Photography has more to do with uncertainty and insecurity than is often recognized. With a typical flair for provocative overstatement, but getting at something essential about the medium, Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977) that 'People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture-takers, at home and abroad.' The Czech-born photographer Jitka Hanzlová may bear out this theory. She began her career by bridging a considerable gulf imposed between herself and her childhood: in 1990 she returned after years of exile to her native village in eastern Bohemia, where she shot a radiant series of highly controlled yet snapshot-like images entitled 'Rokytník' (19904). She has since documented inhabitants of other areas of the world, notably Essen, Germany, where she now lives, in 'Bewohner' (Inhabitants, 19946) and Europe, North Africa and America in 'Female' (19972000). Recently she has begun photographing more inscrutable subjects trees in a forest.
Like artists such as Thomas Struth or Thomas Ruff, Hanzlová favours straight-on views, ample light with few shadows, and precise detail. Her format, however, is always vertical, even when she is not photographing human subjects, reflecting a long-term engagement with the nature of portraiture. When she does photograph people, they tend to look directly at the camera, but she seems to keep an intentional distance between herself and her subjects they are often cocooned in light, inhabiting a space that seems unreachable. Her portrait projects sometimes recall the work of August Sander, but she does not look for 'archetypes', and there is a greater degree of surprise in her discoveries.
The village photographs define an environment by focusing mainly on individual figures or objects. Children play on the grass or, in one cryptic image, sprawl on a stretch of asphalt as if worn out from doing push-ups. Hunters appear in iconic poses, wearing grey-green clothing that seems of a piece with the terrain and foliage, in images that represent an especially resonant equation between landscape and lifestyle. Other villagers walk down unmade roads toward Hanzlová's camera and into the centre of the frame, as though self-consciously mimicking quaint illustrations. Here the artist often seems to create a hybrid between the family or tourist snapshot and the 19th-century Daguerreotype portrait between a medium that pretends to be offhand about the personal and one that, with its centred, seemingly frozen subjects, frankly acknowledged its emotional value. It is partly the photographs' uncluttered compositions that suggest this balance between lightness and weight, partly the bright, even lighting, which paradoxically creates a feeling of gravity and timelessness. There is sometimes a fairy-tale quality to the images as well, as Hanzlová's choice of subject matter occasionally shades into absurdity: a pig with its throat cut is viewed through a golden haze, for example, or a girl appears to dance on a hillside with a goat.
'Bewohner', consisting mainly of portraits taken around a housing project in Essen, explores a somewhat bleaker urban environment though not so bleak that there isn't room for a shot of a peacock with its lacy tail unfurled, the extravagant filigree blurring into the ribs and panes of a glass structure in the background. Hanzlová often includes such vivid quotidian scenes, which serve almost as thumbnail sketches of the portrait subjects' surroundings. 'Rokytník' documents inanimate objects plastic flowers on a dinette set, laundry hanging in a snowy garden, the slaughtered pig. Similarly, the 'Brixton' photographs (2002) capture, in a manner more severe than in the 'Rokytník' and 'Bewohner' photos, such things as a spiky floral arrangement sharply silhouetted against a sunny window, or drawn, slightly crumpled red and white curtains viewed from outdoors.
The portraits, however, which frame individual bodies and faces with unsettling clarity, remain the most potent distillation of Hanzlová's blend of beauty and taxonomy. In one of many striking images in the 'Bewohner' series an older woman stands with a borzoi in an autumnal forest. She wears a plum-coloured shearling jacket that glows against the golden leaves of the trees in the photograph's luminous background. Although the set-up insinuates that the woman may have been encountered on the road while out walking, her pose is somewhat formal, even old-fashioned, while the palette and the composition suggest careful planning. In fact, the image's overall elegance, its delicate colour and detail, carry a whiff of the perfumed greenery of Thomas Gainsborough's high-society portraits set in the English countryside.
It is worth noting that in viewing this image as well as the other portraits of women, you don't feel even the smallest temptation to pass judgement on the subjects' physical appearance, although the particularity of a woman's features, whether old or young, may make for a beautiful image as in the serene Untitled, Brixton (2002), for example. For these works Hanzlová approaches various women on the street and gets to know them before making their portraits, sometimes using their names in titles, sometimes not. Facial expressions are generally impassive but can telegraph hints about the subject's state of mind. A defiant young woman holds a cellophane-wrapped bouquet like an emblematic flower in a Renaissance painting, but looks back warily at the camera. Clothing styles vary widely and seem to be chosen with great care; in many cases they reflect parts of the environment. The girl's colourful knit hat and clothing in Butterfly, Queens (1999) point to a certain exuberance of spirit, while blue stripes in the hat echo architectural features in the background and an appliquéd butterfly rhymes with her bow-like mouth. Another woman's tied-dyed gauze dress and scarf pick up colours from a shop-front behind her. One choice that is less obvious than it might seem in these works is not to acknowledge conventions found in fashion photography the women are allowed a sense not just of individuality but also of containment.
In the United States Hanzlová's work may be most familiar to many from the 'Another Girl, Another Planet' show, curated in 1999 by Gregory Crewdson and Jeanne Greenberg. Her photographs stood out from this pack of dream-scene purveyors. In fact, her 'Female' series may be viewed as an antidote to the 'Another Girl' syndrome: the uncertain deployment of naked or lingerie-clad bodies, the noir-ish narrative detour, the whole down-the-rabbithole-into-a-swamp morass. The title of the group show was a somewhat risky choice given the selection of images, echoing a string of works in other media in which women are perceived as alien and a source of danger, beginning with the eponymous song by The Only Ones. 'When depicting women I am primarily interested in abstracting their unique emotional state', Hanzlová has said. The clear light that dominates her gravely dignified portraits of women suggests that when she does so her subjects are firmly anchored to this earth.
First published in Issue 73