Esther Teichmann’s practice explores the tension between photography’s relationship to reality and its otherworldly powers. Accompanied by an essay, “The Photograph as Portal,” from Jessica Brier, the images offer openings between personal and universal, reality and supernatural, and photography and other mediums.
Excerpted from Fulmine (was what he called her), 2013
single screen projection, continuous loop, HD video and sound, 12 min
In 1978, John Szarkowski, now regarded as one of the most influential American curators of photography, posited in his book Mirrors and Windows that “there is a fundamental dichotomy in contemporary photography between those who think of photography as a means of self-expression and those who think of it as a method of exploration.”1 This debate may sound quite basic to us now, knowing with hindsight the extent to which art practice, in general, and what is deemed photography, more specifically, has changed over the course of a few decades. But Szarkowski’s notion of what a photograph does—its function as a physical object and a tool for understanding what we see, optically or otherwise—resonates with the work of interdisciplinary artist Esther Teichmann. I suggest that, in addition to a mirror or window, and perhaps many other things too, a photograph can also be a portal: between the personal, or individual, and the universal; between reality and the supernatural; and between photography itself and other mediums.
Portals—better known as wormholes in the realms of theoretical physics and science fiction—are locations that have the ability to physically transport us from one place in time to another without traversing any of the geography or passage of time that one usually encounters going from point A to point B. The idea of entering a portal is inherent in photography, a medium that, in essence, freezes an image of what a camera sees at a single moment in time. The aperture of the camera lens is itself a portal through which light passes in order to capture an image. Even a cameraless photogram records the placement of an object against a piece of light-sensitive paper at a particular instant, or the reaction of photographic chemicals fixed on the paper, a product of momentary and fleeting physical circumstance. We always encounter a photograph as a remnant of a moment past, one that is necessarily disconnected from the place and time in which the viewer experiences it. A photograph is also physically a surface (it’s no wonder that the mirrors and windows Szarkowski referred to are both flat) that lends itself to projection, layering on and looking through.
Since its invention, photography has been a baffling medium, one that seems immediately to promise truth telling yet is inherently maneuverable. The Pencil of Nature, the first book of photographs, was published in six installments from 1844 to 1846 and featured the invention of “photogenic drawings” by William Henry Fox Talbot. Fox described his invention of the photographic process, which was essentially concurrent with Louis Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype, as a discovery rather than invention:
“The plates of this work have been obtained by the mere action of Light upon sensitive paper. They have been formed or depicted by optical and chemical means alone, and without the aid of any one acquainted with the art of drawing.…They are impressed by Nature’s hand; and what they want as yet of delicacy and finish of execution arises chiefly from our want of sufficient knowledge of her laws.”2
A belief that photographic processes were not mechanical and chemical feats of human invention but, rather, products of the discovery of nature’s capacity to illustrate the physical world was central to the understanding and use of photography in the 19th century. The idea that nature imbued the camera with its ability to depict that which was previously invisible or fleeting lent itself to the further belief that this apparatus possessed power beyond our comprehension. Still today, the distinctly mechanical nature of the camera somehow heightens our sense of its otherworldly power, rather than proving its complete grounding in the known world.
Restaged and Reimagined: From the Personal to the Universal
Art has long been a realm in which deeply personal subject matter is processed, peeled away, and exposed; even works of art that suppose an ostensibly objective observation of the world translate or impose subjective experience onto whatever they depict. As humans, artists cannot avoid seeing the world through the filter of personal experience and fascination; take, for example, Jean-León Gérôme’s exoticisation of the “other” in his Orientalist painting. Artists have taken a vast diversity of approaches through time in their depiction or translation of the human experience.
The camera, for Teichmann, reflects and plays out desire and fantasy
Esther Teichmann’s relationship to photography as a medium is closely akin to the way she layers her personal experience throughout her work. The camera, for Teichmann, reflects and plays out desire and fantasy through its almost violent ability—and need—to “capture” images. This desire—whether to understand the unknown past of a loved one or to hold on to a memory—always necessitates a construction of myths of many scales, just as the desire of the camera to capture its subject results in the construction of photographs. Teichmann’s own experiments with the medium are predicated on the notion that a photograph is neither a mirror nor a window but, rather, a portal through which viewers pass easily between reality and fantasy.
This passage is also one from the specificity of Teichmann’s own experiences to larger narratives of human experience, such as love, loss, and mortality. They, like her own lived experiences, are at once truths and myths. We construct myths about each other and about life to understand it, and Teichmann uses a pastiche of mediums, including photography, to construct restagings and reimaginings of that struggle for understanding. For her, there are no boundaries between this artistic construction and the practice of living life, as lived experience is constantly processed through the act of creation.
Esther Teichmann uses the palette of flesh as a reminder of the sensuousness, violence, and intimacy of the photographic medium
The human figure, particularly the female figure, is often the surface onto which Teichmann projects these myths. Keenly interested in the relationship between the surface of the photographic print and the texture of human skin, she uses the palette of flesh as a reminder of the sensuousness, violence, and intimacy of the photographic medium. The often-idealized, nude female forms reinforce the notion that the subject of a photograph is vulnerable in a way that perhaps no other sitter is. These figures are stand-ins for Teichmann herself or people she knows, and sometimes the people closest to her act as subjects. The nude body is at once highly specific and personal as well as totally universal, familiar even when we see it for the first time.
Through the Eye: From the Real to the Surreal
“For it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.… It is through Photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.”
—Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography (1931)3
The early belief of the camera’s ability to see and depict the world as it truly is—endowing the camera with power and knowledge of the world beyond that of basic human comprehension—has been applied with equal vehemence to science as it has been to spiritual belief and the occult. Photography has, since its “discovery,” been regarded as a mysterious conduit of sorts, and although today we know that photography is a human invention, it has not lost these mysterious associations; they seem to cling to the medium in our collective unconscious, always suggestive of the possibility that the truth of this medium lies outside the realm of rational understanding. The “optical unconscious” that Benjamin described in 1931 was another iteration of the idea that the camera can convey images latent in our subconscious that we are unable to conjure deliberately.
This perspective points to the photograph as a portal between our own lived realities and otherwise inaccessible realms beyond. Certainly, photography is not the only medium that lends itself to the concept that art bridges the rational and irrational. Surrealist literature and painting of the 1920s and 1930s applied ideas of psychoanalysis and philosophy to expressions of the world. The literal depiction of dreams, fantasies, and the subconscious suggested that the seemingly intangible and ineffable might be uniquely understood, or at least expressed, through artistic creation. This act seems like a fundamental contradiction—that humans could produce manifestations of phenomena that are beyond their comprehension—until one examines the particular products of this pursuit.
Georges Bataille’s 1928 novella Histoire de l’Oeil (“Story of the Eye”), a nightmarish pornographic fantasy, explores ideas of transgression and sadism taken to an extreme through the immersive, first-person account of the story’s narrator. Like so many surrealist works of art, Histoire de l’Oeil conjures the subconscious connection between sex and death as infinitely intertwined—a link that is shockingly resonant to most readers on a far deeper level than that of lived experience—through the depiction of entirely alien scenarios. Simply put, the deeply familiar is revealed by portraying the distinctly unfamiliar. Bataille’s work suggests adeptly the extent to which our own brains are almost foreign realms to us—that we live in one corner of the brain, largely terrified to approach any other. The central metaphor of Bataille’s story is the eye, an image and object potent with meaning as an orifice, or aperture, through which experiences pass—arguably a portal between reality and fantasy, normalcy and transgression, life and death. The eye has been a potent visual metaphor for many artists; Jay DeFeo returned again and again in her work to the form of the radiating circle—in flowers, fans, eyes, and apertures—even before she became interested in photography, and the form became even more potent once she integrated this medium into her practice. The eye is both an organ that sees actively, a lookout onto the world, and a passageway through which light, images, and information travel without effort.
Teichmann (quoting philosopher Roland Barthes) describes photography as “a magical totemistic process,”4 which captures images and moments in a way that creates the illusion of capturing the people and experiences the photographer truly seeks. But it is precisely in photography’s failure to do so that it dives into the realm of pure fantasy—always losing itself in the desire to understand or want to know—that it always creates an image of that which doesn’t even exist. Again, photography’s promise as “real” or “true,” as a straight mechanical record of what the camera sees, is precisely what heightens the fantasy of what is depicted.
From Conduit to Stage: Photography into Everything Else
Teichmann’s complex, even troubled, relationship with photography has yielded both a fruitful grappling with the medium and a passionate foray into others. However, to think of her as a photographer experimenting with film, literature, painting, and performance is perhaps to miss the fact that she has always approached artistic practice with many tools, the camera being just one among them. Writing, drawing, and taking photographs all constitute the artist’s regular studio practice, as does the habit of cutting out and photocopying pictures from magazines and books, often of artworks from centuries past, and placing them in combination with her own images and writing. These potent juxtapositions have often been the tools for her to work out an idea; more recently they have made their way into finished works, making explicit the always-present conversations between her own work and that of others.
The pairing of found and original imagery is for Teichmann a process somewhat akin to a surrealist game, usually starting with her own image—a photograph or video still—and then finding a reproduction of a photograph or painting that resonates, making associations and retroactively identifying the sources or referents of particular ideas. In this way, her source material functions more obliquely than in the usual sense, pointing toward the notion that meaning is sometimes made after an image or set of images are conceived. By laying bare the possibility that meaning, or intention, may not always—and often cannot—precede or foreground a work of art, Teichmann puts herself, as an artist, in a position not simply of author but also of a kind of conduit of ideas, a portal in and of herself. Relinquishing authorship seems inherent to a highly associative artistic process, particularly one that is as much a way of working through emotion as it is the result of its processing. Teichmann literally gives herself over to her work, letting the free association of memories, dreams, and desires guide it.
In both style and conception, Teichmann’s painted photographs recall the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a consortium of late-19th-century painters and writers from many disciplines. Like adherents to Pictorialism in photography, the Pre-Raphaelites rejected what they saw as an overly mechanized world, favoring instead a more classical approach to art making. Teichmann’s painted photographs, products of her constant material experiments, have the soft palette of the Pre-Raphaelites and a similar feeling of harking back to a previous time or feeling. Not unlike classical painting, these tableaux suggest—perhaps more than any of her other work—narratives untold, mysteries captured by a single moment but never revealed.
In her recent experiments with film, Teichmann plays out all three of these interpretations of the “photograph” (here quite loosely defined) as a portal. Sometimes starting with her own writing and observation, at other times with the gestures of an actor or other subject, her films are like visceral shadows of lived experiences, suggesting rich emotion and reflection but stripped of narrative or explanation. Using backdrops laden with associations but at the same time imbued with specific memories, such as caves or heavily curtained windows, her films suggest a placelessness into which viewers may project anything. The rich quality of the light, also suggested by her large-scale painted photographs, gives colors the supple quality of memories—more felt than seen. These hues transport us into a place that is wholly imaginary.
Excerpted from In Search of Lightning, 2011
single screen projection, continuous loop, HD video and sound, 5 min
Teichmann’s camera work and framing make her films feel more akin to photographs than to cinema. They are truly moving images. She achieves this dramatic effect using either a Steadicam, whereby subjects move with a kind of magic, like a photograph come to life, or a slow-moving camera that pans evenly across a scene, such as a thunderstorm against a still sky. Her camera becomes a conduit through which we enter images we could previously encounter only in two dimensions. Teichmann’s role as an artist also changes in the making of these works; no longer the conduit of ideas, she now creates a mise-en-scène in which action (or nonaction) takes place. Though she assumes even this directorial role with a light touch, letting her subjects—whether human, landscape, or inanimate object—determine or reveal the meaning of the work with their own spontaneous existence. Always, Teichmann’s subjects and forms seem to exist of their own accord, brought to light by her willingness to be pulled into whatever wormhole she might step into.
Jessica Brier is a curator and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. As curatorial assistant of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), she has assisted in organizing numerous exhibitions, including Francesca Woodman (2011), Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective (2012), South Africa in Apartheid and After: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, Billy Monk (2012), and an upcoming, jointly organized exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa (2014). Independently, she has organized exhibitions at the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Arts and Park Life, in San Francisco, and at Headlands Center for the Arts, in Sausalito, California. She has contributed writing to Art Practical (artpractical.com), Art on Paper, and SFMOMA’s blog, Open Space. She holds a BA from New York University and an MA in curatorial practice from California College of the Arts.
German/ American artist Esther Teichmann received an MFA and PhD from the Royal College of Art in London. Primarily based there, she is senior lecturer at the London College of Communication, visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art and spent the past year as guest professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Teichmann has both published and shown her work internationally. In the last year, she participated in group exhibitions at the Houston Centre of Photography and the Dong Gang Museum of Photography in South Korea. Esther has had further group and solo shows in museums and galleries in Germany, the UK, the United States, Australia, Italy and Switzerland. Teichmann has recently been published in Carol Mavor's Black and Blue (Duke University Press) and Mavor's Blue Mythologies (Reaktion Books). New visual and written work is featured in the current issue of the Spanish/Mexican Photography biannual EXIT. A solo show of new work, Fractal Scars, Salt Water and Tears, is opening at Flowers Gallery in London this April. A limited edition artist book published by Self Publish Be Happy is launching with the exhibition (available from early April: www.selfpublishbehappy.com/bookclub/).
John Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978), 11.
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844), unpaginated.
“Little History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999), 510.
Brad Feuerhelm, “Drinking Air, and Mythologies: Interview with Esther Teichmann,” 1000 Words Photography, no. 14 (2012), unpaginated.