For more than 40 years, Hans-Peter Feldmann has collected photographs to create his own personal archive
Hans-Peter Feldmann gave up painting in 1968, explaining that photographs were sufficient to convey his artistic concept. He had taken up photography at age 12; it later became his preferred medium ‘because it’s so easy’, he said. Since the 1970s, the artist has been collecting, archiving and arranging pictures: both the photographs that he takes himself and the ones that he finds in photo albums, newspapers and magazines. This ever-growing stock of images – with both amateur and professional material, private and public – comprises a diverse repertoire of familiar and everyday motifs.
Essentially, Feldmann is a collector, and even his first group of works, the ‘Bilderhefte’ (Picture Books, 1968–74), involved gathering and arranging pictures. The Bilderhefte are small, staple-bound booklets in various formats with grey cardboard covers, rubber-stamped with a title indicating the number of pictures they contain (for example, 3 Bilder or 5 Bilder). Printed in black and white on offset paper, without comment, the picture books bring together everyday phenomena such as aeroplanes, mountain panoramas, animals, female knees or film stars. For many of the series, Feldmann began with countless photographs before narrowing down his selection for the booklet. With the eye of a sharp observer, he pays equal attention to the pictures themselves and to the reality they depict, as if he were hoping to explore the underlying grammar between the two. In Feldmann’s view, pictures need no descriptions or additional information, and his own work consistently goes without captions, as these pages demonstrate: what you see is what you get. This approach is nowhere more apparent than in Feldmann’s long-held wish to completely strip a major daily newspaper of text. Finally, in 2000, the Vienna weekly magazine Profil accepted his proposal and printed an entire issue without words for its 7 February edition. The pictures alone speak, without hierarchy and without intent. In the issue, all of the pictures selected by the editors appear without captions and articles. The cover features an image of Jörg Haider and Wolfgang Schüssel ratifying their coalition agreement, but Feldmann took away the headline ‘Die Schande Europas’ (Europe’s Shame).
In other works, Feldmann is less overtly political and places more emphasis on the tension generated by seriality. As with film editing, his combinations of two or more pictures lead to a new picture which lies behind what is actually shown in the specific individual images, and to a story generated in the viewer’s head based on personal memories and experiences. Porträt (Portrait, 1994), for example, is a selection of pictures from a woman’s photo album which were taken over the course of half a century (1943–94). While documenting the personal history of her life, the piece also bears witness to a phase of historical change, from post-WWII hardship to West Germany’s flourishing ‘economic miracle’. In these ‘snapshots’, the private mixes with collective memories of German history, as reflected not only in clothing, cars and other status symbols but also in changing behaviour, as in the increased permissiveness and openness seen in private snapshots, from the 1970s onwards. With their formulaic quality (first day at school, poses with a boyfriend, on the beach, in front of foreign tourist attractions), the photographs always represent stereotypical motifs of their respective period and correspond to clichés current within society.
Alle Kleider einer Frau (All Clothes of a Woman, 1974) is another serial work that can also be read as a historical document. The 72 black and white photographs show items of clothing shot in isolation, creating a matter-of-fact inventory of a wardrobe while conveying a distinctly melancholy feeling, since the actual protagonist of the piece – the woman – is absent. The title doesn’t tell us for sure whether we are dealing with one woman’s entire wardrobe or just with some women’s clothes. Rather than functioning as proof of a claim, the pictures can be interpreted in various ways, and the few words provided by the title are chosen in such a way as to further underline this openness. ‘Feldmann frees his art from any referential position. It determines itself, its ability to be experienced. Found (trivial) materials merge into the artwork; the artwork merges into its own constitution; it becomes a reality, like any other.’1
From the outset, a photograph’s technical value was never important to Feldmann’s oeuvre. He is interested, not in the object, but in its content, in the impressions and feelings associated with the pictures. And when he turned his back on the art world in 1980, one reason was that he felt misunderstood. ‘People only talked about the form of my pictures, never the content. But I was interested in the pictures. The impoverished form just resulted from my living circumstances at the time. didn’t have the money to do it any other way.’ In the following years, Feldmann, who now describes himself as a ‘pensioner’ and no longer as a ‘shopkeeper’ as he did for years, produced toys and ran a shop in Dusseldorf’s old town, selling gifts, souvenirs and antiques. During this period, he simply pursued his work in a different context, thus preserving his independence. To him at the time, the break didn’t feel as drastic as it is now perceived to have been. ‘Back then, my art was one sideline among many.’
Even at the time of their appearance, his unsigned and unlimited editions of booklets were at odds with a market geared towards scarcity. Feldmann still doesn’t sign his works, deliberately making editions and countless copies. Ownership of pictures is not something he’s keen on; in his democratic understanding of art, they are common property. ‘If I bought a Van Gogh, it wouldn’t be mine. It belongs to everyone. It’s like you buying a piano and playing Beethoven on it. The canvas and the paint aren’t important. What counts is the memory. What we project onto a work is what lasts.’
What he means becomes especially clear in the installation Schattenspiel (Shadow Play, 2002–ongoing). Toy figures and all manner of bric-a-brac are arranged on several small carousels, each placed in front of a lamp, which casts ever-changing combinations of shadows onto the wall. The way that the play of shadows reveals the conditions of its own production offers a fitting image of Feldmann’s artistic praxis as a whole: forever creating new pictures by means of new arrangements and constellations, and forever opening new windows onto the world. Feldmann’s works – the shadow play just as much as the early ‘Bilderhefte’ – reveal a space for projections. Words, on the other hand, says Feldmann, ‘merely prescribe thought’.
Feldmann’s works fascinate not only due to their aesthetic and conceptual simplicity but also because of the special, non-simplifying gaze he directs at seemingly banal things and at his surroundings in general. In an unpublished interview conducted by Avalanche magazine in 1972, Feldmann answered the editor’s questions using pictures only. The enormous eyes of a woman on an advertising poster and the people walking past them were Feldmann’s reply when he was asked to name the most important aspect of his work. Looking, observing or scanning might be adequate linguistic equivalents. But Feldmann is not a fan of words. He is a euphoric lover of pictures.
Of course, today, every Facebook user can put personal pictures online; deeply private photo albums are just a few clicks away; a search engine like Google immediately offers up countless pictures ordered by theme. What was always a conceptual decision in Feldmann’s oeuvre has long since become a technique firmly anchored in cultural consensus. The work he has been painstakingly carrying out by hand since the late 1960s can be performed by the Internet in a matter of seconds. But in Feldmann’s eyes, the images churned up by search engines are not the right ones: ‘I don’t like them. They’re promotional images, a powerful world of photographs that I can’t stomach. Paper is my world.’ His combinations of pictures are carefully considered; nothing is left to chance, since each selection is based on his personal choices. He filters images in ways a search engine never could (and never would). The machines search functionally, according to economic criteria. And searches depend on the verbalization of the image: images are found by typing in words first. Ultimately, an online image search functions like an index of keywords at the end of a book. Although it is now possible to drag-and-drop an existing image into the search field where words are usually entered, so far the results are based mainly on similarities of form and colour, producing little meaning in terms of content. Such procedures do not match Feldmann’s method because he only knows what he’s been looking for, once he’s found it: ‘The search for the one picture is what drives me, without knowing what’s in that picture. Pictures happen to you, and I’m open to being found.’
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
1 Werner Lippert, Hans-Peter Feldmann. Das Museum im Kopf, Walther König, Cologne, 1989, p. 59
Elodie Evers is a curator at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, where she has curated exhibitions with Chris Martin, Matt Connors, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Joao Maria Gusmao and Pedro Paiva, Kirsten Pieroth, Henrik Olesen and Katja Eydel, among others. Evers has written numerous catalogue essays and is an editor of the interview magazine mono.kultur.
First published in Issue 3