Curator talk: Devrim Bayar and Robert Heinecken

With her exhibition ‘Robert Heinecken : Lessons in Posing Subjects’ having opened at Brussels’ Wiels three weeks ago, we talk to curator Devrim Bayar about starting points, focusing on a specific period in the artist’s career and why Heinecken’s work is particularly relevant to today’s image-saturated world.

Robert Heinecken at Wiels

As a curator, what was the starting point of this exhibition?

Robert Heinecken is a very singular artist: he has always defined his practice within the photography field, he was the founder of the Photography department of UCLA in 1962 where he taught till the beginning of the 90’s and he also participated in the creation of the Society for Photographic Education in the United States. That being said, he rarely used a camera during his career! During my research, I tried to understand why at a certain moment he decided to use a camera. What are the reasons for which this artist, who liked defining himself like a paraphotographer, was pushed into finally using a camera, from the mid-seventies till the beginning of the eighties. This is where the starting point of the exhibition lies.


Why did you decide to focus on such as precise period in Heineken’s career?

When we decided to present an exhibition of Robert Heinecken at WIELS, we learned that the MoMa was preparing a retrospective that would be shown at the same time. During my discussions with the curator of the exhibition at Moma, Eva Respini, I learned that they were primarily concentrating on his work from the ’60-70’s and that they would only include a few examples of Heinecken’s Polaroid works. It then seemed evident to me that this perspective revealed itself complementary to that of the MoMa. On the other hand, I learned that the series Lessons in Posing Subjects, which is the longest series of works made with a Polaroid SX-70 camera, hasn’t been shown in its entirety in over 20 years. Showing this work in its totality was a unique opportunity.


Other than the focus on a particular period, are there any aspects of Heinecken’s work which the show explores in particular detail?

Besides a certain period, the exhibition concentrates on a technique: the use of the Polaroid SX-70 by Heinecken. The SX-70 is the machine that comes to mind when you mention the word “Polaroid”. However it is only one of many different Polaroid models produced by American society. In 1972, when the SX-72 was launched, it enjoyed an immediate success, in the general public as well as in artist circles. It was actually the first easy-to-use camera that permitted to instantly produce colour prints. Robert Heinecken called it the bedroom camera, since it was the first camera that allowed everyone to photograph his or her intimacy without having to have negatives developed and risking that others would see their images.


At the same time as the camera arrived on the market, Heinecken underwent major changes in his life that eventually pushed him to turn towards this tool. In 1976, Heinecken’s workspace burned down in such a way that he lost a significant part of his work and ended up without a place to work. In the meantime, he separated from his first wife and met the artist Joyce Neimanas, who used a Polaroid SX-70. She is the one who initiated him to this new technology and it’s the main reason I wanted to present a beautiful portrait of her at the entrance of the exhibition.

The notion of found imagery as an end in itself played a rather important role in Heinecken’s work. How relevant (ironic?) do you feel this is in an age of continuous re-contextualisation of visual narratives? 

As a first step, Heinecken used the SX-70 like everybody else: to make snapshots of his wife, their intimacy, etc. Very quickly though, he started re-photographing existing images and, more specifically photos of mannequins in mail order magazines and pornographic magazines. By photographing them with this Polaroid camera, Heinecken gives them a natural appearance, spontaneous, whereas these images are completely artificial.

Today, everyone can photograph their life with a click of an iPhone and give their images any filter thanks to special applications on smartphones and computers. In a certain way, it’s the inverse phenomenon which produces itself: we give our life an artificial look. These images can then instantly circulate around the internet and be shared with the entire world. Thanks to new technologies the phenomenon of recontextualization of images, be they private or public, is exponential. Heineckens work announced this phenomenon of recontextualization and the growing ambiguity between reality and fiction, true and false, in photographic images.


Personally, how was your interest in Heinecken been further spiked having worked on this show?  What did you learn? 

Heinecken’s work is as visually seducing as it extremely critical and engaged. I find this duality perfectly accomplished. Finally, what Heinecken’s work makes us understand, is that images lie. But that doesn’t stop them from being beautiful.

Robert Heinecken : Lessons in Posing Subjects
Until 17th August 2014
Organised in the context of The Summer of Photography