There is a remarkable quote in Albrecht Tübke’s Portraits: “I want to show people from a variety of different backgrounds, as I am interested in the range of ways in which people present their public face. Though constant exposure to the multitude of public personae with which we are presented, we have become anaesthetised to the range of individuals that surround us. In this project, I am attempting to distil out something of the essence of that individual.” If we needed a key to how to read his images, here it would be, in “the range of ways in which people present their public face”. Given how similar Tübke’s photographs are to those of The Sartorialist and Rineke Dijkstra, we are given a clue what to look for: It’s not what the people portrayed by Tübke are wearing (even though that is part of it), it goes way beyond that.
We are invited to do what we could never do in public (unless we find a clever device to do so), namely to shamelessly stare at people and see who (what?) they are, or rather who they are projecting to be. This is a task that requires some time and patience, and those not willing to commit to it might find Tübke’s photographs “boring”, especially since there are not many superficial fashion elements to be found.
Ignoring some differences (colour versus black/white, outside versus portrait studio) I think it’s very worthwhile to compare Tübke’s photographs with Disfarmer’s: Here we have two bodies of work, where people are posing for a camera, with no other direction other than to stand still and to “present” themselves. It’s more than instructive to see how people reacted to the cameras at such different moments in time, way before and way after cameras became a ubiquitous part of our Western culture. Has the knowledge of what the camera can do changed how people pose and if yes in what ways?
Of course, there are many other different readings of Albrecht Tübke’s Portraits. But I think it’s clear that for Portraits to succeed it requires the viewer to invest her/himself into the process, and then portraiture, the “theater of the face” (Max Kozloff), becomes the “theater of life”.