Interview with Peter Feldhaus at Sonicsites.de
Göran, you were apprenticed as a hydraulic engineer, played the guitar in a punk rock band, and were active in Potsdam’s Hausbesetzerszene (“squatter”) scene – not exactly a typical photographer’s background, if there is such a thing. When did you start photographing, and what was it that made you choose photography over your other interests, like your music? Was there a specific reason that you decided to study photography in Leipzig?
When I started studying fine art photography in Leipzig, it was 1994, and most of the other students were from unconventional backgrounds, as well. It seemed that anything was possible in those first years after The Wall came down, and many of us had switched careers at least once before arriving in Leipzig. There were students who were much older than me; some were even older than Tina Bara, who had become a professor at a very young age. I think it’s refreshing when people who have experienced many other things in life – had other priorities – start to make art. What is your art about if all you know is art? About art! Thereby creating a very self-sufficient system. But back to your question: I started photographing at the age of 7 or 8, when I got my first camera as a present, a 6×6 plastic camera from the 1960s. I used it to photograph my family, and enlarged the pictures in our bathroom. That magic moment under red light when, all of a sudden – an image appears! – it’s always fascinated me.
Two years ago, some of these images came together for the series “heim”. It was quite an experience to make contact sheets from those old negatives – seeing the faces of people who were familiar, yet somehow strangers – pieces of my life, even if my memories of them were vague. Seeing the world through my eyes of thirty years ago – how did I look at the world then?
In the early 1990s, when I stopped studying Construction Engineering, I decided to go into fine art photography, and study at the “Academy of Visual Arts” in Leipzig. The Engineering lectures started at 8:15 am, and because of my late night activities with the band. I always fell asleep [at the lectures]. At some point I decided that it would be healthier to just sleep in bed, so I started showing up later and later in the day. I couldn’t imagine becoming a site engineer or working in some administrative capacity.
But – my experiences with punk-rock and squatting had taught me to ask, how would I be able to do what I wanted to do, and create a sustainable lifestyle out of it? The archetypal artist’s life seemed just right to me; I wasn’t interested at all in the question of how to make a living, then.
It took me a while to re-define myself. At first, I was the guitar player with the camera, but at some point I had to concede that there could only be one medium – that I had to choose one or the other if I wanted to accomplish something genuine, something unique. The music we played with “44 Leningrad” was about partying, being celebrated – getting money, two crates of beer, and a bottle of vodka. The music had become a justification for partying, rather than a means of expressing my innermost thoughts and feelings.
After publishing your books „Longe – 44 Leningrad“ (1998) about the everyday life of an East German punk band and „Vorher müsst ihr uns erschießen“ [„You have to shoot us first“] (2001), which provides insight on the squatter’s scene, you became known mostly via your portraiture in the series, „Portraits“ (1996–2001), „Reif” [„Mature“] (2001–2003) and „Neue Portraits“[„New Portraits“] (2005–2008). For you, what is particularly exciting about the representation of a person in a photograph?
In the photographic process! You transform reality in the process of depicting it, and at best you can transcend it. For me this is still the most fascinating aspect of photography! By sitting opposite me, a person becomes someone else – the presence of a camera generates a new reality without even making a single picture. For the subject, being in a situation where you know you’ll be photographed – giving this other person an image of yourself, having to represent yourself without being able to control the end product – this alone creates this very particular tension. Incidentally, you can read this in Barthes. You can watch the person’s face change while they’re being photographed. It’s inspiring! Even within that process so many unexpected things happen. It’s even more inspiring when it becomes a big picture on the wall!
Actually, I do usually have a mental image of the picture I want before I approach someone I’m interested in photographing. But it always turns out different than what I expected. Or better – it has something extra. My control over the image ends at a certain point – reality edges out whatever image I’ve imagined, as well as the subject’s desire to appear this way or that. You can’t make a portrait without the person opposite you. It’s a collaboration – sometimes a duel. But I have to admit that the weapons are distributed unevenly. The nice thing is that I can’t just make up a portrait – that what is being created is unrepeatable. It depends not only on the lighting, clothes, and background, but it also depends on the mood of the people taking part in the process. It depends on the moods and the many tiny unpredictable elements and coincidences. Great, isn’t it? The act of photographing!
This is why I also like analogue photography. Either everything is right at just the right moment, or it isn’t. The image is finished in a thirtieth of a second. Things come together in time and space to express what I’m thinking and feeling. Although you can interpret frame, color and contrast in the lab, you can’t change substantial issues in analogue photography.
I like working with people. Maybe because I also like being alone. Photographing people gives me a chance to learn new things about my subjects as well as about myself.
Many of the people I photograph are a little disconcerted by the results. I think this happens when they don’t really know themselves. But I can’t answer the question, “who am I?” either.
Despite the fact that in the end, the viewer somehow feels very close to the people in my pictures, almost nothing is revealed about the subject. When portraits become free, when the story telling ends, then something very special appears.
When I look at portraits made by others – by painters or other photographers – I am most interested in the aura and intensity of the person depicted. You can’t copy that. Each artist’s portrait of the same person will be different, because everyone interacts differently with the subject. That’s why I have this feeling that no one else could make these images. Only I can make them, like a calling that’s been given to me.
In writing about your portraits, you say that an intensity is brought to the image by capturing a transitional moment when the model’s gaze – his/her focus or attention – goes neither inwards nor outwards. Is there a method you use to create such a moment? Is there a typical procedure for your sittings, or is each one different from the next?
Generating a calmness, encouraging people to let go, yet remain present. Blurring the person’s preconception of that one single important image. Minimizing my own presence even while trying to find a brief sense of harmony with the model. It must seem a little odd for the sitter – someone looks at you, but all you see is a lens…. It‘s essentially the same every time I make a portrait. You sit opposite each other for a while, and it always clicks! Until the roll of film ends and has to be changed. The really exciting things that happen are unseen, are background. Even for me, inexplicable.
For the series “Portraits” (1996–2001), you’ve photographed people from your own milieu – the different worlds you’ve inhabited. Are you continuing to do so? It’s remarkable that you photograph mostly younger people. Is there a specific reason for that? What attributes must one have to sit for Göran Gnaudschun?
Yes, to some extent I’ve always photographed at home, at the coffee table – squatters, punk rockers, liberal spectrum. “Reif” was the first series that didn’t come from my own background – the autobiography ended there, at least for the time being. For this piece I’ve also photographed a lot in children’s homes. These young lives of violence, neglect, and abuse were completely new to me.
It’s very different again in the series “New Portraits”. These are people whom I only know very distantly. But – while that distance, that otherness, is evident in the pictures, my subjects also do know me well enough to grant me the leap of faith I need in order to make their portrait. I don’t think I could have made those images with people who, say, I approached at a bus stop. There’s an instinctive moment when I see a person I’d like to photograph, and I sense they’d be able to help me create an image I’m looking for – there’s something in their personality that would allow me to create an image.
Obviously, my concentrating on younger people in my early projects shaped the end product. I didn’t intend for this to be a theme that developed with “New Portraits”. But while working on it, I realized that there’s a certain ingenuousness, an openness that I’m looking for, that I see only in the faces of this specific age group. My face wouldn’t work in this series. Every pore, every wrinkle in my older face is telling you something, gives away too much, so that the viewer sorts and classifies and makes a judgment about the person portrayed – which might be wrong. And that isn’t what I’m looking for at the moment. I’m more interested in the moment of transition and transformation, rather than someone who has already arrived. In younger people you see what might be rather than what is. The same goes for very old people, too.
The ones I’m photographing are often the quieter people, at rest within themselves. I can relate to them on a deeper level than I can to blustering self-exposers.
While the series „Longe – 44 Leningrad“ and „Vorher müsst ihr uns erschießen“[„You have to shoot us first“] are more documentary, you seem to be moving definitely towards the more subjective in the series „Festland“ [„Solid Ground“] (2004), which was shot on a trip through the new EU-States. The original idea, to document the radical change in Eastern Europe, morphed into more of a subjective portrait of Eastern Europe. How did this change happen?
What does documentary actually mean, today? Unfortunately, I don’t know a good contemporary definition of it. I will say that the first two series you mentioned were about people, while “Festland” is more about space. I’ve always been into details and the subjective. There’s also an idea that has existed since early romanticism: the artist goes out into the world to find him/herself within it. You reconcile/balance the inner self with the world around you. You need the to feel the otherness to sense yourself. You have to constantly sensitize yourself to be able to continue finding new sources of stimulation. It’s interesting that despite all this introspection, Eastern Europe remains very present in my photographs.
For the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), who generously supported the six-month long trip from Tallin to Ljubljana, I had written a paper about all the big changes that these new EU-countries (they joined in 2004) would have to go through: the second rebuilding phase after 1989/90, the collapse of industry, the flooding of markets with western goods at a time when the barely independent states were struggling for their identity in the cold wind of globalization.
I thought I had done a good job of researching all this, and had a smart and coherent concept.
But then, what can photography achieve? In the end, it simply has to surrender in the face of complicated, non-visual circumstances and issues, because otherwise it would fall into the trap of over-simplification very quickly. When I stepped off the ferry in Tallin, I quickly realized that my paper was trash. The economic rollover was long over and done, the domestic companies had been gone since the 1990s. In places where the travel guides warned about smoking chimneys, radioactivity and poisoned air, I found desolated, grassy wastelands. For me, photography can’t explain the political and economic reasons for what is, but it can accomplish something else: it can be about blanks, about something left open. It can offer spaces/surfaces for both the author and the viewer to project their thoughts and feelings. Maybe artists shouldn’t try to explain the world, but rather look for potential – the possible within the reality, the potential within the image. Not duplicating or copying the world, but adding something to it.
The ongoing project „Islands“ depicts groups of trees, surrounded by evenly plowed fields under an even sky, as disruptions to the surrounding farmland. To what extent is this series linked with your portraits, or is this something entirely different?
I’m very happy that both series can be shown in Potsdam in their entirety. They really complement each other. “Islands” was intended as a counterpart to the portraits, though isn’t limited to that. You aren’t looked at (by the people in the portraits); you can look for yourself. However, the landscape formations can be seen as “resonant space” – space for projection – which raises different issues than the portraits. The landscapes allow a clear gaze. Both series grew from the same emotional palette. And I am happy if the viewer understands this.
Your latest work, „Luft berühren” [“The Air Near my Fingers“] is again more associative. It depicts cityscapes, clouds, ordinary things, and therefore reminds me of “Solid Ground”. Like “Solid Ground”, it seems to be about the perceptibility of links between the inner and outer worlds. Showing something [in a photograph] that can otherwise only be perceived out of the corner of your eye, as a fleeting glimpse – [the viewer is] deprived of closer exploration. In “Solid Ground” you write that the omitted – the “off” – can be part of the image. Could you explain this a little?
My professor Timm Rautert repeated endlessly over the years that “a photograph contains not only what one sees, but also the unseen”. At the time I considered this ignore-able, if cute, photo-history nonsense. Today I feel differently. Because without the “off”, without the things next to, behind or in front of the depicted, without the before and after, and without whatever was necessary to bring you to that moment and place where you can take a picture, the picture wouldn’t have been possible at all. Some pictures I take for my own emotional reasons, which the viewer doesn’t need to know. It’s enough to trust the artist to show you something. It’s not about editing reality for the sake of simplification, but rather about opening up a path through which one can “enter” the image. It’s about the sincerity required for imagination and cognition, in the best of cases for self-awareness; to show the complexity of the world in perhaps simple images. I view the image as a screen for putting the viewer through a reverberation of moods, thoughts, memories and fictions. I can put up this screen, but I cannot – as I said before – explain the world. My aim lies elsewhere.
Looking at your commercial work, I noticed that you work a lot for social institutions. Which might explain your particular sensibility for social subjects. Your earlier projects “Longe” and “Vorher müsst Ihr uns erschießen” were similar in that they were directly involved with social issues, whereas your later work “Lichtung” [„Clearing“] and “Luft berühren” are much more abstract. Do you regard this as logical development, or do you miss the direct involvement evident in your earlier work?
I don’t look for work with social institutions, they look for me. I do like to work for them. But sometimes it isn’t easy to work with difficult people in difficult situations, and create images which – though not complete lies – emphasize the sunny side of the road. But then, this is my job, and I separate it from my artwork.
I am not quite sure if “Longe”, or “Vorher…” are really about social issues, because social photography is always being linked with the victim, regardless of positive or negative connotations. But these two series are explicitly about being consciously apart from society – following one’s own standards and rules. But maybe this could be included in the term “social”.
And yes, despite the fact that everything in the photos can be seen and is in focus, the images became more abstract. Not the subject – the topic is overwhelmingly important – but my intent is that the photographs be seen as autonomous images rather than illustrations of the world. This is sometimes difficult for people who are used to looking at photographs in a different way. “Where was the picture taken?”, “What does it depict?”, “What group of people do we see?”, “What is the theme that links the images together?”, “Where is the adjoining text?” These are questions that, even when answered, don’t serve the viewer in any way. Because my approach is different.
For me, it’s more about the poetic entanglements that occur when reality becomes a depiction. A few years ago, I got to a point when I had to leave “thematic” photography. Everything seemed equally possible, everything seemed true, but at the same time arbitrary. Former border stations within the EU, the life of Sinti and Roma people, phone booths, the contents of surprise-eggs [chocolate eggs for children], and the children of drug addicted parents. You can photograph all that, and work away assiduously. But for me, the image itself became important; an image that preferably doesn’t need explanation, and is self-contained, so to speak. Everything else follows. In the best of cases these “windows to the world” become mirrors, seducing the viewer into conversations with him or herself. There is hardly any verbal information given along with my images, so the associative machine can take over without interference. Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but I’m after the viewer’s introspection and self-reflection. For this, a life-sized image is almost imperative, since it’s only when looking at such a large image that the viewer gets a sense of immersion in the photograph.
As an artist it is probably not always easy to hold that balance between economic constraints and creative work. In 2002 you were appointed into the Deutsche Fotografische Akademie and recently you became a member of the photographer’s network, Lux. How did that came about? Did you seek that membership actively? To what extent does a membership in such an institution help your work?
With Wiebke Loeper, Arwed Messmer, Grit Schwertfeger, Jens Liebchen and Philipp v. Recklinghausen “Lux” is a re-launched and newly configured network of photographers. Somebody once said that we are photographers who earn money with photography, to spend it again on photography. The art is not quite “breadless” entirely without compensation anymore, but that’s a nice quote because there aren’t many artists in the field who can pay their bills entirely by selling their work in today’s art market. In such a situation, commercial work is not the worst way to feed a family. Especially if one is hired for his or her personal visual language – which is appreciated by Lux customers.This means that you don’t have to jump through hoops, and you can appreciate the images that you make in the commercial context. You get around a bit and expand your horizon, which in turn benefits your art.
I don’t feel any conflict between my commercial and artistic work; such conflict can be a problem for many artists. I keep a clear line between my commercial and artistic work, which means the end products in each arena are distinctly different from one another.The organization of Lux gives us a common structure. We resonate with each other, inspire each other, and sometimes work on projects together, yet artistically we are completely independent. For us, it’s about being able to define ourselves as artists while confidently claiming work in the commercial arena. If anyone is looking for a very distinct personal handwriting for a commission, they are invited to have a look at our website. I very much like the idea of existing under a common label while functioning independently. It worked this way with the gallery project AMERIKA in Berlin’s Brunnenstrasse. and both Lux and the BerlinPhotoWorkshops, where I recently became a member, are organized this way.
Since December 8 2008, the Kunstraum Potsdam has exhibited a large number of images from the series “Neue Portraits” and “Inseln” as well as “Luft berühren”. It is titled “Innen and Außen” [„Inside and Outside“]. Can you outline what this “Innen und Außen” means from your point of view?
“Innen und Außen” exhibits images of mine from the past three years. The series of portraits I’ve been working on since late 2005, “Neue Portraits”, form the framework of the show. The work “Inseln” depicts tree landscapes, and the series “Luft berühren” deals with the everyday, the vernacular that can be disorienting – just at that moment when one becomes aware of feeling disoriented.
The Kunstraum Potsdam is relatively large; both city and state governments have spent quite a chunk of money on it. For me, it provides an opportunity to show recent work in what is almost a museum setting; this made it possible to reveal correlations between the different series, and to imbue the space with an atmosphere of it’s own.
“Innen und Außen” refers to the gaze of the depicted (person), who either withdraws into him or herself or is very present. It also refers to the interiority of both the person in the photograph and that of the photographer. It refers to the “outer” that is necessary to the photographic process, for images to emerge. And ultimately, it is a reflection on the fact that a valid image always depends on a balance between “inside” and “outside”.
Special thanks to Peter Feldhaus