Work and Recollection by Manfred Willmann focuses on everyday situations taken from the artist’s personal surroundings, exploring the need for manual skills in everyday working life and the way in which his protagonists are integrated into social realities. The photographs taken in the Austrian province of Styria consist of extended portraits that showcase the sphere of activity of these protagonists and its specifics in all its details and significance. They illustrate the history of traditional working methods which, increasingly, are giving way to digital and machine-controlled processes and losing their public profile as a result.
Willmann portrays the working and living environment of his tailor, his car mechanic, the watchmaker, and the simultaneous operator of a cinema, butcher’s shop and restaurant, as well as his grandfather with his passion for basket weaving. And while not all the protagonists enter the field of view directly, all the professions portrayed are linked to notions of work as evidence of craftsmanship that demands a particular dedication on the part of those involved. Willmann remembers a generation who engaged in a multitude of activities such as these, activities which very few people today still master. Willmann’s work is characterised by focusing on identity-defining details which, as a narrative strand, are in keeping with the principles of auteur photography.
Willmann’s car mechanic for instance is portrayed within the standard heteronormative context of his profession, complete with pin-up posters on the walls. But at the same time, the mechanic’s artistic aspirations are highlighted as he creates sculptures from bits of leftover metal, to be used as ashtrays. The meticulously precise work of Willmann’s tailor is documented by the countless darts and detailed seams sewn on a jacket, all of which are necessary to achieve an exact outline and fit. At the same time he also depicts the painstakingly tidy setting in which the tailor has gone about his work until very recently, a setting unchanged since 1958. The watchmaker, too, devotes himself with the utmost accuracy to the precision engineering of his timepieces.
The images of countless baskets woven by Willmann’s grandfather are contrasted with a photograph that shows a ‘historical’ picture of the artist in the form of a childhood photo. Next to this ‘picture within a picture’ is a head shaped out of plasticine, a likeness of Willmann’s grandfather, now deceased, that he made as a pupil, its image taking the place of the portrait of the protagonist in the other series.
The photographs document a time as a moment of recollection when work meant the ability to identify with a craft and industrial manufacturing processes were not yet the order of the day. Within this circle of acquaintances that Willmann portrays, he succeeds in retracing a lifestyle in which a notion of work passed down through the generations is expressed in both a rural and an urban setting.
Walter Seidl, born in Graz in 1973. He has curated numerous exhibition projects in Europe, the US and Japan, and contributed essays for artist’s monographs and international magazines, including Camera Austria, springerin and Život umjetnosti. He is a curator, author, and artist, and lives in Vienna.