An Interview with Jeff Cowen by Magdalena Kröner, Berlin, March 2016
Magdalena Kröner: I’d be very curious to learn more about the beginnings of the “sculpture works”. Was there one particular moment or one specific incident that got you interested in photographing historic statues?
Jeff Cowen: I think the first time I became really interested in sculpture was in the early 1990s when I studied painting and drawing. There was a survey show on modern art at the Guggenheim and I saw a little Giacometti sculpture, only about 8 centimeters high. It completely surprised and mesmerized me. Despite its size, it dominated the room and the other work in the exhibition. It was very moving… One of the early sculptures that I photographed and printed, though, was in the Uffizi galleries in Florence in 2002. I saw this beautiful Roman bust and the light coming in was perfect, and I just shot it on a lark. Back in the studio I made a contact print and then I made some work prints and started examining them for an extended period of time. Finally, I realised there was something there that captured my interest. The statue suddenly seemed filled with new life. It transformed via my photographic process.
MK: How and where do you find sculptures that interest you?
JC: I approach the photography of sculpture as I would approach street photography: instinctively. I usually take my 35 mm Leica MP and put on my headphones to not be distracted, and walk through various museums in a day, as I did recently in Rome for this project, and just react to what I encounter – visually, emotionally and of course, and most importantly, spiritually. Through my photographic process, I react to what I see in a visceral way that transcends any intellectual experience.
MK: That leads to something I am always interested in when thinking about photography. We are trained to perceive photography as this almost transparent, easily disposable medium, something that enables us to experience a seamlessly realistic impression of a situation, a landscape or a person. Photography seems to show us reality immediately and without a filter, but at the same time this experience is technically mediated to an extreme degree and by its nature highly abstract. As a photographer, you know these things yet you say you transcend them instinctively in your work. Did that influence your decision to photograph sculptures? Did it somehow obstruct your interest or rather pose a challenge and spur your interest?
JC: I felt from the beginning that this project was extremely challenging. Not only am I photographing another artist’s or, if you will, craftsman’s work, which is a huge challenge in and of itself, but I am also acutely aware that I am hardly the first person to do this. Very early in the history of photography, in 1839, French photographer Hippolyte Bayard photographed plaster casts and sculptures, as did of course one of the inventors of photography, Henry Fox Talbot. Edward Steichen famously photographed Rodin’s cast for Balzac in 1898, just to name a few. There is a lengthy history behind me. So it becomes even more challenging. You’re going up against the history of sculpture and the history of photography and last but not least, going up against yourself.
MK: What does “going up against yourself” mean in the context of your work?
JC: Every image I make I am going against myself and challenging myself, my perceptions, my humanity and my reaction to the external world and my interior world. I have an intrinsic need to evolve… So I have to push myself to go further. I am little interested in dialoguing with contemporary art and trends. In fact I would regard that doing so would only hinder my achieving of a pure vision. So for me, making work is largely a personal endeavor and obsession but also a neurotic need to create and to affirm my own existence. My work is a mirror of my humanity… I need to look into that mirror every so often otherwise I begin to become very uncomfortable in my body. It’s a bit like being a drug addict. I need that fix of photographing and transforming on a regular basis…
MK: What struck me most in your “Sculpture Photographs” is the painterly approach that makes each print unique. I would like to know more about it. Do you consider these pieces rather to be photography or painting, or do you aim to transcend these definitions?
JC: The process I developed in my darkroom renders each piece unique and not reproducible a second time. I work with the prints by deliberate mark making and often making controlled mistakes as well. My friend André S. Labarthe, one of the founders of “Cahiers du Cinéma”, called my photographs “interventions”. I thought his term was quite accurate and I kept it. I use all kinds of photographic chemicals and processes and maybe a little paint on the photographic paper in ways that I cannot repeat a second time. I think every work I make is mainly about choices. An enormous amount of choices… It’s the sum of these choices that creates the work. It’s quite close to the process of improvised cooking…
MK: In the 1970s New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged a show called “Photography into Sculpture”, and the Head of Photography at the time, Peter C. Bunnel, wrote something in an essay for the show, that for me seemed to resonate with your work, especially with the still lifes but also with the “Sculpture Photographs”. He wrote “The maker of a photograph takes subjects – things – as he finds them, and, with the selectivity necessary, to determine their significance, manipulates them into an expression of his sensibilities, so that they may constitute a revelation.” How would you read that in relation to your work?
JC: I’d say my approach to what I photograph, whether I look at things or people, is pretty much the same. Whether I photograph a still life or a person, initially I need to have a strong human reaction in my body, mind and soul for it to engage me. I remember growing up that I was so called “overly-sensitive” and this was difficult for a child and an adolescent. I did not know what to do with it and I was quite miserable most of the time until I discovered photography. In my early days of photography, I almost always neurotically carried a camera around my neck because I felt so strongly about so many things I encountered and I felt the immediate need to capture them. At the same time, the camera helped me to distance and protect myself from the overwhelmingly strong impressions the world made on me. My camera was a sort of barrier… Well, that’s changed with experience and life. What all the photographs have in common though, is the emotional/spiritual sentiment I had in the moment, followed by my emotional/spiritual sentiment when I am rebirthing them in the darkroom. It’s like composing and performing jazz – you can’t fake it. You have to feel it and live it. That’s essential.
MK: Your way of manipulating photography is very specific. What are the effects you are aiming to achieve by adding gestural marks, bruises and scars to the photographic print that you could not achieve with painting or drawing alone?
JC: I think what mostly excites me about photography is to mate the power of painting with the power of photography, so it acts like a double-barreled shotgun. When it works it can be devastating… In my process I use both concepts together. I get to photograph and work in the darkroom and I get to paint with chemicals and paint. I approach photography equally as a painter and as a photographer.
MK: What differentiates the two – painter and photographer – for you?
JC: I think painters understand the difference between two and three dimensions better than most photographers because they are trained to render a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas. Most of the great photographers started off as painters or at least knew how to draw – Edward Steichen was trained as a painter for example. Therefore I look at things abstractly first, pretty much like a painter. I photograph as if I were sketching my subjects. I start with the outline first, dealing with plastic problems such as thinking of the form in relation to the rectangle of the frame, and only later the details follow. After I solve these plastic issues then I start looking at it photographically. Photography has the ability to immortalize a transient moment in a way that painting is not able to do. When it comes to painting there might have been invention in the first place, in photography the relation to the truth is more evident. A photograph is a paradox: it tells you the truth and it lies to you in the same moment. This has always excited and fascinated me, so I am basically a tremendous liar…Hah! I think I lie to myself through my photographs to make life more bearable by trying to create a new reality, something sublime. My lies become a truth. Life without art would be intolerable - it would bore me to death. Making art transforms and evolves me and I hope my work does the same for the viewer - gives them something… It has to be generous, a photograph.
MK: The photographs are opulent and ornamental, but at the same time they look worn by time, they look slightly faded and therefore seem to relate to the sometimes centuries old sculptures in your images. Somehow it seems to me like the works preserve the past and make it palpable for a modern viewer.
JC: I am interested in the idea in what in Japanese is called “Wabi-Sabi”- the achingly beautiful melancholy of life. All beauty must fade and everything passes. I think this kind of truth infiltrates every human experience - knowing that everything will pass, will decay. I am very aware of that sense of entropy and thus I have an acute awareness of the moment as it passes and how precious it is. That is what I love about photographs. You can stop time. You can preserve something and at the same time meditate about its destruction as an unavoidable but beautiful aspect of life. Essentially, I am suggesting that a photograph can be immensely powerful because theoretically it defies the laws of nature. A photograph immortalizes. What else can do this? Only one thing comes to mind, but I will keep that to myself.
MK: How does that inform the “Sculpture Photographs”?
JC: If you look at “Statua 18” for example, you have a head and spots superimposed. The spots are actually gum I found beautifully embossed all over the streets of Paris, which I photographed for years. So in this image you have beauty and decay simultaneously and they create a dialogue with one another.
MK: There are many different accidental patterns and gestural inscriptions in your photographs that seem to me to be shaped by this ambivalent tension. They equally contain a moment of destruction and ornamental opulence. They seem to already predict their own deterioration, telling of the eternal cycle of beauty and decay. At the same time, the beauty of the sculptures bears visible marks of time, of aging and destruction...
JC: A lot of figures are missing limbs or noses or something. I relate to this broken beauty. I think they actually look better the way they are now - severed, broken, marked by time. I remember I was in “Tower Records”, when I was a teenager, and there was this totally gorgeous woman in the jazz section, but with terrible scars on her face and yet she completely moved me with her beauty. She was divine inside and out. I gave her my phone number but never heard from her… I still think about her sometimes. I believe on many levels most human beings feel damaged somehow - at least I do - and these broken statues reflect that, as does my work. So in a sort of way I am celebrating our imperfect humanity…
MK: Looking at your sculpture photographs I had to think of my visit to MoMA’s great Picasso sculpture show last fall, where they had an entire room devoted to Brassaï’s famous photographs of Picasso’s sculptural works. With light and shadow and dramatic spatial positioning, Brassaï added a lot of impact and drama to the already very expressive pieces. Constantin Brâncuși, on the other hand, famously photographed all his works himself. What does your photography add, capture or maybe take away from the original sculptures?
JC: These kinds of collaborations are fascinating for me, such as Steichen’s photography of Rodin’s "Balzac" sculpture that spurred an intense collaboration of both artists. Rodin’s sculpture was initially even laughed at by the critics and yet Steichen went to Paris largely just to photograph this work. His image has nothing to do with documenting the sculpture, the photograph has a poetry all its own. So for me Steichen was collaborating with Rodin… I tried to also channel the originators of the sculptures in my project. It is a dialogue and, in a way, a collaboration I have with the spirit of the sculptor. I could not make these works without them – I do my best to uphold and hopefully add to the spiritual quality of these works. I have no interest in solely documenting, it is more about giving life to and creating a unique new entity inspired by the original work.
MK: Since Walter Benjamin’s visionary essay from 1935, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, the discourse of the loss of the original and the severing of the “aura” of an artwork unfolded - a topic proving relevant until today. Benjamin wrote “For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an even greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.”
I would like to elaborate on this for a bit: suddenly, our concept of the “original” has been shattered. We do not know what it signifies anymore, and for some the distinction might even be irrelevant. How would you situate your photography in that discourse?
JC: Photography in its essence, on some level, is drawing with light. Technically, it is a light impression. The silver emulsion on the film captures the light that bounces off of an object and transforms it into an image, so it got me thinking. What is real here? The first time I started to understand that there is no absolute visually perceived reality was when I was on my first date with a girl at the age of about 15 or 16. At home, before leaving the house I looked in the mirror and checked myself and thought, “I look OK”, but when picking up the girl at her home I looked into a mirror in their bathroom and I thought, “God, I look terrible”. Then we went to some place to have tea or something and I encountered another really bad mirror experience… and so on through the course of the night. I realized there is no such thing as a fixed, static visual reality. There is only perception. When you look at something it changes.
MK: How would you describe the reality you create in your photographs?
JC: Generally, I have to look at my work for a long time to really have a proper understanding of it. Photographs are incredibly complex so it takes time. With a photograph, I can create a new immortal moment or reality and thus I can create an experience for the onlooker. I want my work to continue to give the viewer something, maybe even during a whole lifetime. If I make a work that has no spiritual transformative qualities – for me or the viewer – then I am not interested and it goes in the garbage where it belongs.
MK: You’ve said that in the portraiture of a sculpture a figure comes alive. What constitutes photographing a person as opposed to photographing a sculpture for you?
JC: I’d say there’s two things – it is easier to photograph people as they are already alive. But the challenge, when photographing a person, is that you have to capture the right moment and that might prove difficult. When the model is distracted or self-conscious, I see it. I therefore try to capture the moment in between, try to photograph the person with an empty mind for the aura to come out. I do any number of things to take everything away, the posing, the pretense, the fear, in order to get to an essence. You cannot specify the moment. You just have to allow it to happen organically. With a statue it is harder. It is not physically alive so I have to work some photographic magic. I transform the sculptures through my process, in the hope to render the statues so that they are breathing, as we are so lucky to do for a short but lovely time…