The Surface of Things
Annette Kelm on copying, citing, and uncovering histories below the surface of images
This visual essay is part of a series highlighting the commissions and conversations generated by The Lives of Documents—Photography as Project exhibition. Curators Stefano Graziani and Bas Princen asked Annette Kelm about her practice of photographing samples of industrial production, from textiles to pre-fabricated buildings. Some of her works are reproduced here alongside their source objects, and her reflections on copying and reproduction as a mode of historical investigation.
I often think about writing and rewriting history, questioning history. Documents, including buildings and pictures of buildings, are essential to this process. We should ask who took a picture and from what perspective, who commissioned the picture, and why?
I like buildings with a special place in history, ones linked to another era. My photographs often function as a reference. Of course, sometimes this reference is the depicted subject matter, but sometimes the image references more poetic ideas or captured moments. An image of a building is more than just an image of the structure. It’s political, in a way, because it shows our environment and the way we see and design a city or landscape. I often photograph objects that feature architectural elements, and I photograph them to document their various angles and diverse states.
For my series Big Prints, I went to the archive of Schumacher and Co. in Newark, Delaware, to photograph the fabrics designed by Dorothy Draper in the 1940s. I decided to photograph them like a straight reproduction of the surface, even capturing any light effects, and then printed the image at a 1:1 size of the fabric. The fabrics I photographed had been used for upholstery, so their form usually followed the form of a furniture piece. They would never have been as flat as I photographed them. When I photograph the textile and show it in this manner and on the wall, it becomes about photography. Because it’s a straight production, it opens questions about photography.
That’s the interesting point of the Big Prints: the photographed object becomes something else, another object or a document, through photography. That’s why I photograph in a 1:1 ratio. It makes a difference to print these images bigger or smaller, which is also why I usually don’t like the limitations of books, since it´s hard to translate feelings about scale or a physical connection to the object.
I’m interested in objects that have a special place in history, build links to changing times, or show the contradictions of history. In 2007 and 2008, I photographed ready-made wooden houses in Germany produced by different manufacturers because I was fascinated by how early industrialization impacted architecture and changed society. The earlier ready-made houses had too much custom-made ornament, so mass production of these buildings ultimately wasn´t efficient. But they remain part of a history that functions like a hinge or prototype of an idea.
Through this research, I discovered the ready-made houses made from copper and produced in Finow, near Berlin, by Hirsch Kupfer- und Messingwerke AG between 1930 to 1934. They had offered a special package to Jews who wished to emigrate to Palestine but were not allowed to take their entire savings with them: prefabricated parts for a copper house that could be transported as “moving goods.” The houses named “Jerusalem,” “Haifa,” or “Palestine” were specially designed with several apartments and were supposed to provide families with income possibilities in their new country since they could live in one apartment and rent out the two others. Only fourteen houses were shipped to Palestine, and some haven´t been erected since it took way more effort to assemble them than promised. Four of the copper houses still stand in Israel today.
I make my photograph as good as possible, choosing the right angle, light, and view. A good image expresses all the thoughts, contradictions, poetry, suffering, and humour I see in architecture, a rural landscape, or found scenes. I like when an image opens a space to think about society. I want to question the neutrality of the documentary view since a photograph always involves someone who takes it and a specific intent behind it. We must also consider how we relate to the image.