Bettina Von Zwehl is a German photographer who lives and works in London. She concentrates on portrait photography and has held several artists residencies in museums both in Britain and abroad. Her early work included photographing people in very precise conditions, such as holding their breath or standing in the rain, soaking wet. Later work has moved more towards miniatures, with a clear aim to simplify the portrait while maintaining the central concept of the series. The later miniatures are jewel-like in their intensity.
Made Up Love Song (2011):
This series done was made as part of an artist’s residency in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Inspired by the portraits in the gallery, but especially by the painted miniatures, Von Zwehl took a series of images of staff in the gallery, but the core of the work revolved around a series of portraits of Sophie taken 3 times a week over 6 months. The photographer and the subject started out as complete strangers and they gradually developed a relationship. The portraits are all posed in the same way (in profile) and in the same place, taken by a window in natural light.
Only the hair style changes. The expression on the face gradually softens. The images were shown as miniatures and eventually published in book format (Chandler and Von Zwehl, 2014).
Invitation to Frequent the Shadows (2014 -16):
This is a series of related works done in response to a residency in the Freud Museum. She uses the idea of psychoanalysis to spark ideas related to grief, loss and personal exploration. One of these works The Sessions consists of 50 fragmented silhouettes which she describes as ‘A voyage to the core of my practice …. It reflects the love/hate relationship with my medium. It’s a glimpse into that dark, magical void’ (Von Zwehl and Cohen, 2013). The pieces show partial images of the silhouette of a young girl that appear to have been torn up. Destroyed, but not quite. It would appear possible to recreate the initial image – but do the individual fragments tell you more – or less?
Meditations in an Emergency (2018):
This series was taken during an artist’s residency at the New York Historical Society. These are 17 portraits based on the mass shooting in a Parkland, Florida High school in 2017. The teenagers in the images stand in for those killed, and also reflect on the protest ‘die-ins’ performed by teenagers in front of the White House. The portraits are done in black and white, showing prone teenagers who had responded to her call for volunteers to the schools in New York. She reports in an interview with Alyssa Coppelman that ‘it was all quite casual to make the teens feel comfortable ……. Some of the teens expressed their anxiety about going to school knowing that another school shooting could happen on any given day …… I worked with the effects of gravity and highlighted the weight of strands of hair or small necklaces’ (Coppelman, 2019). The also said that she had been working with subjects in profile for 18 years, having been influenced by the Renaissance paintings. She also is working to reduce the information – hence the use of silhouettes. This particular set was inspired by a series of very simple black and white profile portraits by Tappen from the 1790’s which she found within the museum’s collection.
Von Zwehl’s work is fascinating. She uses series of portraits to show ideas rather than individual people. She has gradually moved away from overt personal representation to representation of the concept. What is friendship? What is fear? Her work echoes that of the much earlier Renaissance painters, with their silhouettes and miniatures but used in a modern context. She concentrates on the person, not the background, which is rarely visible – so the images become timeless and of any place. The profile view is one rarely used in vernacular imagery at present, especially within the vast ‘selfie’ culture and acts to formalise the image. A quick look though my own images shows how rarely I use it. A fascinating and different take of portraiture.
Chandler, D. and Von Zwehl, B. (2014). Made up love song. London: V & A Publishing.
Coppelman, A. (2019). Bettina von Zwehl’s Haunting Tribute to the Parkland School Shooting Victims | Hatje Cantz | fotoblog. [online] Hatjecantz.de. Available at: https://www.hatjecantz.de/fotoblog/?p=11167 [Accessed 14 2019].
Von Zwehl, B. and Cohen, J. (2013). Invitation to Frequent the Shadows – Interview with Bettina Von Zwehl | LensCulture. [online] LensCulture. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/bettina-von-zwehl-invitation-to-frequent-the-shadows [Accessed 19 Sep. 2019].