Brutalism

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.

Charlene and Klaudia in the Hanging Garden

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.

Blue Set26335 FINAL_web_sRGB

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

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

Sheri Reclining, 100 x 130 cm, Mixed Print Media (Chromogenic Print / Matte Diasec & Archival Pigment Print) – Unique

An Edition of One

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.

Thomas Friedrich Schäfer

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.

YR Personal Disclosure pieces in Shanghai

 

Three Videos about Personal Disclosure

I produced three videos that highlight the different stages of my creative process. The idea was simply to show how I arrive at the final piece. The first video is about the image creation. There are the stark sets, the human figures, and the elements that create a bridge between them. Often I already know which elements I will be focusing on, so the shot composition isolates those parts that will later be highlighted through the cropping process.

[vimeo 138093555 w=650 h=336]

 

The second video is about the physical cropping process. It’s been difficult to explain the material choices that have gone into this project, and the steel framing that it entails. I use unfinished, rolled & oiled steel that glints slightly in the light, and is a vestigial reminder of the ornate gilt frames that were typical to baroque art.  Props to Thein & Rios for doing such a detail-oriented job.

[vimeo 138093850 w=650 h=336]

 

Finally, the third video spends some time discussing the various print surfaces. I’ve written before about the matte acrylic Diasec that makes up the primary image, and the waxed Ditone paper that Recom Art in Berlin produce. It’s a wonderful choice, and I am incredibly grateful to them for managing the physical production for me.

[vimeo 138055235 w=650 h=336]

 

One note: the images we shot that day will not be part of the Personal Disclosure show opening in two weeks at CWC – Camera Work Contemporary. They did not get finished in time, and we will probably show them at Paris Photo in November. Hope to see you there!

Thanks to my life-long friend Chris Zippel for letting me use his tune within my videos.

 

Photo Shanghai 2015

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.

Zoi standing with Book

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.

Zoi Danae 17967 Crop_final production_sRGB_web

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.

Nirmala 19801 final production_web

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:

Exhibit Photo Shanghai

 

Personal Disclosure

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.

Cain Able Tryptichon_web_sRGB

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.

 

The Wrap Project

One of the artists I became aware of first in life was Christo (& Jean-Claude, as I was corrected later in life.) His (their) early work helped me understand one of the basic tenets of contemporary art. I was always impressed by the sheer scale, and the desire to do something just because it was possible. His wrapped buildings, surrounded islands, and divided valleys exist solely because they are compelling.

Particularly exciting is that we are only a few weeks away from Christo’s latest large scale project, a lake covered in floating pontoons in northern Italy.

In his early work, around my birth year 1968, Christo created a number of sketches of wrapped women. These were very organic shapes, within very hard-edged landscapes. Obviously this appealed to me, because so much of my work is about the human figure in hardscape, and this abstraction provided a whole new creative opportunity.

EEEBy Christo Wrapped woman project.

I decided to create a photographic homage to this early work. My team and I shot in Berlin, over two days. I rarely do location work, so it was a wonderful change of pace for me. Most of this had to be done relatively guerilla-style. Although we did not need location permits, setting up a wardrobe truck was not an option, so my stylist would simply begin wrapping the models on site. Because it was summer, the tourists that walked around us made for a supportive audience, even if they couldn’t quite figure out the point of our photo shoot. We were wrapping naked women in itchy plastic on extremely hot summer days. Twice Berlin policemen stopped us to tell us that we really shouldn’t shoot here because technically it wasn’t allowed. Each time we asked to simply finish the image, and they were happy to help us, one even asking people in the background to step out of our frame for a couple of minutes. Gotta love Berlin!

After posting these pics to my Facebook Page, I was viciously attacked by a small group of people. Closer inspection showed that they were primarily offended because one location was the memorial of the fallen Soviet soldiers, and their respective Facebook profiles showed Cover Pictures of Che Guevara and other notable Communists, which leads me to believe their other accusations were intended primarily to provoke and insult.

The man wrote (in German)

“Ich habe mich mal drangemacht und mir den rest deiner fotos hier angeschaut und diese bestätigen auch mein urteil: brutal, aggressiv, frauenfeindlich, kitschig, romantisch (im deutschen sinne), anonymisierte gewalt, schlichtweg menschenfeindlich…”

Translation:

“I’ve gone ahead and checked out the rest of your photos and they confirm my judgement: brutal, aggressive, woman-hating, kitschy, romantic (in the German sense), anonymous violence, simply misanthropic…”

I must admit I was flabbergasted. I can’t really defend myself against charges that are completely off-mark. And as much as I initially took a small pride in having my first group of Haters, I can’t help but notice that my lead opponent’s initial anger was directed at the model, whom he accused of deleting his post. He was wrong, his comments was still there, and it turned out to be  a spurned suitor or ex-boyfriend who was stalking her.

Poor girl. As if laying wrapped in plastic on a hot summer day wasn’t enough to deal with…