YORAM ROTH – A BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIEW
As of September 19th, CWC Gallery presents sixty new works by Yoram Roth in an exhibition entitled “Personal Disclosure”. Before the exhibition’s opening, the artist invited ARTberlin into his studio.
There are still a few pieces of stage scenery standing around the attic space of an old weapons factory in Berlin’s Moabit district. The props are the last witnesses to a labor of many months. The result will be presented September 19th at the CWC Galerie of Camera Work, the contemporary art branch of the renowned photo art gallery. The man about to exhibit sixty new works is astonishingly relaxed. A newcomer? Far from it. The artist has worked within his medium for many years. But not until Yoram Roth is at peace with his work is he willing to present it to others. The man is a perfectionist, and it comes as little surprise that he is held as one of the gallery’s ‘shooting stars’. Regardless of whether in Paris or Shanghai, his aesthetic resonates across diverse cultural contexts. He makes use of references enabling the viewer to experience the apparently familiar anew, particularly in the photo series “Personal Disclosure” on display. The subjects — some drawn partly from antiquity, others with reference to classical mythology — guide the observer’s view.
One aspect that is difficult to convey through an on-screen presentation is Yoram Roth’s analog implementation of multi-layered photography. His large-scale formats are lent depth by zograscopes which direct the observer’s view. In the depths there is detail, made more prominent through color. Thus we find two works in a single frame. The entire composition, taken as a whole, and the crops that lead the viewer into the image. The artist has little trepidation stepping into areas which have been in the domain of painting over centuries. Baroque lighting provides the foundation. Yoram Roth avails himself of the opportunity, and successfully treads the dangerously narrow line between simple homage and modern reinterpretation. His works demonstrate that photography, including Instagram et al., remains far from being a predictable medium.
Yoram, how did you first get started with photography?
In 10th grade we were allowed to elect photography in lieu of art class – that was great. Being unsupervised, no teacher, spending the whole afternoon in the darkroom, a group of teenage boys and girls — with The Cure or Gary Numan playing on tape. 1984.
What attracts you to photography?
We are confronted every day by hundreds of images. We live in a visual world, and one giving rise to an unbelievable sensory overload. I want to create a kind of respite. A moment in which to immerse yourself, to take time for yourself. I’m quite satisfied if people go for a simple visual stroll through my works.
This is the fourth photo series that you’ve produced. What has changed in your perception?
The narrative has become less important. Originally, my images aimed to create a little cinema of the mind; I wanted the viewer to think about what might have just happened, or what the person in the picture is feeling. That emphasis has lessened in my work; now I aim to address the feelings of the viewer directly. I want to use the naked body as a conduit to something essential.
The subject you’ve currently selected makes countless points of reference. Which of them are particularly important to you?
Just like any first-year art undergraduate I had to get to grips with the Baroque, starting with Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. All of the work on display deals with this period and its use of chiaroscuro to abstract away from the figures.
For you, nudes have nothing to do with eroticism – why not?
For me, the naked body is something unprotected, something vulnerable. I have nothing against sex or eroticism, but in this project I wanted to use the naked body as an emotional vehicle, as a way into the essential. Motifs in photography have to deal with the filter which we people of the modern age have had to construct. Were we to catapult a time traveller two hundred years forwards into our present day, he would be an absolute wreck within days. We have learned to apply a filter, and it was eroticism that was first subjected to this filtering process. In this context I find little creative opportunity in the visual language of photography. To be honest, I find contemporary erotic photography boring, and true eroticism is a personal thing.
How did you come to “invent” multi-layered photography?
Hah, I like “inventing”. I see it somewhat differently, but will have to digress briefly to explain. My last big project was “Hanjo”, a hand-crafted book with a very small print-run of 25 editions. It was based visually on early Japanese collodion wet plate photographs, which in their time were hand-colored by artists. I also studied the works of Peter Beard, who painted onto his prints, thereby creating unique pieces. An artist who inspires me very much is Tina Berning, who slices apart motifs from Michelangelo di Battista, recombines them using fabric, thread, nails and paperclips, before painting over the work. The physical post-processing gave rise to the possibility of leading the viewer into the image, either directly toward the key element or past it, offering a secondary discovery. I wanted to go beyond the simple print to something more hand-crafted, and I rely on manufacturing techniques to create the different physical layers.
The physicality of the images is also to be found across two levels. What criteria guide your choice of crops?
At first it was frustration. The project didn’t want to take flight, creatively. I was dissatisfied but liked various elements of the motifs. I had an awful lot to do in the meantime and didn’t get a chance to make new pictures. So I sat at the computer and edited existing images, zooming to and fro. At some point I came back from fetching a coffee in the kitchen and saw a detail which filled the entire screen. I had found something very aesthetic and mysterious. It wasn’t enough for me though, as the motif without a context made no sense. I wanted to show more, and so I started thinking about various materials.
Does the image structure arise during the shoot, or do you have the finished picture in mind beforehand?
At this point I do, yes. Once I had mastered the visual language it was easy for me to conceive the motifs from the outset. But in the very beginning it would come as a surprise, discovering the most interesting elements only after the shoot.
Staged photography is the newest form of high visual art. Photography plays the poor sister to painting… What’s your view?
Well, that way of thinking doesn’t bother me, but I see staged photography more as a daughter than a poor sister. There has been painting since humanity began expressing itself creatively. Staged photography is the newest form of high visual art. Yes, there are photographers who run around with their cameras and have their own style. But at the end of the day that’s just a form of photo journalism. To stage a complete motif, to place every element, to invent it completely – that’s got something of painting about it.
What photographers inspire you?
Gregory Crewdson is the great master of modern staged photography. Erwin Olaf has a very distinct palette of colors. Artists like Christian Tagliavini or Paulo Ventura make fantastic sets and costumes. Izima Kaoru was one of the first to break out of fashion’s visual filter, as was Miles Aldridge. And then of course there’s David LaChapelle, who is absolutely fearless when it comes to new visual interpretations of stories.
Why are your works generally one-off pieces?
I refuse to engage in the insanity of editions. Doing so has nothing to do with art, it’s just a cursed business model left over from the origins of photographic art. Photography had been discovered as an art form, yet there was the problem that technology made it possible to produce multiple prints. At the time the idea of reproduction was an inherent form driving the art. So that led to limited print runs. But there’s no real reason for it anymore, other than that it’s possible. Some sculpture is based on cast copies, but it’s actually an exception as far as the art world goes. I find it thrilling to make an image that I will probably never see again.
There are several craftspeople involved in the process. How do you keep control?
It’s like construction management on some level. My retoucher edits the final production files, and that involves a huge effort, including a series of full-scale test prints. After that, Recom Art takes over the production. They print the pieces using their own procedure for waxed, ditone paper. Meanwhile, the matt acrylic diasecs arrive from Grieger in Dusseldorf so that Thein & Rios, the fine art metalworkers, can prepare the internal and external frames. The different elements are then assembled into the final piece of art. In the early stages of the project I tried welding the steel myself but that didn’t work at all.
What makes you happy?
Spending time with my three sons.
Exhibition: Yoram Roth “Personal Disclosure”
19th September – 14th November 2015
CWC GALLERY // Auguststraße 11–13 // 10117 Berlin
Opening times: Tuesday – Saturday 11.00–19.00 // Free admission
Before photography was elevated to an art form, it was a craft. Somewhere between journalism and portraiture, technically-skilled people with a creative streak caught moments, and then made prints. Alfred Stieglitz wanted to make endless copies and sell them as cheaply as newspapers, and Edward Weston or Ansel Adams never numbered or limited their work to editions. Photographers made a living selling their prints, not creating images. The prints varied in size and in quality. Sometimes different papers were used, or new negatives, or different chemical processes. Often, prints made by an assistant were technically superior, but didn’t have the provenance.
In the 1970s, when photography was discovered as an art form, the issues around existing prints had to be addressed. The first wave of great photographers were no longer working or had passed away, so the existing prints defined the final number of pieces in circulation. The edition became finite and limited by circumstance.
Fine art photographers began working around the concept of editions, sometimes bound to the arrangement within which they showed their work. Bernd and Hilla Becher in Düsseldorf did limited editions, and showed their relatively small prints in arranged grids of 3×3 or 4×4 images. Fine art photography really hit a stride with the acceptance of color photography. Color work by William Eggleston, and especially the large-format work by Stephen Shore or light-boxes by Jeff Wall, really established photography as a true artistic language, rather than a creative accident.
At the time artists really started using color photography as a medium, print-making was still an inherent part of the creative process. The artist worked in a darkroom, hand-making large prints. Replication in the 1970s felt futuristic, and was a comment on society. Andy Warhol worked with photography and with silk-screens, in which he made unique pieces based on stencils that insisted on recognisable repetition. Jeff Wall’s light-boxes were a reference to ubiquitous advertisement. For fine art photographers, making multiple versions of the same image was an integral part of the art form, it wasn’t just a way to create indiscriminate iterations of the same piece so they could sell more of them. Their hands-on process was as much art as a sculptor casting a bust. They made the print that was ultimately sold and framed.
The art world began expecting editions from photographic artists. There would be two or three different sizes, each with a certain number of available prints, plus some hold-backs that were considered Artist Proofs or Display Prints. But over time the idea of editions has lost its meaning. Most photographers now print digitally. Even those who shoot film will scan the negatives and then handle the image as a data file. Pretty much all artists at the top of the field use high-end fine-art reproduction houses like Grieger in Düsseldorf or Recom in Berlin. In a time when a digital file can be printed on profiled paper from a calibrated printer, and endless replication is commonplace, the concept of making editions is entirely removed from the art. Editions are being sold by photographers because that has become the business model. It has no merit, and exists largely due to historical development.
There are photographers who will continue to make editions. No two darkroom prints are ever identical. There’s just too many variables, and even the most exacting lab-rat can never replicate a final print. Those artists making their own prints in alternative developing processes define themselves through their hands-on approach, because they’re even more technical and ultimately difficult to execute. Others will issue editions because their price point has arrived at a place that demands editions to justify the cost incurred making the image initially. If you’re famous for pictures of elephants like Nick Brandt, or vanishing tribes like Jimmy Nelson, then the cost of global travel can’t be recovered by selling singular prints. After all, that kind of work is truly photography and not necessarily about fine art. But it is the artists who stage their images that still have a certain creative defensibility around the idea of editions. An artist such as Thomas Demand makes intricate dioramas, but that’s not the final artistic work – the photographed image is. He’s not selling a little scale model made out of cardboard, otherwise he could simply present his work as sculpture. He sells prints, and they’re remarkable. Thomas Friedrich Schäfer, a young artist who works with me in my studio, makes incredibly detailed sets that take weeks to build, but only exist in their final form for a day. When he stages an image within such a setting it makes sense to create limited editions of the work. It is a comment on the ephemeral nature of memory.
Even though I stage my images, the sets I use are not as intricate in my recent work. My pictures happen within the dynamic exchange between photographer and model. I have chosen to create only unique pieces, and I go beyond a simple print. As I’ve explained in my videos, I use matte acrylic diasec and crop out certain key elements of an image which are then framed in steel, and printed on a waxed paper. That isn’t a viable method for every artist working in the realm of photography. Nonetheless I believe the age of photographic editions is coming to an end. I would encourage artists to forego editions unless there is a compelling creative reason to make them. There is a real sense of relief in selling work and knowing that it’s gone. After all, a fine art photographer may use different tools, but it’s no different than making a painting. A painter creates individual pieces, and once they’re sold he may never see them again. Why should we photographers be any different?
The gallery Camera Work invited me to join them in China at the Shanghai Photo Art Fair. My work was incredibly well-received there. We brought three pieces, all of which sold during private pre-view on the first day, and we sold some more pieces sight-unseen by buyers. They picked them out of an A4-sized booklet that we had brought. One extremely wealthy buyer fell in a love with a piece that was at the fair. He wanted it, but it had already been sold to a collector whom I respect. At first the man from Western China asked me (through an intimidated translator) to make another one for him, at which point I had to explain that I don’t do that – my pieces are unique. Well, he wanted me to make another for him anyway, but I said that was not going to happen. Then he wanted to know who the collector was, and what he had paid so he could make an offer to him, but I was not about to reveal any of that information. The last thing I wanted was the man with the private museum being hounded by this rather aggressive would-be buyer. Finally, he sulked, and told me that I would not get far in China with this kind of inflexible attitude.
It’s nice to know my work is coveted. I think it is notable though that a country which is known for its seemingly endless replication is a strong market for my series of unique photographic images. I remain committed to making one-off pieces, and will continue to encourage fellow artists to make deliberate choices when it comes to editions.