Georg Parthen – Photographer, Germany

“Assumptions about reality”

LS: What are the visual and contextual qualities of a photograph that make us feel as if we were looking at an extract of reality?

GP: I find photographs very strange objects. While reality is more four-dimensional, interactive and steadily moving – a photo is flat, still and has no physical substance except the memory card it is stored on. You make an exposure in what you consider the decisive moment and then it stays like this forever. Reality is different. Now you change it, now it’s different. Now again. Now again. Again. Photographs do not mean – they just show. I really think that the meaning of an image is attributed by the way it is used. And no photograph ever means anything by itself without context. That can be anything from a story that tells us how the photograph has been taken to the metadata embedded in a file. And yet we believe that a photo is somehow a representation of reality opposed to a painting or a movie. In my work I am interested in how reality is constructed and claimed with photography. I often ask myself what it is that I am doing, not believing in documentation yet using its techniques. Am I telling something about a world in front of the camera or just about my own assumptions?

"untitled (mdx III)" 2010

LS: Is there a visual language of documentation?

GP: I believe documentary photography has evolved into a visual genre. Today there are basically two different ways of claiming a photograph is a document of something. One is to make the image appear really objective and the other is to make it really subjective. Everything else is considered less authentic. There even appears to be a secret manifest of documentary photography. The manifest goes like this: Buildings and other slow things have to be documented with slow and cumbersome (large-format film) cameras. Events and other fast things have to be documented with Digital SLRs, preferably made by Canon. If you are a photography student you can use a Mamiya or a Fuji medium-format camera instead. Do not use digital medium-format cameras for documentary photography unless you are Andreas Gursky or Gregory Crewdson. (And they are not even documentary photographers.) Film is more real than digital. Having worked as a retoucher for several years I have been in many discussions about how images “work”. And then suddenly someone said a sentence like: ” It looks more real when we change the background to blue.” In those moments I think about why blue is more real than grey. And what that could mean…

" Insel " 2007

LS: What is a photograph of a place that does not exist?

GP: In “Landschaften” I mix digitally constructed images with “truthful” shots of actual places. I want to create images that make me ask myself if there actually are places like those pictured. I want to be filled with doubt if I can trust the image. The more the line between construction and documentation blurs the more I feel the series is successful. Sometimes I receive an email from someone telling me that I am a liar. He writes he has found out that one of the places actually exists and that he has found photos online which can prove my lie. He tells me that I should have said that not all my images are constructions. Sometimes it the other way around and somebody writes me that he had never expected my images to be constructed and I should have told him. These emails scare me because I do not want to be called a liar. But in the end it is what I want my images to do. Engage myself and anybody with the documentary implications of the medium. A photograph for me is interesting when it questions my preconceptions in an intelligent way. I like it when somebody tries to make me believe that something is just as he claims it to be. In that sense a well-told story has many qualities of a good documentary project. And both are fictions.

LS: You are german. Do you feel to be an heir of the photographic epic tradition of Bernd & Hilla Becher ?

GP: I do not really know. Bernd and Hilla Becher did something pretty amazing for the time they produced their work in. They paved new ground with what they were doing and affected the way many people think about photography – and its presentation – including myself. Also they decided on the the more formal 8×10 documentary approach…. slow cameras for slow things. My influences from the Bechers are like second-hand smoking. I studied with Jörg Sasse in Essen who was a student of Bernd Becher but even his work is fundamentally different from what Bernd and Hilla Becher were doing. I also think that there is a big difference between how a person works in his photography and how he teaches it.

" Kuppeln " 2007

LS:In your work I see all the cultural baggage of German Romanticism , the relationship with (man) nature , and space ; the “symbolic landscape” , and the light of the works of Caspar David Friedrich and Arnold Bòcklin …

GP: When starting to work on Landschaften I went to Museums and looked at books about romantic paintings. I was not so much interested in their symbolic attributions – another way of how meaning is attributed to an image – but in the way the artists constructed their images. As you probably know Caspar David Friedrich made many sketches and drafts for certain images until he finally assembled his elements into a painting. I was attracted by the approach of circulating around an idea for an image until it manifests itself in its final form. Sometimes I am working on several variations of one image until I can decide for one. So while I share a related concept of beauty my images carry no encrypted metaphorical meaning.

"Mauer " 2009

LS:What is the contemporary sublime for you ?

GP: I think some of what is fine art photography has to do with the motivation to create imagery that looks different than the outside world. If an image appears too profane people start to ask why they should look at it. If the subject or the style is too familiar why bother looking at it? Somehow there is a sublime notion in this and I feel profanity is a visual quality that awaits to be fully explored. I would love to see imagery that is so normal or so boring or even so bad that I can hardly stand looking at it. My idea of the sublime has been changing lately and at the moment I am convinced electronic superstores or a satellite can be profane yet very sublime at the same time.

"Berg" 2009

LS: I am so fascinated by “Insel”. An aura of mystery pervades the work, mysticism and discovery akin lyricism (I see also the picture ” The Island of the dead ” ) …Tell me about your imagination ?

GP: “Insel” I found by accident. I went to photograph a lake in the North of Italy because I had read about its blue water in a magazine for motorcyclists at a gas station in Bavaria. When I arrived it was not so much the blue water that caught my interest but the archetype like shaped mountain that had formed a peninsula in the lake. I immediately knew I wanted to make an image of it. So I made several hundred exposures there and later constructed the island out of the shots I had taken.

"Bucht" (diptych) 2010

LS: What is your personal relationship and what is your taste , opinion and preference towards architects and architecture?

GP: (that took me awhile. I could write a whole text only about that question. Maybe some other time.) My personal tastes and opinions often have to do with appreciating two opposing qualities of something at the same time. Can a photograph be boring and exciting at the same time? Can a person be friendly and hostile in the same moment? Can a story be true yet false? Can a place be hideous yet beautiful? The strangeness I am looking for in my work I often find at sites that are constructed for a functional purpose like multiplex-cinemas or electronic stores. I neither like nor dislike these places but I keep coming back to them in my projects. They are on the edge of being either one thing or the other and that something can be learnt from exploring them visually. Through photography all functions of these places are stripped away and only the visual features remain. I see both photography and architecture as conceptual abstractions of reality and I hope to find out more about either one.

" Dorf " 2007

LS: You have exhibited at the ” Rencontres d’ Arles “, at the West Collection, in Antwerp in Belgium, in Museums in Germany and the US, in Madrid for Photo Espana and more. Which opinions do you have about the international scene ? Is it a great moment for art?

GP: In the last few years I was able to show my work at many great locations and I am grateful for that. I have had many good and only few bad experiences with showing my work. I have met many artists, curators and collectors from all over the world who were more than friendly. It is pretty great to discover that people whose work you appreciate are also nice people. In the future I am looking forward to having more exchange with curators and to take part in group shows for new ideas and questions.

Interview by Camilla Boemio