Portraits in Motion is a difficult show to review because it already contains much of its own analysis. Volker Gerling frames the presentation of his photographic flipbooks with an exploration both of how they’re made and the specific opportunities of their form. With fewer images per second than conventional modern film, the flip-books leave more gaps between each frame for the audience’s minds to fill in; it is these gaps that “create power and poetry”, unfix time and create a medium where “even a blade of grass can become a big event”.
He’s right about all of it, especially the curious way in which the flipbooks – mostly collected by exposing subjects met on extensive walking tours of Germany to 36 frames of photography in 12 seconds – suspend time. Each new face responds as a photography subject responds: the frames a succession of moments rather than one continuous stream. Gerling has the power to hold time in his hand and to slow it down or speed it up with the flick of a finger or thumb.
This suspension and holding of time is even more pronounced during the long exposures: the cycle of the moon across the sky behind a cathedral, a friend in a restaurant as a candle burns all the way down. When similar images are condensed in film into a time-lapse, the effect is always one of excessive speed, of time moving faster. Not here. Instead, the images seem to move slowly, but with a larger infinity between each moment.
There is also considerable power in the assured manner of Gerling’s presentation of each book. The explanations given before or after each ‘piece’ are concert-like, reminiscent of a musician explaining the origin of this-or-that tune or song. The show reminds me most of a piano recital: the instruments (flip-books) usually black-and-white like keys, Gerling’s hands maestro-like, fully in control, the live camera feed projecting picture as the piano’s cavity does the sound.
And let’s talk about sound. Portraits in Motion has an exquisite aural aesthetic. The flipping of the books is mic’d, so that we hear the weight of each falling page, individually pronounced, soft but sure. This is consistent with Gerling’s own voice, which lends security to the storytelling, gently lifting us into the subject or situation of each new portrait.
More than anything perhaps, Gerling is right about those blades of grass. Portraits in Motion creates an intimacy between us and the flipbooks’ subjects that feels distinct from any other medium. This intimacy is found partly in the detail, and in the proposition that that detail is worth our attention. Gerling animates most of the flipbooks three times, each rendition guiding our gaze towards something new: the lean of a smile, the blink of an eye, the wrinkle of a brow.
This is where the surety of Gerling’s performance pays off. We are always happy to look again (and again) because we trust him. Just like the flipbooks, we feel we’re in safe hands.
Portraits in Motion is on at Summerhall until 30th August 2018. Click here for more details.