In conversation with Sebastian Riemer

Sebastian Riemer, Press Paintings, Spector Books, November, 2023

Sebastian Riemer, Press Paintings

Sebastian Riemer’s Press Paintings series looks at the waste paper produced in the last century by the press photo industry. He examines numerous images, analysing the manual work that went into editing them, a primitive process from today’s perspective. This throws up questions about the material nature of the decades-old image supports and the physicality of the people depicted. The motifs are cropped, styled, and “beautified”, a practice that seems grotesque, radical, and even violent when it becomes evident how this also constructs an illusory image in the public memory. The meticulous black-and-white appropriations are an act of media archaeology, directing our attention to the images’ promise of authenticity and to the striking painterly quality of the retouched colour. The works, produced in the period since 2013, blur the boundary between photography and painting, between the documentary and its opposite.

264 pages, German / English / French, ca. 140 b / w-illustrations, 23 x 32 cm, softcover

34 EUR  / $45     ISBN: 978-3-95905-634-2 DE/EN/F

Extract from the book’s conversation between David Campany and Sebastian Riemer:

DC: Sebastian, you have been working with old press photographs for a while now. Can you recall where the interest came from? Was there one particular image that prompted your fascination?

SR: In 2013, in a flea market in Paris, I found a 13x18cm photograph that caught my attention. I had never seen anything like it before. It was from the 1920s, depicting a man, but where the photographic surface would normally show the face, there was only very carefully thick opaque paint applied to the print. Within a rectangular field that was outlined with four black crosses someone had completely overpainted the surface. But what was so interesting to me was that it was done in a very artistic manner within very small space (around 4x5cm). And from afar one might think it was part of the photograph, because it was painted in black and white, but the colours of the photo had shifted over time to yellowish tones, while the colour of the paint remained in blueish tones. The back of this photo was filled with handwriting and stamps indicating the depicted man was a Jean Dufy, and that he was a painter, and the photograph was used to publish his image in a newspaper, Le Petit Parisien, on January 25th, 1921. I thought it was very odd that a newspaper photograph of a painter would actually get painted over to improve something. In this case it was the sharpness of the image as the rest of the photo was very blurry.

DC: So, you were attracted to it as both an image and an object, and those two aspects were connected intimately. The image had been reworked insofar as it was also an object with a surface. And yet, the ultimate goal was reproduction in a newspaper where neither the surface nor object were intended to be experienced. It seems that in photography pure image usually dominates over surface and object.

SR: It absolutely does, more and more today as the general photographic experience shifts almost entirely towards the perception of bodiless, immaterial electronic imagery. However, in that almost century-old example, I was attracted by the way so many different layers of meaning and reference were interwoven in such a tiny piece of paper. While I was holding it in my hand it was not like most photographs simply referring to something “out there”. Rather, it was something that affected me because it was “here and now”. Yet still I wasn’t completely able to get it, to understand it. This antiquity was mysterious to me, which was why I bought it. While I was only thinking of it, I felt that I comprehended it, but at the moment I took it out and looked at it, it taught me a lesson about the limits of perception. I stared at it and really wanted my gaze to puncture all the surfaces, metaphorical as well as the paint and the cracks, and the greasy and yellowed surface. So, I started to photograph the print hoping to demask it for a better understanding.

DC: It’s fascinating that an act such as re-photographing a photograph can bring us closer to it, or at least closer to its mysteries.

SR: It can bring us closer to details we could not see with our bare eyes, when the lens of the camera works for us like a microscope. But while it is revealing it also adds new mysteries because it shifts the way we are “looking” through photography at the world, from the “normal” perspective into a macro perspective. While there are lenses that imitate the way we see and perceive objects there are also ones that just imitate the way we see (physically) but offer a completely new perception. A rather strange perception but still familiar because it happens in the realm of photography which seems to be totally familiar nowadays.

DC: Yes, often the deepest mysteries are hiding in plain sight! As you moved on from that first image to explore others, did you have a good sense of what was motivating your choices, or was it more intuitive?

SR: After that first photo, I was wondering how many more could possibly be out there. Usually in photography if you find something you’ll find it again and again. A pattern you could follow. I just needed to know where to search. I quickly discovered that retouching by paint was a common practice in press agencies and that literally millions of these old photos were now for sale as collectibles online. My interest was in finding more photographs that would prompt a similar wonder, something I could not search for through keywords or phrases. So, no automation. It had to be a manual search conducted visually. I had to look at the images of the photos from the vendors to see firstly whether if they were retouched, and secondly if they could be of any interest as something we would call in German, “bild”. A picture that deliberately densifies pictorial qualities, something that you would look at with interest. While I was browsing for many months through some hundreds of thousands of images, regardless of their content, I developed a sense for what I might like. It was a semi-empirical task, because the one hand I wanted to see all images available, but on the other I knew that in this flood I had to dive for the pearls. In the end it was a mix of unconscious surfing through the ocean of discarded images, seeing so many shimmering trinkets underneath the surface of thumbnails and then the subconscious decision to dive in and pick one.


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