Contemporary Photographer Series - Birthe Piontek

from the series Mimesis © Birthe Piontek

Birthe Piontek is a visual artist originally from Germany currently living in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Her works have been exhibited internationally and are held in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and the Museum of Applied Arts in Gera, Germany. Her photographs have been published in The New York Times Magazine, Le Monde, The New Yorker, and WIRED. In 2009 she was the recipient of the Critical Mass Book Award for her project The Idea of North. She was recently interviewed by Melissa Courtney for our Contemporary Photographer Series (CPS).

You have stated that your work is "an exploration of the individual and is interested in the concept of Self." I see that reflected in the work both literally and metaphorically; however, I have noticed that your subject is usually female. Is there a particular reasoning behind your choice of female subjects? Do you have any plans to study the male concept of self as well?

Mimesis was not meant to be specifically about the female self. When I started the project, I actually didn't think too much about the specific images in regards to male/female. I followed my gut when searching for photographs on eBay or at flea markets and was rather drawn to certain facial expressions, compositions, etc. So, I'd say that Mimesis is about both - the female and the male self and the selection of the vintage photographs was not based on the sex of the subject. At least not consciously.

However, I have to acknowledge that there are more women than men featured in the series. I think the reason for that is that Mimesis was shot while I was working on Lying Still, a project that revolves around female representation and female identity. I guess in hindsight - now that both projects have come to an end - I can see that there is quite a bit of overlap and some of my thoughts from Lying Still might have spilled over into the Mimesis project. For the current and future projects, my interest and focus definitely lies on the female and I don't have any plans to study the male concept of self but, who knows, that might change in the future.

from the series Lying Still © Birthe Piontek

In your self portraits you often utilize materials that aid in your efforts to produce "iconic and symbolic" imagery. What the process of making a portrait of yourself entail, and how do you decide what materials to use when constructing the images?

95% of the portraits were shot in my home. The domestic space is quite important as it's the space where usually are the most "ourselves", where we feel protected, and can let go of masks. But it can also be the space where we are not distracted or entertained by an outside world, where we can feel lonely and detached. All these thoughts played into the portrait making. All images are planned, staged, shot and then sometimes reshot as I'm usually by myself and don't have any help when taking them. But it's important to me that they look like spontaneous expressions and, although staged, feel immediate and raw. In many ways they are spontaneous expressions of an emotion or a thought - just the execution is a bit more elaborate. There are certain materials I seem to be drawn to: ink, all kinds of foils, mirrors. I spend a lot of time in thrift and craft stores, just looking at materials and getting inspired, which usually leads to a pretty strong idea or vision of what I want to do with a certain materials. But of course, there is always a bit of trial and error and some items or fabrics have lingered in my studio for a long time and I haven't been able to utilize them. 

from the series Sub Rosa © Birthe Piontek

In your Sub Rosa series, you work with teenagers, which can prove to be a difficult age group for communication. You state that there is no period in life more "comprehensively enriched with emotions, frustration and high expectations as the stage between our youth and adulthood." How did you engage this age group to be able to get the responses you wanted for your portraits? Were there any major obstacles you faced when trying to create this body of work?

I think the most difficult thing was approaching the individual subjects. It's something I'm always a bit nervous of and never seem to get used to. It's difficult to walk up to a stranger... and I got turned down by a lot of people. Once people agreed it wasn't too difficult.

I never took the pictures on the spot. I always met up at least once sometimes twice before we took the picture. Of course I also had to talk to the parents and get their permission, so by the time I actually shot the picture, we had spent quite a bit of time together and everybody seemed quite comfortable.

from the series Mimesis © Birthe Piontek

In your series Mimesis, you are using found photographs that you appropriate, chance and reinterpret. How did you choose these specific images? Are the photographs of any personal significance to you?

The images are all found on eBay or in thrift stores and I am not related to any of the people in the photographs. I looked for images that were quite straightforward and formal, i.e. studio portraits, high school portraits, etc. Candid shots or family shots didn't work for me as I wanted to have images where the person photographed had to engage with the camera and there were no other distractions - the moment where it is all about the person and not so much about capturing a situation or event, so that the image becomes a representation of that person.

Finding the right images was a bit like a casting process, something that I often did for my portrait projects. Casting is a pretty intuitive process, somebody walks by and you see something intriguing, something that could work - something inspiring. For Mimesis, it was the facial expression, the smile, the symmetry of the face. I think I looked for a certain innocence and openness in the face. And then there were formal aspects: I noticed that older images worked better for me than newer, some colors/palettes were more intriguing, etc. But like the casting process, you never know until you actually work with the person.

© Birthe Piontek

I have noticed that you are an active artist on Instagram. What role does social media play in your current practice both in terms of production and promotion of your work? Do you have any advice for young artists trying to enhance their social media presence?

I feel like Instagram is a bit of a blessing and a curse at the same time. For me, it's a platform to try things out, experiment, a form of visual diary, a daily exercise, a collection of images that don't have to fit in anywhere else. IG brought back the initial excitement of when I first got into photography 25 years ago... when you wander and take pictures just for the sheer pleasure of seeing and picture taking. I had lost that a bit as I got very purposeful about how I approached photography, meaning, for a while I would only take pictures if they were related to my projects/work.

I also use it to promote my work, announce shows or new projects and to get inspired by seeing what other people are working on. For all these reasons I really like IG but I don't like the space and time it sometimes takes up in my life. It kind of sucks you in and it tends to produce a lot of white noise, a visual overload which I'm, of course, feeding into as well. I'm actually not sure if it really helps to make an impression - that can only be done by good work.


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