I check the encyclopedias I used to study and the absence of women seems evident in both its content and its editing. Backdrop highlights this lack, re-photographing the woman who appears in the encyclopedia by chance, in the background, as someone who walked by unexpectedly at the time of the shoot, without the photographer’s intentional gaze, and without her knowing being looked at. The images that I take rescue her from that second plane and place her as the main character, and at the same time present her without the conditioning of the gaze that recorded them, accidentally and without observing them.
In Backdrop, Astrid Jahnsen pries, armed with her camera and a macro lens, into the very fabric that makes up photographs, just like in her On Your Knees series. This time, however, the subject matters is different. Instead of erotic photographs, she scrutinizes simple, straightforward documentary pictures found in old encyclopedias: a 1956 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a 1962 edition of Collier’s Encyclopedia, both of which she used to read in her childhood and were part of her general education.
With a renewed interest in re-photographing old documents to reveal their ideological biases, Astrid returned to these encyclopedias in search for the way in which women were represented in them. What she found was, obviously, much less than she expected: women were virtually absent from those repositories of knowledge, from those comprehensive and authoritative descriptions of how the world is. Ironically enough, there were many women represented in those big books, but almost never as the subjects of the entries, almost never as characters or personalities (one would say, almost never as persons). Instead, they appear as part of the background information of certain photographs. That is, not photographs of this or that woman in particular, but anonymous women appearing involuntarily as part of a scene shot to describe something else.
Thus, a picture of a typical street of Lisbon used to illustrate an article on Portugal, shows the buildings, one of the city’s landmarks and people walking around, minding their own business. The caption reads as follows: “Lisbon, capital and chief city of Portugal. At the end of the street is one of the city’s landmarks –an open-air elevator”. But Astrid focuses on just one of the women walking down the street, turning her into the main character of her picture, though she still remains anonymous.
In another of the series’ pictures, the caption reads “A war effort poster is unveiled at the Mare Island Navy Yard, Calif., in 1942. Huge posters were hung in shipyards and factories to stimulate all-out production of materials needed in World War II”. The scene of the original picture shows the huge poster hanging from the ceiling of the shipyard facility and a crowd of people –sailors and workers, both male and female– gathered around, as if attending some kind of ceremony. Astrid’s shot centers on a group of ladies, close to a stage, taking part in the ceremony, making them relevant, giving them a role in an entry –dedicated to propaganda– where there is no mention of the important role of women in the war effort.
One could say that there is nothing wrong with the original pictures, that they were intended to illustrate something else, not women, and so there is no reason to have women appearing prominently in them. And it would probably be a rightful assessment, if one didn’t consider the number of pictures, in the same volume, where men have the main roles and, also, the lack of entries dedicated to women. This combination of facts makes these random appearances of women that Astrid singles out in her pictures the main representation of womankind in the complete instruction that (at least etymologically) an encyclopedia is supposed to offer.
One cannot but imagine Astrid’s reaction when she went back to her childhood encyclopedias and discovered that the whole world-view into which she had grown made women visible only as part of the backdrop of its representations of society. Thus, her prying into these pictures to reveal their biases: the exaggerated magnification of the small details of the picture accomplished through the macro lens reveals the dot matrix of the printed image, a metaphor for the prejudices that make up the very fabric of the world as represented in these encyclopedias.
*All the photographs will be printed in big format photographic canvas, as real backdrops that will reach up to the floor.