Panos Kokkinias in Conversation with Alexandra Moschovi.
in : Panos Kokkinias: Here We Are, powerHouse Books, New York, 2012
A.M. To begin with, let’s talk about your formative years. What was it that led you to take up photography in the first place?
P.K. I was originally interested in cinema and thought that photography studies could be a way of sneaking into filmmaking through a, let’s say, back door. But, getting more familiar with photography I realized that it was a medium through which I could directly express myself without the need of a crew, intermediaries, or having to secure big funds. So I stayed with photography. Yet, I think that my initial interest in cinema survived and appeared later in my staged photographs.
A.M. There are indeed ontological affinities between the two media, but, apart from the obvious technical particularities, photography involves a distinctly different methodological approach and an equally disparate type of narrative to cinematography. How did the still photographic image work for you as representation and means of self-expression so that it would eventually become for you an end on its own right?
P.K. Of course photography is quite different to cinematography, as it has to encapsulate the whole story in a single frame. And I think that this is what I was trying to do unconsciously, even in my early black-and-white work, perhaps as an exercise or preparation for a future cinematographic practice: to compress time in an autonomous micro-drama and create an instantané with narrative qualities. I realize now that even when I was doing “straight” work my intention was not to capture or represent a slice of real time and space, but to project my own concerns onto reality.
A.M. This compression of time that maximizes drama, the fleetingness and serendipity of the flux of everyday life, the chance element and “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event”, as Henri Cartier-Bresson would put it in the 1950s, have long been the cornerstones of classic “straight”, or “snapshot” for some, practice, which also appear in your street work in the late 1980s. How did you position your practice in relation to those traditions?
P.K. I started taking photographs in 1986 and until 1993 I followed different strands of this photographic tradition, solely in black and white. What I mostly admired was Koudelka’s existential persistence and Garry Winogrand’s braveness to confront chaos through his paradoxical combination of humor with dread. My black-and-white photographs did not focus on a specific subject matter but when I put them together to make a book, I realized that they were linked by a feeling of being lost in the world and a sense of fear. This was the sole distillation - if any - of my influences.
A.M. So, what was the drive behind the fairly momentous shift from straight, instantaneous photography towards the so-called “directorial”, or otherwise constructed practice? How did you come about to engineer the instantaneity of the seemingly ‘unmediated’ document, what Jeff Wall came to term “near documentary”? Was it simply a change of heart?
P.K. Several different reasons and needs contributed to this change. The street theater that I had wished to encounter when I moved in New York City in the 1990s had already started to disappear as life was withdrawing from the streets and was moving indoors. At the same time people were becoming more and more aware of the camera being pointed at them, more suspicious about the intention of the operator and therefore more alert. And I started to have mixed feelings about using passers-by without their consent. I gradually became tired of going after, or rather hunting, the ‘meaningful’ out there. I did not have any more patience for things to happen. I started thinking that I could make them happen, but, then again, I would not dare to do such a thing until I went to Yale in 1994.
A.M. The 1990s was the time when the social aspect of photography and the boundaries between the private and the public were ardently re-evaluated as photographers consciously retreated to the “pleasures and terrors of domestic comfort”, as Peter Galassi would have it in the homonymous MoMA exhibition in the beginning of that decade. Part of your early directorial work is also enacted in the backstage of the home with you as protagonist. How did this turn towards a more perfomative gesture before the camera come about?
P.K. I had seen Galassi’s show and I was quite impressed by some of the works that I encountered there for the first time. I was really struck by diCorcia’s Mario, a picture of a man peering into his refrigerator, because it described an everyday moment that was very familiar to me. But such influences usually take time to fully develop, at least in my case. The shift came about progressively and out of my own needs. Tired of the streets, I began to photograph in New York nightclubs and gradually found myself making portraits of the peculiar characters that frequented those places. This led me to experiment, for the first time, with portraiture, a shift that coincided with the beginning of my graduate studies at Yale. This work was fairly problematic, as I could not come to terms with portraiture- I still haven’t – and eventually the crisis I was experiencing with my photographic identity became a personal one. My reaction was to turn the camera towards myself as a way to reflect upon and resolve both personal and photographic issues. Homebound, due to an eating disorder, I could only photograph myself in the place I used to live at the time. And a self-portrait, as any portrait, is a staged picture. Anyway, this worked better, especially when I gradually started replacing my physical presence with surrogates for my psychological state. That’s how Home came about, a series which, I believe, is more about a view of the world as prison rather than a self-portrait.
A.M. How did the creative environment at Yale, already established in the photographic world as the directorial mode school par excellence affected this change? What were your influences?
P.K. To be honest, I was not really aware of what I was going into. Tom Roma, my impassioned teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York had suggested I went to Yale if I wanted to pursue graduate photographic studies after my first degree. I was not aware at the time of that new staging ‘tradition’ that was already being established there. I knew that Tod Papageorge was running the program and, knowing his work and close relationship with Garry Winogrand, I thought that I could continue and progress with what I was already doing. But, as I said, my need to change my modus operandi was very strong. The presence of Gregory Crewdson in the staff team of the school, the strong legacy that Philip Lorca diCorcia had left behind and the staged work of some of my course mates, worked in a synergy that was instrumental in this change.
A.M. Going back to the conceptual attributes of the staged work, isn’t the same personal psychological state of Home projected onto your models in Interiors, which is perhaps, correct me if I’m wrong, the first series in your body of work that attempts to encapsulate both the private and the public on the canvas of everyday life?
P.K. Although through Home I managed to escape into another kind of practice, and thereby overcome my photographic and personal impasse, the very circumstances that were behind the making of Home left a mark on me and this was inevitably reflected in the next series, Interiors. Despite the fact that I had eventually come out of the confines of my house, the sense of claustrophobia and imprisonment was still present in my succeeding attempts. What changed in Interiors was that while I was still making Home I started to look outside of the house. This begun literally with Crawling, a picture I made from the window of my flat on the 17th floor. While being homebound I would spend hours looking out of this window, which was a way of connecting with the world outside. That’s how I became interested in the distant human figure. This first picture depicted a man crawling on a snow-covered pavement at night. Initially made as a metaphor for my situation, Crawling equally worked for me as an indicator for a way out and towards a new photographic direction. It became the link between what I was doing at that moment and what I wanted to do next. What followed picked up this double edge of private dramas in public spaces. The substitution of my house for other interiors and of myself for these distant, often miniscule, figures allowed the transfer from the domestic entrapment to the anxious wandering within unfamiliar, yet equally seclusive and exit-less, surroundings.
A.M. The Landscapes series is an equally interesting photographic hybrid: it combines the conventionalities of lush, epic landscape photography with directorial practice, whilst, time and again, the same feeling of alienation from nature and self seems to run through as a unifying conceptual thread. How did you decide to take estranged city-dwellers out in the countryside?
P.K. When I returned to Athens, Greece, after six years of an ‘interior’ life in the U.S., I felt the need to be out in the open taking advantage of the countryside and climate of Greece, which I had missed. I needed to reconnect with what constituted for me the essence of my country. Actually, my repatriation meant a whole different life, without the feeling of exile and weather that obliged me to stay indoors most days. I had to find a photographic excuse to be out there and my interest in the distant human figure was a perfect one. However, I did not want to make just colourful pictures of beautiful places. My long-standing distaste for big cities was what fed and dictated my scenarios, which started to discuss the discomfort of modern man within the natural environment. I wanted to examine our deviation from nature and the consequent transfer of our urban neurosis in it whenever we find ourselves there.
A.M. What strikes me as a common characteristic in all three series we have discussed, which is also evident in your earlier street work, is a sense of ambiguity, both morphological and conceptual, which seems to reflect the endemic ambiguity of photography as representation.
P.K. Although photographs have only a remote relationship with reality, they do look like it and, therefore, like reality, they may have more than one interpretation. But an image open to different interpretations is different from one that aspires to remain unclear. Even if you want to talk about the lack of meaning in life, you have to use meaningful sentences. Poetry is not just some strange words put together. When I make a picture my intention is to articulate a concern of mine by photographic means as clearly as I can. More often than not this concern has to do with existential uneasiness and my scenarios evoke uncertainty, indecisiveness, nausea, and a sense of being lost in the world. This may be, and it has been, misunderstood as an intention to remain vague or unclear, so as to adhere to a pedestrian misconception about contemporary art: that art has to be, almost by definition, obscure, complicated, or difficult to understand. But I experience life as something very chaotic and this feeds my need to make sense of it. I have a strong, if not compulsive, tendency to put things in order just because I feel there is enough chaos around and inside me. And I think this tendency is, for better or worse, reflected in the morphological traits of my work. But ambiguity, as far as I am concerned, is not a means as such; it is a conclusion.
A.M. Is it right to say that this existential uneasiness is the overarching theme as denotation and connotation in your body of work?
P.K. I think that with the exception of Landscapes, where there is also a sociological and psychological touch, most of my work revolves around the old, perhaps outdated or banal for some, unanswered questions relating to the existential condition: the fact that we are here without knowing much about it. It is already there in the people lost in crowds and the imprisoned animals of the black-and-white work. It is there in the confinement of Home. It is there in Interiors, in the disorientated wandering of people in claustrophobic spaces. It is present as well in Landscapes, where the human figure is seen from afar and above, calling attention to our insignificance. And it is still present, this time more consciously, in the Here We Are series, in which the purposeful amalgamation of different genres aims to show that photography is a medium that can take on existential subject matter.
A.M. Yet, the existential condition that you describe is meant to be, by definition, an esoteric condition, and thus invisible, some would even claim unrepresentable. How can one visualize the invisible in photographic terms?
P.K. By choosing subject matter that can accommodate existential interpretation and by choosing a method suitable to bring it out. For instance, the method used by Robert Frank in The Americans, consisting of his notational style, the imbalance of compositions, the open-ended and unfinished images, colors this book with an existential hue. The state of exile in many of Koudelka’s pictures has a clear correlation with the human condition. Or, take Philip Lorca diCorcia’s work, for example, in which a momentous realization inscribed on the face of an alienated pedestrian can be read as an existential epiphany. As far as I am concerned, I tried to make Here We Are by identifying notions relevant to the existential condition, such as wandering, nothingness or death, and then finding situations that can visualize these notions in the widest possible variety of subjects. Therefore, I intentionally tried to mix as many different photographic genres as I could.
A.M. It is surprising how so disparate practices, from highly staged portraits (e.g., Penelope), meticulously orchestrated tableaux vivants (e.g.,Metro) and hard-won still-lives (e.g. Cockroach) to diaristic snaps (e.g., Kyriaki) and overtly digital manipulated images (e.g., Urania), may produce such a seamless, multilayered narrative in Here We Are, one that wavers between reality and artifice, event and non event, chance and re-enactment, or even, to use Michael Fried’s favorite distinction, “absorption” and “theatricality”.
P.K. The seamlessness is facilitated by the common theme. When you put two pictures together, what matters more is what they are about, not how they were made. The osmosis that takes place blurs the distinction between the fabricated and the real, and even questions the necessity of making such a distinction. For instance Kyriaki, a diaristic note ‘taken’ with a Leica camera and grainy film, when seen next to the staged Diana acquires some of its sense of fiction. Likewise, Diana seen next to Kyriaki reads more as a picture that is taken quickly, if not snatched. One could further manipulate their reading by swapping their print sizes. Since size has become a co-signifier of artistic intention and milieu, it could well serve as a means to purposely mislead the viewer about the nature of a photograph.
There are pictures in Here We Are, like Hand, Butterfly or Grave, that are totally straight, that is, taken rather than made, and others like Urania that could not have been conceived without counting on digital intervention. But the symbiosis of these different practices did not take place only at the level of putting them together in the same series. In several cases this fusion of methods took place within the pictures themselves. These hybrids combine, with varying proportions, straight, staged and digital methods of image making. For example Metro is a combination of reality and artifice as in an already existing crowd I physically integrated actors and then digitally manipulated the whole scene. Penelope is a combination of street photography with portraiture. Cockroach is a ‘snap’ taken with a view camera and studio lights. I think that these varying degrees of staging and manipulation help the smooth transition between the different pictures, whilst the recurring overlap between these disparate photographic practices cross-fertilizes such seemingly ‘incompatible’ genres.
A.M. Here We Are transgresses not only photographic genres but also iconographic/iconoclastic traditions, media and disciplines, from surrealist imagery and post-war figurative painting to photo-conceptualism, from film noir and popular narrative cinema to contemporary performance, from existential literature and dramaturgy to ideas around supermodernity and the notion of the ‘‘non-place’’. Was this plurality and cross-referencing of pictorial and literary quotations equally a conscious decision?
P.K. The cultural baggage you carry is unavoidably transcribed in the work you do. Sometimes it is a conscious decision; sometimes things pop up in your head because they just do. Cross-fertilization is like making a soup. You don’t have to follow a specific recipe; you can improvise and use whatever you have in the fridge, as long as you like cooking and you know how to cook.
A.M. You have been long challenging ideas around photography’s unique phenomena and verisimilitude, whether these are physically rooted in its indexicality, or conceptually constructed around the modernist idea of taking rather than making photographs, but, in essence, you have retained this verisimilitude at the core of your practice, moving from one reality to another. What is it that you want to manifest?
P.K. Photography depends on the real, but it is not reality. This is why I am trying to retain a sense of verisimilitude while I do not feel obliged to achieve this solely through documentary work. I do not want to manifest anything and it is not my first priority to question the nature of the medium. Yet, the depiction of our contemporary condition requires contemporary methods that can register exactly what we experience now. This depiction is directly related to, and can be enhanced by, the use of what the medium can do today. Photography as we used to know it could visualize the human condition only as an imprint of the real through the act of taking a picture. But the real we experience today has changed. It is often mediated by the images we see every day on television, in the press or on the Internet. The representation of the real has become part of the real. The indexical nature of photography, which used to constitute its very ontology, can no longer exclusively sustain such a representation. The imprint of the real is still there but whether it is obtained by taking or making a picture is not anymore the case. And this is reflected at the multifaceted nature of contemporary photography and the increasing overlap between various photographic practices. The title Here We Are is thus a statement that carries an existential connotation not only on a philosophical but also on a photographic level. As an affirmation uttered to introduce the question that usually follows, that is, ‘What do we do now?’, the title refers as well to the historical crossroads at which photography stands today.
A.M. So what’s next?
P.K. There is almost always a picture in a previous series of work that leads me to what I do next. What I would like to pursue more persistently now is the direction of Urania. It is a pattern of work in which the intervention of digital manipulation, albeit evident, is not by any means the main theme, but facilitates the creation of fiction through the use of realistic tools. Although a fiction film may be more realistic than a photograph, we never judge it for not being ‘true’. We judge it on the basis of how the reality it presents discusses real life. In this respect, I would like to see photography being absolved from its congenital and false identification with reality. Again, photography is not life; it is about life. No more and no less than that.