Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs in Conversation with Florian Ebner and Christin Müller
f.e. — You came to Berlin in 2008—what triggered this decision? And what is it about the ugly and unfinished nature of this city that makes it so photogenic for you, and so worth photographing?
t.o. — After studying in Zurich, we lived for a while in New York, and after our return it quickly became clear that Zurich was no longer an option for us. Berlin, on the other hand, was ideal at this point in time, because unlike in Zurich there was still cheap accommodation and studio space. The city was full of energy and there were many possibilities for working in and on it.
n.k. — We were fascinated by the empty spaces in the city centre and by the seemingly uncoordinated attempts to fill them and patch them together. The development of the urban structure is always a visual index of a period of time, and an expression of the human need to define and shape oneself and one’s environment. In Berlin the processing of history and the attempt at a new start were visible in every respect. That was something we found moving, and we wanted to work with it. Even the structures that are deemed a failure usually last long enough for us to learn something from them over time. So the ugly and unfinished nature of the city acts like a monument or memorial, reminding us that we can do things better, or at least differently, in future.
f.e. — Your work links in an extremely innovative way two approaches that were seen for a long time as irreconcilable—the documentary image and the staged image—and does so in a totally undogmatic and playful way, which has no need to put forward the concept as a theoretical construct. Could you reconstruct the way this working method developed? Because in your series The Great Unreal, which deals with American myths, you choose a visual iconography that is the epitome of pure or straight photography.
n.k. — While we were working on The Great Unreal, it became clear to us that we had no interest in reiterating the idea of the photographic icon associated with the American tradition. We often had the impression that the iconic nature of these pictures turns them into constructs. Which is why we started to reveal these constructs and thus to deconstruct the photographic image per se. Our working method emerged in many earlier experiments, which brought a sculptural, handmade component into the finding of the image. Although the photographic image had always been a broad field of manipulation, for a long time the notion of authenticity and the romantic concept of “real depiction” shaped the idea of the photographic medium. We wanted to break that mould, to take it apart and create our own photographic world. With the help of models as well as collage and repro techniques, we linked photographic depiction with found, constructed parts of the image which develop their own effect, particularly in combination or when put together in series. Characteristics specific to photography, such as central perspective, depth of field, and focal planes, were also used for the construct.
c.m. — As regards the material, your work is characterized by an experimental and reflective engagement with the medium. For instance, when you rework prints or link analogue and digital photographic methods in a productive way or manipulate the process of taking a photograph by disturbing the camera. How do the method of working and the subject influence each other?
t.o. — Technique has always been an experimental field for us: what happens if you leave the prescribed, established path and allow errors, turn processes back to front, and combine them in new ways? Our experiments have often produced unanticipated results, which can then later be used consciously and in a more or less controlled way. Every disturbance in the image influences the message we convey, every element can be given a different weight.
For instance, with the help of a piece of card placed directly in front of the lens during the exposure, you can create an unnaturally black night sky from the evening sky above a desert landscape, without this being clearly recognizable later as a form of manipulation. But the landscape under this sky seems much more threatening. The idea of the photographic image must be judged afresh each time in the process.
f.e. — Why isn’t the pure photographic “recording” of visible reality sufficient any more—why is it supplemented with intervention? The simple act of recording, which after all was the dogma of photography for so long, seems instead to equate to resignation for many artists today. Is photography too passive, or reality too boring?
n.k. — Neither. But there are now also new realities which can’t be ignored. The possibilities of photographic construction have infinitely multiplied, and it’s hard to tell now when an image has been constructed. “Deep learning” has already turned algorithms into better, or let’s say more efficient image creators than we ever were, because every image can be calculated from the ground up. “Lens-based photography” will soon be no more than one visual genre among many. Artists can sense this change and are incorporating their own imagination into the photographic image.
c.m. — In your exhibitions, video installations and sculptural objects are important components of the whole installation. What is their relationship to the photographic images?
t.o. — The photographic medium is a quick-change artist. Not only can it be used in countless areas but it can also take on different “aggregate states”. Photography published in a book or on the screen is of a different nature from its manifestation as an object in an exhibition. In exhibitions we always try to underline the site-specific, unique nature of a photograph and to find a form of installation that fluctuates between surface and content and thereby reinforces both.
n.k. — Over the years we have noticed that it’s essential for us to keep distancing ourselves from photography, to have a break and devote ourselves to other forms and approaches. In this way, working with films, sculptures, and installations allows us to find our way back to photography by unfamiliar routes.
c.m. — What sort of materials or objects are you interested in for your exhibition installations, and why?
t.o. — Sometimes we find elements and ideas from our photographs have materialized in other forms, which we then integrate in exhibitions. For instance, in the last few years we have worked with parts of trees and whole trees that over the years have grown through man-made metal structures like fences and railings and have become hybrid creations narrating stories of faded human ambitions and the inexorable drive of living things towards growth and space. We first encountered these “malformations” while working on the series Constructions (Building Berlin)—namely, in all those places where time brings nature back into zones created by man: into derelict industrial sites, the strip where the Berlin Wall once ran, abandoned urban development areas. Combining photography with objects makes sense to us when they articulate similar feelings or thoughts in different languages.
f.e. — In your films you use analogue 16 mm material. What is it about this that fascinates you? Aren’t you afraid of being seen as purveyors of nostalgia?
n.k. — We began working with 16 mm film because we were interested in the method of working that went with it. As with analogue photography, there are considerable material limitations because of the high costs involved, and many decisions have to be made before and while the photo is being taken, instead of in post-production. Of course, “real” film material on projectors always has a nostalgic component as well, but if it’s used properly, it can also develop a tremendous sense of magic that generates another form of regard for the image.
At the moment we are trying very deliberately to use the nostalgia that goes with this technique to direct and disrupt perceptions. It’s interesting that with 16 mm film projection the assumption is actually always that we are seeing images of a distant past. That is the viewpoint that interests us at present.
f.e. — Let’s look back for a moment: you studied at the Zurich School of Art and Design, which did, after all, produce some interesting artistic positions in the 1990s and 2000s. In this environment, who or what had a particularly formative influence on you?
n.k. — The Zurich School was a fertile environment at that time: different positions were running up against one another, and “growing up” in this area of tension was very enriching. The clash of opposing views was also productive. The private, intimate photography of the 1990s came up against the sober, low-key Düsseldorf School, commercial initiatives against conceptual, performative experiments, classical analogue photography against early experiments with digital development, which was new at that time. Finding our own line within this wild mash-up was an important experience for us.
During our studies we tried out all kinds of directions: as well as working on our own projects, we accepted commissions for portraits and staged images for various print media; we worked in collaboration with fashion designers (especially with Bernhard Wilhelm) for lookbooks, fashion shows, and exhibitions; and we put together architectural documentation and reports. In addition, there was our eclectic and somewhat obsessive interest in films, music, books, art … The influences were correspondingly diverse and inspiring.
t.o. — And on top of that, the school provided us with a tremendous treasure trove of photographic resources, studios, labs, all kinds of camera formats, and various technical curiosities. The students felt quite free to engage with and help one another. In Zurich we felt less pressure to compete in the way that is normal in many schools, and even between the different years there was a lot of interaction. This is probably thanks to the people teaching the photography course at that time—Ulrich Görlich, André Gelpke, and Cécile Wick—who didn’t push one particular direction but favoured a diverse praxis.
c.m. — A word now about the future: at the moment, photography is seeing a juxtaposition of analogue and digital techniques, even though the materials and machinery for analogue processes are slowly disappearing. At the same time, new methods of capturing and reproducing images are being improved, and images exist more and more frequently as “networked images” in shared form rather than as individual prints. What adjustments would you like to make to the medium? What do you want from photography?
n.k. — It’s a hugely interesting time for photography. Apart from the technical innovations there are the niche and nerd scenes, which are reviving and improving old techniques.
t.o. — For our current work Future Perfect we have started to mix techniques and are trying to find a new language on the dividing line between hope and fear with regard to our own future. We are experimenting with the combination of new and old techniques. For instance, we recently used high-precision laser instruments to draw on light-sensitive paper emulsions in the darkroom or to engrave directly on the surface layers of 8×10 inch negatives.
n.k. — The engraving technique is interesting because when it’s enlarged, it reveals the imperfections and flaws of the digital technique again. For us this work also means engaging with the question as to what power the photographic image can still have in a time of high-speed image consumption, and how we can work our own sensibilities into this.