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Art People: putting photographers on the spot

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For the past four years Soren Solkaer has turned his camera on his colleagues: he photographs other photographers. First he studies their pictures; then, using their cameras, lighting equipment, and props, he makes images in their style. Ernestine Ruben, for instance, photographs body parts and Rodin sculptures, rarely including the faces of her subjects; Solkaer took a picture of Ruben's hand squeezing an ear, a comment on "her relationship to the models--they are like clay or marble to her." Emil Schildt, who photographs young women in a voyeuristic manner, is shown displaying a camera in front of his genitals "as a kind of manly weapon."

Solkaer, who's 28, became interested in photography as a high school student in Denmark. Aware of how homogenized his own culture was, Solkaer says, he was fascinated by the documentary pictures of petty criminals and others taken in the U.S. by Danish photographer Jacob Holdt in the 70s. Solkaer began taking pictures during a trip to Turkey when he was 18 and quickly found that making photographs was a way of getting to know people. "I have a great fascination for this way of meeting people, and I think I explored more deeply because I had the camera. The camera is a passport in a way."

His first experience with studio portraiture came when he joined an amateur photo club that used a hired model for nudes. He hated it. "There was no dialogue between photographer and model. I felt it was quite a dirty atmosphere." Instead he got friends and a sister to pose nude for him; some of those pictures have an erotic edge, he admits. When he moved to the Czech Republic to study photography in 1993, he planned to pursue documentary work. Instead he got the idea of photographing artists in the manner of Arnold Newman, whose photo of Piet Mondrian, for instance, resembles one of his paintings. Soon Solkaer was taking pictures of photographers in their studios, but his instructors did not approve of his efforts. According to his teachers, "Each photographer has a style--one style, one lifetime," Solkaer says. "They were saying that I had to decide on one thing and try to develop that to find my own style. I was asking why, because I felt I could express myself in these pictures without deciding on one style." So Solkaer persevered, eventually gaining the support of a few instructors. He says the discussions at his critiques sometimes resulted in faculty members "screaming and shouting at each other."

Solkaer's diptych of well-known Czech photographer Jan Saudek pairs a nude Saudek holding a picture frame with an image of him kneeling and kissing the ass of one of his young models. Since Saudek hand colors his own black-and-white images, Solkaer has hand colored these as well. Saudek, who often photographs nudes against a blank background, sometimes posing with them as if they were having sex, "always shows himself as being very macho--he's always painting his veins blue," Solkaer says. "Though he's 59 in my pictures, he has taken very good care of his body. He lifts weights, goes running every day, is very fit, very muscular." The ass-kissing pose is Solkaer's way of representing "the somewhat vulgar relationship the photographer has to his models, and the fact that in his work and in real life he's a really sexual person." In the other image Saudek is handcuffed to the frame, an allusion to Saudek photos that show him handcuffed to different women. Solkaer says it represents the way Saudek is trapped both in his own narcissism and in a "kind of prison that's been created from the position he has in photography."

A diptych of the French collaborators Pierre et Gilles reproduces the bright colors and kitschy decor of their work. In one image they are posed on either side of a young Laotian man, Tomah, who is both their model and photo stylist. "Pierre and Gilles have created a mythology about themselves. Their whole flat is one huge stage of kitsch--they look like their photographs. A lot of their images of models are very explicit, but don't say anything about their relationship to the model." Solkaer's photograph implies a triangle, with Tomah at its center--though Solkaer has no idea if that's the case.

Solkaer is currently in New York pursuing Nan Goldin, Duane Michals, and Richard Avedon. Though they are all well-known, Solkaer is confident that they will cooperate. "Some have said, 'I'll pose for you if you'll pose for me.' Emil Schildt photographed me and my girlfriend nude. It was erotic but not sexual."

Acknowledging that some of his pictures might be construed as critiques of the photographers' work, Solkaer adds that he's still skeptical about the idea of a "signature style. People think it's almost a divine thing, given to them by God. I have a very strong disbelief in that. I think a personal style is a choice. I'm very sure that I will never end up photographing in one style."

Solkaer's photographs are on view for the first time in this country at Schneider Gallery, 230 W. Superior, through September 8. He'll hold a free discussion on his work this Wednesday from 5:30 to 8. The gallery will be closed for vacation until Tuesday, August 4. Call 312-988-4033 for more. --Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Soren Solkaer photo by Eugene Zakusilo; Solkaer photos "Jan Saudek & Simona, Prague 1994," "Danish Photographer Emil Schildt, 1994".

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