Yes, those are origami sculptures hiding the faces of photographer Alma Haser’s subjects in her latest photo series, Cosmic Surgery. The Cosmic Surgery photos are created in two stages. First, Haser takes a photo of her subject and prints it. She folds that printed photo into an origami ball (known in Japanese as a kusudama or “medicine ball” structure). She then takes a second portrait with the paper kusudama suspended in front of her subject’s face, concealing the subject’s identity. The result is unsettling and strange.
Why go to all that trouble to achieve an effect which could probably be closely imitated in Photoshop? Haser enjoys the process. “What is art or photography if you can’t use your hands?! That’s my initial thought. The best part of my work, and the bit I enjoy the most is the ‘making.’ I am very hands on, and always have been. I don’t see the point of spending hours on the computer, when you can perfect everything before you even look at it on Photoshop.”
Much of Haser’s work involves labour-intensive manipulation of physical materials. She cuts and pastes her photos (IRL), folds them, and presents them in odd little pop-up books. Her work is a hybrid of photography, sculpture, and publishing. It suggests a DIY ethos and an anachronistic fascination with real things.
What is art or photography if you can’t use your hands?! I am very hands on, and always have been. I donít see the point of spending hours on the computer, when you can perfect everything before you even look at it on Photoshop.
Cosmic Surgery grew out of Haser’s earlier Ten Seconds project. “I started doing self-portraits to realize some ideas and also because I knew very [few] people in the small town we lived in. That’s when I started the Ten Seconds project, where I hid from the camera in the time the ten seconds timer went off. I would always conceal my face. I then thought of other ways of hiding the face, and started making paper flowers, tied them together and made a mask using rubber bands pulled around my ears to secure it. But I found it too painful to wear for long, so [I] figured no one else would want to wear it in a photograph. I then came up with the idea of putting the origami on the face after printing the portrait. And from there on I began photographing friends and folding their faces.”
Alma Haser grew up in a bilingual English and German family, and she traveled throughout Europe and the South Pacific. It is a background that she believes contributed to a more “fluid imagination.” She graduated from Nottingham Trent University in 2010 and was named by the British Journal of Photography as one of the four best graduates that year. She has won several awards since then and was shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Haser’s preoccupations have evolved as she has moved away from early influences. “I used to try and create more story-led pictures like the work of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall. Now I find myself zooming into people’s faces and finding the posture, pose, and facial expressions more interesting.”
Most of Haser’s work now takes photographic portraiture as its starting point and spirals out from there. Her work is an exploration of the ways in which portraits both hide and reveal their subjects. “The story behind the person fascinates me so much. What their lives are like, what they are thinking at the time the photograph/painting is being made and what their secrets are. You can never really find that out just from a picture, but you can imagine and create your own stories behind the person.”
Haser is drawn to faces, and particularly eyes. She was haunted by the eyes of the subjects in the art galleries she visited as a child. “Their eyes always look so vacant and lost. You want to know more, so you create your own perception of who they are. That is what I try to do in my own portraits.”
Finding subjects for the Cosmic Surgery series posed a unique challenge. While these were technically photo portraits, most of the subject’s faces would be concealed. Haser needed to find people with something more than an interesting face going for them. “I would normally use friends and people I know, or people I meet at a party and think they have an interesting style. And, for Cosmic Surgery, I’d look for interesting hair, because after their face has been covered they need to almost express themselves with their hair and clothes.” It is a remarkable effect of Haser’s work that so much of her subject’s personality vibrates through the photos, despite the fact that the face is concealed.
I feel that you can never get as close as you want with a camera…The eyes hold the truth, and itís where people look first to understand what the person is thinking. But by hiding them, I am making the viewer look at the subject with a different perspective.
In general Haser finds it easier and more rewarding to work with subjects who are not conventionally attractive, but possess some other quality that captures the viewer’s attention. Beauty can be an obstacle. “I sometimes think that beauty isn’t always a good thing, because it all comes down to how they photograph. I find I prefer to take pictures of people who don’t know their own beauty, who are a little shy and hidden. They often make great subjects because you can direct them well – there’s no unnecessary pouting or arguments about which side of their face they think photographs better. I also look for unusual people, strange features, amazing coloured hair, and tattoos.”
Photography is such a powerfully literal medium; why does Haser disrupt that directness with the distancing intrusion of the kusudama sculptures? “I feel that you can never get as close as you want with a camera…[Y]ou will never be able to truly understand [the subject], not from just taking their picture anyway. I am also very interested in the idea of concealment and hiding the face. The eyes hold the truth, and it’s where people look first to understand what the person is thinking. But by hiding them, I am making the viewer look at the subject with a different perspective.”
Haser prefers not to predetermine how her work should be viewed. She enjoys the surprise of a response she hadn’t anticipated. “I never know what people’s reactions will be, but love to see everyone making up their own interpretations. I feel it’s best not to say too much about the theme or story, as the viewers will often have their own brilliant concept about the pictures they see.”
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