Andy Wiener

Exhibition: Life Stories
(photographing below the surface)

This show was in two parts. A series of photographs entitled Life Story Work, produced between 2008 and 2012, and earlier work (A Rake’s Progress and Love Scenes) produced in the late 1980s. In the intervening two decades my time was largely taken up with my career in medicine (specialising in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) and raising my family. During this time I explored various photography projects but none quite hit the mark, until I began the Life Story Work series.

Life Story Work: Social Work Practice

The title of the series is taken from the social work practice of Life Story Work, and some understanding of this practice enhances the enjoyment of these images. Life Story Work is the name given to a collaborative project between children who are in foster care (who are preparing to move on to long term foster care or adoption) and their social workers. Part of the project is to take photographs of people and places that have been important to the child; such as the birth family, previous foster carers, places where they used to live, schools attended etc. These are put in a book with text. When the child moves on to their new life these photographs provide a precious link with the past, helping to preserve the child’s sense of identity.

One concern I have about Life Story Work practice is that, although precious to the child, the collected photographs cannot give many answers to the questions they have about their lives. For example a photograph of a healthy mother with a charming smile (looking her best) may make the child question more why they could not still be living with his mother rather than being in foster care.

Life Story Work: Self Guided Exploration

In my series of Life Story Work photographs, I have conjured up visual ideas to represent threads in my heritage, and revisit psychological places I have been in the past. The work is intended to be interpreted in any way the viewer wishes to view it, drawing on their own connections and references. However because of the strong autobiographical strands in the work some people may be interested in the specific context.

My father was a German Jewish Refugee, who after coming to Britain at the age of 12 years old, turned his back on Jewish religion and culture. He lost a number of close relatives in the holocaust, including an uncle, who in the First World War had been awarded the Iron Cross. The only Jewish-ness I have, is my name and my memories of my German grandmother, who also escaped from Germany.  I was born and raised in Scotland, but my Scottish-Irish mother felt very warmly towards England, as she had lived in Kent for many years during her childhood. I have now lived in England for 25 years (half my life) so I sometimes wonder how Scottish I am.

Because I act all the parts in these photographs (except for one which includes my wife’s face) there is no attempt to create a feeling of reality. These Life Story Work photographs therefore might be a more authentic record, than the pictures taken by foster children and their social workers. Using my imagination I am exploring the questions I have about my past, rather than expecting to come up with answers.

In the Life Story Work theme I found a rich vein of visual ideas, and I enjoyed working within the self imposed visual framework of horizontal landscapes with flowers. One reason this work pleases me because it combines my longstanding interest in landscape photography (which did not feature in my previously exhibited and published work) with constructing a narrative across a body of work. Making the images was challenging at times. I had to hunt far and wide for the right location for each photograph (for example the Scottish Highlands and Islands, South West Ireland, Auschwitz Extermination Camp in Poland) and often have to wait for the right season and weather conditions. I am very grateful to the friends and relatives who helped me make these pictures, and I am quite entertained by the fact that I did not actually take the majority of these photographs. A couple however were taken using a cable release.

Early Development

Looking back on my journey in photography, when I started at the Royal College of Art in 1984 I was preoccupied with the issue that photographs were not necessarily a truthful record of reality. We take this fact for granted now, but at the time this was a fairly new idea. A more genuine use of the medium, as far as I was concerned, was to make images that made the false nature of photography explicit, and hence in a twisted kind of way, were more authentic than documentary photographs were. Clearly this preoccupation has remained constant in my work.

During my time at the Royal College of Art I was doing a large amount of formal and informal portraiture, and I noticed that people who were subjects of photographs often tried to disguise their true selves from the camera. Therefore (after a number of false starts and blind alleys) I hit on the idea of turning the lens onto my own face, and conveying (acting) a range of emotional states to the camera. I made the photographs into masks, and my subjects wore them in my photographs, hence concealing themselves from my camera, while presenting my (false) expressions to the viewer.

A Rake’s Progress

My first body of work using this technique was completed in 1996 and is titled A Rake’s Progress. William Hogarth made a series of etchings and paintings with this title in 1735. His Rake was a scoundrel who squandered his inheritance and behaved in a very immoral way and ended up in Bedlam. My Rake does the opposite, trying to lead the life set out for him by society, but sadly he too ends up in Bedlam. He has neglected the matter of his own authenticity, and has to pay a high price for this.

Photographic Masks

The photographic masks are flat but look three dimensional because of the way the mask and background are lit. To make the mask a photograph of a face is pasted onto cardboard and then I cut out around the face. The mask is then supported in front of the face of the subject using a construction of spectacles, polystyrene and sellotape. The final photographs are then taken "straight", so there is no post production montage involved. One of my photographs, Implantation, in the series Love Scenes, gives the idea of what is happening.

The sight of people holding photographic masks in front of their faces is common these days, but before A Rake’s Progress was exhibited and published this had not happened.

Love Scenes

The next series exhibited in this show is entitled “Love Scenes” and was produced between 1988 and 1989. Here I used masks made out of the faces of Barbie, Ken and - the children’s superhero of the 1980’s – He Man. Again I was preoccupied by people in society who unwittingly conform to stereotypes. Barbie is the unawakened adolescent who wishes for nothing except for life with the man who was made just for her, Ken. However in my story she rebels and opts for He Man rather then Ken. However retribution, confusion and chaos follow. These photographs are much more carefully constructed than A Rake’s Progress. They are taken in rooms converted into studios, and all the props are carefully selected and thoughtfully placed. In Life Story Work I have returned to a technique where more is left to chance. On balance I prefer this approach to the highly controlled studio environment.

There are many connections for me between my career as a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, and my practice as a photographer, but at the root of it is a belief that more intriguing things lie beneath the surface than on it.

Andy Wiener 2013