In this interview, the young Austrian photographer Klaus Pichler talks about his passion, the common thread that connects all of his works, the role of music in his photography and much more!
Do you remember the first time you looked at photography as something you wanted to pursue in life? What moved you this feeling? How did your journey in photography start?
Photography has caught me cold – I have never been in touch with photography when I was young and I did not find anything in it until my twenties. When I was 21, I was a student of landscape architecture and we had to attend plenty of excursions to the countryside. Some of the areas we were staying at were so remote that I wanted to document them – and I bought a camera for that purpose. Once I had the camera, I realized the power of it as a tool of expression, of creativity, of overcoming my lack of talent in painting and drawing – and I fell in love with it. Suddenly, my life began circling about it – I installed a darkroom in our bathroom, spent hours in front of the photo bookshelf of the public library and, above, took plenty of photos of everything I could get hold on (not only the excursions). This was the foundation of a passion and also a plan to switch to photography full time, which developed over the years, and right after my degree, I became a full time photographer – and I have never regret this decision
Your project “Golden days before they end” is a dive into the drinking habitat of Vienna. From the title, the series has a melancholic touch to it…What are the aesthetics that most intrigued you of this world? What does this aforementioned approach to it tell us of your idea of photography? What is your personal relationship with time passing by and memories? How do you use photography -if in any way- to interact with “places that are soon to disappear forever”?
Photography is incorporating all tenses – the present in the moment an image is made, the future in the fact that one can train to ‘see’ images immediately before they happen, and the past in terms of looking at images. Concerning the project, both present and past were two important factors. The present in terms of ‘being there’ – spending plenty of time in the bars to be prepared for the rare occasions where something extraordinary happens, waiting for new people of interactions, and being able to take the desired image in the very second the action is happening. But, in a more broad sense, I have always been aware that the whole project would already be a partly historic project the moment the book would be published – bars have disappeared, people have died, things have changed. This awareness made me focus on thing which I knew would not last forever and I photographed the whole project with some kind of subconscious responsibility to erect a monument for the soon-to-be-gone people and bars. There’s one thing which tells a lot about the change of times and climates: on my images, people are smoking. In Austria, it is still allowed to smoke in bars, but I am sure it won’t be long before it will be abolished, and suddenly the images will gain one more historic momentum in terms of ‘look, they were still allowed to smoke back then!’.
In the series “This will change your life forever” you go after the “irrationalism, new age esotericism, pseudo-science, conspiracy theorists and the current post-truth-era.” What do you aim at visually exposing this sector of society? How do you think the area of conspiracy theories, pseudo-science, and general post-truth-era has been affected by the facility of producing and sharing images?
This project is driven by a mixture of curiosity and disgust – two friends of mine started to emerge into this scene after they went through a life crisis and rapidly changed as persons. They became highly irrational and speculative, they spent their savings for strange courses and seminars and it was increasingly hard to spend time with them due to their strange views and behaviors. My frustration with the whole situation was the starting point of this series. I can’t deny that I wanted to expose and debunk the contents and also the business nature of this sector which is making profit out of hopes of despaired people. For me, it is still hard to believe that in our time a scene of speculative irrationalism and expensive promises of salvation is still so appealing for that many people. Therefore (although I pretended to be a hardcore devotee when I did the project) one can probably feel a huge distance and opposition towards this scene in my project.
In terms of photography I encountered one strange thing: although it is common sense right now that photography has lost its status of evidence in the digital age (if it has had it anytime before– photo manipulations are as old as the medium itself…) and images are to be looked at with care and doubt. In the esotericist and conspiracy scene, it is completely different: photos are treated as evidence and proof, even if the provenience of the image is uncleared and if the images were taken by amateurs and not in a scientific environment. I even found sentences like ‘it is invisible for the human eye, but the camera is able to show it’ for some ‘strange phenomena’ (alleged angel sightings, orbs and so on) – which were explainable by the basic laws of physics.
All your project have an anthropological and social tilt in them – my opinion here. What do you think is the role of photography in this sense? What do you try and convey with your images? Curiosity, denounce, documentation…?
Thanks! I am glad you notice the anthropological foundation of my projects. I think the anthropological interest in my series is caused by the fact that I don’t start a project with taking images, but with doing research. No matter if it is a social group, a behavior or some objects I want to work on, I always try to find out as much as possible before I start taking photos. By that, I gain an insight into this particular field and prevent myself from taking it not seriously. Knowledge is the best factor against making fun of something – as soon as you know the rules, the codes, the norms, you have to take it seriously. Therefore, I have begun to set my projects at the borderline of the in-group and the out-group, trying to satisfy both of them. Ideally, for the in-group my photos are nothing special since they show everyday things and therefore they feel pleased, and for the out-group my images are a peeping tom into the topic and they like it because of that. My highest aim is to create projects which are paying respect to both groups. By working with research methods from social sciences/ anthropology, I am able to gain some insights into the subject which I would not have when just sticking to taking photos without research and interviews.
Can you describe us the process that leads you to create a photo series on a subject? Do you find a common thread in the different themes you go through?
The starting points of my projects are each entirely different – sometimes it is a newspaper article, sometimes and observation, sometimes just a stupid idea which is not so stupid anymore when thinking about it more carefully. It is easier to talk about a common thread in the projects – although the aesthetics are quite different from each other, my interest is always about something hidden or closed. Be it hidden and hermetic social groups, social codes and norms or objects which are either easy to be overlooked or which are consciously kept out of focus. That’s what I am interested in, and there’s plenty of subjects which are fitting in this category. I consider photography as a key to open doors to social groups and also as a tool to explain the world – and the more arcane and strange my subjects are, the more one can find out about the hidden aspects of everyday life.
Elliott Erwitt is quoted saying: “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.” What do you think of this statement? How do you relate with it considering that text is a valuable part of your projects?
Ha, how can I answer this question without contradicting him? I am right now in the middle of answering an interview about my photography – so it is kind of impossible to agree with Elliott Erwitt. Seriously, I admire every photographer who is creating projects without the necessity of explanation or contextualization. I can’t do that. I would love to, but I will always need text. I think that text is a second layer, a layer which gives frame, context, meaning, and which sometimes tells the same story from an entirely different perspective. Take the bar project – I have photographed the patrons, my project partner has interviewed the owners, and photos and interview passages are almost dialectic to each other. The guests want to have fun and freak out, the owners want order and behavior, and it is a permanent confrontation which instance has the upper hand. If I had just taken photos without text, this layer of tension would not be immanent in the images, and I think that it is exactly this layer which explains a lot about the bars itself and how they function. So it is always a necessity and also a privilege to use texts, too.
An artist (also not a photographer) that has particularly influenced you? In what way?
Some of the artists who have always been able to fascinate and inspire me are Cindy Sherman, Paul Mc Carthy, Maurizio Cattelan, Lawrence Weiner and Francis Bacon.
Apart from the camera…what can’t you do without while you work?
Music, all kinds of. It gives me a certain feeling during the working sessions and I can tell one or two albums for each project which have inspired this particular project. I always notice the power of music when doing portraits: without music, the space between my model and me is empty, creating distance and a little bit of an awkward/nude feeling for both. When listening to music, suddenly the space between the model and me is filled with something I would compare to dry waves of the sea – it creates something almost physical which emerges closeness and motivation. I love to select a playlist before certain photo shootings and then turning up the volume.
A living artist (also not a photographer) you want to bring to the attention of the readers? Why?
I don’t want to name someone, but more answer this question in a general way: I think it is one of the most important secrets of success as an artist to being interested in politics, literature, movies, science, and so on, and so on. The broader your horizon, the bigger the inspiration and the knowledge. I would state that the better you want to be as a photographer, the more you have to focus on things which have nothing to do with photography in order to bring the gained knowledge back into photography.
How has the pandemic affected your photography?
My life as a photographer is about 50:50 between photo commissions and free projects. When the pandemic unfolded in early 2020, suddenly all commissions got canceled or postponed. After a short time of shock, I decided to use the time of forced standstill in a constructive way and focused on my free projects. Basically, I thought, that apart from the terrible and tragic aspects of the pandemic, this was a period of time that made it possible to take time and work in a slowed-down mode. So I locked myself into my studio and worked continuously for some months until the measures of social distances got lifted. Retrospectively, I consider this productivity as a kind of coping strategy that helped me digest those surreal and dystopic times, but nevertheless, it has left me with a huge pile of new images. I decided not to create anything about the virus itself since I felt literally surrounded by it, so it felt relieving to dive into different topics to free myself from the sensible anxiety which surrounded us all.
Next and upcoming projects?
I have taken a timeout from producing new projects about four years ago in order to get new influences, do some research, and try to put both photo technique and conceptual approach on a new level. I have decided to focus on a topic that has always interested me and which I have never really thought of together with photography. It’s the field of botany, ecology, biology, and science, intertwined with social sciences and discourse. Basically, I am circling around the question of what happens if science and ecology collide with human discourse, mass media, and political agenda. I have created three long-term projects in the past two years which I am planning to publish as photo books the next time. I am currently preparing everything and it’s a little bit too soon to go into detail, but I am looking forward to presenting the new stuff soon.