People design photographs
A city floats
Life-sized and apparently weightless — this is how Kurt Hoerbst portrays the people he photographs in his “people_scans.” The Austrian artist will be showcasing his photographic concept in the exhibition hall of the Darmstadt Photography Days 2013. EMD is the sponsor that made it possible for Hoerbst to take these portrait photographs and exhibit them at the “John F. Kennedy Haus”.
The heavy reflex camera glides smoothly along its rails above the scaffolding. The shutter clicks audibly. Every time it clicks, the fixed-focus camera records a sharp image of the scene revealed by the studio flash.
When Kurt Hoerbst is making one of his “people_scans” the atmosphere is similar to that of a laboratory run by a scientist who delights in discovery. Each of these portraits consists of up to 20 individual images of people lying flat on their backs.
“Of course I have also lain under the camera myself. After all, I have to know how that feels.“
Hoerbst, who was born in 1972, puts these images together on a computer to make a single photograph. This method of composition, as well as the fact that the portraits’ subjects are lying down, result in the floating lightness of these collage-like photographs. In technical terms, this artistic process is in fact reminiscent of the scanning of a two-dimensional original. That’s because the focal plane of the camera always remains parallel to the subject of the portrait. “The photographic process thus consists of a linear scanning process,” Hoerbst explains.
However, he adds, the process has nothing in common with panoramic photographs, which also consist of a series of photographs that are stitched together to make a single image. That’s because when a panorama is made the camera’s lens rotates around a fixed point. As a result, the actual view is presented in a distorted way as a two-dimensional object. For this reason, the scans cannot be created with the digital tools that are used to calculate panoramic photographs, explains the photographer as he looks over the display of his notebook. Instead, Hoerbst creates a montage of images in the traditional manner in between two and three hours of image processing.
Eye to eye with the camera
Hoerbst conceived the idea behind his “people_scans” around 2005, and he made the first photographs in the series using his own family members as models. “Of course I have also lain under the camera myself. After all, I have to know how that feels,” he says, as he puts in place the wooden ruler he uses to position his next motif.
For Hoerbst, who has taught photojournalism and the history of photography at the School of Photography in Prague, Czech Republic, since 1996, the breakthrough for this project came when he was invited to Venice, Italy. This enabled him to work for five weeks in 2011 making “people_scans” of the citizens of this lagoon city, thus creating an impressive kaleidoscope of the city’s inhabitants.
Since that time his project has taken him to Vienna, Austria, and Beijing, China. Hoerbst has also taken his technology, which he calls a “people scanner,” to Kärnten, Austria, and Riga, Latvia. And now he is also making photographs in the hall of the Kennedy-Haus in Darmstadt, Germany. EMD has provided financial support for Hoerbst’s “darmstadt_scans” in its capacity as a sponsor of the Darmstadt Photography Days (DTDF). “As a partner of the DTDF, which takes place every two years, we have been happy to support Kurt Hoerbst’s project in a year between two festivals,” says Daniela Lewin, a member of the Cultural Sponsorship team at EMD.
Kurt Hoerbst has been working on his "people_scans" project since 2011
© Peter Thomas
This involvement goes beyond purely financial support. For example, after the presentation at the Kennedy-Haus, the show will be exhibited at the EMD site in Darmstadt. “Another unusual aspect of the project is that EMD employees can actively participate in the ‘darmstadt_scans’ by applying to serve as photo subjects,” she says.
Wera Schütte, an expert for environmental protection and safety at EMD, looks up at the lens with great interest while the camera sled passes above her on its rails. She holds her firefighter’s helmet in the crook of her arm as her portrait is taken for the “darmstadt_scans”; she is one of the three EMD employees who are being portrayed. They are joined by a dozen other residents of Darmstadt, all of whom are lying down in the spring of 2013 on the white cardboard background created by Hoerbst for his project. A few days later, the authorized portraits are presented as life-sized inkjet prints on 90-centimeter-wide paper on the walls at the vernissage of the exhibition.
What does this colorful kaleidoscope of various citizens tell us about their home towns? “My pictures certainly do not represent the entire population of a particular city,” says Hoerbst. Nonetheless, every environment naturally puts its stamp on the people who live in it. And Hoerbst’s works invite the observer to find such traces of a collective identity in these gigantic photographs. The process of selecting the Darmstadt citizens for the portraits already ensured a variety of motifs: In addition to the EMD employees who applied, other models for the “darmstadt_scans” were found via local media, social networks and by approaching individuals directly.
Albrecht Haag, one of the organizers of the Darmstadt Photography Days
© Peter Thomas
Slowing down portrait photography
In spite of the time-consuming digital technology, the “people_scans” are a homage to the origins of the photographic portrait. This fact was emphasized by Albrecht Haag, one of the organizers of the Darmstadt Photography Days, at the vernissage. He pointed out that the formality of the images, which at first glance seems very severe, and the direct force of the extremely high-resolution photographs are precisely the factors that form a contrast to photos taken with mobile phones and other random snapshots that flutter through the social media in a flood of millions of images.
Haag compared Hoerbst’s images with the portraits made by Richard Avedon. Hoerbst himself also places his “people_scans” in the tradition of portrait photographers such as August Sander, who made photographs of categories of people in the first half of the 20th century. Last but not least, these scans constitute a pleasant slowing-down of the portrait photography of the present day, which is becoming an ever faster and more hectic everyday occurrence. Nowadays the interval between snapping a picture and producing the finished photo is so short it can barely be measured. By contrast, a lot of time is required for each one of Hoerbst’s photographs: time for the actual scan, in which the camera captures the subject in ten-centimeter segments, and time for the painstaking composition of the individual images into a new photograph that divulges its multi-perspective structure to the observer only at the subconscious level.