Practising photography and drawing, Fiona Struengmann is not simply content to collect amateur images. In order to give them new life, the young German artist isn’t slow to rework them, or even destroy them.
‘Take it all, or leave it all behind.’This is how Fiona Struengmann, fortuitously coming across an old lady at a flea market, acquired an archive of some 7,000 photographs.
Amassed over the last fifty years, the collect or had only one requirement in exchange for the gift of these thousands of amateur snapshots: to pass them on in their entirety. The German artist, born in 1986, then found her-self exhuming pictures from shoe boxes and family albums dating from early 20th-century Germany. Fiona Struengmann interprets this experience as an immersion into both the history of photography and the history of those men and women she refers to as ‘the first citizen photographers: the first generation who documented their environment and their daily life in the world with the help of this medium.’They consist of ‘moments people wanted to document and keep as a silent memory,’ she explains. Fashioning this material into a personal work infused with poetry, the series Just LikeYou, But Diferent is ‘a conversation from the past held in the present. The question asked is where we come from and what shaped us to form what we are today.’
A graduate in art and photography from Par-sons New School of Design in New York, Fiona Struengmann admits to having been somewhat lost, exploring various directions after graduation. She found herself collabor-ating on the feature ﬁlm Red Knot (2014), shot on a research ship bound for Antarctica. On board, she was encouraged to experi-ment and began to draw and photograph continuously. She made her ﬁrst large-format drawings, South Pole, methodically pricking tiny holes in a simple sheet of white paper. Landscapes in relief began to take shape, nu-anced by subtle shades of grey. She also produced the series of photographic land-scapes titled Articulated Silence. In the artist’s own words: ‘The trip was like a colour I had never seen before and gave me a better understanding of the correlation to our nat-ural world.’
Fiona Struengmann’s artistic practice is therefore twofold. Drawing is the draft of mental images that she translates onto paper and photography is envisaged as a means of transmitting a story based on ma-terials and places. Emphasizing in particular photography’s materiality, this German artist’s practice focuses on the unique char-acter of the medium rather than its repro-ducibility. This is seen in her two series, Needleview and Dialogue, produced using a pinhole camera she made herself. She explains her approach: ‘I had a vision in my head. I wanted to translate the idea of seeing only through a tiny little needle pin-hole. … As it was so much more about an emotion, a feeling to translate onto paper. You start seeing differently. It is all about the light, shapes and the contrast of objects.’ By means of a camera, a pen or a needle, the experimental research carried out by the artist is guided by the exploration of a reality capable of transporting viewers to an elsewhere.
While editing the vernacular photographs of the Just Like You, But Different series, Fiona Struengmann’s attention was involun-tarily drawn to the silhouettes, gestures and landscapes often seen in the background: motifs, unconsciously familiar to the artist, but drowned in an overloaded environment. ‘A photograph is a memory of a lived experi-ence, but if it also allows you to become something else, it opens up a conversation and evokes emotions … It becomes a new way of seeing,’ the artist explains. For this speciﬁc project, everything took place in the darkroom where Struengmann experi-mented with various technical processes and chemical solutions allowing her to iso-late elements from the images. In concrete terms, this meant protecting the elements to be preserved or on the contrary, dissolv-ing other parts of the image. ‘It is almost like the normal darkroom process in reverse, which I found very beautiful as a metaphor,’ she says. From these ‘silent memories’ only fragments then remain: the joined hands of women, bodies without faces, the subtle outline of silhouettes. Each motif, isolated and individualized, converges the gaze, be-coming the work’s focal point. Occasionally the artist adds material, partially drawing on the image with a needle and oil paint. The slope of a mountain landscape is adorned with splinters of yellow, while a young boy, walking in the forest discovers a cloud tinged with red.
These photographs, which come from the past, have an aesthetic force all the more vivid because the image that was originally taken for primarily personal reasons, is lib-erated. Not only does Fiona Struengmann give a new readability to these amateur im-ages but she also provides them with the po-tential for a new use. By manip-ulating—altering, rubbing out and erasing some of what they contain—she provides them with a second life. Similar and yet other, these photographs reappear in new spheres.
Translation: Emma Lingwood