Review: Bettina von Zwehl (Photoworks Monograph)


Book Reviews, Photobooks

BvZwehl_Monograph.jpg There is a branch of portraiture that I want to call “conceptual portraiture”. In a nutshell - please don’t take this as some strict theoretical definition because it is not - its practitioners all seem to share some discomfort with the way standard portraiture is done, so they add something else to the process of taking a portrait to get closer to whatever it might be they want to show (feelings, or more spontaneity, or whatever else). The biggest problem with conceptual portraiture is that many of these projects fail to achieve their goals: It’s almost as if they decided to get rid off some straight-jacket, only to climb into a very narrow box which allows no movement.

Conceptual portraiture seems to work best when it is not obvious that so much conceptual work has been done in the background (in the other cases, the results are typically contrived if not even worse). I have long admired Bettina von Zwehl for her work, which is maybe the best case of successful conceptual portraiture. Bettina von Zwehl (Photoworks Monograph) collects large parts of her oeuvre into book form.

Von Zwehl took photographs of people for example immediately after they woke up, or when they stood in what looks like a downpour of rain. All these photographs are extremely compelling and powerful. What they might say about portraiture is up to the viewer to decide, of course. If your idea of photography is to look for (or even demand) some truth in it then you might consider the photographs taken after waking up to be more truthful portraits. If not then, well, they are still very good portraits and they still tell us something about the human condition.

Bettina von Zwehl (Photoworks Monograph) comes with quite a bit of text, some of it giving the book a bit of a heavy-handed feel. There is a conversation between von Zwehl and Charlotte Cotton, which might be the only text you really need to read. While I wish Cotton had challenged some of von Zwehl’s assertions, you get access to a lot of background thinking from the artist, something I have always been very fond of.

My only concern with Bettina von Zwehl (Photoworks Monograph) - and thus with von Zwehl’s work - is that, after a while, it gets a bit… I don’t know how exactly the put it. It does get a bit repetitive, and seeing so many images unfortunately only reinforced my idea that conceptual portraiture does in fact deliver way less than it promises (I wish it had been the other way around, now that would have been interesting). I suppose there is only so much you can do within the confines of that narrow box. I’m curious where von Zwehl will go with her work - her website only lists work up to 2005.