Biography & CV
Elfie Semotan (b. 1941 in Wels, Upper Austria; lives and works in Vienna, Austria, New York, NY, and Jennersdorf, Upper Austria) is a renowned photographer who has produced an expansive oeuvre encompassing landscapes, still lives, nudes, portraits, fashion editorials, and conceptual works over the past 50 years. Best known for her fashion photography and decades-long collaboration with Austrian fashion designer Helmut Lang, Semotan is recognized for her ability to merge reality and fiction and dissolve the borders between art history, fashion, and ordinary life. While her work spans numerous genres, it is her acute consideration of the everyday, mundane aspects of reality―models with holes in their tights, wilted flowers in a vase, a couture dress draped across a chair, or a roll of plastic amidst tall grass in the Texas landscape―that has become the defining characteristic of Semotan’s work. Manipulating light, focus, and perspective, Semotan activates the intricacies between candid action and staging to foreground individuality, authenticity, and mood in each of her images. She has stated that light is the most significant factor in her photography, arguing that “light plays a crucial role. It defines a form or dissolves it. Light produces a photo or it destroys it.”
Semotan’s fashion photographs are distinguished by their nonchalant theatrical character. Using staging as a formal strategy, she often breaks with traditional settings and draws on art history and elements of daily life. Semotan draws inspiration from varies sources ranging from American photographers such as William Eggelston and Robert Frank, the religious paintings of Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and depictions of the mundane settings of everyday life by Edward Hopper and Roy Lichtenstein, and her work deftly combines the vibrance and drama of an Old Master painting with the commonplace sophistication of modern photography. Particularly fascinated with the unspectacular, Semotan prefers her settings to appear incongruous with the person being pictured.
Self Portrait, 2020
In her series Refashioning Austria (2017) male and female models wearing couture, barefoot or in slippers, stand in front of green, white, or red translucent plastic haphazardly stretched between two tripods. Her settings, which alternate between nondescript interior spaces and the middle of the woods, are unidentifiable and obscured, standing in stark contrast to the dramatic poses or strong, somewhat awkward gaze from her models. Semotan subverts both the general conventions of photography (which presumes to offer some form of objective truth) and those of fashion photography (which offers idealized notions of beauty) by depicting scenes that are humorous, absurd, and function in the realm of the imaginary. Consistently critical of established ideals of gendered beauty and the stereotypical images of women widespread in the fashion industry, Semotan chooses to focus on the character of each subject rather than their dress, suit, shoes, or bag―embracing the aesthetics and contrariness in all forms of beauty and individuality.
Semotan’s early landscape and still life photography have deeply informed her commercial and portrait work. In the 1970s she created a number of constructivist-inspired landscapes and still lifes as part of her initial exploration of the qualities of light and found formal structures. For Semotan, light and shadow can render the unremarkable unique. A bus stop, odd intersections of buildings, construction sites, a dilapidated fence in a field, or a dismal grain silo can be transformed through the interplay of light and shadow captured at just the right moment. Through landscape photography Semotan developed a distinct method of observation that embraced the conceptual and avoided overly-specific motifs or clearly symbolic imagery. The genre of still life occupies a similarly significant role within Semotan’s practice. As in her landscapes, she directs her camera at commonly overlooked scenes and inconspicuous quotidian objects that she elevates to the level of photographic subject conveying a specific tenor―a stuffed tiger lurking beneath an open window, a display of women’s underwear pinned to a wall in a store front, or a closely cropped view of sheer embroidered curtains hanging above a blue patterned carpet. For Semotan, the key is capturing a certain atmospheric density that is heightened by the spontaneity and quiet randomness of particular constellations of objects, forms, and shadows. “As a photographer you always want to preserve a moment for eternity,” Semotan explains, “however, I think it is much more important to quite deliberately shape the moments that you find. Even if you’re photographing a landscape, you can shape and mold it by allowing time to pass and waiting to see how the subject changes.”
Semotan earned a degree from the School of Fashion Design, Vienna in 1960. Solo exhibitions of her work have been organized at Kunsthaus Wien, Vienna (2021); C/O Berlin, Berlin (2019); Gabriele Senn Gallery, Vienna (2020); Leopold Museum, Vienna (2018); Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne (2016); Galerie Mezzanin, Vienna (2015); Capitain Petzel, Berlin (2014); Kunsthalle Krems, Krems (2013); Museum der Moderne Rupertinum, Salzburg (2010); Universalmuseum Joanneum, Graz (2005). Select group exhibitions featuring her work include On Everyone’s Lips: From Pieter Bruegel to Cindy Sherman, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg (2020); identities, Die Spitze des Eisbergs, Museum der Moderne, Mönchsberg, Salzburg (2019); Mode Momente: Fotografinne im Fokus, Landesgalerie, Linz (2019); Photo/Politics/Austria, Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna (2018); Ästhetik der Veränderung. 150 Jahre Universität für angewandte Kunst Wien, Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna (2017); ReFashioning Austria, Liu Haisu Art Museum, Shanghai (2016); Reflecting Fashion: Kunst und Mode seit der Moderne, Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna (2012); Augenecho: Kurt Kocherscheidt - Malerei / Elfie Semotan - Fotografie, Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen (2008); Les Grands Spectacles, Museum der Moderne, Salzburg (2005); Das Bild der Frau: Gegenpositionen. Künstlerinnen in Österreich 1960-2000, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Wörlen, Passau (2004); Schuermann Collection, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. (2001).