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Touching Photography / Project Description

New Narrative Strategies for Historical Photographs

by Michael Kraus

The idea for “Touching Photography” originated while reappraising the collection of historical photographs on Latin America at the Ethnological Museum Berlin. I dealt with these photographs for a period of two years, looking at the persons in these pictures almost on a daily basis. What I found striking was the poor degree of documentation on the numerous portrait and type photos. In many cases we know virtually nothing about the lives of those depicted. Only the ethnic group, the photographer and the date of the photograph are noted down. Were the persons in the pictures even perceived as individuals? Or were they only interesting as representatives of a collective, possessing features of a certain culture?

This led to the idea for an exhibition that raises questions pertaining to personal issues, individual fates and contexts of encounter. Who were these people? What can be told of their lives today? Can narratives be developed from these photos that differ from their “classical” uses, such as the illustration of ethnographic descriptions or, more seldom, their presentation as photographic works of art—narratives that would help undermine the application of collection categories that establish a distance? Does a narrative form exist that could bring us closer to these people today?

The Path of the Pictures – Contexts of Origin and Usage

The Berlin-based office for scenography chezweitz was responsible for the exhibition design. One specification they were asked to follow was that the photographs should be shown life-sized, if possible at one place. The visitors should be able to look the depicted persons in the eye. However, this “eye level” was never meant in the sense of an equal footing, the illusion of an approach free of contextual asymmetries, something that never existed and would also be hard to find today. But it belonged to the original idea to place the person in the picture at the center of attention and not the object status of the depiction or the aura of the original historical print.
To this end, chezweitz developed the idea of “living images” i.e., the digital animation of selected photographs. chezweitz also suggested using overhead projectors and transparencies to give the impression of an archive situation. This made it possible to show a relatively large number of photos. At the same time, the chosen presentation form enabled the visitors to influence the picture selection on the wall and the attendant search for information and impressions. In a joint discussion, this design was expanded by a further room dedicated to the narratives of selected pictures.

Upon entering the exhibition at the designated place, the visitors first encountered three screens hung from the ceiling onto which the 21 life-sized portrait photos were projected in an alternating sequence. Further information was deliberately dispensed with here. When meeting a stranger for the first time, one knows nothing about him or her. The first impression is an external one. It is visual and spontaneous, and our reaction usually reveals more about ourselves than about our vis-à-vis. The crucial design element was the animation of the depicted persons: a young man moved his shoulders, arms and upper body; an elderly woman started smiling; another person slowly turned to the visitors with a drawn bow and arrow. The movements caused a moment of amazement and wonder that boosted one’s willingness to linger and take a closer look. The low sound of breathing prevented the room from being completely silent.

In the center room, a large-format wall text gave information on the origin and intention of the exhibition. The researched scenarios of encounter were presented. In addition to a personally formulated introduction, one could choose among six stories on the available tablets. The titles were “Fear”, Empathy”, “Body”, “Art”, “Ambivalence” and “Change”. Stories, biographical fragments and forms of encounter related to selected photographs were imparted via headphones. The texts included numerous original quotes from travelogues and diaries.

The third part of the exhibition included three overhead projectors with 158 transparencies designed like index cards. 149 transparencies showed persons of the indigenous population of South America, seven showed selected photographers and two expedition members. The notes under the keyword “Link” enabled visitors to view related pictures next to each other. In some cases, several pictures of the same person existed, partially taken from different perspectives, and more seldom in different years and by different photographers. Furthermore, there were photos of relatives, persons who were part of the same story, and of course the connection between the photographed person and the photographer. The pictures and text modules on the transparencies could thus be supplemented to form a larger narrative. The photographs on display in the first two rooms were also available on these “index cards.” In addition to the effect of recognition, the search for interrelations, the impression of an archive, and the viewing of newly added shots, the transparencies once again vividly conveyed to the visitors what had already been mentioned in the wall text: how large the number of existing pictures is and how small the amount of personal data on those depicted. Fragmentation and reduction, but also standardization and the comparability of scientific data, became just as evident as the varied pictorial languages of the photographers and the different degrees of effort made by the respective explorer to also document information on the individuals.

Points of Contact instead of Dogmatism

The aim of the exhibition was both to stage the moments when the pictures were taken and put to use and to convey concrete knowledge about individual persons and forms of encounter. One reading that the developed dramaturgy offered was the course of an actual encounter: the first meeting (Room 1) followed by the phase of social negotiation processes (Room 2) and then the ordering and summarization of the impressions gained in the first two scenarios (Room 3). When viewing the exhibition in the opposite direction, one could experience the path from the large amount of material in the archive to the “animation attempt” of a (re)constructed narrative using a reduced selection of images.

Besides the large-format depiction, two other points were of particular importance. On the one hand, the complexity, heterogeneity and ambivalences of the encounters at the time—and their results—were to become tangible. On the other, the interpretation of what was shown was not to be pre-structured starting with the first text panel. Instead, the existing information was presented in a way that left the last step—how to evaluate a certain form of taking photographs, a found mode of behavior, historically reconstructed expectations—to the visitors. Anyone expecting to be amazed by the achievements of explorers, or a context-free aesthetics, or postcolonial deconstruction or even condemnation, might have been disappointed. Yet one should dispense neither with the discomfort caused by complex constellations nor with the demand to position oneself.

Dr. Michael Kraus has been working for the department of early American studies at the Universität Bonn since 2013. He was previously a research assistant in the ethnology department of the Philipps-Universität Marburg, where he received his doctorate with the thesis “Bildungsbuürger im Urwald. Die deutsche ethnologische Amazonienforschung (1884 - 1929)” in 2004. He then worked as a curator, among others, for the exhibitions “Novos Mundos – Neue Welten. Portugal und das Zeitalter der Entdeckungen” (Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin 2007) and “WeltWissen. 300 Jahre Wissenschaften in Berlin” (Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin 2010).

For more than ten years, the studio for scenography chezweitz directed by Detlef Weitz and Sonja Beeck has been designing art and theme-related exhibitions. It was responsible for, among others, the design of the anniversary show "Modell Bauhaus" in 2009 at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, and the 2011 exhibition "Arbeit. Sinn und Sorge" at the Deutsches Hygienemuseum Dresden initiated by the German Federal Cultural Foundation. The studio was awarded the Designpreis der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Gold 2011 for the Andy Warhol exhibition "Other Voices, Other Rooms" at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. chezweitz is currently working on the new permanent exhibition of the DB Museum in Nuremberg, an interactive "European Classroom" for the Route Charlemagne of the City of Aachen, as well as - together with the FEZ-Berlin - the children's exhibition "POP-UP Cranach" in the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

You can find further reading on this project here.