beneath the surface
Coming of Age, 1986.
I have been practicing within the staged photography genre for over 35 years. In what follows here, by referencing 5 different bodies of work, I reflect on my practice and how it has changed over the years. For example, I am now more informed by personal experience and memories, my approach to aesthetic issues has changed, and I have moved from landscape, to studio work, and then back to landscape again. However there are a number of constants; I am always dealing with issues of human development and exploring psychological issues that lie beneath the surface of a photographic reality.
Of relevance is that I have a dual career as a photographer and as a doctor, specialising in the mental health of children and young people. Born and raised in Scotland, I went to medical school first, qualifying in 1983, but, feeling a strong need to develop my passion in photography, I gained a place at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in 1984.
At the RCA my interest shifted from my first love, landscape photography, to creating constructed tableaux in front of the camera in order to explore psychological states. It was a big shift. In the 1980s there was a lot of concern about photographs telling lies. I wanted to make images that were explicitly false but hinted at deeper truths.
This first image, Coming of Age is from a series called A Rake’s Progress (1986). This series was made long before Photoshop. In it, I made masks from photographs of my own face and asked other people to wear them. Although they are flat, the masks look 3D when photographed. Everything in the image is placed for the benefit and contemplation of the viewer. For example the electric fire is turned to the camera rather than towards the subjects.
There are two identities being explored here, a bold confident exterior and a vulnerable frightened interior. The image has high production value (this is important to me) but on the other hand preserves messy aspects, such as fluff on the carpet, and curtains that were not hung correctly. This mess preserves a sense of separation from what may seem like commercial photography given the staging and studio lighting.
This series established a motif, photographic masks, that I have used on and off ever since, to explore issues of constructed, borrowed and inherited identities, and identities of people in place over time. By wearing a mask the sitter lends something of their physical identity to the person whose face is depicted, but also obscures their own, an anonymity which might, ironically, make them feel more comfortable as the subject of a photograph.
I strive to create images that engage the viewer intellectually and visually. I am frustrated by images, so common since the 1990s, that expect the viewer to engage intellectually without grabbing the viewer emotionally first. There seems to be a fear in some quarters that an image that looks good automatically becomes a consumer object. I don’t think that this needs to be the case.
I took the issue of identity to a different level in a photographic series called Love Scenes. Here, I photographed the faces of Barbie Doll, Ken Doll and He Man Doll, and made photographic masks which I asked participants to wear.
This image, Love suggests a whole population is inspired to adopt the identities of Barbie and Ken. What lies beneath the surface here though is He Man under the sofa, a seed of desire that is sown in Barbie’s mind. Later in the series Barbie and He Man become a romantic pair.
Moving forward 30 years, in one of my most recent series, I used photographic masks to explore how the past shapes one’s identity, through a fusion of past and present. In this series, Visitation Scenes, I made photographic masks from the faces in a personal archive of old family photographs. I travelled to places where these relatives had lived and asked people there to wear the masks. By doing so it gave the illusion that these people were coming back to life in the present day in a ghostly, surreal kind of way.
Lviv, 1890 / 2015.
Lviv, is a photograph of someone today (myself in this case) wearing the mask of my great grandfather, Herman Trost, a Polish Jew born in 1870. In the photograph I am standing in the city where he was born, Lwów, Poland which is now Lviv, Ukraine. Many things have changed in this city since Herman lived there. Behind him (me) are the ruins of the Old City Synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941. During WWII Herman lived in a residential care home in Berlin, but in 1942 along with thousands of other old people, he was transported to Theresienstadt where he died.
Oświęcim, 1944/ 2018
In another image from Visitation Scenes, Erich and Erna “visit” the railway lines they were transported on, to the Auschwitz Death Camp.
This was a very personal project for me, unique to my family history. But the manner in which aspects of personal identity are formed from fragments of memory handed down the generations is a universal subject matter.
I continue to aspire to present an appealing image, where the quality of light and the composition are attended to; but I have noticed that as I have got older, my approach to composition has mellowed. I am more likely to draw the viewer into a contemplative experience rather than aiming for brash, in your face impact.
Between 2009 and 2012 I worked on a large series called Life Story Work, exhibited at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow in 2012. This is when I applied my staged photographic practice but in the landscape, and again turned the camera on myself.
Life Story Work is a social work practice where social workers collaborate with children in foster care (who are preparing to move on to long term foster care or adoption). They collect photographs of people and places that have been important to the child and these are put in a book with text. These photographs provide a precious link with the past, helping to preserve the child’s sense of identity.
In my series of Life Story Work photographs, I have conjured up visual ideas to represent threads in my heritage, and revisit psychologically-resonant places I have been in the past. The work is intended to be interpreted in any way the viewer wishes to view it, drawing on their own connections and references, but the images contain strong strands of my own German / Polish Jewish / Scottish and Irish heritage. The themes of this project were developed further in Visitation Scenes.
Recently, during lockdown I have been regularly walking in my local woodland in Hertfordshire, England and have felt drawn to the mythology and mysticism of trees. In this work, I am projecting organic images from my old anatomy text books onto woodland scenes; evoking the mythology of tree spirits. The projection depicted here is a cross section of an endometrium with a zygote.
Endometrium and Zygote (Work in Progress) 2021
Looking back at my work I can see how each body of work has influenced the next, either as a development of the previous one, or provoking me to explore another direction.
In the images I am creating now, I have decided to turn up the emotional temperature of my work, and fully embrace the cultural and mythological veins that I am tapping into.
ANDY WIENER was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, and now lives and works in the London area. He studied photography at the Royal College of Art between 1984 and 1986. His work is held in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Arts Council. The work was purchased by National Museum collections, as well as being in solo and group shows that toured the UK and abroad.The investigation of the self, and the investigation of the unconscious, is a common thread that runs through his photographic work. His work has resonances with the art movements of surrealism and symbolism. Website.
A Rake’s Progress and Love Scenes were published in 1990 by Cornerhouse Publications. The work was purchased by National Museum collections, as well as being in solo and group shows that toured the UK and abroad.
Visitation Scenes was published in 2020 as a book by Dewi Lewis Publishing.