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01.04 – 04.06
On the occasion of Kristien Daem's solo exhibition R.S.V.P. portrait series II, photographer and curator Dajo Van den Bussche visited Daem in Brussels. They engaged in a conversation about key moments in Daem's career and how, in retrospect, these episodes can be seen to have played a crucial role in the realization of the series shown at KIOSK. Based on technical interpretations and art-historical references, the artist offers an insight into her process.
Dajo Van den Bussche: Can you tell me more about how a portrait is created?
Kristien Daem: You get straight to the point. That question puts me quite far into a process, but I'm not really a portraitist at all. When I studied at KASK I avoided photographing people. I didn't like it, I didn't feel comfortable, and I often felt like I would be disturbing people with it. Asking a person in front of the lens to sit or look differently [sigh], I couldn't do that. From the beginning, I mainly photographed space and architecture. Even during my studies, I was not necessarily interested in the classic Magnum photographers, with all due respect for what they do. I learned how to develop films and shoot in that style, but I soon realized that it was not what I wanted to do. On the other hand, I was interested in a technical camera from the start. I could agree with the spaciousness of this type of camera. But I didn't have such a device and you could only use one from the third year of photography, and I never got that far.
During my studies I was often bored, so I regularly visited t' Gewad, a center for contemporary art founded by Anton Herbert, Jan Debbaut, and Joost Declercq, which was close to school. At that time the center was the place for contemporary art in Ghent. During one of those visits, I saw a photographer at work photographing an installation by Gilbert & George with a technical camera. I was completely blown away by both the show and Piet Ysabie's pinpoint accuracy in documenting the exhibition. From that moment I was sold, even though I was much too young and naive to put something like that on the table at school. Later, for an assignment, we had to document a day in our lives. I decided to make recordings of the build-up of Red Diagonals by Daniel Buren at 't Gewad. When I showed the result at school and the teacher did not regard it as a diary, it soon became clear that I was not in the right place. I decided to stop. That was in 1984. That’s how far back my interest in documenting art dates. Many photographers decided to do this to earn extra money, but I had the intention of making it my full-time job. In 1986 I decided to buy a technical camera and to teach myself the technique by means of a manual.
To come back to your question, I've always refused portraits in my career. But two artists were an exception: Raoul De Keyser and Bernd Lohaus. For me, the portrait fails as an image. It is never an accurate representation of the person and is merely an interpretation or translation through a camera. Initially, I did not intend to make portraits, although I was always interested in portraits within painting and sculpture. Apart from that, for this series and the previous series, I started making indoor portraits at the start of the COVID period.
DVdB: That's a remarkable period in which to start making portraits.
KD: Yeah, I couldn't, being so alone [laughs]. Shortly before the start of the first series I read a booklet written by Hans Ulrich Obrist. It is about Konrad Klapheck, a German painter who had painted machines all his life. Suddenly Klapheck decided to paint people. That was obviously a huge change. The booklet strongly influenced me and gave me the idea to make portraits, to photograph people. That way I would finally see people again during a period of isolation. Based on that thought, I drew up a protocol. I asked myself why I wanted to photograph someone and came to the conclusion that the context in which I would make the series was actually much more important than the quality and existence of the portrait itself.
This is how the series 7 Portraits and 1 Still Life came about. It literally sheds light on the representation of women in the art world. I gave the artists in front of my lens the option of being portrayed or not. If not, they could opt for a vase of flowers. The chair on which the sitter sits is an important element within the frame.
DVdB: Why didn't you shoot in your studio?
KD: I always took the photos in people's homes because I didn't want to see my own furniture in the images I took. I wanted to abstract the concept away from my surroundings. No reference to my personal belongings. And so I visit people and literally build a studio in their living room or studio with background and lighting. A chair is placed in front of the background. The chair functions as a small detail of the person in the picture. The camera is almost always at the same distance. The person portrayed looks straight at the camera and shows few emotions. During the recording I leave little to chance. It is a controlled approach with predetermined photographic resources that I apply very systematically to construct the complete image.
DVdB: How does 7 Portraits and 1 Still Life, realized in 2021, differ from the series you will be showing in KIOSK?
KD: There's not much difference in the way I do the portrait. The background has a different color, for example, but in essence the method remains the same. Again, for me, it's more about the context. In 7 Portraits and 1 Still Life I showed the portraits of the female artists together with their publications and editions, which formed the second part of their representation: on the basis of the books and editions, the viewer can form a more complete picture of the artist. Someone asked me if I would only photograph women, and it made me think. I would also photograph men, but on the condition that they give me an answer to a question: “What is your favorite work by a female artist?” The answer also becomes a form of a representation of an artist. As a result, the title of the work is R.S.V.P.
With that answer I then start making the second part of the diptych. I start an investigation into the history of that artwork and then I photograph it on location or in the studio, or I make a reproduction of a publication in which the work appears, or I photograph an object that refers to the work. Everything depends on the archival material I find.
For the presentation of R.S.V.P. I started working on tradition: a portrait in a passe-partout, mounted in a frame. Through this tradition I do not try to obscure the photographic media. On the contrary, I want to sharpen it.
DVdB: Is your position towards the medium central then?
KD: Photography is central as a subject, but also the story. The camera has always been the instrument par excellence in the struggle of women artists, in the struggle for the recognition of women in a male-dominated art world. We must not forget that. With the portrait series I photograph the community in which I live and can therefore better translate who I am. The series are not emphatically political, but they are not apolitical either, which makes me want to say that they are a product of me—as an individual, a woman, a photographer working in the art world. I live with these three elements and in these series they coincide in portraits.
DVdB: The subject that you had the least interest in early in your career?
KD: Right. I've just never been ready. But I do look at portraits a lot. I can't necessarily focus my source of inspiration on one thing; everything has shaped me: sculptors, painters, photographers. It takes a while before I know who I want to photograph and before I can pick up the phone to call them. Some people I don't dare to ask right away, even though they usually say yes. I do know exactly what the portrait will look like because of the protocol. I have an image in my head beforehand of what that person should look like during the shot, which can sometimes take up to a second in exposure time. Looking at hundreds of portraits and poses in books helps me find a good pose for a particular person. This is an important part of the preparation. With the portrait of Kasper Bosmans, for example, I based myself entirely on a photograph of a reclining female nude made by the US painter Thomas Eakins. Eakins taught at the Pennsylvania Academy and encouraged the use of photography in his classes. He also believed that female students should have the same responsibilities and opportunities as their male colleagues, but he was fired in 1886 after removing a male model's loincloth in a class attended by female students.
DVdB: It is an interesting position that you take as an art photographer. You take on the photographer’s hyper-observant role. Is that a different experience to that of a spectator?
KD: I think I do have a problem with differentiating between when I'm the spectator and when I'm not. When am I at work? If you ask my kids, I'm always working [laughs]. I quickly analyze how something works because of that analytical attitude. However, as a photographer I do also feel like a spectator. I've been shaped by the things I've seen.