Turning Photography: interview with Gilbert Fastenaekens & Tom Callemin

Tom Callemin - House 2010

Joachim Naudts — Both your practices start out from a very powerful photographic approach. When and where did that love for the medium emerge?

Gilbert Fastenaekens — In fact it happened by accident. I come from a modest, at times even violent environment and I was destined to work as an industrial machinist. I wanted to break free from that environment and looked for a way to do so. I bought a small camera, converted a Renault 4 into a small camper, and spent three years focusing fully on the discovery of reportage photography. I decided to cultivate myself. I became an autodidact and admired photographers like William Eugene Smith and Josef Koudelka. I attended many processions and religious feasts throughout Europe. From March to October I photographed up to a thousand rolls of 36 exposures per year, and in the winter I developed them. These years formed me. I could feel and smell things, became a sort of virtuoso of the photographic frame. But in fact I still didn’t have anything meaningful to say and that made me angry. I now consider my first real work as a psychoanalysis of my parents and my environment.

Tom Callemin — Portrait#5, 2016© courtesy tegenboschvanvreden, Amsterdam _ Galerie Zink Tom Callemin — I began photographing when I was 11 years old already. At first of course very playfully, but it soon became clear that I always wanted to make pictures that hadn’t actually taken place. I began staging scenes with some friends and then photographed that scene. When I was 18 I wanted to become a photographer, even though I had rather proceeded by elimination of the other possibilities. I decided to begin a master’s course in photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent. It felt as though other schools looked at photography rather formally, while in Ghent a special link was made between documentary and conceptual photography. I always knew what direction I wanted to go in, but the academy challenged me to keep experimenting with both strategies, to draw them towards one another and ultimately also to be able to master them. I also had to try out all documentary forms, as a result of which I soon realised what position you can or must adopt as a photographer in any kind of situation. I love the medium of photography in all its aspects, even those that are perhaps less my thing. They teach me a lot about the ‘character of the photographer’ and about the context in which you work.

JN — Gilbert, in the 1980s you made a name for yourself with Nocturne, a series that is far removed from the idea of reportage photography. You once said about these nocturnal shots that, “left to its fate, the urban topography at night becomes the black hole of an enigmatic opera, the abandoned decor of a vast theatrical performance in which actors are forbidden”. In your work too, the world seems to become a scene?

Gilbert Fastenaekens — Nocturne 1303 – Bruxelles, Belgique 1983GF — During those initial years I also began working at night, in parallel with the reportage work. During the day I photographed events that sometimes drew hundreds of people. I always had a latent fear of not being at quite the right place. The nights were a relief: the people have been eliminated, the decor of the city is quiet, the light is the same from ten in the evening until six in the morning, and I used shutter speeds up to 40 minutes. That stoppage of time is what I pictured. You always feel the before and after.

Tom Callemin — House, 2010© courtesy tegenboschvanvreden, Amsterdam_Galerie ZinkwebTC — House (2010) is an important picture for me. I was asked to make a work about Belgium. I then photographed a house in the dark, with all windows and doors shut. Belgians lock up their houses at night like hermetically sealed fortresses. It was the first time that I set to work with an artificial flashlight and since then that has become a constant. I like working with the idea of the ‘decor of reality’. The placing of lights makes the background disappear, the focus comes to lie on the subject and everything appears to become more cinematographic. But in my different series of portraits too I see a link with Gilbert’s nocturnal pictures. For me the photograph is often a recording of a pause. Models have to sit still for a long time and I use very slow shutter times.

JN — So in fact here it is no longer a question of the traditional characteristic of photography: the photo, the click of the camera, which creates the pause, the freezing of time. But the picture as recording of a lengthy pause itself?

GF — In the beginning, because of the long shutter time, I wanted to touch up the movement of the stars. (laughs) I literally wanted to bring the picture to a standstill. That was idiotic, of course. In fact I should have done the very opposite: to let time run on. It rarely happens that pictures seem to show a contraction of time. I’ve never really been calm at night, but what appears in the photos is an important study of the night’s deafness (an étude as opposed to an inquiétude).

JN — How different is it, being an autodidact in the art world, Gilbert?

GF — Because of the environment I come from, I had to behave early on like a chameleon and adopt a survival strategy. I sense very consciously and very quickly the context I’m in and I immediately adapt myself to it. It is a kind of mimetic process by which I learn quickly. So I discovered far too late From the Missouri West by Robert Adams and Park City by Lewis Baltz (both dating from 1980, Ed.). Without really fundamentally understanding these works – I understood them from the inside out – in 1987 I made work near Mulhouse that was inspired by them. I broke through the temptation of the night and, just like Adams, started making dry work. Day in day out, ten hours per day, I traipsed around with a large-format camera. Once again I behaved like a madman, I created my own studio and my own learning environment.

JN — Tom, your work seems to start out from two parallel movements. On the one hand there is your black-and-white work: carefully constructed pictures which sometimes demand months of preparation; on the other there is work in colour that can be both video or photography. Where does the difference lie?

TC — The first is the representation of an image that I already have in my head. I then act as a genuine craftsman, whose only purpose is to construct that image. With the work in colour, by contrast, I become the observer. I create a situation in which a person is influenced by the presence of the camera, a lamp and myself. It is much more about the context of photography and how it changes a person’s body.

JN — Are you not always an observer then? Or how do you make that distinction?

TC — Both work methods are in a certain way dependent on one another. I don’t need to make a choice. Sometimes they are close to one another, sometimes they are more distant. A good example is the work Tower (2015). One night quite by chance I came across a scaffolded water tower and had a flashlight with me. And yet here I feel not so much an observer-photographer. Two years before I made this work, I had already tried to make a scale model of a tower and to photograph it. The picture didn’t work for me at the time. I couldn’t get the image to look like the one in my head. Until I came across this tower by chance. For me this picture is as composed as my other black-and-white work.

JN — In your work, Gilbert, rules and demarcations seem to be present in an increasingly emphatic manner. For Noces, which you made between 1988 and 1995, you limited yourself to a small plot of overgrown woods measuring 30 by 100 metres in the north of France. Why so strict?

Gilbert Fastenaekens — Extrait de Noces, 1988-1996

GF — Because first and foremost I mistrust myself. I was afraid of ending up in a kind of anti-room, of losing myself in too large a territory. The challenge is to find a kind of freedom with a spiritual quality within the demarcations. I slugged tens of kilos of heavy equipment through those woods. You start hurting all over, but I let myself be penetrated by the conditions of that place. I didn’t want to control things, I also wanted to let things slide through my fingers. It is a rare moment when you yourself seem to become the landscape. You enter the same time as the elements around you, not the same temporality. When making Noces I was able to accept what I wasn’t able to in the past. I realised that I can and may simply experience the present time, without projecting unto another place or another moment, simply the current time as it is.

JN — How does that express itself?

GF — That often results in bad photos. (laughs) Photography is not an art vivant. A picture is always something that is past. I see that as a sort of nadir of my creativity. After that discovery either you stop photographing, or you start over and you learn to live with that inner quality.

Interview conducted on 25 March 2017 in Brussels.

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