I first heard about the photographer Tobias Zielony from my doctor, who told me to write my master thesis in art history about him instead of Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra. He considered his approach to photographing young people, also the main subject of Dijkstra, to be more interesting. Despite me rejecting my doctor’s suggestion, Zielony stayed in my mind since this conversation and naturally I was interested to see his new work Jenny Jenny exhibited at Berlinische Galerie. The just recently finished series portrays different women, without any of them being clearly identified as _the_ Jenny, in what supposedly is their working and living environment. The photographs quickly identify them as sex workers, many of them are taken at night or in artificial, often deep red light, many of them semi- or completely nude, posing for the camera. Additionally, their job is mentioned in the press text to the exhibition.
A very classic topic in the arts, indeed – the nude female models used by (male) artists have often been declared sex workers or at least “easy girls”, may it be Manet’s Olympia or Otto Dix’ model Anita Berber. And this is where the issues are starting, Zielony is taking on a huge topic with dozens of references and discussions attached, although stating he stumbled upon his new protagonists by chance on the train. The question arises, at least in my mind, how to photograph a motif that’s been done so much. Especially considering him being a European male artist in 2013, whose life is probably and genuinely different from that of his protagonists. I can’t ever view motifs like these without thinking about the relationship between the photographer and the model, which in this case must / can only be seen as one from an educated and thus elitist point of view of an artist onto an often romanticized profession. And at this point one hasn’t even thought about the issues of “documentary photography in art” in general.
At least, there’s still a longing for an “authentic picture” recognizable, for a photograph that shows something real or tells us something about reality, despite all the deconstruction that has been undertaken by critics. In contrast to many of the documentary artists of the past years dealing with the same or similar topics (think Nan Goldin or Boris Mikhailov), Zielony is not using an all brightening flash to make his pictures hyper-real or aiming for the obviously ugly in his photos, but creating images of classic beauty. Many of his (and I think his best) photographs revoke historical models in their composition, use of color and angles – I can’t help being drawn to his work.
One think struck me as odd, though, the visitor (or press) is not allowed to take photos of the pictures to protect the privacy of the portrayed women, as it is told us by the pr representative during the press preview. Zielony exhibits the photographs and made a catalogue, so clearly decided to make them public, but grants himself a last attempt to keep them private. I suspect a quite endearing yet naive believe in some kind of holiness of the museum halls behind this attempt, trying to keep them save inside of these supposedly protected walls.
Additionally exhibited is his series Trona from 2008, the one that made him known, or, as the Berlinische Galerie calls it, making him into one of the most controversially discussed contemporary photographers. My favorite picture of Trona is called Kids, three teenagers standing in a circle on a lonely street in a random suburb of Trona, a deserted mining city in California. The almost dance-like moves of the group instantly remind me of the dancing graces in Botticelli’s Primavera and their eternal beauty, I just can’t help seeing those kind of classic references in his work.
Tobias Zielony: Jenny Jenny
On view until 30.09.2013