When I Take Pictures, My Body Disappears. An interview with Esther Teichmann
Elīna Sproģe 16/09/2013
Esther Teichmann (1980) might have been born in Karlsruhe, Germany, but ever since she began her photography studies in England, she's called London her home. At least, one of them. Having just returned from a year spent in California, the artist captures the relativity of time and space in her works. Aestheticizing sensitive themes, she appears to challenge the permanence of things. The safety of a mother's embrace fades away with the years, and the firm grasp of a loved one's hand slowly lets go, causing one to consciously struggle to stop time – if only for a moment.
By also writing, making photographic series and combining moving images, Esther creates a magical, carefully constructed world in which everything is as seeming as life itself. As fantasy alternates with harsh reality, otherwise deeply personal experiences of bodily death become all-inclusive. In the theoretical search for the beginnings of humanity's urge to create, observe and save images, a process that cannot be explained with words emerges; it melds together the images assembled in a collage as if they were sentences in a story that one wishes to understand and describe in the moment just before it happily ends.
Teichmann's resumé lists significant group shows in Europe and the United States, and solo shows in London, Melbourne, Dublin and her hometown of Karlsruhe. She received her doctorate at London's Royal College of Art, and she passes on her knowledge to new photographers by lecturing at the London College of Communication, which is a constituent college of the University of the Arts London. This summer, Esther came to Latvia to lead the master-class “Alternate Worlds: Photography and the Constructed Image”, at the ISSP school which was held at the beginning of August near the city of Kuldīga.
What are your impressions after having participated in the ISSP summer school?
Taking into account that I didn't know anything much about ISSP before coming here, I'd have to say that it was an emotionally wonderful experience. A really unique organization. I've led larger and smaller creative workshops and have given speeches and photography courses for baccalaureate and master's programs for many years now, but most of these took place in a distinctly academic setting. I was touched by the altruism, zeal and generosity of the organizers of ISSP. All of these people – both the photographers and the people from completely other fields who simply love photography – do this without any compensation. The program is truly powerful and amazingly organized.
The invited lecturers were also terribly interesting. Although we had distinctly diverse personalities, we became very close. In large part, this was due to the fact that we were such different photographers who work in varying fields, while some people were book editors and artists who work with sculpture. The nights that we spent in conversation were wonderful and have, rather significantly, changed the way that I now look at the different genres of photography.
Another thing that raises the level of the school is that the prospective students have to submit their portfolios and apply to a workshop led by a specific lecturer – which attests to each student's wish to reach certain goals in the scope of the program.
This is my first time in Latvia, and I had the opportunity to be in such a beautiful rural environment. I'm still being overcome with impressions.
During this time, we master-class lecturers also tried to create some works for ourselves, and I have to say that with the students and teachers working together, the end result was achieved much quicker. Perhaps that's because each person is slightly taken out of his or her regular rhythm.
How did you decide to supplement your photography practice with teaching at the university?
I was taking pictures for both fashion spreads and ads in order to cover my master's degree expenses, and when I was offered the opportunity to give lectures, I didn't think that that was something that I'd want to do longterm. But as I gave the occasional lecture and led some workshops, I understood that I really enjoyed it. My students were also quite forthcoming and they gave me positive feedback, leading me to be asked back more frequently. Unwittingly, I've become a senior lecturer, although I must say that I've always viewed the opportunity to work with students as a huge privilege.
My first permanent position was at the University of Brighton, where I worked for several years. After that, and to the current day, I lecture at the University of the Arts London/London College of Communication, and I just spent the last year at the California College of the Arts. Every one of these institutions has a different program structure, and their teaching methods vary greatly, but they all have very strong departments of photography; as a result, I have wonderful colleagues and close friends whose works I really admire.
Does communicating with students influence your creative work?
Yes, most definitely. I do work only part-time however, because it's very important to set aside enough time for your own work. I teach for two to three days a week in London, and spend the rest of my time in my studio. Teaching is more than just a financial choice. I see it as a constant exchange of experiences, and it's always seemed to me that I receive just as much from the students as I am able to give them – if not more.
Untitled. From Mythologies series. 2013
What is it about photography that captivates you? How did you choose to study it?
That also wasn't a completely conscious decision. I left Germany for England when I was eighteen, to study art and design at college; during the first year there, one has the opportunity to become acquainted with several fields. At that point, I had no idea that I wanted to do photography.
My parents are in academia, but not connected with art. Consequently, coming from such an environment, I never would have thought that I could be an artist. When imagining my future profession, I thought it could be either architecture or graphic design – something creative, but not overly bohemian, which, at the time, is what I thought the lifestyle of an artist was like. Of course, it's actually not (laughs).
But already in my first year at college, I truly fell in love with photography. It's a fascinating medium. I've always been interested in the way that a symbiosis occurs between photography and other mediums – how they come together. Film, literature and painting have served as constant sources of inspiration; however, the aspect that has always drawn me to both video and photography is their relationship to reality. Although my works are, in a certain way, scripted and created by my imagination, they contain an unremitting dialog between fantasy and reality, using real people as mediators. This turns the process into something even more fantastic.
Do you see a difference between those photographers who have an academic education in the field, and those who don't?
I believe that there are very many wonderful artists, and in various fields, that have not gone through a traditional academic institution. There's this young artist – I don't think he calls himself an artist, nor a photographer – who is garnering a great amount of attention in America right now. He's called Mike Brodie; he lives in California and has just published a book and continues to take part in numerous shows. In his own opinion, he simply takes pictures of his friends, and without categorizing it as art – in any way or form. A Period of Juvenile Prosperity is a beautiful book that was put together by Brodie and the publicist Paul Schiek. Mike is a very interesting example of someone who has not studied art, but who has simply instinctively documented his peculiar daily life as an outsider – which he spends traveling with his friends around America, year after year. However, there aren't many examples like this – when your best friend is an excellent editor and curator, and who can take what you've created and elevate it to the level of high art.
School doesn't just teach how to technically create an image – that can be learned in a much more concentrated way by working as a photographer's assistant. A great many of the most successful ad and fashion photographers learned their skills in a non-academic environment – by assisting in a studio. When you're in school, the group of people and the synergy that arises among them is of great importance. The way in which we can inspire each other, and how we learn to develop our ideas by creating works, writing about them, and searching how they interrelate in historical and contemporary contexts.
Do you remember your first experience in relation to photography?
I remember using my father's camera. A Minolta. I took pictures of my little sister, which I still do today. I was still a teenager, and she was three years younger than me. In truth, I started taking pictures of my family early on; I liked to stage scenes and use my family as my subjects. I still do that.
The school I went to was quite traditional – with a concentration on languages – but art was my favorite subject. Karlsruhe, which is where I grew up, has excellent museums, especially on medieval and renaissance art; I've been surrounded by art since childhood. I was also very taken with images in magazines, from National Geographic to even Vogue – from which I'd make collages and then put them up on the wall.
Still from HD videowork In Search of Lightning. 2011
In making individual series of works, you've worked with accordion cameras and have also developed your own pictures. What is your relationship with analog photography?
In principle, I use everything; but lately, I've been taking a lot of digital pictures and filming in HD video. I have several cameras; my newest one, and with which I work a lot, is a Nikon D800E. Nevertheless, I do a lot of my work with the large-format camera you mentioned, which actually isn't old – it's a Japanese copy, but I like the slow process of it. When taking pictures with film, it's not possible to see the end result immediately, and I like this waiting – even though it's not at all practical – which is why I also totally adore digital photography. It's great! It's definitely changed the way I work, markedly quickening the process and giving me the chance to immediately judge the results. I also often use it for “sketching”.
The quality of the works is extremely important to me, especially when making large-scale prints, and I'm still enthusiastic about darkrooms in which to develop prints, even though I don't spend as much time there as before.
That's a really magical process, in my opinion.
Yes, it is, and I wrote about that in my doctoral dissertation – about the experiences and feelings that take over when you're in a darkroom. It's like a parallel world to me, filled with the red light that reflects in the trays of developing liquids; something about the whole thing makes it feel like home. It's this place where one can be alone, where darkness and quiet rule, and, if I may be so frank, often times the best ideas for future projects come to me while I'm copying pictures. It's like a room meant for thinking – the images appear completely different when submerged in the fixative liquid. When printing life-size images of people, the sight is almost ghostly – out of this world.
How do you go about creating your scenes?
I take various kinds of pictures, but most of them are staged. A part of the scenes are made up in my studio; I use backgrounds that I've rented, or that I paint myself. I really like working in a studio setting. I also have a room that I use as both workroom and studio in my London apartment. I bring in props, backgrounds, cloths, chairs, antique objects and various plants. But frequently, I have to adapt to the circumstances and use what's available; like last week, when I worked a lot outside, or this morning, when I took pictures in the first floor hallway of the Art Academy of Latvia – by the sculptures.
Do you make your models pose?
Whether it's my family, strangers or close friends, the moment the person comes before my camera, he or she becomes a kind of sculpture that I position very carefully. It's hard to describe with words, but I really do move people here and there (laughs).
The process is slow, and the model has to keep the pose for a long time while I run between him or her and the camera, making small adjustments. Often times, what I'm trying to achieve is something that the person has done before. A pose that he or she had taken without thinking, something characteristic of them, a gesture. In taking pictures, I try to reanimate this, repeat it.
In describing the moment in which she takes a picture, Diane Arbus has said that the camera becomes like a barrier between her and the object she is photographing – making her invincible, even if what's standing in front of her is a man holding a loaded weapon. How do you feel in this moment?
Arbus is amazing. Last summer I read her biography, which a close friend had given me; it definitely holds something of value for everyone who works with photography.
Invincible... that's an interesting word. I'd say “invisible”, but, in a sense, also invincible. I get this feeling as if I've forgotten my body and I have become a part of the picture, a part of the camera. Or, like an extension of it. And all that I can feel and see is just the image.
I usually don't take pictures in physically dangerous situations, but in emotionally complex ones – definitely. I've taken a lot of pictures of my loved ones, frequently at times when our relationship is emotionally saturated. But, as I said, it's a moment in which you kind of forget about yourself, when you yourself are not important and the body disappears. In a wonderful and great way!
Inward Bound II. From Untitled series. 2008
Can you tell me more about your study “Falling into Photography: Of Loss, Desire and Photograph”? Is it closely connected with your series “Mythologies”, on which you worked for several years (2006-2013)?
Yes, that's my doctoral work. Its creation was a really interesting process that took over five years to do – periodically writing, giving lectures and, of course, working on the photo series related to the ideas I was writing about. Right now I'm working on editing it, and most likely, another six months will pass before I'll be able to publish it.
The structure of the work is made up of several connected essays in which I study the relationships between photography and desire. In writing, I also combine theory and fiction, thereby leading a thread through time and space – through my own fantasies and those of others. I don't like to talk directly.
For example, one section takes a look at the relationship between a mother and a lover – our own relationships with our mother's body, and of a mother as a lover. During the process, I look at individual artworks: photographs, films, paintings and installations, but mostly I studied the philosophical and psychoanalytical literature on how we perceive photography: how and why do we create works of art, and from where does this urge to create come? There are several writers whose works I use: Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, and also modern-day philosophers like Jean-Luc Nancy. I also look for influences in figures from literature, such as in the works of Marguerite Duras, and in those of the surrealist author, André Bretor.
A doctoral dissertation is composed not only of theory, but of practice as well. This sort of principle hasn't really been accepted yet in America, but it is widely practiced in England and elsewhere in Europe. It prescribes that the academic work be ensconced within a structured and historical context, but I try not to limit myself too much with this. In the last five years, I've been actively photographing and filming; along with that, I, unfortunately, don't get a chance to write every day, although I'm constantly taking notes. Usually, once every couple of months, during holidays, I can completely devote two weeks to intensive writing.
In my opinion, text plays a very big part in your creative work; it seems that you tell in words the very image itself.
I completely agree, and I'd have to say that it was a real revelation to me when, while making the video work “In Search of Lightning”, I brought this text – which was inspired by fantasy and biography – into it. It's inspired me to to continue in a similar way with the projects that I'm working on right now – to bring it into the environment of the gallery. As I write the text for the narrator, I'm still searching for answers to how we perceive images, what are the relationships between the image and love, between the image and loss.
I think that it is only due to the essays that I created at that time that I was able to create this video, “In Search of Lightning”, and that in large part, it changed the way in which I work, even though reading and writing have always had meaning in my relationship with photography – as they do for most artists.
In the video work “In Search of Lightning”, you take the viewer into a magic, mist-entwined world. As you talk about the dark and deep waters, bogs and caves, it seems as if you feel them as a part of yourself. What sort of role does the fact that you grew up in this otherworldly, mystical environment have in your creative work?
Actually, over the last two years, I've been trying to film my new material all over the world – in Florida, California, New York, even here in Latvia.
Consequently, the videos don't reflect only the area in which I grew up – even though that's the impression one gets. The places that interest me while taking pictures and filming are the ones that, in a certain way, remind me of, or make me feel, this idea about home.
I grew in a valley through which the Rhine River flows [the Valley of the Black Forest], which is very boggy, although it doesn't seem all that different to most people. But what made me want to bring this area into my creative work is, most likely, connected to the fact that I grew up with water and boats – which were also my father's great passions, and with which all of our family holidays were linked. I really love water, and swimming has always been my favorite thing to do. Nothing makes me happier than skinny-dipping at night in a pitch-black lake. Although the biographical parts of my works are certainly connected to this environment, it is not always present. It's exciting to observe these relationships between images, which makes the fact that they were not taken in the south of Germany lose its relevance. Surprisingly enough, even the new videos organically continue this feeling of a unified environment – this strange, jungle-like primeval landscape which really can't be pin-pointed.
Untitled. From Mythologies series. 2013
One of the subjects you've studied is the feeling of home-sickness. What sort of truths have you uncovered in trying to comprehend what “home” really is?
Yes, I was really interested in the idea of home as a place that doesn't have a geographical location, but which is, rather, linked to a person's body. How does the feeling of home arise; what is it made up of?
This interest is certainly associated with the fact that both my mother and my partner, with whom I am no longer together, have very complicated relationships with the idea of home.
You know, sometimes it feels as if one person's constant home-sickness can be transferred to another person.
My mother [born in the USA – E.S.] lived far away from home, already beginning in early youth; at that time, America seemed very far away, indeed. Growing up between different cultures, you're overcome with the feeling that home is nowhere; although for me, it's more of a freedom. Knowing that you are not limited by belonging to a certain country or culture is clearly a positive thing. There are so many interesting people and places in the world where I've felt – yes, I am home, if even for just a certain moment or period of time.
Does your chosen technique of collage help you to organize these fragmented thoughts and give them new meanings?
In combining both my pictures and found pictures, videos, texts, sounds and voices, a unified core forms – a unified story. That's why collage really captivates me, and I'd have to say, I also use the same principle when writing. In gathering inspiration from all over and looking for references, then transforming these into flowing text, as a writer and an artist I have been give the freedom to join and connect thought- and image fragments, thereby revealing completely new sides to things – sides that couldn't be seen outside of these relationships.
The word “collage” is interesting in itself, since it can just as well be referencing a gallery environment, or a book. When arranging groups of images and accompanying texts for exhibitions – just like when arranging pairs for a printed publication – and whether you want it to or not, a conversation develops between the elements; something wonderful develops. In the end, you get an effect that – more likely than not – just any one of the elements couldn't generate on its own.
Untitled. From Mythologies series. 2009
You often supplement your photography with painterly elements – dripping paint, the flooding of color, etc. What is your relationship to this art form?
I've always referenced painting, although mostly indirectly.
It's a visual language to which I've given great meaning since the early days. As I already mentioned, I grew up in a city [Karlsruhe, Germany – E.S.] that is famous for its excellent medieval and religious-themed paintings, made by such masters as Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach. In truth, many of these paintings, especially Grünewald's, still seem unbelievably contemporary, even though I'm not drawn to their religious aspects. In childhood, their works delighted and frightened me at the same time. The desire, ecstasy, violence and erotica that are found in these images always seemed fascinating. These impressions were surely magnified due to the fact that we grew up without a TV, and we spent a lot of time in museums and movie theaters. I adore all sorts of mediums, but painting has something that makes me return to it again and again.
How do you look at the worth of an original painting in relation to that of a photograph – which is something that can be reproduced an infinite number of times?
When talking about painting, it is very important that you go see it in order to experience it. Often times, you think that you know a painting; you think it is very meaningful to you... but, when you see it for the first time in real life, the feeling is indescribable. Just like meeting someone face to face for the first time, someone whom you thought you had known your whole life. Looking at a reproduction is something entirely different; it's hard to discern the textures, the details.
I, of course, love the reproductive ability of photography, but at the same time, a photograph is a unique object, and that's fantastic! I like to visit various archives and look at exhibits in real life. For instance, in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, I'm especially fond of Margaret Cameron's works, which she developed herself. You can still see her fingerprints on them, or a piece of hair... Perhaps this is why I'm so taken with bringing the painterly element into photography, with the aim of achieving a sort of physicality for the photograph. It's not that essential to me whether it is or isn't a unique object, because the main thing is the photographic material, in its own sort of sculptural existence.
You've said that that the experiences you've had are always present, just like the constant fear of losing something. What do you think – isn't photography, which serves as a medium between the past and the present, something that cuts these wounds even deeper and prohibits us from forgetting them?
A marvelous feature of photography – probably Roland Barthes said it best – is that it can block memory. It makes the person being photographed be present, but as the same time, it blocks admittance to the real thing, which stimulates the memory's transformation of the photograph itself. I'm really interested in this tension between the viewer and the subject – who is dead, but at the same time, continues to live on in a two-dimensional plane.
Sometimes, the image becomes more present or real than the person himself. That's very complicated. Many people have written from interesting viewpoints about how a photograph can swallow time by linking the past, the present and, in some sense, also the future. This reflects the temporary aspect of photography, which is a rather simple, but miraculous phenomenon. You get the feeling that you can't escape from it. It's like proof of reality; proof of existence.
Do you believe that pain can lead to enlightenment?
In a sense, yes... “Pain” is a complex word, isn't it? When I'm working on a scene, it seems like it's only about pain. But it's also about the opposite – about happiness, about relationships saturated with love. The process of creating works is, in a sense, a way to understand the surrounding world which, of course, isn't made up of only the good. To me, writing and photographing are like efforts to explain emotions that rule over not just me, but over the surrounding people as well – during life's happiest and most tragic moments.
If speaking about traumatic theory – and not so much about myself – then it predicts that replaying the events over and over again helps one overcome the event in question, and lets one gain control over it. It's similar to that time in childhood when, for the first time, you imagine your parents dying. The first time it happens, it is cognizance of the fact that you understand that this will one day happen, and that most likely, it will happen before your own death. It's a horrible thing, and along with it can come repeat imaginations of the occurrence; in psychoanalysis, this is explained as an unconscious way of preparing yourself for the inevitable – by replaying it in your mind.
Roland Barthes writes that when an object is photographed, it experiences a microscopic death and becomes, in a sense, a ghost. This could explain photography's connection to these efforts in preparing for the inevitable.
That's probably why I work with people who I am most afraid of losing – my mother, my lover, and people who are my family.
Untitled. From Stillend Gespiegelt series. 2004
These two figures – the mother and the male lover – are woven throughout your works. Are you willing to say more on that?
I've always had extremely close relationships with my mother and sisters. In a specifically physical sense, which I didn't have with my father – even though he was always present and we're a very close family.
When my sisters and I were growing up, we always slept in one bed, and I spent a long time trying to understand my inability to physically distance myself from those close to me. This, of course, can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Often times, it is emotionally and physically hard to draw the line needed in order to recognize yourself as something separate.
I began to study photography a couple of months before the tragedy happened – the one in which I lost the first man I ever loved. Up until the car accident, we were living together and planning on spending our future together. His sudden death, and the shock that I experienced from it, has always been linked to photography for me – in a certain way. It was the summer holidays, and school hadn't yet started up again; I didn't believe I'd go back to college. I didn't think I'd be able to; I didn't think that I'd be able to even continue living. What turned out to have great meaning was the fact that I had gotten my first camera a couple of weeks before his death. Practically all of that first roll of film that I developed, several months later, was of him.
Recalling the previous question, a connection arises between these efforts at preparing yourself; because of the autopsy and other formalities, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with his body, which was the only thing that allowed me to comprehend what had happened. Up to that point, I had been thinking like an eighteen-year-old girl – in which it had seemed as if that one person is your whole world, and that you will spend your whole lives together.
Returning to photography meant a lot in those couple of days. It is a surreal feeling – observing how the body changes, how it becomes something else. I became interested in the question of – What are we as flesh?
My mother was my support, being next to me all through this most difficult time. A safe haven to which one can always return to when it becomes hard and you don't know where to go.
When one cannot accept a sudden death, it seems logical to refuse to believe it. How can we prove the opposite – that we are still alive?
It seems to me that we're constantly chasing after things that make us feel alive – isn't that so? Life's ups and downs, which we usually cannot influence, also throw us back into a reality which can either spoil us, or leave us with nothing.
This can be pain, which makes us feel alive in a negative sense, or feelings of utter joy – like falling in love or having sex. It is anything that makes us realize our emotional and physical limits. I'd say that it is this drive to get this affirmation that makes us do things that influence our physical and emotional states. This is frightening, but it also explains why extremes can be so addictive.
Are you afraid of death?
That's an interesting question... I'm sure that all of us are afraid, more or less. I used to think that I wasn't afraid, but if there are phases in life during which you don't want to be alive, then it seems logical that death has no meaning. In some sense – irrationally – I believed that I would be able to meet him again.
Death scares us when we are happy, even though this has various forms. This summer, I spent a couple of weeks visiting my grandparents in America. They are both very old and are aware of the fact that they have only a short time left, and they've decided that they no longer want to live the way that they should. In my opinion, that's both honorable and understandable – when you can no longer feel good, physically; at that age, it's normal to come to the decision that you've had enough. These days, we often live much longer that we would want to.
But it seems that when a person reaches this level of consciousness, he is no longer a person. Often times, it is like a body that is only being kept alive by memories.
Yes, I think we're lucky if we can go quickly; it's difficult to watch as a person loses control and is well aware of it.
I think I'm much more afraid of my parents, and of those close to me, dying, than I am of my own death. I'm afraid of them going before me... In a sense, we don't experience our own deaths.
Could your choice of photographing people close to you be connected to the fact that you're working on finding out about yourself, on reanimating your memories and personal feelings?
Lately, I've been working a lot with people who are not my family; but that doesn't change the fact that the process is extremely intimate. It's as if, for just a moment, I fall in love with the person I'm photographing, even if it's a complete stranger. This is very pronounced when taking pictures of women. I always talk to my models about the process and the end result that I'm trying to achieve, and we usually become friends. I think that they understand that the story is not so much about them as it is about me. I use them to talk about myself. What happens is that they kind of give themselves up, and that's why I try to be considerate and gentle, and, of course, give them something in return.
Knowing that fiction has great meaning in your works, could it be that some of your starting points come from your dreams and nightmares?
Our dreams are definitely a place where our greatest fears and deepest desires meet. By dreaming, we repeat our experiences. I think that I don't remember most of my dreams, but when I've experienced especially lifting or sinking feelings, my dreaming usually becomes very active.
An autobiography in itself is a kind of fiction, since we can never be absolutely sure of what is true in our memories. Of course, my works are a part of me, but they don't tell the whole story. This has great meaning – it is like another world, an impossible one.