Friedl Kubelka vom Gröller
Das zweite Jahresportrait, 1977-78
326 black-and-white photographs,
approx. 5.5 x 5.5 cm each
Vintage prints, baryta paper,
dry-mounted on linnen, 200 x 140 cm,
framed in acrylic glass box 151.2 x 206.2 x 9.1 cm
Photography as a Pretext
I use my camera as a pretext for being alone. My camera is my faithful companion. I use my camera when I do not want to be alone. I aim my camera at strangers. This manifests my interest in them. The amount of time and film I spend on them tells them how much interest I have in them. The persons being photographed do not know whether they will be portrayed kindly or maliciously, as a decorative extra or as an individual. In order to find this out, they reward me with interest on their part. I can then continue the conversation with an explanation. Even when observing without a camera, if you display an interest in people they will give you a sharp, questioning look after a few seconds—a look designed primarily to establish whether danger is near or erotic contact is being established.
When I am introspective, but in company, I use my camera as a mask. It gives me the function of a reporter and relieves me of the obligation to communicate. If I want people to notice me, my camera, handled correctly, becomes a pedestal on which I am raised, an ornamental symbol of active vitality.
If a well-known person arouses my interest, I ask her to pose for me and to meet me at a certain place. The artistic aspects of photography permit such encounters, meetings at which the person with the camera dominates.
When I photograph a person whose company I shun, I use my camera as a protective wall. Unfortunately it also turns into a distressing barrier when I photograph those close to me. Even when used with affection, the camera still resembles a weapon. This destructive element is possible due to the fact that the photographer tries to capture the essence of her subject in 1/100 or 1/1000 of a second.
When I am bored with life, I venture into adventurous situations to which my camera gives me access. I use my camera as a ticket that admits me to the private lives of other people. When I find life too exciting, I photograph the things that are upsetting me. The technical manipulation required enables me to examine people and things with which I could not establish contact without my camera. In places like ladies’ changing rooms, psychiatric hospitals, and underworld cafés, you are an intruder, a traitor—when you work with a camera.
Hanging round the neck of a tourist, the camera becomes a harmless object. It is a status symbol and an ornament, and sometimes a notebook.
With the help of a camera you can persuade girls to
pose naked on a stone in a marshy landscape at sunrise or men to repeat deeds of daring. Groups of people of all classes will pose for a person holding a camera. However, a sensitive person will feel that his camera puts him in his place outside the flow of life, preventing him from taking part in it.
The uncanny radiation and effect of my little black box has fascinated me since I was sixteen years old. I used it unwittingly, trying mainly to make my miserable existence as an apprentice clerk bearable.
So much for the psychological powers of the camera as an object. I now insert a film in my camera, enlarge the photographs and use the medium of photography. I produce a product and have a place in society.
I sell my photographs and live from their value.
I display my photographs, and with them my personality and my ability. Displaying photographs is an erotic activity. It is as full of joy and suffering as love. It is a means of extending erotic attraction to a large number of people and of severing it from one’s own ageing, doomed body.
The prospect of displaying photographs is a strong incentive to me in the laborious task of completing my work. It provides me with yet another occasion for establishing contact with the people who interest me. I have seen, and I am convinced that every photographer uses one or more of the pretexts I have listed here.
I first realized the therapeutic possibilities of photography in 1972-73 when I escaped from the confines of my restricted, narcissistic view of life with the aid of hundreds of self-portraits. It was with great reluctance that I began to work on self-portraits with which I did not wish to identify because they exposed character traits I despised. The idea and the act of photographing myself every day freed me of creative inhibitions, protected me from the amorphous passage of time and pacified me as only daily exercise otherwise can.
I stuck life-size portraits of people who caused me suffering on the walls. In the same way as young people hang pictures of their idols in their rooms, living with them and subconsciously hoping that the qualities which they admire in their idols will have an effect on their own still malleable characters, I hoped that the portraits of people who aroused aggression in me would enable me to settle my differences with them calmly by means of their passive, but continuous presence.
Eye to eye with people I hated or loved, I was able to admit to feelings that were inhibited when they were physically present.
One method to find out more about other people is to study commercial portrait subjects. When I give them contact sheets with a view to selecting together with them the best portraits in the conventional sense of the word, some start to discuss one photograph after the other, expressing their own opinions of themselves with varying degrees of frankness and honesty. They do this unconsciously, helped by the fact that people have regarded the photographic medium as a true-to-life likeness for 150 years. With indignation or surprise they realize that some photographs show them as old, uncertain, fearful, sullen, depressed. Some imagine qualities that the portrait does not show. After photographing the same person many times over the course of several years, I was usually able to observe a psychic process in the contact sheets. Posture, clothing, and facial expression can be compared and analyzed and offer a fruitful basis for discussion. Of course it is not necessary for years to elapse between photographic sessions. Photographs taken at regular weekly or monthly intervals are easier to evaluate. As a result, the product of years of photographic observation might be a folder of contact sheets from which it would be possible to see and follow through the changes that have taken place in that person. (Does psychotherapy make sufficient use of photography?)
As far as I am concerned, this method gives me a pretext for making photographic portraits which are not the result of split-second decisions.