Bettina von Zwehl

Posted on February 24, 2013


I discovered Bettina von Zwehl’s work late in my exploration of ‘Disarming the Pose’, whilst investigating the question of how long exposure times inhibit self conscious posing by the photographic portrait subject.. It is a pity I didn’t ‘discover’ her earlier as much of her photography is highly relevant to my own work.

Bettina von Zwehl Photoworks/Steidl monograph

Bettina von Zwehl Photoworks/Steidl monograph

Von Zwehl has experimented with various means of distraction of the portrait subject. She has photographed subjects who have just been exercising vigorously (my own ‘I am an Ironman’ series echoes this); who have just been woken up from sleep; who have been placed in a darkened room listening to music; and who are simply asked to breath in and to breath out. In her own words she ‘developed strategies and rituals to distract the sitters from posing, none of which are revealed to the viewer immediately.’ (von Zwehl 2007, pp71)

She takes considerable steps to avoid viewers of her portraits from being diverted from her subjects’ facial expressions. She uses plain backgrounds and she asks her subjects to dress in plain clothing (in fact for each series the clothing of all the subjects are the same) and she asks them to remove jewellery, watches and such like. Her approach is clinical and highly scientific. Indeed it seems to reference early uses of photography in criminal and medical research.

I was particularly influenced in my own 45 seconds…. work by  Atemwege (Bettina von Zwehl Website), a series in which she presents diptych’s of her subjects with one portrait of them breathing in and the second of them breathing out. The differences between the two portraits in each case are small but discernable. They are more evident in some diptych’s than others. Indeed, discovering the difference in one pair made me look again more closely at the others. This is just the response that I am hoping to achieve with my own series of diptychs.

von Zwehl’s stated aim  is to explore what “appears and disappears in people’s faces if they let go of their photographic ‘mask'” (von Zwehl 2007, pp. 71). This is also what fascinates me. I have had much debate with fellow students on this blog about my aim of achieving authenticity in my portaits. I am beginning to think that a better way to express my intentions is that I want to explore what remains when the photographic ‘mask’ is removed. In a way I see von Zwehl’s work (and indeed my own) as an antithesis to conventional portraiture with its concentration on posing, acting and reacting to the camera.

She works in series believing that it is only in this way that small differences in responses to the stimuli through facial expression become apparent. This has also become my preferred way of working. For me a series of portraits definitely adds more information and interest than the sum of  the individual portraits. Cross comparison and repetition allow the viewer to gain more from the portraits. Differences are noticed and become significant; elements which are repeated take on greater importance and so on. I think that one of the reasons why I have yet to write up my several visits to the Taylor Wessing Portrait Award exhibition is that I have become less inspired by individual portraits. I will post my thoughts on this exhibition which has now finished soon.

I confess that much of what von Zwehl says strikes a chord with me. She maintains that she is not interested in showing the essence, character or aspects of self with her work. Rather she is curious about ‘examining each sitter as a responsive , physical being – only pointing to their inaccessible inner world’ (von Zwehl 2007, pp 72). The notion that a photographic portrait simply reveals the surface of  the subject and only points to the inner self is also echoed by Richard Avedon who maintained that ‘My photographs don’t go below the surface. They don’t go below anything. They’re readings of the surface. I have a great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues’ (Richard Avedon Foundation Website).

For me, Avedon’s clues simply point to what might have been going on in the mind of the sitter at the time of the photograph (consciously and unconsciously). This may or may not provide insight into the true character of the individual. I have thought a lot about the question of whether a portrait can (or cannot) communicate character. Take for example Karsch’s famous portrait of Winston Churchill, which can be seen here. Many if not most people would say that this portrait sums up Churchill’s character – the dogged British Bulldog Statesman. But of course hardly anyone will have been in a position to judge the man as he really was. This portrait fits with the public image and propaganda surrounding Churchill the statesman. In fact on this occasion, as Karsh’s biography reveals, Churchill was angry at being tricked into having his portrait made. A quick search on Google images will reveal many other portraits of the great man, each of which may offer an ‘alternative’ reading of his character. Which is the real Winston Churchill? Only those who were close to him will really know.

But I divert…returning to Bettina von Zwehl…. Much of her work references Renaissance art. For example, she made profile diptych’s which were modelled on Piero della Francesca’s wedding portrait of Frederico da Montefeltro and his wife, which is also a profile diptych with the wedding couple facing one another, see here.  She has also tended to devote particular series to particular groups of people according to their age. This makes cross comparison more valid as the obvious explanations of differences because of age are eliminated from consideration.

I have said much about what I find interesting about von Zwehl’s work. There is one aspect however which concerns me. At first sight her photographs appear a little dull. They don’t immediately grab the viewer’s attention. I wonder if this is an inevitable consequence of the process she follows. My dilemma is that whilst I agree with many of her guiding principles, I also believe that if photography is to command attention and gain an audience it has to be visually compelling. There is food for thought here….. It is entirely possible of course that were I to see her work in a gallery with large scale prints my response could be completely different. I have only seen small prints on the internet and in her monograph so far. I look forward to visiting an exhibition of her work although I am not aware of any in the UK at the moment.

von Zwehl’s work can be seen on her website.


Bettina von Zwehl Website Available from: [Accessed on 24th February 2013]

Richard Avedon Foundation Website  Available from: [Accessed on: 24th February 2013]

von Zwehl B. (2007) Bettina von Zwehl Gottingen: Photoworks/Steidl