Heinz Peter Knes

( Text )
Halo in my studio

Juan Gaitán: You seem to know exactly when you started as a photographer, shall we start our conversation with this moment? What brought you to photography?

Heinz Peter Knes: In hindsight I can mark my beginning as a photographer with a self-portrait I took in 1989, simply because it was on the first role of film I kept. It was kind of a late start. In my teenage years I didn’t really know what to become. I had no particular interests that one could make use of in the world I was born into. I was one of eight children living with my family in a small rural village in the south of West Germany - a pretty traditional and restricted place. So I built up a kind of alternative inner dream world, in German we have this nice word for it: Gegenwelt. At the same time I was driven by a kind of nerdy interest in film and any kind of visual culture in print, anything that put me in contact with the outside world. I would take all kinds of magazines home and study them. I would run around at night and pick them from the recycling piles people kept in their barns, or steal from the newsstand in the next town – I created an archive of images in my teenage years. Of course, we are talking here about the world before the Internet, the 1980s. So what started as a teenage preoccupation, as something just for myself, I guess built up an aesthetic sensibility. It was only later when I made friends with a guy who wanted to become a fashion photographer that I started exploring photography as something you actually just take on easily; as a possibility for moving beyond simply consuming imagery. The self-portrait I mentioned is from around that time. Some years later when I started studying photography I included that image in the first series I officially worked on. For the series, later titled E.M.T. in MSP, (1989-2006) I went back to my village and used three of my younger siblings as protagonists. I wanted to find images that described my own interpretation of the process of growing up.

There are several questions that come to mind, but one that I'd like to explore is the relationship to autobiography. In literature, a writer's biography appears very often, perhaps because it is the most readily accessible archive, and here you say your first photograph is a self-portrait, but also that you began taking photos of your siblings. So I'd like us to discuss these early photographs because there is a lot of portraiture in your work and in this show. Portraits tend to fictionalize the people in the image, but they also convey a truth about them. I'm guessing your siblings played an important role in how you developed an eye for portraying individuals.

That’s right, these early years were about describing a biographical situation. Certainly it was a way to write relevance into our life, motivated by the feeling of coming from a margin, I suppose. Imagine growing up in a village of just 800 residents in the Franconian forest. It fell on us to describe living there, a self-reflexive task as we were the protagonists. Youth culture, not only in Germany, is usually an urban history. In contrast, these early images of mine reveal a particularly rural experience, one without peers, in which sexuality emerges as an autonomous form, where beauty lies on being left alone, on a kind of endless boring Saturday afternoon in which nothing really happens. I see these photographs as both interpretation and document. Mirjam, one of the subjects, later reflected to me about this saying: “You slip into roles and try them out. You stage yourself to find out who you want to be. That’s what these pictures document. So they don’t portray a pure reality, but it doesn’t really matter, because memories themselves don’t always concur with reality.”

You won’t be surprised to hear that when I started my photographic studies I found it fascinating to see how Larry Clark assembled photographic material. He treated, at least in that time, photographs as a kind of revenge on society. Much like Jean Genet who employed language as a means of exacting revenge on a society that had formally rejected him. Clark’s view was never about having or creating empathy for the deprived. Similar was the approach of others like the Bostonians or Peter Hujar. But what I found particular in the work of Clark up until the early 1990s is that he managed to have an unacademic way of reflecting, creating room for resonance that made clear that photography is not about authenticity anymore, but had turned into a statement about representation.

My photographs of teenagers and the following ones of gays were published in magazines. I found earlier in my career that through working around the periphery of the fashion industry, there was pressure directing me towards certain patterns of style, which never really worked out for me. I found it’s where pretending in photography starts and the whole subject of exploitation and vanity enters the portrait. I had the feeling that I had to protect my subject from being washed down this way. So I distanced myself from the portrait and started looking for images that could convey a sense of biography that would not necessarily read purely as biography. Roland Barthes said something like, the private is where photography unfolds all it’s power. And there is something true about this. But what’s also true is that what the private or biographical means today is fundamentally different to what it meant in Barthes' time.

Let's go with your Barthes line, I think it's quite important what you say: You say that biography and private life are different now from what they were in the 1960s or '70s. We can leave biography for a following point, and first talk about private life. I must confess that I haven't given much thought to the historical development of private life, and in fact I think it possible that you haven't either, at least in a focused way. Yet, especially now, it seems to me we all think about what privacy means, what private life means, what it takes to keep one's private life private and so on. And another related thought: It seems to me that what makes these photographs so wonderful is that, as a photographer, you are as vulnerable as the subjects in the pictures, this applies too for Larry Clark, Peter Hujar, Diane Arbus...

Let’s say that the private is initially that what excludes itself from the public. So even though the parameters have changed, we still can make this division. I think we can even say, one is not possible without the other. Nevertheless recording mediums established a sort of in-between empire, that enables the private to be in the public and conversely. But the recorded private works with tricks, because a subject is in general conscious about being recorded and reacts to that fact. On the other hand the public requests, even demands for us to stand up and expose privacy in order to reflect about its current meaning. The photographers we mentioned before have made a significant contribution to moving the margin of what is, and how we reflect about the private and the public. From all we know, the exposition of the body will never stop. We are obsessed with the body, and in a way it’s the only thing we can hang on to. That includes also submissive tendencies. I guess there is no other way to get away from habit and convention, than to keep redirecting the view; to allow other sensations in.

I doubt that we still can emphasize with what shock it must have been to look at Arbus’ photographs when they first came out. We today carry only some distant echo of this sensation. But it was her insistence on what you call vulnerability, that taught people, taught us to find the beauty within, and allowed her view to be ours.

Let’s talk about the selection of images you’ve made for your solo exhibition at the Tamayo Museum. The points we’ve made above all refer to those images and, in a way, there is a survey here, or if not a survey then a sort of analytical glance at your life as a photographer. Can you give some sense of how you selected these images? It also came to mind Walter Benjamin’s idea that photography at once establishes an incalculable distance and a closeness to the subject...

I think these days there is a general mistrust of the photographic image. It seems we need to domesticate it in order to cope with their apparent endlessness. So we build up parameters like series, establish contexts for their reception, create hierarchies. For this exhibition I wanted to leave these devices of securing the image to one side. That’s why I focused on single images, as let’s say an elementary form, and by doing so, took images out of a once given narrative or formal reading. To acknowledge their complexity or simplicity. So I selected photographs that seemed to have strength and which are able to stand alone. I also wanted to see what tension neighbouring these photographs creates, or not. To see what readings this could yield. The thing with photography is that we tend to force it under a kind of ideological or genre categorisation. Landscape, fashion, post-conceptual, etc. are categories of the same thread that in the end turn into some sort of affirmation. Unlike other visual arts it’s something photography hasn’t really managed to leave behind, though I think it should. Maybe one of the reasons why photography has lost relevance in recent years is that we missed the point to allow it to be photographic in the truest sense, which I like to define as an unlimited, fractional quality.

I tend to agree that categories have been built around photography (photo conceptual, landscape, etc..) because there is mistrust. It happens with art too, as you know: artists or critics build a solid, heavy discourse around works of art precisely because there is a sense that the artwork cannot act on its own terms, that it needs an outside frame. Nevertheless there is a passing from the image to discourse and that is where I think the work works (apologies for the reference), namely, in the event of passing from individual experiences (the artists and the work, the individual and the artwork) to collective ones (discourse, political, aesthetic, or otherwise). More than a question here, I want to suggest that what we are doing with this exhibition is to leave as open as possible the nature of the passing from the individual to the collective. Is this an idea you can relate to?

Oh sure, that sounds good to me. But then, what does this statement really mean, practically speaking? In general, I think the material an artist works with makes its own demands, ones which in the first case lie in the material itself. The photographer’s job is to activate a surface. And that most confidently happens by going for the unexpected, something that you find accidentally, a rather floating quality. Intention is the opposite of this. Still for me it’s kind of necessary to know about a passage; where something came from. I need to bounce back and forth between unreflected (photographing of) and reflection (the resonance a photograph has). So eventually it becomes a process of cutting back the overgrowth as a means of exposing certain details that may be covered. Then an audience walks in and encounters the loss. But I think the most important thing is to be honest about the crooked details that start appearing, the disturbing stuff. Here is where the individual and the collective want to come open together, because it requires the most amount of effort for both the individual and the collective to acknowledge these disturbances and to value them. In photography it might have once been called “truth”. But this is a rather difficult word today. And I think this has to do with the excess digital technology creates. Our devices are imbued with ideology and meaning changes with them. Even though we perhaps like to manipulate the apparatus, and I'm sympathetic to the idea that the apparatus even encourages this. I guess we still can call photographs documents.

Isn’t photography the medium per se that allows us to forever contemplate over captured fractions? And that includes details which are easily overlooked: things we see because the view just dangles there in front of us and we don’t quite know how to categorise them, so we tend to delete the images prematurely because there seems to be no use for them. Although realizing, that is actually where desire is stimulated, because we might want to expand to something open or unknown or maybe just too understood.

I will focus on your point about digital technology if you don’t mind. I agree that it is difficult today to speak of truth in photography, and in part this has to do with the law, with the legal system. From the legal point of view, a photograph is evidence, but of what? Of an event, of course. But the event in photography can be altered or made up, things can be left out of the picture, and so on. So I think the question of truth doesn’t have to do with digital technology. What I do think is that the question of immediacy has changed, the image is revealed so soon after it has been taken that it could almost be said to be 'the present', but of course it’s not, it’s a few seconds away. If there is truth it is that which motivates this compulsive picture-taking in the digital age, the so-called 'true' moment, the moment when the photographer can rest because she or he has finally achieved an image that resembles that which she or he sees (or wants to see) in reality. So let’s speculate more and say that the images are produced by a sense of truth. Or perhaps the right word is fidelity?

That’s why I think we have to allow things we focus on to be estranged from us. I don’t look for confirmation from either a subject or a particular object. I wish them to look back differently in order to get out of the comfort of my little backyard. At least to offer a difference to what certain authorities ask me to see. This is where my responsibility lies: as the one who looks and engages. There is much effort made to make the apparatus efficient for purposes that are not mine. Still it is labelled as 'user-friendly'. A consequence of this digital excess is that situations, people, everything is encouraged to appear a certain way. Whenever someone seems to break these conventions, it creates a big wave sounding like: “Thank God somebody eventually named it”. But it’s just pointing at the phenomena. Really, I think it starts much earlier, it starts by being sympathetic to what Sigmar Polke called one’s higher forces. It’s true about that the difficulties concerning ‘truth’, or it’s representation, are probably as old as human history. That’s why I like the idea you bring up here of replacing that word with fidelity, because it does require an effort to not fall into existing patterns. It’s not achievable without self-revision. You have to examine what engages you, in order to understand the contradictions involved. To love seeing what’s wrong. Or just acknowledge the fleetingness of things and resist filling up the gaps they leave behind. That’s at least how I used to understand Polke’s forces.

You make a very important and interesting point here, that you wish “to get out of your little backyard,” by which I understand that photography is a way out rather than a way in! This is exactly the opposite of what is normally thought about photography. Going back to Benjamin, he placed the photographic image at an impossible juncture between approximation and distancing. Normally people choose to see photography as an 'approximation' as a 'window' into some reality, or into the past, and so on. But here you say the opposite, which I find very stimulating, photography a form of distancing yourself from yourself, from your “little back yard”, which of course doesn’t mean there is no affect. Perhaps we can take some examples from your photographic work and discuss this point a bit more? I think of three examples that might help, but of course you’re free to choose your own: Simone (2005), Simone and Bo (2003), and Self-Portrait with Scars (1996).

Photographers live with the contradiction of placing themselves in the centre of a situation, and when raising the camera, detaching themselves from it. A self-portrait can proclaim to not accept that fact. But it raises other issues like narcissism. For me it remains an interesting question: how to insert oneself into the world described. I like the confrontation involved, when you make yourself available in an image physically, and don't just hide behind the viewfinder. In After Contessa di C. (2013) a photograph framing my own legs, the image existed first. Afterwards, when looking at the photo I was reminded of the many images of the feet of Contessa di Castiglione that Pierre-Louis Pierson took in nineteenth-century Paris. Castiglione and Pierson's affair with photography is quiet spectacular, a forerunner of all the personalized obsessions with the body and identity that photography later established in twentieth century.

Still, I like to see the photographer themselves as neutral ground. There are two directions going through the lens they hold and direct: an outgoing view and an ingoing record. The incoming record relates to memory, but the view outgoing is about leaving home. This not just geographically speaking, we shouldn’t forget that the first century of photography is full of adventurers that were driven by getting lost.

David’s Past, Tempted to Call it a Landscape, (2012) for instance, is a photo soaked in memory. In the year high school ended for him, David took me around that day and showed me places that were important for him in his adolescence. And for me too the image came out of pure memory. It was motivated by finding out what a hut could mean. A site I photographed over and over and that had subsequently disappeared (other images in the show, such as Floor-plan drawing of first and second hut (2012), Interior of second hut (2012) or Frankfurter Tor (2002) are related to this subject as well). But when I saw that particular image emerging I loved that it had emancipated itself from all the emotions that led to it. I see it as a rather abstract, slightly hallucinatory image that does not possess anything inherently personal. And is, like most of my images, by itself rather flat, but which at the same time offers a kind of endless horizon.

Simone (2005) is a portrait of the artist Simone Gilges, someone whom I met in photography school. She was a person who encouraged me to actually move further, not just in what you do but also in who you are. Amongst other things, she organized a magazine called 'Freier' - the word is the comparative of frei meaning free. The photograph basso (2006) was like the freier, the name of a magazine and a project space in Berlin during the 2000’s. A key context at the time for artists to come together independently from institutions and galleries.

I think perhaps it’s impossible to deal with the in versus outgoing direction of the photograph as Benjamin wisely pointed out. Because even though something may be outgoing in the moment it happened and was documented that way, remembering it involves going in the opposite direction. Intimation of a Standard (2015), actually deals with this phenomena. While taking that photo, I was looking for images that could avoid categorization, which appeared to me free of subscription, but no matter how far we run from something, establishment follows in our footsteps.

I see that each photograph has a story that relates it to your own life. This is interesting to me, because biography seems to cut through your work, but then the images refuse it too, or at least the way you present it. If I understand you well, this is exactly what you mean by these two directions of the lens, the ingoing record and the outgoing view.

Probably because I started making work on a quite personal level. There is the tendency to look for threads of narrative that connect the content of my images with my personal life, and sometimes they do have a direct connection, but my work also became a play with this. For instance what connects Hannah Arendt’s bookmark (2012), a more scientific work, with Eva with leather bracelet (1997), an intimate portrait of my younger sister is nothing other than a process of chance and encounter.

The titles are all different, sometimes they have a name, sometimes a number (i.e. 112, 2006) sometimes untitled, how does this come about?

A title is always information added to an image that has the ability to influence the way that it is read. Because of this I think it can either limit or open up the possible readings that it had without it. I like working with titles and the potential tension that is created through partnering images with words. Sometimes it is a simple description such as mentioning the place a photograph was taken that can make an image become even more obscure. For instance in the image Forbidden City (2014), a photograph taken in the actual place in Beijing, has the potential to become an abstraction. It possesses both an ability to be meaningful and ambiguous, and I like the potential confusion that truthfulness - or reality - can create. On the contrary I would avoid employing information that the image itself already has the ability to communicate. Titles demand a certain economy otherwise there is no room for play. But if nothing comes up that adds to an image, it works better to leave it untitled.

Tell us about the process of choosing your photographs, which ones stay and which ones are discarded?

First I pick an image because it speaks to me: usually this is simply determined through an impulse or instinct. Then comes a series of tests, where an image is compared through variation or its partnering with other imagery. When you see an image repetitively it becomes obvious if it has the ability to stand. Certainly, researching a certain subject is also part of my practice. The physicality of printing images to scale is important, as well as the discussion with those around me. I have to say I do miss the times of the contact-sheet. I loved going through them over and over. Still today when I look through my old sheets I find images that have been overlooked. In contrast, now I have to force myself to go through digital archives. I find the way images are juxtaposed less interesting, and such discoveries are more seldom. So, yes, the process of selecting can in fact go on for years, Simone (2005) or Cologne Main Station (1996), for instance, have never been shown before, even though I was thinking of using them for quite some time.

Do you use analog or digital technology? Do you have thoughts about the difference between these two media?

Naturally I grew up with analog technology, therefore my understanding of photography is rooted in the medium. Like most photographers I initially perceived the paradigm shift to digital as a sort of loss. I did some cut-out works (100-1000) in 2007, to mark this shift into digital, however I feel rather estranged from these today. This body of work meant I could move on more easily and start to use digital technology, since this shift I have never gone back. I think in order to comprehend the time you are living in, one should engage in the technology that defines it. Sometimes I ask what has really changed. Of course, image making today is done through the precision of pixels and this definitely has shaped the aesthetics of photography. There is certainly more control over images and we have the tendency to shoot a subject until it becomes lifeless. But I find myself modifying imagery or employing effects to the level that I was able to from the time of using darkrooms. The economics, context and social habits of consuming images are completely different, where the accessibility has influenced the currency of an image. Photography is less a real profession compared to times of analog, which of course can be considered as a loss. But this is just as true for many other professions as well.

(Interview between Juan Gaitán and Heinz Peter Knes in preperation of an exhibition at Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, 2015)