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German-Brazilian photographer Mona Kuhn has spent twenty years collaborating with close friends to balance the intricacies of the nude human form against intriguing architectural settings and immersive landscapes. So when she stumbled upon a remote glass house in the vast desert of the Joshua Tree National Forest, she knew exactly where her next work had to take place.

Words by Eleanor Scott

Photography by Mona Kuhn

German-Brazilian photographer Mona Kuhn always knew she wanted to do something in the arts, but never knew how. As a teenager in São Paulo during the 1980s, those kinds of aspirations simply weren’t supposed to be entertained in such a tumultuous political climate. Yet something about the creative world called to her and while she was studying at Ohio State University in the United States, she found herself drawn to the arts library – poring over monographs by the likes of Arbus, Weston and Stieglitz. It was observing those photography greats that Mona realised she had to pursue it.

“I started digging and chiselling into the world of photography until I found my own voice.”

“I really fell in love with photography, because photography to me seems to be so fast. I was able to do the things that I was dreaming about really quickly. But at the same time I realised, well, it is almost too fast … I thought, how do you do it in a way that is different from everyone else?” Mona says. “So I started digging and chiselling into the world of photography until I found my own voice.”

And found it she did. Known for her cinematic, large-scale prints of both the human form and minimalist architecture, over the past two decades Mona has honed her craft into something visually undeniable. There’s a gravitational pull to her images that makes it hard to tear your eyes away, whether it’s the outline of a seated nude woman unnervingly fading into the landscape while simultaneously issuing a vague challenge to her surroundings, or an enigmatic shot of a dusty light-filled room shot out of focus, barely glimpsed through a glass door adorned only by the word ‘private’ written backwards.

“Everyone can take a picture of someone they don’t know, it happens all the time … but how do you do something deeper? To me, that happens when you know a person for some time.”

Themes of mystery and timelessness are strong threads throughout her entire body of work. The closer you look, the more questions you ask yourself: Who are these people? Why are they here? What are they doing? The tension is palpable, regardless of whether you’re viewing the images from a computer screen or in person. But the true triumph is the total lack of discomfort or one-dimensional sexualisation. Though nude, Mona’s subjects transcend that – philosophically bare through physical vulnerability, but also completely in control. A state that was only made possible through complete trust.

“It’s collaborative… because my best work starts when people forget that they’re naked. So for that to happen, we need to know each other. I am reluctant to photograph things [and people] I don’t know,” Mona explains. “Like, everyone can take a picture of someone they don’t know, it happens all the time … but how do you do something deeper? To me, that happens when you know a person for some time.”

Mona’s approach to subject intimacy is deeply rooted in this ideal. She’s quick to emphasise that although she is “100 per cent a photographer” and could never do anything else, her relationship with the person she is photographing will always come first. “I will continue that friendship if the person wants to pose or if they don’t want to pose, you know? So from the get go, it’s already a slightly different mindset,” Mona says.

In some ways, Mona believes that her emphasis on an organic bond stems from the familial distance she experienced when she was young. While she had her parents and plenty of friends to connect with in Brazil, she didn’t have a chance to experience the close ties of an extended family.

“I didn’t grow up with cousins and I didn’t grow up with grandparents … so I think I always had, since I was a child, a slight inner need to bond or to create a small family. I think that the people that I photograph, if I look at all my series, were all people that could have been my extended family. That’s how I treat them. And that’s the real little seed that maybe comes from infancy,” she explains.

“I wanted to escape the body and photograph the human presence coming in and out of evidence, at times overexposed, at times hidden in shadows, like a desert mirage, a solitary figure who could have been the very first or last”

As a professional artist, for Mona, it’s that desire to engage in deep connections that glues all of her work together. Her sixth book with Steidl, She Disappeared into Complete Silence, is a testament to that. The series was shot in Acido Dorado, a reflective glass house designed by architect Robert Stone, which Mona stumbled across while she was finishing up a different project in the Mojave Desert.

“The house in itself was already something I was looking for,” Mona says. “In my mind, conceptually, it was an extension of my own camera. Because it was a whole glass house with a mirrored ceiling, which is kind of what the camera is. There can be a glass [filter] in front of the lens and then you have a mirror inside. So it worked as an optical extension of my camera.”

Together with her long-time friend and collaborator Jacintha, Mona experimented with an abstraction of existence or “being” by carefully balancing Jacintha’s nude form against the vastness of the Joshua Tree National Park and the prism geometry of the glass house. The desert harshness is juxtaposed against the softness of the human figure and the changing refractions of shapes, colours and light created by the house, eliciting an otherworldliness in the photographs that propels them out of time, as if you’re peaking into another realm.

“I wanted to escape the body and photograph the human presence coming in and out of evidence, at times overexposed, at times hidden in shadows, like a desert mirage, a solitary figure who could have been the very first or last,” Mona says.

At times though, she felt like the house and the landscape became “too present”. To counter this, towards the end of the shooting process Mona introduced large sheets of wrinkled Mylar film, which served as an additional disorienting reflective surface to bounce off of while also melting away the “linear structure” of the work – establishing a new equilibrium between the geometry of the house, the desert and Jacintha by creating the illusion that they had disappeared altogether.

However, the project didn’t end when the images were put to print. When asked to exhibit the series at The Click! Photography Festival in a cavernous produce market turned warehouse gallery space, Mona was provided with the perfect opportunity to take the images “beyond the frame” and create an expansion of the work through an immersive art installation ‘Experimental’. The piece used sound, video projections and other media to submerge visitors in the world of the series.

The first of the installation’s two rooms was wrapped in the same mylar foil that Mona had employed during the shoot and it had a wall-to-wall video projection of the mylar moving with the wind in the desert. Spectators were encouraged to enter the space alone, passing through a large vinyl photograph that resembled a pyramid before emerging into the chamber only to be confronted with fragmented images of their own bodies reflected back at them. “It was this really interesting way of having people enter the work and become a part of the work themselves,” Mona explains.

The second space took this feeling further by immersing people in a faux sun-kissed oasis punctuated by an eerie collection of sounds, most notably that of a fly trying to escape from underneath a glass cup, and six ten-foot photographs of Jacintha suspended from the roof. A “last layer of reality” that eventually melted into a three-dimensional space composed of golden foil and ten video projections that unified the room with the work by overlapping the two in the same way thoughts might formlessly connect and disconnect in the unconscious mind.

For Mona, in many ways She Disappeared into Complete Silence feels like a new beginning. “It’s my sixth book with Steidl and it feels like the first five have created a perfect circle. Now this is like my first one again, but just at a higher level or from a different, more mature level,” Mona says. “I see that the work is evolving, that I’m evolving as well … I think that’s really important and it makes me happy.”

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Mona Kuhn