String Theories: Annegret Soltau's Transitional, Fetishistic Photocollages

Afterimage, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

String Theories: Annegret Soltau's Transitional, Fetishistic Photocollages


Throughout four decades of experimentation with photography, the German artist Annegret Soltau has defied the typical experience of a photograph--as an individual, pure, paper rectangle with an illusionistic window. Her early endeavors were invigorated through gridded repetitions of prints and her mature work is energized by what appears at first as the violent tearing and monstrous suturing of mismatched and fragmented bodies presented in photographic collages. However, these difficult images are more accurately viewed as fetishes that mitigate an early traumatic loss in Soltau's life and reassure her familial connections.

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Written contemporaneously with Soltau's creation of her first stitched pieces in the early 1980s, Christian Metz's "Photography and Fetish" (1) presents important insights for understanding why conventional photography is laden with thanatos. This essay is called upon to offer insight into Soltau's fetishistic reassertion of time, tactility, and the fullness of space into the photographic medium. Certainly, Sigmund Freud's notion of the fetish comes into play in Metz's argument, and in this essay's rhetoric. In addition, I will discuss D.W. Winnicott's "transitional objects" as fetishes in their own right and especially as his concept applies to the stitched strings that permeate Soltau's photographic output.

In his numerous comparisons between cinema and photography, Metz calls the photograph "a silent rectangle of paper." (2) While this reading is both socialized and pervasive, the history of photography shows significant counterexamples including very physical daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes, stereographs. Disderi's multi-image cartes, Eadweard Muybridge's sequences, Bauhaus experimentation, and Ray Metzker's mid-1960s work, "Composites." In addition to examples from photographic technology and art, Geoffrey Batchen offers many instances from vernacular photography that counter the "silent rectangle" notion. (3) Indeed, even while Metz was writing his essay in the early 1980s, many contemporaries including the Starn twins, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, and the focus of this text, Soltau, were making photographic amalgams that offered expressive alternatives to the "silent rectangles of paper" encountered both in modernist "straight" photography and quotidian photo lab prints. In freely reinterpreting the photograph, these artists added the "movement and plurality of images" and the temporal that Metz ascribed to cinema. (4)

One of the fundamental differences between photography and cinema is the way each of these media expresses the "in-frame" and "off-frame" dualism. Metz posited that although "the photograph [comprises] the "in-frame" ... the place of presence and fullness," it is inevitably "haunted and undermined by the feeling of its exterior," of its "off-frame"--that void just beyond the image. (5) This notion holds true in the common understanding of the photograph as an illusionistic "silent rectangle." However, many artists use overt formal, sociological, semiotic, and historic strategies to fill the off-frame's emptiness in pieces that attempt to transcend the convention.

The long list of those making experimental applications of photographic images includes luminaries such as Vito Acconci, Eleanor Antin, John Baldessari, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Anna and Bernhard Blume, Christian Boltanski, Gilbert and George, and Duane Michaels. While these artists arguably transcend the single image's frame to create aggregates about identity, community, sociology, narrative, and reflexive critiques of photography itself, most of their works remain "silent rectangles of paper" collected and frequently arranged in grids.

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Countless other practitioners, including occult photographers, Anton Giulio Bragaglia, Harry Callahan, Andre Kertesz, Etienne-Jules Marey, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, and Jerry Uelsmann experimented with multiple exposures and re-photography that (though still framed by the single piece of paper) clearly broke through the convention of the singular illusionistic image. …

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