Eyemazing magazine by Helen Jennings
Hair greasy, eye make-up badly smudged and mouth bruised, Susanne Junker stares back at you from her self-portraits looking ugly, battered and confused. At first glance you’d never guess that she used to be a world-renowned model. And that, in a way, is the point. The photographer’s work questions conventional notions of beauty through a body of work driven by the perversion of herself.
Born in the Bavarian countryside, she grew up craving big city life and moved to Paris aged 20 after coming runner up in a Miss Vogue Germany competition. She thrived as a model and appeared in countless glossy magazines but after 10 years of projecting a manufactured image of herself, the highs were becoming outnumbered by the lows. “I spent so long thinking about what other people thought of my looks that it affected my intellect,” Susanne recalls. “Models are a product being sold by their agents and the clients pay for the perfection they created with an art director. That's the reality, like it or not.”
She found new inspiration by immersing herself in New York’s art scene and in 1999 she started to take photographs of herself. The first fruits were the debut exhibition Supermodels?. “It showed me as the anti-model. The glamorous fashion model at work, but then backstage or at home, tired, sick, lonely, scared, sexy, homesick, ugly. All these feelings are human and not exclusively reserved for a model so I wanted to be recognised as a female human being and not a product.”
Abandoning her former career, she re-appropriated her own image through her early photography to create a direct commentary on the business of fashion. “When I started, I didn't care what other people in the fashion industry thought. There might have been prejudice, but so what? My work was autobiographical and very personal but it was a critique of the fashion industry rather than a criticism. It was my reality that I wanted to express. Nobody forced me to be a model and I had good times and bad times like everybody but now I treasure the bad times as they made me do my first art work.”
From these early images, which became a visual journey of self discovery, Junker moved onto using her body as a canvas to discuss subjects beyond her own immediate experiences. As both the subject and author, the spectator and the object of the gaze, the narcissist and the voyeur, her work gives a unique perspective on the self, sex, passion and power.
The Perfect Woman Is No Lie for example is a composition tackling the issue of violence against women. In each of the four images, Junker’s face is depicted behind black bars, a prison of her own making. At first she is at peace and pretty, a flower (her happiness) between her red painted lips. Then her mouth becomes smeared with blood and her eye is blackened. In the last image, she smiles crazily with the flower now long drooped and dead. “From the point of view of the violator, she is perfect because she is still around, still smiling and still trying to be beautiful. And most importantly, through her quietness, she is protecting the violator. Perfect for the violator, and, no lie because, sadly, that's the case in real life. Most women who get hit often say nothing to anybody. I can sort of imagine those places and visit them through my photography and hopefully make other people think about it too.”
In a new series called Identity she uses other women for the first time. Instead of her signature self-staged scenes, she gave her subjects freedom to react to her brief, which was to put on make up without using a mirror. Here Susanne’s camera becomes the mirror. “I wanted to find out their reaction to losing control over themselves and deal with the fact that they might look ugly on the resulting image. A few women didn’t want to pose for me because of their fear of ugliness. That tells me a lot.”
Pictures like these are confrontational and unapologetic and beg a strong response from their audience, whether it be a favourable one or not. “People who want to see the regular notion of beauty in our society might not understand my art,” she concedes. “My gallerist told me about a male visitor to my last solo show who stormed into their office and said that my work was absolutely disgusting. I took it as a big compliment to get such a strong reaction!”
Having exhibited in Paris, Maastricht, Denver, Hamburg and in Shanghai, where she now lives with her husband, her current projects push her aesthetics to new extremes. In Strafraum, a tableau takes shape in which she enters an impermissible space where crime and punishment blur. And in the ongoing series Figure For The Base Of A Crucifixion, she kneels on the floor and gazes upward while dresses up in different guises – the Muslim, the shopper, the bride, the nun, the geisha.
These self-portraits give a nod to early Cindy Sherman, an obvious influence for Susanne alongside other iconic female photographers including Nan Goldin, Claude Cahun, Francesca Woodman and most notably, Diane Arbus. “She dove into the world of the forgotten people - the handicapped, prostitutes etc. She was really interested in them, and showed this respect to the rest of the world at a time when photography was a man’s domain.”
As for fashion photography, her idol is a surprising one – Helmut Newton. “He had the guts to show what he was really into - the naked strong dominatrix and the slaves around that goddess. His honesty is sex, power through flesh, and his desire and respect for the strong ruling woman. People in general are so scared to show their desires.”
Susanne Junker’s desires are equally laid bare. She gives herself over totally to a raw, unsettling yet sublime femininity and refuses to be objectified by objectifying herself. Like all true artists she asks more questions than she answers leaving the rest of us wanting more, whether it’s pretty, or not.
Helen Jennings for Eyemazing Magazine, 2009.