Art-Rated’s Jonathan Beer visited the studio of Leipzig artist Edgar Leciejewski and this conversation is taken from an in person interview on July 16 at the Spinnerei.
Art-Rated: How did you find photography and art in general, was it something you always wanted to pursue? Did you train to do this or did you find it in another way?
Edgar Leciejewski: I’m not a photographer. I was trained as a bookseller, and after my apprenticeship I studied theater studies and philosophy, and then I started to study art here in Leipzig. My main medium is photography.
When I was growing up my family always had these albums with photographs inside, and as a child I was so obsessed with those books that my parents forbid me to take them out every day because I would ask and ask them to tell me the stories behind the images. So they forbid me to look at the books except for every few Sundays. I think my behavior towards these books was the reason why I began to work and think with and within photography. When I was 16 I got my first camera, an old Russian one, a Zenit, and then I started to take pictures and learn the process to develop things on my own. The next step was the images, the pictures.
AR: I find your work very interesting in that you seem to think a lot about perception, how we see the world, and that is something that you try to understand through the process of making a photograph. I think we can agree that the process of making a photograph and the action of observation are linked, and in that way perhaps you are saying that human existence is in a way photographic? Would you say that’s correct?
EL: You could say the same about video, in a way. My way of seeing the world is like a still moment, a pictorial moment. Also, photography has the power to give every image a frame, to give a particular view of something. It’s always a miracle when I have an idea for an image, and to find an image and hold it so that other people may see the things I saw.
AR: Like you were able to find the frame for your idea in the world?
EL: No…I think that in the medium of photography it’s fantastic that you have the frame. When I look at the world with my eyes, I don’t have that frame. I can have it in my brain, or take my hands and make a frame to see the parts I want to see, but with the camera you always have the frame and you can focus on something with it. And the rest of the world, you don’t see. Every pictorial media has this frame idea somehow.
AR: It’s interesting to think about how that frame gets us to focus. Vision prompts investigation about our world, we look and interact with our world by translating experiences into abstraction, into concepts that allow us to parse out and really ‘see’ the world. Is that a concern in your work?
EL: Yes, and also, with every image I make I try to create a new reality. Photography, for most people, is known as a medium that documents reality, but I think that reality is just in everyone’s head and everyone’s reality is different. By creating a picture I can create my idea of reality and show it to other people.
AR: In a way, to redefine your version of reality. When I look through your photography I see this desire to redefine simple things like place, identity, dark and light, artifacts, reflections, scanning, mirrors. How do you become interested in redefining something, like the photos of the studio wall for instance? Where do you get the ideas to make your work?
EL: They just pop up…I don’t have a master plan. I get driven by my work.
The studio works are more about reflection. I came to a point when I noticed I needed to reflect more about my work and to my work in the studio. And then these images popped up. But you mentioned something about very simple things.
From the very beginning it was always important for me to think as simple as possible. I also liked the idea that everyone might be able to copy my work. The images behind the concept were as simple as possible, in a way. I think it’s difficult because my brain wants to create more complexity, to make it stronger that way, but I’m trying to make it stronger by taking things away so it becomes a clear idea. Like with my birds series, or the Google work, for example. Simple is divine.
AR: Definitions are also things that can be mutated, creating a shift in understanding that leads to a new perspective. I’m interested in the fact that today we don’t just have one definition or vision of the world. Film, television, and the internet offer many ways to see the world, essentially a lot of other lenses to look through. You recently traveled to New York City and created a body of work based on images of people captured on Google Earth called Ghosts and Flowers – how did that project begin? Have you continued to work with cameras that are not your own?
EL: I always have a little snapshot camera with me for taking notes, and I often give it to other people because I want to know how they feel and see. A few years ago, I did it really obsessively, to give other people my camera when I was at a party or something. When I looked through the pictures other people took, I’d become nearer to them. It’s so different when I watch them and see their language. It’s also the same when you have an email conversation with someone and you see their text, sometimes I feel nearer to that person by just reading their words but not seeing them.
I started the Google work in New York, and there I was more focused on understanding the Street View media. I also had the idea that I wanted to do a portrait series of people on the street in New York. I walked around with my camera but I noticed standing in the street with my camera and tripod you get so much attention and attraction. When I saw the people on Google Street View, I was so interested that so many of these people when they didn’t know the camera were there. I thought it would be more suitable to use this media to make portraits of these people at the beginning of the 21st century than do the images on my own. There are so many great examples done in recent years, one is probably well known, in the 90s this photographer put big flashes in the streets and when the person walked through he would use the flash. Do you know this work?
EL: I can’t remember his name, but he got famous. There was one person who went to court because he didn’t want to have his portrait in the art scene. These images had a similar feeling of when you see a person in a spotlight, and it catches the person and pulls them out of the crowd. It was interesting work from the 90s.
AR: So when was the New York work done?
EL: In 2010, I finished it when I got back to Germany, but started in New York. The first thing that attracted me to Google Street View was this corner book store with a group of pigeons flying by the store. With Google street view you can ‘walk’ through the city, image by image, and you have different time scales from the birds- or image perspective. If you put the images in a row you’d have a little movie.
AR: Did you ever follow one spot on the street? I’m not sure how often the images change…
EL: Every two or three years. It depends on how important the places are and how much money you can earn. Some places change every one or two years, but there are places in Brooklyn that change every four or five years.
AR: Did you show those works in New York or only in Germany?
EL: I hadn’t the chance to show them in NY yet. But by the end of the year they will have been shown in Germany, Italy, Austria and Switzerland.
AR: In some of your work you create a dialog between your depicted imagery and the object of the picture – for example “think different, Empire State Building New York” (2010), is printed on a mirror where it partially reflects the viewer and environment where the lights in the elevator would be. Have you experimented with that more at all? Have you worked with installation at all?
EL: I did some installations and showed them, at my last show in Rotterdam, and before that in Stuttgart and Switzerland and also in Leipzig. I did several different installations with stuffed animals, but also I think my work as objects and not just images. The mirror one, especially, is more an object than an image. In recent years every artist that works with photograph seems to have started working with installation also. I find this interesting because lots of the photographs you take look towards an installation, towards an installative moment. When you put your work in a gallery you are again creating an installative moment. With pictures and objects you create a new installative moment, and every picture also tells a story from the original moment.
At the moment I’m working on a lot of those questions for an installation in Cologne, for what I hope will be an installation. Or it will just be objects on a wall, I’m not sure.
AR: When you have an exhibition and it’s just photographs on the wall, do you worry about them not being seen as objects because they come in a frame with a matt? Or do you expect them to be understood as objects?
EL: I think because of the frame they will be recognized as objects, lots of the works have special frames. The frame or way how they are presented is very important to strengthen the idea of the image, to make it clearer. But I don’t worry if anyone sees it as just an image; let them see it as an image.
AR: As you work towards multiple exhibitions, do you tend to work on one series at a time or more than one?
EL: I normally work on several things at once. At the moment I’m working on new Studio Works for April, and I’m working on a series I’ll show in October in a museum that deals with the question of how we explain ourselves as humans.
AR: How we explain what makes us human?
EL: Questions of what is different and similar between animals and humans, the series is called Optimistic About Nothing. In the same time in my head and my archive, my studio is an archive, I am collecting newspaper articles, internet stuff, books, little sketches I do, and I have several themes or issues I follow. So, I’m working in the studio I’m working more on the archive than on one work. For example the Google Street View works are connected to several things in the archive about issues that came up in New York, reflections on that.
AR: You mentioned the phrase Studio Work, and having this archive and following things that interest you, is that different than the work you exhibit? Is it just for you or do you plan to exhibit those archived materials?
EL: I don’t know, at the moment it’s more personal. Once I had a curator in my studio and she said ‘You have to exhibit this! These are great questions!’ That’s how the work of my studio wall popped up, I was reflecting on my own work and noticed that there were some questions I could answer by just taking pictures of my studio wall while I’m working on a different project.
AR: Do the projects in the studio give you the ideas for the projects you exhibit?
EL: Yes. For example, I have an archive that is about questions dealing with animals. I’ve photographed living animals, dead animals, I’m collecting images and books of dead and living animals too. I’m asking questions about living animals, animals in captivity, animals which are made just to show, like in zoos, and animals who are made to produce, like on a farm. The archive made me realize I wanted to work and do an exhibition in zoological museum. And I’m also interested in the scientific questions that zoological museums and universities deal with.
AR: For example?
EL: For example, in how they categorize things. And in the way we personify animals. For example, the hyena, for me is a very political animal. Everyone thinks it is an ugly animal, a very cruel animal, and it can drop out its vagina and it is as big as a male penis. This issue of gender makes it very political; it gets to our moral point of view. I also love to go into the back rooms of these scientific places, to see their collections. I’m going to have an exhibition in Hamburg with three other artists with similar interests. We joined together and for the last half a year we’ve worked together in their scientific collection, which was very interesting.
AR: We talked a bit earlier about giving your camera to other people, is your work more about the incidental or do you like to do studio shoots also? Do you plan your shoots or do you find something and shoot it right away.
EL: The first step I find something and then I plan the work and the concept and work with the best technique I can find. It might be a large format camera with a negative or a digital snapshot camera or a Polaroid. I think it’s important to use the right technique for the idea that you have. Especially with photography. You can be so close of making arts and crafts, a lot of my friends use only analog photography and I think ‘oh, how boring,’ this work would be so much more interesting if you used a scanner or a digital video camera. I’m living in this time, today and I want to work with the technology that best suits my idea and my concept. Otherwise, I think if you only focus on these old techniques, which have become quite common now, you become only a craftsperson.
And on the other hand, I’m very suspicious, I want to know all the new stuff, but also all the old stuff. I often do experimentation with techniques. I think it’s [photography] a wonderful field to do experimental, analytic work about photography or on, in photography.
AR: If you had unlimited resources what would you like to do?
EL: I would buy an island and invite all of my best friends to live with me there. Or I would take a year off and write a novel. I write a lot, and I would love to have the time for a year or two to just write, and think, and read. It would be great.
When you said unlimited resources I immediately got a little scared, since we have the internet and digital technology I feel that we have an unlimited resource of images that’s growing and growing. I realize also that my friends and I start to communicate more and more with videos and images. Sometimes I feel that we lose words by using too many images. And we also lose knowledge about how to create and talk about an image. We bring emotions too fast and lose a contemplative distance for things. That scares me.
AR: There is a paradox there, in this idea of photography capturing an image, dealing in images, but in the same time it’s so antithetical to the destructive vastness of the internet and of visual culture. That act of capturing is way to slow down.
EL: Slowing down is very important, to slow down the act of seeing.
AR: So that you can see.
Edgar Leciejewski’s work can be seen on his website, http://edgarl.de
He currently lives and works in Leipzig, Germany. He has shown at Spinnerei archiv massiv, Stadtgalerie Kiel, BES arte, Galerie Parrotta, Projektspace 176 among many other venues.