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Mia Unverzagt’s Not So Innocent Images


With I Know What Boys Like, Mia Unverzagt continues explorations begun in earlier work while also breaking new ground. As in other projects, such as Darüber Reden Wir Noch (We’ll Have to Talk About That, 2008) she derives her images from a process in which her photographic subjects become performers whose actions are loosely scripted. In this case, Unverzagt invited her subjects to choose from a selection of hats and scarves and to respond to interview questions from which the captions in the photographs come. The subjects thus had a degree of control over both their appearance and the words associated with them, though it was ultimately Unverzagt who staged them by choosing which words to use and selecting other images, drawn from German advertisements and guides to lifestyle and décor from the 1970s, to juxtapose with them in triptychs. Since Unverzagt was working with the actresses appearing in Anna Gaskell’s film Telling Stories (2015), she views this process as having a relationship to the “extra features” on DVDs of movies, the behind-the-scenes and “making of” interviews and featurettes. She sees such materials as hovering on the border between public and private in the sense that we are offered what are supposedly private, off-stage looks at people who otherwise perform for the public. Of course, these scenes are just as staged as the film itself, creating only the effect of intimacy. Lifestyle advertisements also straddle this borderline in that they stage home settings, offering them as publicly available models for how one’s private existence should look. Unverzagt’s interest in the porous border between public and private was also evident in Darüber Reden Wir Noch, a series of photographs of people talking about emotionally charged topics that hinted at but never constituted public disclosure since Unverazagt revealed only the topics of discussion but not what was said. I Know What Boys Like is significantly different from Unverzagt’s earlier projects in that she employs text in the form of the quotations from her subjects that she uses as captions. In his famous 1964 essay “The Rhetoric of the Image,” Roland Barthes describes a common relationship between the verbal text of a caption and the visual image of a photograph by saying that the text “anchors” the image—that is, it limits the possible interpretations of the image, whose meanings would otherwise proliferate uncontrollably. This happens to a degree in Unverzagt’s use of text. The images, taken by themselves, could be read in a variety of ways, especially since Unverzagt’s use of highly saturated color and analog photography visually unify the new pictures she has taken of her subjects with the images borrowed from 1970s lifestyle advertisements (see, for example the Winnie Triptych, in which bright reds and yellows draw all three images together). The captions, however, delve beneath the slick surfaces of the advertisements to imply social situations and thus direct our attention to the human relationships that both define and are defined by the environments in which they take place. The captions imply a variety of such relationships, including those between men and women (Sofie: “And he really just thought the story was funny, and I didn’t think it was funny at all”) and the interactions between Unverzagt and her subjects (Anke: “So I can tell you whatever I want, and then in the end you’ll make your choice regardless?!”). This anchorage only goes so far, however. Because the texts are fragmentary and abstracted from both their original interview context and their reference to the actresses’ experience of working on Gaskell’s film, they are only suggestive and do not ultimately point toward a single connotation. This is also evident in the relationship of the title of the series, taken from a somewhat successful New Wave song of the early 1980s, to the images. This borrowed title inevitably draws attention to the fact that all of the people photographed are women, but what is the connotation? Do they know or care what boys like? The protagonist of the song claims that her understanding of men gives her the ability to manipulate them cynically. What are we to make of this attitude in relation to the women in the photographs, who seem to have much more complex and less masterful takes on their interactions with others? (Johanna: “The story made me so uncomfortable, it really made me cringe.”) In each triptych, a lifestyle image of a domestic interior occupies center stage and an image of the backdrop depicting a curtain design against which each woman is seen appears either to the left or the right. (There are two exceptions: Evy and Johanna each appear in two images that flank the central image; the curtains are also more or less prominent, as backdrops depending on the specific photograph.) This compositional strategy places the women conspicuously outside of the perfectly designed worlds suggested by the other images and positions them as potential commentators on those worlds. This effect is enhanced by the fact that the women seem to speak of the unavoidable tensions among people that are effaced in the placid images of domestic life, only some of which even include the people who live in their spaces. The reappearances of a bright red chair, the metal frame that holds the photographic backdrop, elements of costume, and particular props across multiple photographs serve as continual reminders that whereas the lifestyle images present themselves as “innocent,” the term Barthes uses to describe the way photographs may be taken as objective depictions of reality, Unverzagt’s are overtly staged and constructed, their artifice exposed. Barthes was concerned that the seeming innocence of photography, the implied message that “this is how it was,” makes what is depicted seem natural and, thus, rhetorically powerful. Unverzagt challenges this photographic rhetoric by selecting lifestyle images from the 1970s, a time close enough to our own to be familiar, yet long enough ago that the images seem somewhat alien and unnatural in their depiction of what our lives are supposed to look like. The juxtaposition of these images with those of the actresses, which are visually continuous with the lifestyle images yet also set apart by virtue of their positions in the triptychs, their acknowledged stagedness, and the fact that the women speak (as opposed to the mute or absent subjects of the lifestyle images), makes it clear that whatever photography is, it is not innocent.

Reference Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image.” Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press, 1997. 32-51.