Landscapes, Portraits and Screenshots
Photographs shown in three chapters
presented in a book
Foreword by Annette Wehrmann
Translation by Gillian Morris
In the year 2002, Birgit Wudtke spent three months in Iceland with the intention of photographing the landscape. While working on this project she was confronted with the very different nature of the Icelandic environment and realised something that usually remains subconscious: the deviation, the divergence, and the discrepancy between the photographic image and the depicted reality.
We are used to perceiving a photograph as a more or less exact copy of what is depicted. The photo can be blurred, under- or overexposed, it can be badly developed or processed, or there can be a change in the colours. However, the basic conformity of the picture with what is depicted is still rarely questioned - despite picture editing. We still perceive the film sequences of the theatres of war shown in television to be authentic, and a photographic image from an observation camera is considered a conclusive means of identification. Nowadays, our mass-produced visual culture is based very much on this presumed consistency between photos and reality, however the awareness of the extent to which these photos can be manipulated is increasing. In fact we even strive to invert the relationship between the photographic image and what has been depicted. It seems that reality is increasingly adapting to correspond to photographic images, and we attempt - usually without success - to model ourselves on the images produced by the mass media, which have been edited according to certain specifications using Photoshop.
In the course of her work in the Icelandic countryside, Wudtke discovered that it was impossible to capture the colour of the moss, lichen, lava and volcanic sediments, or the sky and the Northern Lights, with the film she was using - Kodak. The photographic image produced was very obviously the thing that it was: The rough-textured result of light coming into contact with a photo-sensitive surface, put through several stages of intervention. The Icelandic landscape, initially perceived as untouched, seemed to have been changed somehow, taken possession of, “touched,” as a result of being looked at or walked upon. Of course the Icelandic landscape, which has been populated for 1,200 years is by no means as untouched as it might initially appear to the continental European viewer, but is a space that has been utilised by humans for centuries. In Wudtke’s images of Iceland, the inviolability of the landscape seems to be both a vision of archetypal force and a construction that has always been superimposed with cultural artefacts. In the calm, centrally focussed pictures that seem to convey a sense of natural harmony, streets, towns, houses or bullet cases are occasionally visible, covering the ground of an unadulterated valley, superimposing the image of the inviolacy of nature step by step and transforming it into a cultural landscape. At the end of the day, the image of untouched nature as the antithesis to the cultural landscape is a product of one’s own desire and longing, something that has never existed or has always been in a state of transformation. There is a similar composition in all the photos in the series: a central focus that reinforces the sense of meditative calm. With this form of composition, Wudtke is able to convey her own subjective experience of landscape, which can, for example, stem from formative childhood impressions or can “indicate past situations which, when looked at now, can trigger both a sense of being balanced and the feeling of being hurt" (Wudtke).
The two other series presented are also a response to the title "untouched touched retouched," and explore different aspects of terms “untouched” and “touched” and the interaction between them. “Retouched” is a reference to Birgit Wudtke’s work with commercial photography, which involves digital picture editing and the “retouching” of fashion photography using Photoshop. There is an interactive dynamic between Wudtke’s artistic photography and her commercial work, which is productive yet not without problems. This can be seen, for example, in the way the artist addresses this relationship directly in the series “retouching layers,” but also in the shaping of our viewing habits. The portrait photos that Birgit Wudtke takes of her friends are clearly influenced by this dynamic interaction: the women depicted are “beautiful” - and “beautifully presented” - like women in fashion photos. However, their appearance is very different from the type of woman favoured by the media. Wudtke’s photos show very intimate, almost private moments in a way that is not speculative and never exposes the models: the photographs show Wudtke’s friends and lovers in relaxed, vulnerable situations, for example lying in bed or among the blueberries. The images awaken associations between the persons pictured, for instance a prolonged adolescence that they share with one another: most of the women are between twenty and thirty and know each other. But it is clear that the artist is not concerned with depicting a “scene” or a “clique” or an “attitude to life,” as can be seen for example in the works of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin or Wolfgang Tillmans, and the artist also does not attempt to take a sociological approach. One of the most beautiful photos in the series shows a mattress on polished and sealed wooden floorboards. On the mattress is a bedspread and flowery cover, and, looking out from under the cover are three pairs of feet: a pair of children’s feet and two pairs of adult feet. It is in fact this act of concealment, of turning away from the viewer, which conveys a sense of emotional closeness with such intensity. Untouched by the gaze of the viewer. Like the landscape photos, the portraits also convey an impression of harmony and seem to lead us into a - somewhat fragile - dream world of childhood, inviolability, in which grief and pain have their place but can no longer cause injury. The only self-portrait in the series accentuates this theme once again: In this photo, Birgit Wudtke hides her face behind a child’s pillow printed with funny animals. Only her hands, which hold the pillow, can be seen. An image of vulnerability. Some of the pictures in the series show almost completely black surfaces, in which minimal light reflexes indicate people and landscapes. This disappearance into the darkness however has nothing threatening about it and the forebodings of death merge with the feeling of closeness.
In the third series, this process is inverted, any feelings of intimacy have vanished and only the surface remains; a surface that has been touched, edited, and from which the image has been removed. In contrast to Wudtke’s friends in the portrait series, the women who are somehow visible in "retouching layers" have never had any contact with her. "Retouching layers" is in fact an intermediate product of Birgit Wudtke’s commercial work: picture-editing fashion photographs, in which the photos of the models are only present as a product to be worked on. What began as a private, surreptitious act of rebellion - the creation of a collection of screenshots as a means of reclaiming her own creative work, or in Wudtke’s own words "to use the computer as my camera during my working hours" (from her master’s project, Kunsthøgskolen i Bergen, Norway) - became more and more a artistic strategy operating on the fringe of illegality on one hand, and on the other hand a critical examination of the media depiction of people, in particular women, and the way in which these images are produced. This includes an exploration of Birgit Wudtke’s own dual function as (co-) producer of stereotypical images of women and an agent of social norms on the one hand and her role as a critical artist on the other hand, which is reflected by this process of (in reality impossible) standardisation. For this reason, the work can also be read as a critical examination of Wudtke’s personal difficulties - but also stereotypical difficulties facing all women - which the commercial work in a male-dominated field that produces primarily sexist genderstereotypes generates. In fact, "retouching layers" shows the whole extent of the virtual face lifting that is standard in this field. Through the process of omitting or removing the original image, only the layers, on the editing level, remain - as distorted images that generate their own aesthetic, and have nothing to do with the aesthetic of the original. To what extent each of the layers show Wudtke’s personal aesthetic preferences is difficult to determine, as the procedure is subject to exact specifications. Different stages of a work process are visible, which were not intended to be pictures in their own right, and which have been selected in an intentional, but at the end of the day, arbitrary manner. Removed from their proper context and placed next to each other, these aesthetic interim shapes depict an image of peculiar emptiness, incompleteness, which can be read as a sarcastic comment on the fashion photographs, which are ultimately the end product of Wudtke’s commercial commissions.