collecting – Heads: Photographers research – Bettina von Zwehl

Bettina Von Zwehl is a photographer whose portfolio of works consists of portraiture series. Her approach and presentation techniques are comparable to that of the conceptual artists and photographers Bernd and Hilla’s photography. These photographers had an analytical approach to photography and are best known for their extensive series of photographic images of industrial buildings and structures, which were often organised in grids format.

By presenting photographs in a repeated controlled format within grids, the viewer is able to visually compare similarities and differences in the images with ease. In the majority of her works the subjects wear the same clothes, have the same facial expressions and poses and the background and lighting conditions are the same which unifies the content. Not all series are treated with such tight representations, for example in the series ‘London’ (2012) the clothes and backgrounds are all different which can be seen in the screenshot below,

von Zwehl, B. ‘London’ (2012)
image: (online)

Many of Bon Zwehl’s early works are posed for certain situations, for example holding their breath, standing in the rain and exercising. As her work develops it begins to take the form of silhouettes and series of profiles such as ‘Profiles 2’ (2002) and ‘Made Up Love Song’ (2011).

Made Up Love Song (2011)

This series was inspired by painted miniatures in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is constructed of images of staff in the gallery especially a series of portraits of Sophie which were taken three times a week over six months. Mixing the portraits in such a manor is interesting because the staff portraits break up Sophie’s portraits which are dominant in quantity within the content and I spent quite a bit of time trying to find and select the odd portraits out.

Due to the fact that the content within this series has been tightly controlled by Bon Zwehl the overall impact on viewing the portraits together is one of questioning. At first glance I was not sure whether the portraits were of one person or not and it wasn’t until I stopped scanning the work as a whole that the individual differences, although slight, began to emerge from the picture plane.

Within this series the portraits are all posed in profile facing the left and have been taken in front of a window using natural light as the light source. The warm brown background colour, sensitively complements the women’s soft skin colour just as their black hair colour complements their black tops. These dark tones are beautifully highlighted by the contrasting light from the window which almost divides the background into two and outlines the women’s strong facial features. Such a calm and delicate handling of the colour palette and the light is is echoed in the women’s well balanced posture. It is by far one of my favourite von Zwehl’s series and part of this set of portraits can be seen below,

Bon Zwehl, B. ‘Made Up Love Song’ (2011)

There are many other portrait series that are worth studying in more depth and commenting on. I was pretty excited by many of von Zwehl’s other series, the way she has presented the people, the silhouette work and also fragmenting silhouettes by tearing them were all very stimulating and thought provoking. These works however I will research at a later date due to time available to appreciate and research the images and the fact I would like to find any books with text in to read on her works in a greater depth. I have already found a YouTube film and dome journal articles but time is really short.

Lastly, I wanted to comment on how her work is presented on her website. Some of her series of work are presented as static images all which are visually accessed on the same webpage. Others are presented on the left hand side of a static webpage yet have a slideshow running of the images in the centre where one image will appear as another disappears in it’s place. Lastly we arrive at the webpage to view one large image which then is replaced by another in a slideshow. All three ways compliment each other very well and are obviously part of the pre-planning of her work. I especially like how von Zwehl’s has used the slideshow because it shows how structured her shots are as one pose is swapped for an all most identical following image. This chosen presentation format works particularly well for those images that are silhouetted. The link to view the series, ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, (2018) in slideshow format is here, LINK.

Meditations in an Emergency (2018) first image

Researching Bettina von Zwehl has been the highlight of my week. Her concepts and presentation of her ideas and images have been very thought provoking and have given me sparks of ideas for my future practices in both photography and presentation techniques.


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