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Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture

In the feedback on assignment 3 (see here), it was suggested that I look at the work of Douglas Huebler; my tutor made the following observation: ‘the additional images of the head shots from the contact sheets also caught my eye. I wasn’t too sure about the ‘self-torturing’ or ‘hand gestures’ shots at first, but they then reminded me of a piece of work conducted by Douglas Huebler’.

The article by Gordon Hughes, discusses Huebler’s work, Variable Piece #101, which features 10 photos of the famous German photographer Bernd Becher, renowned for his straight images capturing industrial buildings and installations. Hughes unveils Huebler’s complex intentions behind the work, which to me seemed like an elaborate visual piece of irony.

I attempt to summarise briefly. Bechers’ own work was almost scientific in its approach, with categorisation and captioning of the work central to the approach; like an archivist. He was influenced by the work of August Sander, with is physiognomic categorisation of German people. Huebler’s work plays with Becher’s approach:

  • Becher is asked to pose for 10 different images, acting different roles (eg priest, lover, nice guy, criminal). After a period of two months without having shown the images, Huebler sent the photos to Becher and asked him to link each image to the original captions provided for the acting. Becher was unsuccessful – demonstrating that reading and categorising photographs is not necessarily a valid approach, even with ones own image.
  • The photos of Becher appear humorous, as he attempts to act out the roles requested of him. As Hughes explains, more like portraits from the New York school of Arbus et al than the straight photos of Sander, Becher’s inspiration. However, Huebler presents them as Becher’s own work was presented – closely cropped and front-on, like an official image for a passport or identification card. Again, playing with Becher’s serious presentation by including the humorous image in the same sort of format.

The more serious message in Huebler’s work seems to be to show that categorisation and systematic ordering and presentation of images does not necessarily make sense – he appears to seek to undermine the approach.

In terms of my own practice (the contact sheets to which my tutor refers); my intention was to show different emotional states (not particularly successfully with my acting ability!), which is different to a physiognomic approach which Huebler questions, but there are nonetheless the similar potential difficulties in reading the emotional states. There is perhaps an interesting future project in self-portraiture, using a similar approach to Huebler!


Hughes G (2007). Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture. Source: Art Journal, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Winter, 2007), pp. 52-69. College Art Association. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20068567 [accessed 16.5.16]


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