The author of the impressionist-looking dreamy images that take an intermediary position between paintings and photography, according to LUMAS, one of the most popular foreign photographers in Russia – Pep Ventosa shares his vision on commercial success in today’s art scene
Pep Ventosa is a Spanish-born photographer now living in San Francisco, the USA. His photographs have received top honors, exhibited in the USA, Canada, Australia, Asia, Russia and throughout Europe, and jury selected for special exhibitions by the Late Robert Rosenblum, curator of 20th Century Art at New York’s Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum; the Pritzker Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Royal Photographic Society of Madrid, among others. Ventosa’s works are in the permanent collection of the Crocker Art Museum and his creative technical processes are used as a teaching guide for photography students.
Bleek Magazine: Maria Burasovskaya from LUMAS gallery in Moscow named you as the most popular photographer in their Russian collection and added that almost all your works were sold during three days after the exhibition’s opening. Was it a surprise for you?
Pep Ventosa: It certainly was. In Moscow we showed mostly my pictures from “The Trees” series and it is hard for me to explain why the Russians suddenly became so fond of those images. Tree itself has a universal quality, we are surrounded by trees, our life would have been impossible without them since they process the oxygen. But because trees are everywhere, we do not see them, especially if we talk about urban environment. In the city we see traffic and buildings, but not trees. In my works I isolate the trees from their chaotic surroundings and make them look unique. I should admit that this series is certainly my most successful body of work, by far.
Other works showed in LUMAS belonged to the series “The Collective Snapshot” – homage to snapshots, the most popular form of photography now. Today we can do so many things with photography – research and surveillance, space travelling or photographing microscopic things, but snapshots are still what most people use photography for. So, for my series I collected Internet snapshots from popular places and appropriated them.
Well, usually I do not use the word “appropriated” – I prefer to call such images “adopted”. There is a Catalan photographer and a great teacher who I love – Joan Fontcuberta – who said that today people produce gazillions and gazillions of images, but after letting them go into the world, people no longer need or want them. Such images are like orphans in the outer space. So, when you use such abandoned pictures, you do not appropriate them, you adopt them – you give them meaning.
So, this is what I did in “The Collective Snapshot” – I “adopted” hundreds and thousands of snapshots of the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge and other iconic places, and started mixing them, overlaying and moving and looking for the surprise. Until the surprise finally came! I should say that this series has also become very popular.
Bleek Magazine: Pep, what are the factors that, in your opinion, contribute to the contemporary photographer’s success and popularity at the market?
Pep Ventosa: Well, this is a really difficult question. If I knew the answer, I would have even more success. But I should admit we all address it from time to time, we all want to be successful in whatever we do, so it is always good to hear the opinions of others about how it has worked in this or that case. So, I can obviously speak from my experience.
They say that success is a mix of talent and energy. Talent, or skills, or abilities – on the one hand. And energy you put in your work – on the other. There are people with little talent but a lot of energy who have success and, vice versa – people with little energy and a lot of talent. But if you have both, you will have good numbers to succeed. Another important prerequisite for success is being in the right place at the right time – something you can hardly plan.
“The right time” and “the right place” thing is actually what partly happened to me. I moved to the States in 2000 from Barcelona, Spain. It was the period of the beginning of the digital revolution in photography. I was lucky to start living in San Francisco – a birthplace of many things in the digital age. Here there was the Silicon Valley, Google, Facebook, Twitter – a real Mecca of creativity! And certainly, the city itself is also gorgeous. All these things sparkled my interest in photography.
I have always loved photography but by that time I had never done it professionally. In the art school I used to study dark room and you know … it was too “dark” for me. I know many people who love dark room, but it was just not my case. So, I got rather disappointed in photography, because I always wanted more than just to take a picture of what was in front of my eyes. The digital revolution helped me to learn many new things and to see more possibilities.
So, arriving here, to San Francisco, and getting inspired by the digital revolution, I started playing with Photoshop, learning about various digital possibilities and making experiments. Certainly I was not specially prepared for that, I did not calculate. It just happened and also helped me to get some success.
But at the same time, if you know what your “right time” is, you can also find your own “right place”. The opposite also works well: realizing what is “the right place” for you to be, you may find “the right time” when to go.
Another core thing is to be yourself. Because we are all unique – we grow up from different experiences and we are simply one of a kind. So, you need to find out who you really are and what you really like. Be yourself, be unique, photograph what you know and what you care of!
A lot of people get lost in fashion which is nowadays virtually everywhere. People say, I want to do this because it is fashionable. I think it is totally wrong. People should photograph what they know and what they care of. I strongly believe that to create is to relate. So you can be original and create the things you relate to, the things which are part of your experience.
We all live in the global world right now. So you have to think global, too and whether you like it or not the dominant language today is English. A hundred years ago it was French and in a hundred years from now maybe it will be Russian.
But nowadays English is the way to speak to the world, so if you want to get out of your town and be a market success, you have to be in the global network.
And that is what happened to me. I was regularly posting photos on Flickr and other global social network media, I got “likes” and once a prestigious photography blog made a very good comment on one of my works which later led me to a contract with LUMAS gallery. Summing it up, I can say that I got into LUMAS because of being active in social media. An influential critic talked briefly about my work and that sparkled LUMAS’s interest, they contacted me – and now we here are talking to you! Certainly, one more important factor was just luck. But you have to be there to find this luck.
When I was in college in Barcelona, I studied tourism and economy and I remember one marketing class. The teacher gave us the following situation. Imagine you want to open a shoe store in a city. There is already one street with all the shoe stores and there is a neighborhood with a lot of people but no shoe stores. Where would you put yours? In the neighborhood where there is none? Or in the street where there are plenty of shops? It was a tricky question. And the answer is, according to my teacher, you should open your store in the street with all the others. Because when people want to buy shoes, they go to that street, where they can compare prices and see different products. If you have one store in the lost neighborhood, you cannot have all the shoes in the world, right?
So, that is what brings us to the rule of market success in the world of photography, too: if you want to be successful, go where the market is.
And what is the market of photography now? Market is in a lot of places – in Europe and in the States, new markets appear in Japan, China and Saudi Arabia. But still very many things are happening in the galleries of New York and Paris – the places where the trends are and where people keep an eye on photography and art. Luckily thanks to the Internet you do not always have to be there physically.
Originality is another thing to consider. Be original! Easy to say, but not so easy to do, isn’t it? I personally define “originality” as a repetition with judgment. Today we cannot invent anything, everything has been done. But the core of originality lies in doing something that has been done before but in a different way.
The originality of my own works lies in the fact that people do not believe it to be photography by the way it looks and this fact makes my works a little unique. I work with multiple exposure, and surely I did not invent it myself. Multiple exposure appeared with the birth of photography when someone had an idea to mix two or more negatives. Nevertheless I believe that this technique has not been very deeply researched so far, and I see my task in exploring it in a way it has not been explored before. I repeat something that was there but I did it adding my own judgment and thus changing it a little.
Bleek Magazine: Your style in photography is often compared with Impressionist paintings. What place does photography take, in your opinion, as a medium and as a way of self-representation in contemporary art?
Pep Ventosa: That is true, I really like Impressionist paintings, it is something that gives me good feelings and enriches me. Also I have a strong belief that photography is an important part, a continuation of the tradition of image making. Since the moment humans became civilized (if we assume that we still are), we started to create images – we can see this need reflected in the images made 20 000 years ago in pre-historical caves. And it is really fascinating, isn’t it? Photography definitely continues this tradition, I can hardly agree that it is something new. When somebody says that photography has only 150 years, yes, that is true, but only if we look at it as at a technology.
The images we produce by means of photography do not have to be documents, they do not have to reflect what we see in front of our eyes. We can go further and explore the possibilities of photography as a medium – what a picture might actually be, what ways and shapes it can take. For example, photography can get much closer to a paining without being a painting and keeping all magic of photography – another thing I love about it! The mix of this magic of photography with the looks of a painting is a place where I feel comfortable and where I like to be.
When you look at a photo, you do not see a piece of paper with inks, you see a face of a human and you start relating to that. When looking at a picture, your mind goes where that photography is. That is kind of unbelievable thing to me! It does not happen with a painting, because in a painting you see a portrait, not a person, material, paint and the hand of the painter.
Bleek Magazine: What about the photographs or paintings that you have on the walls of your apartment or your studio?
Pep Ventosa: Not many. That is a good question and I mean it. And now I am looking at my apartment… Usually I have my own pictures. When I do test prints, I live with some of them for a while to see how they evolve. Because sometimes you love what you see on the computer screen and then you do the print, you hang it on the wall – and you hate it. So to be on the walls in my apartment is a test for me to see how the picture takes off by itself.
I also have little cartoonish drawings of musicians playing the saxophone or the piano. I love music and that is another passion of mine. I used to be a drummer myself but when I came to the States I changed my drum for a camera.
Bleek Magazine: That is a very curious fact to dwell on further. Because obviously in your pictures you can also feel and see the rhythm!
Pep Ventosa: It is really so. I was asking this question myself – how can I make music with pictures? Is it possible at all? It might seem a crazy thought, because music needs time and sounds, whereas pictures are motionless and certainly they do not produce any sound.
Bleek Magazine: Speaking about qualities of pictures… Do you believe it is possible to mention some “universal” qualities of the image that can make it more appealing to the public, better noticed, producing a deeper response?
Pep Ventosa: For me it is first of all symmetry or rhythm, or harmony of the colors, the way they are mixed or relate to each other. And in this regard, it is like poetry or music. Maybe it really has to do with my years of being a musician. And maybe one day I will do some work directly related to the world of music – photograph instruments or people playing.
Bleek Magazine: How can we keep the balance between visual component of the picture (aesthetics) and the intellectual part (concept)?
Pep Ventosa: That is another tough question! But I should ask you first – is there any balance at all? Any “balance” comes with experience – the more you do your work, the more you can find and feel it. It is all a trial and error method. For example, you do some images and you see that people do not react to them – and consequently you can either care or not. That is why you should decide first if you want any balance and if it has any importance to you.
Balance is a very personal thing. For some artists the message is everything and they do not care about how people react to the picture. And there are artists for whom aesthetic is everything. As for me, I like the mix of both.
Obviously, I like aesthetics – I want my photography to be beautiful and not disturbing but at the same time I want a little dissonance. Disturbing, or blurred, or somehow unclear photographs make people think about them. Person’s perception becomes challenged, people can start wondering, what is it? Such pictures give people new visual experience – another thing I value in photography.
How can you see an object you have seen all your life? The Eiffel Tower, for example? How can you see that in a different way? In my work I want to stimulate the gaze, to come with a new image proposal. That is my strategy and I think in my case it has really worked.
I am a rather chaotic, spontaneous person, organizing and planning something ahead is not for me. And instead of complaining about that, I try to use it, to take advantage. So, I explore randomness, the accident – as another strategy of mine, the surprise factor.
For example, my series with trees. It was a crazy idea – to explore what happens if you walk around a tree and take pictures while you are walking and then overlay all these pictures. It was a crazy thought out of nowhere. Actually, I remember having it when observing a carrousel – that object sparkled my idea of walking around a tree. Remaining true to myself and doing something that is a natural part of my own self helps me to keep the balance between aesthetics and ideas.
Bleek Magazine: I know that you came to your exhibition’s opening in Moscow. What were your impressions of the Russian photography?
Pep Ventosa: Actually, I have seen quite a lot of Russian and Eastern-European photographers over the last past years or so. One of them is Sergey Ponomarev – the winner of the last Pulitzer Prize for news photography – who made a reportage on the migrants’ crisis. But he works for “The New York Times” now – that is where, as I said, the market is. And that is what puts the photographers from that part of the world on the map.
Another photographer whose works I like is Alexey Titarenko. He has a black and white work entitled “The City of Shadows” – a long exposure of cities and people. And I also leant that he lives in New York. One more series that was going viral on the net was about sleeping pregnant people by Jana Romanova. I think that is another bright example of success through the social media. For me this project is a real artistic success.
Other names are Evgenia Arbugaeva with a very nice work about the Arctic Circle landscapes, Katerina Belkina with very manipulated self-portraits that look like art-deco paintings and plastic-looking portraits by Oleg Dou. I do not know if they are all very successful or not but with the Internet you see many things that you do not know where they come from or whether they are in the market or not. You are just attracted and intrigued about them understanding that the world has really gone global.
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© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich