June 23: Selfies are the big thing; but as big as this camera?
Open today as part of the Cyprus Embassy’s cultural events series Zyprische Miniaturen, running since 2013 to reflect the rich cultural heritage of the island’s artists with concerts and exhibitions, Susanna Kraus and Cypriot Michalis Papamichael exhibit their common project All in One in the IMAGO Kunstraum am Moritzplatz.
Photobooths, automatic cameras, have been a commercial success since the 1890s, first in Hamburg, Germany where the Bosco was invented and patented by Conrad Bernitt. The earliest produced tintypes, a cheap version of the wet-plate collodion process, ‘in three minutes’.
For their project they have used the IMAGO Camera, effectively the largest photo-booth in the world, producing life-sized portraits in twelve minutes.
It is not a recent gimmick but was designed in 1970 by Kraus’s physicist father Werner Kraus. His friend Erhard Hößle, who was an inventor, designer and builder of kites and an excellent silversmith, built the camera around Kraus’ special lens designed in 1968 for his company Daimler-Benz where Kraus was in charge of high-speed photographic capture of car engines in operation. It is able to capture objects 200cm tall at a scale of 1 to 1 without distortion. Their IMAGO Camera was thus the only camera in the world capable of producing 60 x 200 cm prints of people at life size.
On the principle that large format cameras make recordings with higher dimensional accuracy and much more detail than small and medium format cameras, the pair thought it a good idea to build the huge, walk-in camera. The result, the Imago 1:1, appropriately dubbed Monstrum (‘monster’) and completed in 1972, was a room-sized apparatus 7 by 4 by 3 metres in length, height and width. In fact it is two rooms connected by the lens; one in which the subject stands (or performs) in front of the lens, flash units and a mirror, the other housing the exposure and processing room for the direct-positive paper its used to record the image (with no negative). Prints were developed and ready 10 minutes after exposure in the camera.
The camera was capable of being transported owing to Hößle’s partly collapsible construction in which his background in kite-making may have inspired the use of rubberised fabric on steel frames and modular units. It is a sculptural artwork in itself, a giant piece of avant-garde jewellery which was presented at Photokina 1976 with an award (Obelisk) by Prof. Fritz Gruber , the founder of Photokina.
The partners made a number of portraits, fashion photographs, artists’ portraits and photographs of individuals from Kraus’ and Hößle’s social circles which they produced in public and private sessions between 1972 and 1978. A selection of these vintage prints was shown for the first time in Germany in 2016.
The camera spent 25 years in mothballs after the direct-positive paper it required for its ‘instant’ prints went out of production. “The Imago was a scrap heap, lifeless inside, with no flash, no light, no processor…” says Susanna Kraus, the designer’s daughter, who brought the Imago back to life, though she admits she “had no idea about photography. I could not imagine how to bring back the technology.” A German actress and artist who studied acting at the Otto-Falkenberg-Schule in Munich and went on to perform nationwide in theatres and in TV series and films, she rediscovered the Imago in 2004 and by 2006 and had it back in operation after persuading Harman Technology Ltd., a British photo paper company based in Liverpool (and current owners of Ilford), to make the special, large-format positive paper required to operate it. Susanna has since devoted herself to the camera, operating it and promoting it with the assistance of her two sons and a large team of others.
Ironically, two revivals that were distinctly analogue; the Imago camera and The Impossible Project’s resurrection of Polaroid instant materials, were both the talk of the annual industry showcase Photokina in 2010 where the Imago was on display, amidst the ground-breaking digital product launches including Nikon’s D7000 and Canon’s 120-megapixel CMOS image sensor with an APS-H optical format.
In entomology an imago is the final and fully developed adult stage of an insect, while in psychoanalysis it means an unconscious idealized mental image of someone, especially a parent, which influences a person’s behaviour.
This camera answers to both descriptions; its convoluted organic-looking construction is much like the body of an ant or a bee, and what goes on inside, as the subject effectively photographs themselves, is revealing of their mental self-image.
It is significant then that Susanna Kraus’s first major work with the camera was made with the psychoanalyst Wiens (2006). That was followed by portraits of the acrobats of the Roncalli circus (2007), professors of the ZMK Karlsruhe (2008), Berlin’s top chefs (2010), the punks of Kreuzberg (2011) and the personalities in the background of Pinakothek der Moderne (2013).
Drawing together their individual backgrounds and skills, Susanna Kraus’ and Michalis Papamichael’s project deals with dualisms of light and dark, private and public persona, acting and introversion, through the innovation of multiple exposure with the Imago camera; by having just portions of the figure lit or parts of the body painted in black and white, the actors or mimes, which the subjects become in this series, emerge from darkness as if on a stage, their movement represented by repetition and superimposition. These are much more than big ‘selfies’!
The Cypriot artist Michalis Papamichael studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, after which he returned home to Cyprus, where he worked as an artist in the field of photography and installation.