In this compelling and haunting self-portrait, J. Konrad Schmidt strips away all concealment of a medical condition he has had from childhood, and uses it to make a powerfuly revealing piece of art, inviting the viewer quite literally into his head.
Go behind the scenes with us for the background, technical details, process, creative stages, close-up crops, installation and artist statement of this extraordinary project.
J. Konrad Schmidt is widely acclaimed for his sensuous female portraits, and especially for his work with unusual analogue formats and materials, such as ambrotypes.
He approached us about a collaboration for an upcoming exhibition for the BFF – a well known network of high class photographers, based mainly in Germany. The exhibition’s theme was ‘Reduction’.
Using his concepts of beauty and analogue processes, he wanted to interpret this theme of ‘Reduction’ in a wholly unexpected and very personal direction, questioning these ideas of elegance and perfection by the use of his own facial structure in the work.
“The picture reduces me to my illness… created from parts of my x-rays, which were made in the deep sleep of anaesthesia.”
Since he was born, he has had a medical condition that haunted him, a vascular disease that affects his left ear and cheek, in which the blood vessels grow uncontrollably.
It has an effect on his public persona – in most portraits for interviews, or videos, you’ll notice he sits with his right ear to the camera.
This full face portrait was made specifically for this project.
Because of his disease, he has to go to the hospital at regular intervals. Since there’s only one hospital in Germany that performs these treatments, the place and the doctors have become a part of his life. He is always under full anaesthetic for the procedure, and the entire process is recorded with X-rays.
Using these X-rays, he wanted to rebuild his face for this project.
“I am contradictory to my disability. Now I am the error in the system. The devil’s civilian. Resilient, eloquent and radical with itself.
Before the fall of the Berlin wall, my worried mother took me from doctor to doctor in Eastern Germany. After the Unification, across the united republic. At the age of 10, I began an endless tour through cold operating rooms at the Klinikum Benjamin Franklin in Berlin-Steglitz.
This is why I am showing this work under this title now in this city.
Together with Recom Berlin, I used digital image manipulation for a truer purpose – to create a striking image, not to strike an image by manipulating it.”
• Mood Boards
We collaborated together on moodboards to begin work on the overall feel of the piece.
Getting hold of the images was a tricky process. The X-rays were in a medical format, JiveX, embedded into a .exe file, burned on a CD.
It’s intended only for the use of doctors, so the controls are designed for their needs. Dragging the mouse up and down and right to left gives you basic contrast and brightness functions. Despite (or perhaps because of) this unadorned functionality, the output and interface has its own aesthetic interest.
The only exportable file format is a PDF. So that’s what we did. Each of those thirty-three PDFs had between four and forty-four pages.
So often, there’s something new to discover in every project : – )
“You can’t open more than 400 documents in Photoshop. I didn’t know that, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen this message.” Jonas Braukmann, Recom Berlin
This video shows all pages from all pdfs exported into PSDs via a script, giving us four hundred and four images to work with.
Cycling through all the exported files, this video shows clearly the progress of the injected X-ray viewing agent is injected, as it spreads into all the vessels that have grown out of control.
• Stages in creation of the image
We talked a lot on the phone, about the moodboards and what we had in mind, and this was the first draft, to see if the idea could work.
We were both immediately very happy with the first draft, but wanted to try further explorations of the idea. We decided to enhance his characteristics…the hairline, strong eyebrows and his ear and cheek.
We also tried a more dimensional version, incorporating more of the portrait.
Konrad liked the initial draft best, and was thinking about what what should come next, showing it to friends and family. Meanwhile, we made made a rawer version, by stripping away all the hair details.
We ended up using the very first version – sometimes things just fall into place straight way.
The first version already told the story, and showed what we wanted to show.
Everything in this version is made from the X-rays, stratified and superimposed to create Konrad’s face, emerging from these medical records. Only the light in his pupils is from a photograph.
We included some lines and technical artefacts from the original X-ray files, to preserve a reference to their origin – a contrast to the soft and convoluted organic forms with their precision and linearity.
The probing intrusion of the injection shows clearly, too – this is what enables the doctors to see inside Konrad’s head.
Detail of the pupil highlight, the only part which isn’t shaped from the X-rays
The video shows how the layers build up
We scoured Ebay for a lightbox of the right size and appearance, to keep the reference to X-ray transparency display – a feeling of faintly institutional immediacy, as if you yourself were looking at them held up in a doctor’s surgery. The doctors who provided the material for the project found it fascinating to see.
The final presentation was at the Reduction exhibition in Berlin, part of European Month of Photography.
These, like all the quotes here, are extracts from a translation of the text which is printed and displayed beside the transparency. The full text in German is available on J Konrad Schmidt’s site here.
“Reducing people to their disease – no matter what kind – is discrimination. …With me, people dare to say:
“I have to ask you something?”
“No, you do not! Because I know the question already! ”
– And then: Totally surprised faces …
If total strangers would simply say nothing, it would help a lot. Then I would not have to speak out here. So you beloved anonymous Philanthropists out there – this is for you”
Credits: Retouching: Jonas Braukmann, Recom Berlin
Photography and Art Direction: J Konrad Schmidt
Exhibition photographs: Matthias Krüger