Portraits in Motion

Volker Gerling studied film at the Potsdam-Babelsberg film school east of Berlin in the 1990s, in the German reunification era as a divided city, a divided nation re-forged its common ground. An era where the liminal space between past and future, east and west, was rich for the making.

Gerling began taking photos around the edges of Berlin, creating flipbooks of his encounters and taking them to the streets to show them back to the city’s inhabitants, before taking a year-long journey on foot from Berlin to Basel in the spirit of the traditional journeyman years, with no money in his pocket but a pocket art exhibition.

Gerling’s travelled over 4,000km on foot (mostly throughout Germany) since 2002 – showing his continuously evolving daumenkino (thumb cinema) flipbooks to strangers he meets along the way. Graduating to a master in his craft.

He sees himself as a travelling storyteller in the bardic tradition; his flipbook artform, a lifelong project. The fascination with the medium is it’s almost magical ability to animate the static image, to bring the people captured within it to life. It makes the smallest moment, he believes, worth looking at, meaningful. From the subtle bending of a blade of grass, to an unexpected kiss, a before or after revelation.

The whole project is an anachronistic slowing down of time – from the tangible photographs he flips through with his thumb and his face-to-face encounters with those he shows them to, to the act of walking itself, of taking each moment as it comes, of looking for the gaps between and the unexpected. And perhaps, in our image-saturated, instant-gratification world, that’s part of its appeal.

There are no shortcuts, or breaks with the overarching integrity of the process. Gerling doesn’t use a digital camera – but an analogue automatic using old-fashioned exposure film.  His black and white living portraits are captured through a rapid-fire succession of photos (36 shots in 12 seconds) – a whole roll of film. He takes the film rolls home with him to develop in his own darkroom, often months later, then mounts the photo series in small handbound books.

He captures the moment and its secrets, as he describes it, keeping it safe in the dark until the slow exposure process of bringing it back into the light.

In 2015 Gerling won the Edinburgh Fringe Total Theatre Award for Innovation, Experimentation and Playing with Form.

You can peruse Gerling’s concept, samples of his project, and diary extracts from his original journey (in English translation as well as German) on his website: daumenkinographie.de

Experience Portraits in Motion

In a Edinburgh Festival 2018 review, Tom Moyser describes the experience of seeing Volker Gerling’s “intimate odyssey of photographic encounters”:

“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…

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.”

On thecultch.com, a Vancouver-based arts forum which co-hosted an artist-residency for Volker Gerling with PuSh Festival in 2017, Portraits in Motion is summed thus:

“The flipbook is now a curio to most of us, but for Volker Gerling it’s something much more profound: a mode of moving image that captures the human presence in stillness as much as motion. Gerling embraces the traditions of the magic lantern and the drawing room raconteur... [His] art provides an incandescent, flickering glimpse of human persona and essence.

At once a photographer and an animator, Gerling uses the flipbook to show us intimacy in motion. Each captured moment is a tale: the beginning and end of a smile, an awkward embrace, glimpses of a long-time love affair. They’re vivid and poignant— large-scale tributes to small-scale beauty. In the end, what the artist gives us is something truly special: instances frozen in time and then brought back to life. It’s a spectacle that invites laughter, bittersweet recognition, sadness and even awe.”

Don’t miss this unique, special experience.  Portraits in Motion will be showing at MTG Century Theatre, Tuesday 22 October, 6pm.1.


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