A CONVERSATION BETWEEN RUT BLEES LUXEMBURG AND DAVID CAMPANY 1999
David Campany is author of Art and Photography (Phaidon Press 2003)
Rut Blees Luxemburg and David Campany talked about images from two bodies of work: London: a Modern Project and Liebeslied. The conversation took place walking the city of London at night, revisiting places she has photographed.
David: We are at the foot of the Waterloo Bridge looking at a flight of steps you photographed in...? 1997.
Rut: It’s changed since then. The text that appears in on the wall in your image, a text that looks like a poem that that been crossed out or covered over, has almost disappeared.
David: What first drew you to this site?
Rut: Liebeslied has become the overall title for a body of work and for my second book. For me the Liebeslied was this elusive writing on the wall which seemed always more than just graffiti or some quick communication. Even when I first saw it was indecipherable. I think that the writer tried to eradicate it. Just after they’d written it. And now it has become a stain or trace, adding to all the other stains on the surface of the city. I like the curves, they are so baroque that they suggest something much more palatial, or sacred, instead of a cold outdoor space.It looks like a very private form of communication, the opposite of most graffiti or street writing which might tend to be a disenfranchised citizen announcing something to the world in general.
David: The poem seems like one soul speaking to another soul but within a public place.
Rut: Yes, that’s why for me it became a Liebeslied. It is very considered. The scale is intimate. It is writing at the scale of the body. Or a page.So I came and photographed it. It seems private. I’m attracted to the heimlichkeit of a space in the public. A space that allows for a moment of repose.
David: Do you think that repose comes from the places or from your images?
Rut: From the places, most definitely. It is hard for me to photograph places where I don’t have that feeling or relation.
David: I think of your work as almost the opposite of street photography which we associate with bright daylight, people, grabbed chance instants and rapidity. Here we have long duration, emptiness, a shell that becomes a content, rather than the other way around where in street photography people become generalised ciphers of the masses. In your work the population is either moving through or coming or going.
Rut: Well the 5 x 4 camera is the opposite of what the street photographer would use. It requires slowness and concentration and the exposures are long. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. So it’s another kind of street photography. Or maybe ‘street’ isn’t even important. ‘Public’ photography is better.
David: Your photographs are often of streets or contain streets.
Rut: Well in the newer work the street is becoming less significant for me. In my earlier work, collected in the book A Modern Project the street was much more important. Now its other places.
David: There is generally much more intimacy in your recent work. You have moved away frm the great heights and the monumentality of the built city.
Rut: That’s a deliberate move. The idea of the Liebeslied suggests that intimacy of communication. An attention to another experience of the public. Not the great, grand declamation but the small theatrical spaces and gestures. Shall we go further along the river?... Ok, we’re at the site of a picture called, Nach Innen or In Deeper.
David: The title seems to refer back to a quote by Roland Barthes that Michael Bracewell used in the introduction to your first book, if I recall.
Rut: Yes, yes: “To get out, go in deeper.” It became the motto for this newer work, in a way. Deeper, closer to the ground.
David: You can’t get much closer to the ground than the water, or sea level.
Rut: Well the interesting thing about the sea level is that it moves, that it changes within a couple of hours.
This suggests interesting questions of duration and long exposure and the subtleties of changes. I’m reminded of a great little essay by Jeff Wall called ‘Photography and Liquid Intelligence�. He’s talking mainly of how the instantaneous picture can show forms that are unavailable to human vision, but i think the long exposure of moving water does something equally specific to photography. This soupy, syrupy quality.
And here a very golden quality to water as it is lit. This image is also very much about absence. You see the footsteps on the mud? They are expressive of something that runs right through the Liebeslied series, which became about a possible poet who is wandering the city in a way that is in contrast to the flaneur poeticised by Baudelaire. The flaneur’s relation to the city is very much about a pleasure or diversion. The poet’s wandering is more about an encounter.I remember in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo , James Stewart asks if he can accompany the wandering Kim Novak. She’s replies that only one person can wander, two are always going somewhere.I think that’s true. I do walk alone although occasionally when I come to shoot on large format I’ll take an assistant, but by that stage the wandering has been done.
David: There has been a lot of recent discussion about the flaneur and the contemporary city, partly as a response to new forms of spectacle, and partly, for political reasons to open up the city and break the alienated, uncreative habits into which city dwellers fall. But the wandering of the poet is far more contemplative, it seems. Perhaps more difficult or painful.
Rut: I wouldn’t call it difficult. Its a different daring. To dare to have this encounter, which might be an encounter with the self, or with what goes beyond the experience or appearances. It looks deeper to levels of experience beneath. in that way it can be much more political than the flaneur whose distraction fits in so well with the cities diversions.
David: The more recent work is spatially more intimate. It is also slightly more mute. Of course all photography is mute, but your previous work conjured up sounds of passing cars or anxious voices.
Rut: The newer work is not mute. You just have to listen more carefully. Its just not as loud.
It’s a John Cage-like idea that the quieter things are the more significant the sound. This would run counter to Adams.
David: Do you want to say something about the significance of the river coming up again and again in this new work?
Rut: Holderlin had some interesting ideas about the river. The river is this wonderful moving entity which combines places and joins them up together and brings them to the sea. Holderlin understood the river in a relationship to the sky, through the reflection of the sky in the water joining the two different elements together. For him the river was almost a receptacle of the gods.
David: Do the gods come down through reflection and the rain?
Rut: Water at night is a very powerful image. It suggests an immersion. In my past work I was very much interested in vertiginous sensations. And the newer work is much more interested in the sensation of immersion. Of course the river reflects... so it has this curious relation to photography. Water appears in another image called Feuchte Blatte or Moist Leaves.
In German the word has a double meaning again. Blaetter means leaves on a tree but also sheets, perhaps waiting for the text.
David: You have found nature in the city.
Rut: In my new work nature dictates a lot of the photographs. I have to wait for rains or tides. This is a big break from the permanencies of the world of concrete and steel that characterised London: a Modern Project. The newer work is more intimate. It welcomes nature and looks to the ephemeral. Well the ephemeral did surface in A Modern Project, usually in the lights on buildings that would go on and off according to people moving around.
David: We are looking down at a tennis court you turned into a photograph called Corporate Leisure.
The tennis court is on top of a building owned by de Beers, the diamond merchants.
It’s in one of those courtyard spaces that exist around the back of the impenetrable looking facades of so many big London buildings. How did you come to be here?
Rut: I think the impenetrability of the city is more of an illusion than a reality. You can actually find access to these places and enter them. This was has been very important for my work, penetrating sites that at first suggest inaccessibility. What is so frightening about these places is the future they suggest - the fortress and the control which emanates from it. But I think they can be entered.
David: The glass facade of the city is not so much transparent as it is reflective, bouncing back the gaze and reflecting the city around it. It offers itself as a spectacle of power that precludes entry, but as you point out, by bringing me here, the city isn’t quite as impenetrable as it seems. How do you feel about the surveillance cameras?
Rut: From where we are here I can count about seven or eight. Well, as you’ve seen the cameras are not as effective as they suggest. They didn’t pick us up. This is the attitude one can develop in relation to surveillance.
David: Ok, we’ve arrived at what looks like a shallow excavation site. I guess a building once stood here but now it is being used temporarily as a car park. You made an image here called Das Offene Schauen , or Viewing the Open.
It is a cinematic image you have made, something like an establishing shot. Frame shape varies a good deal across your work. Does the cropping come afterwards or at the act of taking?
Rut: It varies, as the image requires.This place felt something like a Western in a way, with a swooping panoramic expanse. A vista.
David: The street photographer, who we mentioned earlier has historically shot an awful lot of image, and probably a lot of awful images, to get what they want. You don’t work this way.
Rut: No. I edit before I shoot which means I take a very deliberate number of photographs. The consideration and the chance come before taking the image and during the image but not afterwards. For me it is much more interesting to concentrate on less, and perhaps in one image enough happens to keep you engaged for a longer period instead of moving onto other images.
David: That means you have an output that parallels a painter more than a photographer.
And you also make preliminary studies, which is quite a painterly activity, as a way of preparing or pre-editing before committing to the time and expense of a big image. Could you talk a little about titles of your photographs?
Rut: The titles open up the work for another reading.These other readings are often literary.
Again this is more like a painter than a photographer. Let’s take an image like Mount Pleasant, a beautiful image of some rather savage metal fence work running along a high wall. It was taken in Mount Pleasant, but the name is also evocative of another sensation. In the Liebeslied images I’ve gone back to German. Not intentionally, but somehow it came over me to use them, because often the German words have the quality of being equivocal, and in translation a gap opens and another layer of meaning becomes possible.
David: This plays against how mass culture puts image and text together to clarify, to contain what Alan Sekula once called the “fragmentary, incomplete utterance” of the photograph.
Rut: Yes, but my titling is not an obscure act. It is something which opens up something else, yet in a directed way.
David: Would you want to say something about the erotics of the work?
Rut: No. I leave that to the interpreter.
David: Thank you very much, Rut.
Rut: Thank you, David.