Historically, one of the most significant uses for photography is in the reproduction of historical and cultural artefacts. Studies such as art history and anthropology were quick to adopt photography after the invention of the camera, creating a largely overlooked genre that has been an ongoing concern for Swiss artist Michael Etzensperger.
He got interested in photographs of masks when making his previous project, Normal Viewpoint, No Other than Frontal View. It focused mostly on sculpture, but proved an eye-opening insight into the influence of traditional masks on early modernist art and photography – or rather photographs of those masks, as many of the artists involved were encountering the masks via reproductions. Researching publications which used these images, Etzensperger found three that particularly inspired him – Carl Einstein’s Negro Sculpture (1915), André Malraux’s Le Musée imaginaire, 1947, and Karl Meuli’s Schweizer Masken, 1953.
Drawn to the idea of the role of photographic reproduction in art, Etzensperger was also attracted to the printing quality of these old books. “At some point I wanted to expand the series to make it back into a book, to close the circle,” he says.
Though he was making pictures of old artefacts, Etzensperger wanted to create images that felt contemporary, so he started to experiment with double exposures, creating hundreds of distorted images of masks from all over the world, taken from over 40 different books. Working with film was a challenge and a lot of his practice was trial and error, but he minimised mistakes by using a double exposure app on his phone.
For him the result – Masken, published by the respected CPRESS – is not so much about the masks themselves as about books, and the role of reproduction in art. “For me, it’s interesting that these are images that I photographed, not objects,” he says.