Holding in my hand, the special exhibition edition of this book, with its super-tactile scarlet suede cover, one might easily think the content was sex-related. In fact, as is well-know, Horst Wackerbarth is a successful fashion and portrait photographer, and it is his Red Couch projects for which he is probably most famous.
In 1984, The Red Couch, A Portrait of America was published, recording his travels around the United States, inviting people to sit and have their portrait taken. In this, his latest expedition, he journeyed over 100,000 kilometres in a Renault Kangoo towing the couch on a trailer through Europe, photographing people in over 30 countries in time for Mayday 2004, when ten new countries joined the European Union. (The exhibition will be shown at the European Parliament in Brussels from 6 September.)
Used by both Freud and Bacon to great effect, the significance of the red couch has been widely aired in art and psychology. For Wackerbarth, the couch provides a common thread allowing all who sit in it – regardless of race, wealth, age or gender – to become equal, to be seen and heard in what might otherwise be a relatively boring selection of portraits.While he goes to some lengths to make each portrait different and interesting, it is the question and moreover the answers that link you to the subjects. The simpler the set up – such as the man with his daughter by the edge of a lake in Ireland and the dog staring into the sky – the more you feel an empathy to what he is trying to achieve.
The Red Couch and the idea behind it is a good one, but it is hard not to feel you have seen all these images before. Maybe because you have. It has featured in ad campaigns, on TV, in art shows. It’s been in books and exhibitions, it’s even changed colour. Sadly, it seems that the couch and its fame overshadows the people it is supposed to be showing off.