20 November 2019

Sweaty Worlds, Parallel Universes, and Supernova Printing

20 November 2019 - Written by Colin Pantall

The patron saint of photography is Saint Veronica. She wiped the face of Jesus with a veil, and an image of Christ's face appeared. The same process of making an image from sweat appears in Reiner Riedler's latest photobook.

© Reiner Riedler, spread from the book Sweat

Sweat is a book of faces, bodies, breasts, limbs, and hands that have been marked out on sweat sensitive material and then photographed. The book itself is a beauty, a fold-out extravagance of full Saint Veronica sweat-based weirdness in tactile form.

The story of Sweat began when Riedler found his body marked, in Turin Shroud style, on the t-shirt he was wearing. Intrigued by this example of pre-photography with spiritual overtones, he got in touch with the Fraunhofer Institute in Munich.

They researched and created a sweat sensitive material for Riedler. And so he got to work, creating a portable ‘sauna’ where his subjects could work themselves into a lather before being wrapped in material that would soak up their facial and bodily imprints, there to be photographed and turned into this book.

© Reiner Riedler, from the book Sweat

These sweat-created images are spectral in nature. They are the face of Jesus on the Turin Shroud, they are the shadows left at Hiroshima, they are the contorted bodies from Pompei, they are silhouettes on a morgue slab, they are x-rays, they are Plato’s Cave, they are many things.

Mortality is written large in Sweat, in eyeless faces with gaping mouths that look out at you like screams bound for hell, or in the rounded bellies, breasts, and thighs of full-body imprints that are shadows of the life that made them but are somehow more than shadows.

The book is beautifully made, silver printed on pages folded into a leporello that opens out in all kinds of ways and fits into a cyan-blue card cover held by two black rubber bands to give it that dossier feel. Open the pages and bodies are divided by folds, legs creasing into torsos, almost-faces staring empty-eyed not out of the page, but back into the book’s black, blue, and brown pages.

© Reiner Riedler, spread from the book Sweat

The book starts with heavy silver on black, the pages moving to a very dark cyan blue, and then chocolate brown. Again, the memento mori element gets a huge nod here with the final pages also merging into a wall of silver noise where the unreadable quality of the fabric (and the clips that held it in place) has precedence.

These final images look like x-rays (if a clone of Gustav Klimt and Jenny Saville were the radiographers), with the fabric another portent of mortality. In photography, there is the idea that photographs preserve a moment in time, or even stretch out over time so that the present embraces the future and the image is a reminder of what we once were. And ultimately, what we once were was alive. So basically, you take a picture of someone and that’s it, it’s a picture of death.

But in Sweat, there’s a different dynamic at play with the interplay between the ideas of portraiture as revealing the face and portraiture as a mask looming large. In Sweat, the faces are like skins sloughed off from the living. They are death masks, not because they represent the living, but because they do not. They are a miasma that has been lifted off the living.

© Reiner Riedler, from the book Sweat

The living are fine and well and continuing with their happy lives. There isn’t that sense that we are seeing what they were in these images. Instead, Reiner’s faces and bodies and limbs are shadows of a parallel universe, a universe created by the silver printing, by its supernova like explosions of ink, It’s a book where even the most hackneyed pose - a muscle man pose, hands over the head, a plank - take on a different meaning that has its own very dynamic life that exists somewhere in a galaxy somewhere beyond where string theory meets its end.

And that is what is so amazing about Sweat. It’s a book of images made by direct contact with the subjects. It’s as indexical as it comes (or the original material is), yet somehow it’s not about the people who made these images or the world they live in. It’s about another world, one that exists somewhere beyond our experience and our knowledge. The truth, as they say, is out there.


Sweat by Reiner Riedler

Photographs by Reiner Riedler // Text by Vreni Hockenjos

Published by Reflektor / Vienna in 2019 // Designed by Tapir Design / Ania Nalecka-Milach.

Printed in Bulgaria by Alexander Atanassov / Tea Design

104 pages // 61 photographs // Print run of 200 copies

Hardcover / Linen // 24 x 30.5 cm // €75



Reiner Riedler is a documentary photographer based in Vienna, Austria. The main focus of his work is to challenge our systems of value. As a traveler, he visits the periphery of our habitats, always searching for the fragile beauty of human existence with its desires and abysses. Follow him on Instagram.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Colin Pantall

Reading time

5 minutes

Support PhMuseum Journalism

Since 2012 PhMuseum's articles have always been free and without ads. Every year we work to keep you informed and invite you to discover the work of hundreds of photographers. If you enjoy reading us, this can be a nice way to give back and support our independent organisation, granting us more means to increase the quality and number of contents. Thank you!