Bettina Von Zwehl – Primal Scene Photography

Bettina Von Zwehl is known as a clinician. Her subjects wear the same clothes, adopt the same poses, and face the same laboratory conditions under harsh light against white backgrounds. They all obediently carry out the tasks that Von Zwehl sets them: to fall asleep, to sit in darkness and silence, to hold their breath, to exercise. At a certain moment, the shutter clicks and the experiment is complete.


This is at least the usual way that Von Zwehl’s work is described. She sets up meticulously choreographed scenarios, inserts her subjects, then documents their reaction to their tasks and habitat. The style seems scientific and clinical, the images clean and crisp. Yet appearances can be misleading. As we look closer, we see something quite different.


Scientific study might seem like Von Zwehl’s objective with these series of photographs, when it is perhaps less method than medium. In her earlier work, she had turned to microscopes, after a ‘crisis’ when she had become, as she says, “fed up with images”. Using a light microscope at the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, she scrutinised viruses, and then began to photograph her own body residues, like spit, blood and skin. The resulting images would be projected onto windows in installations that aimed to question the relations of surface to sinew, fluid and flesh.


The series which followed also began with the artist’s body, yet this time as an absence. She would be the first subject of her experiments, although she has never shown the images produced. Instead, after this creation of a space, we see her subjects, posed in apparent uniformity. There is no jewellery or distinctive clothing to mark out and separate, no paraphernalia of any kind. Everyone, in a sense, is the same, as if to encourage us to observe some distinctive trait. Yet what is it we should be observing?


Science so often tells us what to observe. We are taught to notice and recognise certain features and characteristics, while ignoring others. The neutral language of observation is vaunted as the basis of research. Yet pure observation never exists, only an observation that is shaped and crafted by discourse. We have to learn what is observable in the most basic sense. And here Von Zwehl questions rather than pursues a clinical approach. We see a series of subjects arranged in experimental, seemingly uniform conditions, but we are not told what it is we should be observing. We know what the laboratory set-up is, yet not what is being investigated. Until we realise, perhaps, that the subject includes our very practice of observing.


As we scrutinise these pictures, we start to see differences. We become aware of variations in tone, in colour, in lighting, in muscular excitation, in shape, in expression. We create, as it were, our own portraits, and in this process the photographs invite us to consider what it means to observe, what we ourselves bring to the picture. Minute details start to emerge in what Von Zwehl calls “an art of comparison”. The emphasis on repetition only brings out what is different, not only in her subjects but in the viewer’s gaze itself.


Von Zwehl’s image series are portraits of transformation. From sleep to waking, from silence to sound, from relaxation to breathlessness, from dryness to being soaked. As moments of in-betweenness, they introduce a real intimacy. Her subjects, she says, were “vulnerable and exposed, not quite conscious. They’re on the edge of being presentable”. She aims here at “something very private”, not just in her subjects but in the viewer who is required to engage with what is most intimate in their own act of observation.


This reversal is echoed in Von Zwehl’s more recent work with children. Her subjects take their own photographs in a controlled environment, turning the usually passive status of pictured children into something more active. Her aim, she says, was to demonstrate that, at the level of images, a child “does not have to just be a construct of parental desire”. Yet the new series of baby photographs complicates this exploration. She now photographs her subjects looking at her while held by their mothers. Both photographer and mother remain unseen at the level of the completed image.


None of this was easy. Babies, as she points out, don’t follow instructions very well. You can’t tell them where to look or how to pose. In this sense, they resist conventional photographic manipulation. But at the same time, they have no defence against the act of being photographed, or indeed, looked at. Where it was once assumed that the infant’s first relation to the world was an oral one, today it seems clear that the scopic register is just as primary. Mothers can become quite anxious when their infants fail to follow the direction of their gaze, and much research has shown how the gaze of an infant is linked dynamically to that of the caregiver. They can look with them or they can look against the caregiver’s look. This dynamic means that a look is never isolated. It is an activity linked in a dialogic relation with others.


Von Zwehl is fascinated, she says, by “how two people can be framed separately but linked by their eye contact and nothing else”. This is one of the reasons for her interest in Renaissance profile portraiture, the form of which is present in several of her works. In her 2001 series ‘Profiles, the images are arranged in diptychs to create the line of eye contact artificially. With the new baby photographs, she has also chosen the profile format, yet this time the lines are real. With the mother sitting behind the baby, holding it, the baby’s own gaze is situated in the context of her look, that of the photographer and that of the camera. It gives a kind of primal scene of photography. The subject is caught at the intersection of gazes, and there is every reason to include the artist’s own look within this knot. Although we see only one gaze, it is situated within a field of other people’s looks and, crucially, the experience of being looked at.


This is what we don’t see in the images themselves. There is a knot of looks, which are left out of the image, just as the dynamic of looking in its relation to the look of our caregivers succumbs to repression, only to emerge at moments of the greatest anxiety or strangeness. Every portrait photograph leaves this out. If we could evoke a primal scene here, it is in the sense of a logically prior dynamic of looks that is formative and creates what may appear to be a simple and autonomous act of looking.


Indeed, don’t all of Von Zwel’s pictures evoke this as a backdrop? They all situate a look within the context of the experience of being looked at. This is what experimental conditions are by definition. The artist, however, doesn’t prescribe any further. We can observe her subjects, without knowing what it is we are supposed to see, knowing only that our look is being coerced. In fact, isn’t this exactly what we share with the babies in the new series of images? The expectation to look without knowing what it is we are supposed to see.