“It’s easy to take off all your clothes and have sex. People do it all the time. But opening up your soul to someone, letting them into your spirit, thoughts, fears, future, hopes, dreams.. Now that’s being naked.”
– Rob Bell, found on Tumblr’s Soaked in Soul
I feel like I am naked all the time. I live naked. I will talk about my feelings, my thoughts, my fears, my hopes and dreams completely openly to anyone willing to let me close enough. If anything, I am often surprised by how little comes back, how little I actually know about the people around me. In the past I used to think that it was an inability to communicate, an inhibition that stopped people from sharing. Our societies frown on someone who shares freely, there is mistrust for people who are willing to feel out loud. Happiness is welcome, and often expected if not even demanded, but all other feelings must be overcome. There are people that will studiously avoid asking you how you are, because they really don’t want to have that kind of conversation.
For those of us who live naked, there is no greater disappointment than to be invisible. It’s an inversion of the emperor’s new clothes… We want people to notice, yet everyone stands around and pretends we’re wearing what they’re wearing.
Growing older has a few advantages, and experience with people is one of them. I’ve come to accept that many people simply don’t have much to share. There is no real emotional depth, there’s not much to share because they really don’t feel much. That sounds horribly condescending, and not very nice. We have been taught that everyone has feelings, just like we were told that everyone has some special talent that will come out and shine, given enough time and space. But that isn’t true.
I’m also not willing to parse the difference anymore. I find emotionally locked people not worthy of pursuit. Whether you lack emotional depth and range, or are simply too hidden to share them is really irrelevant, because the result is the same.
Art for me is an expression of feelings, of hopes, of desire. It isn’t a one-to-one translation, not every image communicates a distinct feeling. My various series were born out of specific situations, and I see them clearly when I look at them. The Americans show my confusion and fear of a new life, Hanjo was about a difficult decision I made, and the new Sacred and Profane series is about my own vulnerability, and my exploration of the feminine.
I will continue to open myself, on this blog as well as in person. And I won’t expect much in return. Because not everyone can go deep, or wants to.
“You told me you like my mouth. You want to kiss me. My mouth is a wound and you want to kiss me. But you’re like that: You want to go leaping over cliffs– you want to go drinking poison and then write pretty poems about it– and all I want to do is fuck you.”
— Daphne Gottlieb, “Why Things Burn” found on Tumblr’s Trapped in Transit
Indeed, there is nothing more vexing, for instance, than to be rich, of respectable family, of decent appearance, of rather good education, not stupid, even kind, and at the same time to have no talent, no particularity, no oddity even, not a single idea of one’s own, to be decidedly ‘like everybody else.’
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
I’ve recently read a number of books by Joseph Campbell, as well as Douglas Rushkoff. They’re very different writers, but both comment on society. Campbell explores the common symbols of Western religions, and reinterprets them in the context of world mythology. He is a historian, and focuses on comparative religions. One of the things he stresses is that modern humanity needs new myths. The old ones served as guiding stories, to give a sense of what is right, and to provide a map as men go through their rites of passage. What is missing today are these rites, the opportunity to become a man in our modern culture. The common religious rites have been watered down to become meaningless rituals that show obedience, but they do not offer a test. So the stories that were in many ways a guide have no relevance any longer. Campbell argues we need new myths, new stories in a global time. The minute we landed on the moon and could see the whole earth was the time when it became clear the old stories were no longer relevant.
On the other hand, Rushkoff points out that we live in a post-narrative society. There are almost no stories anymore, and the way we consume media is untethered from traditional story arcs. Reality TV or video games, snippets on Vimeo and endless-scrolling FB Timelines have removed stories from our regular lives. When we watch a show and the plot becomes too threatening or boring or emotionally complex viewers switch to another program or device. Our politics is made for people who won’t want to follow the whole thread, they want the soundbite and then move on.
Both writers have affected the way my newest project is unfolding. When I began the Sacred & the Profane a year ago, it was very much about exploring the literal interpretations of Judeo-Christian stories, but Campbell summarized my discontent. Rushkoff makes me realize how meaningless yet another photographic image has become in a time of Tumblr and Pinterest in terms of telling a story. The project has taken a turn to the more abstract, but also to a larger scale. It will include a lot of images, and the physical presentation of the most important images will go beyond a simple edition print.
On the subway there’s a couple that can’t stop kissing. They’re standing by the door and devouring each other. Kiss/ smile/ kiss/ smile– it’s kind of sweet but kind of annoying too because they’re so close that it’s hard not to watch them. Kiss/ smile/ kiss/ loooong look, etc. The train makes three or four stops while they only have eyes and lips for each other. But if you look closely (it’s almost impossible NOT to look), the big love is coming more from the girl than from the guy. Her eyes eat him alive and every few sentences she reaches up to peck him on the lips. Finally as we’re approaching a station she gives him even more kisses. You can tell this is her stop but he is staying on the train. Their goodbye is intense and then she’s gone. As soon as the doors close, the guy sits down nearby and reaching into his briefcase, pulls out an enormous obviously homemade sandwich. Tearing off the paper around it, he chomps into it with a delight and relish that’s twice as passionate as he showed for his girl. Thank God she isn’t there to see it. Her big competition is a sandwich.
…this made me laugh. I’ve been this guy. But I would argue that’s a good thing. A girl that wants a man who isn’t going to wander is well-served by a guy that’s enthralled by a sandwich. It does NOT take a lot to make me happy… Let me photograph you, wear sensible shoes when not going to a fancy place, read a book, give a shit about art, explore sexuality, and understand that real food can take the place of all of it – when done right.
There’s a lot going on. I’m preparing for Hanjo in Tokyo in September, Hoppers in Amsterdam in October, and of course the Sacred & Profane project continues to take up all my time. I hope to show it for the first time next April.
My new approach is working well conceptually, but what I’m not clear on yet is the physical presentation of the work. I crop out elements that will be the primary focus visually, but conceptually the focus of the work will be elsewhere, harder to find at first glance. The cropped parts are full color whereas the other parts of the image are very colorless. I also print on different materials, and mount the color images in indentations within the overall frame, thus going through several layers. It gives me the creative elbow room to revisit certain images created earlier in the life of this project, and see how I can integrate them into this newer approach.
I’m shooting today, and it’s different than when the project began. I don’t have a storyboard sketched, and I am relying on the talent of my favorite models (and some new ones) to help me improvise some images. For now, I am creating new work that relies on the landscape of the body within my Caravaggisto light language.
From the Sacred and Profane series.
Before you fuck up and call her anything less than her name, before you grab her by the arm you need to know the trigger that you are pulling at. You need to know that the safety is never on. You need to know her history before you tell me that this isn’t my business. You need to know that her history is my history. See, she and I, we come from the tribe of raw knuckled little girls who call our father by their first names and wear their mothers like bruise-colored war paint under eye. We grew thick skin before we grew permanent teeth. We learned to piece together our own families in the backyards of rented duplexes where we promised plastic faced babies better things in soothing tones that we mimicked from TV. We do not have daddy issues even though our daddies have issues. We have piercing eyes and promises to keep. We grew up to be nomads surveying domestic war zones with black eyeliner binoculars, always refusing to camouflage. We threw our heads back and laughed at oncoming explosions, never flinched, absorbing shrapnel, never letting them see us cry.
We do not dream of boys who will save us from towers. We dream of boys with courage caked under their fingernails. Boys with hands rough enough to wipe metal tears from our faces but warm enough to mold them into stars. Boys with vertebrae strong enough to lock with ours so they can sleep sitting back to back with us and keep watch. And these are the boys, these are the boys who will find love under our armor. These are the boys who will find that we love selectively but we love fiercely. These are the boys who will learn that we love in ways that leave claw marks down the baseboard before we ever let go.
So do not think she doesn’t know how you fear her absence – you should. Your cage is not stronger than her will or her smile. Do not think you are good enough to tame her. You aren’t. And do not think you are the first to try because I have already closed your eyes and crossed your arms before your body hit the floor. And you think she deserves better than you. You are right. So be better than you.
Be thankful that she knows your name and be careful never to forget hers.
– Rachel Wiley
Taken a long time ago in my apartment in New York.
We may know that the work we continue to put off doing will be bad. Worse, however, is the work we never do. A work that’s finished is at least finished. It may be poor, but it exists, like the miserable plant in the lone flowerpot of my neighbor who’s crippled. That plant is her happiness, and sometimes it’s even mine. What I write, bad as it is, may provide some hurt or sad soul a few moments of distraction from something worse. That’s enough for me, or it isn’t enough, but it serves some purpose, and so it is with all of life.
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
An image from my Color Room series, which is now finished.
Last week I conducted an online interview with Enrico Tabacchi, a fellow photographer as well as blogger based out of Milan.
Yoram Roth is a Berlin-based photographer. I love his work and for this reason I wanted to interview him. His photography is a constant reference to classical art but with the addition of a modern aesthetic.
Three Adjectives to Describe Yoram.
Focused, concept-driven, gregarious.
How would you describe your photography?
Pensive, deliberate, beautiful.
What is photography for you?
An opportunity to tell little visual poems, and to create a launching point for stories that unfold in the viewer’s imagination.
What would you do, and who would you be if photography wasn’t part of your life?
I would be a Guy in a Suit, probably doing real estate deals, with some minor creative outlets on the side… and a small combination of pain, anger and shame for lacking the courage to do what I really want to do.
Your hard disk fails. You can save 3 photos. Which ones to do you hope to preserve, and why?
This is not a fun answer… but that would never happen to me. I am so crazy about back-ups and data storage that it will never happen… because I have already twice lost image files. Once shooting with a good friend who was not a photographer but wanted to explore it with me, and once after a week-long trip to Tokyo in preparation for “Hanjo.”
You win the lottery. You have enough money to buy three paintings of your choice, by any artist, which ones would you choose?
Jeff Wall, “Siphoning Gas”, 2008
I would have never thought so, but when I stood in front of Jeff Wall’s “Siphoning Gas” I was moved to tears. The story that unfolded in my mind connected with every single part of my life, and I actually cried a little. I hope to own this piece some day, even though it is not beautiful in a conventional way.
Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith slaying Holofernes”, 1618
I would love to own Artemisa Gentileschi’s second version of “Judith slaying Holofernes” which I saw at the Uffizi recently. I consider her the greatest of the Caravaggisti, and this painting is technically spectacular. I love the attention to detail, such as the beautiful bracelet. When you stand in front of it, you realise that there is blood spray sprinkled across the canvas, and you can imagine her finishing the painting by flicking red paint from her fingers on to the face of a painted man who in her mind deserved to die.
David LaChapelle, “Flaccid Passion”, 2010
I plan on owning a large print of David LaChapelle’s “Flaccid Passion” from his Earth Laughs in Flowers series. It is extremely erotic, beautiful and elegant all at the same time. One thing all of these pieces have in common is that you don’t realise how powerful they are until you are in front of them. On a web site, or in a book, they don’t work, you need to see the real thing.
Reading your blog I’ve noticed that you like poetry. Do you think that there is a link between photography and poetry?
There is for me. The poems which I like capture a mood or a feeling without describing it directly, and that defines a great image as well. I actually once created a photo workshop that took a poem and asked the photographers to capture that feeling photographically.
I love your Color Project, how did this idea come to you?
I actually tell that story on my blog. My work over the last couple of years has often been inspired by artists that have gone before me. About two years ago I developed a school-boy crush on a Danish artist named Vilhelm Hammershøi, a contemporary of the Skågen School of painting. He worked around 1880 - 1920, and used a wonderful soft light. The rooms he depicted were almost always his own house.
I had just finished my Hopper’s Americans but still loved the creative process of building set-rooms and telling stories within them. I decided to create a set that looked a lot like Hammershøi’s house, and to shoot a project that used his soft light, different than I had been in my previous work. The project failed almost immediately. I had a good model, but the clothes made it virtually impossible to tell the kind of stories I like. She was drowning in heavy fabrics, and they give little opportunity for
physical nuance. Instead the images came out looking like something from the cover of a fancy candy box, something that Sarotti or Quality would put on their biscuit tins. Worse, I had given my stylist very little guidance, and we ended up with looks that were way to exaggerated for the subdued images I wanted to create.
I got so mad at myself that I went to my studio at some point on a Saturday night, got out a very large bucket of grey/blue paint, and blasted Joy Division while repainting the whole set a solid color. I used a big fat bushy brush to slather the entire set, covering the walls, the decorative sconces, the chairs and tables all in a dark tone that reflected my mood. I was embarrassed, because the new project I had hoped for evaporated in front of me. I knew I should have focused on quieter images, more pensive poses.
Now I realize that it is not where I wanted to go creatively. I love the light. But I am so intrigued by the visual language of motion, which is utterly out of place in such a project. I admire Desiree Dolron’s most recent work, but it is not the kind of images I wanted to create at that moment. They are too static. I wanted something with heavy motion.
You’ve worked on several projects, which one do you think is the most important and why?
I know this sounds like every parent in the world, but I love all my “children” equally. Of course I am the most proud of the one getting attention at the moment, and right now that is my first series. I shot “Hopper’s Americans” almost four years ago – before a lot of other photographers began copying Hopper, I would like to point out. At the time it meant a real life change for me, and it is reflected in the images I created. I didn’t know what was coming next, whether it was a good or bad thing, and I felt like I was suspended. Those ended up being the strongest images, and they define that series. I am also extremely proud of “Hanjo” which I will get to introduce at Tokyo Photo in Japan between September 27 – 30, 2013.
I know you are working on a new project called “The Sacred & The Profane.” Do you want to show us something? What are your plans for the future?
Right now I am showing very little about that project. I am not really sure where it is going. It started as something very different, but its meaning to me has changed. For some time I was very focused on traditional Judeo-Christian religions, but I am less interested in that now. It has become more about the Feminine, and I’m not afraid to use the language of Beauty while pushing into topics that are not easy.
Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences. That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andrew Serranos’s piss or Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ are art, because we say, ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.’ … What makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you — so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art.
– Brian Eno
The last few weeks have been difficult. As an artist, you are never supposed to think about what people might think of your work. You’re supposed to work for yourself, and magic will happen. Nor are you supposed to be bothered by what other artists are doing.
This was difficult to maintain while walking around Art Basel Hong Kong. There is a lot of fantastic art there, but the overall effect is one of distortion. At first glance everything seems great, because the good work lifts everything else along with it. In a rather soulless, neutral place like a giant convention center, filled entirely with art solely in the context of more art, everything suddenly looks better than it should. But a second look reveals that much of it is crap. Yet I couldn’t help think that I’d like my work shown there some day soon. And some of the more complex work made me question some of my creative choices. I was – in effect – comparing myself to “the competition”. But I took a lot of inspiration from my competitive analysis and realized that an idea I’ve been working on is exactly the right direction to go. I am energized in this new direction, and I can’t wait to execute it. It’s about the way I physically display the images, and how I will choose to high-light distinct aspects of the image.
Another moment that was initially difficult was a few days ago. The gallery that represents me in Berlin opened a group show, which included an image by an artist they recently signed.
It looked like something I could have created as part of my Sacred & Profane series.
That got to me. At first, it really disheartened me. I felt betrayed by my gallery because they know what I’m working on, and the conflict irked me. But that passed quickly. I am an emerging artist who is currently building up my name, and the artist in question is a successful commercial big-name photographer, someone whose work I respect. The gallery is in the business of selling art, as they should be. It only makes sense that they represent someone with a built-in audience.
Another concern I had was the possible confusion. When I first signed with the gallery, the focus was set on my Hopper’s American series, though I was told that some images would not be part of the initial selection… because they included neon signs. This was a recognizable feature of yet another contemporary photographer’s style who is represented by the gallery. But my work is selling well, and the parallels are minimal. My work evokes more emotion, and is timeless… and frankly, is more sophisticated than the commercial shooter’s fine art efforts. Over a very short time, concerns about two artists using urban elements such as lit signs at night disappeared.
So I was pissed that I am now facing the same issue again… here is a new artist to the gallery – with a more recognizable name than my own – doing work that looks at first glance much like mine. And although I’ve been working on my Sacred and Profane series for over a year, suddenly his work is being shown, and now someone who doesn’t know better might assume I was influenced by him.
But in thinking about it, I see a number of major differences, and I know my work is better. I must say that I really admire his sets and his styling. The way he processes his images is less impressive to me, but that is a creative choice. What matters is that his narrative images are technically masterful, but they lack emotion. I also find the physical presentation to be wrong, and have a good guess as to why the choice was made… one I consider lazy, cheap and ultimately a detriment. I’m going in a direction with my work that is much more emotional in its subject, much more physical in the presentation, and and a lot more conceptual. So I welcome the opportunity to be directly compared to someone whom I respect, because I know my work will “win”… and that motivates the competitive cultural entrepreneur in me greatly.