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In the middle of an empty, non-descript square, a photographer is setting up a group portrait. Men in suits, women in white blouses, all strategically arranged, the second and third rows just a bit higher, on a bench, to ensure that each face will appear in the photo. Behind the group, a large palace is visible. This is the background against which the subjects will later see themselves. Group portrait in front of palace.
The scene described above was captured by Martine Stig during a trip through North Korea. On the one hand, the photo depicts what every tourist visiting North Korea records for posterity: the palace of the great leader. On the other hand, the framing tells us that what the photographer was interested in was not the palace, but rather the process of taking a group photo. She was photographing how people are photographed. And this is precisely what characterizes Martine Stig’s approach: she is taking pictures of individuals and street scenes, but at the same time she is turning the spotlight on photography itself.
Looking at the work of Martine Stig, one wonders how this photographic perspective becomes interwoven with our everyday perspective, the way we see things. The photographs taken by visitors to North Korea are all alike because the government prescribes what they are allowed to photograph and what is off limits. The angle, the view, the subject matter – everything has been laid down in advance. Only the weather may differ from one photo to the next. What you see is what the government wants you to see. Aim your camera in a different direction, and you are looking at forbidden territory.
Why bother to take a photo when you know it’s the self-same photo that everyone else takes?
When you know that it’s a diminished image, a well-trodden visual path? For Martine Stig, in any case, this only adds yet another – faintly absurd – dimension to the many and varied aspects of photography that she displays in her work.
Stig works in series. And each series raises its own questions about the role and function of photography in people’s lives.
In After, it is authorship which is being challenged. Each photo shows a couple, man and wife, standing in front of the waiting camera with a self-timer. Here it is Martine Stig who has prescribed beforehand the vantage point, the background, and the view. It was she who laid down the ground rules for the photograph which her models then took. The reason the photographer did not take the pictures has to do with the intimacy of the moment. The subjects appear before the camera shortly after having sex. They did have time to grab a shirt or a blouse, but only just. The assignment was to take a picture right after making love. The moment after – after sex – that’s what it was all about.
And how much of the ‘before’ do we see in this ‘after’?
What presents itself in the series is the moment when the outside world enters the eyes of the lovers. Two people who have just made love stand on the threshold between their private life in bed and their public existence in the photo, in the museum gallery, in this book. Between being unseen and being scrutinized. Someone who allows himself to be photographed in this way must take into account that his image will multiply and enter the public domain. With no time to tidy hair or clothes, they look somewhat dishevelled. In their eyes we see surprise, suspicion, a questioning look, as they search for the right pose. The scene is tense, provocative, and at the same time more than a little uncomfortable. The hard light reveals a great deal, but nothing of the atmosphere in which the couples were together such a short time ago. The photos are too much alike for that. On the whole, it has little to do with sex. The photo has snatched the partners from that scene, showing us instead the prelude to their photographic likeness. Backlit by self-awareness.
Their faces betray the effect that photography has on a person. The lens folds open, the individual clicks shut. This is how it seems to work, no matter how experienced one is at striking a pose. Few of us are fully ourselves when looking into the eye of the camera. What possessed these people to expose themselves in this way? Despite the quirkiness of the idea, they agreed to take part in the series, opening their door to the anonymous viewer. Apparently photography promises something that is worth all the awkwardness and embarrassment that must be overcome. No doubt the models believe fervently in the power of photography, and are themselves observers. They, too, want to see the photo, perhaps to find what would otherwise remain invisible and intangible.
This is photography that takes liberties, invading the privacy of individuals in search of unseen moments. As observers, we are not only looking at a double portrait, we are also examining the question of what it is like to be looked at in this way, and what it is like to be the one so explicitly doing the looking. The inquisitive observer is eager for traces of what preceded the present scene.
This raises the question of the power which the photographic image has acquired over life. Can we fully experience human existence without seeing or recalling images? Without redoubling life in photographs?
What is happening here differs essentially from all those commercial photos which embrace the aura of sex and intimacy, where artificiality reigns supreme and the only objective is to tempt and entice. In the work of Martine Stig, there is no pretence. And if it does appear, it is solely in order to be underlined or made transparent. The models are trying to capture the right pose. It is as if they are no longer exploring each other, but the viewer. The resulting image is far from photogenic. In fact, there is something downright uncomfortable about it, as the subjects try to discover the identity of that public eye which is staring right at them.
They are themselves, but not quite.
The series Bloos (Blush) balances on that dividing line between private and public domain. The ‘blusher’ wants nothing but to disappear until the technicolour effect has worn off. But here Martine Stig has seen to it that her models cannot escape. The girls in the photos have come here for the express purpose of blushing, and their discomfort in front of the camera is both the goal and the subject of the photo. These prints represent several variations on the theme: one girl clearly has her doubts, while another sees the funny side. As viewers we have no idea what triggered these facial expressions. Just as in After, that moment preceded the photo and remains off screen.
Martine Stig’s portraits always form part of a series. One individual appears who invites a comparison with his photographic companions. It’s not only about individuals, but also about the field of tension between individual identity and group identity. Between the person and the phenomenon. Behaviour, manner, attitude, strength, vulnerability, transparency – these are the issues that present themselves when the photos are hung side by side. It’s not about the individual photo, but rather the relationship between the photos. About something that remains constant, and the expressive differences within that constant.
Photographs make the world flat. They thrust reality into a different space, even though the viewer recognizes and accepts it as the space in which he himself moves. In a photograph, the distance between foreground and background becomes smaller, and in the flat plane, figures far away from one another become neighbours. In this way photographs create a dual reality: one which is formal and another which we call real.
Martine Stig makes use of this given in her series of people photographed during a chance encounter on the street. She clicks at the very moment when two pedestrians coming from opposite directions pass each other in front of the camera lens. A man and a woman crossing the street pass in the roadway, precisely between two cars, while behind them a street opens up, accentuating the drama of their encounter: a neutral spot becomes a meeting place.
Hello contains a series of meetings which are not meetings, in the sense that they are purely photographic. But while they are only visual, only image, they are also street photography, creating the impression that they are real, simply because they actually happened.
The photo remains persistently rooted in the moment, suggesting that the two people passing in the street actually know one another. The suggestion of a story, an involvement, presents itself. The photographer plays with the way images are read, accentuating the visualization by using the same approach throughout the entire series. The same moment over and over, but with other players. Each time just two people, out of the thousands passing one another from different directions. A detective would see a clue in this. The viewer turns detective and finds his story in the photo.
Photographs lie convincingly, presenting a false proof. Here something is happening which is not happening.
The photographer uses the formal power of the medium to freeze life. The effect of her focus on the two people passing each other is that much of what we see in the photograph – everything that has not been consciously selected as image – is extra. The wall of a post office, a fence with plants, a billboard that hovers over ‘the meeting’ like a text balloon. Everything works together, but the only thing that has been staged is the decision on when to click. The rest conforms to that given. Lives that cross one another. In the absence of a genuine story, the possible story gains in imaginative power.
The gaze of the photographer is that of an observer, not a participant. You don’t notice meetings like those in Hello when you’re rushing off to the post office. There is only the road, the traffic light, the opening hours, the queue. But if you stop to look at those who happen to meet there, at the random group that forms, then other things become visible. A different functionality presents itself.
In her written contribution to the collection Nabeelden, album van niet gemaakte foto’s (After-Images, an album of pictures not taken), Martine Stig says that it is possible to ‘do without’. That you don’t actually need a camera to produce a photographic image. It’s all about ‘looking’ and, more important , ‘standpoint’. A few feet to the right, a few feet to the left. And – as always – the decisive moment. She seems to be suggesting that anyone can be a photographer. And yet the photographer is only able to make this claim because she spends so much time with her camera. Thanks to photography, finding an image which detaches itself from reality has become part of her everyday observations.
That one frame out of so many. The precise moment that someone shades his eyes against the sun. Only that moment: the moment of fission. The rest is irrelevant. The rest will not be clear until later, when we see what else there is in the photo. Then a story takes shape. Individuals become a group, on paper, in the photograph, because they display the same behaviour. Just as in the series Men, where we see men in La Paz shielding their eyes from the sunlight. The hands over their eyes also seem to be a reaction to the camera which is pointed in their direction. To prevent their gaze from being stolen. Bolivians shielding themselves from the sun become people who do not want their picture taken.
Again, a false proof.
In New York Martine Stig took photographs in which not a single billboard is visible. No easy task, in a city awash with advertising. At eye level, the entire city seems bent on capturing the attention of each passing consumer. Visually, it is difficult to avoid. The only way is to direct your gaze diagonally – downward and forward – onto the sidewalk. As if you are wearing blinkers. Not a billboard in sight.
If you focus on something that must not be shown, then everything that does appear in the photo is a bonus. Not planned, not sought. Truncated figures, lots of shoes and legs. The street is full to overflowing with drawings, arrows, numbers and lines. This produces unintended aesthetic compositions, all because something else was left out of the photo. A yellow lorry passes in front of the billboard across the street. Yes, click now.
The work of Martine Stig is situated in a realm between imagination and reality. Between what really happens and what takes place in her head. Her work thrives on the credit which photography has built up as a medium of registration. As ever, resemblance is her greatest weapon. A photograph always makes a believable impression: once seen and recorded, it must be true. Nevertheless, a photo is only visual reality, and it is capable of showing things that are not real.
In her fictitious family album the photographer again turns to photography as mass medium. She took a series of photos just like the ones everyone takes. The snapshots of a Sunday outing with the whole family. The languid boredom at the water’s edge. This was our outing, the photo tells us. This was the year Floortje turned seven. This is the memory we will all cherish. We turn this today into the past, for the benefit of the future. Perhaps one day this image will help us to experience something which at the moment itself could not exist, kept its distance, could not be seen.
Photography as souvenir album. Like the album discovered up in the attic at the Jedermanns’ house. Filled with prints recording milestones in people’s lives. Of great personal value, especially years later, when the photos have yellowed and become dated. Then the chance details, in themselves of no particular importance, begin to lead a life of their own, retell a story. Activate a happening.
In a photographic sense these are hardly milestones, since the photos are interchangeable. The tree in the garden that was photographed because it was full of lovely blossoms did not result in a photo full of blossoms. And yet the same photo is still being taken.
Can a single photograph capture the phenomenon of photography? Does a photo of a tree tell us anything about all those other photos of proud gardens? Perhaps not a single photo, on its own. But, taken together, the series of photos which Martine Stig has done up to now can indeed do so. These photographs are about how people handle camera and image. How illustrations detach themselves from life, only to return later, as proof of life.
The serial approach raises questions about popular images. Whether it’s the family album, a holiday snapshot, or the Pepsodent smile of the ‘available’ young women in the series Thai girls. The viewer cannot escape the echo of his own gaze. What you see is irrefutable, but not necessarily true or unambiguous. ‘A photograph never stands alone’ is what this work seems to be telling us. These photographs are the account of an observer who goes through life with assignments she has dreamed up herself. These are photos that activate. They do not ask first and foremost to be contemplated or admired. Rather they ask us to see observation as an activity. To create the urge to do it too. To click on the street. To blink our eyes. To see the decisive moment. There on the corner, next to the letter box, a meeting is taking place. In the park, a tree is turning colour. And inside that house, the one where the light went on a second ago, two people have just made love.
-Gone is the moment – photographs by Martine Stig