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Hoffmann

Thilo Hoffmann: High School Portraits January 30 to June 5, 2011 The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum


Thilo Hoffmann: High School Portraits

The word portraitist has an old-fashioned ring to it. Uttering it (or reading it on the page), one is transported to a Victorian salon lined with the visages of stern ancestors, or a corporate boardroom with the face of “Our Founder” gazing benevolently from a heavily framed oil. In the contemporary world, there are certainly artists who think of themselves primarily as portraitists, but the majority of artists whose work focuses on either visual likeness or individual personality distance themselves from the narrow definition of portraitist, preferring more generic and open-ended terms, such as painter or photographer. Besides being ascribed a narrow thematic definition, portraitist also implies a certain mercantile approach: portrait artists are typically hired guns who provide the patron with a predetermined image of how they wish to be seen by the world, they don’t take a subjective approach where the personality and whims of the artist come to the fore. Thilo Hoffmann doesn’t call himself a portraitist, despite the fact that the majority of his work (and his definition of it) over the past twelve years has dealt with realizing the wishes and desires of his individual subjects. Saying that Hoffmann focuses on individuals, however, is somewhat of a simplification, as his work has generally been concerned with portraying people who are part of well-defined groups or organizations, with the resulting portraits being as descriptive of the group as of its individual constituents. Utilizing both photography and video, Hoffmann has worked with a disparate cross section of society, including the employees of the insurance company Swiss Re; residents of Meadow Ridge retirement community, Redding, Connecticut; the staff and membership of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the staff of the Hotel Castell, Zuoz, Switzerland; the staff of the Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland; and elementary school students in Dresden, Germany. Opting to work independently of typical protocols, he often enters into his collaboration with a chosen group in a stealthy manner. For instance, for his project at MoMA he was supported by the Digital Media/IT department rather than the curatorial side of the museum, a situation that gave him both unusual access and a useful state of anonymity. Hoffmann, like a traditional portrait artist, has no hesitancy about thinking of his subjects as “clients,” but that is where the connection to the past ends. The artist’s approach is somewhere between the behavior of a corporate consultant and a life coach. First, he inserts himself into the social and organizational dynamic of the chosen group; then, during an intense, but brief, relationship with the group’s individual members, he does everything he can to help them realize their ideal expression in a work of art. When Hoffmann was invited by The Aldrich in 2009 to create a new project that focused on a group associated with the Museum or its immediate community, he was faced with a bewildering range of choices. Possibilities discussed (in no particular order) included the Board of Trustees of The Aldrich (too close to his project at MoMA); local politicians (interesting from the standpoint of a group that is always concerned with its public image, but too hard to pull off in an election year); volunteer firemen (certainly a generally unsung group, but no real specific connection to the Museum); and the town of Ridgefield’s Chamber of Commerce (not that these people aren’t interesting, but would this group as a demographic capture the viewer’s imagination?). In a phone conversation with the artist early in the summer of 2010, the fact that around forty percent of the visitorship of the Museum was comprised of school groups came up, which led to a


discussion about high school students. One of Hoffmann’s major challenges with the groups he had worked with in the past had been getting them to loosen up and feel comfortable with truly revealing themselves in a work of art. Hoffmann realized that high school students, in a transitional place between childhood and young adulthood, were a group already struggling with self-definition, and that this situation gave him an opportunity that he could creatively tap into. Hoffmann’s presence as an artist in his photographic portraits is manifested by several simple ground rules: the photograph is always vertical (“portrait”) in orientation; the individual portrayed is always half the size of the height of the photograph (this gives the setting and/or props maximum importance); there is a significant white border around the photograph; and at the bottom of the image there is a caption (always in uppercase type) that includes a title (chosen by the subject), the subject’s name, and the location the photo was taken. Everything else in the photograph, including the location, props, specific lighting (or time of day and weather if the photo is outdoors), the composition, and finally the right shot, is in the hands of the subject. It should be noted that the typical photo session for the High School Portraits series resulted in 1 at least fifty shots, and there were several sessions that generated close to eighty. Of course, this process raises the question of exactly who is the artist: Hoffmann sees his role as simply empowering his subjects; the primary creative impulse is coming from the person in front of the camera. The recruitment of students for the project began with a phone tree initiated by the Museum’s interim director of education, Suzanne Enser-Ryan. The majority of the subjects live in Ridgefield, but other communities represented include Darien and Wilton, Connecticut, and nearby Bedford and Katonah in New York. An initial meeting of interested students was held at the Museum, during which Hoffmann presented some of his past work and discussed his process. One fact was certain from the beginning: Hoffmann wanted the students, not their parents, to be the guiding creative force behind the photographs. This was accomplished (in most cases) by Hoffmann communicating directly with the students via the now ubiquitous (for children and young adults) medium of texting. As Hoffmann quipped, “Five hundred texts later, we have an exhibition.” During Hoffmann’s communications with the students, certain desires became evident. Many of the participants were fixated on New York City as a setting for their portraits, which was no surprise considering the intrinsic attraction of the city, together with its proximity to the Museum. Three of the portraits were eventually shot in the city, with the help of Hoffmann’s photo assistant, Jonas Hidalgo. Hoffmann’s process is based in a belief that the more opinions (and hands) that are added to the process, the clearer the intent of the subject is to the viewer, a position that reveals Hoffmann’s role as being closer to that of a film director/producer than a traditional visual artist. Hoffmann prefers to handle what he calls “the social aspects,” usually delegating production and post-production to others. For example, his video editor Risa Chiappori is interested in sound, an area in which Hoffmann has no particular expertise, with the result that Hoffmann’s video work often exhibits a noteworthy audio component. Hoffmann’s main concern throughout the process of making a portrait is making the subject “look good,” an attitude that he certainly shares with the traditional portrait artist.


The fourteen photographs that make up this exhibition are evenly divided between girls and boys (this was purely coincidental) with the expressive content varying between exuberance and introspection. Fourteen portraits can’t be said to accurately represent the aspirations, dreams, and fears of any demographic, yet this group of images does provide a snapshot of a generation of young people coming of age in the suburbs surrounding the Museum. If the definition of portrayal is to draw forth, reveal, and expose, then these pictures (and the process that created them) are spectacularly successful. Besides being an artist and independent filmmaker, Hoffmann’s career includes curatorial work, lecturing on contemporary art and culture, and teaching seminars on creativity in the corporate world. This range of interests and abilities brings an unusual perspective to Hoffmann’s work as an artist, and this point of view has allowed him to consistently blur the boundaries between distinct categories of cultural production. Through his portraits, Hoffmann has created a new social contract, rewriting the definitions of portraiture and self-portraiture and of artist and subject. Both the artist and the Museum wish to thank not only all of the students who participated, but also their parents for enabling them to take an imaginative leap into the unknown. Richard Klein, exhibitions director

1 Hoffmann attached a video camera to his still digital camera so he could record the circumstances surrounding each portrait session. The exhibition is accompanied by a short edited sampling of video captured during several sessions, which gives the viewer a window into the process.

Works in the Exhibition

ONE MORE YEAR SOPHIA STOOP/KATONAH, NY, 2010

High School Portraits series, 2010 Archival inkjet prints mounted on Dibond All 45 (h) x 32 (w) inches All courtesy of the artist

ORDER ZACH CARR/NEW YORK CITY, 2010

ALMOST GONE IAN PATRIC CARLUCCI/RIDGEFIELD, CT, 2010

REFLECTION KAITLIN SMITH/DARIEN, CT, 2010

CHILL GERARD BUHR/BEDFORD, NY, 2010

RENDEZ-VOUS FIONA BUHR/BEDFORD, NY, 2010

CROSS-PROCESSED EMMA DEBANY/RIDGEFIELD, CT, 2010

SKATING B/W NICK RYAN/NEW YORK CITY, 2010

JAMMIN’ NOAH ZIPPER/RIDGEFIELD, CT, 2010

SERENE SPACE ALIKA ZANGIEVA/REDDING, CT, 2010

MANCHILD JOE QUALEY/RIDGEFIELD, CT, 2010

THE NEXT MORNING CARA MITCHELL/RIDGEFIELD, CT, 2010

ME AND MANHATTAN CAELEY PERRINE/NEW YORK CITY, 2010

WITH PURITY JEFFREY ALLEN/RIDGEFIELD, CT, 2010


The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, CT 06877 Tel 203.438.4519, Fax 203.438.0198, aldrichart.org The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum advances creative thinking by connecting today’s artists with individuals and communities in unexpected and stimulating ways. Board of Trustees Mark L. Goldstein, Chairman; A. Peter Sallick, Vice-Chairman; John Tremaine, Treasurer/Secretary; Annadurai Amirthalingam; Richard Anderson; William Burback; Eric G. Diefenbach; Chris Doyle; Linda M. Dugan; Georganne Aldrich Heller, Honorary Trustee; Meagan Julian; Neil Marcus; Kathleen O’Grady; Donald Opatrny; Gregory Peterson; Peter Robbins; Martin Sosnoff, Trustee Emeritus

Larry Aldrich (1906–2001), Founder

ME AND MANHATTAN, CAELEY PERRINE/NEW YORK CITY, (detail), 2010

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The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum Thilo Hoffmann: High School Portraits exhibition brochure  

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum Thilo Hoffmann: High School Portraits exhibition brochure

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