In photographing their friend Nigel over a period of more than 10 years, Shimon & Lindemann have traced the trajectory of his personality over time. These four portraits capture the image of a disaffected young rebel as he transforms into the uneasy guise of “boyfriend,” and then hardens into an enigmatic mask that is both vaguely threatening and vulnerable. In another picture, Nigel’s punk persona is perched amidst the residue of his anarchic lifestyle, which suggests a virtual vortex of entropy. The cumulative effect is a poignant reminder of how essential personal identity is to how we function in everyday life.
Dressing up as someone else is one of the most enduring pleasures of life. We do it regularly as children as a form of play, and when the occasion calls for it as adults. Because throughout its history photography has been regarded as the medium most able to depict reality and truth, its capacity for artistic invention and fantastical expression might be easily overlooked. However, in the nineteenth century, artists such as Julia Margaret Cameron persuaded friends, relatives, and household help to don costumes and enact episodes from literary sources. In this photograph May Prinsep, Cameron’s niece, portrays Beatrice Cenci, a legendary sixteenth-century noblewoman whose tragic life and bloody death appealed to the macabre yet moralistic sensibilities of Victorian England. Shimon & Lindemann’s portrait of RJ as a superhero of his own invention—Glade Boy, teenage huffer extraordinaire—may not possess the melodramatic intensity of Cameron’s Beatrice, but its ability to materialize fantasy is equally acute and characteristic of its age.
By printing images such as that of Theresia in the labor-intensive, complex platinum process, Shimon & Lindemann both link their work to the history of photography—in this case, they recall a favored technique of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Pictorialist photographers like Joseph Keiley—and suggest the unique significance of their everyday subjects. The care and attention they devote to average people in mundane circumstances are not universally appreciated, however. In their essay for the catalogue Unmasked & Anonymous, they write of how their choice of subjects may be deemed “unworthy” for platinum printing: “A New York gallerist specializing in platinum prints admonished us for our irreverence to the process when we showed him Theresia in Her Resale Shop. He hastily referred us to the calla lilies of Imogen Cunningham, thus reinforcing the general belief that historic technologies need to be revived seamlessly with the past.”
Though photographic technology has long surpassed the need for minutes-long exposures, which necessitated the stiff postures and deadpan faces characteristic of nineteenth-century portraiture, it is not unusual to see such starched demeanor in contemporary portraits. Caitlin with Rose Dress has a lot in common with this ambrotype of a woman holding a red flower, from the seated pose to the disposition of the arms and gravely serious expression. Have we internalized the conventions of vernacular photographic portraiture to such a degree that we perform them unconsciously? Or do we assume such historical poses believing they invest our image with a stature worthy of respect?
Despite photography’s inherently meticulous rendering of detail, the medium still confounds attempts to move beyond the visible surface of the picture. The mug shot above is annotated with myriad information about the man it depicts, yet the viewer knows virtually nothing about the person—not even the crime he was alleged to commit. Similarly, Walker Evans’s iconic portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs conveys the stark poverty and airless desperation endured by tenant farmers in Depression-era America, but we know virtually nothing about Mrs. Burrough’s personality (for that, we must consult James Agee’s prose in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). Thus, instead of portraits of personalities, these photographs give us likenesses of a “criminal” and an era. Nevertheless, the temptation to speculate about this tailor’s wrongdoing or this woman’s unquenchable perseverance is all but irresistible, suggesting that photography is mysteriously though inextricably linked to the innate curiosity embedded in human nature.
Early in their career, Shimon & Lindemann sought out Milwaukee-area photographers, hoping to glean wisdom from their older colleagues’ experience. One of their mentors was Walter Sheffer, a well-known portrait photographer and Layton Art School teacher whose most famous student was Larry Clark. They recall: “He told us about the ‘Darlot Society,’ a group of local photographers whose work explored the soft-focus effects achieved by using single elements of antique Darlot lenses. He urged us to ‘print down’ to obtain the most melodramatic black. Seldom was a print dark enough to satisfy Sheffer’s eye.” The artists identify the deep shadows and dramatic lighting typical of Clark’s photographs in his landmark 1971 series “Tulsa” as deeply indebted to Sheffer’s tutelage. Their own fondness and facility for evincing myriad subtleties from the inkiest parts of their negatives might be linked to Sheffer as well.
In recent years, Shimon & Lindemann have begun printing their 8 x 10 color transparencies using digital technology. This shift to a new medium, however, does not indicate an aversion to their previous techniques; instead, it is an expansion of their perennial interest in what is around them. Like folk artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, whose nude portraits of his wife, Marie, were made in makeshift studios around the couple’s West Allis home, the artists maximize the creative possibilities of what is close at hand—familiar people, domestic environments, the latest technology. By focusing attention on non-famous people and extracting beauty from the humble detritus of dirty kitchen floors, the artists redefine seeing as a deliberate, creative act.
In the mid-1920s, German photographer August Sander conceived the idea of constructing a portrait of German society. It was to be called “People of the Twentieth Century” and would comprise pictures he had already made, as well as new images, divided into seven categories: the Farmer, the Skilled Tradesman, the Woman, Classes and Professions, the Artist, the City, and the Last People. Although today such a typology by occupation may seem distorted and limiting, this type of characterization of personality is not unusual. How often, upon meeting someone new and learning his or her name, do you ask, “What do you do?” For Sander the cornerstone of modern civilization was the farmer; accordingly, the prototype portfolio and most elaborate section of his work consisted of farming men, women, and children. Shimon & Lindemann also recognize the centrality of farming to their native habitat and have produced numerous portraits of people engaged in agriculture. But in their case the society is rural Wisconsin in the early twenty-first century, not interwar Germany, and although their farmers may define themselves by the work they do, the lifestyle of the family farmer is becoming increasingly threatened by globalization—much as the livelihood of Sander’s carnival worker was threatened by the overwhelming force of modern mass entertainment in the early twentieth century.
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