by Jody Zellen
"Downtown L.A.," photograph, 1997.
"Big Sur," photograph, 1996.
"Downtown L.A.," photograph, 1997.
"Pasadena," photograph, 1997.
(Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood) Karin Apollonia Mueller is a German photographer who recently relocated to Los Angeles. Not really a tourist, not exactly a guest, Mueller thinks of herself as an emigrant. She states, "I am an emigrant, not in the sense of a foreign worker, expelled citizen or refugee, but through my understanding of myself as a homeless human being, floating and reflecting." As she roams through the landscape, Mueller uses her camera to capture aspects of the city that evoke this floating feeling. She looks at the city and at the country as an outsider fascinated by small details, and reflects on that which is unusual and particular to L.A. In her project Angels In Fall , she "gives testimony to [her] own perspective of a world which produces a state of constant exile--where we are banished from such comforting notions as 'center' and 'home.'"
Mueller suggests that "human beings move around as estranged creatures along streets and thoroughfares; human relationships are torn open." In Los Angeles human interactions seldom occur in the streets. People are isolated. They exist and interact from their cars, while moving at fast speeds along the freeways. This fact proves alienating for people new to the city. As a stranger, Müeller feels this isolation and attempts to capture it in her images. She dissects the city. She divides it into sections-- downtown, beach, country--and in her photographs presents aspects of these diverse worlds. Her photographs are subtle, yet highly detailed. They do not reflect the lights and glamour of Hollywood. Rather they are quiet and contemplative images taken on bleak, sunless days when the sky is gray and hazy.
Among the most compelling of Mueller's works are her photographs of downtown L.A. These images are often taken from above. She looks down on an empty, peopleless, abandoned city. These compositions are tight and geometric. In one, the lines in the street parallel the shapes of the buildings. The foreground of this image depicts four crosswalks that make a perfect rectangle in the middle of the street. In another (all of these images are entitled Downtown, L.A.) the focus is on a colorful pile of trash in a grassy embankment next to the freeway. The skyscrapers make up the background pattern of this image. Cars zoom by on a freeway overpass. Here in this barren embankment sits a man. He is surrounded by what appears to be trash. This trash, consisting of old bicycle parts and tires, is not mere waste, but someone's prized possessions. One photograph depicts a man covered with an orange tarp. He is asleep (or dead)--not more than a speck in the center of the image, located in a desolate no-man's land between two empty streets. A few cars are parked nearby. A communications tower emerges from this landscape. In the background there is a bridge and unidentified warehouses. There is no communication or interaction in this image. The artist happened upon a unique scene and in it captured a feeling of urban isolation. In Mueller's photographs there is often a single person--an isolated individual, an "estranged creature"--who is caught within the confines of the space.
Mueller shoots the parks and the beaches in the same detached way as she shoots the vacant city. Here we again see a lone figure overwhelmed by endless waves or the far reaching desert. Rather than focus on the human presence one instead is drawn into its surroundings. The hills above Memorial Park, the long path and towering trees at Big Sur and the endless rows of strawberry pickers in a field become the subject of photographs that also frame a lone anonymous figure. Although the landscape, be it urban or rural, occupies the majority of the frame, the images are more about the plight of the individual than they are about the surroundings.
Mueller's work fits within the tradition of German photography where the photographer has a detached relationship to it's subject. The works of the Becher's, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth come to mind. These photographers used the camera to document what was in front of them, concentrating on details rather than emotion. Although their subjects were cooling towers (The Becher's); people and the night sky (Thomas Ruff); and museum interiors, as well as other places where crowds gather (Thomas Struth), their attitudes were similar and images akin to the images Müeller is creating.
Looking at Mueller's photographs is like going on a treasure hunt. One peruses the surface for details. Suddenly out of the urban detritus a human being appears, giving new life to an otherwise barren image. Mueller's works are not emotionless, although they are objective. Her photographs represent a particular aspect of Los Angeles--one that focuses on empty expanses, both urban and rural, and the chance encounters that occur there.