Felipe Russo’s Centro: Seeing a City Through Its Patina

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Felipe Russo

If there’s one thing photography does well it is to faithfully depict the surface of people and objects. In a nutshell, that’s all you get, the surface, projected onto the photographic plane in that simple manner that makes the medium so perplexing. Ignoring aesthetics, photography really isn’t any different than what our own eyes have to offer.

For example, when we look into a loved one’s face, we have no way of knowing what is really going on in their mind (and vice versa), however much we would love to think or pretend otherwise. All photography does is to freeze these moments, to give us minute chunks taken out of the continuum of time, presenting us with the loved one’s face that might have changed into something completely different just a short moment later.

In real life, we have some hope of having the flow of time come to our rescue, of providing us with a plethora of information – instead of that one photographic bit. But in reality, often enough we’re just as much at a loss what’s going on as when we look at a picture. What we know of someone else’s inner life we have only access to if it is communicated, and the communicated really is just another, fancier, form of it being mediated (if you don’t agree, ask any therapist – seen that way, photography critics often enough are really photography therapists: you have strange ideas about photographs, we’ll set you straight; the only difference being that therapists tend to make a solid amount of money, and critics don’t).

We have more hope understanding the inert, non-animalistic world around us, regardless of whether it comes in a primordial form or is merely the result of human activity. But even then our failure to look properly, to see and understand what is in front of our eyes leaves us with a woefully incomplete, if not flawed picture of the world.

If photography critics often take on the role of therapists, so do photographers. Ideally, that’s what s/he will do: make us see, provide a mediated interpretation that might bring us a little closer to a different reality, a reality that does not replace our own, but that enriches it. Photography is nothing but interpretations layered upon interpretations, with each additional human component adding another layer. This makes this oh-so technical medium the worst, well, the least bad of all ways of humans mediating and communicating the world around them (just witness the seemingly never-ending discussions in photojournalistic circles about truth, about how much manipulation is allowed, etc. – essentially a battle that can only be lost, given it’s fought on an absurd ground).

Photography excels where its limitations are understood, where everybody takes the medium for what it is. It is here and then, where we can get the most out of looking at pictures of surfaces, frozen in time. I had to think of this during a recent visit to São Paulo, a city I had never visited before, a city that I had not researched at all before going there. It’s not that I was (or am) lazy: it’s just that my priorities are a little different. I’m really not a very good tourist, and I don’t aspire to be one: you have a great art museum in your town? Well, that’s nice, but I’d rather walk around in your neighbourhood to see what life is like where you live.

I had no idea of the city’s scale (it is huge), its spatial composition, its history as a city. One of the things I truly love about going to a city I don’t know is trying to infer – or maybe sense – the latter. Cities, after all, are living entities (however vibrant or morbid they might be) that constantly re-invent themselves, that constantly shed some skin (or part of it), to reveal another, newer one. What I’m most interested in is a city’s patina, the traces of all that was. Cities without patina bore and frighten me at the same time: a city made to look as if it had no life other than the current one is like a face frozen through Botox. It’s not alive any longer, it’s an abomination.

From what I was able to tell during those few days I was there, there is considerable patina in São Paulo. Only while being there did I realize that Felipe Russo‘s Centro, which the photographer worked on during his time as a student in the program I teach in, essentially is about that, the city’s patina. Or rather it is about the city and its life, using the patina as a tracer.

As I noted above, photography only captures surfaces, which often makes it hard to get beyond the obvious, to capture that which cannot be (easily) seen. But the patina isn’t obvious – quite on the contrary. The patina isn’t even just the physical surface of things, the grime and dirt left over on buildings, the paint flaking off. It is also the physical arrangements of things left standing around, however temporarily. It is where (and how) the city as a physical object meets with whatever it is we do while living there.

Russo’s photographs are about just that. There are photographs of the cityscape, pictures that derive their beauty from the photographer’s ability to construct wonderful two-dimensional representation from three-dimensional blocks of all shapes (São Paulo’s aren’t all simple, mindless, infuriating cubes, which makes the city a sight to behold in its own). You couldn’t make these pictures in, say, New York City, because there you would end up with advertizing in every picture. São Paulo has banned large-scale advertizing, so unused facades of buildings are blank, where they don’t contain the remnants of paint bombs or artful looking graffiti. The effect is similar to driving into Vermont from any other US state – suddenly, all the awful huge billboard advertizing crap are gone, and there is a real landscape to be admired.

But Centro isn’t merely a collection of cityscapes. There are a few. Most of the photographs show bricolage-style objects, found somewhere and photographed, such as, for example, a couple of palettes stacked on top of each other in a way that makes the viewer think of a purpose other than stacking. None of the objects are precious in any sense. But through Russo’s camera they become precious in the form of photographs, speaking of the city and those that live and work in it.

There’s a bit of an anti-Walker Evans instinct at play: the photographs are not so much about the city itself, about the jumble of signage or non-precious objects, as about the gestures, however big or small, that made all that. This will get me into trouble with Evans fans, but still… As much as I admire this photographer’s work, it still seems more photographic than anything else: ultimately, it’s about the pictures. It’s about being visually clever. It does make us look at surfaces, but it doesn’t always invite us to look deeper, beyond the photographic.

Maybe that’s one of the biggest weaknesses of what we might call “art photography,” that instinct to make sure that if there is any doubt, it’s more about a picture being a clever picture than about what it might hint at (clever in the sense of the photograph being a good picture, employing the medium’s criteria – there’s material for a future article here).

Centro doesn’t only feel clever in that way. While the photographs are, of course, organized in ways that make them work, they’re not just about that, about a photographer’s ability to skillfully and pleasingly organize a three-dimensional jumble of things in a two-dimensional plane. They’re also not only about this aspect of “Look, what I’m making you see here.” While that is a (necessary) part of it, there is more: they are about a photographer noticing the city’s life through what was around him and bringing it to the viewer, by means of photography. And that difference might strike you as minute, but it is the crucial point.

During my visit I told Russo that his work made me think of someone from the Düsseldorf School doing their work, but then bringing a human sensibility to it. Where so many photographs coming out of Düsseldorf feel like they were taken by uncaring automatons (at least on the surface), Centro is filled with emotion; and the step from the photographic to the emotion never is very far.

This is most welcome. As much as I love contemporary photography, large parts appear to have gravitated towards the corner where so many books, say, could have the subtitle “Why I am so clever.” As Centro shows, it needn’t be so. You can produce very contemporary photography, yet fill it with love, with emotion at the same time.

Ken Schles: Invisible City/Night Walk

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A few years ago, I lived in Pittsburgh, PA, a city trying to get over the fact that while there were much better days in the past, those are unlikely to come back. My apartment was somewhere close to the line that divided an area considered attractive to one seen as anything but. The line wasn’t completely invisible, as it is in so many American cities where you simply know where you belong. There was a public-transportation route cutting through, to be used by buses only and usually deserted, a rude, brutal conglomerate of concrete. Even the buses offered a bit of a divide, with its regular buses, stopping everywhere, and the express ones that zoomed right to the university areas.

A couple of years after I moved there, the city decided to tear down a large public-housing building that was deemed to be an eye sore, to be problematic. The people living there were promised alternative housing, which might or might not have arrived. In any case, they had to go. And then Whole Foods moved in or rather, it literally crossed that dividing line, building a supermarket, daring those who thought better of venturing across the line to do so, provided they wanted, say, their tiny piece of “gourmet” cheese for $15. Other corporations followed, including a chain book shop (I don’t quite remember the name any longer, they’re all the same anyway), and a chain thrift-store that sold to used dresses for $20.

Essentially the better off had chipped way a little at the territory of those who weren’t that, those who still had to worry about what to spend money on. Far beyond the dividing line, things didn’t change that much, despite the city’s best efforts to lure in, for example, artists, offering them houses to buy for little more than a wet hand shake. There was a fair amount of violence going on, and people peddled drugs. Artists did move in, and some of them moved back out again.

I haven’t been back to Pittsburgh since I left, so I have no idea what happened to those areas. But this story seems to be fairly typical of the country as a whole. Now, I only need to drive down a few miles, and I’m in Holyoke, MA, a city that makes Pittsburgh look like a tremendous success story. Or I could drive down to Hartford, CT. In fact, wherever I drive there always is some city that has not only seen better days, but that essentially is trying to put a brave face on the simple fact that there is if not no hope then very little for it.

Not too long ago, you were able to find this kind of situation in New York City, right in Manhattan. You wouldn’t know necessarily this from visiting the strip mall for the wealthy the island has become of late. But you might be aware of it, given that so much of its transformation is tied to the arts, tied to it providing the fuel for the arts, some of it anyway.

Maybe this is too convenient an argument to make, and just like any convenient argument it’s essentially false. But that energy coiled up in the city, in Manhattan, fueled the arts as much as did the existence of incredibly cheap (albeit often ridiculously dangerous) housing. Just to digress a little: Now if that is correct, then we might as well find an alternative term for New Formalism: Gentrification Art. Because, you know, if so little matters to you in your life, if there is so little actual risk other than maybe missing an opening, then why would anything matter in your art? Why not just produce visual fluff?

Anyway, I’m not sure I personally would have lived on, say, Avenue B at a time when the founders of Sonic Youth lived there, or Ken Schles, the photographer.

There’s this general problem with looking back to a time that in retrospect looks so alluring because of some of its symptoms. All that art coming out of Manhattan in those days – that’s really a symptom, and I don’t mean this in any bad way. I love a lot of the stuff. Bad Moon Rising is awesome in ways that contemporary music simply doesn’t seem to aspire to any longer. But it’s still a symptom, the result of a sickness of the municipal body.

So there is that push and pull here that one needs to be aware of. The story often sounds great, but at the same time, its beauty is grounded in circumstances that are anything but beautiful. I think this applies to Schles’ Invisible City and Night Walk. Invisible City is a re-release of its original 1988 incarnation, which has long been hard to come by (for those with limited funds). Night Walk, in contrast, was compiled from material that didn’t make it into the 1988 book, material that has now been given a life in book form. So you can treat these books as companions. They certainly speak of the same thing, even though there is quite a bit of a difference in their focus.

Photographically, both book provide copious amounts of photographic references. In City, for example, there is a photograph of a kid pointing a gun at you, clearly echoing William Klein’s New York book. With their bleak and harsh black-and-white treatments, occasionally using considerable blur, the books also echo Japanese photography from around the Provoke era. Of course, many of these references have since been picked up by a younger generation of artists.

I got a bit of a weakness for this kind of aesthetic, even though I realize that it’s also a bit easy. I mean, anything will look kinda cool if you just boost the contrast in b/w and show some serious grain. It’s a bit like visual punk rock: as long as its really loud and fast, and you cram 20 songs into 30 minutes, you got yourself some punk. But it’s one thing to do that, and another thing to be the Ramones.

My first reaction after looking through both Invisible City and Night Walk was that I like the latter better. A lot better. The thing about City is that while it contains some pretty great photographs, the overall edit is a mixed bag. And the added quotes from Kafka, Borges, Orwell, Beaudrillard, and others really make it feel as if someone was trying a bit too hard. It feels very self-conscious. In contrast, Walk sings.

The reality is that as we age, we get a little wiser. We don’t really have to try so hard any longer. And I think Invisible City and Night Walk make a pretty great case for just that. Walk feels expansive in ways that City feels restrictive. There’s a specificity to City that doesn’t allow its viewers to enter it under any conditions other than the one it lays out. Walk, in contrast, both echoes the times and circumstances under which the photographs were made, but also our times and circumstances, the things we do (or don’t do), the things we share (and don’t share).

Seen that way, Night Walk does what it needs to be doing, given our cities’ lives: it references the past as much as the present and the future. It doesn’t glorify or condemn outright. It’s really only punk in visual form. To stay with music analogies, it has much more in common with latter-day Swans than with 1985 Sonic Youth.

Invisible City; photographs by Ken Schles; 80 pages; Steidl; 2014

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 3, Edit 2, Production 5 – Overall 3.4

Night Walk; photographs by Ken Schles; 162 pages; Steidl; 2014

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4, Edit 4, Production 5 – Overall 3.9

A Conversation with Melissa Catanese

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Melissa Catanese

Melissa Catanese‘s Dive Dark Dream Slow might be one of the most successful and exciting recontextualizations of vernacular photography in recent years. With both vernacular photography and such efforts having become widely accepted in the world of art photography, I wanted to find out more, both about the book and its maker. The following conversation was conducted via email over the course of a few weeks.

Jörg Colberg: Before talking about Dive Dark Dream Slow in more detail, can you talk a little bit about why/how you became interested in vernacular photography? Why is it interesting?

Melissa Catanese: I never really sought out working with vernacular photography specifically, but a strong interest in using other people’s photographs developed in graduate school in 2004 and 2005. I became focused on working with groups of images and how meaning and narrative can be shaped through editing and sequencing. This led me to consider working with other source material besides my own photographs. I worked on a book with Ed Panar called Yesterday’s Beach, Tomorrow’s Forest from a friend’s personal archive of photographs taken in the 80’s and 90’s. From there we went on to create a fictitious photographer named Lester Pleasant. Lester was mostly three of us, but really anyone could contribute to his archive. It was under his identity where we could edit one another’s photographs, weaving them all together with levity and without ego or self-consciousness, more or less. This conversation opened my eyes to this profound ambiguity that exists in a photograph and the potential meanings that can be made from that ambiguity, especially when moved around within a sequence.

When I began working with vernacular photography it was like going back to ground zero in revealing an essential truth that all photographs are these strange mysterious artifacts that can be so easily removed from their original meaning and intent. It sounds a bit new age, but once I started exploring Peter Cohen’s collection, I felt a draw to the photographs, a weird magnetic pull. These little objects have a strange autonomy and it’s hard to articulate this nearly mystical element of working with them. They were seducing me. As if they had been waiting to be reactivated (or liberated) from the circumstances by which they were first made. But also, I wanted to tap into their inherent strangeness, darkness even, that I believe exists in all images.

JC: How did you meet Peter Cohen, and how did the idea to make Dive develop? In fact, how does one even go about working with a collection as enormous as Cohen’s?

MC: I met Peter in 2009. He was a regular at a restaurant I worked at in New York. After a few visits, we came to discover we had some things in common which led to our friendship. The initial connection was that he was familiar with the graduate program I attended in Michigan, Cranbrook Academy of Art, an enchanting place. When he found out I was a photographer, he invited me over to share his snapshot collection. He’s been collecting snapshots for over 25 years and over the years, he invited several people to come in and help him organize. I was happy to have the opportunity to do this and spend more time with the collection.

Being at his place was like a retreat for me. We’d catch up for a little while and then he would leave me alone with the piles of photographs. There was never any real serious pressure to formally archive or anything like that. I would sort stacks of new snapshots into boxes labeled with general categories, sometimes creating new categories. The woman who worked with him before me helped Peter produce several Blurb books from these categories. He would use these books to introduce his collection to friends, museum curators and institutions. I should also note that Peter is known for encouraging visitors, mostly museum curators and a few artists, to start their own boxes. There’s a whole section of the room dedicated to institutions. These usually become donations to the institutions, and sometimes exhibitions. It’s fascinating to see what ‘themes’ museums are interested in acquiring.

He asked if I would be interested in adding to that series of books. The first book I made for him was called “Women on Land and Trees”. The book was designed in the same way as the other books and meant to be part of a series. It wasn’t long into these visits before I was putting images aside in a box labeled with my name on it. And Peter was very encouraging, he wanted me to produce something from the collection. After every visit, I would have a full box of photographs (housed in rigid baseball card holders) to lug home with me. I would scan every one of them and spend a few days with them in my apartment. When I returned to Peter’s for the next visit, I would then refile them in their categorically labeled box and start again. This refiling proved to be a ridiculously short-sighted. After Dive Dark Dream Slow was published and I was invited to exhibit the sequence of the book at Pier 24, Peter and I spent several nights digging through boxes and searching for the originals. We swore never to let that happen again!

But at that moment, I didn’t really know what I was doing other than looking, scanning, and thinking about these mysterious objects. My time spent at Peter’s evolved from sorting stacks to these daydreaming sessions, sifting through images, box by box. Making books was already my preferred way of working with groups of images. I knew that if I used these selections in any way, that would be the format so I did have the foresight to scan them at a high resolution. The cover image from Dive Dark Dream Slow was among the first images I selected. I knew I wanted to draw from the emotional response I had viewing this image. It was a tumultuous moment in my life and I think the edit is deeply psychological and personal to me. I began selecting other images that I felt would help build the structure for the atmosphere I needed to create. In a way, each image can be traced back to that one of the girl in the white dress on the carpet. But this is a very personal thing for me and I hope that there’s enough openness to the story where others can get into it based on their own world experience.

At that time I was also working on an updated version of one of the books from the snapshot series titled, Dangerous Women. And this time the book was produced as a print-on-demand hack where I produced a handmade cover in a limited edition. I later went on to publish this artist’s book through Spaces Corners. An expanded version of the book is being published by Rizzoli this year.

JC: Can you talk a little more about the collection? Is it a more or less random assortment of material, or does he have broader themes he used/uses to amass photograph?

MC: The collection is all over the place. I’d say that it’s a result of 25+ years of not necessarily fleeting, but small obsessions. Peter might be more equipped to answer this question, but based on my observations over the past few years, his collecting habits seem to be a lot like a photographer’s editing habits. They are intuitive – he buys photographs that give him some pleasure and over time, he begins to see patterns emerge. He’ll then build a more focused collection of the areas that interest him most, on top of continuing to collect random assortments. Since I’ve known Peter, there have been a range of themes that he’s been really excited about – some examples would include hand-tinted photographs, photographs of the Brandenburg Gate, and most recently people standing on one leg. In my experience, he also really enjoys collecting based on what interests his visitors. At some point in time and inspired by Les Krims’ The Deerslayers, I began setting aside a group of deer photographs and Peter began seeking them out for me. Just last week, I received an envelope in the mail with more of these to consider for a future book project.

JC: And of course I forgot to ask whether you started your own collection of vernacular photographs?

MC: I have some, but very few that aren’t donations from Peter. I haven’t gone down that rabbit hole yet…

JC: Has spending so much time with other people’s pictures changed the way you approach your own?

MC: I wasn’t taking a lot of photos while I was living in New York and began working with vernacular images. In a sense, working with Peter’s collection enabled me to expand on making these kinds of poetic stories I was making from my archive before living there. Working with these anonymous photographs was a relief for me– in one sense a way of escaping my own reality, but at the same time confronting it though these other images. I like to think that both processes inform one another, but I believe it’s important that I made the work I did before Dive Dark Dream Slow.

There’s definitely a connection in editing style and atmospheric mood, but also the use of photographs as raw material is an important part of my approach. I try to also use my own images as if they were somebody else’s. Ultimately, I know they’re not and I can never completely disassociate from them, but I often will allow for enough time to pass where I can revisit them with fresh eyes, and hopefully with some amnesia. I find that this is when the photographs really speak to me the most, when I can tap into that strange autonomy.

JC: Do you still photograph, or is working with vernacular photography (plus working on Spaces Corners plus the MACK work) taking up all your time?

MC: I still do make photographs, but not nearly as effortlessly as when I was in my 20‘s. You could say those years were spent collecting my own vernacular photographs, storing prints in shoeboxes to be reinterpreted later. Today I spend a better portion of my time looking at images than photographing these days, both from my archive and Peter’s collection. But all of that aside, it’s true that I do wear many different hats and at times it’s overwhelming. But luckily everything I’ve chosen to do to survive involves what I love. It’s good to have help though. Ed and I work very closely on Spaces Corners as well as our own work and I like to think of the MACK work as an extension of what I do at Spaces Corners. It’s all personal and it’s all connected. Part of the decision to move to Pittsburgh from New York was to allow more time and space and to continue our lifestyle without serious financial pressure.

JC: You’re also very active in Pittsburgh, having established Spaces Corners with your partner Ed Panar. Can you talk a little bit about both having the space/shop, but also about what it’s like to work in a relatively small community such as Pittsburgh’s?

MC: While we have a small audience here, we’ve received a good amount of support and encouragement from the community. We were invited by Eric Shiner, the Director of the Andy Warhol Museum, to exhibit at The Armory Show in 2013, and this past year we were were invited on a three-month residency at the Carnegie Museum of Art. For a city of its size there’s a healthy amount of funding opportunities in Pittsburgh for individual artists, arts organizations, and startups. While the community is small, the opportunities are big and the possibility to experiment with little risk is even greater.

We simply couldn’t afford to experiment in New York and we most certainly couldn’t have bought a building, which we’ve now done here in Pittsburgh. We have our moments of feeling isolated but the decision to move here came out of simple practicalities and our desire to foster a creative life, which for the most part we’ve been able to do. Plus, being here sometimes feels like you’re traveling back in time and entering a movie from the 1980’s. There’s a lot of red brick and cobblestone. It’s really cinematic here. Working in a mode that’s mostly solitary, it’s a good place to make work in peace.

We do struggle to balance all of the things we want to do – pursuing our own work, operating the bookshop and programming around Spaces Corners, and future book ideas. While the pace of life is a lot slower here, we still have an endless amount of work to be done and it’s important to us to remain part of the bigger conversation.

A Conversation with Katrien de Blauwer

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Katrien de Blauwer

I’m not sure most photographers are aware of what’s going on in the world of collage. Much like photography itself, collage is easy to do and almost impossibly hard to do well. When it’s done well, it easily competes with other forms of art in terms of expressiveness and sheer beauty. Given most collage relies on photography, there are many lessons to be learned for photographers. The photographer’s task is to look, to find and then preserve the moment that is worthwhile being treated that way. Collage artists operate in very similar ways, the only difference being that their source material is different (and even that difference is now becoming ever more irrelevant, given contemporary photographic practice involves looking at archives).

Katrien de Blauwer‘s work has been on my radar for a while. Her work evokes that of John Stezaker, but there are very different sensibilities being explored. As much as I enjoy Stezaker’s work, it often comes across as being just a tad too clever, too cerebral. I never had this problem with De Blauwer’s collages. Given my ongoing interest in and fascination with her work, I thought it would be nice to have a little conversation about it all.

Jörg Colberg: Can you talk a little bit about your background?

Katrien de Blauwer: I have been making collages for as long as I can remember. At 18 I rolled into fashion school for a couple of years, and the funny thing is I only got up to making mood books that consisted of little fragments of magazines. All my effort went into them.

I’m a sensitive person and emotions are my main motivation. I try to express that through my works. They’re all translations of themes that keep me busy and bubble out of me. That’s why certain elements reappear and why my work often is a variation on a range of themes. Because of that it also has grown a certain maturity after all these years. If you do something for a long time, you’re always getting better in it. It’s like learning a language. Recently I saw a documentary about Michelangelo Antonioni in which he said: “If one asks me a question, I answer by making a movie”. There’s a lot in it, I think. He used his films as his language, and I use my collages.

JC: Given you use collages as a language, if you had to tell people about what your collages would speak of what would you say?

KdB: My collages speak about myself, about what’s keeping me busy. They’re my stories, how I deal with the past. My grip on reality, my ritual and routine.

A few weeks ago somebody was at my home to look at my work, when she suddenly said “you look like your work”. That was a very nice observation and compliment.

JC: This site focuses mostly on photography itself, so can you talk a little bit of what you actually do and how you do it? Where do you find your source materials? And, especially, how do you go about making your pieces? Do you have an archive of material, sorted in some way?

KdB: I would like to describe myself as a “photographer without a camera”. I’m re-reading and re-using photographs. The framing is not taking place in the lens, but in the eye. My works calls to mind the technique of photomontage or film editing. They’re stills but nevertheless preserve a filmic vibration.

I use a very spontaneous way of working. First I roughly cut out a selection of images and backgrounds, then I start creating in what is usually a few hours session. I always try to work out of my unconscious. By this way of working I come to unexpected results. Sometimes someone points out something I had overlooked at first: a line that fits perfectly, a figure that is connected in two images or an unusual association.

Yes, I have a huge (unsorted) ever growing archive. It’s a treat to find some rare unknown magazine. If I travel abroad, it’s always with the idea of finding new material.

JC: What is your relationship to the source materials? When you look through magazines, say, how do you approach the photographs? Do you look for specific details, or do you find them?

A: I go through magazines rather fast. I know immediately if there’s a part of an image I can use. I developed some kind of sensitivity for this. There are of course some images (or parts) that always draw my attention, some details that reappear often, but that’s what makes it interesting for me. These pieces act like a mirror, they’re telling me something about myself. There’s a strong therapeutical value in all these pieces. I need to make them. It’s like breathing.

Some time ago somebody was looking through my work and suddenly noticed: “There’s almost never a man in your works”. He was right, I never noticed it. But outside from the “Rendez-vous” series where there’s always a man and a woman, I can count the collages with a man on one hand.

JC: So what are you going to do about it, work more consciously on adding men, or simply exploring what this all means? The photographer’s job usually never ends with taking pictures: there is the process of editing, of engaging with and learning from the work afterwards. How does this work for you? Do you look at your work once it’s done, to find out what it tells you? Or if it’s done it’s done?

KdB: No, I’m not going to add men, the fact that there are no men in my work has a reason of which I became fully aware after the remark.

Making collages is re-using existing material so the process of editing starts before the actual process of creating.

After the work’s done, I display all the new pieces on a table, and then I start to see different moods, techniques and pieces that jump out. Afterwards I categorize the works, mostly by theme, but also by the feeling I have for a work. Really strong pieces are usually kept apart and displayed in my work space.

I re-look at my work afterwards. When we where working on the book for example, we had to go through all the archive and make a selection, which was very interesting, because I started to look at older works in a new context.

JC: I’m curious, what is it that collage (or maybe one should really call it montage) do that photography itself cannot do? Where do they overlap, and what are their differences?

KdB: Difficult to say, there are of course different forms of photography and also different forms of collage. My collages are more direct, maybe you can compare them to classic black-and-white snapshots, but without a camera involved, no technical issues. The cut is the click. Making collages is a post-photographic process, giving new meaning and live to what is residual, saving images from destruction and including them in a new narration.

My work is very intimate, it comes from my inner world and asks questions about my personal life, body, sexuality… But at the same time it’s also very anonymous by using images from magazines. I almost act as a neutral person between my story and somebody else’s. I did not make all these images, but I’m giving them a new meaning. I take stories from others in my personal world and by cutting away faces my personal story becomes everybody’s story and universal.

JC: Photographers often (usually?) start out with quite specific ideas (maybe in the form of projects) from which work then evolves. Is that how you work? Or do you approach your work in a different way, and if yes, how?

KdB: I have quite a fixed (almost) daily working scheme, and I’m also very productive. I try to work very spontaneously, without really a plan in mind. Sometimes my work evolves in a certain direction. Now for example I’m working on the “Single cuts” series, where one photograph is cut, divided and recomposed again to form a new, double image. I discovered this technique some time ago, and I’m experimenting a lot with it now, pushing it to the limits until something different comes out.

Lately, my work is moving more towards a void and emptiness, almost abstraction, while only one year ago I worked on the “Rendez-vous” and “Féminin” series. I think there’s always a slow evolution in my work.

Photobook Reviews (W10/2015)

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Things are a bit hectic at this end right now, leaving me with less time to work on this site than I would prefer. But it is what it is. I started writing a book, which I am tremendously excited about, but which probably will also keep me this busy until the end of the year (when the manuscript is due). If you want to keep up with what I might be up to besides what’s published here, there’s my Twitter feed, I occasionally write about things that pop up using my Ello account (those are all things that I’ve either covered here already or that simply have no place here), and those interested in silly pictures can check out my Instagram feed.

I don’t know whether I received Grégoire Pujade-Lauraine‘s A Perpetual Season before Federico Clavarino‘s Italia O Italia (which I reviewed here). They’re different books, different bodies of work, even somewhat different photographic sensibilities. Yet these two books overlap in many ways, which has made it hard for me to see one without the other, or more accurately to look at Season without having Italia in mind.

Both books combine photographs of parts of the mostly urban landscape with those of people, pictured for the most part in a state of almost befuddlement. As might be obvious from its title already, Italia is location specific in the sense that the photographs look like they were taken in Italy. But that’s about as specific as it gets. If the location is visible in the photographs in Season, I lack the knowledge to identify markers.

In both books, providing a simple (maybe documentary style) description of a (the) location doesn’t really appear to be the point. Instead, their makers allude to feelings of alienation, and here is where the two books differ most strongly. Italia concerns itself with the almost grotesque state the country finds itself in. In contrast, Season speaks more of the urban human condition after years of modernism (and other isms).

Here and there, A Perpetual Season has strong of some of Michael Schmidt’s Berlin work, if you can make the mental leap from Schmidt’s infinity of grey tones to the somewhat muted colour palette Pujade-Lauraine employs. This is not to say that as a whole Season is Schmidtesque. Thankfully, it is not. But it hits some of the side notes Schmidt made use of so well.

However, as convincing as Season is it maybe is too convincing. The book feels too calculated. Everything is just perfect. It’s a very well-designed book and production, and there clearly is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But the photographs and the way they are put together feel very calculated, which had me wonder whether the artist actually discovered something he didn’t expect to find beforehand. I am not sure he did (even though I have no way of knowing – all I have are the pictures).

And this is the biggest difference between Season and Italia. Part of what makes Italia so good is exactly this slight dissonance conveyed through the photographs, where you realize that the photographer doesn’t really want to give you any answers. A Perpetual Season, in contrast, feels more like a very specific answer. It still is a wonderful book with a large number of fantastic photographs. But still… If it only were a little bit less perfect, a little bit less eager to push all the right buttons and the right time, a little less cerebral…

A Perpetual Season; photographs by Grégoire Pujade-Lauraine; 80 pages; MACK; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 4.5 – Overall 3.7

Life is like a big game, the only complication being that you’re not even asked whether you want to play. You simply get to play. You’re also not told about the rules beforehand. Instead, life just throws things at you, and you better figure out how it all works. Good luck!

Much like many of the various activities we engage with, photography is nothing other than an attempt to make sense of the world, of this game. We make selections and decisions, we photograph this piece of the world and not that one, we preserve those pieces frozen them in time, and we then infer things, or maybe create new ones. Given photography itself has its own rules, it isn’t that clear which parts of what we produce tell us something about the world, which parts speak of ourselves, and which parts are simply just caused by the technology we employ.

This seemingly so complex mixture is a real recipe for disaster if you’re after some sort of truth (just ask the World Press Photo folks). But boy, it’s so much fun, especially if you don’t take it too seriously (which is, of course, bad news for the art types, who usually tend to take things way too seriously). I had to think of this all when looking through Guilherme GeraisIntergalático. I honestly have no idea what the hell I’m looking at here, but it sure is fun.

Intergalático is filled with all kinds of images and symbolism. I don’t think it would really work without any of the symbolism. Even though I’m convinced most of it is utter nonsense, it is exactly what is needed to hold everything together. After all, we’re used to seeing symbols as, well, just that, as markers that help us understand what’s going on. So those symbols here have certainly got to mean something, don’t they?

Often times, it doesn’t really matter whether the rules you give people for your game make fun, as long as you have rules. That appears to be the underpinning of this book. We see photographs and symbols, and they’re clearly put together in a way that doesn’t look completely random. Obviously, there has to be some meaning then. “Obviously.”

Honestly, I don’t know what the hell this book is telling me. What I do know, though, is that the fun, at least for me, is to find myself trying to figure it out every time I look at it. I still haven’t got anywhere, and I doubt I ever will. But unlike all those books that tell me stories I already know, this one has me coming back to it.

Intergalático; photographs by Guilherme Gerais; 184 pages; self-published; 2014

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 3 – Overall 3.3