Cover Artist Gallery: Birthe Piontek

An interview with the creator of The Walrus’s September 2011 cover
September 2011

SubjectLife After Death” by Michael Harris
Artist ’s portfolioBirthe Piontek Photography

Birthe Piontek came to my notice by way of the wonderful photo editor and photographer Myles McCutcheon. I should have been paying more attention: in Piontek’s work, the world is a series of deep enigmas, riddles kept within the frame. Karen Irvine noted in her introduction to Piontek’s series The Idea of North that the Vancouver-based photographer is interested in the dark side of the human soul for its ability to reveal “intimacy, vulnerability, and depth of feeling.”

Feelings are communicated by photography particularly well. It is Roland Barthe’s punctum, an invitation to dream into the space of the picture. While the photograph is tied to the material world by the nature of its production, it need not follow that the image will show things as they really are, or life as it’s actually experienced. Photography happens in a distinct moment, when a sheet of photons is projected onto a photo-sensitive emulsion or CCD. The result, removed from the flow of time, is but a small slice of the three-dimensional world’s full field of vision. The photograph shows us something else, and in the hands of an artist, the revelation can be profound.

Photographic discovery is a search for colour and composition that have the click of coherence, but it’s also an attempt to see the object(s) before the lens in a new relationship to time. The process of photographic discovery — of being attentive to what is happening in front of the camera, what the light is doing, what is the emotional state of the person you’re shooting — teases this “depth of feeling” out of the world. In Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Michael Fried cites the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s observation that: “The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis [‘under the aspect of eternity’]; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis.”

Wittgenstein (1889–1951) went on to write, “The usual way of looking at things sees objects as it were from the midst of them, the view sub specie aeternitatis from outside. In such a way that they have the whole world as background. Is this it perhaps — in this view the object is seen together with space and time instead of in space and time?” This is the feeling of suspension of time that overcomes you when you get pulled into an amazing work of art. It’s also the process by which the artist removes things from the realm of, well, just being things.

“[O]nly the artist can represent the individual thing so that it appears to us as a work of art… The work of art compels us — as one might say — to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object is a piece of nature like any other…”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1930

This first claim came early in Wittgenstein’s career, but it contains an important kernel of his thought: the importance of seeing “the whole world as background,” of embracing the entirety of our complex connections. In fact, one could see the whole of his philosophy as an attempt to address the problem of aesthetics (i.e., “What is beauty?” or, as he might phrase it, “What do we mean by beauty?”).

For Fried, the concept of the “individual thing” is a clarification of his notions of good and bad objecthood. The former comprises the things that one beholds, rooted in time, place, and context; things as individuals, things as truly themselves. The latter, bad objecthood, is an attempt to classify in order to generalize. This approach is clearly useful in the physical sciences — think of the development of Newtonian mechanics — but when broadly applied to people, for example, it’s misleading at best. We are right to be wary of this as prejudice. If we lose sight of the individual and his or her condition, we leave ourselves open to all sorts of mental traps.

Fried uses the portrait work of photographer August Sander as an example of good objecthood. During the 1920s and ’30s, Sander was concerned with making a sociologically honest study of German society through a time of great change. Although his work has an idealistic sweep that made sense in the first sixty years of the 20th century, his portraits remain deeply humane. They are highly specific images of individuals shown in their full dignity.

Back to Piontek. While The Idea of North may have more affinity to the spooky films of David Lynch than the grand portraits of Sander, there’s an important thread running through both photographers’ work: the viewer sees people as individuals, people as truly themselves.

For our story, Michael Harris’s meditation on the AIDS epidemic at age thirty, Piontek’s open, rooted approach is obvious both on the cover, which shows five pills on a lightly scratched surface, and her interior portrait of Sam, a subject of Harris’s narrative whose identity cannot be known. The pills are the daily drug cocktail that Sam needs to keep his HIV at bay; they are contextualized, if gently, by the scratches. And although Sam’s face can’t be shown, he is set within a specific context — the cut of his shirt, the moss on his wall — as distinctly himself.

Photography by Birthe PiontekBirthe Piontek’s interior portrait of Sam, an anonymous subject of Michael Harris’s cover story

Brian Morgan: After we spoke about this commission, what were your initial thoughts about the topic?

Birthe Piontek: I was moved. The story is pretty powerful and had quite an impact on me. As a heterosexual, married woman I don’t really seem to be the target audience, but that’s why the article is so great: it’s written in a way I can relate to.

Brian Morgan: How did you first approach this assignment? And what is your typical process for generating ideas?

Birthe Piontek: An assignment is always a collaboration between the photographer, the art director, and the person I am photographing. I usually read the story a couple of times. While reading it, many images come to mind. I then take these ideas to the photo shoot. This is always the most interesting and most challenging moment, as you never know if you will actually find the ideas once you’re there. Everything might be very different from what you’ve imagined or planned. Usually, you don’t have much time to come up with an alternative. That means you have to be quick and open for a plan B. It’s great to photograph a person who is willing to explore a bit and go together with you on this journey.

Brian Morgan: In general terms, how do you create your work?

Birthe Piontek: It depends what I am working on. When taking portraits of people for my own projects, I always meet up and talk to them before photographing them. I want them to feel relaxed and comfortable, as I think it shows in the pictures. I always try to find a location beforehand and know where to set up my lights, et cetera. Being in control and knowing what you’re doing while you’re shooting also means less Photoshop work afterward. For example, 95 percent of the images from The Idea of North series were printed manually in a traditional darkroom and are not retouched in any way.

Brian Morgan: What was your inspiration for this final image?

Birthe Piontek: I wanted to work with natural lighting so I scouted the location for my best options. This shoot was a bit more difficult as the person had to stay anonymous, so I had to do the opposite from what I am usually doing — showing the face. The stairs were perfect as there was light coming from above and he would have the railing to hold onto. It felt natural to show him from behind, going up the stairs. I definitely didn’t want this picture to look too gloomy or sombre, so it made sense to also work with some color and create a bit of more neutral or relaxed feel.

Brian Morgan: Whose work has influenced you the most? And who or what has shaped your style?

Birthe Piontek: Influences seem to change all the time, and in a way my style does too. In the beginning my approach to photography was rather journalistic. I wanted to work for magazines and be a photo reporter. This changed during my time at university. I became more and more interested in fine art photography as well. Jeff Wall’s images had quite an impact on me. I was fascinated by the fact that they were all staged but still looked liked candid shots. That’s when I got really into planning the image instead of finding it. I am interested and inspired by work that has a cinematographic style or feel. This is why I enjoy David Lynch and Tim Burton quite a lot. I like dark and surreal moments that move something inside of you, and this “something” is usually hard to put into words. I guess it has to do with dreams and subconsciousness.

So you can say that in the past I was rather interested in staging, creating a mood or setting in order to tell a story. I am interested in working with people and love working on portraits, although I am aware that they are mostly a canvas for my own projections and ideas.

For my new work, which is called Lying Still, all this has shifted and changed quite a bit. This series consists of self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes, each dealing with notions of mortality, sexuality, intimacy, roles, and relationships. And it’s the first time I am turning the camera on to myself. This work is probably more inspired by artists like Cindy Sherman, Shary Boyle, or Elinor Carucci.

Brian Morgan: What do you think you take from the work of Jeff Wall? There’s an emotional heart to your work that leads me to places other than where he goes.

Birthe Piontek: As already mentioned, his work was a huge inspiration for me in terms of creating and staging an image. But my work doesn’t have the reference to the history of art or philosophical problems of representation. It definitely comes from an emotional place, and has a lot more to do with creating feelings and working with images that come from a more subconscious place. I am interested in the different conditions of a human soul, in investigating and showing intimacy, vulnerability, and a depth of feeling. There is a tremendous amount of “gut feeling” in my work that usually leads the way when I am working, no matter if it’s an assignment or a personal project.

Brian Morgan is the art director of The Walrus.

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