Changed my mind, the entirety of this two part interview with Joerg Colberg, lord and master of famed “Conscientious“, needs to be published on the same day. Part one is here, APE and Jackanory. Part two, yours truly as “Dear Leader” resides just below iconic mount Fuji.
DL: Joerg- Just wondering if you might be interested in a Julian Richards type interview on my blog. I do not know if you have read my blog but please do so if you are interested. Much expletives, nudity, that sort of thing?
JC: Hmmm, sure. I have to warn you, though, that since I am German I don’t really do any of that humour stuff that you non-Germans seem to be so happy with. But if you think it’ll be interesting, sure, send me some questions.
DL: How is it that I can’t seem to be able to make fun of you, after all, that’s one of my greatest gifts, have I met my match (even though, I have to admit, I make fun of people I like, I tend to ignore those I dislike)?
JC: I don’t know whether you can’t make fun of me, maybe you have to try harder. (you have to imagine me saying that with a very straight face, of course) Or try different things. I have lived outside of Germany for quite a while now, and I’m quite aware of the usual stereotypes (my father-in-law, when chatting with me, after all these years still like to tell me about all the great shop tools Germans make), so it’s something that I’ve come to expect, and I sometimes use stereotypes just to have a little fun for myself. But you can get me easily when I least expect it.
DL: I did not wish to make fun of you as a German, but as a person, it’s always better that way. Your nationality would only show me if you minded or liked being German, not if you liked or minded being yourself. Don’t you think? Anyway, the problem is that I think is that we have already corresponded for too long already and I like your honesty and humanity, that’s hard to caricature, makes me look like an ass (not that I mind, actually, who doesn’t quite fancy the buffoon). Anyway, aren’t we both Euro-trash, we like pontificating in the new world, and yankees love that shit, until the layoffs of course?
JC: “I did not wish to make fun of you as a German, but as a person” sounds a bit like that PC stuff that has been so popular here, doesn’t it? But regardless, be my guest. In any case, I’ve always thought it’s more fun to try to get someone you know, instead of going for the cheap laugh about some poor person who really doesn’t get it. But sure, we both have that certain Euro thing going for us, which makes people confess to us at parties (provided we are actually being invited again) how they think that Europeans are so much smarter etc. Which for me is always kind of funny and sad at the same time, what with me at some stage in the past almost desperately trying to escape all the nonsense in Germany. And then I come here, and people tell me how great it’s there (when they’re not making fun of me taking things too seriously). Oh the irony! I’ve gotten used to it now, and it’s interesting to see how we Europeans are on some sort of cease fire when we meet here – back in Europe, we’d berate each other about our hygiene, sexual habits, food, and – let’s face it – perceived utter lack of taste.
DL: You mention that you became interested in photography in 1999 but failed to go into details, at least, none that I can find. What traumatic event made you turn to photography?
JC: Pure despair. And for once, that’s not much hyperbole really. Back in the Winter of 1999 I was stuck in some sort of Kafkaesque situation, in a German city that I didn’t really know that much, renting a room (which for the most part was more or less unheated) in a stranger’s apartment (as an added bonus, the kitchen was completely unusable – it looked as if a bomb had exploded in there – and the bathroom was basically little better), with just a suitcase of my own stuff with me… I don’t want to pile on too much, but it was a situation, which was extremely unenjoyable, and because I was desperate for anything that would maybe change things a little that I picked up a camera and started taking photos. And then I was suprised that they came out in a way which made me want to take more. In retrospect, those photos are all really bad, of course. But they really helped me cope with that situation.
DL: Well, you could have found Jesus instead and bored someone else! But anyway, I have always found that creativity, whether we are good artists or not, is very soothing, never mind the frustrating aspects of that gift, but still, I often find that a lot of artist are attracted to “the arts”, much like sociopaths are attracted to guns or politics; as another ubiquitous and politically powerful and manipulative tool? The social ” Art animal” can sometimes be laughably amusing, at best, or nut-bustingly cretinous at worst. You seem relatively well meaning and objective but just for curiousity’s sake what really pisses you off?
JC: Who do you bore, though, when you find Jesus? And even if you find Jesus, instead of becoming an artist (whatever that really might entail), once you start to proselytize, isn’t that really little more than some sort of performance art? In any case, I don’t find my own creativity very soothing at all, and I don’t even mind, because if I want soothing I get a bottle of wine. But I think you’re right, the kind of drive that many artists have to create art is very similar to the drive you can find in politicians to acquire power, or in “business” people to make money. I think the manipulative aspect in art might come second, though, or maybe I’m just trying to convince myself that the process of art is different from the process of politics, say. After all, by definition politics *is* manipulation (as is business, albeit on an even more unhealthy scale), whereas you can create art with no audience in mind. Art (and here you can clearly tell that I never went to art school) first and foremost is for an audience of one. Needless to say, there are tons of artists who have the audience in mind. And just for the record, I don’t think that artists in a social context are any worse than scientists, say. It’s just that we have very little patience for artists who are utter jerks (even though famous artists of course easily get away with it), whereas for scientists, it’s kind of part of the game. It’s almost like you’re disappointed when an extremely intelligent scientist is not borderline autistic or insane, isn’t it? As for what pisses me off I asked my wife, and she said “technical problems with computers” and “stupid people”.
DL: Those last two seem to be universal, I personally would add “shitty drivers”, but I am the aggressive kind, think italian scooter crossed with F1. I tend to equate bad driving with stupidity, but that’s my own problem. Speaking of which, and since this isn’t funny, you and I had a email conversation about humour/comedy in the “Fine Arts”. There seems to be very little of it, to which you added:
“Art and humour are indeed strange bed fellows. [...] what I do find is that art that adds some sort of wittiness or humour after just a little while gets so stale: Who wants to look at the same joke for more than a couple times? Even my most favourite comedies I can only watch occasionally, since the jokes are just too familiar and thus not funny any longer (‘The Jerk’ maybe being one of those rare exceptions)”
and to which I responded :
“The French are actually very funny believe it or not, but it sure as hell does not translate. The best comedies I have ever seen are french. Anyway, as humor goes, it’s not about witty or one liner-y. The humour has to sustain itself forever, be cross cultural and timeless. That might be the hardest thing to do in art actually. I think you need to be extremely ambitious to attempt it, it’s a fine line. Humor evolves as you get older and with experience, more refined(?), wiser(?), less temporal but as I said to get there, and sustain it, now that’s is epic…. I just think that it is so difficult that artists tend to ignore it as it seems so daunting ”
To some extent, I also believe that it is a lot easier to be enigmatic, esoteric and impenetrable than it is to be brilliant and honest. A lot of photography these days seems to follow contemporary trends or the aforementioned mystifying techniques to escape criticism, or by using those tools, magically transcend their lack, or minimal talent, into a career. To some extent, there is nothing wrong with that, it is a political and competitive world. Do you find that these issues might lead you to burn out, or have you made a personal kind of peace, all your own?
JC: I can’t say to what extent people really follow trends in contemporary photography to escape criticism or to follow the easy route. It’s one of those things that one can suspect easily, but it’s quite a bit harder to actually show that that’s really the case (provided it’s even possible). I do think – and that might be that very naivite that you pointed out to me already so many times in our email conversations – that many photographers really work on the kind of photography they personally want to work on. I think it’s not too hard to spot the genuine fakers, the people who blatantly emulate someone else’s way of shooting; and I don’t think spending too much time talking about that kind of work is very interesting. As for the kind of work that we get to see a lot, it’s one thing to say “Contemporary photography is really just photos of empty parking lots” and quite another thing to maybe think about what it actually means that so many people do take photos of empty parking lots. There are cheap laughs to be had, if you stick to the former (but it’s utterly devoid of anything truly meaningful), but then when you look at it from the latter perspective you do get something out of it. Maybe there are so many photos of empty parking lots because there is a shitload of parking lots all around us? What kind of environment have we created where we are surrounded by such vast areas, ugly and grey, only designed to store away those cars that we use because we’re too lazy to fucking walk somewhere? (just so you’ll finally get some expletives, too)
So when I look at photography, I generally focus on what I can make of it and not so much on why some people do this or that, or on whether or not some people want to escape criticism. Likewise, I do believe that talent just shows, and if someone has a lot of talent then you see that in that person’s work. So I’m not too worried about that. Or maybe I’m not that jaded, yet – who knows? Maybe I will burn out some day, but I kind of doubt it, given the amount of amazing photography I still discover.
I do think, though, and this is maybe because I never went to art school, that I look at some things maybe a little bit differently than many other people. For example, I often hear comments from people about how some photographer X is just copying photographer Y (I’m not thinking of an actual example here btw). But here’s the thing. Let’s say X has taken some photos of something. Does that mean that no one else can take photos of that same thing? How do we know that there won’t be someone who’ll take photos of the same thing but may actually manage to add just that little something extra to make it more interesting? I often think that many people simply aren’t willing to think in such categories. It’s like remixing in music, maybe, or doing a “cover version” Often the remixes or covers are just better.
As for humour in art, I do think that there is a lot of art that genuinely has humour in it and is brilliant – Gilbert & George’s work for me is one of those examples – but it is quite tough. There has got to be some connection to humour in religion – one of my main problems with Christianity is that it has no sense of humour. But now I’m really digressing (I’m sure I’ve lost all readers by now anyway, though).
DL: Religion is indeed rarely funny, unless you’re the one doing the water boarding. On the other hand, I do believe that parking lots and gas stations are popular because too many photographers take their mentors far too literally and shoot “what they know”. But to my mind there does seem to be depressive undercurrent to a lot of work these days. I believe a lot of people look to photography as an easy refuge from the modern world, the institutions to which we are wedded and an every day, often inescapable routine . That’s all and good, but I simply refuse not to believe that most people have what it takes to become great artists, they just lack the courage.
Nevertheless, I am somewhat convinced that photography has become the “new psychotherapy”, a kind of neurotic monologue devoid of much feedback or “therapeutic” questioning. Does that resonate with you, after all, you found an escape in photography, and it seems that you are not the only one these days?
JC: Ah, the big questions! What’s a “great artist”? People can’t even agree on what a “great photo” is. As for the question of courage, I don’t know. That seems like an odd category for me, and in the end, it’s of so little help! I mean if I was to teach photography students, the last thing I’d tell them if they were struggling to find their voices that they lacked the courage. Apart from the fact that the statement, grandiose as it might sound, is completely meaningless it’s also not very helpful. And if I look at artists that I admire, a lot of them one would not associate with courage at all. Actually, some of them – take for example Dmitri Shostakovich – only managed to survive because they lacked courage (which then, in the end, led to some of the most amazing – and most widely misunderstood – music ever composed).
Also, even though I’m German, and Germans like big ideas and great concepts, that whole idea of a “new psychotherapy” is a bit too much for me. That’s like Freud warmed up (yet again!), and I actually prefer my dishes fresh.
As for my own photography, I don’t see it as an escape really. If it was that I think I wouldn’t do it, and drinking would actually be cheaper (and more fun). Given the enormous amount of work that I put into it (provided I can find the time) just to produce a few photographs that I don’t hate there’s nothing therapeutic about that. In fact, I work on photography not because I need to escape from something but *even though* I could use a break from having a day job *and* running a blog that already contains so much stuff that sometimes, it takes me hours and hours just to find the one link that I want to put up per day (as the minimum that I’ve set myself).
Thinking of photography as some sort of collective escape is just too negative a way to think about it for me, and it also makes assumptions about its creators that I am not willing to make.
DL: Great artist, yeah, I meant that loosely, not absolutely. As for courage, and by that, I do not mean the “heroic” kind, but the kind which makes us act on the small tasks we need to make every day to get where we want to be. But to further my point about the prevalence of photography I must admit that I was gratified to hear Chuck Close, in the BBC documentary, describe it this way; I, of course could not have said it better myself: “Here’s the dilemma and the strength of photography. It’s the easiest medium in which to be competent. But, it’s the hardest medium in which to have personal vision that is readily identifiable.”
JC: Sure, photography – and especially digital photography – is deceiving in that it looks like all you have to do is to press the button, and then you got your photo. Maybe we’re not that far apart after all, though, especially since you qualified what you mean by “courage” – which then would be merely the willingness to do the small, tedious stuff every day, something that is, if not discouraged, but at least getting a bad rap in our culture (because our laziness is now encouraged to an extent that even doing something on a regular basis is too tedious for most people).
Maybe in the end, it all comes down to the simple fact that just like any other art form, you can’t expect photography to be that much different from painting or playing the piano or whatever else you can think of. It involves a lot of very hard work, regular practice, and things won’t fall into your lap. Maybe for some people, it’s incredibly easy and simple, but for most it’s not.