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Photographer You Should Know: Karen Knorr

August 30, 2019

By Greer McNally


With exhibitions in the UK, France, India and Singapore this year, the Britain-based fine-art photographer has never been busier. She is also a staunch advocate of gender parity for female image-makers.

There’s a story that Karen Knorr tells about when she was a little girl, when her father decided to move the family from Germany to Puerto Rico. She was just 4 years old when they traveled on a freight ship across the ocean. Each night, the boat would echo with the stomping of hooves and screeching of animals on the lower decks in the boat’s hold. To this day, Knorr can still hear the sounds—exotic and foreign—as they invade her thoughts. 

These days, animals take over not just her thoughts but her work, too. Chimpanzees saunter through the halls of English stately homes, tigers prowl Indian palaces and cranes hang out with geishas in the projects Connoisseurs, Fables and India Song. To her they represent the elephant in the room—the thing that shouldn’t be there. She uses them to challenge the viewer, disrupting reality and asking us to question what we see. 

But it wasn’t these arresting images of impressive interiors punctuated by roaming beasts for which Knorr first became known. No, her early projects all focused on subjects in their natural habitats, be it the punks of Camden or the closed echelons of British society. From the cosmopolitan inhabitants of an affluent London suburb in Belgravia to the private members’ clubs of Gentlemen, these were worlds as foreign to her as the palaces of Rajasthan and the shrines of Kyoto—and places that she had to sometimes work hard to enter as a woman. 

Then again, Knorr is no stranger to the fight. A strong advocate for female practitioners behind the lens, Knorr was one of over 300 signatories on an open letter urging for gender parity at Les Rencontres d’Arles last year, which was published in the French magazine Libération. The missive was addressed to festival director Sam Stourdzé. The letter went unanswered. 

There were no hard feelings; in fact, when we speak, Knorr has just returned from this year’s festival, where Belgravia had been featured in the Home Sweet Home exhibition. Her portraits of well-preserved ladies in furs and rich young tuxedoed men lounging in their living rooms captures a clear moment in British society. No wonder curator Isabelle Bonnet chose to include some of the series in Home Sweet Home, her look at the interiors of British homes across a 40-year period. The group show also features the likes of Martin Parr, Gillian Wearing, Ken Grant and Juno Calypso. 

It was a world that Knorr almost stumbled upon when her family moved to London in the 1970s, and it would be the first place that the young photographer would get a sense of what she wanted to create as an artist. After her childhood in Puerto Rico, Knorr had felt like a fish out of water when she landed at small, experimental liberal-arts institution Franconia College in New Hampshire. She found socializing difficult and did not relish the sense of otherness that came with being an overseas student. When her father suggested she study in Paris for a spell, she jumped at the chance.

It was during this time that the family relocated to Belgravia, and Knorr followed to study at what is now the University of Westminster. The 1970s oil crash had affected property prices and Knorr’s father “managed to get a very cheap deal on a 25-year let on a maisonette” in the affluent zip code. 

Suddenly the elite international community of one of London’s richest suburbs were her friends and neighbors. Living there gave her the access, which others were denied, and when she needed subjects for her next college assignment, her parents’ friends let the student into their homes, posing for portraits and chatting candidly.

She arrived alone with her Hasselblad, a flash and an umbrella, the English weather forcing Knorr to reconsider her relationship with light, and created a series of what she calls “non-portraits.” She knew the anonymity of her sitters was essential, as she wanted to comment on the group, not the individuals.

Knorr’s feelings of being an outsider suddenly became an asset. She found she could be critical and “not too puritanical” in the way she approached her subjects. Each photograph was accompanied by a caption, a quote that had resulted from Knorr’s chats with the sitter. The results are wry, witty and, most importantly, they offer an insightful view into a closed world.

 “This slight distancing gave me an empathy and a way of reflecting,” she explains. She listened to what she was told and translated it into her images. When one woman talked about a friend’s position as a trophy wife, it was clear the sitter was really talking about herself. The quote made it into the final series. 

She finds it almost funny now that Belgravia, completed between 1979 and 1981, is still so popular, and this isn’t the first time that the work has been revisited. It was displayed at Tate Britain in 2014 and then printed as a monograph a year later. “I thought this way of being and way of thinking about one’s life would change,” Knorr says, referring to the importance placed on position and class. But perhaps it is not that which makes her work still relevant but more the sense of connection between the subject, their environment and their cultural identity.

That play between words and images is very important in Knorr’s work, too. She wanted to create a social document, while still challenging the viewer’s perception of what they were seeing. It would be a theme that continued throughout her career. 

She credits an essay by Walter Benjamin, quoting Bertolt Brecht’s remarks about factory life, as truly capturing what she wanted to achieve. “He said a factory won’t tell you anything about itself unless you construct something,” Knorr says. “You need to construct a relationship. That idea that the world needs a construction to reveal itself became my credo.”

She applied the same approach to Gentlemen, a series that took her inside the exclusive private member’s clubs of London. When she began, however, the access that had come easily with Belgravia was almost impossible to obtain. She wrote letters and was met with either silence or refusals. Then she had a chance encounter in a sandwich shop across the road from her university. 

“I was chatting to a man in the queue, showing him my work and explaining how I couldn’t gain access to the clubs I wanted to photograph” she recalls. But what she didn’t know was that the man was a friend of Lucius Cary, the 15th Viscount Falkland, a liberal in the House of Lords in the upper house of Parliament. “He said, ‘My best friend belongs to three of those clubs. I’ll introduce you.’”

Access was finally hers, but again she went alone, camera and flash in hand, this time early in the mornings and often only into rooms with no visitors. She constructed setups to disrupt what people expected to see. In one particularly powerful image, she positioned a lone woman at the center of a male group, the arrangement of the sitters echoing a painting on the wall, which features, unsurprisingly, no women.

It drove home the sense of interior worlds that she had first encountered with Belgravia. It also got her thinking about the other spaces closed off from public view where she would like to take her camera, and what would happen when no one else was there.

That—and the bad British weather—led her to start another project, Sanctuary, in 2000, which would eventually become part of her series Academies. “I became very conscious between October and March that year that it seemed to be raining every day,” she explains. “It made me think about what would happen if we became so flooded that all the animals started going into the museums for sanctuary.” 

Her inspiration was the fairy tales of Angela Carter and the idea that the museum might come alive at night, with the creatures coming out of the paintings. So, she got her hands on some taxidermied animals and took them to the Wallace Collection in London and started creating something quite magical.

Knorr denies having a favorite project, but the series that she revisits time and time again are perhaps closest to her heart. Yes, Belgravia continues to resonate with people, though she has been working on India Song since 2008.

That project came about when Knorr decided to push herself out of her comfort zone. That meant leaving Europe. When a good friend and photographer, Anna Fox, introduced her to a young gallerist, Abhishek Poddar of the art gallery Tasveer in Bangalore, India, it was the start of a project that today she calls “life-changing”. 

She knew she wanted to do something in India but didn’t know what or where. “I thought perhaps I could shoot something to do with pre-British architectural sites.” Knorr Googled Rajasthan, a state in northern India. What she saw seduced her with its hybridity between Indian and Muslim architecture, leading her to do “a 2,000-mile recce around Rajasthan in a tiny car with a good friend, Juliette Wilson, looking at the sites with a very basic digital camera.” Then over the next five to ten years, she got permission to go back and photograph the same places, but this time, Knorr says, she would do so “very carefully.”

The sense of responsibility she felt was and is immense, because many of the buildings continue to deteriorate due to time and tourism. Her drive was to “tell an Indian story that wasn’t about victimhood and poverty,” instead focusing on the stories of the places. “I began to study,” she says, reading William Dalrymple’s series The Last Mughal.

The scenes she found on the walls of these interiors, of hunting scenes and women dancing, documented the everyday lives of a long-gone aristocracy, but there were also stories from the ancient Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana too. “I just fell in love with this country and can’t stay away.”

Into these worlds she began introducing live wild animals, as she worked to blend reality and illusion. This time she shot her interiors on a film camera and her animals separately digitally, placing them into the lavish interiors during post-production. The work is about to become part of the permanent collection in Bangalore’s Museum of Art & Photography. 

And while India Song continues, that first road trip had such an impact on Knorr that she is now undertaking a new one in the States. She and Fox are retracing the journey that Berenice Abbott took on her Route 1 project. This is a busy year for the photographer and she will have to fit trips in between the Fast Forward conference at the Tate Modern in London in the autumn and her Migrations exhibition, which will open in Singapore in September. 

“This might be a long one,” she says of her new project. “But if you’re really a committed photographer-artist and you love it, then you just keep on experimenting. As long I am lucky to be blessed with good health, like I am, and eyes that work, I will go on taking risks.”  


New Order: Art Product, Image 1976-1995
Sprüth Magers, London
Through September 14, 2019

Home Sweet Home, 1970-2018: The British Home, a Political History
Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles, France
Through September 22, 2019

Hymn to the Earth
Festival La Gacilly-Baden, Austria
Through September 30, 2019 

Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Singapore 
Opening September 21, 2019

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