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Book Review: Töchter

Book Review Töchter By Clara Bahlsen Reviewed by Janelle Lynch Clara Bahlsen is not driven by new technologies or trends. There is nothing jarring or seductive about her images, no bones, no flesh. Photoshop is not a factor. Indeed, Töchter (Daughters) is a welcome reprieve from work that is made to shock or be the next new, cool thing.

Töchter (Daughter). By Clara Bahlsen.
Self-Publish, 2014.
Reviewed by Janelle Lynch

Töchter (Daughter)
Photographs by Clara Bahlsen
Self-Published, 2014. 64 pp., 22 black & white and 22 color illustrations, 11x14¾".

Clara Bahlsen is not driven by new technologies or trends. There is nothing jarring or seductive about her images, no bones, no flesh. Photoshop is not a factor. Indeed, Töchter (Daughters) is a welcome reprieve from work that is made to shock or be the next new, cool thing. It sustains the viewer’s interest with the quiet strength of its inquiry into what it means to grow up and define one’s identity.

Born in 1979 in a small village near Hannover, Germany, Bahlsen lives and works in Berlin where she studied visual communication at the University of the Arts and photography at the Ostkreuz School for Photography. Töchter, self-published in 2013, was awarded the 10th Aenne Biermann Prize for Contemporary Photography the same year.

Töchter juxtaposes color portraits of women between the ages of 25 and 35 with black and white images of sculpted debris. “I’m really interested in the age when there is a turning point in relation to family and the way you want your own life to be. What to keep from your origins and what to leave behind,” Bahlsen explained to me. She was 33 when she began the project in 2011, though she clearly had been processing its content for some time.

Töchter (Daughter). By Clara Bahlsen. Self-Publish, 2014.

“I just told them to think about their mother,” Bahlsen replied when I asked her how she directed her subjects who stand in front of simple, soft-focused backgrounds. Their gazes range from intense and deadpan to serene and reflective. All but five of them look directly at the camera. On the cover is the only three-quarter-profile image of a ruddy fair-skinned woman. She stands in front of a pale yellow wall dressed in a buttoned-up blouse. Draped over her torso is a years-long braid that umbilically connects her to the person who taught her how to intertwine her tresses.

Bahlsen is a thoughtful artist, grappling with profound life issues, but she maintains her sense of humor. The last four images in the book are of women, already seen in previous pages, with their backs to the camera. The decision to photograph them this way seems to be more about a playful attempt to link her subject’s chosen hairstyle with their identity rather than the subjects’ affront to their mothers.

Töchter (Daughter). By Clara Bahlsen. Self-Publish, 2014.

But the work isn’t really about the women in Bahlsen’s photographs or their maternal relations. It’s about the artist’s investigation into selfhood and her wish to provoke viewer’s thoughts about who we really are and whom, once disentangled from our past, we want to become.

August Sander’s portraits are a clear historical reference, although, Bahlsen sites her Dutch contemporaries, Anuschka Blommers and Niels Schumm, as among her current influences, particularly their book, Anita and 124 other Portraits, which is a 10-year survey of their unconventional fashion work.

Töchter (Daughter). By Clara Bahlsen. Self-Publish, 2014.

It’s the way Bahlsen combines images of sculpted debris with her portraits that catapults this project into the realm of the wonderfully imaginative and distinguishes Töchter from Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits and other powerful projects about identity. Bahlsen collected the debris from demolished buildings, built what she refers to as small-scale houses with them, and then photographed the sculptures in her studio. For the artist they are invested with the same significance as her portraits. They are about “family, origin, life, what to take and which parts to leave behind.” Some whimsically mirror the physical characteristics or expressions of the women whose portraits face them. One of the best examples early in the book is of a blue-eyed woman with a tightly wound bun. A red coat with large buttons and decorative sleeves hangs off her body. On the opposite page is a house sculpture with a pointed rooftop that resembles the woman’s hairdo. The façade’s wavy lines make reference to her coat’s undulating cuffs.

Töchter (Daughter). By Clara Bahlsen. Self-Publish, 2014.

Bahlsen and Johannes Siemer co-designed Töchter. They have collaborated on Bahlsen’s other book projects, including Pferde & Autos (Horses & Cars) (2011) and Langsam bekloppt werden (Slowly Going Nuts) (2009). Töchter has a softcover and PVC dust jacket because Bahslen wanted it to be more like a magazine than a book to “underscore the fact that it will become outdated — that in five years the women will be in a completely different stage in their lives.” Bahlsen includes an English insert with a brief descriptive quote by the curator Frank Rüdiger about her photographic investigation, which I wish was more explicit and a part of the actual book. While not dependent on words, the deeply personal “visual story,” as Bahlsen refers to it, would have been better illuminated through the inclusion of some text, in addition to the imprint information silk-screened on the back of the dust jacket. Otherwise, my only objection is that there were only 300 copies of the book printed. It deserves more.—JANELLE LYNCH

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JANELLE LYNCH is a photographer, teacher, and freelance writer. Her second monograph, Barcelona, was published by Radius Books in 2013.