Erik Kessels, Found Photography
Posted on January 15 2021
Erik Kessels (Roermond, 1966) is a Dutch artist and curator. He has published over 50 books containing found, lost, unclaimed, or photographic discarded and reappropiated images.
Kessels has expanded the concept of "found photography" from an analogue to a digital condition, from searching for photographs in flea markets to taking images from the web.
In 2011, in collaboration with Martin Parr, Joachim Schmid, Clement Cheroux and Joan Fontuberta he co-curated an exhibition entitled "From Here On" for Les Rescontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles.
This was an exhibition that included more than eighty authors and took stock of the post-photographic creation made up to that moment.
Photography in Abundance by Erik Kessels, presented at the end of 2011 in the FOAM museum in Amsterdam, is an installation with the volume of photographs uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours and is an icon of the post-photographic condition in which we have been swimming for more than a decade.
Erik Kessels: Even though I don't shoot with a camera, I watch people do so. The only limitation in my opinion is the production of a frozen image. Aside from that, there are no limits. We can see this in the mass of people uploading images online: suddenly the world is made transparent by what you can look at. But also the good, the bad, the ugly, the obscene, the ridiculous, can be shown: there is an ongoing explosion, we are living almost in a Renaissance of the imaginary. We need to channel this flow and decide where to look, if not we will implode because there is too much information to process, and its limits are dissipating. This process is totally "naked", and cannot be stopped. The images reach us no matter what. To limit their access we should close all our accounts and focus on other things. But being constantly online, with our apps and our networks, we are always and constantly reachable by these images.
You organize photographs according to the logic of human categorization. The result is a complex mnemonic scheme, but what is the difference between your logic and an algorithmic? Are you a human algorithm?
Working by hand and with a brain is a totally different thing from the work of an algorithm. Rarity and exception can only be witnessed by a human. A computer may find the unusual, but it cannot appreciate it as a human would, it will never recognize it as a human would.
I really appreciate the work I'm Google (2011) by the German artist Dina Kelberman. Google had implemented an image recognition system, so that visually similar images could be obtained. At https://dinakelberman.tumblr.com/ Dina uploaded all the images she could find through a certain search, until she stopped and used one of them to start a new search. It's a continuous and constant job. Behind the scenes of this work there is of course a machine learning algorithm, but there is still a human intervention that makes it work.
Is re-proposing images found according to personal cataloging / distribution / preparation a form of revision? How does our relationship with time change?
Those who work with appropriation create a kind of pause. Photographs already produce it naturally, but extracting images from the masses to which they belong, selecting them and showing them determines something different. With these images a time pause can be created.
Are you a collector or an amateur photographer?
Neither of the two. Sometimes people say I'm a collector, but I'm not at all. It sounds strange enough, because I collect collections, but for me collecting is an anal thing. The act of collecting is done only for the fetish of bringing a lot of things together. In my case, I collect work material. For example, for a while I collected a lot of musical vinyls with some images on them. I used them for a job, but now I can't even look at them anymore. The attention I gave to those objects was very concentrated: I used them for a job just to show them to others and to ask people to look at them differently than usual. On the other hand, I am not even an amateur, even though, by my point of view, I am fascinated by amateurs.
First of all, artists' use of existing images is very old: if we think back to the 1950s and 1960s, many people have used existing images. In my case, when I did so for the first time, I had 400 pictures of a Spanish woman for three years already. In my studio sometimes I would show them to whoever was passing by and at one point they told me that I should do something with them because it was such a great series of images, and that everyone should enjoy. At the time I was also trying to find out if the woman in the photographs was still alive and eventually I found out that she was dead and that her husband was dead too. But I know her name now. I got it from a colleague of hers, a woman in her 70s who is still alive. Many times, when photos or albums are found at a flea market, their owners are dead.
I think it's a good thing when you find out, but I also work with people who are still alive and have a lot of contact with them. For example, I see once every one or two months the woman who shoots in one of my books. She is Dutch, she will turn 100 this year, we are friends. I also have contacts with other people shown in my works. I think I have a responsibility to use other people's photographs. For example, I have found many erotic amateur photographs and I will not use them, because there may still be a child or some situation that could harm a third party.
"In almost every picture # 16" is a book that contains erotic images taken by a husband to his wife. In that case, I had permission to publish from the two daughters, who are now sixty years old. They also called me to find out if I could do something with these images. And when producing works with a lot of images, like the cock series (the one where many people show their penis next to a common object to show online how much you measure), there is no need to ask for permission, because this is a metaphor for something.
Models (2005) collects 132 images of men wearing uniforms. These are images taken in the 1970s in Germany to educate the military about how they should wear them. How do photography, reality, truth or fiction, influence us?
In this case, several police regions were asked to photograph their uniform independently.
Every police region took a different approach in the way they photographed their uniforms.
There weren't probably any models, the police officers themselves were asked to pose for the photo shoot.
So to me these photos are fiction in themselves, but the fact that these are grumpy and not-professional models acting as themselves gives a human touch to these photographs,
and makes them interesting. It's something very special when truth and fiction overlap in a confusing mix. When there is only fiction or only truth they are mere categories, while when they cross and touch each other they become interesting.
It is not my intention to manipulate them, but they are manipulated anyways in the end, of course. For example, when I take a normal photo of them, I ask them not to laugh because it is bizarre that every child or teenager, even friends of my children, when you ask them if you can take a photo of them, they laugh. But this is only a model, it is just a cliché. It is stereotypical behavior. So when they are asked not to laugh but to maintain a strict behavior,
when I show them the final image they find it much more interesting than the one in which they laugh. These are small games: here is the picture of you laughing, here is the picture of you being dead serious. Which do you like more? And they always like the one in which they're very serious a lot more, because it's so much more intense and true. So, I sometimes play with them to show them these metaphors, and they are, of course, influenced by them.
What is the history of the Photo Cube?
I think the Photo Cube is something that comes from America. I've got one here. It is a transparent cube that can be opened, with printed images inside, images of models. These chosen images teach you just how cool it is to take a photo of your grandmother or yourself or your child on a bicycle and also show you an example or template of how to do it before installing the photo in the cube. The model image will disappear when the new shot is inserted there. But what kind of photo models did the factory put in? There are many different photo cubes and any one of them can show what is good and what is not. It's almost like a shooting tutorial of what you should and what you shouldn't do.
It's something I found on Flickr. They are Fred and Valery, a couple in their 60s who live in Florida and have this fetish: Fred photographs Valery every day while she reads in the water
(in the pool, in a fountain, in the river, in the shower ...). I found these images and asked their permission to publish them. I made a book with their pictures and the first 100 copies were printed on waterproof paper. I sent them the very first copy of the book and asked them if they could take new photographs using the book sent to them. Fred was very happy to receive the book and to take pictures of Valery in the water as she read it.