“There was never a plan”
"Although my work is dark and serious, there is a childish, playful naivety and innocence about it," explains Alma Haser, whose body of work thrives inside the subjunctive imagination. Cubist forms infused with a paradise of origami structures create a kaleidoscopic effect that challenges traditional perceptions of portraiture. A photographer by trade, Haser often uses techniques more familiar in craft, such as folding, weaving, and painting to give her work a more dimensional edge that parallels collage and other artistic expressions.
She credits her German heritage as an influence for exploring innocence and darkness at the same time. “I’ve always been interested in the Grimm stories, tales, and myths. The Black Forest has many traditions that are both scary and playful, and it is funny that the place I have moved to Hastings (United Kingdom) also has these traditional festivals,” Haser explains. Born in 1989, she grew up in a former match-stick factory in the Black Forest, where both her parents were artists. “We didn’t have much money, but the lack of it heightens creativity.” She roamed free with her brother and they were left to their own devices. She’d often be found in a makeshift den under one of her father’s sculptures or bathing in a puddle that formed outside of the factory—something often caught on video camera. For the yearly ‘Fasnach’ (carnival), the Haser family would get creative and break the norms. “One year, my mum was a tomato, my brother a cherry tomato, my dad a courgette, and myself a banana. All costumes were handmade, that’s what always made us so special.” A willingness to experiment and defy the norms is a family trait that stayed with Haser to this day.
At age 6, her parents separated and she left Germany to go on a world trip with her mother and brother. It was a year of homeschooling that took the three of them to Singapore, Bali, New Zealand, Tahiti, Cook Islands, and America. They stayed in the Cook Islands for the most extended period, “My mom turned our bathroom into a darkroom and had exhibitions of her Ciaoatype pictures,” she recalls. The days were spent learning to surf and sail with her brother, but it also forced her to grow up quickly. Haser considers herself “slightly childish” and “naive” at heart, possibly because she had to mature so suddenly and spent most of her time with older artists and travelers. She asks herself if she is “holding on to that inner child?” She originally wanted to create stories with her work, but now she believes her work evokes emotion as opposed to telling a narrative. Haser wanted to create “a sense of unease or wonderment, or even being watched by the many eyes. I don’t want people to understand my work straight away, because that would be boring,” she explains.
Origami and kaleidoscopes entered her life later through her lust for anime and South Korean films. A portal to papercraft opened alongside a fascination with Asian culture—origami grew into her teenage hobby. In the final year of her photography degree, she wanted to include this hobby in her work. “Photography was always the easiest way I could try and convey the image and idea in my head, but I also loved craft and wanted to find a way I could combine the two. ‘Cosmic Surgery’ was when it finally made sense,” Haser tells us.
Her portraits rethink both traditional portraiture and perceptions of identity by using optical illusions to obfuscate facial features, ultimately rewriting conventional definitions of beauty and identity. Although it was never her intention, this was the effect her ‘Cosmic Surgery’ created. “It is surgery after all," she reveals, "I felt it fitted in well within our society of change and also wanting to look the same and hide from the ever suffocating authorities.” The series is demanding. Haser constantly repeats the process. It begins with mobile phone photography, then manipulation of the image, here she depicts new variations of a ‘selfie’ and digital social media formalities. It is a reaction to people taking multiple shots of themselves before they are finally happy with the result, then that product is processed through the factory of filters.
‘Cosmic Surgery’ was recently featured in The Age of Collage Vol.3, alongside some of her other projects. Being featured in the gestalten series was always a dream of hers growing up. The concept for the project first came to Haser after hearing Julie Cockburn talk about her work and the balance of photography and art. Around the same time, she became familiar with Joan Fontcuberta and was fascinated by the idea of making up the truth. “I started taking portraits of friends and people around me, then came the origami, and then came the story, which I worked out with my stepfather who is a science writer,” Haser avers. Together they came up with a Black Mirror-like utopia where someone would get a face transplant that was made of moving facets. The idea was that the transplant would be plugged into your brain, so your thought waves would allow the facets to move and change into any face desired. “The origami portraits represented the patients who have already undergone the operation. I guess it was up to the viewer to figure out if that was the final face they were given, or it is a still of the moving facets, the eyes, lips, and facial features that have not yet settled.”
Haser’s signature portraits in recent years have found a new lease of life as jigsaw puzzles, which further question the concept of the human structure. Her double vision technique of printing two, sometimes three images into one has a perplexing effect of a twin puzzle culminating in one. By printing the same subject in multiple poses or using identical twins over a single photographic illusion, the symmetrical arrangement plays on a tension between similarity and difference. The experimental process of her work has an unusual impact on the viewer, often leaving them in doubt if they know the subject at all. Two years ago, she collaborated with an Alzheimer’s awareness campaign that saw her developing process as a tool to test recognition. The Netflix series Russian Doll then famously featured her artwork in the show.
The conceptual and distorted photographic nature of her work derives from the experimental traits of the Haser family. A willingness to explore, trial-and-error, and being prepared to fail has helped her evolve this procedure and become one of the generation's rising stars. In a toast to the untested, we conclude with a question about the most valuable lesson or piece of advice that has helped expand her artistic process. She responds, “I’m a big fan of Erik Kessel's book ‘Failed it!’ and recommend it to everyone. I am continually working from failed ideas. Or an original one will often turn into something completely different because it failed.” There are two quotes that Haser has at the ready, the first from Erik Kessel: “Don't be scared to sift through your rejects in search of ideas.” If the concept did not work at first, that does not mean it will not later. The second quote is from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro, another compelling figure in work, who famously said: “There was never a plan. There was just a series of mistakes.”
See more work from Alma Haser and other pioneering collage artists in The Age of Collage 3.