2020 Emerging Artist, Maximilian Thuemler

Maximilian Thuemler “Born from the Limb”

Maximilian Thuemler

Portrait by Miria-Sabina Maciągiewicz


Maximilian Thuemler’s ongoing project Born From the Limb is invested in the correlation of labor, land, and migration. Focusing on the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia, the work touches ground at a vaguely defined point of black origin in the United States. Utilizing a combination of selfportraiture, still life, and landscape imagery, the pictures filter popular culture, folklore, myth, and art history in search of fragments related to the historic and contemporary narratives surrounding our understanding of blackness within the context of Americana. By referencing and reproducing found images of regional romanticism and combining them with photographic traces of a scarred terrain, the work seeks to highlight the discrepancy of local legacies. The interweaving of archival materials sets the landscape of memory inherent to the narrative of Born From the Limb and further amplifies the historic layering of space and time, through which Thuemler and his audience move. Performative self-portraits reinvigorate a silent expanse of land with gestures derived from history’s Eurocentric relationship to blackness. Thuemler’s body is employed as a medium and catalyst of memory to the point of exhaustion, addressing the emblematic social and political concerns of a forgotten terrain, while considering the complexities of America’s relationship to its collective past. Drawing from at times competing sources, the work understands narrative creation in spaces of omission and the presentation of splintered evidence as measures of congruent importance. While the project may focus on the narratives of specific geographies within African American coastal legacies, its broad aim is to explore the possibilities of reading and evaluating expansive image landscapes that allow for a critical assessment of official histories, archival narratives, and vernacular traditions.



Maximilian Thuemler was born in Berlin, Germany and received a BFA in Illustration from Parsons School of Design. Utilizing photography and its boundless archive, he engages the medium’s uniquely complex and fraught relationship to historical narratives of power, race, and recognition. His work has appeared in Fraction Magazine, Tabula Rasa Magazine, Office Magazine, Ain’t Bad Magazine, and Accessible Objects among others. It is also part of the Yuko Nii Foundation Collection in Brooklyn, NY. Thuemler is a recipient of the 2021 Creator Labs Photo Fund and the 2020 Lucie Foundation Emerging Artist Scholarship. He is also among the 2021 Critical Mass Top 50. Recent group exhibitions include Corona Culture at Alte Muenze in Berlin, Salon #1 at New Collectors in New York, Tabula Rasa Magazine Volume IV: Performance at Usagi NY, and Thank You, Have a Nice Day. at Galerienhaus Berlin. He is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.


01) Self-Portrait at the Wanderer Landing Site, Jekyll Island, Georgia, 2019
02) Needwood Baptist Church and School, Glynn County, Georgia, 2020
03) Libation, St. Simons Island, Georgia, 2021
04) Found postcards (Fishing and Old Slave House), 2020
05) Jail Yard, Charleston, South Carolina, 2020
06) Indifferent Landscape, Charleston, South Carolina, 2021
07) Sugarhouse (Tabby Wall), St. Marys, Georgia, 2019
08) Self-Portrait Toppled Over Out Back, Glynn County, Georgia, 2020
09) Gadsden’s Wharf, Charleston, South Carolina, 2020
10) Found photograph marked recto “May 1940” (Charleston Defenders), 2020
11) Praise House, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, 2021
12) Boneyard, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, 2020
13) Self-Portrait Reclining (Sugar Boy), St. Marys, Georgia, 2019
14) Cotton Gin, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, 2021
15) Found photograph marked verso “Civil War Overseer’s House”, 2020
16) Self-Portrait Wrestling Mud (Diptych), Folly Beach, South Carolina, 2018
17) Parallel Dusk (Ravenel Fresh Seafood), Ravenel, South Carolina, 2020
18) Lap of Heads, Charleston, South Carolina, 2021
19) Circumambulating / Running Myself Into the Ground, Tybee Island, Georgia, 2020
20) John C. Calhoun Monument, Charleston, South Carolina, 2020



When and how did you get started in photography?

I was around 22 years old when a good friend gave me a slr 35mm film camera and suggested I start using it. At the time I’d occasionally take pictures of my girlfriend, friends, or graffiti. Since then, my interest in photography has steadily grown to incorporate a wider spectrum of subjects and possibilities to engage with the people, places, and moments that feel significant to me.

What does photography give you? What is it that you try to achieve with photography?

Photography allows me to reflect on my desires and unveils what moves me as a human being. There is a distinct sensation that bridges different genres of image making for me in a way that seems to signify the act of photographing as congruent with wanting to feel connected to the subjects I choose to focus on. It is a medium that extracts me from the flow of life, while at the same time arresting me for a moment in the act of looking. In one way or another, all of my photographs give me the privilege to think about a given situation through the act of image making. This in return forges a lasting bond to a precise moment in time. I understand the camera as a tool that de-accelerates life and lets me lose myself to a certain degree in the details isolated in my viewfinder. This can be the suddenly extremely intense relationship to a person, myself not excluded, or the calm focus of watching light and compositional decisions form a landscape or still life.

To make an image is really a question of how I relate to the people, places, and objects that I photograph and how I inscribe myself into each image by influencing the amount of intimacy and intensity or the sense of calm portrayed. The act of photographing has introduced me to a form of balance that can only come through experience and continuous learning fueled by visual cues. Therefore, photography is closely tied to my interest in the world and seeking to see something with a level of excitement akin to encountering it for the first time, while simultaneously wanting to understand what it is that I’m looking at. Only then can I make a photograph that will be of later interest to myself and by extension might also mean something to an audience.

What do you think makes a truly great image?

It has to do with both a novelty of looking and a feeling of sincerity. Not sincerity in sense of an image being staged or candid, but instead a genuine sense interest and fascination, which can perhaps bridge the photographer and their audience. I wouldn’t venture to say that I make truly great images, I’m also not quite sure that it is possible to assign such a term of value to oneself. However, an image that ends up satisfying my idea of what I was looking at, would have felt right the moment I saw it through the viewfinder. It’s an active way of solving compositional problems, considering whatever the right moment might be determined by light, mood, and unforeseen coincidence. More often than not, this absorbed engagement with the world will leave a residual feeling that I can recognize in a resulting photograph and I think the viewer will feel this sensation as well.

Who were your early influences and where do you get your inspiration from today?

I’m fortunate to have parents that introduced me to art and literature at an early age. Many memories of family vacations are tied to visiting a foreign city’s museums and historical sites. Instead of repelling this incentive, it became an important foundation to approaching history through art. Early on, I was fascinated by the paintings, drawings, collages, and photography made within the Dada and New Objectivity movements during post WWI Germany and the following Weimar Republic. To this day, I continue to think about and look at the work of Raoul Hausmann, Christian Schad, Lotte Laserstein, Otto Dix, Aenne Biermann, and Georg Scholz among others.

Beyond this first influence, I was also one of millions of users scrolling through image feeds on Tumblr. At the time, I wasn’t yet actively producing much work. The streams combining anything from movie stills, to medical studies, to pornography into individually curated feeds, created a very absorbing sense of wonder. Much in the same way that social media functions nowadays, it was an addictive fascination and continuous anticipation of what might come next. Without a doubt, the types of images I saw, still influence the way I work today. This is true for compositional and thematic residue that might still be at work somewhere in the back of my mind, but also speaks to the idea that the hierarchy of image production and genres within my work is dubious at best.

As I got more involved with making photographs and reading about other people’s images, I started to collect both books and essays to inform my interests. Recently, I’ve been spending time with the work of Mark Sealy, Christina Sharpe, Harun Farocki, Friedl Kubelka vom Groeller, Jochen Lempert, and Seiichi Furuya to name a few. Somewhere in there I also often find myself returning in thought to the 2018 Peter Hujar exhibition at the Morgan Library and the state of tender sorrow it left me in. His subjects seem to gaze out from eternity. Not the kind that remains present or accessible, but the kind that stands at an ever increasing distance, cast in an austerity that reflects Hujar’s deep interest in his sitters.

What drew you to pursue a project on this subject? How did the idea come about?

The current climate of art making and its institutional presentation has changed quite a bit since the first seedling of the project appeared. A few years ago, I was still painting and would have long conversations with friends about themes in art and how they differ between Germany and the USA. Namely, the post WWII presence of reckoning with the Nazi past in Germany as both a matter of personal accountability and societal guilt. This has a lot to do with left wing student movements, the 68ers, Gerhard Richter, and larger than life figures like Joseph Beuys heading art departments at Universities and influencing academic discourses. Anselm Kiefer’s 1969 performance Occupations fascinates me with its bitter humor, Don Quixote-esque challenging of history, and commitment to tightroping the line between overbearing pathos and poetic poignancy.

It always felt like this kind of history genre, art making as an act of reckoning, was strangely absent from the larger American discourse. To say it didn’t exist is of course a statement of complete ignorance and disregards the work of visionaries such as Carrie Mae Weems, Beverly Buchanan, Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Ana Mendieta, or David Hammons, among many others; yet I still felt that there was a wide open expanse in which to make work. I started to formulate the idea of self-portraits in connection with traces of history throughout the US landscape. In 2018, a trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL started to tie together various notes and ideas for a body of work that had previously waited for a spark.

What is your shooting process and work flow? How much of the project is staged vs documenting candid moments?

For this project I’ve been going on 3-4 week long trips to South Carolina and Georgia at regular intervals since 2018. Leading up to these fairly short, yet focused, times of image production, I’ll research and catalogue sites that seem suitable for self-portraits, sort through collected archival materials, follow up on loose ends and interests from previous trips, and work on prints of images that seem suitable for the project. While I’m on the road, there’s a loose itinerary of key places to visit with enough time left open to dwell and meander in-between locations. In this process, the self-portraits are staged to the extent of combining a site with a performative self and then working through the image until a suitable gesture is reached. The actual work of shooting the self-portraits and documenting performative motions happens one of two ways. I either use a small analogue self-timer, or rely on the help of my partner Miria-Sabina Maciągiewicz to document my body in motion.

The landscape and still life photographs are sometimes made with a specific location in mind, or along the trip as certain elements stand out to me for one reason or another. Occasionally, I’ll see something and immediately feel its connection to the project, but there’s also many instances of feeling compelled to photograph something without knowing if and where it might fall into the greater narrative of Born From the Limb. There is also instances of arriving somewhere and realizing that the main thing, be it a structure or certain view, is either too grand, imposing, or simply too obvious to be of interest beyond having seen it. Two examples that come to mind are the Old Charleston Jail and the Praise House on St. Helena Island. Both sites are historically significant and relevant to the themes I’m pursuing. However, a more indirect approach to photographing a detail of texture, light, and vegetation seemed more appropriate in order to convey a sense of the atmosphere and specific locality. This approach also speaks to a dynamic within the project of including both literal representations and more abstract atmospheric pictures in combination with archival materials to further the thought constellation of Born From the Limb.

The resulting wall arrangements are meant to establish both a sense of the living past and the subject matter’s opacity by means of cross-pollinating self-authored photographs and archival materials. These found images and documents currently include postcards, photographs, flyers, pamphlets, and newspaper articles. Many of the included archival components were found in somewhat unsorted boxes at antique malls, thrift stores, and roadside markets. Much like the photographs I make, certain materials are immediately an obvious component related to the current state of the project, while others are acquired out of general interest and may reveal their relevance and suitability at a later point in time.

How did your project develop and change between your start and end dates? What challenges did you face in the making of this project?

For one, the geographic scope of project has considerably narrowed down. The initial idea was a more general inquiry into sites and their absence relating to a form of African American origin. After the first trip in 2018, I quickly realized that there might be a more interesting story for me to seek out within the contained coastal legacies of South Carolina and Georgia. The richness of history in this coastal region opens a wide landscape of memory that inspires me to make work. However, I’m also making work in spaces that carry specific memories and trauma for communities that are thinning out, yet still exist. A conscious approach to living history is important and has given me many impulses towards understanding the African Diaspora as a wake, which is a metaphor borrowed from Christina Sharpe, cutting through countless lives, while drawing a long course throughout time with ripples that still directly affect family legacies and present lives.

What do you find most fulfilling about this project?

The past few years of working on this project have taught me quite a bit about my own way of making and selecting images. It has also introduced me to a specific local history, by allowing my interests to guide me through the project.

Has receiving a Lucie Foundation Scholarship impacted your career, and if yes, how?

The Lucie Foundation Scholarship was the first one I ever applied to with work that seemed like it had a trajectory ahead of it. It was the start of engaging with my work as an entity meant for an audience. This opened the project to the challenges of trying to present it in a concise form that covers and conveys the themes and ideas of importance to me. I’ve also started to present my work in group exhibitions with the aim of developing varied installations that activate a dialogue between my photographs and the presented archival materials. At the moment, it’s more of a sketch for things to come, but I’m eager to publicly present the forms that I’ve been slowly developing. The planned book and future exhibition formats will aim to retain and expand the non-linear associations and visual dialogues that have started to solidify themselves.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently preparing for another trip to South Carolina and Georgia, while simultaneously honing in on a tighter edit of the existing photographs and archival materials. It seems like 1-2 more trips might lead to the conclusion of Born From the Limb, after which I will focus on making a dummy and finding a way to publish the work.