Guest interview by Andreas Till
Are you currently working on new projects?
I am generally interested in how groups relate to eachother and how individuals relate to a group. There is not a lot of photography where this subject is the main issue of investigation. Of course, there is Massimo Vitali and there are others like Hans van der Meer and Hiromi Tsuchida. As Vitali’s work is more about the group and less about the individual my work mostly tends more towards the individual. I am currently working on two new projects. I take pictures of famous squares, for instance in Venice, Bruxelles or Amsterdam. I am interested in the collective memory of these places and the behaviour that exists there. It seems that in our collective memory, we go to a city and one of the first things we do is that we visit the main squares. All these squares are having their own specific architecture and are made in a certain period of history. But in a way they look very similar. A large square surrounded with buildings and people walking on the square. It is always different, but the same. What happens, if we see all these things together? It’s very important how things relate to each other. Everything has to have its own value and nothing has to become more valuable than something else, because otherwise the relationship is disturbed. It’s about configurations of persons in relationship with the environment. The second project I am working deals more with a question about behaviour and sociology. I photograph spectators of, for instance, jazz concerts, musicals for children or operas. It is a research of the theatre and its audience. I consider it as a group portrait, which at the same time, stays at a personal level. It is both abstract and concrete in form. There is a balance between individuality and the group, because you can look on the group on the one hand, but you can also see that every person has his own personality and individuality. I went to an opera a couple of weeks ago and there were only people older than seventy. It was really weird, because it seemed like an old mans home was just put into a concert room. It becomes a kind of sociology. Photography is a medium where you can set the time still. Without photography you never have the possibility to have an overview and this is what photography provides to us. Furthermore, I am still working on the On Scale series. I have been working on it for the last fifteen years. It is a series of about eighty pictures and I continue working on it. Sometimes I go into my archive and I find pictures, which I have never seen before as a potential work. But it seems this work needs some history to look at it in a fresh and more distant way. The longer it gets away, the freeer is my mind. On Scale is more or less a series where I take my car, just drive, walk and see what I can find. It’s my most intuitive work. I just take pictures of scenes that fascinate me.
You have so many almost perfect pictures, which look so much constructed. Many people may think that you use Photoshop to achieve this.
No, I don’t. I am fascinated by how things come to us in real life. I want to concentrate myself on specific aspects of a subject, which hopefully reveals a whole new way of looking at things. And if you know a specific picture is photoshopped, it loses all credibility and that is not what I want for my work. So I never use Photoshop. As you can make everything with it, the fascination can be in the technique and less in the sociology, but if you can combine both and you can do research, which tries to use this technique as part of the sociology involved, it becomes interesting. Working with Photoshop, you can feel the manipulation, because it becomes too sterile and too perfect. This is always a risk. You can become so fascinated by the image created that you might forget the aim of the research.
Still people might have doubts if it is real or not.
Of course I play with this. I have noticed that. Jeffrey Ladd (writer of 5b4 blogspot and publisher of Errata edtions) also said to me: “How is it possible that everything looks so perfect?“ It’s both luck and skills. When I photograph I can focus on my point of view, because I know exactly where the image ends and where it starts. I look at the corners of the picture and then I look inside and decide what I want. I mainly Iook at colours and forms, because the scenery is already chosen. If you look at my pictures you will see that the primary colours are very important for the picture. They help the viewer to enter the picture and to scroll into the image. But I am not trying to make a perfect picture. I am trying to make a picture that works. In a picture, the color red can be very important. It’s a small element, but if the red was on a different spot, the image would be completely different. This has nothing to do with the subject of the photograph, but simply with the colour. I started to realize this, while I was making the School series and I asked myself: “Why does this one work and why this one does not?” And this is how I became aware of the importance and the relationship between the visual and the subject of a photograph.
How do you edit your work?
I deconstruct them in different ways. I deconstruct them as a whole and I deconstruct them as parts. Imagine you have three variations of one picture. Sometimes, the first thing I do is that I look at them upside-down. And if it looks balanced, it seems to work. So in a way you look at pictures on an abstract level. I have four or five variations turned upside-down and at that point I can already tell which one works best. Sometimes you have two or even three left. Then you deconstruct them on a personal level. You think: “Well, this one bothers me!” or “this one annoys me!” because one person draws too much attention and then I skip this one out. And finally one is left. So it is a kind of two-ways-decomposing - on a total abstract level and on a personal, concrete level.
Are there landspaces that don’t work on a visual level as soon as they are filled up with people? Do people change the appearance of a space in a way that the picture doesn’t work anymore, do you think?
Maybe they do, but I wouldn’t say it’s a concern of mine. If there is, for example, a school-canteen and I decided to shoot in a particular direction, there is a form and a rest form. First, I thought that the people were the form and the space was the rest form. However, I found out that it works better if I start to treat the space as the form and the people as the rest form. So the space will be the pillars on which the picture stands on. But when editing, the people become the form and the space the rest form. It seems the best way to control the image. Because if the composition isn’t good, then the picure will never work. In a way, you have an intuition of how it is going to work or how it can work, but you never know. It’s just luck. What happened a lot of times in the school pictures was that the students went into the opposite direction of the set-up of my camera. Nobody wanted to be in the picture. There are these dynamics, which you can never predict. You try to find out a meaning why it happens like that. You think it has to be some sort of sociology. You think people who are living in a very crowded area are less afraid of the camera. But it didn’t work. There was no conclusion to be made, because it was always different. There was no point of finding reasons, it just happened. If I saw a picture and I couldn’t take it, I always went back. So if I thought the canteen or the luggage area are good, I went back just as long as it took me to get the picture I wanted.
So you already had the picture in your mind?
I felt it had potential. My intuition was the only thing that I could rely on. If I felt a place had potential, the picture almost always came out nicely. And if I was somewhere and I didn’t think it had potential, but I was already there, because I drove 150 miles, I thought: “Well, let’s give it a try!”. If it didn’t turn out to be a good picture, then I wouldn’t go back. So it was not a problem of confidence in doing it. I could only have control of just one thing and that was the form of the space and the expectation that within that particular space, something good could happen. It was this struggle with space and behaviour, which made it fascinating, because it’s very difficult to make a good formal picture in which there is both an interesting relation between people and the surroundings and an interesting relationship within the crowd.