We may learn how cities and landscapes are changing and always evolving through time by visiting, and seeing with our bare eyes, the changes and even trying to participate in those developments, and be part of them. Nevertheless, we are hereinafter introduced to another important way of understanding the contemporary city, the artificial landscape and the reality between limits, borders and human occupation. This is an extremely rare exercise around the contemporary city: why don’t we try to understand its continuous growth and changes by simply looking at a photograph? Can a photograph tell us more than an actual visit to the place? And is it possible for a photograph to be at the edge of a still yet to happen change, altering the very notion of time in the space of the photograph itself? The photograph is no longer related to a memory or a frozen time, but it seems to reveal an undetermined time yet to come on the edge of an always different city and unknown landscape. The resonances are also important here: between places and between matters. Says Bas Princen that the story appears between images or photographs independently of the places or of the time where and when they were shot, giving us the possibility to draw our own map of the world within a series of images. Therefore, the idea of depict and depicting can’t be understood as a truthful and objective representation of reality (and Bas’ preference for depicting unveils already his direction away from photography as document) neither as it can be simply understood as in painting or sculpture, where the representation has already imbued the traces of expression of its master, but by adding to its signification a surplus meaning: within a series of images, in between photographs that combine things in the world that tell us a different story about it.
We present an informal exchange of ideas about Bas Princen’s photographs resulting from several conversations. It is divided into three chapters: a first about desire or what makes an image come into being, a second dedicated to composition or about the photographs as autonomous lived spaces and works of art and then a third and last chapter about the instruments and the techniques as modes of connection between the photographer, the camera, the reality and the real that the photograph creates and presents.
SUSANA VENTURA: A first and basic question: your main education is in architecture (you’ve graduated from the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam), but your main occupation is photography and architectural photography in particular. What drove you into photogra- phy and how did architecture play a role?
BAS PRINCEN: To me it’s not about document at all. It’s about something completely different even though things might look very straightforward that I photograph or very banal how they are photographed, that’s not the intention...
SV: So, what drove you into photography or when did you decided to become a photog- rapher instead of an architect?
BAS:You don’t decide it. This is the funny thing, of course.That’s something that happens. But you could say that there were some ingredients that made it happen. When I was studying at The Design Academy at the time I was there it was called Academy for Industrial Design, I was there or I went there in order to start to design things – well, that was the intention...
SV: But you are still designing things...
BAS: Not really, not anymore, but for instance, when I am teaching, I am teaching architecture, and not photography, so there is quite a lot... I know quite a lot about it, I follow it up, I know what is going on in the world of design and architecture more in architecture than in design – and somehow I use that in my photography, but I don’t practice anymore. It’s a different occupation and you need to have other different skills and sensibilities.
SV: Yes, but what I was saying is that you are still designing in the space of the photograph, because you’re designing, constructing and fabricating landscape and buildings in the space of the photograph. What lives in the space of a photograph of yours doesn’t exist exactly in reality. There are several techniques that allow you to play with the reality and that make a photograph a construction, a way of seeing things, of seeing light, of seeing volume, of seeing colour... In the end, you’re designing. In architecture, you deal also with light, volumes, colour, empty space, mass...
BAS: You could say that, in The Design Acad- emy, there were a couple of things that set it off, several ingredients of which one was a very strange course that was called – it was in the first year – it was called “Optical Grammar Studies”.
SV: It is quite unusual!
BAS: Yes, it’s quite unusual. It was a course in which you had to start to understand how to organize a piece of paper on which you had to add a certain amount of lines or points, in a way you had to reorganize it. It was super abstract, you never knew if you were doing it right or wrong, because basically it involved putting three dots or a hundred dots... And after a while, you intuitively apply certain rules to follow up one decision after the other. I don’t know if you understand what I am talk- ing about...
SV: Perfectly! It’s a very Bauhaus way of teaching!
SV: It’s often said about your photographs that they have an almost surreal, fiction like, atmosphere. One of the most amazing characteristics of photography, as Walter Benjamin put it, is that the camera, the mechanical apparatus, allows you to bring to the image surface an unconscious aspect of the reality which the organic eye is unable to see (what made the first photographs in history so surprising). Although the photograph presents reality, it goes beyond reality, reaching the unknown and the unconscious of reality. I find this very quality in your photographs as they present an unconscious of the contemporary city or of the artificial and natural landscapes. It’s not only due to the frame – which is the one of the basic elements of a photographic composition – but mainly because they are constructed between two intense movements of colour: saturation and rarefaction. A saturation of colours to intensify the idea of a landscape (in some photographs, you even get close to a geological work) and sometimes a rarefaction of colours, of elements in order to bring the volumes at their limit, as pure objects in a rarefied landscape. For example, in your photographs of Dubai, we can feel the desert, its temperature, the dry atmosphere, the tension, only through colour. The colour comes first and only then do our eyes land in the volume and in the limits of the frame and only afterwards do we start to think about the relations between the building and the landscape. What are your main elements of composition? How do you use the frame – which you often speak of – and how do you use colour as light, for example?
BAS: There are many ways how a composition starts but, of course, there are certain types of composition that i like to use, or to start from. I think that is true for every photographer and you somehow search for a similar way to organise the image, this evolves over time. I can tell myself when I made a certain photograph because of the way it is visually organized. But then I use also a lot of, or I have a lot of references to which I look, references out of the history of architecture, or just images that I find appealing. Those images are used in order tomakeastartforanewworkorforanew type of image. So, I have many of these and I would combine five or six in order to imag- ine the new work. Imagining in a way that I imagine myself in front of the place that I would like to photograph. Sometimes when I’m at a place that I think has potential, I start to dig mentally in my memory and find out which type of images could resonate with the place where I am at that point and then I start to organise the camera in a similar way, and if what I see on the camera screen resonates with these images that I have in my head, I’m getting exited, and normally it results in a good image.
SV: Can you give some examples, for instance? I know that there isn’t a direct relation between the image and the photograph, but what do you look for in those images that you store in your computer? Why have they become so important to you?
BAS: They are important, because they are representing a certain image that has already a background. They have been looked at by people, so maybe they have a more universal quality that we can recognise and I like to use that as a kind of unconscious way to make it easier to enter the image. I think that is the main reason why I use them. And also that my images become part of a progression of images that I didn’t make.
SV: It’s a nice idea. It’s almost like the land- scape and the cities are formed, little pieces and parts through time and you add another part that relates to the old parts altogether.
BAS: I think you need it otherwise it is difficult to even see something for other people. If it is something completely new, you lack reference, and there is no point from which you can start to look at the image. It’s some- thing that I am really interested in: you have certain ways how you build an image and those are I guess universal and they keep return over time: from landscape paintings in the Golden age, to the new topographics and the depiction of landscapes in movies, for instance. And I think you have to learn about them and you can use all these presets. I’ve started to collect images that I find appealing in terms of content or composition or colour scheme, and I try to incorporate these givens as – let’s say – unconscious rules into the compositions that I make. Of course, you run the risk of being too classical, but this also depends on the references that you choose, of course.
SV: Everything is evolving, so you are in fact adding another chapter.
BAS: Yes. So, basically, from these refer- ences I make a kind of little booklets – there are about five now and they are just for myself to understand certain things, they are not meant to be published or to be made public. They are filled with images that I find out on internet – they are many, many atmy archive – and I organise these images in such a way that I find it an interesting com- position, in how they follow each other up. In the end, you could say, that these booklets with references are some kind of placehold- ers for a real book. This is the little booklet which I made for the Reservoir book – if you open the Reservoir book on the first page, you can imagine that the first three images – so, page one and two and tree of the refer- ence booklet – if you combine them, they somehow become the second picture in the ‘reservoir’ book (future olympic park).
SV: I would like to know a little bit more about your use of colour.
BAS: I don’t think I do a lot to the colour. I understand that most of the pictures have one type of tone or colour, but it’s not that I change it. It’s more that while I am looking for an image part of the reason for photograph- ing something, is because also the light and colour are in a good organisation.
SV: But in the end, they all seem to have a saturation – as in your Dubai photographs – where you can feel the dry atmosphere and the tension and the temperature – and all comes from the colour and not, for instance, of the frame or of other elements.
BAS: I think that the colour is always quite coolish...
SV: How do you control it? Or are you not really conscious of the process?
BAS: I am conscious. I work always with the same person with whom I am printing and I think that makes a big difference. He knows me well and we speak a lot about a certain continuity in the contrast and colour.
SV: So, is the colour a post-production?
BAS: No... at least not by default, there are two ways. While taking the photograph I take care that the colour palette is in my benefit or that it fits the other pictures I’ve already made. And sometimes, it’s just the technique of how you photograph. I think that it’s similar to the way compositions seem to reoccur, you can also search for similar compositions in colour or colour schemes. I think that if the colour is not good, then I don’t even see the image. It’s part of the decision to photograph a place, that the colour should be in sync with the composition. Then, in the end, in the post-production not a lot is done, just the image is made a little bit cooler or maybe the contrast is a little bit adapted. It’s funny, because the first book that I’ve made was in Holland and it has only with grey skies and sandy colours and at a point I would really freak out if there was a little sun and then I couldn’t photograph, it was impossible. And then I went photographing in L.A., Dubai, and those photographs are taken with blaz- ing sunshine, and people are still telling me that even in the pictures of those places it’s is foggy and they don’t realise it’s sunny.
SV: Yes, Reservoir is pretty grey!
BAS: It should be. When the light is tough or hard, and you photograph against the light, you have a limited set of colours, you will always have that idea of a greyish tone. The colours then are in the same tone. They’re never opposing.
SV: Maybe this has also to do with another feature of your work: the idea of surface. Even when you photograph isolated vol- umes that stand in the landscape, they somehow become flat. They are treated like surfaces and not like volumes. For instance, there are some photographers that like to photograph in black & white, because the volumes are accentuated.
BAS: I believe that they are the same in my photographs: volume and landscape naturally belong together. To me, they are the same surface. The only thing is that one is vertical and the other one is horizontal, differences are in the materiality or the colour and that can indicate a three dimensional shape.
SV: What would you say about that relation between surface and volume?
BAS: The surface is not only the ground and volume is not automatically a building or an object. Definitely in a photograph these 2 can act similar, sometimes a volume is suggested while it is not there, and I’m most interested in the fact that in the photograph you can play with these 2 and let them merge or take each others place. Surface to me is where materials are coming together, and then is all about how these materials interact. So both object and landscape are made of surface and those 2 have surfaces that can come together in an interesting way, that they are naturally fitting. I like this idea of naturally fit- ting: things that are believable when they are combined. This is something I would work on when I am photographing or when I am doing post-production, this is important to me. Well, you could say again – what is natural, what is man-made – is somehow put together and in a way you can say surfaces and colours are very important for that.
SV: How many times do you go to a certain place before shooting it? How do you prepare yourself to enter the place through the picture you are about to shoot?
BAS: I visit a place once. Many people think that you need to scout a place and then return when the light is better... I understand photography in a way that allows me to go further. Things are always evolving. If you go to a place twice, it’s going to be different, and most probably I will be interested in something I did not even see the first time around.
SV: Which instruments do you use for shooting?
BAS: I go with my camera and tripod, but what is more important, is the walking with the camera, the slow movement to find an image is more valuable than the camera itself. This idea of a reference image is also an extremely important instrument in conceiving the image, besides the kind of banal technicality of the camera, the fact that you go with a certain image already in your mind, a kind of a set of possible com- positions and objects and relations, are the most important elements for shooting.
SV: Do you use a digital or an analogue camera?
BAS: At this point, I use a digital Back on a TC, but most the photographs that you know are still made with a Analogue 4 x 5 inch TC. This move to digital, I must admit, changes the way of photographing. So, I am still not used to the digital camera, because I really stopped using the analogue at all, because I thought if I would mix them up, it always would be a fight between one and the other, and it is better to make a clean cut. The two give very different results, with their own character, so the move to digital allows me also to see things new again, and that is what I like a lot, but I miss the big upside down matheglass... The fact that you can see immediately what you’ve made is not always an advantage. Or not an advantage yet, maybe it’s the right way to say it (sic).
SV: You say that after shooting takes place an elimination process. Of course, there is an elimination process that occurs during the shooting when you’re looking for the frame and the distance and the colour, but are there any more elimination processes?
BAS: Of course, there are many elimination processes.
SV: Can you describe them in general terms? What are those processes?
BAS: The first, of course, it’s the shooting, where you go, if you’re there and decide to take the picture or not – this is already quite important – then when you review for the first time the image – on the computer or in the print – that’s the moment where you realise if the picture works outside of its context and, of course, this is what you want. You want the picture to work independently. But somehow at least half of the pictures that I make, that I initially make, when the context is not there, they don’t work anymore which is funny, I even try hard to avoid this context, but sometimes without it, it does not work well. So, in the elimination process, I really look for the images that can stand by themselves or are able to depict a landscape in all its ambiguity without refer- ring to its original. Then, after that, the next process is to see if the image works within the series that you’re making, if they add something, if they compliment 2 previous works for instance, that is ideal. If not, it means that the type of place is good and the idea is good, but the image is not yet there, and then I consider that photograph as a test for an image that still has to be made. So, a lot of times, the elimination process means that there is something in the image that has to be found again, because it doesn’t fit yet completely. In the end, there are not a lot of photographs. But I wouldn’t call it a processes of elimination, and rather prefer to call them processes of combin- ing things that make sense. It’s really about finding connections between previously made images and the new ones. If they are completely on their own, without referring to other photographs, there’s no reason to use them.
SV: Finally, what makes you reject a photograph?
BAS: I really have to print them out to decide if they’re good or not. I can’t do it on the screen. And I ask other people to see if the photograph can stands on itself, and how they perceive the image, what it tells them. I don’t trust me, because I know too much about the actual place, if any of these parameters are not met, then I slowly work onward on the same idea, but I just don’t use that particular images.
SV: But do you do photoshop or not?
BAS: Of course, there’s no way around it. If you start to work with these new digital cameras, the image that comes out is so rough that it’s not a useful image. So, you have to use it. You cannot just print that file, otherwise it will look like soft and without depth. In the end, it’s like a negative, it still has to go through a process of making. It’s the same: you cannot show a negative neither. So, you need to use photoshop or any other program in order to have at least one round of determining how the image should be. And then you have to print it and when it’s printed somehow you’re able to see if the image can stand on its own and can become a work on itself.