Karen Knorr

I am a strange sort of storyteller. My photographic images although narrative are not exactly stories but rather allegories alluding to the foundation myths that have created the fine art heritage of Europe which include photography in museums and academies. Connoisseurs (1986-1988), a series of framed photographs, used heightened cibachrome colour, with text on brass plaques to challenge taste and the search for authenticity in British high culture, tracing the genealogy of the museum from the private country house mansion (Chiswick House to the public 19th century museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum). In that work I brought in objects and people staging scenarios which commented on the underlying assumptions of taste. In fact I installed temporary objects to photograph in these museum spaces such as a taxidermy monkey, a collection of telescopes or books. So the photographs photographed installed objects or asked friends to perform actions. I was interested in culture and how it contributed to national identity. I was trying to understand the British culture. I felt like an outsider observing a strange tribe.
My early 1980s black and white work began to distance itself from social documentary in the classical sense. I wanted to use what I had learned from conceptual art (the use of text with image) and create a new critical documentary style that used the aesthetics of fine art print photography marrying it with a deconstructive, often humorous textual strategy. It attempted to use humour and irony through staged portraiture and reconstructed situations that I observed, using social actors to perform for the camera. My work looked at class distinction in Britain and role of women in that class but also how power was always legitimized and underscored by the material culture and architectural space in museums, clubs or fine art academies in Europe. As a student of photography and film at the Polytechnic of Central London in the late 1970s (now University of Westminster) I saw my work idealistically as a political intervention critiquing a naïve social realism or humanist photography based on the decisive moment. I was using photography as a research tool enabling me to understand British history and its social structures. Under Thatcher’s conservative policies and cuts many people were marginalized and disenfranchised. Class distinctions were very visible as they are becoming once more. Inequality in Britain has always been an issue.
I see photography as a form of research as a way of learning about the world that we live in now, engaging with methodologies that come from conceptual art and cultural studies which consider the Western gaze (White Eurocentric) highly problematic. I am now using photography in a similar way in India. I have begun with what is considered part “official” national culture and its heritage like I did in 1980s England and later in 1990s France photographing the Louvre and The D’Orsay Museum. In India I am a participant observer, collaborator of what is an upper caste culture that is opening up and liberalizing in terms of women’s position yet there is still more change coming! India’s emerging middle class is vast and it is producing highly literate and educated young women who are forming their own businesses.
My photography in India so far pays homage to the extraordinary beauty and power of Rajput and Mughal architecture and the hybrid cultures represented in stories that are written and represented in miniature paintings, sculptures found in temples, palaces, havelis and mausoleums, and also folk and tribal art. India song is inspired by the ideas of power that underlie cultural heritage. The series celebrates the rich visual culture evident in the myths and stories of northern India mainly Rajasthan using sacred and secular sites to highlight caste, femininity and its relationship with the animal world. I consider men’s space (mardana) and women’s space (zanana) in Mughal and Rajput architecture be it palaces, havelis or mausoleums . These interiors are photographed with a large format Sinar P3 analogue camera. Live animals are inserted into the architectural sites, fusing high resolution digital with analogue photography.
The animals photographed in sanctuaries, zoos and cities, inhabit these heritage spaces interrogating Indian cultural heritage and rigid hierarchies. Cranes, zebus, langurs, tigers and elephants mutate from princely pets to avatars of past feminine historic characters, blurring boundaries between reality and illusion and reinventing the Panchatantra for the 21st century.
My thoughts were: How are women and animals represented? Whose portraits are privileged in paintings? Whilst women are represented as goddesses yet still subordinated and abused for their insufficient dowries. (I am not deluded about inequalities that exist in the West either!) How does early photography in India represent women under the British Raj? How to represent and portray high caste culture in a period of huge change in India …in an imaginative way using the highly detailed capacity of photography referencing stunning Indian miniatures… developing a new language celebrating the syncretic culture of India.These are some of my ongoing concerns…Yet how to engage in a critically informed fashion…with the legacy of empires.