Magdalene Keaney, Aperture Magazine No.201
At the crux of Axel Hoedt's project Fastnacht is a series of intended (his), and unintended (my), questions. The 'facts' we have to go on read something like this: 1) Hoedt is a German photographer from a village called Staufen, which, incidentally, is infamously associated with Dr Faustian who according to legend made a pact with the devil at an inn there. 2) Fastnacht, literally meaning 'fasting night', is an annual festival held in Germany but also Switzerland and Austria. It has associations with both Catholic traditions of Easter - a carnival celebration just before the period of fasting and repentant contemplation of Lent begins and Pagan origins. The later are particularly relevant to Southern German traditions, the region in which Hoedt was working, where grotesque and frightening masks are often worn to chase away the evil spirits of the winter in preparation and the coming spring and crops. 3) The list of villages in which Hoedt took the photographs is alphabetically: Empfingen, Endingen, Engen, Haigerloch, Hirrlingen, Kisslegg, Konstanz, Messkirch, Sachsenhein, Sigmaringen, Singen, Triberg, Ueberlingen, Villingen, Wilflingen, Wolfach. 4) Hoedt worked using a portable studio and large format camera as well as making environmental photographs with other cameras. 5) The photographs were taken in a three-week period limited to and dictated by the regional timing of the Fastnacht festival which varies according to the date of Easter and thus the commencement of Lent each calendar year.
The act of masking, of disguise and of dressing up is central to the Fastnacht period and to Hoedt's interest in making these photographs. Indeed it is, I think, a personal fascination with the masks rather than the broader religious, sociological or political meanings of the festival which is the impetus for Hoedt - a preoccupation at the basis of several of his questions and also one of mine (what was the photographer's motivation for this pictorial study?).
That Hoedt is asking a series of questions about the masks is indicated by the dispersal of quiet landscapes through the body of work. These are quiet black and white views that in their emptiness reinforce a notion of subjectivity and Hoedt's own preferences and viewpoint. Hoedt also softens the perception of the camera as an objective recorder implied by placing his subjects against a plain white backdrop viewed full length or head and shoulders (as in forensic or anthropological photographs) by allowing us, in various images, to see the edges of his studio. Thus he reminds us that this is a constructed working space and part of a larger environment. He reminds us that he, the photographer, is there asking questions.
Almost all the masks that appear in Fastnacht have a closely protected specificity and meaning to a particular trade, family group, village or area. The question (Hoedt's), of who the person behind the mask is, and what effect the experience of wearing it has to transform them, brings Fastnacht close to a portrait project (suggesting part of answer to another of my questions: What is the nature of his approach, which seems to fall elusively between a portrait and a documentary project?).One of Hoedt's more documentary style photographs, (which I imagine him taking using a smaller hand held camera), is a scene showing the procession of near identical revelers whose costume includes polka dotted fabric, bells and a conical hat with mane and pom-poms marching up a street. The image is unusual in that it is not singular. In the studio Hoedt isolates his subjects so that only one person is shown in each frame. Sometimes they are endearing and charming in mood, sometimes they are unsettling and disconcerting. This prompts me to ask, what is the cumulative effect of these singular images?
My final question is why Hoedt's subjects agreed to be photographed by him in the first place. Why did they participate in a world of his making, his artifice, when their own seems so self-perpetuating and contained? It's a question I have of the involvement of Avedon's sitters from In the American West and also Irving Penn's from Worlds in a Small Room, but perhaps for slightly different reasons. The closest I've got to an answer concerns what I think of as a collective confidence in the legitimacy of photographic apparatus and the importance of having one's image recorded. Avedon famously describes working to the side of his camera with a cable release in the making of his work. He believed that this could usefully increase the tension on set, proposing that his subject responded in the main to and for him, the photographer. An alternate position might be that his subjects perform for the camera and for the ideal of what they think this process and eventual representation means. In Hoedt's work this is not based on individual identity but the preservation and endurance of the communal traditions of Fastnacht. An answer to my question, then, is 'to be remembered'.