Monday, December 28, 2009

Ulrike Ottinger - Image Archive

At the Walker Art Center this week I bought a copy of Image Archive: Photographs 1970-2005 by the filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger. The photographs were taken over a 35 year span & include stills & studies for both Ottinger's experimental narrative films as well has ethnographic work done in Mongolia & China.

Seeing it brought back memories of when I worked at Anthology Film Archives, when in its small gallery there was a show of black-&-white images by Ottinger from her films: immaculate, well-printed, finished objects, which could be independent of the films themselves. The production of film stills is something which has for the most part diminished w/ the decline of the studio system in Hollywood, when stills were integral to publicity as well as continuity purposes. & certainly for experimental work it is often not a priority or something done w/ a great deal of work. I recall the show at Anthology as being a setting for a Halloween party. Also that it would have been circa 1989 - 20 years ago now!

There are almost 600 images in the book, mostly in color, mostly from the documentary work in Asia, but there are generous archives of images from the earlier experimental narratives, such as the spectacular Tabea Blumenschein in Madame X - An Absolute Ruler, & Ticket of No Return, & Magdalena Montezuma in Freak Orlando. & my one-time boss at the Bleecker St. Cinema, Jackie Raynal, as 1/2 of a Siamese twin in Freak Orlando. Among many others.(a nude study of Rosa von Prauheim, Delphine Seyrig as Lady Windemere in Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia, etc.).

Ottinger's images veer from the carefully studied film still images to photographs of a much more casual, "collecting" mode. Nevertheless there is a great deal of economy in Ottinger's diversity. The photographs often function as sketches for the larger work of the films. While not intended as a primary work by Ottinger, the photographs can be looked at as great footnotes to her cinematic oeuvre. & given Ottinger's careful practices, these are a truly fascinating addendum to the films.

Years ago my friend K. spoke about the absence of "women's adventure stories." I have always thought of Ottinger's films as being just that: whether a pirate queen, or a society lady drunk on a fabulous bender (Tabea Blumenschein walking on mirrors & destroying them as she walks into the future), or the meetings of all on the Trans-Siberian express on the steppes of Mongolia, Ottinger has created a hypothetical universe of expanding possibilities.

I am less familiar with the later documentary work, but in tandem w/ the narratives I am struck by the absence of tedium or banality in Ottinger's observations. Everything is about diversity & hybrid forms. The minutae of daily life can become an object of deep focus, as well as manifestations of the truly strange & unusual.

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