Proceed To The Route

Exhibition Text 2019. Brendan Embser Managing Editor Aperture Foundation

The color is red and the woman is ready. The color is blue and the phone is ringing. The American Dream is a fiction and so are these photographs by Tania Franco Klein. 

“My main character is emotion” she says. But her subjects, the women Franco Klein builds into character studies, like figures in film stills, seem beyond emotion. They have seen too much. They see too much. They are ready for a change, to press beyond the sheath of solitude, to make the most of their time, which is all the time they have left. When they are not performing, they are not visible. And when they are not visible, the sun is setting.

In her recent photographs, Franco Klein appears to take up the mantle of the masters: the archetypes of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills and the Hollywood lighting of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hustlers, the shocking colors of William Eggleston and the mysterious, glossy poses of Jimmy DeSana. 

Like a film-noir alchemist, Franco Klein combines the erotic and the enigmatic, setting her retro scenes of anxious road trips and glamorous hangovers against the psychological grain of the present: the stress of our digital age; the stress of performing.

“I lost my sense of home,” Franco Klein says of her life lived between Mexico City, California and London. That loss is expressed in these photographs as a search, by both artist and subject, woman alone and women as some imagined collective. 

Burned out, on the road again, or just waiting with a cigarette and the half-life of a dream, in the brilliant, gem-tone saturation of colored light, her women are lost in the world but found in images. We are all in this together, Franco-Klein seems to say to them, from behind the lens. Even if we are all alone.



The american dream through the lens of a young mexican photographer

By Benoit Loiseau 2018

The photography of Tania Franco-Klein evokes a sense of tragicomedy worthy of Samuel Beckett — only this time, Godot may well show up and offer you a job at his tech startup. With elaborate sets and scenic colour contrasts, the Mexican photographer constructs enigmatic scenes where existential angst converses with the implied decline of Western society, often with a good dose of satire. “All my work is about social behaviour and solitude,” a surprisingly upbeat, 27-year-old tells me when we meet at a local canteen in the Roma Sur district of her native Mexico City. “Technology is supposed to bring us together, but instead it’s taking us apart.”

The young photographer is in the spotlight this month with a display at Photofairs San Francisco, with her gallery Almanaque, featuring pictures from her latest series, Our Lives in the Shadows. Shot over the past two years between Mexico and California, the introspective works (which will also be released as a book later this year) are dominated by self-portraiture involving nudity and wigs and a biting commentary on the poorly-ageing ideals of the American dream. “It’s an autobiographical project, it’s very personal,” explains the artist, who had previously worked with a variety of models of all ages and paths of life (generally strangers). “I used it as therapy,” she confesses.

Set in motels and desert landscapes, the works speak to a sense of dislocation between the domestic and the natural world. Meanwhile, the presence of props — from vintage landline telephones and old hoovers to chunky 80s glasses — suggests an element of nostalgia for a paradise lost, wrecked by the neoliberal turn and the digital age. 

“Our idea of success is so rooted in Western ideologies,” affirms Tania as she references the influential 2015-book The Burnout Society, in which the Korean-born, German philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that the excessive positivity which characterises the age we live in has produced a spreading malaise. “Everyone on social media is constantly performing themselves,” continues the photographer, “there’s a huge problem with loneliness.”

And loneliness, indeed, is at the core of the series. In one picture, an old landline telephone is sitting on a blue-leather cushion stool by a large glass ashtray, filled with lipstick-stained cigarettes butts, denoting a long-awaiting phone call that clearly never arrived. In another picture, the photographer is seen passed out on a wooden kitchen surface, her face reflecting in an old-fashioned chrome toaster, camouflaged in a toupee and glasses, dreaming of another reality.

Her 2015 series Pest Control, in contrast, favours comical, multi-protagonist narratives. Taking inspiration from the concept of non-places (as coined by the French anthropologist Marc Augé, to describe spaces of transience like airports and shopping malls), the photographer has imagined a society in which pigeon spikes have cropped up all over the public sphere, as a kind of avoidance device for social ills. They adorn our shoes, furniture, train seats: pointing to collective hysteria while nodding at the growing trend in hostile urban design (which generally aims to restrict access to public spaces for the homeless).

Meanwhile, the ongoing series Fun Fair introduces a particular surrealist aesthetic, enabled by green-screen technology. The photographer documented some of the wildest attractions at amusement parks around London and, using digital retouching, altered what would otherwise be quotidian scenes into an epic spectacle in which fair-goers’ shoes are flying over a pastel-blue sky, reminiscent of a Magritte painting. Here, the depiction of the accidental, in its most trivial form, seems to reveal the cracks in the system of our overachieving, entertainment-obsessed society. 

But the camera wasn’t Tania’s first choice. Before studying Fashion Photography at the London College of Fashion, she’d trained to be an architect and briefly worked with the leading Mexican architect Michel Rojkind. “Something was missing,” she says of her former profession, explaining that her interests always lied in the emotional sphere. “But the act of taking a picture, for me, is the last part of the work,” she continues, pointing to her sophisticated mises-en-scène, which reveal a sophisticated spatial awareness.

And it’s not just the carefully-composed sets that make up the theatricality in Tania’s work, it’s also the props — more precisely, her large collection of wigs. Similarly to Cindy Sherman (who Tania cites as an inspiration, alongside Martin Parr and Jimmy De Sana) the Mexican photographer’s self-portraits present an element of role play, aided by cheap hairpieces and other second-hand accessories. “It has come to a point where I talk about my own characters in the third person, as if they were real people!” she laughs, suggesting that she may well be as neurotic as the subjects in her work.

“For me, it’s when I don’t give in to these emotions that I win,” says the artist, reflecting on her struggle with the absurdist nature of late capitalism, which fuels her art with both lyricism and wit. “It’s not about photography,” she muses, “it’s about life.”


The Paris Review

On Tania Franco Klein’s “Our Life in the Shadows”

By Anna Furman 2018

In Tania Franco Klein’s photo series “Our Life in the Shadows”—on display last month at Mexico City’s Material art fair and San Francisco’s Photofairs—women stare blankly at static television screens, mirrored toaster ovens, and hazily lit window curtains. A sense of ennui permeates the images, which depict domestic life in rich cinematic detail. Each subject is cropped so that her face is never fully in view. Often, the women are distorted by a reflection or an obfuscating prop. In The Waiting, one of the fifty images that comprise the series, a bowl of lipstick-marked cigarettes is perched ceremoniously atop a pillow. The living room is saturated with a moody cobalt blue. (Other images are steeped in jewel-toned reds and deep emerald greens.) Unpeopled and static, the photo is, conceivably, a portrait; the alluring mise-en-scène bears only traces of the person out of view.

“My main character is emotions,” says the twenty-seven-year-old Mexico City–based photographer, who treats houses, furniture, and human subjects as vessels for those emotions—which range from anxiety and melancholy to existential stress. On February 23, at San Francisco’s Photofairs, three self-portraits from the series were on view. In the photographs, Franco Klein is topless, gazing out at a mattress-littered desert road; lying on a carpeted floor, facing her muddled reflection; and in a kitchen, keeled over in exhaustion. Anxious and rudderless, her characters are ill at ease in their environments. Though Franco Klein envisions each subject, including herself, in what she calls a “private jungle”—bathroom, sofa, train seat—there is invariably a voyeuristic element at play. By looking or even physically turning away from the camera, Franco Klein’s subjects are almost—but never completely—able to evade our gaze. 

Throughout the series, balding velvet settees and rickety wooden chairs are treated at once like precious objects and ugly, forgotten debris—clever metaphors for how women themselves are paradoxically valued and devalued in domestic spaces as maids, sex workers, housewives, and mothers. Anachronistic details like a princess phone, a clunky television set, and a gas stove from the sixties appear in disorienting scenes that sidestep any one specific era. In their simple costumes and cherry-red lipstick, Franco Klein’s characters evoke a timeless femininity.

If a nuclear family, kempt house, and diligent housewife comprise the American Dream (at least by the standards of the fifties), then Franco Klein’s destruction of nostalgia-inducing furniture signals a refusal to conform to such expectations. Viewed in tandem with photos of discarded mattresses, the image of a couch on fire is stark and conclusive. Mattresses and couches absorb, quite grotesquely, years of their owners’ sweat and dead skin cells, evidencing the passage of time and, with it, our bodies’ gradual, inevitable decay. 

Franco Klein’s obliteration of the couch signals the willful, cathartic end to a painful chapter in her life as much as it does a refusal to cede to gender-specific social pressures. In 2016, after finishing a graduate program at the University of the Arts London, Franco Klein was nomadic, living in new cities every two months. “I lost my sense of home,” she says. Franco Klein became interested in the Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD), which posits that we are at our greatest potential for growth after periods of anxiety, depression, or trauma. (In 2017, at Mexico City’s Zona Maco fair, she named her photo installation “Positive Disintegration.”) Franco Klein was also influenced by Byung-Chul Han’s book The Burnout Societyin which he argues that a fixation on self-improvement is endemic to our postindustrial, digital age and that it leads to an accumulation of stress and exhaustion.

Throughout this series, Franco Klein wears a voluminous, curly wig and retro square-framed glasses, disguising herself, alternately, as a lost heroine, a disgruntled suburbanite, and a troubled party guest. Her characters make languorous gestures and are perpetually on the brink of collapse; their eyes are often concentrated but empty, evidence that they are only half present to the world around them. In a sterile green-lit bathroom—a crime scene, possibly—Franco Klein twists on the floor in pleasure or pain or both, wearing high-waisted nude tights that accentuate her strained muscles. In a diptych, she becomes another character, sandwiched between couch cushions, her body fragmented and trapped by the furniture’s overbearing weight. Her head, hair, and left shoulder are the only parts in view in one frame; only her torso, derriere, and calves are visible in another. These perverse positions exacerbate the mental and emotional gymnastics each character undergoes to reckon with her respective reality. Instead of providing comfort or support, the furniture constricts and even smothers Franco Klein.

Franco Klein finds freedom in her characters’ anonymity and deploys a dreamy color palette to illuminate gradations of depression. Velvety oranges and reds fill one bedroom with a warmth that is at odds with her subject’s blank expression. When she attempts to reconcile a tumultuous inner life with her external environment, it results in the ultimate escape fantasy: to disappear, to live only on screen. On a black-and-white television screen, there is a small, almost spectral figure in view. “The television shows the same scene as the photo,” Franco Klein explains. “In a way, the character disappears from her own reality and is lost in the image of herself.”

Though most of these images are self-portraits, she does occasionally scout subjects—in her grandmother’s apartment building, in seniors’ water-aerobics classes, and on the street. To set up a scene in which an infant lies in a car, Franco Klein scoured cars parked in her neighborhood. After finding a car with the exact color and textured interior that she wanted—”the usual velvet I have in my photos”—Franco Klein left a note for the owner, asking to use his car for her shoot on the following day. He obliged, they scheduled a shoot time, and she borrowed a friend’s baby for the photo. The resulting image is unnerving: a lone diapered baby bathed in a supernatural pinkish light lies faceup in the backseat of a car, unattended. There are no seat belts, car seats, or adults in view, which renders this otherwise ordinary scene exceedingly strange. We are left to wonder: Is the baby crying? Where are its parents? Will it survive? “When we see an abandoned baby, it’s so vulnerable that we quickly want to protect it,” Franco Klein explains. “But we don’t have the same feelings of empathy for someone our own age, when they might need us just as much.” As adults, our physical and emotional needs evolve and deepen; the image conveys that, regardless of age, we are all vulnerable and, in solipsistic terms, ultimately alone. “What permeates all the work is isolation,” Franco Klein says. “A lot of people feel lonely. That’s a huge issue. We’re satisfying our egos but are feeling more lonely than ever.”

For this series, Franco Klein took most of the interior shots in Mexico City, her hometown, and saved exterior shots for trips to Long Beach, California, and small towns around Palm Springs. Because of ongoing violence in Mexico City—kidnappings, assaults, gun violence—Franco Klein is vigilant about her safety when working at home. “In California, I feel so free to take these photos,” she says. “I don’t have the same paranoia.” In “Our Life in the Shadows,” Franco Klein retreats to homelike spaces, perhaps looking for an oasis of comfort and security. Instead, she finds unstable, even volatile environments that are immersive, corrosive, and charged with psychic stress. In delving deep into such fraught emotional states, Franco Klein taps into her own ability to transcend the circumstances to which she’s bound.


SLEEK Magazine

The Photograoher turning anxiety into art

by Harriet Shepherd 2018

“Feelings are universal,” says Tania Franco Klein, neatly encapsulating one of the key premises of her work. “Everyone knows loneliness. We all know how it feels to be lost.”

Through her cinematic images, which dissect the American dream, the 28-year-old Mexican photographer hones in on the essence of anguish. It’s something Franco Klein is no stranger to. Her entry into self-portraiture was a personal reaction to anxiety. “I used to be very outgoing,” she says “I used to be able to go out to the street and approach strangers and bring them to the set. But now I've come to a point where I just can't talk to people.”

Turning the lens on herself became a way to continue her practice. “It wasn’t a choice, I just had no other option. I couldn’t process anything else in my life. I couldn’t work with people. It took over me. I had insomnia and most of my work was made between one and five a.m. It would come out of me being completely anxious – it was very solitary.” During this period, she began creating roles for herself. “I wanted to talk about the things I was feeling. This anxiety, it’s an epidemic. We are a suffering society and we need to talk about [it].” This apparently global feeling of displacement is part of the reason Franco Klein’s work can be appreciated by anyone.

Her fans include Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro, who in March this year tweeted a link to an essay about her work in the Paris Review, as well as the 20,000 people who follow her Instagram account, @taniafrancoklein.

Her visceral images employ dramatic mise-en-scene to explore the uncertain and confusing scope of human emotion, and the space between darkness and light. In them, her characters are simultaneously lit in cinematic glory and swallowed by shadows in a palpable expression of loneliness and longing.

In her series Our Life In The Shadows (2018), a woman stares listlessly out of an open window, perched on a kitchen table. In another image from this collection, a different woman gazes through the mottled glass of her shower, conjuring a deep sense of sadness. Elsewhere, her 2017 installation Positive Disintegration, shown at Mexico City’s Zona Maco Foto Art Fair, takes its title from Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration (1970), a book by the Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski, who claimed that personality development may increase following periods of trauma and depression. “Once you enter the universe of my characters, you feel something,” Franco Klein explains, and it’s true.

Her works may speak of the past, with their nondescript and nostalgic timeframes, peppered with retro TVs and vintage wallpaper, but they resonate with the present, her characters plagued by the same fears we face in this age of anxiety. “I’m interested in that space between coming and going, that sense that life is never full. I feel like my characters are between this personal fight that we all have.” Franco Klein actually discovered photographywhile studying architecture at Mexico City’s Centre of Design, Cinema and Television. “I just fell in love with the possibilities of the medium,” she remembers. “It’s so approachable, anyone can understand photography.” Following her architecture degree, Franco Klein enrolled on a photography course in Mexico but became disillusioned with its rule-based tuition, so moved to the UK and began an MA in Fashion Photography at University of the Arts London.

Her approach to her craft was always different from other students, she says. “My teacher could see that I wasn’t interested in studio fashion, I was always interested in the concept, about talking about things to do with life.” This attitude is evident in her Vanitas Spectacle (2018), a conceptual series staged alongside work by Paris and Lebanon-based photographer Dorine Potel at Mexico City’s Almanaque Fotográfica gallery. Alongside Potel’s brightly-coloured images, Franco Klein presents a collection of moodily-lit photos that develop her experiments with chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and dark. “There's something very thrilling to me about working with light,” Franco Klein explains. “It gives me this adrenalin.” This dramatic rendering of light and shadow lends her work its filmic quality. “For me, it was always about creating, I love going out with my camera and just taking photographs of things I find, but I just don't think it's my work.” Instead, she carefully crafts alternate realities, scenes in which her drama unfolds. Unsurprisingly, Franco Klein grew up in a household of cinephiles. “I would go to the cinema four times a week growing up,” she remembers. “It’s always been a part of my life.” She says Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian epic, is her favourite movie, and it’s easy to discern this retro-futuristic influence in her work – a mix between past and present, nostalgia and displacement. “You can find me somewhere between Mexico City and California,” she explains. “But I never spend more than a month in one place.”


British Journal of Photography

The Female Gaze issue

by Izabela Radwanska 2017

We are living in a world where we are more connected than ever and yet we can still be left feeling completely alone. In his book, The Burnout Society, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han explores this, and the idea that the overload of modern technology and the “culture of convenience” are catalysts for depression and various personality disorders. Drawing inspiration from his theories, Mexican photographer Tania Franco Klein places this contradiction at the centre of her ongoing autobiographical project, Our Life in the Shadows, which also explores the pursuit of the American Dream and facets of perfection. “We have these compulsions to perform and we live in a society of achievement and positivity that has led to a constant fatigue,” she says.

The need to escape from media overstimulation is seen through the eyes of fictional female characters placed in vulnerable, hunched positions, shot in different rooms of a 1970s-style house. They smoke cigarettes, stare at the television and lie on the floor. Some were cast from the street, with Franco Klein particularly looking for individuals “trying to be invisible and avoid any attention from the crowd”, but most are self-modelled.

Her clever use of bold, dramatic colour blocking, which engulfs each image in a separate tone, serves as a contrast to their introverted behaviour. “Emotions are the most important for my work. If you can connect through emotions and the experience of the visual, sometimes it opens up the door to imagine smells and sounds and a whole 4D experience.” She adds: “It’s funny because I’m talking about isolation, but at the same time I realise that doing self-portraits isolated me more.”

The photographer pays meticulous attention to the spaces used as backdrops for the sensitivity she seeks to communicate. She finds specific rooms and locations by knocking on neighbours’ doors, and constructs her own sets and props – often entirely from scratch. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that she came to photography through architecture, which she studied in Mexico before moving to London to do an MA in fashion photography at the University of the Arts London in 2014.

Crucially, although relatable, her narrative carries an ambiguity, which encourages the viewer to apply their own story and interpretation, and hopefully think about our modern-day dual identities. “We are always trying to create identities with social media to express the good part of ourselves, as if there is some kind of shame in knowing what we are on the other side... because we feel that we have failed in what we are supposed to be.”