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Departure from the Real World
An Interview with Daniela Steinfeld

From the classroom to disturbing set-ups situated somewhere between freak and peep show - Daniela Steinfeld's photography quickly departed from its documentary typologies. In her recent works, the Becher student has expanded her photographic oeuvre to include elements of performance and sculpture in an effort to visualize the internal lives of her figures. Steinfeld's series "Classroom" is currently touring through Latin America with the exhibition "More than Meets the Eye - Art Photography from the Deutsche Bank Collection." Achim Drucks interviewed the photographer in her Dusseldorf studio.

Daniela Steinfeld
Achim Drucks

Teachers were anything but happy about the way they appear in Daniela Steinfeld's photographic series Classroom. Which is understandable, because they look rather tired and spent, portrayed alone in the pictures or sitting in dreary classrooms. The series was made at the beginning of Daniela Steinfeld's education at the Dusseldorf Art Academy, where she studied with Bernd Becher and Jan Dibbets. In her next series Hospital, the photographer quickly departed from her sober typologies to stage puzzling and absurd situations in the pathology ward or in front of the photographic wallpaper in the smoking room - sometimes using hospital personnel, and sometimes friends.

Daniela Steinfeld, from the series "Klassenzimmer", 1994,
Deutsche Bank Collection,© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006

In her later works, Steinfeld poses in front of the camera as well, portraying herself as an alien-like being. She uses very simple materials to achieve this, altering the appearance of her body with pieces of foam rubber stuffed into nylon stockings, wrapping herself in shiny metallic foil, or hiding her face behind ordinary plastic masks found at 99¢ shops. Currently, she is investigating the origins of photography, working in black and white and experimenting with baryta paper and various coloration techniques.

Daniela Steinfeld, Huntress, 1999-2000,
Courtesy Sara Meltzer Gallery, New York/Vous Etes Ici, Amsterdam,
©Daniela Steinfeld, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006

Daniela Steinfeld lives and works in Dusseldorf. In 1997 she was an Artist in Residence at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas; in 2002 at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. Steinfeld has been showing her work regularly since 1998 at the Sara Meltzer Gallery in New York; in addition, she has been running her own gallery in Dusseldorf since 2002, called Van Horn after a small village near Marfa on the border between Texas and Mexico.

Daniela Steinfeld, from the series "Klassenzimmer", 1994,
Deutsche Bank Collection, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006

Achim Drucks: The teachers in your series "Classroom" remind me a lot of my own years at school. For me, they conjure up that claustrophobic feeling of the late seventies. "In love with the teacher" doesn't exactly come to mind.

Daniela Steinfeld: I've never been in love with any of my teachers [laughs]. I've always had a huge problem with authority, but only when I found it to be arrogant. In those days, of course, this came from a very adolescent, rebellious attitude. This work reflects the experiences I had during my time at school. The teachers depicted were for the most part the actual teachers I had there. For this series, I returned to my old school around ten years after graduating. The same teachers were still all there, and they all looked exactly as they had ten years previously; even the school had hardly changed.

The documentary sobriety of this series still strongly recalls the typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whom you studied with.

The teachers series is the very first work I made in the Becher class. I was still in the process of absorbing it all, of course. But I was also still studying with Jan Dibbets, who was just as important for my work. In the Becher class, disciplined work exerted a great influence on me. Sticking with something and researching it thoroughly. It doesn't have so much to do with the content of the work, but with its form and cogency.

What role did the current photography scene in Dusseldorf play for you?

None at all. The nineties scene, in other words Ruff , Gursky, Struth, Hütte, and so on, was only important for me at the time in so far as I sought to keep at a clear distance from it. And this is why my work changed so much. I didn't want to become one of the Becher epigones. I'm not all that interested in the current photography scene. I don't really think in categories like "photo scene", but only in terms of art. At the beginning of the year I had an exhibition of the works of Tracey Moffat. While her works come from photography, they also go far beyond it. Or Thomas Schütte, who photographed his sculptures, which then took on another life through this. I'm fascinated in artists who use photography. Or conversely in photographers who don't even think about whether or not they're making art. Who are simply so good that at some point it becomes clear that it's art, as with Helmut Newton.

Daniela Steinfeld, Raucherzone, from the series "Hospital", 1995,
Courtesy Sara Meltzer Gallery, New York/Vous Etes Ici, Amsterdam,
©Daniela Steinfeld, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006

Daniela Steinfeld, Preparationssaal, from the series "Hospital", 1995,
Courtesy Sara Meltzer Gallery, New York/Vous Etes Ici, Amsterdam,
©Daniela Steinfeld, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2006

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