Tobias Zielony’s Jenny Jenny

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Tobias Zielony

On my pile of photobooks to review, there was a group of books I hadn’t got to, mostly because something bothered me about each of them. There was, for example, Todd Hido‘s Excerpts from Silver Meadows, which I bought thinking I ought to have at least one of the photographer’s books. Or there was Jane Hilton‘s Precious – I was going to review it alongside Antonia Zennaro‘s Reeperbahn; but I never got to it, in part because, to be honest, I was a bit hesitant. They both seemed problematic. Or maybe I was giving myself too hard a time over who knows what. The photography in these books is fine, it’s good work. But it’s also problematic work, mostly for  non-photographic reasons.

It would seem strange to include Excerpts in this group of books – Precious portrays prostitutes in Nevada, and Reeperbahn focuses on Hamburg’s red-light district. But then the women in Excerpt are so clearly depicted in quite a particular way, and that makes for a continuum – at least for me. In Excerpt, for the most part women are apparently up to no good. If your jump-off point is rooted in pulp-fiction from the 1950s or so, then it’s very hard to pull something off using photographs that is an homage, yet at the same time aware of all the problems. Photography is cruel that way. It’s hard to play games with it. It’s so literal. It looks like, well, what it looks like. And that ties in Excerpts with Precious and Reeperbahn – they each end up being that tad too celebratory of a role for women that a lot of people have tremendous problems with (and it’s not because they’re all prudes).

If Jenny Jenny by Tobias Zielony did not exist, I’d be now left to walk down that grim path outlined above. Zielony’s work throws this writer a life line. But it does more than that. It also shows that this general subject matter – however we want to define it – can be approached in ways that, while being aware of the pitfalls, the inevitable pitfalls, still offer an opportunity to make pictures that are neither just decorative, nor too celebratory, nor too stereotypical. The book portrays women who exist at the edges of society, some of them prostitutes, others not. Zielony met a prostitute by chance when he asked a couple in the Berlin subway whether they would allow him to photograph them. Turns out the woman was on her way to work. With time, he gained access to various other women – friends and acquaintances; and he photographed the women and the environments they were acting in.

In an interview that unfortunately is only available in German, Zielony speaks of why and how this whole project is problematic. It is, of course, the classical role of the male photographer and the female model, a relationship that even without the added factor of prostitution is very loaded (as a brief aside, a fierce debate has recently erupted in Germany about prostitution). There is the issue of privilege – the privilege of the artist, and the privilege of the viewers (c.f. this review of a body of work by Malerie Marder that would fit right into this discussion; I didn’t buy the book, so I’m not going to talk about this work here). Zielony’s solution was to acknowledge this situation and to make work that would try to break away from societal restrictions, work that both he and his models would be comfortable with. In other words, the problem isn’t resolved per se. Instead, it is acknowledged, and it is allowed to provide some of the friction that is very obvious in the portraits.

The main reason why Hido’s photographs of women are relevant in this context is the following. Apart from the fact that the main setting, that power relation, is very similar, so are some of the photographs themselves. Looking through Jenny Jenny, at times I was stopped in my tracks, wondering where I had some of the pictures before. I hadn’t, of course. I just found strong visual echos of Hido’s portraits of women. But whereas Hido’s portraits always end up looking as stylized as they are, with the artist seemingly unaware of why such portrayals can in fact be quite problematic, Zielony manages to avoid this problem. Zielony’s portraits never look stylized or staged (even though in reality they are both, at least to a certain extent). For a lack of a better word, they look real. Or maybe believable might be the right word (isn’t that what people are talking about when they say something “looks real”?).

Of course, Zielony’s subjects find themselves in the very circumstances they are depicted in, whereas Hido’s are models. But that’s not what creates the visual difference at all. Photographs are made behind the camera. I think when you compare Hido’s and Zielony’s photographs the different approaches to the photography might be responsible for the differences. Hido’s portraits are not necessarily made to look like what they end up looking like. They’re like those pinup illustrations from the past that now have become collectible (again), because apparently objectifying women’s bodies is not problematic any longer. Or maybe it’s because we’re supposedly now so aware of what’s going on that we can all share a wink: it’s all just a game (mostly for boys, though).

In Zielony’s work, the viewer is made to realize that there’s no game going on. There’s something at stake for everybody here, certainly for the women, to a lesser extent for the photographer, but also for the viewers. I have written about how for photographs to truly work there needs to be something at stake (see this piece), and Zielony’s work makes for an excellent case.

I might as well add that Hido’s landscapes succeed where his portraits fail. Decorative as they often are, they also offer quite a bit more, at least the best of them. There’s something going on that is mesmerizing and uncanny. Putting all those photographs together (landscapes, women, found photographs etc.), however, doesn’t work for me at all, especially not if it’s done in as formulaic a fashion as in Excerpts. As a consequence, I even started disliking the landscapes when I came across them in the book. It took seeing just the landscapes in an exhibition to remind me that, yes, this artist was onto something with those.

You could easily argue that by comparing Hido’s and Zielony’s photographs, I’m comparing apples and oranges. One, Hido, deals with fiction, the other one, Zielony, with facts. In a very old-school sense, this is correct. But the reality is that this clear distinction between fact and fiction does not exist in photography. Photography always is fact and fiction at the same time. Zielony’s work is fiction. It’s very clearly created in a way that resulted from the interaction between an artist and his models in this tug-of-war that is photography.

Crucially, Zielony is comfortable enough to yield some power to the women he is photographing. There is an exchange going on, an exchange that has strong echos of, say, the best of Nan Goldin’s work (the artist  acknowledges Goldin as one of his photographic references). Most of that exchange is absent from Hilton’s photographs in Precious, to bring another one of the books into the fold now. There, things turn completely static, and the results are oddly anemic. The portraits are neither here nor there; they don’t really speak of much else other than the photographic process of making a portrait with a view camera. Mind you, they’re not bad pictures. They’re competent. But they aren’t memorable. They don’t tell us something we don’t already know. And often enough, they end up being merely decorative.

Something being decorative is not necessarily bad. Contemporary art’s audience has a big problem with something being decorative (even though, in reality, whether something looks good over someone’s couch or in some corporate office does play a big role in whether a sale is made or not). This is too bad. If your work is deemed to be decorative, it’s easy to take that as the kiss of death for an artist. I actually don’t think it is, even though it depends on the circumstances. Still lifes, for example, can be very decorative and powerful at the same time. A lot of the New Formalism work that is currently so hot (hopefully for not much longer) also is very decorative. But in the context of the work discussed here, something being decorative feels problematic. There’s just too much at stake for the (mostly) women in these books.

At the end of the day, it’s very hard to say what exactly it is that makes Zielony’s work stand out so much in this group. It’s not the aesthetic, even though that plays a role. Zennaro employs a similar aesthetic, and those pictures end up not working so well for me. Zennaro’s work I’ve seen in before, done by other photographers. It’s the same old yarn of a red-light district’s rough life (with some redemption thrown in for good measure).

I want to believe – and I have no way of backing this up – that Zielony was the only artist who went to look for something he didn’t quite know what it would be, instead of going out to make pre-visualized or pre-conceptualized pictures. I could be completely wrong. But still… At the end of the day, all we have are the pictures, and those pictures speak to us in ways that are often very hard to describe. Jenny Jenny is a gem of a book.

Jenny Jenny; photographs by Tobias Zielony; essays by Ulrich Domröse, Maren Lübbke-Tidow, Vanessa Joan Müller; 128 pages; Spector Books; 2013

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 4, Production 5 – Overall 4.3

also discussed above:

Reeperbahn; photographs by Antonia Zennaro; essays by Kurt Tucholsky, Konrad Lorenz, Joska Pintschovius, Rocko Schamoni, Anna Hunger; 140 pages; Prestel; 2013

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 3, Edit 2, Production 3 – Overall 2.9

Precious; photographs by Jane Hilton; 128 pages; Schilt; 2013

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 2 – Overall 2.8

Excerpts from Silver Meadow; photographs by Todd Hido; essay by Katya Tylevich; 108 pages; Nazraeli Press; 2013

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 2, Edit 3, Production 2 – Overall 2.5

Ratings explained here.