Archive for ‘Places of Interest’
Conversation with Alin Huma
(first appeared in the F de C Reader 1)
Did I say? This is about fashion… This is why we’re talking. But, fashion, maybe it’s not your cup of tea … or … is it?
Tell me I’m wrong. Still, fashion, I see it in your work, an attitude to it somehow. It’s not obvious but it’s there. Especially in the Muslim China stuff where faces , in a sense what your work is about, are completely covered and something else comes to the foreground. — Fashion….uh….it has been an obsession since we came down out of the trees. I look at that production from Western China in 86, with its (now) long-gone Tadjik, Kirghiz, Uzbek and Uigyur dress codes. The clothes, they have their own life which will resonate into the future, because among other things we have photographic records of them.
Sure, I wonder how approaching these shots might have differed from your usual mode of working. I mean in your “non-burka” works the faces of your subjects are always super animated, even joyous, as you really bring something to them, and they to you. Being literally shrouded, but definitely not face-less, these shots are totally different. Did you come to it differently, in terms of how to make a photo, and how you make a temporary relationship? Or was the gestural back and forth the same, just differently structured? — My relationship with people, good friends, chance meetings with brief acquaintances, total strangers I may encounter while I’m out on a ride with my camera always begins with eye contact. There is a moment, eyes connect, what happens in those short, intense and silent connections is one of the great unmapped aspects of the human condition. The contingencies people bring to eye contact are so loaded with potential, we read each other, we draw conclusions, we act or switch off, invite or repel. Eye contact with a stranger is super intense. If I’m photographing, normally I’m working with complete strangers, I encounter them in the unstructured freestyle theatre of the street. Ostensibly I’m collecting people, stashing them away on a roll of film and interrogating the works later through a process of proof sheet elimination. Having eye contact with a Muslim woman in traditional attire is particularly intense, the attire really nails you to their eyes, the costume is so riven with the mystery of their beauty, they are so much more conscious of how to work eye contact. …
But yeah, more specifically, the 2 women in Kashgar …a standard August Sander double portrait rip-off….. even today it’s such a pleasure to cite uncle August by stealing his beauty. Only in this part of the world do Muslim women dress quite like that and only very rarely today. So how could I not photograph those women. Everytime I do street photography it’s always the kind of exciting personal experience that suggests I’m never going to bear witness to this event again. The primary weirdness is, of course, as you suggest, the facelessness powering its otherness. I was standing right in front of them, I shot with a wide angle lens. I could have reached out and touched them. They could have told me to fuck off and I would have. Given the absence of a key factor in my m.o….eye contact…I just went with their body lingo which seemed to invite scrutiny. It was a completely new and exciting experience. Because I’m basically a collector of experiences penciled in as photos. Kashgar in 86 is probably best represented by that work…the single image is worth being obsessed with…. but there is a lot of other pencil work that creates a more panoramic and layered understanding, it’s about ensembles of work and how they replay my time in Kashgar in 1986.
That’s it! The ‘fashion photography’ thing. Eye contact reacting in a volatile way with clothing! And yeah, seeing that other photograph blew me away. To me it’s the quintessential ‘fashion photograph’ profoundly and superficially speaking; profoundly because you’ve a total ‘fashion subject’ facing, quite fiercely, the camera/viewer through veils and veils of clothing/styling; then superficially, indulge me here , it’s the clothing itself; it is uncannily what Belgian designers would be showing one or 2 years after you took the picture: put together a Margiela jacket and a Dries van Noten skirt from the late 80s and that’s what it’d look like, place it in some semi-mythical Gurdjieff-land (ie something Hussein Chalayan or so) and you’ve got that whole long moment, arguably the last relevant one in western fashion - and i’m particularly attuned to this because we’re doing this ‘fashion publication’ and almost everyone we’re talking to is referring to it in one way or another – in a photo created in a separate reality. So, now I wonder if by “only in this part of the world do Muslim women dress quite like that” we’re seeing the same thing. What I’m getting is that combination of floral skirt or dress + masculine ‘power-jackets’ or pea-coats, nonetheless with a feminine cut/silohuette. It’s like something straight from the Antwerp Royal Academy’s graduate show, or JP Gaultier’s atelier or something, yeah, not to mention the Margiela/Magritte-ish face cover. I mean, what is it? You were there . are those actual men’s jackets ? like, the same jackets their husbands or brothers wear? I’m fascinated by what I see as a really intense kind of, and force even, of androgyny. — Its complicated. Islamic fashion for women operates within the constraints and reactive pressure of a deeply conservative Muslim patriarchy. For instance most of the dressmakers in Western China in 1986 were men. The rough and ready country made sports jacket was a scene among the upwardly mobile men from Tashkurgan to Urumchi. The dressmakers would have co-opted the same SJ pattern and tweaked it to suit the female sensibility. The photo looks at that particular fashion shtick. Of the wealthier married Muslim woman. She owns the street, striding right down the middle, many eyes follow her. Like anywhere else in the world the girls watch the girls and the boys watch the girls. Her allure was powerful. The hand gesture, easily coping with the infidel photographer blocking her way with the camera. Those sexy ribbed woolen stockings disappearing under the hem of the undress me brocade skirt.
And again that same picture, how it’s arranged as an entity, well, to me there’s something more erotic in it then say in a Guy Bourdin or Helmut Newton work. And oddly it has pretty much the same elements and tensions . But , yeah , it’s ‘real’, whatever that means. So I really want to know how it felt taking THAT picture? How was it, standing there, being there, in front of her, feeling her and the space, feeling yourself there? How was it to BE that picture? — Taking the picture was easy. She was so aware that she was on the catwalk of downtown Kashgar. I simply had to photograph her.
So, yes, it’s an energy is what I’m saying, it’s a way that fabric is being mobilised for something that is fashion and beyond it. Your eye got it. So, I wonder, have you actually, ever, shot fashion? — No, I’ve NEVER shot fashion, but you know what, I’ve always thought about it, always had a keen interest for fashion photography that did not simply re-saddle that horse they have been photoshopping to death for well-dressed zombies these past 15 years. I think the Burberry shoots test the waters for control of the bottom feeders in the septic tank of slimeball fashion work out there today. I would LOVE to shoot fashion. I’m very inspired by fashion photography from the 60’s, heavy grain, mid-tones dominated by highlight and scaled-up contrast: black lips, suicide white skin, scimitar eyebrows. Kodak tri x pan push processed to the outer limits to value add the silver halide grain structure. This sort of manipulation is so much more emotive and exciting than using fake orgasm photoshop tools. I’ve been waiting years for someone to ask me to do fashion.
I am not letting you off the hook there. I want something from you. Now, though, I’m wondering if there might be such thing as a ‘primal scene’ in a photographer’s life? I mean the kind of ( ideal) fashion photography you’re describing here is pretty close to the famous picture of Georgina (your first ‘relevant picture, no ?) you shot in the early 1970s. For myself, I know there are only 2 or 3 types of photos I’m taking, and then i have 2 or 3 strategies of NOT taking those photos…of taking anti-photos. One of my scenes was at this Sugarcubes concert, late 80s. I’d just bought my first Nikon F-some-letter with the crappiest 35->200 zoom lens and the guy at the shop gave me a crappy 2Xconverter as a bonus. So I’m standing there in the middle of the audience quite far from the stage and for some reason Bjork is staring, and staring intensely, at me and mostly at me while doing her act. So I’m WTF and almost unconsciously reach for the camera, and put on the stupid teleconverter too (I never used long lenses before and since ) and take a number of pictures. Now those pictures, the 2 that survived at least, for sure are a primal photo/primal scene for me. It’s the intensity of her gaze; I’ve been deflowered, photographically speaking, by that famous icelandic vocalist. And what I’m trying to say is that even with my ridiculously long lens i can’t say I ‘shot’ her, and even today i don’t like the expression ‘to shoot’, meaning that, with that as a ‘primal scene’ my idea of taking a photo is that whatever, whoever is in front of the camera must be stronger that what’s behind it so if anything taking the photo is more of a suicide than a shooting. But, yes , this is my ‘primal’ problem … anyway , you start seing things differently. Like looking through these pictures of yours in West China several times before realizing that all the guys are actually wearing the (same) Mao cap each styled differently - the brickie, the guy cutting meat, the kid with ‘street cred’ and sneakers, the dude coming out of the manhole, etc – yet there’s nothing typically Maoist about the characters here. Is this some sort of subversion or had the revolutionary zeal died out by then? — In 1986 China was on the cusp of a considerable liberalisation. However, there were still only 2 dress codes possible for the masses, one for the Han Chinese and one for the ethnic minorities. The Han population had a choice of blue, green or grey Mao uniforms. The People’s Liberation Army had a tweaked version of the same outfit, for instance the cap had a red star on it, the civilian cap had none. I noticed each person seemed to have their own attitude subtly imbedded in establishing something of the individual in the totalitarian strip. The ethnic minorities were allowed to dress in their own tradition. 1986 was the first year foreign travellers were allowed independent access to remote areas. So by the time I made it to far west China, where the Han population was then an absolute minority, the ubiquity of the uniform of the People’s Revolution gave way to this really elegant and exciting and diverse Central Asian/Islamic couture of the silk road circa 19th century.
Where precisely did you go in China that time? — China is a really big country, bigger than Australia. I had a brief look at places that simply had to be seen: Shanghai, Xian, Beijing, Guangdong. But the real attraction for me in China was to go as far west as I could, to the Takla Makan Desert, Urumchi, Kashgar, Turfan, to the silk road. It was a time machine. I landed on a dirt strip in the middle of a freezing sand storm at Kashgar in an Antonov24, a sort of fictional aeroplane, cute, funky, with bits falling off it, no door on the lav and you needed a torch to find it, tyres down to the canvas and one propeller misfiring. The airport was a mud-brick fort, the whole city a perfect catalogue of 18th and 19th century Islamo saracenic architecture. I felt so lucky to have been able to make the long journey west and see that last vestige of history before modernity wiped it out.
And did it feel different? I could be wrong but I kinda get the feeling you’re swinging between something almost Robert Frank-ish and something August Sander-ish and that dichotomy is hardly resolved. Personally, I find this inconsistency fascinating and exciting but I imagine you might have felt somewhat out of your element? It has a different feeling, a different flavour all-together to your previous India or SE Asia stuff. — Sure you are right, there is so much nostalgia invested in that work. I couldn’t keep away from it, the trip back in time. The emerging post-revolutionary China is not there. There is much more Sander in the work than Robert Frank. I was going through my own cultural revolution. At least I was processing that – I needed to ditch the horse that I rode into town on and find a new way of connecting to the world with a camera.
What do you mean? What horse did you jump on? — That horse is a little hard to define because it took so long to arrive and then suddenly it was there, fully formed. In 1986 I knew I wanted to cease chanting the same old litany, yet it took another 14 years to change-up. I was of course thinking about it all the time across those years. The influences were there: William Eggleston, Kishin Shinoyama, Tadayuki Kawahito, William Kentridge and of course Colors magazine. My students had a big influence over me. So many of them caught in the spell of David Lynch. His seminal film Blue Velvet set the essential fried tone, its mise en scene for under grads through the 90’s and still running. Interestingly through the film Lynch copiously quotes photographers Steven Shore, Larry Clark and Joel Peter Witkin.
At about the same time I started talking to you about these pictures I was reading Roland Barthes’ Chinese journals and he seemed to have a hard time finding both the codes of ‘fashion’ (the ‘fashion system’) as well as the sexual codes (the sexuality of the period). Yet looking through your pictures I cannot help feeling, if not sexuality , at least a strong ‘sensuality ‘ that completely defies the typical perception of the PRC at the time (I grew up in Romania, which was fairly close to China at the time and even there we had jokes like: what’s Chinese pornography?: a picture of Mao with his top shirt button undone etc ) there is definitely style and styling going on, a collar, a couple of buttons … — Sure that’s the thing about fashion the way you can shape it to you own compeling need to make a statement. If we were all subject to a dystopian splendour that required us to wear black garbage bin liners, we would still find a way to melt the hem, go v neck, backless, add the cod-piece.
Is what you saw, what you shot, because you were at the periphery, and Barthes went bang to the heart of it in Beijing. — Yes of course, I can understand Barthes predicament – Beijing was so heavy, so controlled in that awful Orwellian nightmare way. The further west you went the power of the state waned, individuals entered the experiential mix offering the seduction of a counter revolutionary moment.
Hmm, counter-revolutionary as revolutionary of sorts … Let’s move. You had a big show in Japan, when was it? Late 80s? How was that? Where was it, in Nara somewhere? Was it one of those museums that had been built recently during the bubble? How did you feel your work was perceived at the time? I mean I feel Japan goes through these cycles where for a short while there is a reasonably raw, straight perception of stuff, then it moves through much longer periods where (the same) stuff gets re-framed and re-re-framed which is to say neutralized. I know for example quite a few famous international ‘street-artists’, in recent years, complaining that when they get invited to Japan they’re always asked to do their gig in a department store and the like rather than how they’d normally do it. — I had a big show at the Nara Sogo Dept store, they had a MUSEUM on the top floor. It was organized by a Japanese benefactor friend of mine called DANGERMOUSE…she was dangerous. A Rich girl, never worked a day in her life. She was freakishly good at juicing obligation owed to her family by others in high places. Money was no object in staging the show. I asked how many photos they wanted for the catalogue, she said “all of them, it’s a museum Max”…it was a 250 photo exhibition. They put us up at the old Imperial Hotel, the emperor Hirohito had stayed there. It had the most expensive laundry service in the world. I literally had to hide my used clothes otherwise they would confiscate the and launder them and charge you $500 for 2 y fronts and a pair of socks. I’m so glad I was with Dangermouse, she saved me from the extortion racket by playing very un-japanese hardball with the Manager. Dangermouse lives in a convent now.
Hmm, if Dangermice hadn’t gone to convents when the bubble burst we might have had been able to produce this publication in Japan as originally intended i guess. — Yes, Dangermouse would have been perfect! But she was burned out and bankrupt by the turn of the century.
But in a sense it’s thanks to this Dangermouse character that we’re having this conversation now. Since it was on finding again your ‘Made in Japan’ book – the rather epic indeed Nara exhibition catalogue (from now i shall call it the Dangermouse book ) – in a second hand shop that got me looking at your stuff in a fresh way sometime last year. Hey I don’t know if you recall but i proposed to you in 2000 or so we do an exhibition together and theme it sharply ‘ The human Eye vs the sick eye’ or something like that; having as key images your famous ‘Human Eye’ picture (actually the cover of the Dangermouse book?) vs some picture I’d taken at the time on crappy APS film – a dead format – of similar anatomical casts but of toracomas and other horrible eye diseases, and you politely declined, not the idea of having an exhibition but having that particular theme/angle to the exhibition… So yeah, with my anti-’human eye’ rant at the time I was going against something that now i think wasn’t really what you were on about to start with. I mean I was going against some basic ‘humanist photography thing’ that was I felt a dominant thing in your work, at least in the way it was edited and presented up to a certain point. But yeah you’ve amazed me several times by subtly or not so subtly reinventing yourself, like in the late 90s or so when you started printing ‘70’s stuff , stuff well known as B&W prints in color, because you had actually shot them in color and all of a sudden what i considered to be more or less ‘hippy stuff’ looked as fresh and ‘now’ as what say Tillmans was doing at the time, it was, like twenty-something years ahead of its time and had to wait till the mid 90s when color was re-accepted into (more mainstream) art-photography.
So, anyway, and this goes back to the start of this conversation, looking at the second-hand Dangermouse book last year one picture struck me , it was the one of the 2 aged, i assume, Muslim women in China. They are standing somewhat diagonal to the camera, while still facing it, and their faces are entirely covered — I like that tension and have to say, personally, I prefer it to your more resolved ‘humanist ‘ stuff so it struck me that you must actually have a lot more stuff like that and that the classic ‘Max Pam’ kind of stuff was just a way of showing stuff rather than what you were about – and you had already shown this with the color pictures… — You have that book?!!!. it’s like rocking horse shit, basically only ever made available in Japan, they printed 2000 copies, maybe they sold 200 and the other 1,800 volumes were converted to tofu. Yes Human Eye was the Dangermouse project only she had no creative involvement in. Her creativity was focussed on safe cracking, super steep handling fees and stratospheric consultancy fees. No Dangermouse, no project, she had a take no prisoners approach to dealing with the Japanese Patriarchy. I had 4 different female translators/assistants over the 2 week period in Nara, all of them flung into a blazing suribashi and disposed of for some transgression on Dangermouseworld. I had complete creative freedom on doing the Human Eye catalogue. It was published the same year as Going East (1992) .
But what about that idea of another Max Pam, of many other Max Pams…how does that sit with you? Is this my imagination? (And I know it doesn’t matter if it is, we still live textually after all) — There are many Max’s and I do work with some of them. For instance with my enduring connection to things, objects, artefacts grew from the comfort and pleasure derived from toys as a child. A model kit of a World War 2 Nazi Air Force fighter plane could keep me occupied for weeks on end. This toy from that era is a perfect example of one of the first flat packaged consumables on the market in the second half of the twentieth century. Like a complex Ikea product it came with a set of detailed and inexplicably vague assembly instructions. The act of assembly with its components of extruded plastic, fixed in place with a clear gel glue that made you high was an early introduction to Narcosis & Sculpture 101. Years later at one of those inexplicable, cathartic emotional crossroads in life which found me searching for direction and validation I went back to the toyshop and bought my ship of love. Months later, my art therapy complete, I had my finished and painted Airfix model of the SS Lusitania. Having collaborated with my children on various photographic shoots of our own making, little adventures with toys really. I recruited the eight-year-old Jack Pam to be my model for the Lusitania photograph. I arranged Jack centred on a manhole cover at the bottom of our very steep street in London’s Muswell Hill. It was an unusually foggy morning, just about perfect for the act of black and white photography. My own unresolved yearning. Jack and the model ship which in life had suffered its own tragic history. The world we sailed through and the car accelerating down the hill fast, threatening to turn Jack into a hood ornament. The lighting and climatic atmospherics of North London all combined for the photograph as theatre finale to the model Lusitania opus.
Yeah, there is definitely something very ‘physical’ though about a photography itself, the more digital we go the more we feel it it seems so i can see how you’d work with that Max. Now, since we’re back on the street, how are you actually approaching people you don’t know? You’re not talking, I assume. You’re moving, you’re gesturing. How does this feel? How is your body working in these relationships? Are you even aware of it? — In answer to this I need to go back in to the beginning of the real photolife. My first photographs of any significance were made at art school in the London of 1970-71. In early 1971 I discovered the work of Diane Arbus in the school library for the first time. I was totally taken by the raw forensic style of her work and the loaded quality of her subject matter, all perfectly balanced in square format. I knew I had to trade in my Pentax Spotmatic for a Hasselblad as soon as I had the funds. You pick up the camera and know this is the camera you’re meant to have. There’s no intellectual thing at work here. You pick up the camera, it fits, it’s waist-level, you can compose; it just feels right, you immediately have that connection with Diane one of the truly great artists of the 20th century. Right away I discovered this new camera offered me the test site for my own search for identity. I was in love with the lover of my roommate. She was majoring in fashion at the same art school. The beautiful Georgina (you mentioned that shot before), she was the first real portrait for me, it happened very quickly, that serve and return thing you get when you meet someone and what passes between you is a silent agreement, often but not always sealed by a smile. That mobility and negotiation used on my first good photo is still unfolding for me today.
I love that description! Beautiful! Is love a part of all your work? Love in a weird, transient, temporary sense? Is your work a history of passing loves? In a broad sense of course. I mean you are never a mean or a critical photographer. You photograph what you like, what you love, what you want more of. And, well , here’s my answer about that ‘primal scene’, i guess. … Related to this …have you ever had the feeling, the rightness, taken a shot and then had something happen, half way through, once you shot was taken maybe, that made you rethink your initial feeling? … I also wonder what the fact that you shoot film does. I imagine if you were shooting digital there’s that thing of being tempted to check the camera to look at the pic, and then you’d lose the person, and whether that would matter? — Shooting film is such a different process to working with a digital camera. When I shoot film I’m completely reliant on that first thought best thought mindset, it locates me fully in the experience. It’s a very satisfying way to work. You don’t know what you are going to get, but who cares, its all about the moment, the excitement and drama of being in the moment. Working with a digital camera degrades the immediacy of experience. The moment you press replay, you lose the moment, its gone forever. Reviewing work on the screen the moment after you have completed an act of photography suggests you don’t back yourself. It invites you to become more anal and less inventive as a photographer. If the picture is seemingly not quite perfect you can flog it to death by shooting another 52 versions of a moment that has already gone. Also intimacy is often removed as you show the other players around you the results of your unique brilliance on screen. I dunno, It may suit some people. I know people who like watching themselves make love in the mirror, filming it as they go, on the I phone. If I’m slobbing it I’ll shoot digital. I’ve been a slob quite a bit lately.
Let’s go back again to the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning… What about your own relation to fashion ? There’s one self-portrait of you in front of the Taj Mahal or something like that and you look quite the stunning young Yves Saint Laurent . — You mean the mirror self-portrait at Ajmer, at the Amber palace in 1971. There was a very particular kind of look I cultivated then, about belonging to a sub-culture. When I think about the travellers to the East I most wanted to connect with then, visual recognition was important. There were lots of guys wearing mascara, pencil line moustaches, the cumberband, the bandanna, the puffy shirt, camel riding footwear, fair bit of ethnic bling. Refugees from a Pirates of Samarkand movie. There was no Lonely Planet guide, there were no back packers, no globalisation, no BIG aeroplanes, no mass tourism. When you travelled to the east you vanished into another world, you dressed like the locals who all seemed to dress like pirate movie extras. Maybe you didn’t see or meet someone from the West in weeks, but when you did, you could see right away they were playing the same escapist game. Yes the young YSL, it’s the glasses I wore. They were his.
And any advice you might have for fashion photographers ?? — For the questing young fashion photographer the advice is no different to the questing young artist with a camera. You need to mine your own particular sets of weirdness. We all have them. Take the lid off, grab a few issues and work with them. Pretty soon you will find authenticity and originality flow into your work. For a how to do it guide simply begin by ripping off photographers you admire and then gradually ease onto your own authentic horse and ride it without regard or favour to any fashion mag editor. Never forget it’s your horse, not theirs to command.
dec. 2011 // all photos Max Pam
||( a facsimile of the entire first issue of this ground-breaking magazine as well as a long conversation with Mr. Aoki will be published in the F de C Reader #2 )//|