On the “shaped photographies” of Esther Hagenmaier

Even while selecting the respective image section, Esther Hagenmaier already reduces her motifs, which are mostly architectural, to highly charged, formal references; in the next step she rejects anything that she regards unimportant, distracting or simply uninteresting. In a slow process of reduction she removes image elements, crystallizes out hidden relationships – while any remnants of narrative fragments are definitively winnowed out. The line achieves increasing significance, surface and form adopt a role as autonomous players. The shadow, that immaterial co-participant, gains tension-filled power until it even dominates some motifs by defining the space. The photographed architecture inevitably loses significance in comparison to its skeletized extract.
The artist could have achieved all this with digital image processing: she could, so to speak, have pixelled away anything that interrupted her view. But she has chosen a more radical, more interesting method. Right from the start she reduces the internal structure as far as possible, then she simply cuts away everything at the outer edges that doesn’t suit her. The results of this process, which requires extreme precision, provide Esther Hagenmaier with an artistic form that exists between photography and sculptural wall object. In this way she strives to approach her designated goal as close as possible: to distil her own perception from the photographic image.
Esther Hagenmaier uses clipping and reduction, applies a process of reduction, to create places of refuge for the eye. The wall as basic element of every enduring architecture would seem to be the ultimate metaphor for viable, load-bearing structures. The concentration on the essentials engenders a sense of calm. The “shaped photographies” are not comfortable or easy – they remain stimulating thinking and recreation spaces.

Rolf Sachsse
Fielded in Imagery
Three positions in extended viewing of the photographic image

Esther Hagenmaier calls her works
Bildraumobjekt, Flächenverbund and Bildkörper (‘image-space-object’, ‘surface cluster’ and ‘image body’), thus already thematising an extension of the medium of photography. Or creating a contradiction: like painting or drawing, photography is initially a design of a surface, a picture is nothing but organized material on a carrier medium. But as a medium, the photographic image also generates a different effect: it creates space. In Esther Hagenmaier’s work, however, one never quite knows precisely what space one is viewing at that moment: that of the image, that of the representation, that of what surrounds the image and finally that of emergence from the wall on which it hangs. Drawing on constructivist painting, which she studied intensively and with good teachers, she adopts the shaped canvas, but the history of art features the shaped photograph only in the collage, which moreover is wrongly referred to as the photomontage. In the literal sense Esther Hagenmaier creates collages too when she develops her image fragments individually and then brings them together. In each case the result is an image object that has more in common with the relief than with a photograph. It is also up to the viewer, not only to the artist, to decide where the front and the rear are, and above all where the top and the bottom may be. In best constructivist manner she transforms the established painterly rules for figures and backgrounds into their opposite, and she is equally familiar with the tilted compositional cross of Malevich and with the unleashed camera of Vertov. But: the images are very calm, not dynamic in the sense aspired to by the Soviet revolutionaries.

Despite all this, Esther Hagenmaier’s images are mostly photographic as well, depicting segments of the world. In her work these involve architecture, and as her oeuvre has developed they have become more specific, also in terms of the means of depiction. We see sections of walls and floors, occasionally divided diagonally by a shadow; moreover, shadows and floor edges form opposing angles. Those who have some familiarity with the history of modern and late modern architecture might already recognize which building is depicted on the basis of the concrete walls, their formwork and margins. Recently Esther Hagenmaier has increasingly begun to include local buildings in her work – wherever she exhibits, she studies the surrounding area and incorporates buildings. This is true for Kaunas just as it is for Budapest or Ulm, and each time the result is surprising, being simultaneously abstract and concrete, functioning both as architectural history and as reference to personal memories. Where she exhibits, there she has been – a fundamental paradigm of photography that, despite all abstraction, the artist never abandons. This is even evident when she intervenes directly in a space and positions coloured lines or flat objects in it; then the photography is guarantor of each viewing perspective, and so in this process her own work is reversed but ultimately remains intact in the interlocking of image and space.

What the three artists have in common is not only their work in the field of the media – and they work really hard, as one sees from the perfection of their works. They are united in the effect of media techniques that they seek to overcome at precisely the point where language fails: at the moment of perception, of the shock that from Charles Baudelaire to Roland Barthes has guaranteed the indissoluble nature of art and thus its autonomy. The three artists differ in the duration of this original, no longer deceivable perception: Esther Hagenmaier and Thomas Witzke stimulate the eye at the first moment, while Karen Irmer requires the longer eye contact of observation. However, none of the three rely solely on this first glance but instead expect that the pleasure of seeing will lead to the satisfaction of understanding. Karl Valentin’s maxim that “art is beautiful but hard work, too” refers in their works not only to the creative process of the artists but also to us, those who view the works – and art can’t hope for more than that.
The text is an excerpt from a text written for the show VISUAL FIELD /SICHTFELD by
Esther Hagenmaier, Karen Irmer and Thomas Witzke in Kaunas Photography Gallery, Kaunas, Lithuania, 26. 05. – 19.06.2016

Photographic Studies on Space and Perception
Shape, plane, colour ‐ and how they become three‐dimensional
About Esther Hagenmaier’s photograms and ’shaped photographies‘

The central theme of my artwork is the visual perception of space and plane, and the representation of space in the picture.
The medium photography allows me to create images focusing on the concept of seeing and perceiving.
The initial theme for my ’shaped photographies‘ is architecture.
By cutting I adjust the photographic image according to my perception: Removing unimportant parts allows me to condense and emphasize references already existing within the image. This procedure could be perceived as an imitation of the human way of seeing: We focus on the area we find interesting, and block out what is not important.
Due to the free geometric shape the image extends into the room. The photographic image distances itself from the mere reproductive function and turns into a visual and perceptive field.

For the photograms I generate every single element in the darkroom: I use individual stencils for every triangle. Different exposure times deliver a range of shades between black and white. This technique allows me to create geometric compositions with a strongly three‐dimensional effect and a slight optical illusion . The sculptural effect is constantly shifting without evoking a clearly perceptible figure.

Esther Hagenmaier, 2014

Hans-Dieter Fronz has called Esther Hagenmaier’s photo-based work ‘Concrete Art with a telephone connection to reality’. Her photograms are intentionally trompe l’oeil, made strongly three-dimensional by virtue of their folding forms and flat greyscale tonality which reduces the spatial clues. In exposing her photograms the triangular stencils she uses must be perfectly aligned to prevent the creation of joints, which cannot be detected until the print is developed. The images have irregular, cutout shapes.
There is a consistency between the photograms, her lens-based imagery, room installations, objects and architectural interventions she makes, as all share this irregular hard-edge geometry.
Born in 1975 in Germany, Hagenmaier studied from 1999-2006 fine arts at the HBKsaar, Saarbrücken and then as a master student of Sigurd Rompza whose work has also an architectural basis. Despite the fact that she has been artistically active for only a few years, since 2006 Hagenmaier has shown widely.