Cora Pongracz

This exhibition, organized in collaboration with the Galerie Fotohof in Salzburg, offered the chance to rediscover Cora Pongracz, an artist who, despite her important role in Viennese art circles in the ’70s, had largely vanished from public view in the last few years. Among Pongracz’s most well-known works is a series of photographs in which she portrays the ’70s “art scene”—perhaps the reason her reputation as an artist has been reduced to that of a chronicler. Series like the “Photogeschichte Martha Jungwirth—Franz Ringel” (Photographic history Martha Jungwirth—Franz Ringel), 1972. (which was also published as a book), and “Verwechslungen” (Confusions/Mistaken [Identities]), 1978, document the mood, friendships, love affairs, intellectual relationships, interests, and activities of artists, literati, and critics of that era. But these photos do not merely provide eyewitness to the Viennese Doppel-Kultur, or “double culture” (so named for the omnipresent double-liter bottles of wine). If their first effect is to produce an immediate recognition of the famous (from Hermann Nitsch to Ernst Jandl to Franz West), these “photographic histories” also lay claim to their own artistic territory. And they do important art-historical work, showing that diverse artists’ circles and successive generations of artists were far more closely interconnected than the dominant historical accounts often suggest.

Born in Argentina in 1943, Pongracz worked first as a commercial photographer in Germany and England, taking pictures for travel guides and magazines, before arriving in Vienna at the end of the ’60s. Even in the “Photogeschichte” series, one recognizes features of mass-market reportage: Pongracz shot her art-world protagonists, in private and public moments, much in the style used by the glossies in covering the wild lives of pop stars, paying special attention to poses and masquerades. These images often touch on issues of transgendering, among other things, and are at times strongly reminiscent of Nan Goldin’s work. But where Goldin’s subjects are in some sense “natural,” Pongracz’s are eminently social characters, people who create particular images of themselves in response to their immediate audience.

In her later series, Pongracz leaves a trace of her photographic method. Here, emphasis is on the temporal dimension of her process, which is determined by an ongoing relationship between the model and the photographer. This is perhaps clearest in “Erweiterte Portraits—Frauen in Wien” (Expanded portraits—women in Vienna), 1974. Pongracz had her sitters name photographic motifs that possessed some particular significance for them. She then incorporated these elements into seven-part works that expanded on the actual portraits of the women by hinting at a structure of relationships which forged their respective personalities. The women, in seemingly self-confident poses, appear again and again surrounded by morbid, religious motifs like graveyards and churches, and the totality of images in each of these portraits creates a powerful expression of fragmented subjectivity.

In contrast to the psychological interests Pongracz pursued in those portraits, she seems to reflect on photographic theory itself in the “Verwechslungen” series. Here the notion of photography as an objective record of reality breaks apart entirely. If, for example, in the “Photographic histories” one could not be sure whether the posing was meant for the gaze of the camera or for others, in the “Verwechslungen” the very possibility of candid snapshots is excluded. One thinks of these images as performances, given by those “presented” for the photographic gaze. In this sense, the sitting Ernst Jandl, photographed from all sides as he himself takes photographs in all directions, is paradigmatic of Pongracz’s photographic stagings of subjectivity.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from German by Diana Reese.