Analog Magic
Carina Brandes’ Self-Portrayals

With reduced superstructures, double exposures, and unusual perspectives, Carina Brandes’ photographic works create a surreal world that calls to mind feminist avant-garde positions. At the same time, her poetic black and white photos address current discourse on the body, gender, and beauty. Since February, Brandes has lived in Florence as a Villa Romana Fellow. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf talked to the photographer about her magical black and white photographs.
“I’ve always done self-portraits and self-portrayals. Since I was six,” says Carina Brandes. It sounds almost self-evident that the photographer began her artistic career in her room as a child in Braunchschweig, at some point in the 1980s. “I had girlfriends over and told them to take something in their hand and immerse themselves in a certain role. Then I appeared in front of the camera myself. It was a game. And my work is still very playful today.” Viewing Brandes’ black and white photographs of recent years, one can well imagine this conspiratorial game of yesteryear. It is a world devoid of men, populated by animals and hybrid beings, in which she experimented with outrageous situations alone or with her girlfriends. In one photo, she stands with outstretched arms next to stuffed birds on the railing of a pedestrian bridge, as though she is ready to take off with them. In another, she nestles up to another woman on a bronze bear sculpture.

“I see stuffed animals and animals cast in bronze as living things. I imbue them with life,” says Brandes. In her cosmos, there is no difference between the animate and inanimate. In the game, objects, sculptures, preparations, found pieces, and even places become imaginary characters. All of them, like Brandes and her friends, become the protagonists of a continuous, mysterious narrative. And they often take place in peripheral areas, on brownfield sites, in snow-filled fields under high-voltage lines, in overgrown parks—in places where civilization extends to nature or where nature re-conquers areas it lost. Brandes’ art is an art of transition through and through. Every one of her pictures is like a film still, a frozen movement, part of a plot. The actors seems to know her, yet she remains hidden from us. “It always happens in motion. I can’t imagine simply draping a scenario and portraying it 1:1,” she says. “When I take part myself, I’m interested in the movement in front of and behind the camera, in the process.”

It’s early in the afternoon. Brandes looks somewhat sleepily into the Skype camera. This year, will spend ten months at Villa Romana in Florence on a stipend. The artists’ house, situated in the hills of the city, has been supported by Deutsche Bank since the 1920s. IN the place where Max Beckmann, Michael Buthe, and Georg Baselitz resided she is working with friends on new projects. In June, she will show her works in the exhibition Produktion. Made in Germany Drei, which takes place every three years in Hannover and primarily includes promising current positions. Last night, she only slept for about two hours, Brandes says cheerfully. We talk about her analog black and white photographs, which due to their performativity, the incorporation of nature and objects, and the focus on the female body recall the feminist avant-garde of the early 1970s.

One inevitably thinks of this generation of pioneers, who at the time used the camera to investigate body and role images, as well as the possibilities of female representation. Brandes’ self-portrayals bring to mind artists such as Hannah Wilke and Ana Mendieta, and especially Francesca Woodman. The legendary photographer who, in 1981, at the tender age of 22, leapt to her death from the window of her East Village loft, was virtually unknown during her lifetime and only discovered by the international art world at the end of the 1990s. She also began her photographic self-portrayals when she was a child. And in her photographs, too, the body looks like an unstable, fleeting thing, blurred due to long exposure. Woodman captured herself floating in water, experimented with mirrors and foils, masks, shells, fur, and stuffed animals. Brandes is somewhat annoyed when the name of the American artist is mentioned. Of course she was influenced by Woodman, she says, particularly by her early work. But she moved in a completely different direction long ago, away from the mystic aura, often connected with mystery and suffering, that Woodman had on account of her biography.

We talk about the humor in Brandes’ pictures, about the effects and tricks, which are so obvious they seem peculiar: in front of the camera, two hands hold a boat made of folded newspaper that looks like it is floating on the line of the horizon. One woman is mopping an ocean beach. Another seems to have merged with a stuffed dog. Girls are sitting like birds on a fence with their legs dangling, holding papier-mâché cakes in their hands. Female bodies twist or knot together, balance objects or turn cartwheels. At first glance, Brandes’ photos seem to be fraught with meaning, like picture puzzles. Yet the longer you look at them, the lighter and more ironic they become.

“I would describe it as serious humor,” says Brandes. And it clearly differs from the political positioning of early feminism. “Naturally, I think about feminist issues, but I’m not a feminist. Maybe something like a post-feminist. There are many other aspects as well. I use my body freely; I don’t want to represent anything any more, no longer stand up for certain content. My body is simply a medium I use.” This is easy to believe when one views some of the pictures that are noticeably influenced by current fashion photography. Like Brandes herself, her protagonists resemble models, who naked in high heels or with furs and sweaters draped over them strut through campaigns of luxury brands. In one of her most well-known pictures, a young woman wearing headdress is floating in water and bears a striking resemblance to the young Kate Moss in Corinne Day’s famous photographs. Time and time again Brandes emphasizes, almost apologetically, that we are unavoidably influenced by media images, fashion, advertising, and other artists, and “we cannot look away.” It sounds like she is looking for something authentic, something all her own. This is diametrically opposed to digital photography of the post-Internet generation, which deals directly with media reality and manipulation, and radically criticizes the notion of an “authentic self.”

Perhaps Brandes’ photographs are so appealing because on the surface they pick up on this search for the self yet simultaneously illustrate how constructed this self actually is. In her photographs, Brandes seems like a time traveler who absorbs myriad influences from art history and pop culture. This also applies to the Gothic touch of her photographs. Woodman loved Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre and clothing from second-hand stores, the post-hippie chic of musicians like Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac. She wanted to get her foot in the door as a fashion photographer in New York and revered Deborah Turbeville, whose dream-like, blurred pictures in magazines like Vogue quoted the style of Victorian photography.

Brandes belongs to a current generation of photographers who take up this fashion-related feminist attitude only to discard it like a loose garment. While feminist avant-garde artists made use of mythological figures from art history such as Ophelia, Leda, and Botticelli’s Venus, Brandes’ photographs take feminist aesthetics, including their role models, and unscrupulously concoct something new that dispenses completely with pathos or symbolism. It sounds surprisingly matter-of-fact when Brandes talks about her work: “To my mind, the body is an object I always carry around with me. I was an artistic gymnast, I’m interested in how the body interacts with form and object.” Even the magic moments in her work—drawings in foliage, piles of stones, painted tree trunks recalling occult rituals—tend to be formal inspiration for a photograph. “I always need a beginning,” says Brandes. “Be it a stick I already have, or something I paint on the wall. I always need a beginning, something I can let myself in for, something I can enter into dialog with, something I can charge. That’s a beginning, a starting point.“

Yet the body, as in Woodman’s work, is not only the subject of a picture but also its creator. Brandes’ masked, twisted, dancing bodies, as well as the actions and performances she stages serve merely as the composition of a photo, in which the subject does not only persist passively, but protests and shapes the picture. In a fantastic way, Brandes’ photographs speak of artistic picture production, the relationship between artist and subject, viewer and image. This is demonstrated by a photograph in which a woman pulls photo paper through a brook—a topless figure like a character in a David Hamilton film who is actually immersed in an alchemistic process.

It is not by accident that Brandes and her girlfriends continually act with objects or dress up as objects. She plays with a history of art photography in which the notion of the female body as object is inextinguishably inscribed. Such photographers range from Surrealists like Man Ray, who in one of his most well-known photographs, from 1924, stylizes the nude back of Kiki de Montparnasse as Le Violon d'Ingres, to Helmut Newton’s photos, in which the models look as cool as mannequins, to the most recent campaign pictures of Yves Saint Laurent, in which spread-eagled women are draped over pieces of furniture. Brandes takes this game to the extreme: her models fly head over heels into crates, turn into wheelbarrows, hang around on garden fences or lounge chairs. Yet precisely because they willingly offer up their bodies as objects, show solidarity with plunder, stuffed animals, or tree trunks, they are rehearsing protests—as anti-bodies that no longer acknowledge hierarchies.