All our lives are journeys, physical and emotional, and some of us travel further and longer. Rewards are given to those who embark with an open mind, roving eyes, and a tender heart. This is how Jessica Backhaus travels. She loves her journeys and the rewards are stimulation, opportunity, and friendship.
Jessica left Germany when she was sixteen to study photography in Paris. There she met Gisèle Freund who became her friend and a life-long influence on her work. Her wonderful book One Day in November is a tribute to her great mentor. New York was her next destination, which she explored for fourteen years. Freund had instilled in her the necessity to learn the craft of photography in order to be free creatively.
Photography was ever present in New York in the 80s and the 90s-in the galleries, in the museums and in the street. Photography thrived and color photography dominated. She looked and absorbed all with intense curiosity and gradually developed her own way of seeing. Ever alert, and quick to absorb changing situations, she zeroed in what was of interest to her. Looking at Jessica’s pictures, I am not surprised that she admires William Eggleston’s work. By the time she left, America had put a stamp on her vision.
In 2009, she returned to Germany where she now lives. All along she has traveled, taking in scenes, making pictures, and archiving images in her head. Her work turned more intuitive as she exposed herself to different cultures in many parts of the world. Still-lives always played an important part in her work, and even more so in Once, Still and Forever with photographs taken all over the western world. She concentrates on fragments, everyday items cast away, often reflections. Like a butterfly collector chasing beautiful specimens, she chases images. They often defy explanation but they resonate deeply. Primarily, I think of her pictures as poetic and, as in poetry the overall perception is more important than the specifics shown. It resists logical dissection, becomes a mirror of the soul. None of her pictures can be confused with travel photos, in fact they are the opposite. Most pictures never give away where they were taken. I would have never guessed that her picture of wilted ‘Alpenveilchen’ (‘Hopefully’), to me so German, was shot in Italy. In vain I am looking for ‘German’ pictures, reflecting where she lives now, but Jessica has found her own photographic language beyond nationalities. Her pictures are lyrical foremost, sometimes moody sometimes happy. Perhaps, when they are a bit melancholic they become ‘German’, as the German soul is romantic and melancholic.
The title of her book, Once, Still and Forever, suggests that she addresses the passing of time. She visually incorporates experiences of the past and synthesizes them all for the present. Her pictures are mementos of what she has experienced. She holds on to something that happened, a fleeting moment, and preserves it as an image for all to see. Indeed, a photograph is always of the past--the second it has been taken it becomes history preserved. By printing it, it takes on a physical presence, thereby turning into a physical object, to be preserved or not, possibly forever. It strikes me when looking at the collection of her pictures preserved in this book, that they become a wonderful tapestry of color, light, & shadows. Timeless.
The picture that resonates most for me, and which I think is a
signature ‘Backhaus’ image, is ‘Beyond Seeing’. It shows a mirror that no longer reflects and has gone blind, it’s frame slightly decayed, on a simple hook, on a dilapidated pink wall. I think of all it might have seen and absorbed in the past, now holding on to it, below the surface. It triggers memories when I look at it, again, and again, still and forever.
Photographs capture a moment in time, but what is time? This is a question that haunts me. Photography, for me, has roots in the desire to preserve and hold on to something that has happened in the past. The passage of time and transience are issues that occupy me and play a significant role in my work. I am captivated with the experience of vanishing and slipping away.
In the same way capturing the past fascinates me, I am also deeply fascinated by the unknown qualtity of the future. At the beginning of a project I never know what will happen. I quote one of my favorite artists, the painter Agnes Martin: “Not to know but to go on.” We have expectations, dreams, hopes and move on. Painters who start a painting and first put brush to canvas, writers who start the first sentence of their novel, composers who write the first note in their musical compositions, filmmakers who start shooting the first scene in their movies, photographers who take their first image of a project. We all don’t know how it will end. More and more I believe that it is all about the journey, the journey that one person takes to follow their convictions, and the journey we take while creating any possible art form. When I start a new project I don’t know where the project will take me. Sometimes I am lost and I have to continue my search. Agnes Martin describes this process very well in her text What We Do Not See If We Do Not See: “Life is an adventure and adventures are difficult. They are hard work and one does not know how they will go on or how they will end (…) we know that this step will be in the dark and will require courage (...)”. I feel that it is necessary to go through this process and I long for this journey into the unknown.
I take pictures because I want to touch people’s hearts and move them. I want them to feel something. To create an emotion within my work is vital for me.
Taking photographs can be lonesome, but somehow I enjoy this loneliness, because it allows me to feel, to see and it brings me fulfillment.
Jessica Backhaus was born in Cuxhaven, Germany in 1970 and grew up in an artistic family. At the age of sixteen, she moved to Paris, where she later studied photography and visual communications. Here she met Gisele Freund in 1992, who became her mentor. In 1995 her passion for photography drew her to New York, where she assisted photographers, pursued her own projects and lived until 2009.
Jessica Backhaus is regarded as one of the most distinguished voices in contemporary photography in Germany today. Her work has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin. To date, she has six publications to her name; Jesus and the Cherries, 2005, What Still Remains, 2008, One Day in November, 2008 and I Wanted to See the World, 2010, ONE DAY- 10 photographers, 2010 and Once, still and forever, 2012, all published by Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg. Her photographs are in many prominent art collections including Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Germany, ING Art Collection, Belgium, Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA and the Margulies Collection, Miami, USA.
Jessica Backhaus is represented by Robert Morat Galerie in Hamburg and Berlin, Robert Klein Gallery in Boston, Projektraum Knut Osper in Cologne and Stieglitz 19 Gallery in Belgium.
Based in Berlin, Jessica divides her time and life between Europe and the United States.
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