Bettina von Zwehl (born Munich, 1971) has built an international reputation for her subtle, distinctive photographic portraits. As her practice has developed, she has continued to seek out different ways of exploring the form; from her early works, most often defined by the exacting conditions she imposed on her subjects, to her most recent projects which reprise the tradition of the painted portrait miniature and the silhouette, within which she now explores the potential of abstraction, and the event of chance in photography.
The Followers is a series of photographic works, abstract in form, created without the use of a camera or a photographic negative.
It arose out of my ongoing interest in historical silhouettes and a kind of photography where subject matter itself is almost entirely eliminated, privileging instead, a slower, more considered process oriented methodology free of the distraction of the subject. The images were made in the darkroom, one by one, using the traditional analogue process of wet tray printing, where a sheet of photographic paper is exposed to the light, and then developed and fixed in the dark. I altered the process by crumpling, folding and tearing at the fragments of paper while they were in the chemical trays, and then drying them before subjecting them to the same wetting, folding, crumpling and tearing. What results is a series of black shapes, their edges roughly torn, positioned against a creamy white background, and framed.
Abstract in form, these shapes don’t in any way describe or represent objects or subjects in the world, instead they evoke or suggest. I’m interested in how the absence of subject matter emphasises the material qualities of the paper, both inside and out - the internal structure of its grain, its surface sheen, cracked at the edges. Installed in a linear arrangement, they oscillate between different modes of representation; image, symbol and sign; at once an ancient cuneiform tablet, a tombstone, a shadow, a ruin, a body, a cave. Or maybe a sentence, a code, its meaning encrypted.