New York

“The Eye Of The Beholder: Seven Contemporary Swiss Photographers”

Writing in The Village Voice at the height of the culture wars in this country, Michael Feingold made a modest proposal that U.S. artists and writers apply en masse for sanctuary in Switzerland. His comment wryly reveals some of the stereotypes Americans reflexively invoke to characterize all things Swiss: cool detachment and political neutrality.

Stereotypes always obscure more than they reveal. Although “Swiss photography” is generally thought to flow from the reportage of earlier masters such as Werner Bischof and Walter Bosshard, the most emotionally expressive and politically direct (nonneutral) photographic work of this or any other period was produced by a Swiss immigrant to New York named Robert Frank.

“The Eye of the Beholder,” organized by the Swiss Federal Office of Culture and the Swiss Institute in New York, managed to complicate stereotypes surrounding Swiss photography and culture. Contrary to the sense of individuality invoked by the title, the seven artists in the show do have certain traits in common. They all share a serial tendency in their practice—returning again to one subject or object over time—and an interiority of focus, avoiding the grand themes of the past in their acknowledgment of the limitations of both their era and photography itself.

Simone Kappeler’s series of photographs of a garden table taken at regular intervals over a year’s time is more elemental (fundamental and essentialist) than conceptual (relying on general ideas derived from a specific instance), yet more subjective than objective. The simple round white tabletop with its splayed legs is deadpan funny at first, and then acquires a lunar intensity as its reflective surface becomes a scrying screen. In contrast to the brightness of Kappeler’s moon table, Hans Danuser’s large square pictures in a grid were as dark as the back of a mirror. Knowing that these images record the effects of erosion on slate in a gully in eastern Switzerland did little to alleviate the monotony of the images. This was not true of Bernard Volta’s miniaturist faux-architectural photographs, where the beholder’s eyes have room to roam in imaginary spaces that are purely photographic.

In Jacques Berthet’s solemn images of the marble quarries of Carrara, Italy, the special relationship between photography and sculpture—one explored by artists from Fox Talbot through Robert Mapplethorpe—was accentuated. Through close attention to shifts in scale and the play of light on surfaces, Berthet transformed the raw material of the quarries into faceted monuments. Thomas Flechtner also sculpts landscapes, but he does so through a form of inscription, projecting charts and maps onto rock faces. His images incorporating sheets of crumpled lead into a seascape approach the clarity of John Pfahl’s situated dialogues between landscape and manmade elements.

But it was in the works of Annelie Štrba and Micaela Garzoni (the only “people pictures” in the show) that the old frames of photographic representation were most effectively broken. Garzoni’s dreamy shots of children are more recoverable in conventional terms as nostalgia, but Strba’s seemingly unplanned (decomposed) images of friends in ordinary settings and situations were as compelling as the best vernacular images. Operating somewhere between Craigie Horsfield’s deep-image excavations and Thomas Struth’s reticent portraits, these images caused the viewer to reconsider the limits and frontiers of photographic subjectivity all over again.

David Levi Strauss