Feature: A Conversation with Peter FunchJuxtapoz // Monday, 29 Aug 2011
As Danish-born, NYC-based photographer Peter Funch prepares his newest solo show, Babel Tales Redux at a V1 Gallery satellite space in NYC this September, we look back at our June 2010 interview with the artist and talk about manipulation, patience, and controlling the story.
Interview and Words by Alexander Tarrant
Peter Funch spends weeks at a time making just one photograph. That is, if you can call these images photographs. They’re of people, in a specific place, but not necessarily a specific time.
Looking at one of his images for the first time, you may feel something is a bit off. Viewing a few more, you may think that he’s either the luckiest photographer alive, or a manipulation taking place. It is circumstantial evidence of the hands of an artist. His images explore the truth in photographs, or lack thereof, and the modern tale of people being so close in proximity yet so disengaged. Always interacting with someone or some thing that isn’t the person standing next to them. The grass is always greener. —Alexander Tarrant
Alexander Tarrant: How has a background in photojournalism informed your conceptual work?
Peter Funch: I used to be very interested in the true story, but I guess now I’ve become fascinated with how you understand the story, the idea behind it. I’m still interested in shooting the idea in a documentary style, but whether the final image is factual or not isn’t important to me. More importantly, is it a good image or a good illusion?
I think people in general don’t see the traditional photograph as a proof of fact. Not anymore, after too many cases of poorly manipulated images. I believe the fabricated image is as truthful as a nonfabricated image, as long as you as a producer of the image are open about the origins of the image. In my case with Babel Tales, adding the element of time into the photo doesn’t make my photo any less of a real story.
Do you think a manipulated image can be more truthful than an untouched image?
The whole discussion of whether an image is manipulated or not is an outdated one that belongs in a photo department at a newspaper in the ’90s. I think it’s more interesting to observe our overflow of images and the fact that every man can call their self a photographer. Out of all these images, how much can we absorb and how much will we forget?
Does your conceptual work influence your journalistic work?
I hardly do any journalistic work, but when I do I try to have an idea or a concept before I start. I want to control a story or a picture as if I was working with a script.
Where did the Babel Tales series come from? Was there any previous work of yours that prefaced this?
I did a series called Déjá Vu about airplanes passing a certain area, like an edited time lapse of still images. The image had a huge amount of airplanes, which had an almost surrealistic, abstract effect. At the same time I was thinking about a scene in the film Smoke, where William Hurt and Harvey Keitel are talking about photographing the same street corner everyday. I’ve always been fascinated to repetition and the absurd.
As for photography, I’ve always inspired by photographers like Richard Avedon, Leni Riefenstahl, and August Sander who have produced big photographic documents about human beings as a race, as a species, or any other kind definition. That started the Babel Tales.
Do you have a lot of repetition in your life? What do you think about a deli owner or a shoe shiner, seeing the same scene and same people over and over again for 30 years?
I have no repetition in my life, or at least I don’t think so. I get restless when I have too much of a routine. But I find repetition very fascinating. I love playing with the thought that life, to some extent, is predetermined, where everything is planned and there isn’t much coincidence. We believe so, but it isn’t. Making these images in Babel Tales is a way of making a perfect moment in the deterministic life like this is the moment where all these “tracks of life” are crossing.
I really appreciate seeing the same people again and again. The waitress from the coffee shop that has seen my son getting bigger and bigger, the shoe maker over the years noticing my boots getting worn out, and the owner of the book store recommending only for my taste of books. This is more about the feeling of knowing my neighborhood and my life than an appreciation of repetition.
How do you pick your spots? Would you have a certain theme in mind, like if you wanted people looking in a certain direction you would set up next to something interesting?
It varies. Some images are very specific, which means I’m shooting one corner to get one image. Others are more open. I usually pick places that are very crowded with diverse set of characters and have some inherent aesthetic value. I make rules for each project that I do. For Babel Tales, one of them was that the project should be done on Manhattan. Choosing Manhattan was a good way of defining an area. It’s an island with so many stories, references, history, and mystery.
How long do you have to camp out to get enough raw materials for one Babel Tales image?
Usually 10 to 15 days. Some, only a couple days, but most of the time it’s longer. It takes time to figure out if it works or not.
What’s the process like? Do you go through phases of pure data management and categorization? Where’s most of your time spent?
I try to work on five-to-10 new images at a time. I research my ideas and then put some time into finding the places. It varies a lot. Sometimes I shoot for a long time and nothing comes out of it. Some of my latest images are derived from raw material that was shot three summers ago. At the time I thought it didn’t work, but looking on it with fresh eyes has helped.
It’s a bit like working on a painting, like a process where you build up the image and you have to look at it again and again to see if it works. For me that’s where photography is going. Photography has become a tool to make images.
Because the people are from different times, they’re unaware of each other. It makes me think of how even outside of your photo series, we’re unaware of each other because of various technologies that shift time and space in subtle ways. Talking to someone on the phone, or engaging in various forms of asynchronous communication like email and text.
The images are also about creating a coincidence and creating an illusion. Creating a moment that refers to a moment we find a little odd and not real. I think about the people I photograph or the people in the final image, this created moment where they’re “together” with people they’ve possibly never seen or will see.
Is it fair to say you’re essentially metatagging features of your photos and sorting them by tags, #yawn, #pigeon, #midstride, #lookingUp, #manillafolder #flowers, #hurry?
That’s fair. I’m trying to turn chaos into a system, and a system into poetry. Babel Tales is about the relations we aren’t aware of and making the daily routine a moment.
Being from a photojournalism background, do you think there are any documentary applications of these types of images that are not only visually rich, but also temporally rich?
I think Babel Tales can be used as a document of human behavior and it was my intention to make a project of photographs that lasted longer than pieces of journalism. A document that you can look at in 10, 15, 30 years and still is relevant. For me the inspiration was art you see at museums where a picture from eighteenth century still seems relevant.
What are some reactions you’ve received from this work? Do some people not notice anything strange, but maybe feel a bit uncomfortable?
I’ve always been open with my shooting technique. It has been very good, and recognized by many different people. Maybe because the project is about people and human behavior, viewers are interested in reflecting themselves in the persons in the pictures. Some are fascinated by the Photoshop manipulation aspect, some the intellectual aspect of time, truth, and synchronicity.
Is your body of work unique to modern digital photography? What would you have done in say the 1980s or the 1940s? Being able to develop so many frames, choose between them, and quickly execute complex composites seems to be a big deal.
Photographers like Gustave Le Gray did manipulation in 1850s. I think photography’s a changing media, like what acrylics did to painting. There are so many more methods of working with digital photography and new ways of making a photo. It’s opening it up from being a media, which was about the object, the lens, the print. Now we have time and the computer. I think there have been many photographers who have been fascinated by the fact that you can manipulate a photo, which gets a little boring in the long run. The manipulation needs a purpose; otherwise it’s not worth it. Photography has come to a point where it can be pure fiction, like painting.
Your work at Ground Zero on 9/11 and the series of car crash photos seem to exhibit the spirit of a photojournalist. Not being afraid to get dirty, get close to something, stick a camera in someone’s face no matter the circumstance; getting the shot. Does that come naturally to you or is it something you have to develop over time?
I would say I’ve always tried to think the idea of a project before I start shooting it. When I did 9/11, I was thinking about how I could show that feeling the Americans felt just after the attack. The crash images were a project that tried to define in a photo that feeling of disturbing beauty, information overload.
What do you think about how photography may be changing? With video cameras becoming such high resolution, you can now take 30, 60, 90 frames per second at print resolution. Do you see any new opportunities for unique imagery, techniques, and process?
High-resolution photography is available now for everybody with a decent camera, even in your phone. That can only generate more good and pioneering for photography. As a photographer, I think about the project in terms of the images you haven’t seen yet. What’s our new illusion, our wish to experience? How do I show that in a photo?
What do you think about the idea that a successful photo is one that viewers can see themselves in?
Yes, that could be one category. Another could be photos showing the unknown, like the first photos from the moon landing. I like the idea of the viewer’s self-reflection, especially when it isn’t that obvious how they make parallels or where the parallels are. I’m often thinking if it would be possible to produce a product that was half-mirror, half-photo, or at least a combination of them. An artist named Michelangelo Pistoletto did something like that with photos mounted on mirrors but it could be interesting to it done more seamless.
What kind of work do you do these days to complement your conceptual photo work?
I’m working a lot with the idea from Babel Tales and trying to convert that into something other than a photo. The idea of having objects you convert into other settings, to make a new story or a new illusion. I’m very fascinated with the transformation. I’m not talking alien films or anything, but how chaos can become a system and the other way around.
I try to work so it isn’t only photography.
For more information on Peter Funch, contact Peterfunch.com.