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 We’ll have to talk about that (later)



 Mia Unverzagt creates portraits of people she doesn’t know as they reveal intimate feelings and stories to her. The results are series of portraits, each series done under the same conditions in the same small shop or container. She asks the people, who dress entirely in clothes of one particular color for each of the series, to allow her to photograph them while they recall, generally in narrative form, a particular emotion.

August Sander, a photographer based in Cologne, took over 600 individual black and white portraits of the “Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts” (“People of the 20th Century”); he began this work in the 1910’s and worked on it until his death in 1964. Between 1925 and 1927 he organized the portraits along professional, social and family lines to create a typological “Antlitz der Zeit” (“Face of the Times”), as he called the resulting 1929 work. Stefan Moses is Sander’s worthy descendent with his sober, illuminative view of Germans whom he photographed, each one in a similar fashion, in front of a tautly stretched piece of felt for his works  “Deutsche – Portraits der sechziger Jahre” (“Germans – Portraits of the 1960’s,” 1980) and “Ende mit Wende” (“Endpoint with Turning Point,” 1990). The list of artists who have portrayed particular groups in artistically pointed and socially revealing ways is long and includes artists ranging from Herlinde Koelbl (starting with her first book, which depicted people in their living rooms) to Reiner Leist (portraits and texts from South Africa) or Thomas Struth (“Family Portraits”). Thomas Struth’s “Family Portraits” series may well be especially important to Mia Unverzagt’s work. The calm head-on gaze and the relative uniformity of the photographic positions invite comparison, as does the fact that the work deals with psychological relationships, with the interwoven roles and positions that make up a family and that become visible in the photos – the family portraits therefore strike the viewer as gripping and even as emotionally charged, in spite of their subjects’ ostensible nonchalance.

In our consideration of Mia Unverzagt’s “We’ll have to talk about that (later)” project, however, a different interpretive approach to the photographic series proves equally fruitful. Historically, photos of people have often been taken for the purpose of studying, and enabling a painter to work from, the facial expressions corresponding to particular emotional states such as pain or joy. In 1862 Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, a physician, published an entire book with portraits of people to whom he had administered electric shocks in order to make visible various reactions and feelings. Darwin also used Duchenne’s “electro-physiology photography” to illustrate his publications. And it bears mentioning that artists like Wols or Kurt Kranz have also been fascinated by the language of gestures and have created self-portrait series based on it; the extensive series made by Berlin artist Dieter Appel during the past three decades contains perhaps the most painful and impressive examples of such images.

Mia Unverzagt’s new work is characterized by this same tension, a tension between, on the one hand, the identical starting conditions for all the people being represented and, on the other hand, the highly emotional topics that lend themselves to comparison with one another. She set up her small, simple studio in four locations; each space was publicly accessible but scarcely recognizable as an art-making site. In each case she offered clothing in one color as a way imbue the work with a sense of uniformity, and she asked the people being portrayed to remember a particular feeling, which then became the occasion for and the subject of the photographs Unverzagt took.


In beige: When in your life have you felt the most powerless? (asked in Dresden, Saarbrücken)

In red: When in your life have you felt the most abandoned or deserted? (New York)

In white: When in your life have you felt the angriest? (Bassum)

In grey: When in your life have you felt the guiltiest or made the biggest mistake? (Munich).


The work is about remembering, about dealing with your own story, about narrating emotions, about hurting. Part of the agreement was that the artist would not report any of the content that she heard – we can only guess and try to read people’s faces. This differentiates Mia Unverzagt’s project from many others that choose to place the texts, reports or confessions next to the pictures and give them equal value. Unverzagt, on the other hand, emphasizes that it is precisely her preservation of each individual’s anonymity and her decision to let the pictures speak for themselves that gave the people the courage to remember such situations and feelings. She was not carrying out a series of scientific experiments, nor was she making “beautiful” portraits; instead, Unverzagt says she wanted “people to leave me with something.”  For this reason the portrait sessions occurred in semi-public spaces in unspectacular locations. The people being portrayed discover the space themselves; they step, curious and shy, into a place that has been newly and temporarily set up where they are then invited to select garments from a collection of clothing of one particular color. We as viewers of the photos thus concentrate entirely on the differences among the faces and on the expressions in each. The reduction of external artifacts produces a great sense of calm.  And we concern ourselves with our thoughts about the questions, for the faces of the people being portrayed speak to us only if we ourselves give answers. Here the portraits of others become our portraits; we can only supply our own stories to take the place of the stories that we are not permitted to hear.

Mia Unverzagt thereby succeeds in creating portrait photos that depict strangers who become close to us by means of our own memories.


Wulf Herzogenrath