I like the element of surprise that the unfolding reality may yield. I have to stay alert at all times, because a particular situation may be gone a moment later.
The art museum is a meeting place of strangers. It is also a site of wonder and enigma. For, as we cross the institutional threshold, we are transported through time and space. We witness what each painter saw … and yet we do more than this. We do not simply see through their eyes as we might look through a window, we share their perception of the world – we commune with the mind of the long-dead artist: intellectually, emotionally, creatively. We do not see the world as it was, but rather the world as perceived by an individual. There is an intimacy to the art of the past that borders on the uncanny.
How can one use a camera to capture this complex dialogue between visual perception and human imagination? It is that seemingly impossible task that Andrés Wertheim has sought to undertake. To move beyond the literal functions of photographic description.
His technique is simple enough: to expose the film more than once while pointing the camera at different subjects in the museum. It is simple in the way that painting is simply the application of pigment to a surface. The art lies not in the mechanical fact of its making, but in the skill of its execution and the infinite subtlety of the outcome. One image haunts another in a single frame. Artworks and museum visitors are drawn into a new creative dimension, releasing them from the constraint of concrete reality to inhabit a world that requires not simply that we see, but that we imagine.
Andrés Wertheim’s photographs reveal the museum as a place of haunting apparition. But the paintings are as alive today as when they were first created. It is our mortality that measures time, not theirs. They haunt us not because they are dead, but because they endure while we do not. We are the imaginative means by which they converse in the rooms of the gallery. But, in the fleetingness of our existence, it is perhaps we who are more truly ghosts in the museum.
Alasdair: When did you begin to make photographs?
Andrés: I got my first camera at the age of thirteen. But, at that time, I was mostly just playing with it. I did not seriously begin to explore the visual world through a camera lens until I was twenty-one years old and bought my first SLR. At the time, I was living in Buenos Aires. There I met Horacio Coppola – considered one of the great masters of Argentinean photography – who was, by then, already in his eighties. I was very lucky because he taught me about photography and encouraged me to develop my own way of looking at things.
The work for which you are best known is ‘The Museum’s Ghosts’, so I’d like to begin there. What gave you the idea for making images in this way in a museum?
Ever since childhood, I had been fascinated by the interaction between museum visitors and the artworks on display. The idea of working on this photographic project came to me during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I am not saying that this inspiration came suddenly, like a bolt of lightning from out of a clear blue sky. It crystallised from my memories. In my previous work, ‘Symbiosis’, I had been experimenting a lot with double exposures.
But there was another aspect to this – a kind of déjà vu. When I was a child, I visited the church of Santo Tomé in Toledo, Spain, and gazed at ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, a painting by the Spanish renaissance artist El Greco (1541–1614). El Greco had a dramatic and expressionistic style and I remembered how the eyes of the gaunt men in his painting seemed to follow me around the room.
So, here in the Rijksmuseum, I saw a crowd standing in front of Rembrandt’s famous painting, ‘Night Watch’. Everyone was standing staring at this one painting, while almost nobody was looking at the other wonderful artworks hanging on the nearby walls. It seemed to me as if the characters in those other artworks were looking down on the scene and feeling ignored. I decided to make an image that combined the figures in the paintings with the public who were ignoring them. Later, when I looked at the results of the combined image, I really liked the different layers that one could read. I decided to continue working this way and that is how the series began.
Can you describe the process of making these images? They look like Photoshop, but they are not, are they?
No, you are right, they are not created in Photoshop. All the images are double exposures made in the camera, in the museum. The second exposure is made right after the first, both registering on the same frame of film. The two exposures are almost always made in the same room. In one exposure I photograph the visitors, and in the other one I photograph one of the artworks, though which I do first and which I do second varies from situation to situation.
Afterwards, I may adjust the colour and tone – and sometimes a small amount of cropping is needed – but I do not alter the content of the image in post-production.
What kind of things do you look for when blending images in this way?
I keep my mind open as I move through the museum seeking out situations that catch my attention. I do not research particular artworks or the characters they depict before I enter the museum. It is an intuitive process. I like the element of surprise that the unfolding reality may yield. I have to stay alert at all times, because a particular situation may be gone a moment later.
Is this a wholly random process or have you learned to control it?
The available light conditions are always changing, and this can be a big challenge. On the one hand, I have to improvise as the situation unfolds, on the other hand, I must be precise about the exposure calculations. What I can control to a certain degree is the relative transparency of lighter subjects against darker backgrounds. This can be useful in filling in empty areas with enriching detail.
For example, in ‘Munich #2’ (2014), I started photographing a small portion of a painting so as to isolate the dragon and a monk’s feet. Then, I concentrated on positioning the dragon’s mouth as if it were devouring the sitting boy. At the very moment I released the shutter, a man walked into the frame. I hardly noticed him, but when I saw the final image, the position of his legs seemed to match the monk’s bare feet. This kind of strange coincidence, created by chance, amplifies the ‘ghostly’ qualities of the series.
I enjoy the whole working process, but at the same time I am constantly busy imagining how the final image will turn out. While my attention is focused on creating a theatrical sensation – one that can be quite whimsical at times – I am also creating a kind of visual critique of wider society.
Can you give me an example of that critique?
In the image called ‘Vienna #5’ (2013), it looks as if the nude ladies in the painting are trying to mingle with the real women who are visiting the museum, as they cluster around another painting. Interestingly, as it turned out, the few real men in the image are all gathered in the rear right corner next to the only painted male figures in the photograph.
A museum is a very public place. Did you have to get permission to make your work in these famous institutions?
Yes, I got permission from each museum before I took the pictures.
How did those in authority respond to your request and your way of depicting the museum?
The concept resonated a lot more with the directors of museums that hosted my exhibition. For example, at the Castagnino Fine Arts Museum in Rosario in Argentina, the employees were invited to write down unusual or ‘supernatural’ personal experiences they had had while alone in the museum. These ghostly anecdotes were displayed in the same room at the exhibition so that visitors could read them while looking at my works.
Do you find that certain images have a specific resonance with a particular museum?
I created the image entitled ‘Buenos Aires #3’ (2014) at the Museo de Arte Tigre (MAT), which is situated on the banks of the Luján river in Buenos Aires. The painting is by the Argentinian artist Benito Quinquela Martín (1890–1977), who often painted ships and workers on the river. In my image, I melded the painting with a group of teenagers that were walking through the same room.
The people who ran the museum loved it and acquired it for the institution’s permanent collection. They also ordered a limited edition of ‘The Museum’s Ghosts’ book to sell at the museum store. So, now this photograph is hanging side-by-side with Benito Quinquela Martín’s painting, in the same room where I created it. And the visitors that come to see my exhibition at the MAT can now ‘interact’ with the teenagers in my photograph… it creates an interesting loop of ideas and events across time.
What do you think these images have to say about photography in contrast to human visual perception?
Photography was invented to represent reality in the most faithful way, but the medium also gives us interesting technical possibilities to bring to life something that seems to be hidden. These images raise questions. What do we see when we are not really looking? And what do we miss seeing when we consider that we really are looking?
There is an earlier body of work I would like to discuss with you; one which shares some of the ambiguities of ‘The Museum’s Ghosts’ but is also different in its more sculptural and psychedelic qualities. This is ‘Your Other Self’. How did that series begin for you?
For many years, I travelled documenting remote locations for magazines. Once in a while I would return to Argentina and meet up with friends who were keen to see the pictures. We organised slide-shows, and sometimes people walked between the projector and the wall we were using as a screen. I liked the way in which the projected image blended with their bodies.
Years later, I projected images on the faces and bodies of models to create this series.
Were these images made in the same way as those created in the museum?
No, these are not double exposures. I projected images taken from my own archive and projected them onto the faces or bodies of models and then photographed the result in a single exposure.
Who or what is the ‘other self’ in these images?
It may be my own other self, or perhaps that of the person in the photograph… or maybe even the other self of the observer.
These are very vividly coloured images. Is there a reason for this and do you associate the colours selected as relating to the individual who is ‘clothed’ in that light and iconography?
Not so much the colours. For me, it is the shapes that are more related to each individual in the photograph. For example, I projected a photograph I had made in the Philippines onto the face of a man. The image was of the front of a jeepney (a special kind of painted bus found all over the Philippines), which blended with the model’s face creating the impression of a fancy-dress disguise. Now he looks like one of those masked Mexican wrestlers .
So, you are ‘recycling’ images made originally to document reality, but now becoming part of a creative art process?
Pictures I took many years before for editorial purposes, can be discovered in a new light. By superimposing them, they have the potential to become more important than the single image alone. In a sense, the pictures become re-signified; they take on new potential meanings. The image of a bearded man in Turkmenistan facing the camera is projected onto a man’s face in profile. One eye of each man coincides creating an uncanny multiple view similar to that found in Cubist paintings made many years before by artists such as Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso.
Do your images have a clear symbolic message?
I’ve learned that, making photographs, whatever you set out to do, there always remains an element of mystery. This leads me to a more philosophical question: do I have to know the meaning of each image I make? Or is my role to create visual symbols that can then be interpreted in the mind and imagination of others?
In some cases, there are definite visual clues… In the image of the woman and the tree, the trunk of the tree seems to support the head of the woman. It is clear from the tree that this is an autumnal landscape. In this case, there is a visual metaphor as this is a photograph of my wife when she turned fifty years old.
How do audiences interpret these images?
There are a couple of images that usually get a lot of attention – many observers told me that they see in them a kind of critique about human evolution. One shows a man with an image of machinery projected across him. Perhaps he has become ‘Homo mechanicus’, a man that became a machine. Another image shows someone totally ‘networked’ with computer cables. This has a certain irony because it could be said that computers are making us more disconnected from our relationships.
What have you learned in the process of making these images?
As viewers of images, rather than focus one’s attention on trying to discover the author’s intention, one should immerse oneself in the experience; delight in the richness of interconnection and serendipity that the artist has been able to create.
If you think too much, you will not dream.
Andrés Wertheim was born in Buenos Aires in 1962. He studied photography with Horacio Coppola and subsequently travelled around the world documenting people and places for a variety of magazines and newspapers. As an artist, he has exhibited widely in the Americas, Europe and Asia. His photographs are held in prestigious public and private collections in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Russia and the United States. His book ‘The Museum’s Ghosts’ was published in 2018.
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the April 2019 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.
First published in English at Talking Pictures in January 2020.