“Kathrin Burmester”, Artillery Magazine Vol. 2 No. 2, Oct. 2007

“Kathrin Burmester”, Artillery Magazine Vol. 2 No. 2, Oct. 2007

In the early 1920’s August Sander set off to photograph an astonishing cross-section of the German people, from farmers to soldiers to all sorts of notable, loveable, and felonious people in-between. His pictures are haunting and empathetic, almost nostalgic, immersed in a dry encyclopedic interest to capture everyone in front of a camera. In his photos each subject faces the camera in a direct, often frontal pose dressed in their professional garb, commonly pantomiming their daily activities. A café waitress holds a teacup; a laboratory assistant pours a mixture into a beaker. His subjects’ professions and consequential social standing are further elucidated by simple and straightforward titles. Master upholsterer, Elementary School Mistresses, Member of Parliament, Unemployed, Hawker, Beggar, Gypsy, Painter’s Wife, Member of the Hitler Youth, are at the same time Sander’s titles and the titles, the professions, of his subjects. His photos encapsulate a country on the edge of both war and a new century, a culture defined by what it does for a living, its relation to production, labor, and industry. Today, in the age of constant surveillance, where public and private, corporate and governmental cameras watch for potential criminals, terrorists, customers, or just out of sheer voyeuristic fascination, we are all photographed, videotaped, and classified in ways that would probably flabbergast Sander. What, if anything would a Sanderesque survey of our contemporary 21st Century “Western world” look like?

One possible example of such an overview comes in Kathrin Burmester’s photographic series, Peoplescapes. The work consists of seventeen 7 x 10” color photographs of slightly blurry, pixilated, anonymous walking figures shot from above. Divorced from their surroundings, isolated against a neutral grey background, they are oblivious to the camera’s gaze. Burmester achieved this effect by subtracting figures from footage she herself shot with a digital video camera.

The grey background in each image unifies the work, and is perhaps a comment on the idea of a “grey zone,” a place of indefinable orientation, a place where people are separated and cut-off from each other. This neutral grey also calls to mind the somewhat antiquated “grey card,” a photographic tool designed to calibrate the “perfect” lighting for photographic shoots. Hung together, the uniformity of the works and the vulnerability of Burmester’s subjects makes for a muted but disturbing experience.

Burmester's Man With Book

Like Sander, Burmester deploys effective titling, opening her works to a politicized discussion of what it means to surreptitiously take pictures, watch others without their knowing. She allows the distance between herself and her subjects to guide her titling. Man with Book, Woman with Red Bag, Woman with Shopping Bag, Woman in Green, Old Man, these people are classified not by what they do, or even who they “are,” in a personalized sense, their identity is dependent upon the limited amount of information that the artist herself can deduce from her position behind the camera. What is most telling in these works is how the subjects are identified in their relation to consumption. Many of Burmester’s subjects carry around their possessions in shopping bags, evidence that they are actively participating in commerce. Today we are not what we do but what we buy.

Sander had a lofty goal: to photograph every type of person he came into contact with, to capture humanity so that we may come to better know and understand our fellow worker, our comrade, or just our coincidental neighbor. Burmester updates this practice, evacuating its idealism for the new millennium. If she mirrors the oppressive eye of the camera it is not because she imbues her work with an alienated pathos, it is because this is the world we live in and it is up to us, not her to change it.
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