Who are you this time
This line from a song by Tom Waits is quoted in an interview with the American photographer Ted Partin which appears in one of the more than 550 entries of the Böhm/Kobayashi Encyclopedia.
No other question could be more fittingly posed to the editors of this publication, as behind Böhm/Kobayashi lurk the duo Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber, who together cover an extensive range of personas: photographers and artists, curators and exhibition organizers, designers and art book editors. Yet as they move through their photographic cosmos, it is not always so easy to determine where one identity ends and the other begins.
Regardless, in their works and activities
as artists and art facilitators they have long since become
moderators of a very specific photographic culture.
Who are you this time? – This question could also be
posed to the protagonists of Sieber’s and Stuke’s works. As
different as their approaches might be, each formulates the
classic question of the photographic portrait:
Who are you as an individual and as a social subject? Or to put it in other words: Which Image of yourself would you like to put forward?
For many years Oliver Sieber has been asking young people to
appear in front of his camera, people whose clothing is associated
with a specific subculture, be it punk, skin, teddy boy,
rockabilly, goth, etc.
Many are extravagantly styled, yet while sometimes the look is an elaborate act, other times an individual figure’s appearance strikes the artist’s interest. Despite the narrow frame and the precision of the photographic depiction, the form of Sieber’s portraits lends the models a certain freedom.
Seemingly lost in their thoughts,
staring into the distance, they exude an autonomy, a presence
within themselves at the moment when the image is made.
This freedom also corresponds to the manner in which Sieber
displays the pictures in the most recent presentation of his
In Imaginary Club the figures are not arranged according to types, instead the photographer combines the images of different color series with black and white shots of street scenes or concerts. In these juxtapositions of different styles and locations he creates an “imaginary club”, a co-existence of diverse styles that define themselves by the way in which they diverge from mainstream society.
The fact that the portraits were created in Europe, the U.S. and Japan indicates how the shadowy apparitions of sub-cultures propagate themselves and are modified in the globalized pop underground. When one day these movements have become extinct , Sieber’s collection of portraits, the form of which evokes associations with the photographs of Native Americans taken in the 19th century, will assume the importance of an urban ethnographic document.
Katja Stuke’s hybrid mixtures of video and photography also
explore specific types and characters, but they represent the
continuation of a different kind of tradition – that of the anonymous
street portrait. For her series Suits she films passersby
in London, Tokyo, Osaka and New York, as they scurry here
and there. She further edits the material in front of her computer
screen, capturing the exact moment on the monitor
when an individual emerges from the masses.
While in 1946 Walker Evans documented the figure of the modern worker on the streets of downtown Detroit in his series Labor Anonymous, Stuke focuses on another professional group – men in suits. Yet this dress code is not exclusively reserved for bankers and businessmen. Sometimes all it takes is a glimpse of the bright red hair of a Japanese adolescent to subversively reinterpret this uniform.
The photographic figures from the street are supplemented by Stuke’s use of such found material as printed film stills of classic movie stars in business attire, as these individuals embody a very different kind of sovereignty from that of the globalized “homo oeconomicus” of our age. An early series by Katja Stuke bears the title CCTV, the term for surveillance cameras in public areas. The artistic analysis of public space in her works is signaled by the clearly visible structure of the television monitor tubes in the largeformat prints as well as by the grid on the color offset prints. These elements become the signatures of public images.
In the exhibition Our House, the works Imaginary Club and Suits are shown on walls in separate rooms, yet they also exist in the form of artist’s books or appear as dialogues on the pages of a magazine, which has contributed in no small way to the international reputation of Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber. The individual issues of their fanzines, which they have been issuing since 1999 in small print runs, bear the titles Frau Böhm, Die Böhm or simply Böhm.
Under the cover of this pseudonym
Sieber and Stuke have developed their own publishing platform,
an experimental forum for their work on the printed
page, where their new series reference one another and explore
narrative forms based entirely on images.
The artists have long since turned this label (now supplemented
with the Japanese name “Kobayashi”, which is as
common as the German name “Böhm”) into a stage for the
duo’s diverse activities, such as the Böhm Handelszentrum
(Böhm TradeCenter), a virtual, online exhibition space.
For two years, under the provocative title of Antifoto the two have been presenting – at the moment in the real space of the Kunstraum in Düsseldorf – aspects of a photographic technique that is characterized by a unique, media-reflected stance.
Who are you this time? Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber have become international traveling salesmen in the field of photography, who feel more at home on the road than they do in their atelier in Düsseldorf. Like no other German artists of their generation, they have portrayed the everyday culture of Japan in their works or turned the mythic locations of film into a subject of photography. With their works – which illustrate to what a tremendous extent the “poor media” of popular culture shape our imaginations – they have turned the Museum für Photographie into “their house”, as the exhibition’s title indicates. Not least of all, they reveal the many faces and the ever migrating image forms and pre-sentation methods of photography as a medium. Florian Ebner