Jitka Hanslová

JITKA HANZLOVÅ was born in what was then Czechoslovakia and emigrated to Germany, where she studied photography. While still a student in Essen, she began to travel regularly to Rokytník, the northern Bohemian village where she grew up, photographing old friends and acquaintances and producing a series that she named after the village, 1990–94. Next, Hanzlová devoted herself to the place where she was now living: a housing project in Essen that was built for working-class families in this industrial area. Hanzlová walked around the place with her camera and photographed her neighbor. These pictures became part of a larger series on urban life, “Bewohner'' (Inhabitants), 1994–96. Hanzlová also frequently stays in Belgium, in a town called Vielsalm, which lends its name to a series from 1999. All three series were on view here, as well as her most recent, ”Female," comprising fifty-three individual portraits, 1997–2000.

Amid the flood of photographs produced in Germany by former students of the Bechers, Hanzlová's photograph are an exception. But what make them so different? In most of her photographs one sees people—usually, an individual facing the camera. In “Rokytnik” and “Vielsalm” the person appears against the background of the landscape. In “Inhabitants,” the tenants pose, shabby, amid a wasteland of bleak modern architecture. Often the people who caught the photographer's attention were women or girls. In “Female” they are the sole subject, photographed in European and North American streets, in squares, in gardens, or in front of green landscapes. In these shots the background always dissolves out of focus, and the woman detaches from it in sharp contours. This effect was already observable in incipient form in the earlier series. The woman forms no unity with her surroundings; she steps forth, into relief against her environment. This lends her a nearly provocative singularity in a world increasingly divided up into sociological categories. In Hanzlová's photographs, each person is an individual and not a representative of a social group, a profession, or a nation, as in the photograph of August Sander, patron aim of the Becher school.

Of these women, we learn at most their first name, nothing else—no profession, no age, nor whether they live in the place where they were photographed. The photographer herself doesn't know. These are random encounters. They happen quickly, spontaneously. Some of the women may still be hesitant; in some cases there are signs of distinct resistance, even aversion. There is no self-staging such as we are acquainted with from the mass media. On the contrary: They exhibit a feeling one would hardly think exists anymore today or which, if it does arise, is brushed off as ridiculous. They show the shame that prevents people from letting themselves get into situations that might rob them of their dignity. (It is an old idea that a camera aimed at human beings can, by raking their image, be a weapon aimed at their soul.) Is the unrestrained imaging of human bodies really as benign as we are often led to think?

Bodies? Yes, bodies, for what is imaged in the mass media is the body—its surface, its materiality—nor necessarily the person. The Becher school treats the body in the same fashion. Hanzlová's camera also captures the surfaces, bur it doesn't stay there. It lead our gaze into a depth that seems endless. It penetrates a universe that's called the human being and that, despite its frailty and shortcomings, possesses a surprising nobility. Preserving this dignity, however, requires that a respectful distance be kept. Hanzlová's photographs safeguard such a distance and raise the question anew: How does the image taken of a person relate to the singularity of that person?

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Diana Reese.