Written review by
Associate Curator, International Center of Photography
The best portraits in Monika’s series are very strong, very intense, and very deep. The blacks and whites are beautifully mastered and the voice is genuine. In her statement, Monika says she was looking to photograph “on the surface or even by chance underneath”. Indeed I can see both in this beautiful selection, and the surface is sometimes just as penetrating as what lies beneath.
In fact, image 1 might be the strongest in the portfolio, precisely because it brings us to a moving surface– skin, hair, fabrics, extremities - no faces, but deeply telling presences and absences. We are left on the surface with such a strong texture - such telling hands - and excellent composition that the intimacy is immediate. Another very strong image in my view is image 5, that captures a beautiful moment, and again, the hands, in the most instinctive way. Image 3 is a very strong portrait as well, the only one where the eyes are looking straight in both directions, and the lines of the faces are so dramatic. The instrument, the wind blown, the repetition of the pattern in the background and in the foreground thanks to the reflection in the trumpet, make for a very powerful and memorable portrait. I would argue that Monika is at her best when in that zone of proximity. There is a reminiscence of Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank that really appeals to me, a form of grittiness and of life on the margins that is visually striking and emotionally powerful. I also love image number 9, a little bit of a Saul Leiter moment of poetry, with the many reflections, the hand in the front, the meditation. Image 10 is stuck in that in-between-ness, a very ‘Stromholmian’ moment, Les Amies de Place Blanche, such an intriguing, beautiful and moving subject, but the composition could have been stronger, or perhaps the moment – something is off, not candid enough – but I love the intrigue.
Indeed, the portraits that I find weaker are the ones that are perhaps too clean in comparison, too polished, not tense enough- such as image number 2 (the eyes of the man escaping Monika’s somehow creates a vacuum of intensity, compared to image 3). The dog alone, with his eyes closed, would have been perfect, the whites and the lines, the velocity of his face and if the bandana covering it. It is a matter of a second. Not a bad photograph by any means, but a low moment. Image 4 strikes me as too “posée”, too much awareness and self-awareness in the subject, perhaps too much light. Not a bad photograph at all, in fact the composition is quite good and the lines beautiful, it might be that the background is too heavy for a subject of this stature. Too heavy visually: the big white letters in the back eat the frame and undermine the subject, such a good character. Too much self-awareness in image 6, an affect and an effect that bothers me, that black hallo around the woman. It is a little too forced. Image 7 is good but perhaps not different enough, compared to Monika’s very dramatic portraits commented above. This one seems a little bit too ordinary; too easy. Great composition and complete unawareness - but not memorable. Image 8 is a good one, but again perhaps too “léchée”, to clean and posed. Same with image 11. Too much control on both sides.
All in all I think Monika produced a beautiful series, and I would only encourage her to keep on finding those beautiful moments that are both on the surface and emotionally striking: moments of “lâcher-prise”, on her side and on her sitter’s side, which is when the intensity reaches its peak. The photographs lose their intensity and impact when the emotional distance is too loose. Elliott Erwitt says the magic of the photography is the transcendence of place and time. It is the most difficult thing to attain, particularly in portraiture, but it does happen in many of Monika’s portraits, especially the ones where the faces disappear and all that is left for us to see is still so alive.