Emerging into the Visible — Entering the Invisible
A Conversation with Christian Vogt
Martin Gasser: The current book includes one of your Photographic Notes with the text “about the price of freedom of not belonging anywhere” (p. 16). Are the text and picture an allusion to your own condition as an artist?
Christian Vogt: Yes. If you identify yourself with something, you lose your freedom. That is why I tend to avoid any kind of restricting identification as much as possible. “About the price …” is expressed in other works, such as “each advantage has its disadvantage, and each disadvantage has its advantage.” I am aware that I am paying a high price by not belonging to, or identifying with, any “group” or “scene.” I do not enjoy the support I would receive from it, but I also have the freedom to move beyond its limits. As a result, my works can vary greatly, and that is unsettling, because it makes me difficult to categorize.
So does it disturb you when someone tries to assign you and your work to a particular artistic direction?
Labels are always constricting. If I work with naked bodies, for example, I am immediately labeled a nude photographer. A nude is a representation of the naked human body. What is important to me, however, is rather the translation of an idea through the use of the body and body language. I am often asked “what” it is that I photograph. I am never asked about the “how.” If you were to ask Van Gogh what it was that he painted without knowing his style and he were to answer “sunflowers”— would you be any the wiser?
Is the fact that you do artistic work as well as commissioned work perhaps a problem?
Not, in any case, for me. I work in commission in order to ensure my freedom. In the 1970s it was unimaginable to think that you could earn a living with art photography in Europe. The work I am commissioned to do has hardly influenced my own work. Rather the opposite: I have often been given carte blanche to execute a commission on the basis of my own work. Even if my photography has sometimes been used for commercial purposes, I have never been an advertising photographer.
How did you come to photography?
A friend once said of me: “He takes photos because he doesn’t paint, write, or play music.”
What has been the strongest influence on your artistic development?
I believe that has a lot to do with my childhood. The first years of my life I grew up with my grandmother, who had a vast overgrown garden in the country. This garden was an important and formative influence. It was an enormous area with a tennis court, which had long been abandoned. Trees and bushes grew wild in the red clay. Its complex, interwoven structures and the mysteries of this garden have remained with me, and have, perhaps, become a perceptual basis for me. I recognize similar complexities in strange coincidences that happen to me. I have been noting and collecting them for years. Even in the dictionary, the German word Verflechtung, meaning “interweaving,” “complexity,” is listed in conjunction with Umstände, meaning “(strange) coincidences.”
Empty places are also something which often attracts you.
Vacated rooms or places where something has occurred — what one could call “charged places” — have always provoked my fantasy. My first work in this direction was in 1970, when I followed and documented the remains of a long-abandoned railway line in the Alsace (echoes of the tennis court …). Later came the rooms of a Music Academy (1979), diverse Museums (1984–85), Prison Cells (1991), and an ongoing series that I call Vestiges (1986–), which documents man-made interventions in the landscape, calling to mind Land Art and installations. Although some of my work may look conceptual, my only real conceptual works, in the true sense of the term, are Schlachtfelder (Battlefields; 1991) and Heilenden Orte (The Healing Places; 1996), and later Lenin, Klee, Fromm (2005). Basically they show only photographically documented sites; the work is completed by the observer’s imagination: “A place where something has happened is no longer the same place — at least in your mind.”
In Battlefields, both the title and the captions — the text, in other words — have an essential role.
If I don’t tell you that someone was shot against this wall, even though you can no longer see any traces of what happened there, it remains an ordinary wall. But as soon as you know someone died there, the wall is bound to change for you.
Does this mean that our perception of a photograph is changed by the addition of the text?
Definitely. Indeed there are also different interactions between pictures and text. All the thoughts that I expressed in Skinprints I actually originally wanted to use in Photographic Notes. But it didn’t work. Certain texts lose their sense because one immediately connects them to the picture. Sometimes that can work well and text and image reciprocate — but often not. In Skinprints, however, the texts have much greater autonomy with regard to both content and form.
Have your texts developed a greater general validity over the years?
Yes, I think they have. If, in one of my Photographic Notes, for example, you see a dog sleeping very strangely against the wall, and I write underneath: “reading in the morning what was written the evening before,” then it works for me— meaning that, in a special way, it comes to an oscillation between image and text. Yet the phrase would never be sufficient to stand alone as a Skinprint. But there is another Photographic Note, for example, which says: “Paul gets angry whenever he doesn’t understand something.” The picture shows a book with its pages crumpled up. That is somewhere, I think, where the text works, even though it is descriptive. At the same time, I could imagine that sentence as a stamp with which to say that you get angry when you don’t understand something, which, after all, is usually the case.
How do you actually come up with your texts?
The texts for the Skinprints come about over a long period. For me they are not wordplays, but rather attempts to come to terms with personal injustices or injuries and to express perceptions and experiences in a concise way. In the Photographic Notes, it was sometimes a picture which inspired a text and sometimes a text which inspired an image.
How do viewers react to these coded image-text combinations?
I would be pleased if people understood my pictures in exactly the way I intend them and feel them. But pictures are always Projektionsflächen — projection surfaces — because every viewer has his own story and reacts differently. It has also happened that I have withdrawn pictures after noticing that others’ associations were very strong and completely different. As Anaïs Nin observed: “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
But you were aware from early on that reality and the reality of the image are not the same.
Yes, I believe it is specific to the medium of photography — although perhaps somewhat less so today — that you are dependent on reality. And yet the image is no longer this reality. I find this fascinating, and it immediately recalls Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”: A painting of a pipe is no longer a pipe. As Magritte himself explained: “An image is not to be confused with a thing you can touch. Can you fill my pipe? Of course not! It is only a representation. If I had written on my picture: ‘This is a pipe,’ I would have been lying.” I think the same applies to my so-called garages (Essay on Space, 2005), for example: I am standing in front of an image, I am not standing in front of a garage. So your access is not via the subject, but via the image. It is something I have used in my workshops: If I show my cat a picture, he only sniffs at it.
Already in the mid-1970s you demonstrated in Frame Series that something happens to reality in photography, that it is transformed.
Yes, photographs have always been manipulated, if only by the choice of perspective and of what to show and what to leave out: They have never been simple copies of reality. If people think that it is only now with digital technology that they are being manipulated, that is simply not true.
So for you the move to digital technology is not a decisive break?
No, I don’t think that everything is now very different. Again I see it as having advantages and disadvantages. I find it wonderful that I can take digital photographs today with my analogue head, so to speak. For me the most important advantage comes in my work with people, where the person is no longer simply the object, but can immediately look at themselves on the screen. This means that those being photographed can learn something about themselves and their body language, about light and the conditions in the studio, and can react to all this directly. This can lead to very fine collaboration.
And the disadvantage?
For the composition of my pictures the format is enormously important. I have acquired seven different formats in analogue photography, but to date I have only one format at my disposal in digital photography. A subsequent “stitching,” that is the assembly of single images on the computer, is not a possibility for me. From the beginning of a project I think in a specific format, and this maintains its integrity, and thus its significance, throughout the work. I submit myself to the format.
Can you explain that more precisely?
Take, for example, the 6 °— 17 cm panorama format. Strangely enough, it is always advertised for the wide-angle and horizontal emphasis of landscapes. But what is fascinating about it for me is precisely what happens when verticals are introduced. Verticals create intervals which allow me to structure the sequence in which the image is read, and to present a certain kind of simultaneity. Only through using panorama format did I find I could successfully represent this simultaneity, which has always fascinated me.
Where does this fascination come from?
From literature, for example from stories like Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers (The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body) by Peter Weiss, in which the author has different things happening at the same time on the same plane. I adopt a similar approach in the series Verlorene Väter (Prodigal Fathers; 2001) and Innenräume (Interiors; 1987 –90), where, for example, on one side of the image a television is on, while on the other something quite different is happening, setting up tension — a Spannungsfeld — in both time and space.
Does that also apply to your Naturräume (Natural Spaces)?
No, here I chose this format in order to avoid ground and sky. If I show the sky, the viewer escapes into the light. Here it is not the interpretation of the flora that interests me: It is there to serve my image. I look for that image whose secret satisfies me.
You are interested not only in simultaneity, but also in different forms of the non-simultaneous.
Photography is a unique medium for registering the passage of time. I find it interesting to mark a place and then to return to it at different times, in the morning or in the evening when the light has changed. Sometimes there is a much longer lapse of time between pictures, for example the twenty-two years separating the portrait of a little girl and that showing her as an adult policewoman. In the late 1960s and early 1970s I also experimented a lot with sequences.
You have repeatedly taken photos through windows, for example in Views (2003–). In German the word Fenster, meaning “window,” has photographic connotations, too: It recurs in the words for “aperture” (Bildfenster) and “viewfinder” (Sucherfenster), for instance. What role do windows play in your work?
Windows are fascinating. If a small amount of light filters in through a church window, it feels sacred. But if you go outside the church door, you have all the light you could wish for, but it no longer touches you to the same extent. When you take something away, what remains becomes more valuable.
Windows are also a kind of boundary between inside and outside, where you as the photographer are usually inside, looking out. You appear to make the act of “looking” a subject in the photographic sense as well.
Yes, it is this polarity between inside and outside which moves me; and after all, looking out is quite different from being outside. In one of my Photographic Notes I refer symbolically to this “being inside, looking out — being outside, looking in.”
There is a text in your latest work Skinprints which I find interesting in this context: “We like to watch but would love to see.” How do you understand the difference between seeing and watching?
Watching is what we all like to do. Seeing can be “understanding” as well (as in the question: Do you see?). For me the essential thing is the spontaneous perception and comprehension of what someone or something is — an intuitive grasp of the whole. The Latin verb intueri means “seeing, seeing into something.” Perhaps it is simply intuition. As Einstein said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Another text in Skinprints has to do with self-awareness: “Am I what others think I am.”
But also “Am I what I think I am” — both deal with self-image or self-perception.
Do you also see a connection with the sentence “Today I’ve been you”?
Not really; that goes in quite a different direction. There is a spiritual experience underlying “Today I’ve been you.” It is possible almost to become another being. I have experienced this “suspension of the subject-object division” that Karl Jaspers talks about. And I also believe that you can experience this in love — that the consciousness of self disappears.
You have already said that photography today is becoming less and less dependent on reality. Could you imagine your work with no reference to reality at all?
No, otherwise I might just as well paint. I need the associative potential of reality as a means to translate my ideas photographically. Here there are two possibilities, one of which is documentary. First I try to grasp what something is, to understand its soul, carefully bringing myself in, sensing — and allowing it to be — what it is. On the other hand you can create an image, as I have done in the series Flaxen Diary (2003–), in which I determine a frame through the position of the camera on the tripod. This satisfies the basic formal criteria of the image. Then I either let things happen, opening myself up to chance, or I intervene. What, when, and how something comes together — that is what it is about.
So what is important to you is what cannot simply be pinned down, breaking away from patterns of seeing and thinking, what lies behind the visible reality?
I refer to Lao Tse: “The visible gives the form to a work, the non-visible its value.”
This Interview was originally made for a publication that accompanied an exhibition in 2009. Minor changes have been made to accommodate the present publication.
© 2017 Christian Vogt and Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess AG, Zurich
© 2017, ProLitteris, Zurich for the works by Christian Vogt
© for the texts: the authors