Surreal Portraits

Magdalena Taber
Eyemazing issue 04, 2006 

Magdalena Taber’s story is that of a young girl who climbs trees an, looks at the horizon and wonders, “What lies beyond this line? What is it that I can’t see?” German citizen, born and raised in Poland, now residing in Boston, the US, Magdalena has, several times in her life, crossed barriers of language, culture and, lately, of professional activities. Though drawn to create since a very early age, she first chose to dedicate herself to exact sciences. Working in the biomedical field for a long time she would go to hospitals, look into the personal records of patients and see life through the lens of a microscope. It soon became clear to her that life could not be pinned down, that it is a mystery that both science and art approach in thier own complementary way. In the year 2002 she decided to fully dedicate herself to her passion, photography. And yet, for Magdalena, this decision didn’t entail such a break. After all, to make art was not unlike proceeding to scientific experiments since “both science and art require discipline and imaginative thinking.” Maastering digital techniques and always remaining alert for each and every bit of unexpected harmony, she trusted her intuition and started to create her own world, one that speaks about “the magical aspects that are universal and present in all human beings beyond space and time.”

This humanistic endeavour, however, didn’t at first tempt her into photographing people. She would recognize a face or a human shape in the patterns formed by inorganic matter. In a fashion similar to Slavador Dali’s Paranoid Critical Method, it is the whole world that seemed to have become the projection screen of Magdalena’s own mind. A cabbage had transformed into a voluptuous woman and a drop of paint into a simple smile. She says, “I think I didn’t have the courage to look at human nature or at a human facer directly, partially because of my fear to interfere in the privacy of other people.” When she speaks, Magdalena is the antithesis of the masculine stereotype of the portrait photographer. She is not hunting for spectacular images, the ones that cast the inner self of others as exotic specimens to fantasize with.

And yet, fea years ago, Magdalena’s curiosity was drawn to the image of her hand that appeared on her computer screen as a result of her holding up a prop on top of her scanner. Magdalena’s discovery of the graphic effect of scanning gave way to a first series –featuring her hands. Yet, this wasn’t enough and, after finding out whether the properties of the scanner’s light would be of any harm to human eyes, she decided to lay her own faace on the flat surface. With Magdalena’s self-portrait, Etched in Memory, the Surreal Portraits series was born. With its eerie atmosphere that reminds one of Symbolism and 19th century daguerreotypes, Magdalena has produced a work that “goes beyond specific religious, nationalistic and social conditions and that is not limited to a specific time in history.” Surreal Portraits are not about faithfully recording the peculiarities of a model’s appearance. “My ultimate goad,” comments Magdalena, “is transcendence; it is to extract something more universal that we can all relate to on a deeper level.” That’s also the reason for her to say, “I feel rather ambivalent about calling the images of the Surreal series ‘portraits.’ They do not represent the persona of the models in a traditional way, they form collective portraits.” Indeed, the images from the series result from a conjunct practice, one that involves the models, their self-perception and Magdalena’s subsequent digital manipulations.

In fact, Magdalena doesn’t actually photograph the models; she scans them. Or rather, they scan themselves guided by Magdalena’s advices and by their own sense of satisfaction looking at the images rendered immediately on the computer screen. “The scanner was not designed to record any 3D objects, says Magdalena, and using it like that results in certain subtle distortions in the proportions of facial features. For instance, any movement during the scan adds a ‘wavy’ effect to the image.” The models scan their face over and over again till they produce an image that suits their expectations. “it is a fascinating process to go through with them.”

In a second time, the scan portraits are used as matrxes for creating works of invention. Props are added, discplaced and transformed. Colors are subtly brought in. Everything proceeds according to Magdalena’s intuition, which sets in motion each and every element of the digital composition nd ultimately signals its completion by leaving her with a feeling of fulfilled harmony. “The final image reveals itself slowly, or arrives suddenly with a striking power.” The titles complete this process by adding yet other layers of meaning to the images. “It takes me a lot of time coming up with the right title, which feels right when I look at the image. I just wait for it to appear in my mind.”

Together, Magdalena’s images form a “field of possibilities,” as she likes to qualify her own work. To the resulting image from her “actively passive” creative process, we might want to surrender –in “a joyful abandonment” that invites us to recognise ourselves in others.