For Private Life, the Berlin artist Martin Mlecko has compiled a selection of 300 images from a vast number of amateur photographs. By means of creative processing, he has transformed this selection into a gallery of private portraits of everyday life. The artist collected the photographs from friends and acquaintances, through submissions, at house sales and flea markets throughout Germany. The criteria for a photograph to be included in the selection were that it had to show at least two people (or one person and an animal), it had to be in color and no more than 30 years old, and finally, it had to have a vertical format.
But Martin Mlecko hasn’t simply compiled an archive of amateur photographs. He has also condensed this cosmos of images through a series of aesthetic interventions. All images have been digitally manipulated to produce the same out-of-focus quality and harmonized in terms of coloring. In this book, the processed photographs are reproduced in dimensions ranging from full page to passport photo size. They fluctuate between individual uniqueness and anonymous randomness, with the latter being made evident through the sequence and repetition of pictorial themes. The viewer encounters individual people whose stereotypical poses render them interchangeable. The division into individual sections is a deliberate means of demonstrating various possibilities of categorization. These include the number of figures in the image (twos or threes), the emotional content (relationships), or the surroundings (outdoors). These criteria—in part driven by image content, in part by aesthetics—open our eyes to a variety of potential ways in which to look at these photographs.
The artist has made a selection of photos from Private Life to create a traveling exhibition, in which all images have uniform formats and are mounted as individual pictures or, in the manner of a baroque picture gallery, crowded into rows. Another series has been made in close collaboration between the artist and the architects Harald Klein and Bert Haller for the new Dorint Hotel building on Hamburg’s Alter Wall. Each room features a photograph like a memento in a specially designed niche above the bed. While the hallways feature rows of large format prints (120 ∑ 80 cm), guests will find just one of the intimately small images in their rooms (28.5 ∑ 20.8 cm). The encounter with a photographic document of a stranger’s private life serves not only to enhance the inevitable anonymity of this location, but also to create a counterpart. It inspires fond memories of similar photographs from one’s own life, awakening feelings of familiarity, of privacy.
Even after being processed by the artist the photographs remain private images. However, enlargement and uniformity have rendered them legible in a documentary and aesthetic fashion. Private photographs—snapshots of a birthday party or a vacation pictures—are inseparably linked to the desire to remember, the need to capture moments that are valuable to the individual. The private photograph doesn’t capture universal, historic moments. Its meaning can only be understood from the perspective of its immediate context; in some instances it is only understandable to the photographer himself. The stranger looking at the photograph may be able to decipher the occasion, e.g. a wedding, but the original, individual significance has been lost.
At this point, the true impact of Private Life begins to unfold. The viewer doesn’t interpret them through their historic sources, but as a mirror of his or her own existence. We all have similar pictures at home, and thus these images are representative narratives of our own lives. The photographs in Private Life are no more than thirty years old, thus documenting a contemporary photographic reality of private lives. Everyone in these images could still be alive, some could even be known to us.
Roland Barthes described the phenomenon of being reflected-back-onto-oneself when looking at commonplace, everyday images and the conflicting feelings that come with it, as a process in which the viewer is the medium that animates, or breathes life into the image, which encompasses what has gone, the past of the moment. This process of becoming conscious of one’s own transitoriness may trigger reactions that range from melancholy to fear of death. (see: Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography; transl. Richard Howard, 1982).
The Subconsciousness of Pictorial Thought
How does one read private images of strangers? The viewer instinctively establishes a date. The zeitgeist is, however, not only reflected in changing fashions, but also in the ever-decreasing self-consciousness of the subject vis-à-vis the camera. Awkward posing in frozen attitudes has been replaced by the attempt to show moments in a natural and dynamic manner.
Yet despite these changes, the composition continues to follow stereotypical patterns. Content is far more important than formal quality to the person taking the snapshot, and it is precisely this preference that places him, subconsciously, under the influence of predetermined conventions for the production of images. The snapshot reveals the subconscious of pictorial thought. In his mnemonic atlas, art historian Aby Warburg demonstrated as early as at the turn of the last century that the sources for these conventions can be traced back to antiquity and that they continue to impact upon our contemporary world of images across the ages. The atlas presents a series of photographs that records traditions of representation and of visual perception in art and in everyday images, transcending historical and cultural boundaries. In a genre like the portrait, this tradition is still very much alive. But the fact that even a photograph of a dancing couple can fit smoothly into a tradition that has developed from image conventions of the Renaissance with origins in representations of Dionysian feats in antiquity, demonstrates the deep roots of these types of images and the meanings we associate with them. For just as in antiquity, this mode of representation still signifies exuberance, an effusive, even excessive joy in celebration and irrationality. It is impossible to ascertain now whether the photographer actually interpreted the situation in this manner at the moment of taking the picture or whether he associated completely different sentiments with it. Looking at the picture now, the viewer reads the image in this sense, in accordance with acquired conventions. The amateur photographer will resort to subconscious patterns in choosing the image frame precisely because he isn’t ‘composing’ the photograph in a conscious or deliberate manner. This explains the similarities in image composition, so frequent in amateur photographs from wedding pictures to family celebrations, which make them appear monotonous at first glance. The absence of creative pictorial composition means that the viewer sees only the content in the photograph, as the aesthetic quality is rendered invisible by virtue of its conventionality.
Snapshots claim to document situations at their most natural, especially in terms of their emotional content. This applies equally to contemporary photo artists such as Nan Golding or Wolfgang Tillmans. Like amateur snapshot enthusiasts, they photograph their immediate social environment more than anything else. The amateurish composition communicates an essential message to the viewer: “Read this picture as an unfiltered document of a life lived, of an important emotional situation, that seemed important enough to the photographer to be captured. Assume that the photographer has a close connection to the person you see in the photograph, otherwise he wouldn’t have taken the picture.” The viewer has a sense of being a participant in a completely private, important moment, even though he cannot fully reconstruct it. Nan Golding’s series allow for an even greater degree of proximity. The viewer gets to know the subjects of the photographs like good friends, witnessing a story, perhaps even death.
In Martin Mlecko’s work, based mostly on anonymous photographic material from a variety of sources, the subjects in the photographs remain strangers. They reveal almost nothing of their own stories, and, in doing so, seem to tell Everyman’s story. Martin Mlecko’s color images evoke a melancholic mood, the source of which lies in the contemporaneity of the images and the viewer. This is not a documentation of a past, historic world, but of one’s own childhood and youth—our own families are mirrored in Private Life. Attention and appreciation are not so much focused on “the other,” than on our own trivial existence, somehow elevated through the medium of this work of art. Mlecko succeeds in obscuring the boundary between “art photo” and “private photo” to such a degree that the artistic distance is again and again forced open by the impact of the reality of these images on the viewer.
With this work, Mlecko pushes one basic ambivalence of photography to its extreme—namely to capture the past in a manner that transforms it into something that is present. As soon as we look at these images we are seized by a melancholy that arises from our recognition of the difference between the illusion of the photographs and reality. The hallucinatory quality of pictorial memory, the lack of focus and blurring, the discrepancy between the documentary quality of the photograph and the image in one’s own head, are evoked with all their irreconcilable tensions in Mlecko’s pictures.