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Interview with Heidi Specker

Heidi Specker became known in the mid-1990s through the “Speckergruppen” or “Specker Groups” (1995/96) and other work series, which focused quite literally on concrete structures in an anticipation of the reappraisal of post-War architecture. Specker is also one of the pioneers of digital photography. We talked with her about her current exhibition, the accompanying catalog and Walter Benjamin.

Your exhibition PHOTOGRAPHER in Kunstmuseum Bonn coincides with the publication of a book of the same name. What does it feature? What themes interest you? I have been taking photos for 20 years. I present 70 photographs in the book and exhibition. In other words, only a selection, but a lot all the same. Perhaps previously the impression was first that my topic was architecture, then suddenly it was portraits, before that a juxtaposition with nature, and since Italy a different handling of still-life images... My intention was to clarify my personal photographic style, to highlight the PHOTOGRAPHER. Through selection and composition, my focus of interest has shifted to the idea of linking images as in a film or a video loop producing a more logical and powerful subject. 

In Kunstmuseum Bonn, photographs from a wide variety of phases are interwoven with one another and consciously not hung as a series. You described the selection as a “box of chocolates”. That sounds like you really felt a desire to reconsider your own works. Did the conception of the current book and the development of the exhibition happen at the same time? How much of a challenge was it for you to select images for the publication, to have to rethink the format of the original work? I worked on a model for the exhibition. The picture gallery in the catalog follows a script: We assigned the pictures a position and linked them to groups. The algorithm calculates suggestions. That called for a new way of thinking. Initially, I was pretty skeptical, but Stephan Müller, the graphic designer, proved to be right. There were only a few instances where we didn’t follow the prescribed order. For example, the double spread with the image depicting a headscarf or the fact that we created a break on the left side as regards presenting couples, stopped a sequence and then started afresh. Books can be like exhibitions; it is a way of showing something. And because it is about me it is important for me to have a great influence.

“Pilze 1”, from the group of works “Magic Mountain”, 2007, Archival Fine Art Print, 85 × 56 cm, © Heidi Specker

“Pilze 2”, from the group of works “Magic Mountain”, 2007, Archival Fine Art Print, 85 × 56 cm, © Heidi Specker

Influence on what? On what goes into the books or on the exhibition? On both. The concept of a chocolate box is ironic, after all, a woman’s selection. The catalog is more cinematic, linear. The exhibition is shown in three rooms, in other words across 12 walls, the catalog has 200 pages and a long series of images. What the catalog and exhibition have in common is that they are both revisions.

In his article for PHOTOGRAPH Christoph Schreier writes that the Surrealists attempted to liberate objects “from the constraints of their definitions and functional classifications” and argues that you follow this very principle yourself. He talks about the “Surreal transformation of the everyday.” Does that resonate with you? Oh, absolutely. Christoph Schreier and I share the same preferences: Philip Guston, de Chirico. And yet there is still the same problem. 

Problem? In 1934, Walter Benjamin gave a talk at the Paris Institute for the Study of Fascism, that was published under the title “The Author as Producer”. Among, other things Benjamin said: “It [the school of Neue Sachlichkeit photography] is becoming ever more nuancéd, ever more modern; and the result is that it can no longer record a tenement block or refuse heap without transfiguring it. Needless to say, photography is unable to convey anything other about a power station or a cable factory other than, ‘What a beautiful world!’ (...) For it has succeeded in transforming even abject poverty – by apprehending it in a fashionably perfected manner – into an object of enjoyment.” The question is the extent to which you identify with the Surreal, and how you go about it. And it comes down to the objects that Walter Benjamin also writes about. There is something very detached about the Surreal, the gaze quickly becomes intimate and as such too dominant when you approach a thing. I have to watch that as a photographer. 

In 2016, you presented the body of work “In Front Of” at Berlinische Galerie, which not only updates the form of the portrait, but also makes one think about the genre itself. One photograph especially appealed to me: A portrait in a portrait: “Toyen”. You use your camera to look over the shoulder of the portrait subject and show us the photo of a Czech Surrealist artist. And this is revealed to us in the title of your work, “Toyen” is the pseudonym of Marie Ćermínová (1902–1980). Is this another way of insisting that we make more of an effort to look and remember? Or is it just experimentation with the genre of the portrait? Like your experimentation on the “Self Portrait” with magnifying glass that provokes multi-facetted interpretations. 

“Toyen”, from the group of works “In Front Of”, 2016, Piezography K7, Archival Print, 46 × 30,7 cm, © Heidi Specker

“Lupe”, from the group of works “In Front Of”, 2016, Ultrachrome K3, Archival Print, 46 × 30,7 cm, © Heidi Specker

“In Front Of” contains several postcards. “Toyen” is one of four or five. The postcards were a form of assistance, examples for the models, viewing material. By giving these things to the models, observing becomes like holding a mirror up to something. Sometimes I showed my small stack. It is a prop, creates a situation. I liked both the person and the photograph in “Toyen”. The picture has something revolutionary about it. In the catalog the “Self Portrait” with magnifying glass is associated with Hannah Höch and an owl. We need to make an effort when observing the world. That is what the owl and magnifying glass tell us.

Thank you! 

Interview: Sonja Gruber