Grand Private Spaces and the Natural World

Karen Knorr is intrigued by the history of grand private spaces. Her work often deals with class distinctions, value systems, social morays and a great respect and fascination for the natural world. The places that fascinate her and the animals that she photographs often are given symbolic roles.

A Multi-Diverse Background

Knorr’s multi-diverse background has certainly influenced her photographic practice. She was born in 1954 in Germany to American parents, was raised in Puerto Rico before moving to Paris, and finally settling in London, where she currently resides. Growing up, her experience as an outsider, and her multicultural upbringing allowed her to explore notions of culture, heritage and society through sumptuous, conceptually driven images that employ opulent palaces, museums and historical sites in Western Europe and Asia. She received her graduate degree in film and photographic arts during the mid 1970s, at the Polytechnic Institute of Central London, studying under photographer Eileen Cowin and artist Victor Burgin, who opened Knorr’s eyes to new ways of critical engagement with the medium of photography. Beginning from the 70s, Knorr manifested her role as an activist through her art, highlighting themes of privileges, contradictions, and abuses of power.

India Songs

With a multi-layered documentary approach, the contemporary work of Karen Knorr blurs the boundaries between reality and illusion, examining the meaning of space, drawing from folklore, myths and allegories. In her latest series, titled India Songs, which continued from 2008 through 2020, Knorr photographed interiors of historic sites throughout India and digitally incorporated wildlife animals into these interiors. Referencing the vast history of picturing animals in art, she also highlights the Western appreciation of Eastern culture and form.

The series was named after filmmaker Marguerite Duras’ 1975 with the same title. Throughout these images, we see animals positioned inside richly decorative interiors and settings which are unsustainable environments for them. Knorr emphasizes historical gender stereotypes, while reminding the viewer of the diminishing value and the presence of nature. She describes her first trip to India in 2008 as “an epiphany, a flashback to (my) childhood.” The vast, rich and diverse history of the geography was one Knorr related to, and she was inspired by the possibilities of presenting tradition and contemporary reality within a single frame. Just as our behavior is codified and constricted in these stratified places of privilege, the animals (seeming metaphors for freedom and independence) must give up their freewill in their artificial sections.

Karen Knorr, Mahadevi's Divine Power, Bara Mahal, 2022
Karen Knorr, Mahadevi’s Divine Power, Bara Mahal, 2022

Mahadevi’s Divine Power, Bara Mahal

The title of the works, on the other hand, such as ‘Mahadevi’s Divine Power, Bara Mahal’, reference historic works of literature, including Aesop’s fables and ancient epics of India. The image shows a tiger lounging inside the chambers of Bara Mahal. Mahadevi, which gives the photograph its title, is considered to be the supreme goddess of all gods in Hinduism, serving as a metaphor for the gendering of spaces. The photographic arrangement juxtaposes wilderness with the man-made, and animalism with humanism. The saturated colors, intricate and sumptuous detailing of the grand interior are disrupted by the presence of the tiger.

“I see animals as ‘others,'” says Knorr, “disruptions in the clean, pure lines of these spaces.” She further continues saying; “They are metaphors for human behavior along with being sorts of memento mori, symbolizing transience.” The image, in a way, reinvents what is named the Panchantra, ancient Indian collection of animal fables.

A Layered Style of Storytelling

A layered style of storytelling is also present throughout the series, which allows Knorr to distance herself from a more literal documentary photography aesthetic. She makes use of both digital and analogue photography, creating a diverse visual vocabulary for the audience. Knorr first photographs the interiors with a large format analogue camera. Her own photographs of live wildlife animals, like the tiger in this case, are then inserted into the interior images fusing the high resolution digital image making with the analogue. The resulting photograph is lush, playful and colorful, while challenging rigidly pre-established narratives and hierarchies within the Indian culture.

Global Acclaim

Currently living and working in London, Karen Knorr’s work has been previously exhibited globally including Tate Britain; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; San Diego Museum of Photography, California; Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow; Kyoto Modern Museum of Art, Japan; Seoul Museum of Art, Korea; and the Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai. Her work is also included in the collections of Tate London, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the United Kingdom Government Art Collection, England; Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Centre Georges Pompidou, France; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Folkwang Museum, Essen, Germany; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; and the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan, among others.