Zuzana Flašková: Let’s start with your recent work. How was your latest exhibition conceived?
Martin Kollár: I was very pleased when the opportunity to show in tranzit.sk workshops came up. Yet, I was afraid that it might not be the best timing as I’m in the final phaseofa two-year project about Israel involving 12 photographers. I’m trying to concentrate on something that’s more or less finished, but there’s still work to do and I’m contractually bound not to present the body of work before the whole project is completed. After initial hesitation, I decided to take a break, forget about Israel, and instead take another look through my entire archive and the projects I embarked on before I got the offer to photograph in Israel in 2010. Since my return to Europe I’ve been trying to pick up where I left off, but it turns out that after a two-year break it’s not that easy to go back to unfinished work. Preparing the material for this exhibition was helpful for thinking around how to move forward and avoid repeating myself. At the same time, I’m in a different state of mind. When I started selecting photographs for the show, I had to go back in time, right to the beginning, and try to remember what I had been thinking, what my general concept was. The primary question I was preoccupied with at the time was whether and how to begin a new project which was not tied to any particular place.
ZF: The theme of territory is something I often wonder about when looking at your photographs. While most of the series very clearly hint at a certain geopolitical space (Eastern Europe, Israel, New Orleans, the European Parliament), once we look beyond the pointers, we are presented with the essence of what you consider to be salient; that which lies underneath the surface. It’s interesting, because as a reductive form of art, documentary photography captures or carves out slices of the surrounding world, creating images which are tightly bound to the reality they depict. I almost hate taking pictures, as the image I capture with my little camera, or phone, is never the scene I saw a moment ago with my eyes. Something always gets lost. With you, it’s precisely the opposite. The scenes in your photographs would never be visible with the naked eye. Something is revealed. I like the definiti on of photography as the“material of thought”. I’m interested in this transition from the language of thoughts to the language of images.
MK: What you’re talking about is related to the at tempt to abstract from reality when shooting pictures. That’s what gives the uncanny impression that the scenes in my photographs are familiar, yet with a touch of strangeness, or artifice. In my photographs, I’d like to create space for the conflict between se emingly simple, easily comprehensible, yet unfinished stories,towhich the viewer can give the widest possible interpretation. My attempt is to concentrate as many layers, emotions, stories, and themes as possible in a single photograph. At the same time, the fact that it’s not possible to pack everything into a single image is probably the most beautiful and challenging thing about it. The important thing for me is to explore the limits of the medium as a vehicle for information and the ways of sharing this information with viewers through photography based on observation.
ZF: The relationship of photography to veracity has been questioned since the medium’s inception. Initially, it was reproached for being nothing more than a product of a mechanical machine for recording reality, whilst later on the complaint was about lack of authenticity. The role of the witness is always controversial in that it is a combination of subjective and objective observation. What was your experience of taking pictures in places where conflict or radically define dinterests are part of, or an undercurrent of daily life? Is it possible to be an “observer” in Israel without getting mentally drawn into the conflict and taking a stand?
MK: Gradually, throughout my stay, as I met more people and visited more offices,I noticed a surprising thing. My belief is that things may be different from how they appear and I like to question the way things are. In Israel, I often encountered the opposite approach to life, a straight-forward declaration of some radical moral truth. The truth in which the local people lived was unambiguous. Things were the way they were and that was that. From the moment I landed there, I tried to choose themes and places which were as far removed as possible from the obvious manifestations of the conflictaspresented through the mass media. I was interested in the more subtle materialisations of permanent daily tension in such an enclosed and radicalised space. Situations that are constructed as simulations of reality, like civil defense training or testing and research work in laboratories, appeared to be genuine in photographs, while authentic, real situations appeared as if they were staged.
ZF: The selection of photographs in the tranzit.sk workshops provokes a strange feeling. The images are often absurd at firstglance, and the ones that draw me in, that make me seek an explanation for their essence or meaning, are interspersed with images that force me to look away. You intentionally have not labeled the photographs, which are torn from their location and relationship to the reality which they reflect.They are free of their original context and have become universal statements. But it is not the most optimistic view of the world, nor is there a great deal of hope in them
MK: The feeling of fascination on the one hand, and on the other revulsion of the kind we feel when confronted with situations that make us avert our eyes is what I often encountered in the countryside, which is why there are so many photographs from there. I suppose it’s also to do with the presence of, or contact with death, which both fascinates and terrifiesus, whilstin the ruralareasit still very much forms a natural ‘part of life’ and is thus also much more visible there. Another aspect which informs what I try to capture in my images is the feeling of impermanence and constant change, which is especially relevant for our generation.
We are living in a time of constant transition. In my life, I’ve experienced major social changes. I grew up under two very different political regimes, and within the past 25 years the faces featured on Slovakian banknotes have been changed four times and the colour of my passport has changed from the pre-1989 khaki to the European burgundy. All of these events affect us, and for me photography is a reaction or attempt to come to terms with and reassess the traumatic and joyful moments, the social or personal upheavals, all the minor and major accidents and crises.
ZF: In the exhibition you also present a grid of photographs of signposts. If I’m not mistaken this is your only body of work that formally plays with repetition and is composed as a series. It is also the first time that words and text figure in you visual language.
MK: I’ve often come across the argument that photographs must be captioned, titled, or otherwise anchored in space and time. In this case, I tried to get around this by featuring text as an integral component of the images. There are no captions in the exhibition. It was important for me not to suggest any specific interpretation sand to leave it all to the viewer.
ZF: So far, we have discussed the type of photography that offers a view of the world, straight or documentary photography. Looking at the incredible range and diversity of photographic approaches today, I’m also interested in the more self-referential practices where the subject matter is the specifi city and of the medium the material concerns of photographic practices: cross-media works which can inhabit the space between photography, sculpture and performance, say. These non-image based practices also play an important role in developing the critical thinking around what photography is or can be and make the debate more interesting, democratic and open-ended. What was your most recent discovery within the vast spectrum of this medium?
MK: I’m fortunate to be working in the field of photography at a time when the medium has reached its most progressive period since its inception, resulting in an incredibly rich creative output. Although the approach to photography today is very liberal and the output varied, which is great, it would be very hard to start picking particular names that inspire me. Since I came to photography through my cinematography studies, and as I still work as a cameraman too, I feel that somehow filmis still my departure point. What I do findvery interesting with regard to photographic production is the flourishing of photography books – the vast number of great new projects, artists and self-publishers that crop up every year, presenting inquiry into new forms, approaches and themes. Equally interesting are the modes of book distribution and the phenomenon of book collecting, and how some books become cult objects which define their era whilst others go unnoticed.
ZF: Your third book will be out in September. Despite our digital age, I feel that the book as a physical object still is and will be the desired mode of presentation and distribution when it comes to photography. How do you feel about presenting your work in a book format as opposed to displaying it on the wall?
MK: It seems that books are probably the best medium for photography. It’s like the final cut of a film, an idea embodied in an immutable material form. Immutability is limiting, you make decisions and they cannot be reversed. Both good and bad ideas remain preserved. Over time technology changes as do fonts, design, style and even the smell of paper. I like to look back at the books of the 80s and 90s, already frozen in time, and imagine that in the future people will get a similar feel when browsing through the books of our time. An exhibition has all the opposite qualities – transience, variability, temporality and direct contact with viewers. Never mind the fact that you must always negotiate the exhibition space, be sensitive to the local socio-political climate, and negotiate the look and feel of the show with the curators and the team you work with. Once the exhibition is over, it may or may not linger in the memories of those who saw it. The book is forever. But then, when I think about it, I have certainly been more impacted by individual photographs I encountered ‘live’, exhibited on the wall, rather than those I’ve seen in books. In the end, I don’t think it’s so clear cut.
ZF: They say that photography is always about the person behind the camera, rather than what is in front of the camera. What have you learnt through photography about yourself and what have your learnt about the world around you?
MK: For me photography is an excuse to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. I use it as a means to satisfy my curiosity, as a ticket to places and situations which I otherwise wouldn’t gain access to. It makes my life feel like an endless trip.
ZF: The last question is about the last page of your most recent book, Cahier. What is in the picture that we can’t see?
MK: A photograph of the Central Archive building in Clermont Ferrand, France.
Martin Kollár (*1971) studied cinematography at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. He has exhibited in Maison Européenne de La Photographie, Paris, Les Rencontres d’Arles, Le Château d’Eau in Toulouse, MOCA Shanghai, in the Guandong Museum of Art in China and at the Month of Photography in Krakow, Thessaloniki, Athens and Bratislava. He has published two books, Nothing Special (Actes Sud/Edition Braus) and Cahier (Diaphane). His latest book Field Trip (Mack) will be published in September 2013.
He was a guest professor at the Academy of Art in Stuttgart, 2012–2013.
All photographs are untitled and date from 2010–2012.