In 2004, Mona Kuhn published her first photobook, Photographs, with the German publisher Steidl. Subsequently Steidl has published two additional Kuhn titles, Evidence and most recently Native. Photographs is a body of work developed over a period of over six years and draws from two of her then current portfolios, Black and White 1998 – 2002 and France 2002 – 2004.
The book begins with a large selection from her Black and White portfolio, then sequences into the France portfolio and ends with photographs from the Black and White portfolio. As quickly deducted from the title of the portfolios, the Black and White is indeed all black and white photographs, while she introduces color into the France portfolio. The two portfolios also differ in her interpretation and subsequent narrative of her naturalist subjects. The two portfolios are complementary and her sequencing moves easily between the two bodies of work.
My first impression upon viewing the introductory black and white photographs was a strong association between Kuhn and the earlier work of Ralph Gibson and his photobook’s The Somnambulist, Déjà-Vu, and Days at Sea, especially the Kuhn photograph Sombra, first image below. Gibson’s photographs have been described as “often incorporating fragments with erotic and mysterious undertones, building narrative meaning through contextualization and surreal juxtaposition”. Sombra has almost all the visual and physiological nuances of Gibson’s best work, with a truncated body, part of the face that includes the bottom of the jaw, mouth and small amount of her hair, the open and expressive hand gesture, with the distant and out of focus landscape. Kuhn in turn has made this her own, with a shallow depth of field that reveals the details of the woman’s nude back and almost all of the hand with her head slightly out of focus, but the blonde wisp of hair on the nape of her neck is tantalizing sharp and delineated. The sharpness and contrast of the wisp of hair at the top edge of the pictorial frame in conjunction with the prominent location and gesture of her hand provides a necessary amount of visual tension to this surreal photograph.
I think it would be suffice to say that the Black and White portfolio is about symbolic gestures. Kuhn employs a shallow depth of field and tight framing to extract the bare essence of individuals as well as the contact between and amongst individuals that is cryptic, poetic, and sensual. Kuhn usually focuses on the subject’s hands for a symbolic expression in this body of work. By photographing her subjects’ nude, she simplifies and distills her narrative as would a minimalist, to maintain the focus on the gesture itself. A woman’s hands are extended out and Kuhn has placed a sharp focus only the very tips of the fingers, while her nude body recedes into the background, out of focus and barely discernible. In another photograph, a muscular hand holds a metal sphere, with only the bare forearm visible. In another, there are two bare arms and hands hanging down into the frame, appearing loose and in close proximity, but not in contact, while she only reveals the respective hips of the two individuals. There is a subtle sensual tension to these photographs that is further enhanced by the long tonal range of the photographs.
In another photograph, extended our towards the lens are the intertwining bare arms of a nude woman. Again the hands are in sharp focus, while the woman’s head and body is out of focus, but I am still able to notice that her eyes are shut and head is titled to one side, as though she momentarily exists in a dreamlike world. What is disconcerting and mysterious about this photograph is the dirt that resides on her fingers, under her fingernails and on her hands. This foreign element takes this high key photograph and introduces a darker narrative, that this nude person, perhaps symbolizing a perfect and naturalist world also has these dirty hands, indicating that the world while seeking perfection, has been contaminated and has flaws. The underlying message is that perfection is not attainable.
The book images are usually sequence one photograph per page, one page per spread. When two photographs are paired, they are complementary and echo each other’s narrative, such as the diptych of George and Jacques, second image below. To make a further connection between the two images, both have a similar darkening and fading away of the light towards the edges of the frame, correspondingly making their faces lighter and appear to be glowing. This photographic lightening technique is an attempt to guide your eyes towards the lightest region within the photograph, in this case their respective faces.
The youthful naiveté of the boy and the contemplative pose of the older man when paired up and with the emphasis on the faces really borders on cliché, but it is nevertheless an interesting narrative about time, future potentials and past memories. Again it seems that Kuhn has selected an unusual photograph of the young boy to potential save this pair of images, with the boys eyes shut and arms held out-stretched, with a string tied to his index finger and this string is then lightly held against his forehead is a very intriguing image. For me, these two photographs taken together are symbolizing hope.
It appears that in 2002 her work makes a tangential change and shift to working with groups of nudes and introduces her use of color. Kuhn’s transition to a color palate appears to be complete by 2003. Although unstated in the text, it has been subsequently revealed that the France portfolio of this book was made in Montalivet, the Western coast of France. This is also the same naturist location that Jock Sturges photographs and since Kuhn has photographed Sturges photographing on the beach, we can assume that they know each other, and may they have been mutual influences on each other’s body of work.
Whereas in Kuhn’s Black and White portfolio focuses on the detail and gesture, with the transition in the France portfolio she moves to interactions between groups of individual. Her subjects are more interactive and the subsequent narrative is increasingly more layered and richer. A case in point, although still a black and white photograph, the fourth image down, Luzia, made in 2002 is a very interesting triangulation of the nude woman in the foreground, and two nude males flanking either side of her in the background. She is close to the lens, in sharp focus, her breasts are just within the frame which accentuates both her nudity and her vulnerability. She has her heard slightly titled down, her chin is resting in the palm of her hand and she has her eyes closed. She appears to be contemplating something and with the weight seemingly heavy on her hand, it appears to be also a heavy thought.
In the background, slightly out of focus are the two nude men. One has his hand on his chest, just below his heart and he appears to be intently looking directly at the young woman. It is as though he is signaling to the young woman that she is very important to him and his heart. The nude man on her other side has his head cocked to one side and appears to be looking out the edges of his eyes also at the young woman. Just by the position of his head, he appears to me to be more hard, demanding or judgmental stance. Both men appear to be waiting in anticipation of something that the woman is contemplating, but of what, that is the irony of the photograph and thus this narrative, we don’t know. And this is only my narrative, one of many, and yours perhaps will be different, but it points to the broad diversity of narratives that Kuhn has tapped into with this more recent work.
In her later color work, Kuhn has pulled the camera back, the framing is not as tight, which creates more space within the pictorial frame. She continues to use a shallow dept of field to place a focus on someone in particular with the frame, as they become the center point and key subject of the resulting narrative. Her subjects are also appear more neutral and objective, frequently within the group only one person appears to be making looking at the lens and making visual contact and a visceral connection, or on occasion there is no eye contact. Kuhn’s subjects appear to be more introspective and contemplative amongst each other, and as a result, the narratives become more indistinct, open-ended and contemplative.
This photobook is cloth bound with a dust jacket, beautifully printed in Germany on a semi-luster stock.
by Douglas Stockdale