When London-based photographer Bettina von Zwehl began her artist’s residency at the New-York Historical Society last year, it had already been part of her practice to photograph people in profile for 18 years. Coming across profile drawings by Benjamin Tappan in the museum’s collection sparked this beautiful yet eerie new series of 17 portraits called “Meditations in an Emergency,” which recall the 17 students and staff members who were killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, last Valentine’s Day. Today marks one year since this horrific event.
Von Zwehl wanted viewers to be able to think about the work—spend time with it, in a low-light space with dark walls where the photographs are the focus of attention. It would seem impossible not to be riveted to each of these 17 moments: 17 children who, because of their prone position, stand in for both those performing mass die-ins in protest to irresponsible gun legislation in the United States and the school shootings that result from it; and for the victims of this modern American horror that, just like the portraits, repeat.
Before I knew what von Zwehl’s project was about, I was struck by the depth and solemnity of the photographs. For all the beauty of the images as objects, it was immediately clear the concept being communicated was serious and of severe importance. That they are close to life size magnifies their power. That the subjects are alive, vibrant teenagers who live with the fear of this same fate befalling them is tragic.
Von Zwehl was kind enough to answer questions about her work via email:
Q: How did you decide to make a project about the Parkland school shooting?
A: As part of my artist’s residency at the New-York Historical Society Museum, I had been studying various collections of silhouettes and fell in love with an overlooked collection of profiles made with grey wash and graphite by Benjamin Tappan in the late 1800s.
I was looking for a project that would include young people from all parts of New York City and would hold a connection to the current political climate in America.
After seeing news photos of the “die-in” staged by activist teens outside the White House following the Parkland school shooting on Valentines Day 2018, I had a very clear idea of the installation I would make for the museum space. After the shooting, students began to stand up united all over the country. It was only the beginning of what is now the biggest teen movement in American history since Vietnam.
It was incredibly moving to see how young people managed to channel their grief, frustration and anger into action against gun violence by calling for stronger gun control laws in the US. Emma Gonzales, David Hogg, Lauren Hogg, and all the other survivors of the Parkland shooting have moved the nation ‑and they have inspired this project.
Q: How did you find and cast your subjects? Was there time to interact outside of making the portraits?
I did an open call to schools in all the boroughs of New York City, and I gave a talk about the project and residency to teen historians at the New-York Historical Society. I also found some sitters through social media and word of mouth.
There was no casting process—I invited the first 24 students that got in touch with me and they all came to the studio. From those 24 sessions, I selected the 17 strongest portraits. You need to allow room for technical glitches when you work analogue, so I always photograph more sitters than I need. I had about an hour with each student. There wasn’t a lot of time but enough to have a chat and listen to their views.
Q: What was the shooting process like for both you and the subjects? Did they want to talk about the Parkland shooting or other school shootings? Was it an emotional process for you or them?
A: It was slightly different with each student: some of them came with friends, some alone, and some brought a parent or sibling. My daughter, who is 12, was also there to break the ice. It was all quite casual to make the teens feel comfortable, since they didn’t know me at all, and some had travelled all the way across town for their session.
We talked about the school walk-outs that had been going on. Some had taken part in the March For Our Lives the week before our session, so there was a general buzz after what was later named the biggest youth-led demonstration in American history. Some of the teens expressed their anxiety about going to school knowing that another school-shooting could happen on any given day.
Q: When did you start photographing subjects in profile? Why did you decide to continue making work in this style? Have you mostly stuck to this since you started?
A: I began exploring my subjects in profile 18 years ago. Formally, I was influenced by Renaissance paintings and drawings, Holbein especially. The profile view is enigmatic in that we only get to see half of a person’s face. The silhouetted profile takes this to the next level, leaving the viewer with the clear outline of the face. I’m constantly working with the idea of reduction within portraiture.
Q: Which of Tappan’s drawings inspired this project? What in particular about them inspired you?
A: They were inspirational as a set—each of them very different, with different shading. Their washed-out, inky grey coloring gives them the feel of death masks made post mortem; they are signed with extraordinary handwriting stating the sitter’s name and, added later in some cases, the year they passed away. There is little information about the silhouettes in the archive, which makes them even more enigmatic. Also the fact that they are drawn really close up made me think of using a macro lens for the project.
Q: Some of your other projects have been about stylistic and procedural repetition, like the portraits you made at your Victoria & Albert Museum residency in 2011, where you photographed the same subject from the same angle, same frame, same time of day, three times a week. Did you use a specific method of shooting that was consistent from subject to subject?
A: Every residency and every encounter with a museum and with the staff and visitors propels the work in a new direction and requires a specific methodology. I try to change my approach to portraiture with every project. For the V&A residency, I made a portrait study over time, working with the same sitter (Sophia, a museum guard) for six months to develop the series Made-up Love Song, a longitudinal portrait study in miniature.
For The Sessions, a project that evolved from my residency at the Freud Museum in 2016, I developed a completely different method making 50 portrait studies by using the same negative of a child’s silhouette.
Meditations in an Emergency is shot from the same height with a macro lens zooming in and out slightly and going up and down a fraction to create a subtle change from pose to pose. Also I worked with the effects of gravity and highlighted the weight of strands of hair or small necklaces. I gave each sitter enough time to sink into the pose as much as possible. As always, there is an element of performance in the studio environment—this time, the staging of a die-in.
Q: What have you been working on since this project?
A: I’ve been collaborating on a project called Album 31, with the artist and writer Sophy Rickett. We’ve been making this photo album, based on a Victorian model, from our photographic reject material over the last seven years. It’s a really exciting and slow process where we share our creative trials and errors and reconsider our editing decisions over the years—rearranging them into something completely new and unpredictable. We are looking to get Album 31 published in the near future.
All photographs from Meditations in an Emergency, 2018 © Bettina von Zwehl. The work is on view at the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library through April 28, 2019.