Yet at the same time it is as if they are trying to avoid the camera, struggling to maintain anonymity
-IJsbrand van Veelen
Read full text
Looking at Martine Stig’s photographs reminds me of the weird recognition a traveller feels while visiting a major American city for the first time. Everything is new but not unseen. The city seems eerily familiar, thanks to the massmedia that reproduced every streetcorner thousands of times and subsequently distributed the images all over the world. This gives the traveller the strange sensation of new things evoking an immediate feeling of deja vu.
Stigs photographs seem to possess the same kind of unsettling familiarity. Her city scenes, portraits and interiors strike you as if you have seen them before, in another place at another time, in a life that runs parallel to yours… But are they really these photographs that we’ve seen before or is it the scenes that are depicted that feel so familiar?
Martine Stig manages to create this sensation by playing with the predisposed concept that we have of the snapshot, that most familiar and common of photographs. Her images seem to have been shot by coincidence, with no real stress on a central subject and with a composition that isn’t necessarily ‘good’ in the classic sense: faces and bodies are often cut off, rendering the protagonists anonymous. Both foreground and background are sharply in focus, and no real choice seems to be made to depict anything in particular: Stig chooses to photograph subjects that aren’t spectacular or out-of-the-ordinary. This matter-of-factness is an illusion though, because she carefully creates her snapshots. Stig says, “The 1997 series Zondag is about a fictitious childhood. The photographs in the series show various snapshots of a girl’s life, yet all the girls were different. It was like creating a new childhood for myself. Even though viewers knew that they were different girls and that it was all staged, people kept asking if it was me on the pictures”. Stig doesn’t only question the visual language of photography but also its social aspects: “I’m interested in the way photographs are used as proof , as documents of certain stages of our life. We know the world through photographic images, more than anything else, and with my work I am referring to that iconic quality of photography. Photographs have a tremendous suggestion of truthfulness and reality.” Snapshots seem to truly depict life, as opposed to the staged way in which other mass media convey images of reality. Many of Stig’s photoseries allude to the clichés and dogmas of photography that together shape our collective photographic memory. She plays with notions of innocence, directness, chance, coincidence and unadornedness that come with snapshots, and this gives her photographs their actuality.
The omnipresence of mass media images confuses our sense of being in control: the continuous flow of images presents us with thousands of possibilities and interpretations of what reality is or can be. This multitude of possibilities is dazzling: which one is the ‘right’ one? Is there indeed a ‘right’ one and if so on what grounds? It is exactly for this reason that the snapshot or allusions to it are frequently seen in contemporary photography: the snapshot seemingly only reproduces, it doesn’t interpret nor state nor does a snapshot choose or clarify. The snapshot is. Snapshots don’t have any other pretense than to register, to serve as a reminder. They are a mental sketch: the essentials will be filled in at a later, more elaborate stage. “I don’t want to show the truth or the right choice or something in that vein”, Stig says. “What I’m interested in is how certain photographic clichés have become incorporated in our lives and how they influence the way in which we look at the world.” At first sight, this accounts for the somewhat distant and rational matter-of-fact appearance of some of her photographs. They keep the spectator at bay, forcing him or her to question the image and its traditions.
Chance, the major characteristic of a snapshot, plays an important role in Stig’s photography. Chance seems to be the most convincing regulatory principle in a time when theories and ideologies about our existence are in a state of great confusion. It also guarantees a stronger anonimity for the photographer: it is the camera that seems to do the work, freeing the artist from the task to take sides in a confused world. But Stig wants to stay in command, so she stages chance as it were, or at least she keeps up the appearance of chance.
In the series After (1997), a series of portraits of people who just had sex, as a photographer Stig disappears altogether: “I was curious about people’s faces just after they had sex, and that curiosity was more important than actually being the photographer of the scene. So I installed my camera on a tripod in my friends’s houses, marked a spot on the floor to indicate where they should stand, and let them take the picture. Before this series I staged almost everything, but for After I only asked them to put a piece of clothing on.
“I want to know how photography works and what it does to us, how it shapes our view of reality. But I won’t go so far in staging reality as for instance Jeff Wall does. For me that would become too artificial. Much more than before I am now interested in the ‘non-presence’ of the photographer: it is the choice of the photographic moment that gives the photographs my personal touch. But it is chance that decides what happens”.
With her staged snapshots Stig tickles the curiosity of the viewer: what happened actually just before the picture was taken and: what is going to happen next? How does the ‘film’ continue? The suggestion that we are only witnessing a thin slice of some unknown real-life story turn Stig’s photographs into filmstills of reality.
In her more recent works Stig uses chance to find order in the daily chaos. She spots recurring events in daily life and presents them almost as anthropologic registrations rather than artistic interpretations The series Men (1999) for instance consists of streetscenes in La Paz, Bolivia. Every photograph shows people avoiding the sharp, low sunlight by holding objects up in front of their eyes. Yet at the same time it is as if they are trying to avoid the camera, struggling to maintain anonimity. If one would look at only one picture from the series it would appear as a snapshot, but the repetition of the theme creates a strange kind of order. It is as if Stig has unveiled secret habits that we hitherto failed to see. In her series Hello (2000), she continues her interest in the secrets of chance. Hello shows pedestrians in New York streets, right at the moment that are passing one another. They are complete strangers, chance brought them there at that moment. At least, until the moment Martine Stig showed up and registered the event with her camera. Because of the standpoint she chose, the strangers seem to be related to one another in an intriguing way. The photographic moment suggests that we just missed the action that could have clarified that relationship. Because of this particular way of observing and registering common daily events Martine Stig’s photographs differ from mere snapshots. They are direct and puzzling, off center yet meticulous photographs, randomly found cut-outs from reality, that hesitantly offer possible interpretations of an unknowable reality.