Tag Archives: Bettina Von Zwehl

Research for Assignment 3

When thinking about how to present this assignment I was aware that the brief included you can create as many pictures as you like …. the set should be concise and not include repetitive or unnecessary images. This means thinking about how to reduce a large number of images into a manageable piece of work that tells a story about the group of people I have chosen to work with.

In Short’s book Context and Narrative (summarised in Context and Narrative – Maria Short) she discusses the narrative that one might read in an image and points out that while it might be linear (beginning, middle and end) it does not have to be. The story should hang together, this might be because of use of similar tonal ranges, lighting or format – but might be because of the topic and that you need to be clear about your intention. Exploring the subject over time can end with you changing what you want to say and how you say it. The story may also depend on what order the images are shown in – so do you have control over that if it is important. (Short,2018).

With his information in mind I went and looked over my collection of photobooks to see which ones told a (fairly) concise story. Many that tell a story are long (book length) and involve many more images than I want to use, although this project could easily lengthen to a full book.  However, some of the books were shorter and told a relatively clear story.

 In this I have summarised the stories I read – concentrating on the ways the books and series were presented rather than on the whole import of each book. This is no attempt to do them justice – simply to pull out some information about how and why they were produced in a particular format, and the effect that’s those choices have had.

Julia Borissova white blonde – is telling a story of a place and a time, using a combination of archival images and altered self portraits. On her website it is also shown as single images and a slideshow. The order of the images varies though the sites (book versus slideshow) as does the format. In this case the series depends on the totality of the images, their tones and the feeling they evoke rather than the order in which they are viewed.  (Borissova, 2018) See Julia Borissova – white blonde for more detail.

 Margaret Lansink – Borders of Nothingness-On the Mend – tells about the emotions that were linked with her loss of contact with her daughter and subsequent re-engagement. The book is physically small. The paper is rough and the images low key, black and white with occasional flashes of gold. Little is clear. The order is important as it moves from despair through nothingness to repair and hope. The feel of the book is also important as it is very tactile, rough, and evokes the feelings described (Lansink, 2020). See Borders of Nothingness – On the Mend for more detail.

Bettina von Zwehl – Made Up Love Song – consists of a series of portraits done of the same person over 6 months, set in the same place and with similar light. The variations are minimal, her hair and clothing show subtle changes. The images are shown against a black background opposite a simple statement of the day and time. This is a very simple presentation where you gain from the repeated images showing the gradually increasing intimacy. While a single image is effective, the story gains by the repetition (Chandler and von Zwehl, 2014). See Bettina von Zwehl for more detail.

Robin Gillanders  – A Lover’s Complaint – takes the short Fragments written by Barthes, has them translated in haiku by Henry Gough-Cooper and then interspersed these with still life images, mainly of glass and material, shown as fragments against a dense black background. The haiku are presented 12 to a page, organised alphabetically, other than a final short poem about silence and love. There is no immediate obvious connection between the haiku and the images.  The viewer/ reader needs to make their own links. However, each group of images is linked, variations on a theme. As a whole, they start minimalistically, become more complex, then fade away – following a pattern. The words and the images give equal weight to the story (Gillanders and Gough-Cooper, 2016).

Dayanita Singh – Go Away Closer – is a series of 40 images in a small book. They are all square, and all black and white, and, other than the fact that they all tell about India, those are the only linking factors. Singh says she deliberately does not try to make a narrative but puts images together intuitively. In her work she collects her images into ‘museums’ – which she them changes around for different displays, even with the same exhibition. The work is about a feeling, rather than a story Singh, 2007), See Dayanita Singh – Go Away Closer for more detail.

All these photobooks are really about emotions rather than facts.  They may be based around a story, such as the Lansink’s Borders of Nothingness – On the Mend, or actively avoid a narrative like Singh’s Go Away Closer. In spite of this they all have a clarity about the way they have been put together, an internal consistency. The tonal values are similar, the feeling derived from the images are similar. They are clearly carefully considered. In two, Go Away Closer and white blonde, the order of the images is not crucial, while it has been, inevitably, fixed within the books, it is changed in other formats (a slideshow and an exhibition). These are all fairly short books, although longer than the series I am planning, but they taught me a lot about the type of consistency required to make a book hold together, and, even more importantly, to make the reader/viewer return to it.

I then decided to look at some of my photobooks that do tell an active story, that is about groups of people and what they are doing. These all seemed to be rather longer, and often physically larger – I am not sure about the reasoning for that.

Mark Steinmetz – Summer Camp – is a collection of images taken at American summer camps between 1986 and 1997. They were collected into book format in 2019.  The book is a gentle reminiscence of a past time, although he comments there has been little change in that environment over years. The images are shown in black and white, are varying sizes and formats. However, the overall feel is remarkably consistent. There is a mixture of images that concentrate on the activities and other that concentrate on portraits of the children. See Mark Steinmetz for more detail.

J.A. Mortram –Small Town Inertia – this is a collection of images and  paired stories about people that struggle with their lives in a small town in Britain. It could be (and has been) described as poverty porn – but what makes it stand out is that Mortram lives within the community, has his own personal struggles and is clearly both sympathetic with and understanding of those he photographs, never patronising. The images are all black and white, often harshly lit with marked contrast and shadow. Some are close up portraits, some show the environment, but all concentrate on the people. The book is laid out with an almost full-page image on the right page and the corresponding information including the name and usually a short explanatory passage on the bottom of the left page. This has the effect of concentrating the eye initially on the portrait and only secondarily looking at the words (Mortram, 2017).

Nan Goldin –The Ballad of Sexual Dependency –probably the most famous of all the lifestyle stories, taken very much from an internal position. The book is a small part of the whole work which also includes film, large scale exhibition works and talks. Goldin calls it as ‘the diary I let people read’ in  the beginning essay and virtually at the end of the copy I have ‘a volume of loss, while still a ballad of love’ (Goldin, 2012). The images are harsh with often an odd colour cast. They are not all in focus and are presented with a short title, usually of who and where. Every time I look through it I notice different details. It holds the eye without any pretence at conventional beauty.

I also looked at a variety of short series online, picking them from the links that regularly pop up on my tablet, including Lenscratch, Aperture, BJP, Photographic Museum of Humanity and FOAM. This exercise could actually fill an entire book – so I have just picked out four that really caught my eye!

B. Proud Transcending Love – is the latest series by the American photographer B. (Belinda) Proud. It is about Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Couples in America, who are a mainly forgotten and mistreated group of people. The portraits she shows are of families and couples who are clearly proud to be together. The portraits are formal, in colour, deliberately chosen to represent the full spectrum of the relationships she is describing, and she says ‘This project is about the validity and fluidity of gender expression. The location for each portrait, chosen by the couple in discussion with the artist, is significant and provides the viewer with another level of understanding into the relationship’ (Smithson, 2020a). The portraits are shown with a simple title, some tell the gender/status of the people, others do not. From the website it is difficult to tell if the order is important – overall I suspect not. Each image could be first or last. The importance is in the group as a whole.

Mulugeta Ayene – Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 Crash Site – World Press Photo Story of the Year Nominee, – this is not the same as many of the series/stories talked about above as it is a very factual piece of documentary work. However, it shows many of the points I have been thinking about. It is in colour, the images are factual but varied, from wide area shots, to details of the objects collected, to harrowing images of the people involved and those who lost friends and relatives. They are shown with dates and brief explanatory notes. Oddly, the images are not shown in date order, I think this may be to concentrate on the story – but it is then distracting to know the dates. (www.worldpressphoto.org, 2020).

Bowei Yang – Soft Thorn – is a dream or an illusion that tells the story of a gay boy/man growing up in a Christian community in China. ‘A journey of nostalgia’. It contains a mixture of staged portraits of his friends and slices of the environment, together with still life images. Some are portrait, some landscape but they are all linked by the muted tones and subdued and at times sad atmosphere that pervades the series. It gives a clear feeling of how difficult his teenage years must have been.  I will watch for more work from him – or hopefully an extension of this (Yang, 2020).

Cathy Spence – Crooked Eye – shows a very personal project about a young man, Wesley, her son, who has albinism and visual problems. It consists of a series of heartbreaking portraits which mainly show him facing away from the camera or covering his eyes with his hair. They are high key, in keeping with the subject. At some points they are almost burnt out – but this just emphasises the story. Some are blurred, reflecting on Wesley’s poor vision. Several formats are used but this does not distract from the consistency of the series. The series is highly effective at showing the difficulties of growing up with an obvious difference that few people probably understand (Smithson, 2020b).

What have I learned from all this?

  • You need to know what you want to say
  • You need to be passionate about it
  • You need to be internally consistent to hold the story together, either in colour or size or format or feeling
  • There are as many formats for storytelling as there are photographers
  • The order of the images may depend on the place they are being shown (book/exhibition/slide show online)
  • Black and white is still widely used – especially when the point of the story is about emotions – but not always
  • Precise focus and lighting are not always important (but possibly less so the more famous you are) – but this does depend on what you are showing – Goldin’s Ballad versus Ayene’s work on an air disaster.

Reference list:

Borissova, J. (2018) White blonde. (s.l.): Bessard.

Chandler, D. and Von Zwehl, B. (2014). Made up love song. London: V & A Publishing.

Gillanders, R. and Gough-Cooper, H. (2016) A Lover’s Complaint. Edinburgh, Scotland: Dingle Press.

Goldin, N. (2012) The ballad of sexual dependency. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation.

Lansink, M. (2020). Borders of Nothingness – On the Mend. Belgium: Ibasho

Mortram, J. (2017) Small Town Inertia. (s.l.): Bluecoat Press.

Mulugeta Ayene SOY-DJ | World Press Photo (2020) At: https://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photo/2020/39610/4/Mulugeta-Ayene-SOY-DJ (Accessed on 29 April 2020)

Short, M. (2018) Context and narrative. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts.

Singh, D. (2007). Go Away Closer. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl.

Smithson, A. (2020a) B. Proud: Transcending Love: Portraits of Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Couples. At: http://lenscratch.com/2020/04/b-proud-transcending-love/ (Accessed on 28 April 2020)

Smithson, A. (2020b) Cathy Spence: Crooked Eye. At: http://lenscratch.com/2020/04/cathy-spence/ (Accessed on 2 May 2020)

Steinmetz, M. (2019) Summer Camp. China: Nazraeli Press.

Yang, B. (20AD) SOFT THORN. At: https://phmuseum.com/Boway_Yang/story/soft-thorn-ecea0f8693 (Accessed on 2 May 2020)

Assignment 1 – Response to Tutorial

I had an interesting Skype tutorial with my tutor which was, on the whole, positive. He reminded me that, as the photographer, I should be in control, rather than my subjects being in control. A piece of advice I have tried to take on board, although, so far, with limited success. It is difficult to tell your daughter how to pose without being told that she will do it how she wants!

Assignment 1:

He suggested trying different edits of the images which I have done. I definitely prefer one of the edits he suggested – the deadpan look. This made me really think about the need to consider exactly what you are attempting to show rather than taking the simplest option. Assignment 1 – Rethink


He also gave me several fascinating photographers to research. Bettina von Zwehl, Joel Sternfeld and Paul Graham.

Chandler says ‘ our received understanding is that a portrait should be a kind of penetrating analysis, and , furthermore, that the most effective and enduring portraits are those that are the result of some connection, or even chemistry, having existed between the artist and the sitter’ (Chandler and Von Zwehl, 2014).

Von Zwehl, Sternfeld and Graham all use portraiture as a way of describing their world. Of showing what is important. However, they are very different. Von Zwehl uses minimalistic images, sometimes just a silhouette with little or no visible background. The images are often black and white, or, if colour, muted. Her recent work is small and relies on the series to tell the story, which is more about the feeling and emotion rather than the individual person. Chandler says ‘the profile is a form of distilled representation – the rendering of some emblematic essence of the person depicted …. both accurate and unsentimental’ (Chandler and Von Zwehl, 2014).

Sternfeld’s images in Stranger Passing are large scale. They tell a story about that person in that time and at that place (although it is an imagined story and someone else’s interpretation might be different). In this case Sternfeld took images of strangers who he met while travelling – they remain penetrating studies of the person – so this raises the question of how rapidly you can make a connection with someone to be able to take a valid portrait. This may well be a skill that can be acquired, but I suspect to acquire it one needs an interest in people that goes beyond the superficial who, what and where. Why – is probably the most important question of all.

Graham’s recent book Mother shows pictures of his own mother towards the end of her life. Like Von Zwehl in Made Up Love Song he is concentrating on one person (his mother) using images taken in the same place (her retirement home). However, unlike Von Zwehl he starts the series with a close relationship (child to parent) and the images are reflecting on how this relationship has altered with time. It is a very personal piece of work, haunting in nature as one is aware that these are likely to be some of the last images he will take of her.

In Sontag’s work Regarding the Pain of Others (Sontag, 2003) she makes several statements that are relevant in the context of portraiture –‘‌a portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently, in the cult of celebrity that has fuelled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights’ and ‘Photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed. And photographs are a species of alchemy, for all that they are prized as a transparent account of reality.’ She also talks about memory and mourning and how photographs help with memory, how they can ‘haunt us’. She says ‘Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead. So the belief that remembering is an ethical act is deep in our natures as humans’ – Sontag is discussing this in the context of images of war, terrorism and similar acts of violence but it also applies to memory of those near to us, friends, relatives, those we know.

Reference list

Chandler, D. and von Zwehl, B. (2014). Made up love song. London: V & A Publishing.

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Picador.


Bettina von Zwehl

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).

Image from Made Up Love Song © Bettina Von Zwehl

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?

Image from The Sessions © Bettina Von Zwehl

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.

Image from Meditations in an Emergency © Bettina Von Zwehl


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.

Reference list:

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].