Simone van de Loo -texts

Dr. Britta Schröder, Kunsthistorikerin




At the railway station, in the pedestrian zone, on the university campus, at the subway stop: day in day out, we find a path through crowds, gaze into countless strange faces, see hairstyles, coats, umbrellas, legs, bags, suitcases, shoes, see women and men and couples and kids pass us by – and forget them just as they then forget us, because in this flow each and everyone is just a bystander for the others.
Occasionally, though, if there’s a delay, and you have to sit it out, or are simply wandering about, there is a moment when out of the obscurity of fleeting impressions a clear image emerges, a person you want to view more closely, because there is something about him or her …


When viewing the photographs of Simone van de Loo (born in 1963 in Hanover) you revisit such moments. These are highly frequented places, more or less densely populated squares, streets, bridges, beaches, and buildings, which, while you observe them, suddenly trade in their documentary quality for cinematic properties, becoming backdrops in a kind of film still, because in the midst of the throng of passerby a story unravels, a meeting is about to happen or go wrong or end. Here, the main protagonists step out from the obscurity of fleeing impressions and into the focus of perception, as they gain their contours from the fact that they go beyond the two dimensions of photography and their physical presence becomes tangible in space.


In Woody Allen’s film “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) one evening the movie hero Tom Baxter descends from the silver-screen into the auditorium and with his advances makes certain waitress Cecilia who so adores him is completely at emotional sea. In Woody Allen’s movie, fantasy becomes reality, while in Simone van de Loo’s images the persuasive powers of photography and those of the three dimensions balance each other out. Neither of the two wins, and thus the figures inserted into the pictorial space inhabit that interstice between what could be and what is.


Like the persons photographed, those who have stepped into the image later also cast shadows. The artist has added them, each carefully composed to match the cropped section and the lighting. Put differently: She has unrolled them, like the devil in Adalbert von Chamisso’s fairytale “The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl” (1814) rolled them back up: Schlemihl meets a gentleman at on a festive occasion who offers him a never-empty bag of gold in exchange for his shadow. Schlemihl realizes too late what he has given up. His fellow humans avoid him and starts to try everything to regain his shadow. Without a shadow, or so Chamisso’s fairytale suggests, you lose your credibility and existence (or vice versa).


In Luigi Pirandello’s play “Six Characters in Search of an Author” (1921) the sheer will to live (which is not quite the same as the will to survive) becomes the driving force behind all efforts: Six persons crop up in a theater and explain to the director that while an author did in fact invent them, he failed to ever perfect them. And they now demand of the director that they at long last be allowed to perform as they want to live. In Pirandello’s piece these six persons symbolize the six basic models of human life, and their facial traits thus remain mere masks. In Simone van de Loo’s work, by contrast, a pre-made set of types, with many variation admittedly, painted and modified individually (male, female, sitting, standing, with long or short hair, with luggage, without luggage, etc.) function as the basis onto which any face at random can be projected.


What would be if? was the initial question. What could be and what would’ve been if?


A construction site that blocks everything, a slight detour, a brief glance, a moment of inattentiveness: How vertiginous the idea that the most minor of decisions, coincidences and gestures could influence our lives dramatically. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film “The Double Life of Veronique” (1991) asks the question “what would be if?”, and the question forms the very plot for Hendrik Handloetgen’s recent movie “Fenster zum Sommer” (2011), while in Peter Howitt’s film “Sliding Doors” (1998) the missed subway train and the one that did not get missed are each the starting point for two paths of which only the one leads to a fatal end.


Reality’s potential and the options not realized in a photographic snapshot are given a home in Simone van de Loo’s oeuvre. Never are the figures staged in such a manner that their story would take a clear course. They remain open-ended. Our own imagination decides how they will continue or end.


Florian Koch


Signs and Miracles

Exhibition in the FrankfurterKunstBlock Series

November 26, 2012 to February 22, 2013

Simone van de Loo is a relatively new member of the art world, and it was not until about ten years ago that she started taking photos and making photo-collages. Yet her work has already gone on show in Galerie Martina Detterer in Frankfurt. Like Ralph Mann, who prefers the medium of drawing, she is interested in the everyday, in the chance side to encounters in the urban context. The found and at times invented images she uses are not only visually appealing, but also constitute original thought experiments that involve a special surprise effect. While she may have studied law, it was her time working as a film author for ZDF TV channel that was her school of seeing. In the Nineties and Noughties, she realized countless short or full-length films, where every frame had to be right, where the material was distilled to the essence. To this end, she devised her own formal vocabulary, yet felt that increasingly her zest for creative images was being constrained. As a consequence, somewhat more than two years ago she made a radical break with the past, and dedicated herself exclusively to photo art. The results are marvelous.


For Simone van de Loo rarely offers us simple photos, as her intention is instead to create a new image setting – by making personal additions to them. While you may not notice this at first sight when viewing the photos, in the boxes in which her pictures are mounted you will usually discover figures which she has intuitively supplemented, in an ideally appropriate manner. Not infrequently, these newcomers foster tension in the image, or bring vibrancy to an otherwise static interior. She proceeds with great circumspection when making these fictitious additions, transforming crude miniature plastic figures used for architectural models into suitable new figures by painting them or adding clothes such that these persons now either logically expand the image or ironically undermine it. She may spend days tweaking a raincoat until it fits perfectly, or defining the accurate shadow that a new figure casts, given the laws of optics and the angle of the sunlight in the image.

These artifice enables van de Loo to ask questions about the medium of photography, challenging more than ever the authenticity of the photographic image. In her works, the photographs become animate in a new way. For by her subtle additions, she opens up space to a new reality, either one born of her own imagination or that arises in the mind of the beholder. We ourselves start to attribute a main role in things to the figure with its reflection. In her work, reality is grasped not as depiction, but is presented as something we should question. Britta Schröder has commented in this regard: “In these images, the persuasive power of photography is held in check by that of the three dimensions. Neither of the two prevails, and thus the figures in the pictorial space inhabit that interstice between what could be and what is.” Beaches, airport terminal buildings, avenues, and ruins all gain a new life, with figures popping up in them like specters of the past. As signs? As miracles? That is up to the beholder to decide.


In this exhibition, van de Loo is also presenting three photographic works she made only a few weeks ago while in Tokyo and which do not feature any outside figures. The bird’s eye gaze down over a street intersected by zebra crossings is truly hypnotic; indeed, she has created an image of a quite uncanny form of the everyday world that can potentially whisk you away into a world of dreams or contemplation. Simply embark on the journey: it is well worth while.


Florian Koch




Dr. Jeremy Gaines


Simone van de Loo meets Zeno


Revisiting photography in the digital age



I          “You think you’re alone until you realize you’re in it”[1]


Photography is said to have been invented in order to truthfully re-present ‘reality’, although some have suggested since that what it represents is merely the appearance of things, not their essence. Be that as it may, photography is the only art genre that claims to be able to perform such a feat, unique ever since the days of Zeuxis. Photography’s entry into the world coincides with that of the modern detective, and there is an uncanny elective affinity between the two, because as a technique it starts out as the ideal medium for recording the scene of a crime, for asserting: ‘It was this way.’[2] The police inspector becomes a ‘visual inspector’ who scans the image for the clues that will help him solve the vile deed. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the evolution of photography commenced two years before the birth of the detective novel, with a murder in the Rue Morgue, in (no other city would have been conceivable!) in Paris. By extension we could say a photograph shows that person X was in location Y at such and such a time in the past. This was only applicable of course until photographic images started getting retouched, the result being that unwanted persons, and Trotsky was one of the first, were simply retouched out of existence – murder had become a bloodless matter. The trend has now culminated in a digital world, where software such as PhotoShop means no photographic image can really be trusted.


It bears remembering that photography helped the detectives by making things visible that the eye could not otherwise see, be it by blow-up, by shutter speed, or by providing images otherwise inaccessible.[3] Photography as the depiction of the “as is” was initially distinguished from art, which was said to be the prime pursuit of the question of what things could be – the ‘may be’ was left to religion to solve. Unlike a photograph, in its uniqueness the painting was understood to create a sense of remoteness, of being removed from reality and the here-and-now, while yet being of it: What you saw was not what you got.[4] Photography soon proved this distinction to be pointless.



II         “And forget about everything. This city desert makes you feel so cold”[5]


Since the days of its invention, photography has gone through various transitions before becoming the ubiquitous digital medium it is today. Having started out by providing portraiture and describing empty Parisian streets, it progressed against the backdrop of ongoing urbanization to idolizing untainted nature and iconizing industrial plant, roving to deliver newspaper reportage and generating glossy magazine images. The world of the newspaper was a stepping stone for photographers into the domain of the big city illustrated magazine, where starlet and harlot were often not far apart. The advent of the magazines brought photos flooding into the private world, injecting the razzmatazz of city life and lights into the home. As the cities and the mass markets grew, so too did the wealth of images stimulating the mind. And on the back of this process came the need to relax, the emergence of a consumer sphere designed to help us recover to work another day.


Photography as a mass genre spread with the world of leisure and recreation, with strolling along the river bank on Sundays, with the swimming pool on summer days, or for the less aquatically inclined, the park; this is where life now became lived outside the office. Indeed, this was the first world in which Simone van de Loo found her material. Yet it soon became apparent that when out photographing such settings she tended to be accompanied in by an unsettling number of ghosts of the past or the future: the girl “she’s not there”, the couple lost in a skein of time, the man with his dog who was catapulted in to take part. All of them only to vanish again when you looked away. Were they really there? What on earth were these people trying to do? Somehow her pictures included innocent bystanders unbeknownst to us. Are these not people similar to everybody before photography enabled police records and ID cards, people of whom there was thus potentially no written trace? [6]



III       “Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?”[7]


There was a time in the first decades of the 20th century, when “Wish you were here” were the words written on the back of postcards. The postcard attested to the middle class’ growing prosperity in Europe, its ability to travel, its ability to spend time on holiday – and proudly write to people to prove it. For the first time, images were sent ‘home’ to describe what one was seeing. Thanks to the postcard, the photographic image stepped out of the portrait studios, stepped out of the blurred ink of the newspapers, stepped away from the illustrated magazines, all of which marked the nascent mass society. Because what the postcard did was enable the world at large to be owned and transmitted – postcards could be bought, could be kept, indeed postcards could be posted. And they cost far less than a Post-Impressionist rendering of Paris. With the picture postcard you could buy a little piece of the world. The picture postcard invariably had a caption stating the town, city or memorable site in question. And thanks to the postmark it had a date.


“Place. Date.” - these are often the two pieces of information that Simone van de Loo offers by way of titles for her pieces of art. And they firmly insert the images in the lineage of messages like postcards, originating in foreign parts. Time and place, sufficient data for a definition that leaves everything up to the observer. Simone van de Loo’s images create a new world of postcards for us – she chooses city vistas and architectural highlights, often reminiscent of famed images by Kertesz, Neutra or Hopper, images so famous they have settled in the collective unconscious and we recognize them without being able to put a name to them. However, van de Loo populates them in a way that abandons ‘wish you were here’ in a favor of ‘Look, I am here’. Whereby we don’t know the ‘I’, just as, for that matter, the ‘you’ might be addressed to the postman. Her images seem to report from abroad that ‘this is how the world could be’.



IV       “If I’d ever been here before I would probably know just what to do.”[8]


In the early 1960s two inventions brought photography to the masses at an affordable price, the Polaroid Swinger and Eastman Kodak’s Instamatic. The first instance of the Americanization of culture? Insistence on the importance of the moment, and also making certain it was a mass phenomenon.[9] Presaging this development, Siegfried Kracauer once argued in “Ornament of the Masses” that photography can only grasp spatial presence, but not the depth beneath the surface, which is only accessible to the mind. Thus, conflating the photographed world with reality is tantamount to confusing the world and appearance.[10] Most certainly his augury has proved right as regards the world dominated by the mobile-phone snapshot. Thanks to digitalization, mass accessibility has now gone far beyond the snapshot.


While Kracauer may have been wrong in the pre-digital world, with the ubiquitous spread of online imagery in and through the social media, the tables have turned, and that immaterial world becomes for many material reality, which is thus primarily characterized by its flatness: it is only what it is. What you see is not just what you get, as for many it is all there is. Simone van de Loo sets out, consciously or unconsciously, to reverse this process. She takes the world of mass urbanization (75% of us in the industrialized world live in cities), an anonymous world partly given names and faces by photos in an immaterial domain.[11] And proceeds to undermine that immaterial reality. She reclaims photography, tearing it from the hands of its immaterial Internet/Facebook existence. She does so by stripping it of its essence as a medium for recording things, capturing ‘presents’ and lets it capture different tenses all at once. Which is a tall task, as phenomenologically speaking, photography is forever capturing reality – by capturing death.[12]



V         “Daylight is good at arriving at the right time”[13]


One aspect of city life that Simone van de Loo does not explore is graveyards. Nonetheless it was cemeteries, and specifically that in Edinburgh, which served as the backdrop for the first group portrait photographs. For in the graveyard the photographer could be sure that nothing stirred – only a ghost might interrupt proceedings. And indeed today these early photographs sometimes bear traces of spectral beings, and it is just because the photographs of yore have bleached with time that the white sections becoming indistinct through chemical decay. Not to forget that some of the faces were over-white, blurred by motion, the eyes overly large, staring unnaturally out at us.

In this regard, they presage big-city mass photos today, where you can never be sure if all these people really were there or not. And this is where Simone van de Loo takes up photography’s ghostly heritage, as in her works we can never be sure who was in them, or when? The photograph undermines the certainty of verifiability that has underpinned the natural sciences for over a century. Then again one should not forget that the natural sciences left something to be desired, as many sensed there was more to life than the falsifiable. And, in line with its criminological role, photography inserted itself into the space between science and reality. Madame Blavatsky’s famed séances set out to establish contact with a world beyond the reach of the scientific, and her efforts culminated essentially in the famous image from the Marylebone Spiritualist Association taken in 1928, a photograph ostensibly showing ectoplasm from the ‘beyond’: Photography had ‘captured’ the moment when reality had become suspended.



VI       “I don't think it will ever happen again”[14]


Technically speaking, photography can re-present death, but strictly speaking images only offer us a past and future, but never a present. We have to think of it as a now, not as a ‘has been’. Moving through a mass city, a mega-city, we are constantly witnessing change, not permanence, not living recorded snapshots, but flux. Was that man there yesterday, on the platform opposite? Am I suddenly experiencing a déjà vu, a classic big-city phenomenon, as the disjunction of an objective lack of familiarity and a subjective sense of familiarity? Simone van de Loo’s photographs are forever conjuring up such a feeling, but not in the same way as the Déjà vu album sleeve, which simply inserts modern persons in old-fashioned clothes into a sepia setting.


Take the person on the park bench in the one photograph. Don’t I know her, she seems familiar. Or is it again a matter of “she’s not there”? Simone van de Loo’s images offer us a world of constant doppelgaengers, in which the short and long-term sections of our memory somehow insist on not overlapping, and a perceptual gap opens up; nothing is quite right, and we are at long last able to question photographic reality. This is what Simone van de Loo’s photos do, the opposite of not thinking twice, it’s alright. She forces us to look twice, think twice, and reappraise subjective and objective certainties. Perhaps this is one reason why she prefers locations that are places of transience and transition: stations, pedestrian crossings. Here, she can sense traces of movement, both presence and passing by at once.


Since every photo is by definition so completely contingent, it cannot generalize, just represent the scene of the crime (life). And Simone van de Loo prevents it from doing just that and in this way guides photography back out of the digital cul-de-sac. She re-instills the photograph with uniqueness, extracts it from the flow of past images and future repetition. She creates an aura of uniqueness, of distance, as the figures in her frames are a far remove from ‘now’, and yet they are in the image. While ever since Zeno we have somehow known that paradoxically no two photos can ever be the same (only their reproductions are), Simone van de Loo’s ghosts of the past and future ensure that even reproductions are never the same – these are her ghosts in the digital machine.





© Jeremy Gaines



[1]Elvis Costello: Watching The Detectives

[2] A famous Parisian, Roland Barthes, makes a similar distinction in his Camera Lucida when he says that “painting can feign reality without having seen it. […] Contrary to these imitations, in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.” (tr. R. Howard, [Glasgow, Jonathan Cape, 1982], p. 76).

[3]Later these were to be supplemented by images,from both outer space (satellites, space voyagers) and inner space (laparoscopes)

[4] Walter Benjamin spoke in this context of the ‘aura’ that photography did not have as the p. 15 “singular appearance of remoteness” (“Kleine Geschichte der Photographie”, in: his Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt, 1966) p. 57

[5] Gerry Rafferty: Baker Street

[6] Without seeing the connection to criminal investigations, Walter Benjamin once famously said that “the first reproduced humans stepped into the pictorial space of photography unblemished or rather with no captions,”loc. cit., p. 51

[7] Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here

[8] Crosby Stills Nash and Young: Deja Vu

[9] There are various sides to this process. As regards the perceptual aspect, Walter Benjamin writes: “The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.” (in: Illuminations,” tr. Harry Zohn, [Jonathan Cape, Glasgow, 1970], p. 225

[10] Siegfried Kracauer claims that “Memory encompasses neither the entire spatial appearance of a state of affairs nor its entire temporal course. Compared to photography, memory’s records are full of gaps.” (The Mass Ornament, tr. Thomas Levin, [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1995], p.50)

[11] The world has evidently become so immaterial thanks to a society in which Madonna’s boy with the cold hard cash is always Mister Right.

[12] Roland Barthes notes in this context: “This punctum, more or less blurred beneath the abundance and disparity of contemporary photographs, is vividly legible in historical photographs: there is always a defeat of time in them: that is dead and that is going to die.” loc. cit., p. 96

[13] George Harrison: All Things Must Pass

[14]Marianne Faithfull: Past, Present, Future

















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