Bettina Von Zwehl

Bettina Von Zwehl

Bettina Von Zwehl constructs captivating photographic portraits which have many of the same attributes as traditional still life paintings. We caught up with the artist to discuss her controlled work, her studio habits and her inspirations ...

Q) When did you discover photography?
A) I don’t remember exactly when, only that I started photographing my close friends regularly when I was a teenager. Back then, my grandfather was a photojournalist and I was using his little Leica and I remember how every frame of a roll of film was really precious to me.

Q) Your portraits have many of the same attributes as a traditional still life painting – How do you achieve this controlled effect?
A) It’s a combination of the sitters pose, the quality of light and a 10x8 large format camera, which requires complete stillness from the sitter. I walk around my sitter for a while until everything seems in the right place. The last thing I work on is the expression in the face.

Q) Do you utilise any unusual equipment or techniques in your creative process to help your sitters to relax and prevent them from appearing too ‘posed’?
A) It all depends on the nature of the portrait. In the past I used lots of different techniques to distract a sitter from the fact that they are being photographed. I would use music, rain effect or darkness, gravity or heat to direct the attention of the model away from the studio. In recent years I have let go of those techniques and I’m more involved with the quality of natural light and the pure intensity of the artist – sitter relationship. Also, I try to keep everything quiet during a session and I say as little as possible to my sitter. Sometimes I wait for a magic moment..

Q) How do you select and cast the individual subjects for your portraits?
A) It’s an instinct that I follow. There is no better way to explain it. More often than not my instinct is right.

Q) Do you have a piece of work which stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you for emotional or sentimental reasons?
A) Yes, it’s a series of 34 portraits in miniature, called Made up love song. It’s a durational portrait of Sophia, who works as a gallery assistant at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I had the pleasure to work with Sophia during a 6 months residency at the V&A in 2011. This is also the time when I began working in miniature.

Q) The majority of your work has been produced indoors in the controlled environment of the studio. How did you adapt to the recent challenge of photographing outdoors in your ‘Road to 2012’ project and how did this affect the work?
A) Well, I think the portraits of the athletes still have a feeling of studio portraits due to the pose and their stillness and the darkish, quiet landscape behind them. It was a really inspiring commission and very unexpected. The brief from the National Portrait Gallery included working on locations, where the athletes trained or lived. What made it more exiting for me was to get my lovely old 10x8 plate camera out of the studio and onto steep slopes and into the forest or on the beach come rain or shine. So it was a little adventure to be away from the studio, to drive through England in a truck and to meet these athletes, who were complete strangers to me and to collaborate with David Robinson, my husband who is also an artist/photographer. I used mixed lighting for those portraits, flash and natural light. The most obvious effect this had on my work was to leave some previous techniques behind and to become more flexible generally..

Q) Which contemporary artists (specialising in photography or otherwise) do you find particularly interesting and inspiring?
A)  John Stezaker, Sophy Calle, Roni Horn..to name a few..

Q) I understand that you are regularly asked to conduct private commissions. Can you tell us a bit more about the individuals you have worked with and the resulting work that you produced?
A) Yes, I have done quite a lot of private commissions over the years. Mostly, I have been asked by collectors or art patrons and generally art lovers to make portraits of either themselves or their children and when people get in touch with me, they often ask for a portrait as a gift for someone else. People always want something unique and special when they commission a portrait. Since I was artist in resident at the V&A, I get frequent request to make portraits in miniature, which I enjoy doing the most .The portrait miniature was for centuries the perfect gift to signify private love and affection between the subject of the miniature and the recipient.
My clients love the miniature portraits I make because of their intimate scale and the precious quality of the final object. I developed the design with John Jones and the Conservation Department at the V&A. When I work on a commission, I am careful to strike a fine balance between my expectation and the clients demand. I enjoy making a portrait for people that is really unique and that they will treasure and pass down generations. Most recently I photographed a famous psychoanalyst and the 5 children of a Swiss based collector couple as a Christmas surprise…

Q) What exciting new projects do you have on the horizon?
A) I am currently working on a commission/touring solo exhibition for the Holburne Museum in Bath and I’ve also started a collaborative project with the artist Sophy Rickett in connection with the Birmingham Central Library’s photographic archive…I feel very inspired to collaborate with Sophy who studied with me at the Royal College of Art. We are good friends and have appeared in each other’s work over the years and now we are embarking onto our first collaboration.

Q) Is there a particular space or location where you like to relax and unwind when you’re not working?
A) We have a ginger Persian cat called Noodle. I find her presence most relaxing..

Q) Do you think framing plays an important role in the final presentation of your work?
A) Yes of course and now more than ever. In the 90’s framing to me was all about subtlety, invisibility and perhaps an extension and protection of the work. Since I delved into the world of miniature framing last year, I sometimes think about the frame before I think of the precise content of the frame. At the moment I’m working on a set of eye miniatures and Tim, my consultant at JJ has been very creative and patient in making frames that were close to impossible to make. …I feel I need to take risks in the framing as much as in the making of the work to get the best results.

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Bettina Von Zwehl