Role Models in Photography
– On the Trail of What Teaching Materials Convey in Passing
During her research in the archive of the FOTOHOF, Sophia Kesting came across a slide collection that no one had considered worthy of attention for quite some time. The artist was invited to study the archive and to develop a new work in response to it. During a tour of the FOTOHOF with Kurt Kaindl - who is a founding member and still part of the team - she noticed numerous slide boxes. When asked, Kurt Kaindl told her about the use of the slides for his teaching, and thus opened up a view into the peripheral areas of the FOTOHOF archiv to Sophia Kesting. A closer look at these more or less forgotten slides led Sophia Kesting to initiate a fundamental and media-reflexive reflection on photography.
Since FOTOHOF was established in 1981, the team has offered courses on the medium of photography. The slide collection was used in Kurt Kaindl's photography courses in the 1980s and 1990s as illustrative material to explain technical and artistic functions of the medium. This collection includes about 5000 slides and several ring binders and came from various sources. Some came from photography companies, such as Lehrbehelf für Fotografie (Teaching Aids for Photography) which slides and explanations that could be ordered from Kodak in the 1980s as well as Nikon Fotoschule dated 1981. Kurt Kaindl had also reproduced many other images from magazines, newspapers and artist*s books, and added photographs from his own work.
Unlike photographs which are classified as works of art or that have a documentary character, such educational images undergo a special form of aging. As a result, they are usually not included in collection catalogs at all, or at least not at an equivalent level. At some point, they become obsolete because the cameras used have long since become outdated, or because the motif of the photograph or the medium of communication have become technically antiquated. As in the case of scientific images, the classification of being outdated usually leads to the educational images being disposed of or ending up in the far corners of archives, only to be forgotten. From this moment on, the originally intended gain in knowledge from the photographic images has disappeared. Nevertheless, they tell us something about the conditions of their production and the normative ideas associated with them, which incidentally find their way into the courses. This is precisely where Sophia Kesting's project Rewriting the Photographic Image comes in.
In Kurt Kaindl's teaching materials, Sophia Kesting was less interested in the technical information they provided. Instead, she focused her attention on how photographic knowledge is conveyed. In doing so, she made an observation that she encountered regularly in her work with the medium: in Kurt Kaindl's selection of images, as in other educational books until the 2000s, men actively shape the illustrations of image design and production, while women, by contrast, are often passive. In the meantime, this gender split has shifted, but the people being photographed and photographing are still generally white, binary, young, and good-looking. In these found educational slides of the FOTOHOF, the gender-specific distribution is subject-related. In the chapters on portraiture, women's faces or naked female bodies are illuminated and modulated with brighteners. In the explanations of the photographic act and the development of photographs, men are the determining protagonists behind the camera, in the photo studio or in the darkroom. How can one deal artistically with such photographic material without becoming polemical? In what form is a media reflection possible that is critical and productive at the same time?
For Rewriting the Photographic Image, Sophia Kesting initially decides to unfold and handle the found material. She liberates the women's faces from the detailed technical descriptions and leaves only brief notes on the lighting as captions. No longer constrained within a dense textual framework, the faces seem less like pure surfaces. Instead, with the addition of white space, the subjective features of the women emerge. [pp. 13, 19] In another group of images, Sophia Kesting literally holds in her own hands the various shots of a woman's face from the Nikon photo school. This gesture effectively shifts our perception: it is not the photographed woman who appears as the object in the image, but the image itself, visible here as a print in material form. Sophia Kesting also emphasizes the act of viewing by holding the portraits in front of her camera in such a way that we can get a good look at them. And it is she herself who holds the images in her hand - as artist, photographer, viewer, and a presumably similarly-aged woman to the one illuminated here. [pp. 37–44]
As in many textbooks, the look behind the scenes is also an important part of Kurt Kaindl's teaching material in order to explain the process of image production. The necessary technical processes are divided into individual images for this purpose. Sophia Kesting takes up these visual explications with reenactments, replacing the men behind the camera, in the darkroom, in the photo studio, and in the studio with herself. As a female, she does not simply take the place of the men, she furthermore questions the common representations of photographic activity within the found material. To do so, Sophia Kesting first reenacts, with her own poses, the visual representation of the development of artistic production from Kodak's Lehrbehelf für Fotografie. [pp. 53–57] The original images reduce this development in drawn illustrations to a cave painter, a sculptor, a painter, and a photographer. For her reenactments, Sophia Kesting enters into an exchange with other artists*, positioning herself in front of their works or using their working tools for her representation of the various arts. In each case, she is seen in a rear view, thus also representative of many women who pursue an artistic activity. An exception and at the same time the final point of the series on the development of artistic production is a photograph taken with a camera. Here Sophia Kesting can be seen from the front and without an artistic product, but with a camera held in front of her face. In this way, we learn in passing with which format and how the artist takes her pictures. The Nikon F90X 35mm SLR camera she uses, a so-called handheld camera, allows for free, not necessarily static photography. The camera is analog and, in contrast to digital photography, speaks for an interest in fewer and therefore more concentrated shots, for a preference of analog image characteristics, and often for working with her own photographs in the darkroom.
With further images, Sophia Kesting further spells out the representation of photography. a pair of images depict both the actual act of taking pictures and the corresponding, completed motif, inviting us to draw comparisons between the two, as in a riddle picture. [pp. 58–59] A three-part group of images represents an important aspect of the shooting process: measuring the available light with an exposure meter. The light measurement is used to decide which parts of the image are to appear light and which dark, and thus which elements of the image are to be emphasized and which are recessed. The actual aim of such pictures - to explain how to hold the exposure meter correctly and what can be read from it - is impressively extended by Sophia Kesting. The exposure meter is held by a child's hand, an adult's hand, and an older hand. To be precise, these are her daughter, her mother and Sophia Kesting herself. The three of them certainly have different ideas with regard to creating images with light, already on the basis of their visual habits and body size alone. [pp. 63–65]
Other photographs of the project bring us into photographic workspaces. [pp. 67, 69] In a photo studio, Sophia Kesting positions herself in front of a camera obscura, and in the darkroom she handles photochemistry in a lab coat. The artist thus serves the genre of the professional portrait, in which mostly male protagonists take center stage in many professions, not only in photography. Such shots of people doing what is actually an invisible part of their work usually looks strangely artificial. The working person freezes for the moment of the picture, and yet something quite decisive is transported in these kinds of pictures: who determines the working process and what is the relationship to the working environment? Sophia Kesting's reenactments point out that it basically makes no difference whether women or men work in the laboratory, or to put it another way, women can and should control and represent the processes of image creation in the same way.
If one takes a step back when looking at Rewriting the Photographic Image and focuses attention not only on the fact that a woman is appropriating the photographic process here, other aspects that distinguish this work in its media reflexivity become evident. In dealing with the teaching archive, Sophia Kesting was preoccupied with the question of authorship, because the concept is complex in her project. On the one hand, because it is a work with found photographs that someone used to create teaching materials and that Kurt Kaindl selected for a class. Here we find a colorful mixture of unnamed image authors*, whom Kurt Kaindl had selected rather carelessly and reproduced for his lessons without particular regard to the original context. On the other hand, in the motifs where she herself appears as a person in the picture, the artist needs another person to take the photograph. Following the photographs found in the teaching archive, Sophia Kesting decisively determines the composition of the picture, but the additional authors* of the picture subtly introduce their own ideas into the planned setting. And last but not least, the three people with the exposure meter make it clear that the image authors* can be people with very different ideas.
In addition to the understanding of authorship, Sophia Kesting's project raises the question of the public visibility of archive material that does not fit into the category of artwork. In the holdings of the FOTOHOF archiv, there is one group of works so far – Musterbilder (sample pictures) by Hans Rustler – which can be understood as teaching material. These are test images that were created as part of a final project at the Agfa Photoschule Berlin. The pictures demonstrate the technical possibilities of making photographic prints and were published in 1931 in the sample folder of the Agfa Photoschule. In the context of Sophia Kesting's exhibition and publication, some of the images from Kurt Kaindl's slide collection will now be on public view for the first time. Sophia Kesting thus responds to the FOTOHOF's invitation – to question the collection with an artistic work and to set it in motion, – with an invitation to expand our view of the archive and to reconsider which image types and image authors* shape our view of photography.