In 1995, Walter Seidl began work on a series of photographs, a series that developed over time and in three parts. This series started out consisting of color snapshots of a (happy) heterosexual American couple entitled D & S, these being the initials of their respective first names. This couple’s intimacy and everyday-ness were further underlined by their astonishing similarity to one another. This similarity, extracted by Seidl through his masterly usage of the camera, caused their opposite sexes to blur, to hybridize, to trespass into one other, transforming the couple (at least superficially) into twins via the photographic medium. Seidl achieved this visual similarity by photographically emphasizing the similar shapes of their bodies, their similar expressions and their unified fashion aesthetics. The very underbelly of this heterosexual couple was exposed. Their bodies were stylized and lavishly dressed, and Seidl reconstructed them as clichés of a couple, as clichés of their surroundings somewhere in the USA. But these clichés brought with them something new: the power of photographic construction.
The still camera—with its power to adjust colors, shapes, angles—played a crucial role, producing the androgynous qualities emphasized by Seidl as well as empathy and a sense of relationship and bonding within American urbanity. Are we not faced here by the new wave’s New Romantics, with their androgyny and extensive use of cosmetics by both genders?
Several years down the road, the parameters of the couple’s relationship changed. The year 2003 saw each of them set out on a different path. The division occurred trickily enough in point of gender, traumatically emphasizing a certain real division—one from which there was to be no return. She started to date a woman while he remained heterosexual. Unexpectedly (de-)fictionalized, Seidl decided to carry on with the project.
D changed into A.o.D—which Seidl says can be read as “Angels of Dust.” The main setting of the photo series is now his living environment in cities of the Pacific Northwest.
S changed into ST and is strolling around New York as part of a couple formed by herself and another woman.
Seidl reworks the couple, while also reworking several photographic styles. In every part of the series, there exists a feeling we seem already to have had; it is like making a mash-up out of existing images familiar to us—and what’s more, these images seem to constantly repeat. But it is not about the reworking of the whole set of codes that are part of one photographic genre; in Seidl’s case, it is much more like a programmed compilation that presents catchy elements of recognizable styles.
The photographs are drawn from many sources, for example fashion photography and—most notably—new wave photography. New wave fashion and its photographic style is Seidl’s core concept when working with photography. New wave, viewed as a continuation of Pop Art’s fascination with manufacturing, is a post-modern love of pastiche that emphasized body-conscious clothing and spiky hairstyles. Seidl’s photographic series embrace new wave and fashion styles in photography in order to make “divas” out of what is at first sight an ordinary couple who, during the course of the project, split up—showing that, like photography, gender is also constructed. What was at first a well–adjusted, rhythmically underscored, stylish heterosexual couple changed suddenly into a lesbian coming out on the one hand and a heterosexual man with strong metrosexual tendencies on the other. Each and every coming out is unexpected, traumatic, powerfully dramatic and demanding, demanding also with regard to that which is required from the medium of photography.
D plays with homosexual imagery via his tendency towards dandyism. Both D and S, in fact, are acutely concerned with their appearances and lifestyles. Therefore, Seidl’s research into photographic styles and genres serves to restore these images to their proper contexts.
It is a certain catchy twist in Seidl’s photography that allows one to recognize bits and pieces that are familiar, but all placed in new contexts. Seidl does far more than simply make photographic record of the couple. He also captures the zeitgeist and dictates what is desirable within its parameters.
Why the recourse to new wave photography? Because Seidl uses his photographs to rework some of this genre’s rules: embarrassment, misguided love, artificially tailored twins. Godard and Truffaut abandoned traditional narrative techniques in favor of a greater use of symbolism and abstraction, dealing with themes of social alienation, psychopathology and love. Seidl takes this skeleton of the nouvelle vague and pushes it further. The skeleton of the story is a heterosexual couple gone wrong, but this is only the point of departure; what follows is a comment on a certain preexisting work of photography and not just photography’s use and application. What we get is a sort of derivative photography, tracing what photography has done over the last 20 years during which it was so strongly influenced by pop and fashion.
My reference to nouvelle vague—as Sylvère Lotringer put it (though in a different context)—is not to apply “French Theory” to American specificities. No! As Lotringer argued in an interview: “Americans don’t know what capitalism is; they don’t have the distance. They call it reality and see it on television. There’s no ‘other side’ to capitalism—it is everywhere. Cut one tentacle from the monster and others grow faster on its other limbs. Capitalism is crawling inside of us all too, the best and the worst, and we have to keep pushing its creative energy into other directions, dodging the reduction to commerce and self-interest.” This approach as developed by Lotringer can also be applied to Seidl’s work.
Seidl’s photography presents what is apparently an almost obsessive exploration of desire and human flesh caught in the process of the everyday; it also pits the trajectory of aging against the attempt to be immutable. It is a polite take on the couple’s ritualized, choreographed life. One wishes to believe that there is a desire here to look beyond the surface layer. Therefore it seems that in such a process there is no place for sex, for which reason the series are caught somewhere between intimate and perverse (camera) work. We witness an obsession with alternative realities, with light and composition thus coming to the fore. In short, all that happens with the couple after their breakup is not something that has to do with faithfulness, but only with reinterpretation (of and through photography). These are photographic series about styles in photography and about voyeurism itself. Seidl fuses the 1990s, immaterial ghost-creatures with the hard-working girls from Wall Street, the latter of whom are on the verge of a serious crisis in the wake of 9/11.
The photographs also function as slogans, where photography, though its presentation of some strange intimacy, also presents some larger metaphors of life, urbanity and time. As Arjen Mulder asserts, “The effect of photography is not what you see in your vacation snapshots, but the certainty that only the present truly exists, for only the present can be photographically recorded. The rest of time, the past and the future, exists only in the imagination. Old pictures show an old present. We live in a ‘permanent now,” a ‘continuous present’—this was the dominant attitude in the twentieth century” (p. 37).
Seidl’s photographs provide enough “newness” for us to contemplate the ordinariness of photography and the ordinariness of life. It is his persistence, a decision taken in the past that opens a strong perspective of contemporary photography as a statement.
Sylvère Lotringer in conversation with Joan Waltemath:
A Life in Theory at
Arjen Mulder, Understanding Media Theory. Language, Image, Sound, Behavior. Rotterdam :V2_Publishing/NAi Publishers, 2004.