Matthias Harder


Street Photography, Choreographed


Street Photography, Choreographed If we try to imagine our familiar urban context without all the labels, without any advertising and without most of the signs at street corners or the images emblazoned across every public transport facility, the result would be a very bewildering view of our environment. Düsseldorf-based photo-artist Gudrun Kemsa has been going down precisely this path of puzzlement and reduction for several years in what are at first glace seemingly realistic large-format streetscapes. She eliminates some of the company and brand names in and above the windows and doors of New York shops and luxury boutiques and digitally replaces them with blank surfaces, which leads to a calmer picture, but also looks somehow disconcerting. In her earlier photographs of train stations she had already neutralized information signs and display boards, draining these places of written statements. Kemsa thus opens up a new way of looking at our accustomed surroundings, concentrating her gaze on what she defines as the essential components therein.


In other street scenes Kemsa constructs a simultaneity of situations that actually succeeded each other in time. On occasion she combines people and snippets of reality into a single image without us noticing her montage work, producing a new kind of reality. The figures in these scenes are usually passers-by who have strolled across her field of vision at short intervals - and are then compiled as if time had been compressed. Gudrun Kemsa then works like the director of a digital film that promises an analog reality. She is similar in this way to other contemporary artists who likewise try to make the most of the tension between trueness-to-life and falsification, between the realms this side of the authentic and beyond.


In her current pictorial constructions Kemsa seems interested primarily in choreographing with her camera (or sometimes digitally after the fact) the people she sees on sidewalks, stairs and public squares. She manages to orchestrate an inimitable rhythm in her images, formerly using columns as architectural set pieces, and more recently with living figures as well. In some street scenes the figures look almost like statues, as if the hustle and bustle of big-city life had suddenly been brought up short. The protagonists appear in various roles and dimensions: they look small and rushed on the sidewalks of Manhattan, larger and more relaxed against a blue sky in Paris or Tunisia. Also important here of course are people's actual inner-city routes from A to B, from the office to a restaurant or home and back, from left to right in the picture, or vice versa. Most of the people Kemsa captures are in motion, only occasionally stopping, for example when they seem to be waiting for a bus or for friends. The architecture sometimes looks like a film set, and perhaps Kemsa has chosen it as background for precisely this reason. The artist senses intuitively and immediately whether a setting will work as motif. Its detailed depiction and her focus on the surface, material and representative impact invest the ostensible background motif with more content than it might first seem to possess. The city stage and its contemporary players ultimately fuse into a unit in her pictures.


Occasional encounters and greetings between the people on the sidewalks stand out from the otherwise uninvolved coexistence of the protagonists. On New York's Sixth Avenue, for example, two women embrace: a spontaneous gesture of friendship that - in the art context - recalls a video work by Bill Viola, which in turn summons images of Jacopo Pontormo's famous depiction of the Biblical meeting of Maria and Elisabeth. Let us linger in New York for a moment and take a walk with Kemsa along Fifth Avenue or Broadway, marveling at the lack of advertising and at the (digitally) dismantled signage. Everything looks like a random, fleeting glance across the street in midtown Manhattan, or at the sidewalk opposite, but without the taxis, buses, fire engines and stretch limousines that would normally be rushing past our field of vision. The human dimension has been suspended in these dense urban landscapes; this is evident even from Kemsa's marginalized images of the canyons yawning between the monumental skyscrapers. These pictures are about a staging of everyday occurrences, about constructed images, about the deliberate and carefully considered portrait of a city, including its inhabitants or visitors. The lack of exchanges between most of the people here is surprising; distance and proximity exist in equal measure, and yet people live alongside one another rather than with each other. Hardly any communication is involved in the creation of these works, either. There is no eye contact between the artist and the people before her lens as she embeds them in the architectural backgrounds.


Not all clues to topography and the urban context are eliminated, however. The signs that have been preserved in the images take on, by virtue of their singularity, a special value. In one case, for example, a signboard notifies passers-by of an unknown hazard; the reserved manner in which this image is composed hones our eye for the telling detail. Sometimes Gudrun Kemsa digitally eliminates the chewing-gum remnants on the sidewalk if they get in the way of the reduction to essentials that she finds so important. Kemsa's young colleague Falk Haberkorn approaches his work with a similar degree of perfectionism; once, he spent hours cleaning up the forest floor before photographing the spot with his plate camera. This unusual view of a tidied-up outdoor space created an enigmatic visual atmosphere in which the viewer at first had trouble detecting exactly what was wrong with the picture: this place somehow looked like the scene of a crime. Is it ultimately crucial to a picture if one photographer first removes all small sticks and leaves by hand from the forest floor and another removes ground-in chewing gum from the sidewalk with the click of a mouse? This question must remain unanswered, but the first alternative at least seems somewhat more unusual these days. More interesting still is the way both artists demonstrate a similar will to deliberately shape reality as they have come across it.


Gudrun Kemsa elects an elaborate post-production process for this purpose and sometimes uses extreme picture formats up to sixteen meters wide. She also occasionally neutralizes the colors and gaudiness of her motifs, for example as artist-in-residence at Villa Massimo in Rome in the mid-1990s, when she experimented in the darkroom enlarging color slide material as negatives. While back in those days the colonnade surrounding the square before St. Peter's and the shadows it cast gave her picture space its rhythm, today she achieves similar effects by staggering human figures in space. One might almost say that Kemsa choreographs her figures - not by staging their actions and poses as a performance, but by carefully framing the scene through her lens - or occasionally by telescoping different situations and passers-by in a process resembling the human experience of successive reception. In every case, the protagonists in one of Kemsa's photographs were all in the same place, but not always at the same time. Her editing work creates new spatial and temporal connections, while at the same time preserving that famous remnant of authenticity. For even if we are aware of the minimal manipulations the artist undertakes from time to time in the scene as she really saw it, her images remain believable.


Architecture often appears flat in Kemsa's work. The bright lighting renders even illuminated window openings, or vistas through ancient Roman ruins in earlier pictures, as mere surfaces, not providing us with the accustomed hints as to what lies behind them. Light, that genuinely photographic medium, becomes in Kemsa's hands a formal structuring element - even when it is used in negative form or as shadow. It almost seems in some of her early works as if architecture were being forced to subordinate itself to light: here, a contour is dissolved by glaring sunlight, there it is obscured by a dark shadow. In her recent pictures, light plays a subtler role. Gudrun Kemsa still prefers to take her photographs on sunny afternoons, when people's shadows are lengthening and give the picture field additional structure. But she no longer grants the light its own value in her photographs. In contrast with the formal abstraction in her early work, the immediacy of her rendering and the natural colors now make the scenery look very real, sometimes as if painted. Only the sunlit sidewalks and squares look cleaner, sometimes more sterile, than they really are. Kemsa only highlights the more intensive hues she finds in the public space selectively and sparingly.


What photographers used to achieve through over, double or long exposures, or by means of homemade templates used to cover certain sections of the negative in the darkroom, an artist can do today on any home computer using image editing software. And digital photo editing is of course common not only in artistic, but particularly in commercial photography. Most of the images we see in advertising today are composed in the course of numerous individual steps until the desired visual effect is achieved, which need no longer have any connection with conventional accuracy of depiction. This is exactly Gudrun Kemsa's point of departure: she shows no hesitation in delving into new areas within the broad field of photography. It doesn't matter to her whether a photograph is analog or digital, and her painstaking post-production work gives her plenty of scope for a playful, creative approach. Her work brings together and interweaves several media: she for example works in parallel with video and sound. As she herself has indicated - and as is amply evident - music, and in particular the idea of rhythm, provides yet another key to understanding her photography. Also central to Kemsa's work is the factor of time and the attempt to visualize its passage - which of course also applies to her video works. While some of her colleagues execute large-scale photo series in which a single aspect is singled out and parsed in all its variations, Gudrun Kemsa consolidates a pictorial idea into individual works that harbor all its complexity, and which are then occasionally joined by one or several partner images, for instance her stairway panoramas in which several people are brought together to create a new dramaturgy. In her space-structuring distribution of figures across the picture field, Kemsa's training as a sculptor seems to serve her well. She takes her pictures, which are at once authentic and virtual, in Paris, New York, Rotterdam, Berlin, Dubai and elsewhere. Some remain vague, others can be readily identified; sometimes the elimination of lettering and signage turns them into interchangeable settings in our global village.


Her colleagues Beat Streuli, Mona Breede and Florian Böhm also observe people in public spaces and arrive at similar pictorial results; and yet every artist of course has a different way of observing what he or she sees and hence reconstructs the figures in the urban context in a completely individual manner.


An interesting development can be noted in Kemsa's work: her exclusive focus on architecture is opening up to include what is happening on the urban stage, where people enliven the scene as extras and protagonists while also constituting a factor for composing the pictorial space. Their movement, however, a central aspect in Kemsa's work on video, is frozen in the photographs. A uniquely cool-tempered stasis emerges as a variation on "street photography," that decades-old photographic genre.


Lit: Gudrun Kemsa - Urban Stage, Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2010