It is all about the eyes.
How is it possible that photography can move people to the root of their heart? Jan C. Schlegel manages to do that. His straight photography is naked in more than one meaning of the word.
This text could have had many titles. “Tattoos and urban subcultures” is perhaps the most obvious title. “From African tribes to the urban jungle” could have been another. “Finding solidarity in solitude” is yet another option. The many possibilities speak about an artist whose ability to trigger emotions, tell stories and construct narratives are manifold.
The obvious titles are seldom the best. And Jan C. Schlegel’s art is so strong that – in spite of all these options – I ended up with pointing at the most direct and sincere tool of communication we have as humans: Our eyes. A cliché says that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. The power of our eyes is best shown when another person looks you straight in the eye. That is the moment you might feel love. Or fear. Our eyes are powerful in every aspect of the word.
The choice of title points to the most important feature when Jan C. Schlegel’s art is concerned: His ability to use his eyes. He does that in a way that exposes people in a very personal manner. We, the spectators, are allowed to have a glimpse of the private personae, the real human being that hides behind a mask. It is those masks that make these models interesting. They are different because of their public appearance.
But the title is also talking about something else. Jan C. Schlegel encounters humans who are strange to us. They come from another culture or they look different in our eyes. On the street, in everyday life, most people would recognize them as strange. Some would say that they are threatening and avoid confrontation. Many men and women would be afraid to talk to them. We would easily have rejected their gaze and not made eye contact. But in Jan C. Schlegel’s pictures they look us straight in the eye. And thus a strange thing happens: Despite their differences they appear like someone you would like to give a hug and talk with for a long time.
The strange thing is that Jan C. Schlegel’s pictures remove the threat from the unknown. He became famous for his beautiful pictures of men, women and children from indigenous tribes in the deep heartland of Africa – and further on photographs of tribal people from different, distant parts of the world. His photographs picture them with pride and dignity.
With his new series “The Tribes of our Generation”, which is shown for the first time in the Oslo-gallery Willas contemporary, he takes a giant step towards his own culture. But the young women (and a few men) he portrays are as much strangers to most of us as the members of the African tribes. These youngsters are IT-girls and tattoo artists. They are idols of a new generation. They are stars on YouTube, Instagram and other varieties of social media. They are strangers to everyone who is not a part of that specific subculture.
These people are more alive on the internet than in real life. They are used to pose for the camera. They inhabit a make-believe-world where appearance is everything. That is why they fascinate us so much. They are not comfortable with the flaws and imperfections of everyday life. That is why they become so human in Jan C. Schlegel’s photographs. He has a special ability to make them relax in front of the camera. He makes them forget themselves. For a short period of time he makes them leave their appearance behind, standing naked and exposed to the world. They have their image intact, but we as spectators are allowed to enter behind their masks.
When you look at the pictures in Jan C. Schlegel’s new series, the model’s eyes are the last thing you think about. You look at their tattoos and piercings; the artistic hairstyles; the skinny, naked bodies; the details on their skin. You might even have a peek at their breasts and nipples. There is nothing wrong about that. Their nakedness is not sexual. It is only beautiful. And you might discover, gradually, that these people, the ones that many people avoid in the street, look nice and friendly. You experience that they appear fragile and naked, not only in the flesh, but also in the indirect, psychologic meaning of the term. It is all because of their eyes. That is the most important, special quality that turns these pictures into art.
The German artist Jan C. Schlegel (born 1965) made a remarkable debut in 2012. He already had a long career as a photographer. For many years the artistic side of his preferred media was something he did not think about, even less consider as an option for himself. When he made his debut as an artist, at Paris Photo in 2012, he had never heard of Irving Penn (1917–2009). The American photographer is one of the legends of the post-war era, and even if he is most famous as a celebrity- and fashion photographer, he is also a pioneer in the modern history of ethnographic photography.
It is this tradition Jan C. Schlegel has brought to a new level. He does the same as Penn when he places the people he photographs in front of a neutral background. They are in their well known, local community, but the situation caused by the photo-session does something to the subjects in front of the camera. The results were regarded as a sensation. The Lucerne- and München-based gallery Bernheimer Fine Art’s exhibited the pictures at Paris Photo. Suddenly Schlegel was ranked along with Penn and other great photographers. It came as a big surprise to the German photographer. Gradually he has found his way into the art-world.
It was his stunning pictures from Africa, of indigenous men, women and children living in remote villages and isolated tribes, that caused the attention. Jan C. Schlegel’s pictures were the result of a long lasting engagement that started ten years earlier, when he, after a drought disaster in 2002, volunteered to work with aid in southern Ethiopia. He was seduced by the people, and he returned several times in order to experience their warmth, their smiles and joy of life. But every time he returned to Germany and developed his negatives, none of the photos reflected his experiences. The people he had photographed looked poor, weary and sad, and he did not understand why he was not able to catch the one thing that he thought was crucial to his experience – their zest for life.
To cut a long story short – after years of hard work Jan C. Schlegel discovered the key. He found a way to communicate with people from different cultures. He developed a method that is universal and humanistic, which works either he photographs indigenous people or IT-girls. It has nothing to do with language. It is all about trust, about using your eyes and body language to communicate. It is about having enough time and being able to see and respect people as they are.
If you add Jan C. Schlegel’s technical skills, you encounter an artist who has the rare combination of technical and aesthetic personality. He works with traditional black and white film in a large format camera, and nothing is digitally edited. He has developed his own method of toning parts of his black and white prints. His perfectionistic demands add a special quality to the handmade prints, and because of the special toning process each print has its own individuality.
This text could have enveloped a lot of different questions. It would – for instance – have been interesting to write about the psychological aspect of tattoos and the human urge to decorate our bodies and environment. Or I could have dug into the world of IT-girls and tattoos. I have spent time researching these things, and I have looked at several thousand pictures of tattooed people. But all the research turned out to be of less importance when I understood what is really important. It is all about their eyes. After hours of reading and watching I understood that I would never find what I was looking for on the internet. I had already seen it in their eyes. The solution to all my questions was looking at me from Jan C. Schlegel’s photographs. That is what makes him a truly human artist.
(Lars Elton is a critic, freelance journalist and editor. He is the art- and architecture critic for the Oslo-based, daily newspaper Dagsavisen, and he has held the same position in Norway’s biggest newspaper VG for 16 years. Elton also writes about art and other cultural topics in a broad variety of publications.)
THE TRIBES OF OUR GENERATION
19.01 - 04.03
Ever since the origins of humanity, geography has determined which culture, nation or ethnicity we belong to. Globalisation changes this, leaving many of us with unresolved questions. How do we become part of a culture? What are the mechanisms that determine the tribe we belong to - and how we choose to present ourselves?
Jan C. Schlegel is internationally recognised for his many classic and timeless portraits of indigenous people from around the globe. He recently made a fascinating discovery. He found aesthetic elements and symbols he recognised from his many travels within our own culture. Schlegel started making contact with people from different subcultures that interested him, and invited them to his studio. His subject matter in Tribes of Our Generation are people who act as role models in their subcultures, people who are linked together on instagram and other social media.
Jan C. Schlegel  was born and raised in Schwartzwald in Germany. He discovered photography at an early age. Schlegel works with a large format camera on traditional film. His images are not digitally edited - but magnified in a traditional darkroom and partially toned using an intricate technique that makes each photograph unique.
WILLAS contemporary is the first gallery to present 'Tribes of Our Generation' by Jan C. Schlegel. We invited the Norwegian Art Critic Lars Elton to write an essay on Schlegels work. Tribes of Our Generation can be a gateway to increased understanding and respect for subcultures in our own society.
18th of January - Artist talk and Panel Discussion at Cinemateket.
19th of January - Opening Tribes of our Generation at WILLAS contemporary- the artist will be present.
20th - 25th of February - Jan C. Schlegel will welcome models to his studio in Oslo.
Opening hours during exhibitions:
Tuesday - Sunday 12am - 5pm and by appointment
Tel +47 9133 2343
My book "Essence" will be released at "PARIS PHOTO 2016" with an official book signing event Sunday November 13th at 13:00h. Come to the "BERNHEIMER FINE ART" booth and be one of the first ones to see the book!
I am so amazed how this book came together! The publisher "seltmann+söhne" has done an amazing job turning this book into an art piece!
They used the most advanced scanning technics to ensure that the image quality of my analog prints will not be lost. The high quality scans were edited by one of the best image editors of Germany. I was involved in all the processes. From the beginning I felt that they want to produce an amazing book. They used a very noble paper from Italy and the best printing technics to ensure the very best image quality.
The book is now available for a discounted price for pre-order in the online shop.
Nürnberger Nachrichten from July 25th 2016
Beautiful Gallery! it's the first time I show some pictures about my new series "the tribes of our generation".
- PRESS RELEASE -
JAN C SCHLEGEL
July 8th to September 17th 2016 in Nuremberg/Germany
Wonderland Creative Studios, Pillenreuther Str. 13, 90459 Nuremberg/Germany.
The pictures shown in the exhibition bear witness of the special encounters of the photographer with unique people on his trips through Africa and Asia. Since 1998 Jan C. Schlegel regularly travels to remote places, which are secluded from the tourism of the western world. On his tours the artist observed the rapid decline of traditions and increasing change of the way of life of the people within their tribes due to globalisation. The inexorable changes woke the urgent wish in the photographer to portrait people, to capture impressions and to preserve traditional life forms in his pictures. Thus Schlegel not only creates artistic photographs, but also documents and preserves unique pieces of art – the people themselves. None of people photographed wear special make-up or were specially dressed before the photographs were taken. Nothing was staged, nothing is fake. They were all captured in their own habitat – at the market, in the village square, or simply on the roadside. The only stylistic device Schlegel uses for each one of his photographs is a simple grey background. With it he concentrates the attention on the people, not on their living conditions. The basic message is the internal and external beauty of the pictured people. Schlegel emphasises their uniqueness, their value and their irreparableness. With his art he fights for the particularity and individuality of the cultures.
During the last years Schlegel visited 61 countries, always in search of the distinctive beauty and variety of the people. The picture’s compositions, the highly contrasted play of light and shadow, the inner dynamicsand the extraordinary perspectives, open a crack in the door of secret-treasures of this world that are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Schlegel often stays several weeks with the tribes to get to know and understand its way of life. With his assistant Schlegel lives in modest circumstances among the people, which he tries to portray. Step by step the photographer gains their trust, in order to make pictures in the desired nearness and intimacy. With his photographs Jan C. Schlegel gives us a glimpse on foreign cultures and allows us to discover something about the uniqueness of every single person.
Thus we meet Biwa, 44 years, from Ethiopia, one of the most respected warriors of his Karo tribe. With pride and great strength he poses in front of the photographer. His fame means, he has killed three lions, four elephants, five leopards, fifteen buffaloes and numerous crocodiles.
Monteria, 10 years, tenderly looks at us with her crystal-clear blue eyes. Schlegel found her in Nuristani in Pakistan. Her family descends from the people of Kalashi, an own tribe from the area between Pakistan and Kashmir. The Kalashi have a polytheistic faith and are nature loving, their culture decisively differs from the ethnic tribes which surround them. Today Monteria’s family lives in a remote area in the Hindu Kush, where they gradually loose their traditional culture, clothes and spiritual rites and festivities.
Nale, 18 years, belonging to the Sure tribe in Ethiopia, lives in a small mountain village near the boarder to Sudan. She is the daughter of one of the elders of the tribe. The size of her ear jewellery indicated the extent of her dowry. The bigger the plate in her ear, the greater the marriage portion. With an upraised head she presents her jewellery to the camera and and by doing so reveals her self-conception and pride.
Since the beginning of history, human kind is made up of an endless number of cultures, people and tribes. Each one has its own way of living, its own view on things, values and life-styles.
The faces of these people sink deep into our memory and remind us with their prominent aesthetics of how important it is to preserve cultural identities in all their variety.
The black and white photographs from Jan C. Schlegel are taken with a 4 x 5 field camera (Ebony SV45 Ti) on traditional film (Kodak Tmax 400). The Negatives are developed in Kodak D76 Developer 1+1 dilution. Nothing is digitally edited, and the pictures are enlarged on fiber base photographic paperin the size of 50 x 60 cm, 64 x 77 cm and 104 x 125 cm.
Afterwards each photographic print is partly toned with Schlegels own mixture. Over two years the artist has personally developed this mixture, which gives the photographs a special internal strength and depth. Often this process takes several hours and turns out differently with each print. This way each print is unique. To guarantee a maximum life and enhance the depth in the shadows each picture is Selen toned and mounted on 2 mm solid aluminium.
Jan C. Schlegel was born in 1965 in the Black Forest of Germany. He is married and has three children. He discovered his passion for photography at the age of 14 with in the scope of a Photo course at school. For his first own camera, the reflex camera Minolta XG9, the 14 year-old saved long. As winner of a AGFA photo competition with focus on portraits, Schlegel took part in a seminar by the photographer Walter Schels in the Staatslehranstalt für Photographie in Munich. Under Walter Schel’s influence Jan C. Schlegel began to ascertain his fervor for black-and-white portraits. Toni Schneiders, a distant neighbour of Schlegel, became the second important mentor for the young photographer. After a two and a half year long apprenticeship at Lake Bodensee Schlegel was a professionally trained photographer by the age of 18. Schlegel works for the University of the Nations. He teaches courses in photography and takes students through Africa and Asia, mentoring them as they discover their own way of seeing. Since 2011 he is exclusively represented by Bernheimer and has been shown with great success on art fairs in London and Paris.
About the author: Neal Rantoul is a career artist and educator. After 10 years teaching at Harvard and 30 years as head of the Photo Program at Northeastern University in Boston, he retired from teaching in 2012. You can find out more about him or see his photographic work by visiting his website. This article was also published here.
I’m old. Believe me, I know it. I’ll be 70 in a few months. That fact may make it hard for you to take me seriously, but bear with me for just this post. With age comes wisdom, right? What I want to write here is that I think the field of photography by those making art is changing in a disturbing way. Read on.more
Photographic series or bodies of work are being explicated, explained, contextualized, rationalized, and elevated with text or verbal rationals. You’re thinking: so what? That’s no big deal. Let me start with a short history and then let’s take a look at current practice.
20 or 30 years ago, going to a photo show at MOMA or the Met, SF Modern, ID in Chicago, or even the Whitney often meant you were confronted with a row of framed and matted photographs along with perhaps a brief statement from the show’s curator that gave some biographical data on the photographer or maybe explained in what context the works were being shown. The titles of the work were usually the place and the year the images were made.That was it. The expectation was that the photographs stood on their own, were to be viewed and understood on their own terms, usually as single images sitting next to other single images—think Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Harry Callahan, Frederick Sommer, Lew Baltz, even Ansel Adams and Cartier Bresson. Few words were necessary. There were exceptions, of course. For instance, Robert Adams, who had whole reams of text used to flush out his work and build a rational.
Now, go to a show by a recent MFA grad or sit across the table from someone showing you their work at a portfolio review and things are very different. For most work there is absolutely no understanding possible without a written or verbal account of what the photographer is up to. I always have the sense that I am joining the telling of a story in the middle, trying to play catchup. For most works, separate the photographs from the words and you have no ability to comprehend what is going on.
This isn’t always awful, as perhaps it is part of the evolution of the medium into a specialized category that leads to increased specificity and a clearer intent. But, and this is my main point: the photographs often aren’t very good. It’s as though photography has been sublimated to a necessary part of the total, that the words are the priority and the photographs somehow are ancillary or secondary and therefore not needing much attention.
This resides perilously close to using the photographs as illustrations, really another field entirely.
What is this? My theory: most new art photography these days come from MFA grads who have studied the medium, not only its practice (although often not enough) but its theory, its criticism, its analysis. As the medium’s craft has become easier, more fluid and automatic, mastery of the technical and visual has become less important.
Students flowing out of MFA programs now that were started in the 60’s and 70’s are graduating with degrees and thesis works that are equivalent to PHD dissertations (there is no PHD in applied photography) as the MFA is the terminal degree in the discipline. These grads and recent grads are learned, academic, studied, vocal, theoretical, and informed in the medium’s history. They are also “conceptual” in that the thought is formed, the work is made to fit the thesis, and then executed as a package with the written text to go along with it. This can resolve itself in performative works, video and/or photographs with a primary written component and a secondary tier of importance to the photography.
As photography at this level has grown, the treatment of it as an academic pursuit has as well. Very often the craft of the medium is subsumed, indicating the artist has little interest in the inherent qualities of the discipline itself, using it simply as a vehicle for visual communication. In fact he or she may have graduated from just that: a department of visual communication.
This constitutes a “literalization” of the medium or in effect a deconstruction of its inherently visual qualities resulting in an analytical and intellectual final result.
Go to a graduate thesis show and take a look. The students are concerned with issues of identity, gender, developmental and emotional positioning, posturing, physical and emotional abuse, cultural and societal pressure and assumption, human rights, sexual identity, and on and on. Each of these ideas and many others takes on a personal relevance and importance square in the photographer’s aim, as though there is a catharsis that when shared it is assumed to have relevance to others who are there looking at the work. Of course, much of this is narcissism, self-absorption, even making work with blinders on.
Before you label me an old guy with a lack of sympathy for the young and an inability to see the value in younger’s peoples ideas, read on. Joni Mitchell once sung that “the old hate the young” but I have always really liked the young; take my forty years of teaching at the university level that I really enjoyed as a case in point. Youth is vibrancy, endless energy, huge flexibly, and a sense of discovery that is wonderful to be around. But making the assumption that I or any viewer wants to hear the personal story as a prominent component of the art just really gets me going. I do not. I want to be able to look at the art and judge it on its own merits. Presently, I find a good deal of it lacking.
Look, the practice of making pictures used to be hugely craft based. You needed to study photography and the making of pictures hard to be good at it. It used to be difficult to do well. As a professor I seldom saw any student any good at it until they were a couple of years in. Now, the level is higher and proficiency comes without much work. I doubt most students two years into their degree can accurately tell you what ISO is, aperture and shutter speed settings, 18% gray, reciprocity failure, D-Max and so on. You can build the case, of course, that they don’t need to know those things. Put the camera on “P” and fire away.
My point? As photography becomes ubiquitous, as we are all photographers and even the most simple of cameras made today provides stunning results compared to a few years ago, photography is free to explore areas never approached before. That’s all good. But please give me less words and better pictures! I find the story, the text, mostly boring and condescending, telling me how to look at the photographs rather then letting the photographs do the talking.
It’s ironic that as photographs have become easier to make and there are more photographers than ever before making more photographs the pictures are worse.
As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse Five when referring to the allies massive bombing campaign of the city of Dresden towards the end of WWII that killed people in the hundreds of thousands:
So it goes.
Many have asked how I do it. At my patreon profile I will share about my technics in the darkroom as well in picture taking.
As you know, I love people and I love photography! For years I’ve been mastering my art and now I want to invite you to become part of my creative team. It's so much more fun and effective working together in a team and maybe you know it already, but I love community! So, I started something new. I created a "Patreon Profile" where you can join my team and become part of the creative process of developing my new series called "the tribes of our generation". You can not find pictures of this new series anywhere on the Internet, accept now on the members section of my patreon profile.Read More
I’ve met a lot of bitter photographers over the years, especially as high-end cameras have become cheaper and more accessible. They complain that Photographer A gets more work than Photographer B even though Photographer B’s work is clearly better; or that Photographer C doesn’t get any work even though their work is the best of the three (Side Note: often times the photographer complaining IS Photographer C).Read More
The Bernheimer booth at Art Southampton 2014 with some of my pictures. I have such a great time exploring all the different galleries at the art fairs.
Bernheimer Fine Art Photography is showing some of my pictures at Art Southampton 2014. Come and have look and meet me there.
Art Southampton is the Premier International Contemporary & Modern Art Fair and marketplace for acquiring the finest works of art available in the Hamptons. The 2014 edition will feature a carefully selected group of 80 international art galleries exhibiting paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photography, video and installation by modern and contemporary artists.