INTERVIEW “Watching and Being Watched” by Jeff Rian
Jeff Rian: Where are you from? What was it like?
Jenny Källman: I grew up in central Stockholm but spent long summers on the country at summer camp, where, in contrast to the city, I was immersed in nature.
JR: How did you get into photography?
JK: That was a bit of a coincidence. At eighteen I had to study something if I was ever going to make a proper living. I looked at preparatory schools in art. I wasn’t that good at drawing, so I chose photography. But it wasn’t until I developed my first roll of film that photography came to me—in a flash. It was magic, like falling in love. The magic has stayed with me.
JR: Just like that?
JK: Well, I grew up in an era when photography had a strong presence in the media, with color photographs in news magazines and even in children’s books. At eighteen I had no real knowledge of photography or art and was confronted with a rather strict introduction to documentary photography, which at the time was very strong in Sweden.
JR: You didn’t like documentary photography?
JK: I’ve always been intrigued by it—who isn’t? But I felt ambivalent. The term documentary photography includes Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, and I was afraid of their stylistic authority; so whenever I shot documentary pictures—especially when the subject had nothing to do with me—I felt like a thief or a forger.
JR: Or a cop?
JK: More like an anthropologist on a visit. I’m a child of sixty-eight—with all the era’s politics and the complex curiosity for the documentary genre. But I was tired of all that. Creating art is always a political act in itself.
JR: So what did you do?
JK: I spent a lot of time in libraries, but I paid more attention to pictures than to texts. I came across the Danish photographer, Jacob Holdt’s book American Pictures. That book was fundamental to my early photography—even before I really knew who he was.
JR: Did you like Holdt’s style or the stories he told?
JK: It was a combination of both. American Pictures was like venturing into a dollhouse of realism, full of violence, sex, and what seemed like forbidden places. The pictures were small, and many were taken in dark rooms using a flash. This was the United States that I’d heard about but had never seen. As I said, the discussion at the preparatory school centered on documentary images with a political slant. I overdosed on that. I wanted to photograph something else, which I’d not yet defined. So I looked for a kind of visual storytelling that was not based on explicit truth. I wanted to convey what I’d experienced in reading fiction and listening to music. At that time I also found a book of Man Ray’s photographs, which had a strong impact on me.
JR: Did Man Ray show you a way out of documentary photography?
JK: Man Ray made me aware of photography as art. He opened my eyes to ways of
experimenting in the darkroom and to the Surrealists’ approach to the subconscious. For that reason his pictures seemed more relevant to me than the documentary images I’d made and had seen. I experimented a lot in the darkroom, cutting up images, laminating them together, putting texts with pictures, using color-coating, and so on. Then, when I was admitted to the School of Photography at the University of Gothenburg the discussion was about Postmodernism and how photography should be both conceptual and deliberate. That was interesting—the lectures, the theory we read—but they were rules, too, about the “right” way to make art, which I found inhibiting.
JR: How so? What did you do?
JK: I was envious of musicians. I thought music was the only completely free art form. Musicians might not agree—even in music there are rules one adheres to and maybe violates. I began by shooting lots of images without any conscious goal. From those pictures I’d create an archive, from which I’d try to create some kind of order. I photographed people, especially young people on streets, under bridges, in public places—the places where kids are most active. I used the camera in the manner of a street photographer. I didn’t wait for the right moment, like Cartier- Bresson, but I did work quickly. I had to. I felt like I was on surveillance. I was always sweaty and nervous. But something was happening, for me, as a photographer, as a witness.
JR: Was that something both the subjects and the place?
JK: There’s a lot of drama in public spaces. But the sequence of events isn’t clear. I let my imagination run freely. From a real event I created a kind of photographic paraphrase. What interests me is to bring private events into the public domain. But there’s a process, an evolution. After a shoot there are hours, sometimes days, before the film is developed. This time is necessary for me.
JR: Giving you time to “paraphrase,” as you called it? Was that how you found your style or your subject, so to speak?
JK: The slow process—and the period of waiting for results—gave me distance from the motif and time to think. That helped me to extend my work, and to go from one motif to another. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle—you shoot, develop, think, look, and think again. That’s why I shot analog, old school, with film—and still do. The slower process is important, because I work with randomness and chance, which are like tools.
JR: Did random selection help you to find a subject? Was it like waiting for something you recognized as familiar—the private world you wanted to make meaningful in an image?
JK: Randomness took me deeper into the process and also led me from one theme to another. I always started with something I wanted to portray, like young people in unspecified public spaces where a hidden drama might take place. Such dramas set up relationships, which can cross the boundaries of meaning. I can’t control the meaning, but I can suggest things.
JR: Did particular photographers influence you?
JK: There were many, but the film director Michael Haneke had the most profound influence. In his films you don’t really know if you’re looking at calculatedly unpleasant situations or awkward everyday events.
JR: Cinema has had a very strong influence on contemporary photography—stronger perhaps than magazines and the print media’s obsession with actors and celebrities and the power of
success. Did Haneke influence your selection of what you call a motif? Or were your motifs related to your own memories and experiences?
JK: I first saw Haneke’s films about the time I began to figure out my work. Not so much takes place in his films, but seeing them made my imagination soar. My thoughts were always scarier than his actual films—which are like games where you wear a blindfold and feel different objects while someone is whispering in your ear. That’s something I think I share with Haneke. So, my art had be that strong.
JR: Like a separate but related reality—or a metaphysical shadow world like in Plato’s cave image?
JK: Traditionally and historically photography has conveyed some kind of truth, though what’s not always discussed is the feeling of the actual, the struggles going on outside the frame of the image, before and after each shot. That’s something I work with and have probably taken from cinema. And as Haneke has done in several films, I take for granted Europe’s rich society—only I use young people to describe that society.
JR: Young people coming to terms with the world they will inherit?
JK: We’re all victims and perpetrators in life. Young people are too. Many of the pictures I’ve taken are taken from actual situations. The different environments also come from my memories. But it’s difficult to know and to be clear and specific about one’s own memories. So I get ideas from films and experiences. I’d like my images to be innocently obscure. That way they might open a door onto a world of things which are not meant to be seen. That’s what I want.
JR: Like fragments from stories?
JK: A bit like film stills, where a series of images tells a story.
JR: What about light—what role does light play?
JK: Light is photography—it sets the tone. I work almost exclusively with natural light in order to capture the physicality of a situation. I might select a shot because of the light. But the result I look for comes in the interaction of the light and the motif.
JR: Your pictures are mostly of young women. They rarely look at the camera, and they project an inward-looking self-consciousness that is palpable.
JK: Yes, but not like a portrait. Every person in the image is integral to the theme and the overall tone. The person could be anyone. I take very few portraits because I want the viewer to identify with the events and the expressions in the image, but not with the actual people or individuals.
JR: I also sense music—a world of headphones and music streaming across the airwaves. Even your titles could be of songs.
JK: I’ve always created images from music, starting with the music I listened to in my childhood and adolescence. Music was a refuge, and somehow from all that listening, images were born. So the titles of my pictures might be reminiscent of songs. Song titles are sometimes trivial in contrast to what’s playing. My titles are banal but direct. I do that on purpose: I want the title to be as open as possible because I want to emphasize the overall atmosphere of the image.
JR: Do you set up pictures or plan them out?
JK: Lately, I’ve been staging shots, to set them up, as you say, in order to create scenarios.
JR: Do you use actors or fashion models?
JK: Mostly they’re people I encounter by chance. They can be fashion models, but more often they’re not, which is important. Not having a history with people allows me to use them as actors. When I started to shoot with models the results were often quite different from what I’d had in mind, but the tone I searched for was captured.
JR: Have you continued with the random approach to finding subjects?
JK: Lately I’ve been blowing up isolated details from my archives. Some images were simply not as interesting as I’d hoped they would be, or there was a technical problem in the image. But mostly my works are staged, with the idea or inspiration being a mixture of my own images— which I take all the time—newspaper pictures, documentary films, things I read or hear on the radio, and from conversations I have or overhear. Even words trigger associations. I’ll pass by a place and an array of images will come to mind.
JR: Can you give an example of a triggered association?
JK: I just made a series of images about water torture. I’d seen drawings of different methods, which for some reason made me think of the way children test things, but for fun. I wanted to put an innocent world up against the ugly world of human torture. Both adults and children manipulate situations and come up with techniques for things, which can be harmless, but when pushed too far can also lead to the controversies like waterboarding.
JR: Our world is very different from Cartier-Bresson’s and Jacob Holdt’s, because of computer- based media. Photography isn’t new and evolving. Cameras are as common as Bic pens, and used as reminders and to take notes. Ours is a world of watching and being watched. Does the impact of computer media influence the way you look for a shot or the way you think about photography in general?
JK: Due to the enormous flow of images and all the new media, for a while I thought I’d give up photography and make drawings from my photographs. But like many photographers I feel it’s important to develop the tradition itself. Being an image junkie, photography is fun because there are so many images to be inspired by.
JR: So, is a computer a photographer’s friend? Do you use one, like a musician, to process and edit recorded information?
JK: I scan my negatives and use Photoshop as my darkroom, but I also use a traditional darkroom to make prints.
JR: I have a second life as a guitar player, and one of the things about the guitar is that everyone’s hands are a bit different, so one’s hands can shape a playing style. Could the same be said about photography—a style can develop from the way a camera’s held and looked through?
JK: That’s a nice comparison because an image will be different depending on who pushes the button. That’s the magic of photography. Naturally the choice of camera influences the process, say, a large versus a small format camera, and the different processes—the time needed for a shot, the speed of the film, the grain, focus, etc. All that affects the image.
JR: What kind of camera do you use?
JK: I’ve always shot with a small format analog camera.
JR: What kinds of decisions do you make when you exhibit?
JK: Whether the pictures are staged or not, I maintain a similar approach to the mechanics of a picture and to the light. But I mix staged with non-staged images when I show them. This creates an uncertainty for the viewer about the images, which I like. Anyway, everything looks different over time, even my own photographs to me.
JR: Your pictures depict places that are neither in a city nor on the countryside, but somewhere in between. Is that conscious?
JK: Well, I consciously look for places that aren’t geographically specific, but that are recognizable.
JR: You mentioned the subconscious, which, I’d say, is an amalgamation of memory and experience, intuition and aesthetics. Art is calibrated from such a mixture, and not always from calculated concepts. Experience is a guide. Recognitions are shared. That’s what makes art. Is that what photography is for you?
JK: Photography is all that. It started with a camera—a way to catch ghosts.
Jeff Rian (www.jeffrian.net) is a writer, musician (www.rowboat.fr), and associate editor of Purple Fashion magazine. He has written numerous essays and exhibition catalogs, and has been a regular contributor to Flash Art and Artforum. He is the author of The Buckshot Lexicon, Purple Years, and monographs on Richard Prince, Lewis Baltz, Philip-Lorca di Corcia, and Stéphane Dafflon.