In preparation for Part 4 of this module we are asked to take a look at the work of Douglas Huebler, entitled Variable Piece No. 101. For this work Huebler make a series of portraits of Bernd Becher, using typologies that correspond almost directly to that used by August Sander (Hughes, 2007). Huebler asked Becher to pose in the following order to depict these types: “a priest, a criminal, a lover, an old man, a policeman, an artists, Bernd Becher, a philosopher, a spy and a nice guy” (Hughes, 2007).
After a few months had passed Huebler sent a differently ordered list and copies of the prints in no particular order to Becher and asked him to match the prints with the captions. Becher’s returned list came back as: “1. Bernd Becher; 2. Nice Guy; 3. Spy; 4. Old Man; 5. Artist; 6. Policeman; 7. Priest; 8. Philosopher; 9. Criminal; 10. Lover” (Hughes, 2007).
This explanation together with the prints, in the order that Becher returned them to Huebler, form the Variable Piece #101, which was exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art in 1995-96 in the exhibition Reconsidering the Object of Art and also at another exhibition in Limoges, France in 1992-93. However, in neither of the exhibitions is the original order of prints revealed. The Limoges prints, though, are numbered and seem to correspond to Becher’s associations. But we can see that the set of images are not quite the same. The first and the third images in both sets are different, creating a further complication in reading the images. Normally one would expect a caption to illustrate truthfully what the image is, but in Huebler’s work, this is confused.
For in the fight for “final form: between the photographs and the statement – a fight the statement clearly loses – Huebler signals exactly that which his photographic portraits undermine with exacting precision: the attempt to fix the work, and the person depicted therein onto a static and invariable ground. It is not just the “final form” of Variable Piece #101 that is simultaneously asserted and denied, in other words: it is also the “final form” of Bernd Becher.
By placing his portraits of Becher in a grid pattern, Huebler is paying homage to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers were made “flatly, objectively, and systematically, devoid of subjective depth and physiognomic resonance” (Hughes, 2007). But at the same time, he is also presenting us with images that are the exact opposite of Becher’s work. The portraits are depicting different personalities; Becher is distorting his face into a variety of strange expressions, eliciting some type of emotion from the viewer, what Hughes (2007) refers to as “the overly expressive, near-histrionic emotionalism of New York School photography à la Arbus, Avedon, et alia.” Huebler effectively cancels out both methods by mixing them together.
Shuffling the order of his images is something that Huebler employs in the majority of his work. In an interview in 1992 he states: “I have always scrambled my photographic presentations so that ‘time’ would not be read through a series of sequential events but rather as an all-over field … which translates the particular into unity” (Hughes, 2007).
We notice in Huebler’s Variable #101 that he plays around with semiotics. His signifier does not match up to the signified, he has reordered the meanings and the sign is now confused.
A portrait does not reveal the identity of a person in its entirety. As Barthes (1981, p. 10) so aptly states: “Once i feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes; I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing.’ I instantly make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” In Huebler’s Variable Piece #101 Hughes (2007) reflects that it “programmatically conceals the (already) concealed relation between identity and its representation” … and “is personified in his portraits of Becher.”
Huebler’s work effectively turns the tables onto Becher himself. Becher’s photographic practice was one of photographing architectural structures, devoid of any subjective content, or people, employing August Sander’s methods of dispassionate photography. By displaying his photos in a grid he was inviting comparisons in the similarity of the structures. He also collaborated with his wife and this created an anonymous body of work effectively suppressing the author’s individuality. Huebler “voids Sander’s typological categories as Becher makes faces for the camera” (Hughes, 2007).
Huebler’s Variable Piece #101 collapses the connection between image and text and thereby creates more mystery around the identity of Bernd Becher. Even Becher himself seems to be confused about his own identity. Indeed, there is no way we can guess which set of images and captions is correct unless we are privy to the original sequence, to which we are denied access. As Hughes (2007) sums up: “But like Bernd Becher, we can only guess who is who, never knowing when we are right and when we are wrong.”
Barthes, Roland (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Hughes, Gordon (2007). Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture. Art Journal, 66 (4), 52-69.
Douglas Huebler, Variable Piece No. 101, West Germany, 1972-7 Available at: https://www.google.ca/search?q=douglas+huebler+variable+piece+101&biw=1440&bih=734&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwirirW-gPvMAhVB3mMKHcqKBEc4ChD8BQgGKAE#imgrc=AdM7TnnS7o-swM%3A [Accessed 27 May, 2016]
Douglas Huebler, Variable Piece No. 101 Available at: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/524247212848361801/ [Accessed 27 May, 2016]