Photofairs San Francisco opens this week. It’s one of the major global photographic art fairs, and to my taste the most interesting one in North America.
Unfortunately, my work will not be showing there, for the simple reason that it involves nudity. My gallery was literally briefed not to bring any of my “sexy nudes.”
It’s a huge disappointment, because artists have few other possibilities to show work to the public. Every gallery show and especially every fair is a great opportunity to connect with people who genuinely care about art. Artists usually work on their own or with a small team, so the chance to present the work and interface with the public is extremely important. I feel particularly strongly about this, since my work is sculptural and not simply photographic, which makes it difficult to fully grasp if you just see a two-dimensional jpeg on the internet. I am a firm believer that art should be experienced in person anyway. My new pieces have a specific physicality. They are made from various acrylics and metal, and extend beyond the image, which is a deliberate choice to introduce an interplay between light and shadow that changes with the light throughout the day.
I am particularly disappointed, because this year the fair has a special section for staged and sculptural work. As the curators describes it, “STAGED explores the relationship between photography and other art forms such as installation art, sculpture, video and painting.” …if ever there was a theme which encompasses what I do, this would be it.
But I was disinvited, probably out of an overabundance of caution in the current atmosphere where museums have been called upon to censor contentious works or artists. This is frustrating because my work is not intended to be sexy, and I was not given a chance to show different pieces or to plead my case. It is worth mentioning that the very same organisers had approved it for Photofairs Shanghai in the past. But apparently nudity cannot be shown in America at the moment, unless it’s vintage, ugly, or of/by someone famous.
Nudity is part of the universal human art language, and has been around since the beginning. I’m not about to walk my readers through art history. If in doubt I recommend Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images, a must-read anyway.
Nudity cannot be automatically equated with sexuality. Most of my images depict the human body as an expression of emotion, not as a sexual object. Also, in a lot of my work, most of the body is obfuscated. That decision is not about objectification, but an artistic device to include a second shot composition and direct the eye’s consumption of the overall piece. That’s hard to understand when viewing a small picture on a screen, but when experienced live in full size, that is how the pieces are intended to work.
There’s a hundred and fifty years of art school arguments that I don’t want to rehash. I don’t make work for the viewers to perceive a power differential between their own clothed presence and the nudity of the subject. Looking at a nude body does not make the viewer a voyeur or a sociopath. Not all nudity is unequivocally pornography. What about Ren Hang? Nan Goldin? Is nudity only acceptable if it is “real” and shot with on-camera flash? Is Herb Ritts’ work welcome at the fair because he’s famous? Do we reject his idolisation of beauty in favour of zits and armpit hair to permit nudity into contemporary photographic fine art? We need to be careful not to reduce photography to simple decoration, or incomprehensible abstraction. I’m not saying staged fine art nude photography is the only path there, but I wish it wasn’t closed off in fear of bullies.
I was especially hopeful to show my work in San Francisco because it’s a community that appreciates modern technology. A lot of the CNC (computer-numerical control) robots that I use to create my new work were developed in the Bay Area of Northern California. It’s German exactitude and American ingenuity, but in this case used to showcase my contemporary interpretation of Italian modernists. I’ve really been enamoured with Paolo Scheggi’s work, and he’s one of the artists that has served as a point of departure for the Spatial Concepts series.
His work was done with canvas, wire, and wood frames, whereas I rely on robots executing a carving program. I also use lasers to cut aluminium plates, but I combine this modern technology with one of the oldest art forms, the depiction of the human figure.
Paolo Scheggi is at the top, the other two images are simple previews and renders out of the 3D software. Over the next week my team and I are assembling the first ten pieces before my April show. I will be posting a lot of original new work, with actual installation shots. Regardless, I am very sorry to have missed this opportunity to be part of Photofairs San Francisco, and hope that next year they’ll reconsider the inclusion of nudes. I wanted to show this new work, and to explain my process to a receptive audience.
It has been over two years since I last wrote about my work. To people who are getting to see my new series for the first time it may feel like a very different approach, but at its heart my process continues where I left off.
Since 2011 I have made art based on photography that shows the human figure. Through four different series I have shot a body of work which I call Nudes in Steel. I created images showing men and women, and printed them on different paper and acrylics. I physically cropped the images, and framed the different elements in steel, thus creating a layered version of a picture that lets the viewer focus on different parts of the composition. There was, already then, a definite sculptural element to my work.
I stopped creating narrative images years ago, and have preferred to focus on the human body as a kind of abstraction. My nudes have never been intentionally sexual. I have depicted the human figure in terms of light and shadow, letting the poses communicate a vulnerability, or a liberation. The crops I’ve cut out of my pictures focus on hands, shoulders, torsos and backs which highlight those feelings.
All of this remains true in my new project. So, what’s changed?
After years of thinking about how light interacts with the bodies in my photographs, and what happens around the edges of my metal crops and the frames that cut through my pieces, I began thinking about light around the final artwork, not just at the moment I shoot the picture.
I fell in love with the work of Italian 1960s avant-garde artists who often referred to themselves as Spatialists, and were members of the ZERO group. All four of them focused on the sculptural spaces just beyond painting. Lucio Fontana and his slashed painted canvases is probably the best-known artist of this group, but several of his contemporaries left an even bigger impression on me. Agostino Bonalumi produced inventive “extroflections,” shapes that emerged from taut canvas impressed into relief, then painted a solid color. His work broke through the two-dimensional picture plane to engage with space and texture in new ways. Enrico Castellani wanted to rid art of its pictorial expressionism and instead focus on materiality. He made many pieces with monochrome surfaces, which produced disorienting effects using the play of cast shadows and angled surfaces that emphasize and remind the viewer that a painting is, in fact, a physical object and not just an illusionistic window. Paolo Scheggi made the most complex and inventive monochromatic canvases of this group. His abstractions created shallow space and light by superimposing surfaces and overlapping elliptical holes. All of these artists produced beautiful, intelligent, deliberate work. It wasn’t painting, it wasn’t sculpture, but it lived in the light and shadows.
This Spatialist artform from the 1960s was all about pieces made from canvas with wooden frames and painted a single color, but that was all they had left in common with paintings. All of these avant-garde artists were interested in what happened to the surfaces when light landed on ridges and openings, passed through parts of the work, and created spaces beyond the typical flat piece of art on the wall.
This was exactly where I wanted my work to go. I saw a creative opportunity to combine the Spatialist approach with photography. I wanted to pull parts of my work out of the wall, to create the spaces that would disorient a viewer by extrapolating my sets from the photograph, but I didn’t just want random openings in my surfaces, that felt too haphazard.
I envisioned creating final pieces where the physicality of the set elements would extend beyond the photographic image itself. I’ve always produced my own minimalist stage sets, but what I had in mind for this series was more complex and tactile. I realized that hand-making these set elements and props was going to be far too difficult, so my team and I designed them using parametric architectural software. I had to rely on technology to get these sets right. I found myself developing my stage props with the same applications and plug-ins that Zaha Hadid or Santiago Calatrava used to design their buildings.
What makes this project so contemporary is the use of 3D manufacturing technology to create the monochromatic surfaces. I needed to use computer-controlled CNC robots to carve out the final piece from blocks of ultra-high-density polyurethane. Originally, I wanted to form the white surfaces out of Corian, a modern-day white stone material that reminded me of marble or granite. But it was incredibly heavy, and after my team dropped three different pieces, each time shattering them like giant porcelain tea cups, it became clear that I would have to use a more modern substance. I opted for polyurethane coated with a white lacquer pigment.
In other words, the stage props and elements we used were programmed on a computer and were then produced by manufacturing machines. After the shoot, the same data set that was fed to the CNC robots and 3D printers to produce the props became the basis for producing the final sculptural piece, which physically emerges from the photograph. Technology has enabled me to break through the two-dimensionality of photography and create not only the light and spatial interplay within my images, but also beyond them.
Here’s a photo of “Emilie at the Wall,” one of the few completed pieces. It was shown in Shanghai this year for the first time:
But technology alone is not enough to make art. I want my work to elicit an emotional response, and in my heart I remain a photographer. Unlike the Italian Spatialists, I use the textures inherent to the sculpture as a departure point, not the final goal.
I have attempted to combine all these elements in my Spatial Concepts series. Fine art nude photography ties into the oldest art forms of humanity across the world, from prehistoric “Venus figurines” to Indian cave paintings, which depict our bodies in their most vulnerable states and express ideals of beauty and other human qualities. This series pays its respects to the Italian Spatialists, who saw light in its rawest form, creating work that changed throughout the day as the sun moved across their manipulated canvas surfaces, at times sinuous, erotic, or even violent. Though the use of the most modern technology available allows me to make infinite copies, I make the artistic choice of producing only one, in the firm conviction that this art form should be considered as unique as painting, though the process may be different.
Over the next couple of weeks I will write in greater detail about the various pieces, because there are distinctly different approaches. Not every image is a direct homage to the artists that inspired me. This work below is called “Charlene in Zaha’s Light,” and has a deep slash reminiscent of Fontana into the surface at the lower edge, but also a parametric extrusion that evokes Castellani’s style.
In this particular image the body is inside the crop, I loved the elegance of basking in the light. The element that was hanging above her casts a distinct shadow, but continues as a solid object coming out of the surface at the top of the piece. The big white element she was laying on when I shot the image continues out of the photograph, and folds into itself.
This alternate view rendered in the modelling software shows the left side. You can see that it’s a relatively simple piece, with a single slash carving the white surface. You can see the grid growing out of the white flat area above the metal frame.
Here’s a rendered close-up of the parametric grid I built as a set, and then extruded from the surface in the final piece:
I will show more photos, renders and production details over the next few weeks as I get ready for my first solo show in several years. At the end of April, I will show this new series as well as some older pieces at the Galerie Camera Work CWC on Auguststrasse in Berlin. There’s also a book of my Nudes in Steel series coming, so please stay tuned.
Photo London 2016 opened a couple of nights ago. It is only in its second year, but it’s clear that it is going to be a major photographic art fair in Europe. Although Paris Photo retains its leadership – at least as long as it’s in the Grand Palais – it is nice to be in London where everything is just a little bit more casual and open-minded, yet still highly professional and well-organised.
I am slowly introducing a new series, entitled “Brutalism.” It is my great hope that I can show the main pieces in Shanghai in September 2016, but we are still finalising plans, and there may be an Amsterdam show coming as well.
Brutalism as an architectural movement hit its stride in the 1960s, and always had a Socialist slant. The implication was that the state is more important than the individual. That struggle continues to this day, in which institutions, not just the state, impose themselves on our lives. The buildings are meant to impress us, to communicate power, relevance, and inevitability. We are expected to be a grateful consumer, or the beneficiary of it’s largess.
My new series has picked up on that. It often takes several months until I understand where my work is taking me, and there is something therapeutic about the process. I’ve ended up building heavy sets that bear down on the human figure, trying to make a place for fragility within hard environments. It sounds more trite and maudlin than intended. Most of us feel like we’re struggling through difficult terrain that doesn’t accommodate our individuality, but there is a mood permeating the culture right now that seems to be pushing back against it. Many of the images I’m working on find a place for the human body in various stages of unfolding growth.
I am moving forward. Quiet Devotion was a reference to baroque painting, whereas Personal Disclosure departed from it, beatifying the human figure and exploring the interplay between bodies using chiaroscuro while reducing everything else to the bare minimum. The interim work around the white set allowed me to break from the dogmatic focus on the holiness of the body. Now I am putting additional emphasis on the sets because I want to return to something slightly more narrative. I want the environment to provide literal context, not just figurative.
I have been making a version of these images for a lot of years now. My team and I work at these pieces very deliberately. I obsess over tonality and study color theory to give each series a look that is contextual and deliberate. When I think about skin tones, it is not simply a question of what looks good; it’s about understanding how colors correlate, how the secondary tone in shaded areas must respond to complementary highlights.
When I began executing the pieces in acrylics and steel I made a dozen prototypes, testing different thicknesses of the Diasec, the layers of matte material, ways to work the steel into frames, and how the wax coating on the paper effects contrast and saturation. Anything less would be an abdication of responsibility, and a lost creative opportunity. I work in 1 mm (one millimetre!) tolerances across large surfaces, and commission a CAD plans for every single piece that gets assembled. I’ve written about this before, and a link to a sample plan is visible in that blog entry as well.
But it remains frustrating. The only way I can get people to understand what I do is by showing the actual pieces. I have not found the right way to display my work on the internet yet. The simple web files make no sense to someone that’s never seen how I use the materials, and most people – especially those in the art world – don’t take the time to watch a video, or drill down through my admittedly hard-to-navigate website.
Let’s be candid, there’s a lot of people in the world of fine art imagery that remains uncomfortable around staged photography. Many of those in the photo world still think of photography as it’s own highly regulated sub-genre of the art world, one that is only pure if it is a picture taken by a lone photographer walking the earth. The idea of deliberately making images in a studio is something best left to the fashion and product world, it couldn’t possibly be art. This categorisation is compounded when you work with naked bodies. In photography nudity works best when it’s Nan Goldin keepin’ it real and hard. Anything beautiful is mistrusted. Sexuality in the art world is considered plebeian, and nudity that isn’t eroticism is not investigated. Fine art nude as a genre is revered in historical images, or if it is extremely provocative. The notable exceptions to all of this high-handedness are photographers like Gregory Crewdson or David LaChapelle, but they do better with galleries working as part of the broader art world, not simply in the photo-art bubble that still needs its own fairs.
As an aside, I am not aware of any solo-genre art fairs that focus solely on painting, or sculpture, performance. It’s odd that the photo art world stares at its own bellybutton while intoning lamentations about the absence of something truly new, while insisting on mounting fairs in which most of the galleries are showing work that spans the last one hundred years.
Not everyone can be expected to like every genre, and those suspicious of nude photography have reasonable cause. Much of the fine art nude photography being practiced by photographers doesn’t take itself seriously enough. It’s a genre filled with hobbyists that just want to be seen taking pictures of hot bodies, or professional photographers who want some creative outlet beyond their commercial work. Neither are regimental in their approach, and thus contribute little to the genre beyond an occasional great picture.
The point of this post is not to complain, but rather to express excitement about the creative opportunities ahead. One of the many reasons I encourage artists to attend the fairs are the conversations that happen. Creative people often desire constructive feedback, which is especially rewarding when it’s positive. Talking to collectors and curators is a rare, important opportunity. One good conversation can push the work along for years to come. Photo London strengthened my resolve to stay within my style. I had a chance to speak to people who have spent their entire professional lives in the world of photography, and they recognised the efforts that go into my pieces. They understand the references as well as the approach to color and composition, while noting the physical execution as a key component to the overall work. Nothing is as exciting as time spent with someone who really understands what you do. It is rewarding to hear when someone of that stature sees the creative choices, the material assembly, and the artistic direction.
…and don’t even try it without a gallery that fully supports you and understands what you do.
Paris Photo 2015 starts on Tuesday, or at least the first of several private previews, in which the fair opens to collectors and gallerists. The Grand Palais will be open to the public starting Thursday November 12th, and be open through late Sunday evening. After three years of working on a series entitled Personal Disclosure, and a very successful show at Camera Work’s CWC gallery in Berlin, I am glad to be showing some new work for the first time.
My work remains the same in terms of process and material choices, which I covered in a recent post and various videos that I produced. What is different is the light. I am no longer focused on baroque lighting, the subjects emerging out of the dark using chiaroscuro. I am beginning a new project – as yet unnamed – that will be much lighter, and more architectural. I will also work with poses that are less about vulnerability, and more about strength. I find my life is changing, and I am no longer in the mood to simply defend what I have.
See you in Paris next week. Stop by Booth B 47, I may be there at some point during the fair. I’m always happy to talk about my work.
Sheri Reclining, 100 x 130 cm, Mixed Print Media (Chromogenic Print / Matte Diasec & Archival Pigment Print) – Unique
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.
Photo Shanghai 2015 starts September 10th, and I’m excited because some of my favourite pieces will be shown for the first time. “Zoi standing, with Book” is one of two life-size pieces that were created about a year ago. Framed in steel, the matte acrylic Diasec reveals little of the inspiration being felt by the model, though her eyes are rendered clearly enough and it is apparent that her thoughts are elsewhere. The crop, also framed in steel and printed on a waxed Di-Tone paper, draws the viewer to her hands and highlights the joy her book brings her. The piece is 206 centimetres tall, which means its nearly seven feet high.
As part of the Personal Disclosure series I have also produced a number of smaller pieces. I refer to them as the Sixty-Eights internally with my team, simply because they’re all about 68 centimetres high. In each piece I have created a frame from the image itself, extending it beyond the image using the matte acrylic Diasec, and framing both inside and outside of the material with steel.
One of the Sixty-Eights is a sister piece accompanying “Zoi standing, with Book” to Shanghai. It’s simply called “Zoi’s Hands”, and they’re peacefully folded behind her.
Another favourite piece is “Nirmala, seated.” Like all the images in the Sixty-Eight sub-series I tried to get the elements of the body to something close to life-size. Although a small frame, the model is folded in on herself, and is closed off to the outside. At the same time the viewer is caught in the frame with her, the tight crop and dense background leaves no visual escape from the image.
The show’s Private Preview will be in the evening Thursday, Sept 10th, and open to the public until Sunday evening Sept 13th. Find out more at the website:
In less than four weeks I open my solo show at the CWC Gallery, the contemporary branch of the renowned Galerie Camera Work in Berlin. I have been working on this series for over three years now. Initially the working title had been The Sacred & the Profane, but the project has evolved so much that I feel a need to separate the series into two parts.
I’m in the process of finalising my Artist Statement. That’s probably every artist’s favourite sentence, along with “I’m currently updating my website.” But before I finish the statement, I thought it would be a good idea to summarize how I got to this point.
The project was originally about religion, and how I felt about the sacred and profane. I was pissed off about cancer, and death, and the interruptions of life that I’d gladly blame on a higher power, except that I don’t hold such beliefs. I created narrative images using religious iconography, and the Baroque language of light and color, but I put a more modern spin on it. I was creating images that told timeless stories with modern characters in old light. Some of the images were a little snarky, it was part of placing the stories within a more modern context. But a lot of them were reverential, and quite honest in their approach. I was gaining a respect for the stories that were being told. I’m not sure beatification was the obvious conclusion to every story, but they certainly described a human condition that honoured the human spirit.
But at a certain point, I got frustrated with the project. I knew where I wanted to go but I wasn’t satisfied with what I had. I wanted the grace, I continue to believe in the human ideal of beauty, but I found myself caring less about the story. Narrative serving as a vehicle to transport the viewer into visual ecstasy wasn’t necessary in modern times. The reference points were a distraction, not a departure point. As modern people we deal with imagery differently than post-Renaissance viewers.
I realized that I was ultimately more interested in the beauty that is inherent to Baroque art than being critical of religion. I spent considerable time in museums and churches, exploring Florence, idling at the Gemälde Galerie, or poring over books. If you’re an artist, it’s hard not to be captivated by the beauty. It’s real. The artists put all their adoration into their work. I wanted to do that, too.
At the same time I was dealing with illness, the death of my father, and big issues around the family business. I didn’t have the time or bandwidth to actually be creative and to make new images, but I would explore my existing images and rework them endlessly on the computer.
The idea of the crop arose during those days. It came out of time spent zooming into details, seeing close-ups of an image segment, and identifying isolated elements that I enjoyed. I would get up from the desk to get a cup of coffee, and when I returned all that filled the screen were a pair of hands or the clavicle leading toward a shoulder. Often it would be hands or the arch of a back, body parts intersecting, a moment, an expression or some gestures. These visual snippets were beautiful by themselves.
But just isolating those highlights made no sense, they lacked context and weren’t enough to be stand-alone images. The simple crops were not enough. They needed the original surrounding image, without it the snippet was incoherent. The duality of liking an element and wanting to provide context gave rise to the language of crops, in which I highlight an element within an image while leaving the rest of the picture somewhat obscured. I had watched the restoration of aged paintings. During that process you can see areas come back to life. The painting’s real color and beauty come through in the full clarity and saturation, which had been obscured by layers of smoke and soot and filth. It suddenly made a part of the image more important, and the eye would travel there first. Sometimes it was a key element of a painting, but other times it was something unimportant, and the eye was forced to hunt around the rest of the image, trying to make sense of what it was seeing.
This gave me the opportunity to create a whole new language, separate from telling stories. I gave myself permission to abandon the stories, and to focus just on the vulnerability and grace of the human body. Rather than tell small stories of religious adoration, I could move beyond the narrative style to show what I was feeling without giving too much away. And so I have decided to rename the early part of this series Quiet Devotion and the second part Personal Disclosure.
I’ve explained the material choices and physicality in a prior post. Using the matte acrylic Diasec to obscure segments of the overall image while high-lighting the crops with a richer, more saturated Di-Tone waxed paper is key to the project. Using a rolled, oiled steel as vestigial reference to gilded, ornate baroque frames recontextualizes it into a modern language.
This triptych that I’ve added to this post is one of the key transition pieces between the early series, and what it became. There is still a distinct narrative element to the work. This is the story of the First Mourning. Cain leads his brother Abel to his death, and then immediately realises the irrevocable horror that he’s caused. But I was no longer worried about telling the story, and found myself more interested in the beauty of the bodies and how they interact. I reduced the images to a bare minimum: the landscape of hard, geometric shapes, the human figure, and fabric to bridge these two elements.
I will write more in the coming days. Stay tuned, I’m pleased to finally show some work.
It’s been several months since I lasted posted to this blog. That’s not all about procrastination and laziness. I switched to a different web host, and have rebuilt my entire website, although the front-end looks largely the same. Many of you who know well how tedious it can be to maintain a website. Although I like the design I have for the core of my site, it was completely rebuilt on a WordPress platform. I am really familiar with the back-end management tool. More importantly, I needed to change the way I display my work, so I made two major design changes:
The Hanjo Project now shows the Leporellos which make up the three chapters as one long image. The viewer can scroll along the entire story as it is laid out in the final version. It’s accompanied by a few photos of the final box-book, as well as a short presentation video. The individual images from that project are lovely, but they were never the final product, so simply showing those was always a little frustrating to me.
The Quiet Devotion Project is getting close to completion. I have designed a new presentation method around the work, because the installation views of the final work is important. The simple jpg files don’t properly show the materials and construction of the pieces, so the photographs offer a better understanding of the project.
I’m still showing some of the original Artist Proofs from the Sacred & Profane series, and will add the new work leading up to the show in September. I added two new pieces, one of which will be shown at Photo London after next week. The relevant info is on the cleaned-up Exhibitions page.
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one piece. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
– Ira Glass
I’ve got nothing to add to Ira’s quote, except that I’m finally getting to the point where I’m making work that reflects my taste. For what it’s worth, that comes with a whole new set of fears.
Last week I got into one of those late-night red wine conversation over dinner. We were talking about the definition of contemporary art within the context of photography, and I was trying to define what I do. After a long meandering “drowning-man” grab for a definition, I said “I’m not a photographer, I’m an artist.”
And then I stopped, and laughed, and realised that will sound awfully pompous if taken out of context. But then again, life is just a bunch of crops, isn’t it? To be clear, my statement was meant as a compliment to photographers.
The Galerie Camera Work opened a large retrospective of the photographer Martin Schoeller over the weekend. It’s a magnificent opus, nicely summarised in a new teNeues book simply entitled “Portraits.” It shows his work over the last fifteen years, including the wonderful larger-than-lifesize portraits of every celebrity you can think of, but also great environmental portrayals. These pictures are shot in kitchens, living rooms, or on location. There are also intricately staged photographs, in which he places his subjects in whimsical situations. The point is, Schoeller has substantial photographic skills. It takes aptitude and experience to walk into a room, find a light set-up, make your subjects comfortable, and to knock out a shoot with limited amount of time. Martin Schoeller is a great photographer.
I am not a photographer, not in the sense that Martin Schoeller is. I know how to use my gear, and I use a camera as my primary tool when I create my work. I don’t believe art is possible without craft. But my work is growing increasingly more conceptual, and my skills are built around what I need to make my art. I usually create my images in my studio, because I know how that works. I have my particular lighting set-up, but will prepare sketches for a lot of the depictions before they ever get shot. The image I make doesn’t simply come to me as I enter the space for the first time, nor is it a location I scout before the shoot. I build my sets, I arrange the styling and the look of the model, and I know which poses I’m aiming for, and all of it is tied to the image being created that day. It’s a very deliberate and pre-conceived process.
Nor can one simply argue that certain photographers only succeed because they’re shooting celebrities or naked super-models. Martin Schoeller and Russell James are brilliant photographers. Would the same images work if they were made using “regular” people in the frame? Absolutely, though it would be harder to get a viewer’s attention. More to the point, the same stars and babes shot by lesser talents would make for some very boring photos. The pictures work so well because they’re good photographers, and great craftsmen.
But are they artists? Where is the transition between photography, and contemporary art? I’d venture a partial definition: Photography is capturing the key subjects as they express themselves. Art is arranging the subjects in way that expresses something entirely different.
My images are not supposed to capture the essence of its subjects, they are an expression of my feelings and thoughts. As an artist I can’t simply captures something, I need to initiate it, and I need to be responsible for the final result. If I rely on circumstance or outside forces, then I’m simply documenting the moment. I realise the word “art” is laden with sanctification, though I find it overblown. After the whole twentieth century reappropriation of “art for the people/by the people”, everybody is an artist, and it seems like that has become an unassailable descriptor, a carte-blanche, akin to “belief.”
I have stated my art manifesto before. It’s been a few years since I first posted it, and I still feel the same way.
Art must have four things to matter: concept, craft, discourse and aesthetics.
Art without concept is simply decoration. The world is filled with pretty pictures, clever drawings, and cool stencils, but without an underlying concept it is meaningless. Conversely, art cannot live by concept alone. The idea must be graspable. Hyper-conceptual art may curry favor within a very select circle of art crit MFA candidates and those seeking to justify the curatorial choices they have made, but it does not stand the test of time.
Out of this concept must arise discourse. The viewer must engage with the piece. It is not enough for it to be clever. Art must be a trigger, it must elicit an emotional response, an intellectual response.
Art without craft lacks respect. The coincidental arrival at a strong piece of work is not a deliberate choice. It reflects the moment, not the artist.
Art must make an aesthetic choice. It should appeal, or repel, or intrigue – on purpose.
I’d love to hear from you what you think. It’s an interesting conversation, and I’m nowhere near finished with it. Here’s an image from a tribute to Christo and Jean-Claude that I shot a few years ago. The idea behind it was very specific and deliberate, but it’s hardly a studio image.
I was given the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion at Paris Photo this week. It was a group made up of established members of the fine art photo community, led by Rick Wester, a well-known gallerist and former auctioneer. Lisa Erf, curator of the highly respected JP Morgan collection was also on the panel, as was Victor de Bonnecaze, from the Galerie Daniel Templon. This year Templon dedicated its entire Paris Photo selection to Staged Photography, my favorite sub-genre within the world of photography. Also on the panel was Vanessa Hallett from the auction house Phillips, where she is the Senior Director and Worldwide Head of the Photographs group. Finally, we were joined by Sondra Gilman and her life-partner Celso Gonzalez-Falla, who began collecting photography in 1955.
The goal was to discuss how technology has changed the process of collecting photography. We spoke about the ways it’s becomes easier for a gallerist to show collectors an artist’s work beyond the gallery space, and how artists are able to maintain their own web presence. We also touched on the problem inherent to image overload. Art work is all over the internet without attribution to artists, never mind the galleries where a viewer might buy such an image. Some art blogs, like the Staged Photography Tumblr do a good job of attributing the artists to the respective work, and even identifying distinct series.
I explained that I use social media and my blog as a tool to stay in touch with people who like my work, and to share some of the thought process and the production that goes into my work. I don’t simply feed images into the ether. Simply put: Facebook “Likes” may be fun, but they don’t necessarily translate into work that makes it way into curated collections or people’s homes.
Another problem is scale. Even the largest monitor is not as big as many pieces of contemporary fine art photography. This matters a lot, because the eye travels through an image differently according to size. Elements within a picture have a certain relationship, and they take on different levels of importance if they cannot be seen within the same field-of-view. Consider a portrait, for example. I can view it on a monitor, and can focus my interest to a specific part of the face. But a huge portrait on a wall doesn’t permit me to see the whole face at once unless I step way back, and a normal viewing distance forces me to look at it the same way I might explore a landscape… I see an eye, a mouth, the line of the hair… but not the whole face. This is an important and powerful part of photography.
I think we missed a real opportunity though. I tried to broach the topic of technology in the creation of new work, but it didn’t make its way into the broader conversation. I believe it matters, but more traditional collectors still think about photography and the underlying collecting process as something based on paper prints. But contemporary photography doesn’t require a film negative, nor the positives that are made from it.
There are artists who use digital technology as a primary tool in their work. Ruud van Empel and Simen Johan are both artists who are deeply involved in digital collage, one more overtly than the other. Other artists such as Erwin Olaf or David LaChapelle fine-tune their image using digital post-production. But most importantly, contemporary artists have a myriad of display materials available to them. We can use a large selection of surfaces on which to print images. I have seen artists print on linen, leather, cardboard, aluminum, and all kinds of paper that is then bonded to glass or acrylics. I use a combination of waxed paper and a difficult-to-use matte acrylic in combination, and neither the material choice nor the production pathway would be an option if I didn’t have the proper technology available to enable it. You can read about my process in a previous blog post.
Unfortunately, at Paris Photo I also saw a number of photographers use material that I consider inappropriate for the image or its subject. Some images work well on a light box, but many do not. Another material which is frequently misused is acrylic Diasec, which is an incredibly rich and glossy material that brings out contrast and saturation within a picture, but is also quite reflective. Nuances are lost when an image has to compete with the elements reflected from the room in which it hangs.
I was able to make this point to collectors: the new materials are one more reason why you really have to see the work in real life. No matter how good an image looks on a screen, the ultimate choice made by the artist trumps all prior efforts. No matter how good the work is, the wrong presentation will kill it. A print needs the proper frame, a passe-partout, and some museum glass, but contemporary photographic art is more complex than that. A photographer can focus on taking pictures, but an artist has to make creative choices all the way through to the final piece.