Born into a theatre family in Berlin in 1936, Vera Mercer was a trained dancer before she moved on to photography and Paris. She became immersed in the Nouveau Réaliste movement of the 1960s and documented the film stars and avant-garde artists who thrived in the French capital at that time. Mercer then found new inspiration in markets across Asia, where she lived for five years and started taking pictures of food.
Mercer now has a studio and three restaurants in Nebraska. Kommunale Galerie’s retrospective sets her enormous still-life photographs, which mix a Renaissance aesthetic with digital print techniques, in the context of her earlier work.
You were born here, but it’s your first show in Berlin. How come?
I left Berlin when I was five – we moved to Kiel. Those were difficult times: I didn’t like Germany. When I got married, I moved to Paris. I thought I’d never go back. I didn’t want to. But to me, Berlin isn’t Germany. It’s only the third time I’ve been here, but it’s much livelier than Paris, even New York. I’ve seen so many different shows and there’s so much going on here, you can’t see it all. It’s marvellous, though I do wonder how all these galleries keep going. The show includes works from a long, long time before I ever came to Berlin. It’s wonderful to be here, it draws a circle around my life.
How did you move from documentary photography to still-lifes?
I took photographs of friends, artists in the Nouveau Réalisme movement in Paris – Jean Tinguely, Robert Filliou, Niki de Saint Phalle and my ex-husband Daniel Spoerri, who became very famous for glueing things to walls. In these pictures, they’re ignoring me because they know me, which is how a portrait should be. After my first marriage, I began working as a journalist for a Danish newspaper. I photographed Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Norman Mailer. Every night, I took my little darkroom from one hotel room to another. There was a lot of work and a lot of drinking: that was Paris. Then the hebdomadaires started to go out of business. So I worked a lot in Asia, taking pictures of food markets. I never photograph anything I don’t eat afterwards! Reportage is finished now. You get reportage in galleries, but it’s old. The papers have closed. I don’t regret it – you shouldn’t regret change.
There’s something unearthly or surreal about your pictures…
It’s candlelight. I always have candles on me. If they’re not visible in the picture, they’re just outside it, or hiding behind something. As a photographer, you’re supposed to use natural light, but I like these strange, intense colours. I often have daylight coming from one side and candlelight, or incandescent light, from another.
The exhibition’s called Joie de Vivre and Vanitas. Your photography resembles Renaissance paintings: there seems to be a lot of symbolism – opulence, dead animals…
But I don’t think that way at all! It’s just instinct. I don’t put all this meaning into it. I have cultivated friends who detect all these things in my work, that it’s about this or that. So now I’m becoming deformed… I’m starting to see these things, too. But it doesn’t change the way I work. I just understand it better. For me, these things aren’t dead, they’re just beautiful. In Paris, they sell chickens with the head and feet still on. They look really strange and beautiful. It’s just how they are.
JOIE DE VIVRE AND VANITAS | Through April 25