating a virtual-like expanse. The parameters build an invisible vector that initiates the figures impulse to motion. The space behind the horizon becomes a construction of an invisible structure. Clearly, these »Choreographies«, as the artist calls them, have little in common with traditional street photography despite their creation »on location«. Although interesting cultural and societal conclusions might be drawn from the behavior, gestures and clothing of the individual figures, this is not where the artist's interests lie.


The artist is neither concerned with documentation nor with social reporting, but rather with the relationship between visible reality and the reflection of the image as it is formed in the picture space. In this case, as in the earlier works of the artist, it is about the influence of time on perception and the dynamic within the static picture space. Relentlessly appearing and disappearing, without any reference to a locale - in actuality it is Paris - the people passing the camera come to embody a parable of human existence. They lose themselves without leaving any sign. They become, in effect, an endless frieze, digitally printed and mounted without seams, a ceaseless stream of individual or collective figures moving beyond the horizon. It is the particular form of the pictures that places the viewer in a position equivalent with the action of entering and exiting the stage and thereby connects them to the activity in a way that seems both familiar and strange. Without premeditation the familiar appears different. Unlike film, the general direction across the picture surface is horizontal rather than vertical. The continual movement of the camera reflects the eye of the viewer. Any sense of a central perspective quickly falls away and is replaced by a multi-perspectivism that destabilizes the organization. The viewers are compelled to orient themselves through their own movement within the picture plane:perception of space intersects with corporeal action. Gudrun Kemsa 's string of serial figures fuses the traditional principles of a frieze with the dynamic light projection of film. The work connects to the as-yet insufficiently explored and irritating territory of perceptual ambivalence.


Translation: Allison Faye, Seattle

Lit: Gudrun Kemsa - Moving Images, Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2006