Judith Samen

Kunstverein Bochum

The aesthetic of the Düsseldorf school of photography is by now a familiar one: distanced, straightforward shots of people, landscapes, cities, and museum interiors, subjects often photographed with such objective detachment that it can take a considered effort to determine whether the work is by Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, or Candida Höfer. Although Judith Samen grew up in the Ruhrgebiet and studied at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, her photographs manifest a completely different style.

As Samen freely admits, it is not the medium of photography itself that interests her: rather than using her camera as a documentary tool, she uses it to produce carefully staged images. After making elaborate preparatory drawings, she sets up tableaux in her studio and shoots them with her camera, presenting both the sketches and the resulting photographic images in her shows. The tableaux often include figures, who appear either alone or in groups, but always alongside items of food—such as bread, cake, meatballs, and vegetables. Samen gives the foodstuffs the same degree of emphasis as the figures (they recall saints’ attributes in medieval altarpieces), and the figures appear dressed, half-dressed, or completely naked, sitting behind a table, in front of a wall that is either monochrome or covered with patterned ’70s wallpaper. The artist herself is also sometimes featured in the images, extremely pregnant, and either naked or wearing a handmade bra. Her gaze is trained a distant point, and one of her hands rests on the table.

In these works, which suggest still lifes of unusually quiet presence, the items of food take on an almost corporeal quality, while the figures are so physically compelling that the viewer is inclined to take a step back from the image. Like Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth century, Samen presents her subjects not as essences, but, rather, as pure appearances.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from the German by Vivian Heller.