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Ewa Stackelberg: Fotogram at Fotografiska

In October 1997, Ewa Stackelberg’s husband died in a plane accident in Costa Rica. Among the belongings sent to her after the tragedy was her husband’s camera, which had been smashed to pieces in the crash—almost like a foreshadowing of the turn that Stackelberg’s life and practice would take in the years to come. In the search for a new artistic language to express her grief, photography—or rather, the production of photograms—eventually became Stackelberg’s chosen medium. Nearly two decades later, the tragedy continues to inform her oeuvre, in which metaphors of life and death, in their gloriously distilled forms, have found permanent imprints on light-sensitive paper. It is this aesthetic sensibility that underpins Fotogram (2015), a retrospective of Stackelberg’s work—taken over a period of fifteen years—at Fotografiska.

Ewa Stackelberg. Divan Grottan, 2011; photogram; Divan series. Courtesy of Ewa Stackelberg and Fotografiska.

Ewa Stackelberg. Divan Grottan, 2011; photogram; Divan series. Courtesy of Ewa Stackelberg and Fotografiska.

In technical terms, the photogram is a photographic image made without a camera, an old method that was, in the 19th century, employed by pioneers László Moholy-Nagy and Anna Atkins to create photographic illustrations with the cyanotype process. To create a photogram, objects are placed between light-sensitive paper and a light source; when exposed, the areas of the paper that receive light appear dark, and the parts that do not receive any light appear lighter. The silhouette that gradually emerges is a negative shadow image that shows variations in tone, depending on the degree of opacity and transparency of the objects used. As with the photographic pioneers, Stackelberg’s process in the darkroom is one of conscious experimentation with the image-production process. A usable print or a favorable outcome is never assured—Stackelberg readily admits that there are more bad prints than good ones—but it is precisely this aesthetic uncertainty that’s so alluring, especially when the creation of a photogram is akin to engaging in “a dialogue between the unconscious and the artistic material” each time light, chemicals, and objects interact.

Ewa Stackelberg. Turkos med prickar, 2014; photogram; Summertime series. Courtesy of Ewa Stackelberg and Fotografiska.

Ewa Stackelberg. Turkos Med Prickar, 2014; photogram; Summertime series. Courtesy of Ewa Stackelberg and Fotografiska.

Ewa Stackelberg. Hästen BFL, 2000; photogram; Tale for the Living series. Courtesy of Ewa Stackelberg and Fotografiska.

Ewa Stackelberg. Hästen BFL, 2000; photogram; Tale for the Living series. Courtesy of Ewa Stackelberg and Fotografiska.

In the dimness of Fotografiska’s gallery space, Stackelberg’s prints are startling, color-drenched images that bear little resemblance to the materials—thistles, moss, earth, offal, intestines, and tendons are her staples—that shaped them. In fact, there is a fearless, spontaneous element and an almost reckless abandon in the way her materials are gathered, displayed, and processed. Torson (2000) and Liggande Kvinnan (2005), for instance, belong to a playful group of photograms depicting Stackelberg’s silhouettes of herself—sometimes dressed only in ketchup—lying in various positions across the canvas. Many of her prints, such as Turkos Med Prickar (2014) and Röd Rund Med Blad (2014), capture the strange beauty of happenstance, like the emergence of life in a primordial soup where chaos is given free reign.

Ewa Stackelberg. Tamar, 2000; photogram; Tale for the Living series. Courtesy of Ewa Stackelberg and Fotografiska.

Ewa Stackelberg. Tamar, 2000; photogram; Tale for the Living series. Courtesy of Ewa Stackelberg and Fotografiska.

Ewa Stackelberg. Liggande Kvinnan, 2005; photogram, The Woman series. Courtesy of Ewa Stackelberg and Fotografiska.

Ewa Stackelberg. Liggande Kvinnan, 2005; photogram, The Woman series. Courtesy of Ewa Stackelberg and Fotografiska.

Most notably, Stackelberg’s prints are more aesthetically driven than functionalist entities; they aren’t immediate reflections of a cultural, social, or political ethos, but fixations on the incongruence between raw material and finished product. Even though each image is an exercise in capturing the amalgamation of “color, patterns, and stories,” the shockingly bright hues of the prints makes it easy to forget that the mesmerizing cobalt in Hästen BFL (2000) began with the violent action of ripping the eyes out of a dead horse’s head, or that Tamar (2000) started out as an exercise in arranging animal intestines. But because the finished product is visually satiating, achieved through staged compositions, and manifested with saturated colors, Stackelberg’s prints ultimately serve to remind us—obliquely—about the fallibility of vision, where beauty can still be gleaned from various states of putrefaction and decay.

Ewa Stackelberg: Fotogram will be on view at Fotografiska in Stockholm through April 5, 2015.

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