May 14 - 29, 1994
Villa Waldrich, Siegen, Germany
Ditmar Schädel, on the opening of the exhibition "Zyklen" by Thomas Kellner
In the exhibition Zyklen we are confronted with three things: First, with an exhibition of photographic images, which were created exclusively with a pinhole camera; second, with the young artist Thomas Kellner, who created these works and third, with an ancient dream of humankind. I would like to address the latter first. The engagement with visual reality, its capture and interpretation and later its reproduction as pictorial representation has preoccupied humans ever since they developed out of the animal kingdom into a thinking, learning and reflecting species. A testament to the prevalence of Plato's parable of the cave, the question about the veracity of the images with which we surround ourselves daily shall be rehashed today, whether these are created through a manual process, a camera or a computer. So, if there has always been this vision or desire to collect and capture the visible things of this world, our interpretations of them and the experiences made in it, as well as to convey these to others, we may wonder that several centuries had to pass before photography emerged as an optimal tool to meet these aspirations. More so, that a little over 150 years after its invention it already seems redundant and its images, so enthusiastically adopted in the mid-19th century and distributed to a hitherto incomparable scale, now seem obsolete and, in light of the virtual world, cyberspace and their worldwide transformation through electronic image systems, almost outdated. Alas, it is not that simple. The invention of photography must be seen as a process that begins well before the first two decades of the last century and is rooted on early observations of ancient scholars and their resulting conclusion that an object can be projected through a small hole onto a surface. This realisation by Aristotle forms, so to speak, the bedrock of photography or the basis for a kind of primitive camera, even if initially only as a theoretical construct. Throughout cultural history, this insight is often repeated (for example, by Ibn al Haitham, an Arab scholar), thought through and outlined on paper (by the monk Athanasius Kircher), or implemented technically in the pursuit of naturalistic accuracy (for example, by Leonardo da Vinci or Albrecht Dürer). The camera obscura always served the purpose of gaining a better and more comprehensive understanding of our world, whether as a theoretical hypothesis or as a drawing aid, and as such it was used in various forms and technical configurations for a long time. Various camerae obscurae were also found as permanent rooms, as educational tools or as a pastimes in public places or palace gardens. It seems remarkable, considering the longstanding efforts for this optical aid and its various stages of development leading towards the first chemical fixations of images in 1827 or 1839 - depending on when one places mark for the invention of photography - that in a relatively short timespan of about 20 years, many painters, pharmacists, natural scientists or artists, working independently in several European countries, were simultaneously researching practical procedures for the production of photographic images using a pinhole camera; to some extent, successfully so. Thus, not only Niepce or Daguerre are to be considered the inventors of photography; Hippolyte Bayard or Henry Fox Talbot would also be equally entitled to this honor. Photography subsequently developed in stages into what it is today. Immediately after the announcement of its invention and its presentation to society in 1839 in Paris, it quickly proliferated, partly thanks to entrepreneurial efforts of Daguerre, among portrait painters and early photographers. Towards late 19th century, the industrial production of cameras, film and the first large laboratories also led to a sprawl into the recreational market. By the end of World War I and its social upheavals and with emerging develpments in the fine arts, photography found its way into the art historical discourse and contributed significantly to the principles of the various styles and genres ending with the suffix -ism. Developments in military technology, space travel and an increasing application of electronics lead to the camera equipment common today, to the high sensitivity of current photographic emulsions and to the relative affordability of a photo. A picture taken with a film speed of 45000 ASA (or nowadays Iso), an exposure time of 1/8000 seconds and scaled up to size can easily be acquired for 39 pennies on the amateur market today. The resulting images can copied onto compact discs, fed into data networks, reproduced at any scale and edited, distributed and presented in many ways. The dream appears to have come true. So what is it, at this current pinnacle of development, that still moves people, often artists on the avant-garde, to refer back to an early stage of this evolution and take photographic pictures with a pinhole camera? Thomas Kellner, whose works are exhibited here, could give us his answer. Like many of those who resort to this seemingly anachronistic method, he is looking for ways to disrupt the rigid schemes of commercially available devices and experimentally arrive at new, individual camera solutions, thereby showcasing his very own images, indeed his view of the world. This does not only imply a disinclination towards restrictive high-end technology. Thomas Kellner also strives for the expression of an image using the barest of means and incorporates the specifics of pinhole camera photography into the creative process. Like other artists with similar approaches, what is important to him here is retaining authorship over the individual steps of the process, from camera construction and choice of material to reproduction and display. So, we can grasp the level of influence over the entire process aimed at when we observe how the Italian artist Paolo Gioli converts pushbuttons into a camera, how Thomas Bachler takes photos from inside parcel on its several-day-long journey through the mail or exposes the film through a pinhole formed with the lips on his own mouth, how American artists recast a coconut and the iconic Campbell's soup can into a pinhole camera, or how Thomas Kellner uses a snail shell as a "dark chamber," and the type of images obtained in this way. Thomas Kellner works in cyclic series, as the title of his exhibition at the Waldrich Villa indicates, and by this he refers to different ways of dealing with this particular aspect of artistic photography. But he also develops thematic series. In a series depicting his friends, each image captioned with their first name, the individual's characteristics are even more strongly highlighted, upon closer inspection, through the blurredness typically considered flawed in conventional camera photography than in a shot sharpened by the static presets of today's simple, hermetic devices. For this series he reconfigures the Quick-Snap into a pinhole camera, taking the principle of "You press the button and we do the rest" befitting our throwaway culture to its an analogous extreme. Through multiple and simultaneous exposure, or by exposing a whole 35mm film inside a purpose-built long, tubular camera, he breaks the conventions of photography, intervenes in the relationship between image and object, time and space, thereby arriving at results that call into question the usual way of dealing with photography and its creations. In so doing, he does not merely accept the specifics of pinhole camera photography, but rather seeks his own forms of representation through and within such vessels. Randomness is decisively included as part of the conceptual process. In the photography of Thomas Kellner, the point in time plays an important role, as well. In a single pinhole camera shot, more time is often recorded than in other likeness of person, both for the photographer and the model. The pictures at this exhibition are therefore to be regarded from several vantage points; they are a reaction to photography as we encounter it today; they have a specific, individual content aspect and they are a result of a manifold artistic process. However, Thomas Kellner does not stop at just the products of his cameras, but often searches for adequate forms of display. Be it through the use of specific printing processes such as the bromoil process or the cyanotype, which are, in a sense, approximations to painting from artistic photography, or through installation art. An example of the latter is his most recent work, in which he takes up the established concept of the panoramic rotunda and unveils an all-round view of the upper town of Siegen from the tower room of the Waldrich Villa. He always expands on the most suitable extension or rework of previous efforts. However, Thomas Kellner's motifs are never arbitrary, nor do they blindly follow questions aimed at the photographic process. His personal commentary is particularly evident in the series Tierra Quemada. The menacingly-looking images of scorched tracts of land in southern Europe are not just a remark on the dangers of monocultural farming, but point to our relationship to the environment around us. Ideal, transfiguring landscape photography in a conventional sense may emphasize the beauty and grandeur of nature, but it often ignores the undeniable dangers posed to this idyllic realm by human intervention. Through perspective, proximity and the peculiar distortions brought on by the pinhole camera, these critical viewpoints do resonate in the photos of Spain shown here. Even the shots of people on the beach, which could be superficially described as holiday pictures, always have the stale aftertaste of a broken or at least questionable relationship to our world through their angles and peculiar colorations. This relationship to the visual world, the perception of a reality that lies beyond the surface of things, is a theme in all of Thomas Kellner's works. His pinhole camera photographs encourage the viewer to critically examine his own observations and trigger multi-layered contemplation and interpretation. Here, the dream initially mentioned regains its timeliness.