American/British artist and activist Karen Knorr (b. 1954) is known for her sumptuous, conceptually driven photographs that employ opulent palaces, museums and temples of Western Europe and Asia to frame issues of power rooted in cultural heritage.
Knorr was born to American parents in Frankfurt, Germany, and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She studied art in Paris and London, where she eventually settled in 1976 and still lives today. Her multi-cultural upbringing was deeply influential, especially in the formative years of her career when she used photography to make sense of her world as a young Puerto Rican American assimilating to life in London. Her experience as an outsider is part of what sparked her longtime interest in exploring issues surrounding culture and society.
Knorr was also inspired by the artistic practices of friends and contemporaries, including photographers Bill Brandt, Bill Owens and Diane Arbus, as well as conceptual artists Michael Asher, Martha Rosler, Andrea Fraser and Hans Haacke, one of the leading proponents of institutional critique. In the 1970s, Knorr studied under noted photographer Eileen Cowin and artist Victor Burgin, who opened her eyes to new ways of critically engaging with photography and its relationship to institutions and heritage.
Over the course of her career, Knorr has used video and photography as a method of critical inquest. Her work has consistently examined the meaning of place, often drawing from folklore, myths and allegories to express contemporary ideas. More recently, her titles reference historic works of literature, such as Aesop’s Fables, the poems of Ovid and ancient epics from India, including the Rāmāyana, the Mahābhārata and the Panchatantra.
Knorr uses this layered storytelling approach to distance herself from more literal documentary photography. Lush, playful and spectacularly colorful, her images of exotic animals digitally fused into grand architectural settings are as aesthetically thrilling as they are thought-provoking.
Karen Knorr’s work has been exhibited around the world, including at Tate Britain; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; San Diego Museum of Photography, California; Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow; Kyoto Modern Museum of Art, Japan; Seoul Museum of Art, Korea; and the Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai. Her work is in the collections of Tate London, Victoria & Albert Museum and the United Kingdom Government Art Collection, England; Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris and Centre Pompidou, France; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; The Museum of Fine Arts Houston; and The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan, among others.
Knorr was awarded the Photography Pilar Citoler Prize in 2011 and she was nominated for the Deutsche Börse in both 2011 and 2012. She has also received nominations for the Prix Pictet in 2012 and 2018. As an advocate for women in photography, she was made an Honorary Fellow at the Royal Photographic Society in 2018, as well as Honorary Chair of Women in Photography.
Knorr is an activist as well as an artist, advocating for transnationality, equality and diversity in the art world. She is a professor of photography at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, Surrey, United Kingdom.