An uneasy balance often exists between photojournalism and portraiture. A news photo of a Palestinian youth hurling a bottle rocket at an Israeli tank, or a photo of two Russian Orthodox priests carrying a large icon in the snow, can become a “portrait” once the subject turns and engages the eye of the camera. This engagement of the viewer with the subject, created by a simple head turn to the lens, difficult to parse but powerfully dramatic, lies at the core of many a photographer’s evaluation of his work. Some critics, like Susan Sontag, have even examined the moral issues involved in the subject’s direct confrontation with the photographer/viewer.
Austrian photographer Reiner Riedler not only accepts this dilemma head on, but also seems to delight in his subject’s confrontation with the viewer, not as judgment but as co-conspirator. Riedler’s portraits have none of the objective distancing or sociological recording of Irving Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room or Richard Avedon’s In the American West. There are comedic, even surreal, elements active in Riedler’s work, such as the museum guard here with the radiator echoing the stairway:
… or Love Hotel and the Retired Artists:
… or the desperate subjects of his essay on immigration, Stormed Fortress Europe:
It is often difficult to summarize the intentions and goals of a photographer in a few sentences, but Riedler’s brief bio on his website has such a sense of clarity and poetry that it excels anything I might try to write:
As a documentary photographer, he deals with important topics of the present day. His view always centers on human beings and their environment. The main focus of his documentary work is to challenge our value systems. As a traveler, he visits the periphery of our habitats, always searching for the fragile beauty of human existence with its desires and abysses. His recent conceptual works deal with the themes of transience, crises and death.
So it comes as a surprise that his recent portrait gallery, The Unseen Seen, features not humans in states of distress or pleasure, but macro studies of objects — but not objects that are stand-in metaphors for human activity. Riedler’s subjects are records of human activity, but they are things that few people actually ever touch.
At first, there is nothing that seems less interesting than a reel of motion-picture film. It’s not a tool or an art object in itself; it’s nothing but a delivery system with an all-too-finite lifespan, one that is becoming, in our digital-cinema age, increasingly rare, even an object of curiosity. But Riedler has photographed reels of 35mm film, presenting them as objects worthy of aesthetic contemplation. He recently exhibited film reels as “portraits” in Hamburg’s Galerie Hengevoss-Dürkop. Here is how the gallery promo explains it:
The portrait is one of the traditional genres in the history of art which has never lost its pertinence. The Viennese photographer Reiner Riedler confronts us with a very intriguing type of portrait. He presents to us portraits pertaining to popular movies that all of us are familiar with, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), Josef Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), and Federico Fellini’s Ginger and Fred (1985). However, the artist has not chosen a significant frame or created a compilation of various scenes, but has rather depicted the film reels of the movies in question in their materiality as such.
“Materiality as such” is artspeak for the simple fact that what we are seeing in these photographs are 2,000-foot mostly core-wound exhibition prints of feature films. The exhibition is the product of a photo essay that Riedler undertook in collaboration with German film archivist Volker Ernst, using the resources of the Deutsche Kinematek in Berlin.
Not all of these film rolls are from internationally known movies like Casablanca. Some of the reels reflect holdings that are of the greatest interest to scholars of early German (even silent) cinema. There is little visual difference between Fellini’s Ginger and Fred (1985) and Urban Gad’s Die Gespensterstunde (1916). Gad is virtually unknown in America, but from 1910-1926 he directed 68 films, including 30 with his wife, actress Asta Nielsen.
Some titles, such as Christian Petzold’s Ghosts (2005), clearly reflect the color palette or other elements of the movie:
Here is Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993):
The gallery further describes the colors and textures as if they were describing a floral bouquet:
The cool bluish shimmer of Don Hewitt’s See It Now: A Conversation with J. Robert Oppenheimer (1955) evokes before our inner eye the image of Marlene Dietrich, with whom this conversation was conducted. The bright yellow of Alice in Wonderland (1951), which forms a contrast to a dark, shadowed ring and bars, recalls the magical, fairytale mysticism of this film. The blackness rendered in the case of Nosferatu (1922) takes up the horror and the nocturnal darkness in the film of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. The warm, golden beige, green and red, as well as the coarser, cord-like lines of Fitzcarraldo (1982) are reminiscent of the jungle in Werner Herzog’s famous movie.
On his website Riedler describes the process of making his film-reel portraits: I set up a little photo studio inside the cinema of the archive and backlit the film rolls by installing film lights behind the objects, lighting each roll in the same way for continuity. The result was a collection of images of a few hundred film rolls.
It appears to me that Riedler’s process was not a simple exercise of placing the rolls on a backlit piece of milk glass, but rather setting a sharply defined, quite bright spotlight behind each roll.
Some are encased in their projection reels and represent the most canonic titles of their respective countries.
Others are barely there, disintegrating artifacts of a vinegar-syndrome glob of fused plastic, painful reminders of the fragility of our art, a vulnerability even more pronounced in the coming decade of digital non-migration.
When I was a film student at USC, Paul Rayton and I were projectionists for film classes, including those of critic Arthur Knight. I became proficient at threading the unwieldy rolls, even projecting new prints fresh from the lab that were, like some of Riedler’s subjects, still on plastic lab cores. There was something quite magical about holding a reel of a Fellini or Resnais film in your hands and threading it over and under the sprocket drive of a ratchety Simplex projector, a visceral sound that has never quite left me, even though we’re several decades into the noiseless age of digital cinema. It’s ironic that many camera assistants working today who may still shoot on film (raw stock) have never held a roll of print film in their hands. Film dailies have been a lost cause for more than a decade.
How should we react to these photos of movie prints of the analog era? Are they the detritus of an outmoded technology, custodians of the actual images created by a cinematographer, photographs you can see with your eyes, or merely the fading but sacred relics of the sacrament of cinema?