Volker Gerling flipbook cinema

Portraits in Motion

HBAF'19 / 
MTG Century Theatre /
22 October / 
By Michael Hawksworth

Volker Gerling’s art is an intimate art, an intensely humanist art, a folk art. He captures life in the way our memories do. That is to say, the events, the incidents, the anecdotes are only notional, chains of stuff that happened, related in something like the correct order. But the moments, the instants, a look, a gesture, those are memory’s windows, intensely vivid, containing somehow the entirety of that someone we once knew, at that time.

Greater than the sum of its parts, Gerling’s flipbook take on portraiture is a, well, clever combination of technical process and narrative strategy. And if describing it that way sounds reductive and dismissive, that’s because it is. To really get a handle on what makes Gerling’s work so affecting, so special, you have to know that this technique of remembering people has sprung from a desire to live a very particular kind of life, one deeply at odds with current trends. It involves a lot of walking and a lot of listening and a lot of not-wanting-to-forget. It also requires unlimited empathy and rigorously limited means. Like haikus of subtle inflection, the “thumb book” portraits he lovingly flips through have that sense of “coming to life” often by no greater means than the turn of a head, or the rustle of grass. It returns a contemporary media-junky viewer, rendered insensitive by a lifetime of on-tap moving image gush, to a moment in history before any of us were born, when seeing a still photograph move for an instant must have felt like a miracle.

Each little flipbook Gerling picks up and holds to the eye of the closed-circuit camera linked to MTG’s magnifying cinema screen contains a black and white photographic record of its subject in a moment of time when Gerling was there in front of them, usually making them a little self-conscious with his Nikon camera, somewhat obtrusively snapping away on a rapid-fire auto setting that yields maybe five seconds of recorded movement. Again, it seems heavy handed and mechanical as a process, but the results are so delicate. Gerling is, anyway, a great photographer. The first picture of every sequence is so perfectly composed in timeless black and white that it never fails to surprise you when the subject shifts, smiles or simply blinks. Gerling flips through every portrait three times, prefacing or following them with the stories of the sitters, which is to say, the story of the sitting, which never fails to be revealing of the sitter.

Maybe it’s the brevity of them, that these precious little books are radically, even painfully, limited in duration and enclosed in time, that they come to feel so miraculous, so human.            

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