How do you portray places that you have no access to because they will not allow you in? When thinking about such places, most people would probably think of, let’s say, power plants or military installations. But there are other such places. I’m thinking of cafes or clubs for men only. I once came across one in Italy. I had heard of such cafes before, but I had never seen them in Germany. Actually, I thought they didn’t exist in Germany, but they do, in areas with, for example, a large Turkish population. Berlin features a lot of them, right in the neighbourhood Loredana Nemes lives in. Asks Nemes “Why did the men hide behind opaque glass or curtains, and who are they hiding from? And where were their wives?” Her solution to find out was simple: Get a large-format camera out and set it up right outside. Then see what happens. (more)
I often think that the real reason why a large-format camera has such power in portraiture is not because of the size of the negative. The negative is great to make large prints. But what really matters is the theatricality that comes with a large-format camera. It’s just such a production! I wager that one hundred years ago, some of the photographers we today celebrate for their large-format portrait work would have had a harder time since people were so used to seeing and dealing with those clunky cameras. These days, even when you walk around with a Rolleiflex people will be curious. Set up some large-format camera, and things get really serious. It’s almost as if the circus has come to town.
So people would come out of those cafes and clubs in Berlin and talk to Nemes, asking her what she was doing. It’s interesting, in between the clubs and the camera there was this space where curiosity met curiosity. I would have loved to be there. There is a wonderful short essay by the photographer in Beyond, the book containing the resulting photographs, about those interactions. Should Nemes ever decide to quit photography I hope she’ll become a writer.
Beyond contains two types of images. First, there are the exteriors of the clubs and cafes, occasionally with men sitting outside. And then there are portraits of men inside, from the waist up, behind the various types of frosted glass or curtains used to prevent people from the outside looking in. Nemes managed to convince the men to pose: “One of the men, upon seeing his portrait, commented that it was a strange photo, art he supposed. Another didn’t say anything for a long time; finally he remarked that he would need time to come to terms with it.” (quoted from the photographer’s essay)
Nothing really gets resolved in the book. You do not get to see inside the cafes and clubs. You still don’t know get to see anything. Instead, Nemes managed to craft a wonderful body of work out of that mystery that, in part, is also a cultural mystery - a culture interacting with another culture. It’s a wonderful book.
Beyond, photographs by Loredana Nemes, essays by Loredana Nemes and Janos Frecot, 112 pages, Hatje Cantz, 2011