It is that fathoming of dimension that always appeals to me.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras is credited with saying “man is the measure of all things”; that as human beings we tend to measure value, importance, even truth, against our own perceptions. That relativism remains controversial, but in the case of sheer physical scale, it is a concept with a certain validity. We experience the world relative to our own scale, things that are bigger than us tend to impress more than things that are smaller, especially when they are very small. We think little of swatting a fly but would treat an elephant or a jumbo jet with more respect. Of course we have, in the past couple of years, learned a new respect for a tiny virus and, more slowly, to understand how much we depend for our survival on the humble bee. Scale is no real measure of ultimate significance.
For three decades, extremes of scale have been a focus for the German artist Claudia Fährenkemper. From the gargantuan excavators gobbling up and reshaping the industrial landscape of the Rhineland to getting up close and personal with bugs and beetles. With the aid of an electron microscope, her images of insects reveal the complex structure of creatures we find it all too easy to terminate with the squirt of an aerosol. These images give us pause. They rescale the insects, presenting them as human-sized portraits so that we might meet them on more equal terms.
Something the machines and the beetles have in common is their hard exterior: the steel plate of the mining machinery and the tough exoskeleton of the insects. Humans, on the other hand, have an internal skeleton and an all too vulnerable, fleshy exterior, and so we fashioned armour to form a carapace. Armour that not only protects the fragile body of each wearer but advertises their supposed invincibility. In its design, with one Antipodean exception, the armour shown here goes far beyond simple functionality. It is chased with rich embellishment, imbued with character and even laced a touch of grotesque humour. The metal suit becomes an emblem of the wearer’s own indomitable status.
It is the intersection of scale and shell that connects and animates the three bodies of work we will explore in this interview. For me, it is a theme that reveals a degree of prescience when considered in the light of current events: pandemic, climate change, and the ever-expanding military-industrial complex. Physically, human beings are highly vulnerable. We prospered as a species not because of our great size or tough exterior, but because we learned to live and work together, to cooperate and be stronger in that unity. Today, we are coming to understand that we need not only to work together within our communities, but as a species and within an ecology, lest hubris drive us the way of the dinosaurs while the bugs and beetles inherit the earth.
Your work has spanned many scales of subject. What led you to photograph the behemoths of the Rhineland’s opencast mining?
As part of my university geography studies, I visited the open-cast lignite mines in the Rhineland. The sheer scale of the machines used there was overwhelming. Over the next five years [1988–1993], a period spanning German reunification, I photographed these machines as they progressed on their migration through the landscape, reshaping it as they went. In doing so, I always felt an ambivalence. Their technical construction was impressive, but I found their scale, and the landforms they created, uncanny.
Your focus then shifted to the very small.
I saw various magazine articles with images of human-made microstructures as small as a grain of dust, which had been created to use in micro-machines to be placed inside the body. They made me curious because their forms and shapes reminded me of details of the huge excavators I had been photographing – for example, a bucket wheel.
I contacted the Institute for Microstructure Technology at the Nuclear Research Center in Karlsruhe and, in 1993, I was able to use their scanning electron microscope for the first time. The resulting photograph of a microturbine combined with a prepared beetle was a key experience for me. Compared to the complexity and perfection of the beetle, the microturbine seemed almost primitive. I turned my attention to the minutiae of the natural world.
What was it about this equipment that you found interesting?
The scanning electron microscope (SEM) has been used for scientific research since the mid-1960s. Instead of visible light the SEM uses a beam of electrons, which generates images of tremendous detail and depth of focus. It was exactly this illusion of space, plasticity, and materiality that attracted me; it made the images seem almost tangible. And it reveals a fascinating microcosm that is normally only accessible to scientists.
I learned how to use the SEM by photographing insects at the Zoological Research Center and Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn. Initially they were prepared for me, but later I learned how to do this myself. This involves first selecting an interesting insect using a binocular microscope, removing dust, legs and sometimes feelers to avoid them becoming charged in the electron beam and to free the shape of the insect head from distracting details. The specimen is then dried in alcohol, fixed onto a small platform, and covered in gold before it can be exposed to the high vacuum in the SEM. The surface is then scanned by an electron beam, with the image built up line by line. Over the next eleven years I explored not only beetles, but also plant seeds, amphibian larvae, crystals and plankton.
© Claudia Fährenkemper from the series ‘Metamorphosis’
[Left] ‘Fuß einer Froschlarve, 60x’ [foot of a tadpole, 60 x magnification] 2001 125-01-3
[Centre] ‘Auge einer Froschlarve, 50x’ [eye of a tadpole, 60x magnification] 2002 5-02-8
[Right] ‘Hände einer Molchlarve, 25x’ [hands of a salamander larva, 25x magnification] 2002 44-02-1
In your series ‘Metamorphosis’ you use an electron microscope to photograph tadpoles and other embryonic creatures. There is an uncannily human aspect to the features you recorded.
A scientist at the Bonn Institute who was doing research on frogs provided me with the tadpoles. She was looking for a new species of frog that could be identified by a skin pattern, which required her to use SEM at high magnification. I, on the other hand, was using a much lower magnification so that I could see whole limbs and organs. What surprised me was how closely the overall morphology of the tadpole echoed that of the human. I had had no idea of this… the first time I looked into the eye of a tadpole was a profoundly touching moment for me.
My photomicrographs are neither for scientific illustration nor simply arbitrary interpretations of microstructures. Rather, they seek to provide insight into the interrelationships in nature, conveying an idea of the diversity, beauty and uncanniness of life forms in which the human dimension is explicitly included.
As an artist, what kind of technique did you employ when using this scientific equipment?
My approach was quite different from that of the scientists, who usually prefer a low contrast result. I, on the contrary, was always concerned to achieve the highest degree of contrast while maintaining a broad tonal range. My subjects shine like precious sculptural objects against a deep black background. The result blends documentary, surreal, and techno-futuristic characteristics.
While the image of each subject was created digitally in the SEM, it was then recorded on film using an analogue camera attached to the microscope. This gives the final print an essentially photographic feel.
© Claudia Fährenkemper from the series ‘Imago’
[Left] ‘Grashüpferkopf, 30x’ [head of a grasshopper, 30x magnification] 2004 15-04-8
[Centre] ‘Kopf eines Glühwürmchens, 25x’ [head of a firefly, 25x magnification] 2006 13-06-2
[Right] ‘Käferkopf, 60x’ [head of a beetle, 60x magnification] 2004 10-04-5
In the series ‘Imago’ you concentrate on beetles and other insects. What was it you wanted to capture in these… ‘portraits’?
You are right, these are portraits. There are surprising similarities between the microcosm and the world around us. It is a long-term series to which I have added again and again, whenever I found an interesting insect in my garden or on my travels. My goal was to combine the sensual experience and the magical illusion of a tiny creature appearing as both a sculpture and a portrait.
For example, the image of the firefly head [‘13-06-2’], created in 2006. I had been watching with fascination the swarming of fireflies on a warm June night, searching for mates with their luminescent organs. I captured a specimen to examine more closely in the SEM. It was only then that I could see the eyes, which are under the dark, hairless areas on the head. These membranes act like sunglasses, protecting the eye from being blinded by daylight. This is very unusual, because in most other insects the eyes are much more exposed. Somehow this picture reminds me of a firefighter, well-armed with protective clothing, both brave and prudent.
© Claudia Fährenkemper from the series ‘Imago’
[Left] ‘Fliegenkopf, 50x’ [head of a fly, 50x magnification] 2002 11-02-7
[Centre] ‘Käferkopf, 40x’ [head of a beetle, 40x magnification] 1998 64-98-8
[Right] ‘Käferkopf, 25x’ [head of a beetle, 25x magnification] 1996 30-96-4
How did you achieve this anthropomorphic effect?
I always photographed the insects from a perspective of above and behind, framing the head and a part of the neck like a human portrait. I avoided a frontal perspective because that would have created a rather horrible impression. My intention was just the opposite, to take a respectful point of view, presenting insect heads, formally, as portraits of individuals, each with their own character, like an ancestral gallery of the microcosmic. Comparing these portraits reveals the diversity, the individuality, and the uncanny beauty, of these tiny life forms. By enlarging these images and presenting them in a gallery, I hope to offer new ways to perceive and respond to nature.
Today, twenty years later, with ever-decreasing insect populations worldwide – which is having dramatic consequences for biodiversity and the quality of our lives – this ‘Imago’ series stands as a plea to respect these tiny creatures. We still know so little about them and the strategies by which they have successfully survived for so long on earth.
[Left] © Claudia Fährenkemper ‘Armor W 09-11-1’ 2011 Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
[Right] © Claudia Fährenkemper ‘Armor W 01-15-1’ 2015 Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
This idea of the portrait carries into your series, ‘Armor’ [named in the US spelling]. How did this series begin?
The series presents parade and tournament armour that was specially made for emperors, kings and great generals from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. This armour protected those historical figures just as its hard shell protects a beetle. And, as with the beetles, the distinctive shape, features, and markings of the armour fascinated me. They speak of faith, love, and hope; about power and wealth, but also about vulnerability.
It led me to wonder what artifacts will outlive us as evidence of our cultural, spiritual, and emotional legacy in times to come? When I began this series in 2010, the growing threat of violence and terror around the world also became an inspiration.
[Left] © Claudia Fährenkemper ‘Armor W 01-15-4’ 2015 Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
[Right] © Claudia Fährenkemper ‘Armor W 01-11-1’ 2011 Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
There is a fascinating similarity between the insects interpreted through a radical shift in scale and the armour seen across the distance of time.
Yes, it is that fathoming of dimension that always appeals to me. From the gigantic mining machines to the microcosm of the beetle portraits… and now I have arrived at the human scale, in which the fathoming of time and culture come into play.
These centuries-old, fragile, handcrafted, and artistically elaborate ‘shells’ fascinate me. They bear witness to fine craftsmanship and great expense, and to the way styles and fashions changed over the centuries. But they also encourage us to imagine what the original wearer was like.
The grimacing expression of ‘Armor N 05-13-3’ immediately captivated me. It dates back to about 1525. The character lines at the eyelid and the whiskers etched into the surface were probably a fashionable trend of the Renaissance. For me, the helmet has something playful about it, with its round bulbous nose, and the strangely demonic imagery hidden in its patterns. They reflect not just the religion and culture of their time, but the creative imagination of their maker … and somehow also the wearer’s sense of humour as they paraded in their armour at the carnival. Our material culture outlives our human span, and it is fascinating to imagine just what the long-deceased wearer was like.
How did you go about photographing it? I assume there are many conservation constraints with items this old.
This suit of armour is in the collection of the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg. It was carefully lifted out of its display case by two members of the museum staff so that I could photograph it with the large format camera. The final image has been heavily manipulated to darkened down the museum background and the contrast increased to give the visor’s funny, cocky expression a hint of something sinister.
[Left] © Claudia Fährenkemper ‘Armor W 10-14-3’ 2014 Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
[Right] © Claudia Fährenkemper ‘Armor M 01-13-3’ 2013 Courtesy of the State Library and Museum of Victoria, Melbourne
Where did you find these suits of armour?
It began on a trip to Vienna. While exploring the Kunsthistorisches Museum, I suddenly found myself in the Hofjagd- und Rüstkammer [the court hunting and armoury chamber], where all the precious armour is beautifully presented, many openly without display cases. I contacted the director of the museum, showed him my book of beetle portraits, and asked him if it would be possible to portray the Viennese armour in the collection in a similar way. Happily, he was open to this idea, and I subsequently travelled to Vienna several times to photograph the armour.
I researched other collections around the world, and in Australia I came across the amazing armour of Ned Kelly held in the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne. Its outlaw history and crude construction immediately intrigued me, and I was eager to include it in my armour series.
What is the strangest piece of armour you have photographed?
‘Armor W-06-14-3’ is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. It dates from about 1590. What surprised me is the way that the steel helmet has been covered with white silk. With its deep peak and cloth surface, it reminded me of one of those baseball caps people wear today. Perhaps it was also a fashionable look five centuries ago. At the same time, the visor with its large eyes and wide grin reminds me of a smiley-face emoticon. Somehow it all looks very modern and not at all daunting… even exhilarating. It was precisely that ambivalence of function and charisma that appealed to me.
Your work is often likened to various German photographers for different reasons: to Bernd and Hilla Becher [1931–2007; 1934–2015] for its rigorous cataloguing of types; to Karl Blossfeldt [1865–1932] for its emphasis on structure. Were they a strong influence for you?
Yes, Bernd and Hilla Becher were my teachers, and I was certainly influenced by them. Their documentary approach, strictly formal, analytical perspective, and systematic, typological order have radically paved new roads for the medium of photography and strengthened its position in the art context. The Becher’s credo was to question the object. The object had to reveal itself. This approach gives viewers the opportunity to explore the image themselves.
But, before I entered the Becher class at the Dusseldorf Art Academy in 1989, I had studied art photography for two years in the class of Arno Jansen, himself a student of Otto Steinert. [In 1951, Steinert founded the subjective photography movement, which championed photography that explored the inner psyche and human condition rather than reflecting the outside world.] However, I felt that this self-consciously artistic, and in some ways surreal, approach was not what I wanted for my photography at the time. Nonetheless, I think traces of it returned in my photomicrographs. Finally Nan Hoover [1931–2008] my last teacher at the Dusseldorf art academy, a video, light and performance artist encouraged me in my interest in using scientific imaging techniques.
And, of course, Karl Blossfeldt’s work has also influenced me. I saw his plant photographs in a large exhibition of two hundred vintage prints at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 1994 and was deeply impressed by their power, monumentality and sculptural quality. Their systematic, almost scientific, approach to image-making certainly had an impact on my photomicrographs, which I began that same year.
[Left] © Claudia Fährenkemper ‘Wanzenkopf, 40x’ [head of a bug, 40x magnification] 2003 66-03-5 from the series ‘Imago’
[Right] © Claudia Fährenkemper ‘Mund einer Froschlarve, 40x’ [mouth of a tadpole, 40x magnification] 2000 112-00-4 from the series ‘Metamorphosis’
That said, there is also a sense of Freud’s unheimlich [the uncanny] beloved of the Surrealists…
During my early studies I was fascinated by the enigmatic and unsettling imagery of painters like Giorgio de Chirico [1888–1978] and René Magritte [1898–1967] in which simple, quiet forms appear monumental through the use of perspective and lighting. They are mysterious pictures without spatial determination, unlocalisable in any reality. At the same time, the objects are rendered in sharp verisimilitude, almost tangibly so, which increases their magical presence… And of course the collages and frottages of Max Ernst [1891–1976] with their enigmatic magic from the microcosm to the universe, their mixing and contrasting of the rational and logical with a world of imagination and fantasy. These all made a lasting impression on me.
So, yes, the ambivalent beauty and uncanniness of forms and structures, and the combination of the real and the surreal, definitely play a role in my work. It is possible that some of my microphotographs, or even some of the ‘Armor’ images, touch layers of the subconscious in the viewer.
Claudia Fährenkemper was born in Castrop-Rauxel, West Germany, in 1959. She studied art and geography for the teaching profession at the University of Düsseldorf (1979–86), and photography first at University of Applied Sciences Cologne (1987–89), and then at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art (1989–95). Her work has featured in more than thirty solo exhibition and over fifty group shows in Asia, Europe, North America and Oceania.
Her photographs are held in many prestigious public and private collections including GoEun Museum of Photography (Busan, Korea), Kunstmuseum Bonn (Germany), Musée de L’Elysée (Lausanne, Switzerland), National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), and Santa Barbara Museum of Art (California, USA). Claudia Fährenkemper received the Sparkasse Pforzheim prize for Architecture and Society (1989), and an Excellence Award (Art and Contemporary Photography) at the Pingyao International Photography Festival, China (2016). She lives in Steinheim, Germany.
photo © Jürgen Chudzian
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.