The critic Olga Bubich interviewed a leading documentary photographer Peter Bialobrzeski, who shared his views on distance and attachment also demonstrating at the example of his works the link that exists between art and photography
Peter Bialobrzeski is the author of eight photo books and Professor of Photography at the University of Arts in Bremen, Germany. He won several awards including the prestigious “World Press Photo Award” in 2003 and 2010. In 2004 he won Deutscher Fotobuchpreis, PDN Book Award, his photobook “Neontigers” was nominated as “the most beautiful German book”. In 2012 he was honored with the Erich Salomon Award by the German Society of Photographers (DGPh).
Peter Bialobrzeski’s works are regularly shown in Europe, the USA, Asia, Africa and Australia. He is represented by Laurence Miller Gallery in New York, LA Galerie in Frankfurt/Germany and also shows with Robert Morat Gallery in his hometown Hamburg, as well as at m97 Gallery in Shanghai.
Bleek Magazine: The question which cannot but be used as an ice-breaker for this interview regards the object of your photography. In all your projects starting from “XXX Holy Journeys” you avoid taking pictures of people. And if they do happen to be seen in the pictures, they always look tiny or blurred and out-of-focus, rather resembling some temporary visitors randomly dropped into landscapes – solid and powerful. What is your own explanation to this visual preference given to inanimate objects? Can one conclude that you are more fascinated by cities or nature and the way they interact with the locals than by people and their personal stories?
Peter Bialobrzeski: For the first part of my career I mainly photographed people. That was before the Internet, so most of it is hidden. I have just moved on, answered the question many times: I like people, but I am interested in images and social circumstances. I do not like to win peoples trust, just to photograph them, or satisfy my curiosity. In the 1990s I photographed people with AIDS, at some point I had to leave them, or they left me, simply because they died. In those days AIDS was a death sentence.
Bleek Magazine: There is a common point about any personal story ultimately being a story of one’s place of living in a more global sense. And thus in which way the place where you were born formed your personality?
Peter Bialobrzeski: As far as my birthplace is concerned – yes, it shaped me. The car town of Wolfsburg was something like a socialists dream. Every worker had a decent place to live, a brand new, powerful car and their children were able to rub shoulders in the same classrooms at school with the kids of “VW” board members. But everything matters, my travels, my encounters with England and its class ridden society, if one thing matters, everything matters…
Bleek Magazine: How would you photograph the place you are mostly emotionally attached to?
Peter Bialobrzeski: Look at my India work. I am just finishing a four-year about Germany, it is more critical, but I am still attached to Germany. Even though the photographs have a quite distant approach, nevertheless there is also a poetic sense…
Bleek Magazine: Peter, you received a degree in Politics and Sociology. In which way did it contribute to your becoming a photographer? As I know, it is not a very common career path, isn’t it?
Peter Bialobrzeski: Maybe, there is a misunderstanding there. I was reading Sociology and Political Science, but never finished with a degree. But it is helpful to gain theoretical insight for whatever you do artisticaly. As far as I know, I am not alone: Salgado is an economist, Alex Webb was in Harvard doing History and Literature, Gilles Peress did Politics and Philosophy.
Bleek Magazine: At what stages of your visual research you feel you are more of a scientist, than a photographer?
Peter Bialobrzeski: Well, back here especially where I teach, the research, not just the visual one, is a big part of what we are doing. You have to get your facts right, develop and attitude and then think about the visual structure how you want to communicate your point.
Bleek Magazine: How do these two aspects coexist in you?
Peter Bialobrzeski: One would not work with the other, I consider those inseparable, I do not know how to explain it better. There is simply no other way, except for me.
Bleek Magazine: Let us get back to your projects. Peter, how would you explain the big distance you most often take when photographing an object? Is it because you want to grasp the atmosphere of the urban or rural vast spaces? Or because of the detachment you experience when getting in contact with those place you do not belong to? Or maybe such a distance lets you leave more “space” for interpretations and questions that you want to leave to your viewers, not providing them with ready-made answers?
Peter Bialobrzeski: I like the idea of the ALL OVER, maybe because my earlier work was too close. I try to get the whole picture, leaving more space to interpretation for the viewer. YOU have to find out, what matters most.
Also when you look at the images in 20-years’ time, you might have a different possibility of reading those pictures. I do not experience detachment, on the opposite, I am quite attached to Asia, but I have worked this of in “XXX Holy Journeys”. Now it is more ambiguous.
Bleek Magazine: In one of the interviews you said: “I think photography is an open art form, so that means if you make propaganda whether it is for BMW or Greenpeace I find it boring, because when I am forced to know what to think when I look at the picture I get really angry”. How does this correlate with the fact of selling photographs to newspapers and magazines, where they naturally appear as an “illustration” to someone else’s opinions given in the article?
Do you give your agreement on the publication of your photos after having read the textual material? Or once the freedom of interpretation we spoke about before is granted by you not only to the viewers, but also to the editor and journalists? Have you ever been in a situation of dissatisfaction with the context your photos appeared in? Or them being “misinterpreted”?
Peter Bialobrzeski: As I pointed out, in the 1990s I made my living through working for magazines. So naturally the work got also distributed for second sales through a couple of international agencies. With my project, I only allow distribution as the project, not as single images. That started AFTER a lot of pictures from “NEONTIGERS” got used in a rather strange way. One very stylish magazine cut the images in half and recomposed them with typography.
So what is distributed now are rather images which I did not consider valid for my projects.
Bleek Magazine: Still, do you assume that the term “misinterpretation” actually exists?
Peter Bialobrzeski: No, every viewer has their own possibilities of reading an image.
Bleek Magazine: In various interviews and reviews your style in photography has been described in quite a number of ways: “documentary photography”, “cultural practice”, “too artsy for journalism and too journalistic for the art world”. We can also quote the definition you gave it yourself: “To me, it is very important for a picture to enchant the viewer. But it also has to give rise to questions, have another level. This is how journalism and art can be incorporated”. Can you, please, dwell on this quote, explaining in which way, in your opinion, your projects are “journalistic” and “artistic”? Maybe there should be a specific term to define your style in photography?
Peter Bialobrzeski: There is no style, photography is the tool I have chosen to make sense of the world. Within a project, it is about aesthetic coherence. Just like in fiction writing, just like with any photographer who is able to think. Style is a very fashionable term…
Bleek Magazine: When I said “style” I meant nothing but a set of the artist’s features, specificity of one’s own way of seeing and thus sharing this “seeing” with others. If to draw a parallel with creative writing, it can be a set of tropes, syntax, preferred vocabulary and so on. Thus I did not mean any implication with fashion, at all.
Peter Bialobrzeski: Maybe that is my being allergic to imprecise vocabulary when talking about photography, style is a term which is easily used to express a populist opinion. Even Giannis Varoufakis got “style”. I would rather like “aethetic pattern”.
Bleek Magazine: Well, but you have not answered the question about what you consider to be “journalistic” and what – “artistic” in your works…
Peter Bialobrzeski: The sentence you are referring to is something I heard when I was still working as a magazine photographer. Maybe to express the void my work was read in more than ten years ago, that it won the World Press Award in “The Arts”. I did not choose to enter it in this category. Do we really need those labels? I am interested in the documentary as well as in the visual aspects of what I am doing. Photography is the tool, publishing in little books and showing the work mainly in galleries and museums the medium. Very rarely the work gets also published in magazine as a spread, or a review of the project.
Bleek Magazine: You have often been asked about your inspiration among the gurus of photography, but you have never mentioned any artists you find close to your own vision in understanding reality. Could you name us a few? And in which way you can build some parallels between their works and your own photography?
Peter Bialobrzeski: I think it is about attitude and again visual coherence within the bodies of work: If you want a list, the lineup will not make sense outside my experience and my thoughts and emotions: William Turner, Caspar David Friederich, Gerhard Richter, Alex Webb, Gilles Peress, Eugene Richards, Sebastiao Salgado, Joel Sternfeld, Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, Mitch Epstein, Nick Nixon, Paul Graham.
Bleek Magazine: I do not agree that sharing with people such “lists” is completely useless outside your experience and thoughts. I would rather make reference with one of your previous answers when you said that everything matters. Of course, it is important to analyze one’s current projects and look for visual coherence, but trying to go deeper into the photographer’s mind can sometimes bring interesting discoveries and shed light to what (s)he is now.
I would say that mentioning Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and Mitch Epstein has been quite expectable, whereas the names of William Turner, Caspar David Friederich and Gerhard Richter are an intriguing twist.
Could you, please, tell us the “stories” of these painters in your life? It is really very interesting in which way they inspired or shaped your vision.
Peter Bialobrzeski: In 1991/1992 I lived in London. I visited the Tate a number of times and was always hooked on Turners vision, the colours and the blurry ductus that elevated something “documentary” (River Thames etc) on an highly emotional level. Much, much later I realized how Turners visual strategy (not style!) influenced the way I photographed India in “XXXholy”.
When I started to shoot “NEONTIGERS”, I quite often imagined how Caspar David Friederich would paint that very scene in front of me. There is a certain romanticism in depicting a city, which you ll also find in William Gibsons writing: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” That was the first sentence of “NEUROMANCER“, which worked almost like a script for “NEONTIGERS“.
Bleek Magazine: And finally, I cannot overlook such a part of your professional life as teaching photography. I totally agree with your opinion that teaching is about creating awareness, developing a critical distance towards one’s own work, learning to think and to analyze. I also enjoy and share your wonderful metaphor where you compared doing art with Buddhism and meditation in a way it is also about trying to understand life.
Would you dream of introducing a course on photography into the curriculum of any educational institution, regardless of the fact whether it deals with liberals arts?
Peter Bialobrzeski: Oh no, because you need an openness and willingness to embark on a long journey, which I am not finding in more than 3% of the people I have been teaching. Everybody wants to learn to take “good“ pictures, but to really understand, it will take years. I dream of a school where those 3% come together and create synergies!
© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich.