Diptych #1

© (c) Bettina von Zwehl

DIPTYCH #1 2001

Bettina Von Zwehl (1971 – )


Accession number


Beginning with her student experiments using photomicrography to document the biological structure of her own saliva, skin, and blood, Von Zwehl has exploited the reductive aesthetics of the scientific enquiry to enquire into the nature of photography and the limits of portraiture. In 1998, she began to turn the camera outward, focussing upon external rather than internal portraits, always choosing her subjects carefully from her own generation. Her sitters appear anonymous, stripped of all personal details but united by identical posing and subject to the same controlled experiment. The nature of these experiments, be they the effects of gravity on the body whilst holding one’s breath, being awoken in the middle of deep sleep, or subject to rigorous exercise, is largely inconsequential, being merely a means to von Zwehl’s real interest, an exploration of the relationship and expectations inherent in the act of portraiture.

By replacing the intimacy and insight which one conventionally expects from portraiture with something far more objective and rational, von Zwehl’s project recalls the 19th century’s faith in the potential of both science and photography to unravel the mysteries of life. Photography’s appropriation of the new sciences of phrenology and physiognomy resulted in bizarre experiments by physicians and amateur photographers to register and objectively record the ‘true’ nature of human character, from the criminal to the insane. The highly controlled and directed experiments which von Zwehl conducts mimic the approach of such amateur photographers as the French chief of criminal investigation, Alphonse Bertillon. In producing his landmark inventory of over 10,000 criminals, Bertillon demonstrated a similar degree of ‘scientific rigour’ to ensure the correct lighting, neutrality of expression and archival standardisation.

Equally important as an influence on von Zwehl’s work has been Western European painting. The impassivity of all her sitters as well as the use of various pictorial conventions suggests the importance of Early European, specifically Renaissance painting. In Untitled 11 1998, the symmetrical arrangement of the sitters in front of the formal device of a (window) ledge combined with the sombre monochrome backgrounds evokes the mood and conventions of early Netherlandish and Renaissance portraits. In her new series Profiles 2001, the reference to a specific Renaissance source (Piera della Francesca’s 1470 diptych of the Duke and Duchess of Montefeltro) is clearly acknowledged. Here however the couples don’t really know each other and are linked only by their stare, which is fixed and reciprocated but from which the viewer is totally excluded . By ring flashing the profiles, and lighting the backgrounds separately, von Zwehl succeeds in producing the same effect of metallic sharpness of the silhouette which Renaissance painters sought to achieve in their portrait images, focussing the viewer’s attention away from distracting details and towards the gaze.

Reality Check Recent Developments in British Photography and Video, The British Council 2002