© Bettina von Zwehl

Untitled, from Alina, 2003

Bettina von Zwehl

The Photographers' Gallery presents a compelling yet unnerving new series of work by the emerging international photographer Bettina von Zwehl. The series, titled "Alina 2004", comprises twelve portraits of young women who are removed of all personal detail and shown against a uniform monochrome background. This powerful body of new work continues von Zwehl's interest in pushing the boundaries of contemporary portrait photography by attempting to explore a space that hovers between the subject's private world and their public appearance.

In the series each of the women are similarly dressed and posed with their gazes lowered, seemingly photographed at contemplative moments, the nature of their meditations is at first unclear. This, combined with the pared down aesthetic of these portrayals, offers little clues to the circumstances in which the women are shown. Bettina von Zwehl's subtle and disquieting photographic portraits are the result of her orchestrating a climate in which her subjects are unable to fully control the manner of their representation or act out conventional behavior that is often adopted when being photographed.

To create "Alina", von Zwehl positioned herself in a darkened room with each of her subjects as they sat at a table and listened to a specific piece of music. While the women were absorbed in listening to the playing music, von Zwehl would unexpectedly activate flash lighting to catch her sitters at a moment before they were fully taken out of their contemplative states. The music von Zwehl chose was a ten-minute piece of music by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (born 1935) entitled "Für Alina" (1976). This was written as a gift for a young Estonian woman living alone in London.

The selection of sitters and the decision to use a piece of music to influence emotions evolved from a period of time, in 2004, the artist spent at the Royal College of Music in London. von Zwehl worked closely with a music psychologist, whose role included helping students deal with pre-performance nerves through self-hypnosis and meditation. These techniques triggered psychic states in the musicians that enabled them to focus on the music and their impending participation in its making.

Von Zwehl wished to represent this psychic process and approximately half of the women that she cast for "Alina" are professional musicians. However, von Zwehl also realised the connections between the techniques to dispel performance nerves and the transformative and hypnotic state that can be reached by listening to music. It is intentionally unclear in "Alina", which women are musicians and those who are simply responding to the music that they hear.

Bettina von Zwehl's photography over the last seven years has consisted entirely of portraits that revolve around the issue of how to move beyond the self-determined posturing we make for a camera and into more subtle and interesting territory. She began this exploration by photographing children before their pre-possession in front of a camera had been fully set. In her projects with adult sitters, von Zwehl creates conditions that, like with "Alina", dislodge learnt behavior such as photographing her subjects as they wake from deep sleep, hold their breath, and recover from physical excursion. In all of her projects, von Zwehl avoids distracting or unnecessary detail, her photographs are less about deciphering the context and narrative of her subjects but the psychological state that connects them.

Bettina von Zwehl was born in Munich, 1971 and received an MA from the Royal College of Art in 1999. Her work has been in solo shows in a number of galleries around Europe and in several group shows in Europe and the US. In 2003 she participated in the exhibition "Reality Check: Recent Developments in British Photography and Video" that was jointly organized by the British Council and The Photographers' Gallery, London. She has had recent solo exhibitions at Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Galeria Laura Pecci, Milan both in 2002. In addition, her works have been included in museum exhibitions such as "Chelsea Rising", the Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans, 2001, and "Breathless! Photography and Time", the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2000. She currently lives in London and is working on a new book surveying her work published by Photoworks and Steidl in Autumn 2005 as part of the Photoworks Monograph series.

This timely exhibition reflects The Photographers' Gallery continuing commitment to present new work by promising emerging photographers.

The exhibition is curated by Camilla Jackson, Programme Organiser at The Photographers' Gallery.

Exhibition: 9 December, 2004 - 9 January, 2005
Gallery hours: Mon-Sat 11 am - 6 pm, Sun noon - 6 pm

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