Interview: Jeff Cowen / Photoworks
With Jeff Cowen / Photoworks Huis Marseille presents the first large-scale museum retrospective of the American photographer Jeff Cowen (New York, 1966) whose masterly, tactile, and sculptural photographic works are strongly linked to contemporary practices. Ann Gimpel, Collection and Exhibitions Coordinator at Huis Marseille, interviewed him about his motivations, techniques and more.
Ann Gimpel: Let’s walk through the exhibition set-up together, starting with the diptych Camille that you made in 2006: a large double portrait of the same girl. It was added to the Huis Marseille collection in 2012.
Jeff Cowen: Well, I first met Camille in 2006 in Paris. I was at a New Year’s party with lots of photographers and artist friends when I suddenly noticed a little girl sitting in the corner who was peacefully transfixed by her pocket video game. I asked her: “What’s your name?” She looked up and said “Camille, my name is Camille.” A couple of weeks later I received Camille, who was then 10, with her mother Nadia, in my studio. When I make a photograph it’s always a journey for me. You just have to allow the artwork to happen organically. I have an idea of what I would like to see, but I try not to get fixated on it. Also, with Camille I just allowed things to happen and she turned out to be truly photogenic. Most people are very self-conscious and this makes them difficult to photograph. Camille, even at that young age, was totally herself. Although she had the innocence of youth she was by no means naive, and there was an immense depth and natural confidence to her. I wanted to bring this out. To capture the internal life of the model and what she provoked in me.
AG: In the left-hand piece Camille gazes into the distance. In the right-hand one she suddenly looks at the spectator. This moment between looking and looking away creates a lot of movement within the artwork. Was this a deliberate choice?
JC: The initial plan was just to make one photograph. To begin with I didn’t want to make her nervous, so I let her look away from the camera, but after a while she was so comfortable that I asked her to look into the lens. I captured that split second of her suddenly looking at me and immediately realised it was going to be interesting to show not one, but two images.
For me this moment between looking and not looking speaks of photography. Two images from the same set-up, but a second apart, speak of time, and for me that’s what photography is largely about. You photograph something and you immediately know you can’t ever have this moment again. Capturing or preserving this small emotion in movement goes against the laws of nature. It magnifies the fragility of the moment, makes it sacred, eternal, and it speaks dramatically of time passing. It is a spiritual idea that we can stop time with photography. Deep down we all want to be immortal, don’t we?
AG: Would you say that the photograph of Emmanuella refers to what you call the ‘non-moment’?
JC: Emmanuella was achieved by using a long exposure time. Photography is about capturing a specific moment, but a moment can also last for several seconds. This image speaks about the passage of time in another way. Emmanuella is one of my preferred images that I have made of a human head. I dislike the word ‘portrait’ for my work because it implies that one is trying to describe someone and their personality in a specific time or setting. With head shots I am more interested in capturing a universal spiritual human centre, one that I believe we all share. I find this in what I term “the non-moment”. That is the moment when nothing specific is happening and thereby the spiritual energy of the subject appears. A silent moment….
From 1994 until 1997 I studied academic drawing and painting to enhance my photographic skills and artistic vision. Among many other facts, I discovered that Renaissance painters also worked from a basic, abstract, harmonious shape. Much later they filled in the details (such as eyes, fabric, etc.). For me the basis of every work (nature, structure, collage, sculpture, still life or the figure) is the abstract form. I build my work layer by layer, starting with this abstract form, and the best angle to achieve this form in relation to the lighting and the background, etc. There has to be a harmony, and it has to fit with the concept of a type of the natural form found in nature. Emmanuella’s face has this organic perfect egg shape and is almost an abstract graphic form against the dark negative background. The human eye is attracted to Iconic natural, harmonious, forms. For this art work I used the natural lighting coming in my studio window. The background is very dark and painterly, so it supports the form. I positioned her until I found the right distance between her and the distance from the wall among a multitude of photographic choices. Artists are constantly making choices during the working process and these choices divine the final work.
AG: In the Huis Marseille exhibition set-up, the photographs Statua 15 and Untitled Ca l’Abat are placed close together. Is there a relationship between the two?
JC: I approach every subject in the same way, whether it’s a landscape, a person, or a still life. The subject has to nourish me and speak to me in a spiritual way. All my subjects have a certain energy. When I saw the landscape in Mallorca and the sculpture in Potsdam I felt they both had something otherworldly about them. Although these subjects are not physically alive, they spoke to me. Transferring this to my photo works is much harder. You can’t let it happen organically, as I do with my head photographs. So I try to transform the landscape or sculpture through my process, in the hope that they start breathing. In essence, if I could articulate what I felt the subject would say, I wouldn’t be photographing, I would have become a writer. I see things and they give me a certain feeling inside and I try to describe this feeling with the camera. Before discovering photography I was very frustrated. I discovered the camera as a tool to express the indescribable. That’s why I make these images. The magic is ultimately impossible for me to describe, which is a good thing, I guess. I could never be a writer. Photography is the right medium for what I try to express. I want my images to really live like a painting. They must be timeless…and go beyond the moment…it is this paradox that I am interested in…
AG: Looking at these two works, could you describe your working process step by step?
JC: I photograph with analogue film, and after a shoot I first develop the film, make contact prints and then small work prints of whatever interests me. I put these images on the wall of my studio and examine them for an indeterminate period of time. After, I spend a considerate amount of time looking and contemplating the work prints. If I am interested in one, I might decide to make a large Mural print in the darkroom. I’m more of a printer than a photographer. I spend an enormous amount of time in the darkroom. Shooting a photograph is very fast; printing and post print production with different tonalities, chemical recipes, papers, paints, etc…. takes a very long time and requires craftsmanship, handwork and careful deliberation.
Once I have made the final print, I need to look at it for a long period of time in my studio to discern if it meets my criteria for an image. Meaning it has to have durability. It must be an image that would continue to fascinate me for a lifetime- it must spiritually engage me with mysteriousness and otherworldliness. It must give something back to me second by second as I look at it. It must be generous. This is art for me. If something only engages me intellectually it’s simply not enough. It must also touch my humanity, emotions and spirit otherwise it belongs in the garbage. It must raise me up….
AG: In the Red Room of Huis Marseille we find the work Nature Morte 42. Why was this work chosen for your new book JEFF COWEN – PHOTOWORKS? (Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln, 2016)
JC: This image was a bit of a departure for me. Generally the subject of my work is more direct, like ‘sculpture’, or ‘heads’. This particular image is multi-layered, touching different themes such as still-life, abstraction, landscape and structural works. You don’t really know what you are looking at, it’s mysterious. A photograph of a photograph or?. I added chemicals that integrated a splash into the image. The chemicals made organic marks on the paper. It’s become a harmonious violence. A destructive force in the middle attacking this beautiful statue. Destruction is a creative act. I’m afraid of destruction, but at the same time I’m very drawn to it. So several of my themes come together in this study. A photograph is a myth about a delusion……
AG: So you could say you were inspired by physical objects in your studio. Sometimes you’re inspired by people or statues you see on the street. Could you also be inspired from within yourself, by a certain feeling or thought?
JC: Yes, this is what motivates all my work. My human relation to the external world. I find this kind of inspiration especially also in my abstract or structural works, and with people I can never imagine how unimaginably incredible they are going to be. When I was a kid I used to sit on the steps of our New York house looking for endless hours at the passer-by’s and was constantly amazed at how different and unique people are. Simply, I was in awe at the miracle and beauty of human life. Being a street photographer in New York in the 1990s you could feel the times changing, it was the end of the old European world and the beginning of something new. I was kind of neurotic in a sense, meaning I knew things were constantly changing and I wanted, needed to preserve that time in New York and my feelings about it. I felt a strange need to stop time with the power of the photographic process.
I was working to express myself through street photography, but at the same time I was extremely frustrated. I always had to wait for something to happen. I needed the right angle, the right subject, the right lighting. They hardly ever seemed to be there all at the same time. With more experience I realized I wanted to completely influence what was before me, to give birth to what was inside of me rather than being dependent on the outer world. So I started inviting people to my studio, to work more like a painter.
AG: Could you please tell me about the image Golshifteh in the exhibition?
JC: I met Golshifteh in Paris through my dear friend the Iranian director Rafi Pitts. If you look at Golshifteh she is completely striking, beautiful and pure and something else… To me this “beauty”, before the ageing process starts, is a very violent thing. Photography can pause time and immortalize this magical coming-of-age moment, but it’s a kind of lie, as we all know. Everything will fade, time passes, and entropy occurs. This ability of photography to immortalize a moment eternally is the great power of the medium that continually fascinates me. Golshifteh is totally striking and she has a tremendous amount of emotional depth to her. Her eyes tell you everything, from second to second. They also reflect her Persian cultural background; you can see history and broken beauty in her eyes. She is a kind of channel for the ages and history… I wanted to express what she provoked in me. She is a great artist and I wanted to give that a new life in an image expressing my sentiment through my visual medium of photography. Something my words could never express.
AG: Do you work on a single piece at a time? Can you tell me about your work flow, and about your choices for unique pieces and editions?
JC: For example, Yuki was photographed in New York. I had the image on my wall. I kept it there for about five years, and one day I realized where to take it. I sometimes work with tape, and in this case I suddenly knew that pink tape would work well. It seemed to pop the image, and the pink has an emotional reference to purity.
Sometimes a piece of art happens spontaneously and sometimes I’ll work for weeks, months or years on a single photograph. But I’m usually working on more than one piece at a time.
Most of my artworks I cannot reproduce a second time. Unique pieces speak about the concept of entropy that everything is changing and that time is non-repeatable… the feeling of everything passing. The sacredness and appreciation of the moment. For the pieces that can be reproduced, and because I want as many people to see them as possible, I make an edition. Now that I’m getting older I like to make more unique pieces. I don’t want to spend the time in the darkroom making editions; I prefer to give my energy to create new works
AG: How is it that the works you made on Peacock Island have a certain vintage feel to them?
JC: Peacock Island is a beautiful Unesco Heritage island in Potsdam. I love to spend time there and to photograph its sublime nature. I’ve returned there countless times for several years now. The photographs I’ve made there have a direct reference to historical photography. However, I am not interested to document this island but to use it as a type of drawing to express what’s going on inside me when I am there and my more universal feelings about the old world fading and a new technological era beginning. Peacock Island is a place of the past, and today especially there is a longing for the past.
I was very close to my grandparents; I learned so much from them and their experience. They suffered and lived in a different way than we do now, history is always our teacher. I am very interested in the past and I hope to learn from it. Nowadays people are very anxious about the computer revolution – it’s taking over everything. We are being controlled and constantly influenced by the digital system. Architecture, art, information etc etc… It’s all being made by computers. There is less and less human feel to things like clothes and furniture any more. That’s why I like to make handmade gelatine prints from my being not from a machine, that’s why I like to spend time on Peacock Island because there is a purity there that feels untouched by our contemporary and ever complex technological world.
AG: You once said you relate to ‘broken beauty’ because of how you feel.
JC: I am very suspicious if someone is always happy. It’s not natural. Sometimes you feel sunny and sometimes you feel cloudy. We suffer sometimes; that’s beautiful, and it’s part of being human. Without winter there’s no spring. If you try to reject that side of yourself and see it as something negative, you are not being practical. Human beings are very vulnerable to external conditions, we need shelter, food, love and security for our delicate organisms to survive. We are very strong but also fragile creatures and one must accept that. When you truly look at yourself, you have to try to understand that feeling and be okay with it. It’s a part of the human experience. There is creation and destruction in me, and there is destruction and creation in the universe and I am part of the universe and I feel a need to express both. I am human and therefor imperfect or damaged somehow and that’s why I look for beauty in my work. That’s what I have to offer. That’s what is inside of me.
© Jeff Cowen & Huis Marseille, October 2016