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“It stuns me every time”: Lena Herzog on the Uncanny Powers of Photography

Lena Herzog is a visual artist and photographer who develops thoughts and ideas as well as images. In his introduction to the conversation, Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison suggests that her camera follows Joseph Conrad's aesthetic creed to “render the highest kind of justice to the visible world.”   Harrison and Herzog discuss the cultural transition to […]

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This is KZSU Stanford. Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison and no, we haven't changed our theme song.
Just going with something more attuned to the mood, tenor and temperament of the artists who joins me in the studio today.
She spends a lot of time in a dark room down in Los Angeles, away from the remorseless light that bathe sets City of Angels.
So she's feeling right at home here in the catacombs of KZSU, whose studio B, where we record our shows, functions as a kind of dark room for developing thoughts and ideas rather than photo images.
Lena Hedgesaug is a visual artist and photographer whose camera seeks to render the highest kind of justice to the visible world.
That's an illusion to Joseph Conrad's aesthetic creed, by the way.
I invoke him here because in my view Lena Hedgesaug's approach to the image share something in common with Conrad's approach to storytelling, where I quote him again.
The meaning of an episode is not inside, like a kernel, but outside, enveloping the tail, which brings it out only as a glow brings out a haze in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
This Frederick Nietzsche once put it, only as an aesthetic phenomenon is the world and life eternally justified.
Power chords for the fans of entitled opinions.
Lena Hedgesaug was born in the Ural Mountains of Russia, moved to St. Petersburg in her late teens to study languages and literature at Leningrad University.
Immigrated alone to the United States in 1990, got a BA in Philosophy at Mills College here in the Bay Area, and in 1997 she discovered photography and shortly thereafter her career as a photographer began to take off.
Her work has been featured and reviewed in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Paris Review, The New Yorker Cabinet Magazine, The Believer, and Vanity Fair, Among Others.
She's a regular contributing artist to Harper's Magazine and the author of Five Books of Photography.
Her most recent series called Lost Souls exhibited at the International Center of Photography in New York, a book by that same title was published in 2010 and will be talking about that remarkable project later in our conversation.
But first let me welcome her to the program. Lena, thanks for joining us today on entitled opinions.
Hello Robert. Hello, I did not mention in that brief bio that you spent a year perhaps even longer than a year here at Stanford I believe in the 90s?
Yes, 92 and 93.
So that is a homecoming for you of sorts today, right? Yes, a lot of being back, thank you.
Before we discuss your own visual art, maybe we could talk a moment about the weird magic of this medium that you work in namely photography.
I've always felt that there's something ghostly or alchemical or in some cases even sacramental about making photographic images.
At least when it comes to the pre-digital technologies which require going into a dark room and engaging in processes that involve photographic emulsion, development, the transformation of a latent image into a visible image,
either negative or positive, by means of chemical procedures that result in the astonishing likeness of a person or object or landscape on paper.
It seems to me almost like a transubstantiation.
I gather that you don't use digital photography yourself, at least not when it comes to black and white, but that you still work in the dark room with film,
and the evolution, development and print. Do you find that there's something weird or ghostly about this process of producing images?
Yes, I do. I do, even though one of my favorite philosophers and thinkers, Walter Benjamin, said quite the opposite and he said that photography is one of the most powerful tools instruments of desecorilization of the world.
And I think what he meant by that is our over-familiarization of landscapes and objects and all things that are reproduced now.
We live in the oceans of images about five billion people who possess cell phones can produce fairly competent images. They're okay, but okay is not enough.
And the work that I do involves procedures and techniques that were at very dormant photography, but not out of sentimental reasons. It's just because they're better.
You're referring to, I believe, the pyrogallol technique of development. Is that it?
Yes, it's called pyrogallol because Thomas Wedgewood in 1802 in his experiments to try and fix an image or an outline of an object used crystals that were called,
are called pyrogallol crystals. And so, hence the technique, got this name.
And it first began in 1802 with his experiments and then later was developed and patented by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1841. Then patented as a product by Mr. Berkeley.
It's a combination of pyrogallol sodium sulfide and sodium carbonite in varying proportions.
And it became a basis of all pyrogallol developers, was the most popular developer in the 19th century.
And then easier and much faster techniques came along. They were not nearly as good.
Edward Weston would not switch to anything else and there were very good reasons for that.
It has been largely abandoned in part because of the technique being so complicated and volatile and in part because it's fairly toxic.
I have to wear an Israeli army mask and protective gear when I am developing my negatives. I order chemicals from Montana. I mixed them up in my lab.
And I developed the negatives. They come out of the developer slightly heavier in a way than when they go in because the chemicals build a stain.
That stain provides the most extraordinary range in the grass, which is highly photographic.
In yet it also stencils in the outlines of the object. It forces the grain to cling to the outlines of the object.
Stanceling them in really under the microscope when I look at it, I'm stunned every time. How beautiful that looks and how very much like an engraving that looks and how my negatives I showed you some before the show.
How they looked like Graverua plates. As objects, I love that.
We are three dimensional creatures. We don't have companionship and camaraderie with files with zeros and wands.
So even when you see an image that is perfectly perfect with very high resolution that is made of digital, there's something about it that doesn't speak to us.
I agree with that. It lacks depth somehow and it's hard for me from technical point of view to say why it gives me that impression.
What you've just described something that convinces me that some kind of magic does indeed take place in this transfer or from the object to the negative to the actual print.
If it's done in this procedure that you're describing.
Now you said it's not near all the new ones following the pyrogallol were not nearly as good.
No, they weren't and it's objectively true because what is good in a negative you can tell and that is a range.
So the blacks have to be very deep and the whites have to be very starkly white and the range in between you can measure density, you can measure what potentiality there is for a negative.
So for example the same negative I can print incredibly contrasty or can print completely gray and possibilities of interpretation are enormous and when I see an image come through in my developer, I mean it stuns me every time and it's the stuff of magic.
What you're describing is also the imprint of an object I still do not understand how an image with such likeness to an object can actually get registered without something of the substance, spiritual substance perhaps of that object transmigrating into the process as such.
And you know better than I do all the anthropological associations of the early chapters of the history of photography when people believed, especially non-Western peoples believe that if you can capture their image you're capturing their soul and that there's something about the power of the camera to steal the souls of people because you have.
So for example George Frazier in the 19th century the author of the famous book The Golden Bow, where he writes I'm going to quote him as with shadows and reflections so with portraits they are often believed to contain the soul of the person portrayed people who hold this belief are naturally loathe to have their likeness taken.
For if the portrait is the soul or at least a vital part of the person portrayed whoever possesses the portrait will be able to exercise a fatal influence over the original of it.
And then he goes on to relate an anecdote about I'm quoting again once at a village on the lower Yukon River an explorer had set up his camera to get a picture of the people as they were moving about among their houses.
While he was focusing the instrument the headmen of the village came up and insisted on peeping under the cloth.
Being allowed to do so he gazed intently for a minute at the moving figures on the ground glass then suddenly withdrew his head and balled at the top of his voice to the people.
He has all of your shades in this box.
A panic ensued among the groups and in an instant they disappeared helped her sculpture into their houses.
Beautiful. I love that.
And that is not just primitive peoples. I know I'm very fond of the anecdote of Ono Hedo Balzac the French writer who also believed he was very photophobic in the sense of he didn't.
I think there's only one picture of him in existence.
But he believed that each photograph that was taken, the depicted person lost a layer of skin thus losing part of his or her substance.
And he were referring earlier to this barrage of over saturated images that we have with five billion people with cell phones.
And I just cannot help believe that if certain sites could be the Vatican it could be the Parthenon or these famous after billions of photographs are taken of it.
Each one takes a little bit of the essence of that place or object away from it.
And it becomes vapid and it loses its depth even on our perception of it.
Until someone like you, a photographer like you, comes to the rescue of that over saturation and produces images of it that reanimate gives life back to what it has lost in a thoughtful kind of production of images rather than a thoughtless one.
And in this regard I think there's a commonality of what you're doing in photography of what certain poets of the modern period try to do by trying to rescue the same power of words from their use and abuse and over circulation in the media journalism and texting and so on and so forth.
Yes, thank you, that is the task. But I also have to say as a Russian, I am very well aware of all the meanings of word soul.
And for a Russian to Shah or do spirit soul is enormously pregnant with all sorts of meanings about from the religious connotation.
It also has a meaning of essence, the meaning of a thing.
And I have to say that when an object or a thing or a person is over familiarized, there's something happens to it, something in our perception of it happens.
And we lose the mystery, the expectations. That's why, for example, for me celebrities are absolutely uninteresting.
I sometimes I had to photograph them for a job, but for the most part they absolutely hold no interest for me.
So everything under the moon and the sun has been photographed. What was fascinating for me was to go into some of the rituals and events that are familiar to us and yet they have become completely unfamiliar because there is a veil of familiarization that holds us back from true understanding, at least that's how I see that.
So to look at it, a fresh, to pay attention to it carefully is at task right now.
Well, two things come to mind there. One is the notion of high digger is very fond of a verse of the German poet Hilderning, where he says,
So, only where the danger is does the saving power also grow. So what you're suggesting to me is that where there's a danger of the over doing of the photograph and the image saturation that we live in that perhaps it's there that a different way of producing the image will come to the rescue.
Yes, and for example one of the reasons that I use all these complicated technologies and techniques and large form of cameras is because I want to take special care. It should not be offhand. It should not be careless how I photograph.
I remember I used to work in Russia to make it as a proofreaded factory, printing factory. And the words had weight because the compositors used to put in the word into the machine and they had real weight.
Right, type. The type exactly. And so I like the fact that what I produce is actually an object. Now the mystical part of it is not only that mechanically I can reproduce the astonishing likeness of the world, but also mechanically I can reproduce how I feel, how I see the world.
That to me is particularly mystical, particularly odd.
Well, and that's why there's a certain phenomenological dimension to this work because the way the world appears to you is the way the world appears in general.
Namely it always appears to a perceiver. It doesn't have an objective state of being that is independent of its perception and the kind of art and also the kind of literature and the kind of thinking frankly that I respond to the most is phenomenological in essence because it is
particular attention to the modes in which things reveal themselves, make themselves available.
And photography forces you to be very, very present because you're dealing with fractions of seconds. There is no way to hide everything who you are, coalesces in splits of seconds.
And the type of photographers are going to trench. They pop out, they take a picture of the same event, they pop back in, they come up with completely different images. Remember the picture of a naked girl after the nip-pong bombing in Vietnam or by Nick Ott.
And it's a very famous iconic image. Now you have to know that on that bridge there stood half a dozen photographers, including photographers from the New York Times, who was far more famous at the time,
and did not, none of them produced images that stuck with us. They were shooting at the same time, that same group of Vietnamese running towards them.
This is extraordinary and fascinating aspect of photography that not only does it register the world, the event, but it registers the photographers in a state of being.
Can I go back to what you said about the word "soul" in Russian? Yes. And the different meanings of it because this has direct relation to the book that you published that I mentioned in the introduction called "Lost Souls" and perhaps you can reconstruct for our listeners the origins of this project and how it came about and how it led to this
extraordinary series of photographs that I'm not going to describe now, I'm going to let you do that for us.
Well, the project originated long ago in the project really goes back to the first encounter in 1987, ten years before I discovered photography while I was still a student at Leninger University and was hoping as a proper Russian girl to be a writer.
I just once wandered into the palace that was right next to the philological faculty of Leninger University, which is on the D'Even River, and next to its dance const camera, the first Russian museum founded by Peter the Great, our great Russians are the Westernizer, who brought from Holland a collection of anatomical anomalies, and otherwise known to us in the city, babies and jaws.
And because they're bottled fetuses, they're bottled fetuses, are normalist bottled fetuses, and it sounds macabre, sounds like Dr. Caligari's den, but it's not at all.
You have to realize that you're coming into a palace with marble stairs, crystal chandeliers, and you're not expecting men in white robes,
and you're expecting beautiful women in mink shawls, and the ads are Peter walking around the corners, and by the way he loved const camera.
And what he did was he brought in the late 17th century, he brought the collection of approximately 2,000 specimens from Holland.
He bought it for 30,000 g from Dr. Friedrich Alsh, Roche, he's pronounced differently in Holland, he's pronounced Alsh, he pronounced him Roche.
And I didn't really know very much about it, and when I walked out the marble stairs, I saw something that I've never seen the like.
It was astonishing, every single creature was distinct.
They were encased in jaws, floating in liquid as if in the lake.
And I felt like I was descending upright.
Some of these babies stared at me straight in the eye with their eyes that had no pupils, somehow too many eyes for one.
Others just one eye, others none.
Another creature outstretched he six arms like a starfish, some east winds passionately embraced each other, and another pair of twins looked like they were lost in an eternal disagreement.
And so it was like remnants of shattered lives possibilities, and they seemed to form a kind of a dancing chorus of ghosts passing through time, through glass.
And they seemed to be revealing something profound, but I didn't know quite what it was.
Some sort of a riddle, and it remained a riddle for me.
I don't know what, you know, necessarily the old men.
And all these cabinets of wandering curiosities that I later hunted down visited, some of them let me in some of them didn't.
They all have that kind of an extraordinary riddle in each one of them.
And what astonished me about it was that you had thoughts and emotions that normally take a lifetime to accumulate.
You knew for sure that the world is indifferent to you, completely indifferent to your fight.
That makes me, are you speaking now on behalf of the fuses for yourself?
I speak on behalf of us, of humanity, at least that's how I saw that.
That there is no general overarching kindness in the world outside of us.
And so, and you're also very clearly that nature is touch and go, and it makes errors that error mistake, maybe may well be at the heart of creation.
And all of these thoughts occur to you upon sight, upon one sight, and it's a sudden insight.
Now, another fascinating thing was that I made friends over the years with a lot of the cabinet curators, all of them, by the way, fantastic people that make great guests on your show, very smart, sometimes cranky, but really, really brilliant.
And thinking about philosophical terms like scientists and about science is if they were poets.
And so, they told me that when children come, just school or class to see the exhibitions, they laugh.
They laugh like mad, which is a fascinating thing because I always thought that the highest form of laughter is sudden insight.
Yeah, I often feel that laughter is concealed anxiety, or it's a way of relieving intense anxiety sometimes, so if you go to see a play by Samuel Beckett, which is grim and bleak and horrible, that people will laugh all the time, nervously, at some of the bleakest pessimistic moments of that.
That might be too.
So the effect of these specimens, which you say made you believe that there is a profound indifference, and perhaps could be this kind of Russian nihilistic realization that there is no God that cares for us, and you spoke about mistakes being made by nature, and we just aired a show recently about
evolution, and talked, and I talked about nature operating essayistically, where it will attempt a huge range and array of possibilities that are potential and only a small proportion of them actually get actualized, because a number of things have to go right before a species can reproduce successfully, and evolve the way we've involved.
So what you're describing here are anomalies, or failed attempts, failed essays, but I would say that there's rather than feeling despair, I would say there's at least perhaps you could look at it as a certain benevolence on the part of nature, not to have allowed the monstrous ill-formed mutant creature to be born.
So this vast army of ghosts of the unborn perhaps have been spared a horror that would be far worse than that of being denied life.
Right, well, you know, I'm not a religious person, I'm a mutton of heathen, so I don't necessarily see it so much in religious terminology.
I was, by the way, very worried when I called it Lost Souls, which has origin in how they were called because Russia and the priest kept trying to place them in the afterlife and they just couldn't do that.
But benevolence, yeah, I guess it's a way of interpreting and probably you're right there as well, except it doesn't occur to you when you see them, because when you see them, none of them look particularly happy except the skeletons, skeletons seem to be perennially laughing.
But the fetuses, they all look inconsolable and you have this extraordinary desire to console them somehow, to hold onto them to say something, to make them not weep.
And although they are semi-stwinds, for the most part, always look like they're either having their own private conversation or disagreement, and that's also very, very fascinating.
And by the way, I wanted to preserve that kind of thought that I heard about Laughter.
And so I hunted down the Maisaukistra, which was constructed in 1860s by Dutch, another Dutch, Dr. Ijie van der Mille, who was a country doctor, the local village crank, and he created this rhapsody in death of Mais skeletons equipping each one with a musical instrument.
So it took me two years to get the permit from the Lidon Medical Association, and finally they opened it up uncooked from the catacombs in Rhysvick, this beautiful, beautiful piece, and it is really strangely funny.
And it reminded me also of one of my great compatriots, Gogel, who wrote Dead Souls, which is an absolutely tragic at the heart of the novel story, and yet it is written with such strange satire and humor about things that normally were wouldn't joke about, except, of course, unless you're Russian.
Do you find that there's something conatural between the art of photography, the way you practice it, and these bottle fuses?
Now let me explain my suggestion, that they are preserved in a state of stillness, eternal stillness, and fixity.
In that sense, they are still life, and still not only stillborn, but they're still life, and that what a photograph does, a thoughtful photograph, likewise fixes in a kind of eternal image, eternal, you can call it just a stable image, something that otherwise is caught up in the flow and flux of time and circumstance and life.
And in that sense, if you say that it steals something of the identity or image of the object, and then it fixes it in this other medium, which is art that lasts after the death of the person, and the...
It's a freeze of life, yes.
It's a freeze of life, yes.
So these specimens would be ideal subjects for a photographer.
That's right, in a way I felt a little guilty because someone preserved them for me, framed them, exhibited them.
In some way they also took a lot of ethical responsibilities upon their shoulders.
However, I felt that what I was doing was distilling and reframing their task at, I felt an extraordinary kinship with the first anatomists and the preservationists.
We are involved in very similar goals, you know, that we're preserving something that's meant to perish, you know, catching a moment in time.
Sending it like a message in the bottle forward to the future.
And I do feel that fundamental kinship with them.
I like with struggle with surfaces and try to understand deeper meaning of things, the soul of things while trying to show that through the surfaces.
But of course it wasn't so as simple as going in there and just clicking the camera, you had to have the right light, you had to have the right light.
I couldn't bring any lights.
You couldn't bring any lights?
Because all the climate and the lighting is extremely highly tuned, so a lot of the times I had to be in these rooms and stained rooms for days.
And on end, I was not always lucky with the sun and wait for the sun for the daylight to travel across the shelves and across the jars and further guffed in those moments.
So it was actually, I would wait for five, six hours, three hours, and then I would only have few seconds because within few seconds the light would change and things would become different.
I also had to deal with many layers of glass, the glass of the jars, the glass of the shelves as well because they were in the cabinets.
So the cabinets themselves also had glass which presented very serious technical problems because there was so much refraction.
And if there was also a chandelier in St. Petersburg or in Utterevte, I had to deal with wild reflections.
And when I looked at the photographs later, I thought that was one of the best things that actually happened because sometimes these strange spots of light that would scatter along the jar would look like a spirit.
Like a soul of that creature.
And sometimes you could see the fetus contemplating his own image and looking desperate and devastated at what he saw.
And I have to say that in the Horsesh collection, some of the creatures were dressed.
Professor Horsesh had a daughter, a Hakele, who was, I think, eight or nine at the time when he collected the first ones.
And she would create, you know, so dresses for them out of lace and add a sea horse or add something that she would make, like played with them like as if they were dolls.
And some of that is still very much preserved and strange to see.
But actually it was out of compassion trying to, you know, cover them up and make them look like regular babies, like regular children.
When the first images came up for you in the dark room where you, what was it, ghostly, having it had to have quite, it had to be quite a moment to see these unborn fetuses take on a new life in this other medium, which does give them life of a certain sort.
It gives them life in the realm of art, not in the realm of biology.
Yeah, well, the only possession is death and yet they looked so incredibly alive.
When I saw the first negatives, I was very horrified because they didn't look this time like my memory of the event.
And I photographed in good focus and it was a sort too much and you really had a feeling that the grim ripper was in the room, because no matter how well you preserve the body tissue, the decay, the signs of decay are still kind of there.
And it's not good to see, it's terrible to see.
And I've never been interested in doing anything shocking, it's in juvenile and very boring exercise, I've never done it.
I don't like seeing it, it's not because it worries me, it's just boring.
So I went back with a very long lens and I put on three rings on it.
So, made my focus very shallow and put the focus mostly on the eyes.
And then they did adhere to my first insight, which was striking by the way when I described what I saw to in Grand Bernat,
who is one of the very fine historians of science, he told me what I'm describing is actually called "Wanda".
But "Wanda" not in the contemporary sense, "Wanda" in the sense of Renaissance, where you question the basics and the fundamentals of the world.
That's not such a bad thing.
Yeah, we've talked a lot about wonder on this show from different points of view from different philosophers, Aristotle, Thau Ma Zayn, the origin of all mythology and thought and philosophy comes from the state of wonder, because you are actually in the state of bewilderment.
Before the existence of something that is impenetrable and enigmatic that you don't understand, and so you begin thinking.
It's a good state to be in.
You're looking for orientation.
A photograph is a still image, or it's an image that is fixed and doesn't change.
It can be of something in motion, but it fixes. There's a certain...
I find that the subjects of this project of yours are almost the ideal photographic subjects, insofar as they are stillness incarnate.
In that sense, they are still life if you want to use that term that comes from the history of art.
The freeze of life.
The freeze of life is still life in French. It's not you of Moach, the dead nature.
And their fixity, immobility, or their frozenness in time, seems ideal for the medium of photography, which itself can take its time, transferring, or transmigrating the souls of the objects into the print.
This is interesting in relation to your previous projects.
The book on the pilgrimage in Tibet that you have a book that is quite fascinating, which documents...
Well, I don't know if the documentation is the right word, but it's certainly a testament to a long process of the pilgrimage that thousands of thousands of people would undertake over long, long, long distances.
And your book is full of photos, parts of these... moments of this pilgrimage, pilgrimage by itself in itself, is a dynamic being on the way to...
It's a process of a journey, it's a movement. And of course, you are capturing certain moments and fixing certain moments, kind of taking them outside of the dynamic of the motion and stillifying them.
In the same way that you did with your series on the bullfights and then the flamenco dance classes, how do you understand the challenges of photography when you are trying to render a still...
I don't want to call it static because there is motion within the photograph, but the challenges of... rendering something which is inherently dynamic onto the still image of a photograph.
Well, the first three books, Taramaki on bullfighting, flamenco and pilgrims were in a way... well, fundamentally in a different direction, the opposite direction from lost souls.
Lost souls, I had to make something come alive that was very much dead.
And in Taramaki, flamenco and pilgrims, I was engaged in a very traditional task of photography and that is preserving a moment in time.
And particularly with flamenco, that task was the most important one because I wanted to show something that's fundamentally about motion.
And show motion, show life in a still photograph.
So you had to do it with composition, you had to do it with... catching a moment that exists not just within the frame, but you can see it how it is existing outside the frame, what preceded it and what will come next.
So the challenge in photographing, especially flamenco and bullfighting, had to do with anticipating something that was going very, very fast.
And in flamenco, I was photographing inside in a studio, in a dance studio with huge windows and very dark corners.
So the difference in aperture was about four stops.
So you had, and all my equipment is manual.
So I had to learn intuitively to change aperture very, very fast without thinking.
So, and that is very crucial for a photographer to be able to do that without having to check with light meter, without too much waste.
Can I ask a question about the flamenco project? You chose to take photographs of the preparations for the actual, not the actual performance, but the classes, the training rehearsal sessions. Is that correct or...
Yes, I wanted to photograph dancers while they were gazing at themselves in the mirror.
Why was that?
There was a different kind of an attention going on, more introspective, and yet they were involved in motion at the same time.
There was something that was happening to their faces that was far more interesting than what was happening to their faces when they were performing for the crowd.
And I just didn't see that in performances.
There's a veil that goes over people when they are faced with the crowd and with gazes of others.
Yes, I, in fact, that was my impression is that you had photographed these faces without a mask on.
And it struck me how much sadness there actually is in many of those faces.
I don't know if you share that impression that I had, that where one would expect a certain kind of joy or a...
shall we saw us? There's a deep... not melancholy, but some sense of that there's a tragic undertone to some of these faces.
Well, first of all, Flamenco has a tragic sight to it.
Even all the songs are mostly very tragic about longing or the loss of a horse or a gypsy who went to jail.
And there's only one dance in Flamenco that's called Aligria, the Dance of Joy.
Everything else, I think hundreds of other dancers, they all sad.
But also training is full of failures.
And so these are faces of mostly women, although there was some men there as well,
but mostly women that were facing minute to minute failures of their bodies of not keeping in time, of not catching the moment.
And I can relate to that.
Yeah, and of course it's under severe pressure and the stress of the moment for sure.
And then both fighting the same, I was particularly struck by the faces of both fighters before they come out into their arena,
that you can actually photograph fear.
In fact, the bullfighting series, the first chapter is, I think it's called "breeding" or "Yes."
So it's not the performance, but it's everything that goes into getting prepared for the performance.
So it's again not potentiality, but it's not the actuality of the performance.
And you see the stress and pressure that the bullfighters are under, and there attempts to adopt the right kind of that match of posture of the bullfighter, which...
The chapter, that's my favorite in that book, that's my first book, is "At the Gate."
And that's the second chapter. The first one is "Brigging the Second One is at the Gate."
And you see them literally moments before they come out into their arena to face the bulls.
And that's where you see them most tense, and actually I was struck by how the conversation between bullfighters doesn't differ that much from the ones that Hemingway described.
The wind comes from southwest, and the bulls, these bulls are bad, they're stupid and mean, and it's of this very laconic conversation between men, men to men.
It's really astonishingly the way Papa Hemingway described them, fascinating.
Are you particularly attracted to the photographic subject, things that have to do with heavily ritualized performances, like the Flamingo dance, or the bullfighting has ancient origins, and it's stylized, it's ritual is ceremonial, almost sacramental as it were.
And then we can speak about pilgrimage later, but...
I like the constraints of the rituals, and just like I like the constraints of the jars in lost souls, the obstruction and the boundaries of either ritual or an exhibition, they provide some kind of a framework which you can reframe yourself, but you know where the bounds are.
And so in terms of a project, especially when you're trying to do something philosophical, let's say photographing fear, or photographing labor of love, like in Flamingo, or trying to define the norms of humanness, the boundaries of humanness, like in lost souls.
It's very good to have artificial boundaries of either the ceremony and the tradition, or an exhibit in the cabinet of wandering curiosities, like it is in the case of lost souls.
What was it like to photograph the pilgrimage? Can you say something about the whole event itself?
It was the ceremony, a fairly regular festival that takes place in May around Mount Kailash, and pilgrims from all over the world,
Buddhists come to the foot of Mount Kailash, and they circumambulate the mountain, you cannot step on the mountain as sacrilegious, but you have to circumambulate it if you are particularly ardent Buddhist, you want to measure it in your own height and prostrate yourself all around the mountain, and there were some of those, you can see them in the book.
The experience was very difficult for me because I suffered from altitude sickness.
Even the foot of the mountain is fairly high.
I was really, really quite sick, so I ended up with no more than five rolls of film.
I only shot when I was absolutely forced to, and I did, though, complete the three days around the mountain.
It was arduous, it was labor, but I saw mothers with babies doing it, so I decided that I better buckle up and keep going.
It wasn't just the circumambulation of the mountain, but many of them came from thousands of kilometers away in some cases on foot.
Many cases on foot.
And some came from India, and by the way, what was also disconcerting quite if you died on the way, and I never photographed people who died.
And that guy who was prostate, and how many, I don't know how many kilometers he had done in a prostate form of locomotion, did you ever have the impression going through that book?
These people are insane on the one hand. On the other hand, there's something sublime about going all the way if it is a form of insanity.
And one feels on the one hand diminished, because one is not cake.
I just could not go through this ordeal, and I don't have enough imagination, perhaps, to believe that it would be worth my while to do so.
So on the one hand, I think these people are crazy. On the other hand, I have a sense that I don't have the spiritual imagination to be there equal.
They all seemed extremely sane, and quite kind to each other, just as we would expect of Buddhists.
It was almost disappointing how predictable that was, but they were extremely kind. If they saw someone in trouble, they gathered, and they helped.
And if they saw that they couldn't help, they actually continued, they didn't linger.
And sometimes, one of the nights, I saw them all sleeping in a big heap with their dogs, and it snog that night.
So all covered in snow, and then in the morning they woke up, and shook it off, and went. The only one that I saw going mad was a yuck, who was carrying my equipment and the bags.
And at some point the second day, he decided to get rid of it, and he just shook it off, and he ran away. The yuck.
In that case of the pilgrimage book and other landscape photos of yours that I've seen, my impression is that you have a very aggressive filter that darkens.
And the light, as it would be, otherwise objectively communicated. And am I correct in assuming that you darkened the tones and the colors?
Well, pilgrims, which is in color, I did use a polarizing filter because light, near Mount Kailash, was extremely bright.
So everything would have been blown out if I didn't use the polarizer. But the technique that I use in black and white has very deep blacks because it has such a wide range.
The black's black and the white's very white. So it has this high contrast impression. However, unlike as a negative, it also has extreme range of grays as well. But the blacks appear really, really deep. And I like that.
I think you also mentioned to me off air that it was hard to take pictures with subjects who weren't smiling because they were actually smiling a lot, but the smile would not have fit what you were trying to communicate about the spirit of the pilgrimage.
Well, when they registered me and saw that I was photographing, they were very hospitable and sweet. And they were very friendly and smiling. And I was just thinking, my god, I'm going to come up with some more trivial, banal pictures of Buddhist smiling.
And I really didn't want that. And not just because I am a contrarian, but because what I saw happening with them internally when they were praying, when they were so commemorating, which is a form of prayer, was something most serious.
There was absolutely no smiling going on. So it just lingered and I waited until they forgot about me and tried to get to the soul of what they were doing, to the essence of what they wanted to be because they went there not just to do a ritual.
There was something that they wanted to become through it. And that sense of becoming, in that moment of becoming was most serious and very, very interesting.
Do you always go around with a camera at your side for those moments which are unpredictable and cannot be foreseen where you might capture something on an occasional basis or do you pre meditate and study your topic before you actually go and take pictures?
I'm mostly pre meditate. I used to always have my camera with me, at least my Leica. I have many cameras. I have hustle of blood, I have lean hops, two lean hops for by five, six by 17.
I used to bring at least a Leica with me all the time. And then I realized that I was being careless and I was drowning in images that I was making a little bit too frequently. And I don't want to be careless.
You have an upcoming project or book, "Dale's X Machina, the Strand Beasts of Theo Jansen."
Of T.O. Jansen.
That's due out in a year or two. Can you say something about that project?
When I was finishing Lost Souls, I kept going back to Holland because I photographed in Lydon and Utrecht in Amsterdam.
And I realized that I have to somehow count a balance at least a bit the work that I was doing which was mostly dark Lost Souls with somehow the lighter.
And by accident I heard about the work of the Kinetic sculptor, T.O. Jansen, who was in Holland. So it was for tutors that I was there as well. And I went to see on the beach the Kinetic sculptors that looked like they jumped off Leonardo da Vinci sketchbooks.
And yet, although they were a cake, they were also very futuristic at the same time. And I thought, well, that's perfect. That's a lighter side of one.
I've been photographing these sculptures, the making of them. And the new developments by the artist, it was also my way of thinking about what it is specifically that I want to see.
But these sculptures are actually kinetic if I'm not mistaken. And they're in motion and they have a certain primitive form of artificial intelligence. Is that correct?
Yes, yes. I have the same problem in this case as I had with Flamenco, something that is inherently about motion. I have to tell the story in Stills.
The Kinetic sculptors feed on wind. They collect wind and then move through a compressed air release mostly on the beaches.
This is designed to tackle the beaches, water and the dunes. If they inhale by accident water, then they move away from it because there's a series of clamps that prevents them from drowning. And they're just extraordinary.
Well, they are, again, objects of wonder for sure. It's wondrous and they are also have that strange on-canny in-determinacy of their ontological status about being animator inanimate and between the organic and the synthetic. And it actually unsettles one's categories of these distinctions.
Yes, that's true. And I love that.
And do you have something else that you're in the process of preparing?
I do. I have usually at each particular moment about a dozen projects going. I drag a fisherman, a big net behind me because most of these project projects happen.
All around the world. So I'm actively involved in about five of them. But they're six machinase next. And I'm doing a very interesting one about America.
From what point of view? It's called Dreams of America. And it's a point of view of a stranger, but also someone who is already at home in America.
Sounds like you.
Yes. Well, Lena Hedgesog has been a pleasure talking to you about your art and your medium. I want to remind our listeners we've been speaking with Lena Hedgesog.
Thank you, Ron.
The visual artist and photographer here at KZSU for entitled opinions.
Remind you that we have over 150 shows in our archives and you can access them on by either going to our website or to our iTunes podcast.
So, Lena, next time you come up to the Bay Area from Los Angeles, let us know in advance and we can continue this conversation.
Thank you, Robert.
You take care.
You, too.