“Today, people listen to me because I have something to say. People used to listen to me because they liked to look at me.” (Elfie Semotan)
“Trau dich doch”: I dare you. This provocative slogan, part of a late-1970s advertising campaign for the Austrian brand Palmers, appeared on posters featuring photos of models in seductive black lingerie—nothing short of scandalous at the time. The photographs by Austrian photographer Elfie Semotan bear witness to a new, hedonistic zeitgeist that was gradually challenging conventions through playful experimentation. To this day, her photographs have lost none of their cool elegance, imperfect beauty, and discreetly erotic subtexts. They often reveal much more than the subject matter suggests, and their astute references to iconic works of art history blur the boundaries between art and commercial photography.
Semotan started her career as a photo model in Paris. She was introduced to photography in the late 1960s by her partner at the time, Canadian photographer John Cook, who sparked her passion for working behind the camera. The art of photographic storytelling became her forte: photos that have the look of film stills; visual compositions and figural arrangements that tell stories extending beyond what is shown. This principle led to her years-long advertising campaign for the Austrian mineral water company Römerquelle with photos depicting diverse variations of a ménage-à-trois. Her advertising photos and her portraits of prominent figures from the worlds of art, film, and theater—Louise Bourgeois, Willem Dafoe, Elfriede Jelinek, Milla Jovovich, Maria Lassnig, Martin Kippenberger, Udo Kier, Jonathan Meese, and Daniel Richter—and not least of all, her exclusive artistic collaboration and friendship with fashion designer Helmut Lang brought her international renown.
Just as Lang’s minimalistic design had a defining influence on international fashion, Elfie Semotan’s libertine advertising and fashion photos for him as well as for international magazines like Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview, The New Yorker, and Vogue created a new photographic aesthetic. Like her German contemporaries Barbara Klemm, Herlinde Koelbl, and Sibylle Bergemann, Austrian photographer Elfie Semotan used the free spaces that existed within photography to conquer a medium that—like most other artistic disciplines—had long been dominated by men, and to assert her own feminine perspective.
C/O Berlin is honoring Elfie Semotan with this first comprehensive exhibition of her work outside Austria, providing a cross-section of the photographer’s diverse artistic production. A catalog will be published to accompany the exhibition.
(b. 1941 in Wels, Austria) graduated from the Austrian Fashion School of Design in Vienna and started her career as a model in Paris. In 1969, she returned to Vienna and worked as a fashion, advertising, and portrait photographer for magazines such as Elle, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, The New Yorker, and Vogue. Her artistic collaboration with fashion designer Helmut Lang from 1986–2004 and her campaigns for Römerquelle and Palmers made her famous internationally. Elfie Semotan has been married to the artists Kurt Kocherscheidt (1943-1992) and Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997). Kippenberger and Semotan influenced and inspired each other‘s artistic work throughout their marriage. The series The Raft of Medusa (1996) is one example of the cross-fertilization of their work. In 2011, she was awarded the Austrian Medal for Science and Art. Elfie Semotan lives and works in New York, Vienna, and Jennersdorf.