The terms that best describe Thomas Kellner’s recent pictures are: of common knowledge, fragmented and distorted. Kellner’s images from the past seven years depict a monument or location that is part of the global cultural heritage and recognizable to people worldwide. The subject is not represented in one whole view, like it usually appears on the regular postcard, but made up of a series of small positives which form a regular grid, together making up the entire edifice or panorama. Yet, the joined pieces do not yield a unified whole, because, while each of the small pictures corresponds to the vista in that precise module of the total image, each of the fragments is shot from a different viewpoint. The image is distorted. What is this all about?
For one, there are the world-famous monuments, trademark skylines and celebrated places that Kellner opts for as his subject. This seemingly banal choice is not arbitrary. The fact that everyone who looks at the picture identifies the theme instantly is an important element in his artistic concept. When looking at common things, people tend not to see them. After a quick glance, they immediately associate the object of perception with a mental image, which has been firmly embedded in their memory. This is a result of lifelong exposure to standard imagery of the renowned subject, due to our media society. By breaking the picture up into a multitude of fragments, the viewpoints of which are evidently skewed in relation to one another, Kellner attracts the viewer’s attention and incites him to have a decent look at it.
So, after having established the presence of the photograph and the singularity of its depiction, the spectator is inclined to question the fragments one by one. Each fragment lifts out a detail from the whole, making the viewer contemplate if there is something particularly interesting deserving a closer look. The fact that the flanking windows echo a part of the fragment emphasizes its importance even more. At the same time, this recurrence establishes a seesaw motion of the eye as well as provides for a smooth transition between individual fragments. The horizontally elongated grid, composed by the black edges of the film, prevents the spectator from drowning in the various viewpoints and leads the eye along, from left to right and from top to bottom, according to people’s ingrained reading habits. Slowly, the viewer discovers the picture, and, after having explored the numerous little details highlighted by the individual modules, the eye is lead back to the totality of the image by the framing edge. The perpetual visual rhythm thus established makes the photograph come to life in and of itself.
The initially boring subject, flogged to death throughout time, has reacquired interest in the eyes of the public through the new mode of presentation, and the photograph has mutated into a self-expressive artwork, tickling the viewer’s senses. The result is the spectator’s heightened sense of consciousness. Kellner’s photograph is a reminder of the richness of detail in common things that, all too often, pass unnoticed on a daily basis. This realization makes the beholder open up to the world around, which actually touches upon his relation to it. So, following an age-old tradition, the dialogue between the viewer and Kellner’s artwork is an existential one.
The question remains: what is Kellner all about? At base, the answer is simple: photography as art. He creates his works in a way that makes them capture the public’s attention. Once the contact between photograph and its beholder is established, a dialogue starts unfolding, which depends solely on the picture’s inherent qualities. The artwork has taken over from the maker. It has a life of its own. Contrary to the case of documentary images, its subject is merely a means to an end, not the end itself. The photograph is animated by its pictorial elements, i.e. the image, the viewpoint and the frame, and, in interaction with the spectator, it becomes more than the sum of parts.
This focus on the basic elements of the medium is reminiscent of the Bauhaus dogmas. It makes Kellner’s work comparable to the approaches in late twentieth century painting, which consider the shape, the color, the structure and the line as the sole building blocks of a canvas. Also, the fact that Kellner follows a process which necessitates thinking-out the picture in detail prior to its execution links it to the Bauhaus, as well as to subsequent Conceptual and Minimal art. In terms of the history of photography, Kellner seems to come from Pictorialism, not retouching or retaking the picture, and the influential couple Bern and Hilla Becher, who photographed pieces of architecture that are documents of our society. So, Kellner’s recent work is a product of his German heritage and the 20th century dominant currents at large.
Yet, it is also a product of its time. In the nineties, when Kellner started his career, New Abstraction had shifted the focus in art to the artist’s personal input. Painting had reintroduced representation, and photography had become a means of comment on an expansive range of issues, including our level of consciousness of the world around. In the field of design and architecture, Post-Modernism had reached its culmination. It stressed the surprise effect by constructing everyday objects from irrational accumulations of form and displacing the focal points, cf. Kellner’s collage principle. The distinction between High and Low art was erased. Today, everything is possible.
Kellner brings in a focus on art and life. He goes out towards the world, reconstructs it, giving it new shape and significance. His recent, single-copy photographs demand to be viewed like painting. They make people aware of the stereotype assumptions that one relies upon in the process of perception, and they point out the values that the pictured cultural sites represent. Ultimately, the works enrich the public with a fresh look on existence. Kellner’s photography is a self-sufficient medium, while being personal and humane. It is art.
Claudia Rajlich, artcritic, Paris 2004-11
Rajlich, C., 2004. Thomas Kellner. photography as Art. tkellner.com