An interview with Berlin-based photographer/graphic designer Tobias Faisst for Cheap & Plastique #11. See more of his work here. Issue 11 also features interviews with the artists Admiral Grey, Tobias Hild, Tonya Douraghy, Shane Lavalette, Ted McGrath, Emilia Olsen, Lisa Vanin, Hidde van Schie, & Mickey Z, all articles will be coming soon to this blog.
C & P: Where do you currently live?
C & P: What do you like most about living in Berlin? Least? Is this where you grew up? Are you currently attending university there?
Tobias: I’m currently studying communication design in Potsdam. By the end of the year I want to do my bachelor thesis. I have been living in Berlin for almost 4 years now and I have never felt so comfortable in a place. Berlin has become my new home. I truly feel that I will never completely be through with this city, there are things here that surprise and amaze me every day. I can get on the train or drive 20 minutes and find myself in a relatively unknown terrain. In short, Berlin seems very familiar to me but there is always something strange, a feeling that remains with me, and makes this place interesting and exciting to me. The disadvantages of the city are probably similar to those in any metropolis. So far there are no disadvantages for me in Berlin.
C & P: Did you imagine that you would be an artist/photographer/designer in adulthood? How long have you been taking photographs? What drew you to the medium and why did you choose to pursue it seriously?
Tobias: I was excited by graffiti and urban art at 14 years old. Over the years I have kept a sketchbook and also painted graffiti under village bridges and behind power stations with my friends. I photographed a lot at that time, but very unconsciously. I was recording my youth with an analog miniature Leica that I got as a gift from my aunt for my confirmation. I was shooting typical snapshot photographs—the fact that one could use this medium in an artistic way was still unclear to me at this time. At 16 I unsuccessfully applied for training as a media designer. I knew very early on that I wanted to work and earn my money through design, but I waited 10+ years until I could complete my desired course at university. My photographic interest leveled off quickly after my early teens. The second time I came across photography was while I was spending an extended period in Birmingham (UK). I took a job there in a Jamaican jerk paste factory and worked as a media labratory assistant. I developed my first prints in the darkroom. I also documented my stay as a tourist with a digital point and shoot camera. Even then I was not aware of the possibilities of photography, for me it was just a medium for memory collection. A few years later I completed on the job training as a media designer and photography was a small part of that education. At that time, I was building masks made of different materials to photograph on models in my spare time. The human underneath the mask was not the focus of this set up. I continued working on the mask theme for over two years, during which time I gained some technical knowledge.
At 27 I started studying communication design at university. In the second semester I enrolled in a photography course. I figured out by the end of the course that I had no clue about photography, all I knew was that I was very passionate about it, so I continued training and honing my skills as a photographer. I became more familiar with the theoretical side of photography. I became completely absorbed in photography and the photographic process. I chose to pursue photography seriously at this time, out of passion for the medium.
C & P: Do you find that being trained as a graphic designer informs the photography and sculptural work you make?
Tobias: With communication design, image and text goes hand in hand. In college you learn to explore your environment and give your actions context.
Perhaps studying design did influence my style in a different way from what would have happened if I had studied photography only. A graphic designer thinks a lot about proportions, lines, spaces, colors, and shapes—this does come across in my photography. Since photography and graphic design are both two dimensional mediums.
I want to extend my form of expression with my sculptural work. Graphic design is very top-heavy, working on a sculpture gives me room to decide things quickly and viscerally. What I have learned in my studies always stays with me in the back of my mind, sometimes a decision is an unconscious one but other times it is something extensively thought about and planned.
C & P: Does your designer eye draw you to make images where color, pattern, and form (as an abstract/non-representational subject) are the main components of the image?
Tobias: There is the pure visual representation of “being” by color, shape and time. With a really fantastic picture this is only the basic framework, really great photos have another meta level for me. That could be many things—I’m looking for humor or a curiosity in a sculpture or an installation. With my sculpture, I am mainly documenting set ups which I create, so perspective and position play a mayor role with these works. Also, I find the idea that everything has the potential to be an artwork very exciting. The underlying theme with the installation work is more about my perspective on my surroundings and a theoretical dispute with art and photography. My photographs are always part of a grander scheme—they are rarely just the visual representation of something that has appeared before my eyes. Many of my images have to be seen in connection with other specific images to recognize what I am trying to communicate in the entire body of work. The whole is not yet complete and continues to evolve but the longer I photograph forms and add to the various photographic series the more the work makes sense to me.
According to prevailing opinion, photography holds more relevance in our current time period and is considered by some to hold the same importance as painting in the not so distant art historical past. I treat my photographs as pictures painted with my eyes of topics that are interesting to me.
Human action is manifested in our everyday environment. Perception, design of urban spaces, the random are all recurring elements in my work. I study these ideas and elaborate upon them, in my personal language, through the medium of photography. One could say that my design training influences my final images as well as my way of looking at things, it sets the outer frame for the image. The content is generated from an artistic point of view, however, and I’m trying to question the dogmas of my studies and to break them if need be.
C & P: Are the images of your found sculptural works documentation of the process of creating the work or is the final photographic image the artwork itself?
Tobias: When I speak of sculpture and installation that I “find” in a urban environment, I mean that I create their existence as artworks through my photography. I am aware that the city is full of these types of random scenarios, but because I say this board is now art, it becomes art by my classification of it as such. Before that it was most likely just a board. Obviously, I’m not the first to say this and am referencing well known artists of late art history. The limit of the frame of a photograph has a strong influence on our perspective. And I’m using this fact for my work. What I also find particularly interesting is that something I’m photographing sometimes only needs one or two “interferences” and then, through these, others can immediately recognize that someone has interfered with their surroundings or environment and sometimes this reconfiguration of their surroundings leaves them in a state of incomprehension or amazement. I try to make visible that which already exists but is hidden to the eyes of many. Every day I discover many scenes and situations that if they were shown in a “white room” there would be no doubt about their artistic authenticity. The only difference is that these arrangements are brought about by chance. Therefore, one can say that my sculptures form a symbiotic relationship with the photograph of them. The sculpture/installation does not exist without the photograph documenting it and vice-versa. I believe that the installation speaks for itself and doesn’t need to be created physically, the documentation is statement enough. I have the disadvantage that a photograph does not generally provide a physical experience as powerful as an installation in a white room. But my role as an artist is to identify these types of situations in an urban area and lend them this artistic contextualization. I would also like to emphasize the idea that one can see great art anywhere. I question where and when art should take place. What frame (setting and parameters) does art need?
C & P: How do you choose what will be the subject of a photograph?
Tobias: As a photographer, you wander through the world seeing it as one continuous photograph. You walk through the world with a constantly running automatism which feeds the brain with simple information—good picture, very good picture, no picture—which works for me. Obviously what I shoot is based on my viewing habits and interests. The one disadvantage of moving through the world with an intense focus is that there is probably a lot that I do not see. In my case, it is probably the more interpersonal situations.
Do you ever scout out locations for a photo series? Do you randomly travel somewhere and wander the streets with the hope of finding something interesting to shoot?
If the weather is good, I ride my bike to the train and get onto the first train that arrives. Anytime the urge strikes me, I get out of town. I also enjoy aimlessly riding for hours through the city. I try to ride through as many backyards as possible because I often find my pictures there. If I find something interesting, I climb over a fence or walk onto the premises. I find the best photos where I am not supposed to be. Often it is the same sort of places that attract me—industrial areas, places that are under construction, or places which are about to disappear. When I enter a building site I have similar feelings as when visiting an exhibition in a museum. I think construction sites are generally very inspiring, the colors and textures of the randomly stacked building materials are very interesting to me.
C & P: Are you always looking for an image to capture no matter where you are?
Tobias: A good photographer knows that if there is nothing to photograph and your shoot is unsuccessful, it can also be a positive experience. Photography has a lot in common with hunting. Some photographers shoot anything that moves and do not see the deer in the woods they are actually striving to capture. I often know what images I want to capture very quickly, in the city as well in the countryside. A good example is my series “Mitteltal”, which originated in my home village in just two days. For me there can also be photographically dead sites—places without corners and edges, clean and without character. Usually it’s those places where crews of people with cameras around their neck are running amok.
C & P: Is there any one thing that always attracts your eye (and your camera)?
Tobias: The curious and the strange. Kitsch and geometry, and, of course, the sculptural.
C & P: You most often shoot outdoors, scenes that most people might just walk past and not notice; a white square painted onto a tree, a stain (or shadow) on a cement wall, a motorcycle with a weather tarp… Have you always had a heightened sense of awareness of your surroundings enabling you to notice these non-places/non-subjects?
Tobias: My studies have changed my perception greatly, like as if I had poor eyesight and then got a pair of glasses. My perception is altered and more focused. I sometimes notice that when I am taking a picture and a passer-by will ask me what I am actually photographing. Then I wonder if I have a heightened perception or if I am just crazy because something banal can inspire me. I think that perception is a question of training and, as with many things, it’s a talent that can be improved upon and repetition plays a major role. A person who is trained in a specific technology will naturally look at the world very differently than me. His perception has been altered in a whole different way and he is seeing the world through another set of filters. When an engineer and I look at an industrial complex, his focus would likely be on its technological aspects and mine on its external appearance. Thus, one type of increased perception can result in a blind-spot when it comes to other aspects of something.
C & P: Why do you find the banal photo-worthy? What draws your eye to such ordinary things?
Tobias: For me, the magic lies in everyday things that get less attention, where there is still room to discover and explore. The obvious, everyone can see, and that can be boring to me. People tend to see beauty only in small socially defined frameworks. A sunset is beautiful and kittens are cute because these scenes are defined to us as such from an early age. With photography, I’m able to question our standards of beauty. I would not question the beauty of a sunset but it can still bore me. I want to show there are other worthwhile subjects to be photographed. Often, when I look at other people’s photographs of something like a vacation, I wonder if they have merely been somewhere and viewed that experience only through their preexisting stereotypes. You can google two words and get the same results as the photographs, whereas a commitment to what’s interesting in the everyday requires focus and an eye for detail. There is a nice quote from Viktor Sklovskij.
“To restore to us the perception of life, to make things tangible, the stone stony, there is what we call art.”
C & P: There is also an element of humor to your work, in pictures such as the one of a snow plow with a cover, whose headlights take on some sort of video game creature’s characteristics, images of 18-wheeler trucks with airbrushed bears and/or the grim reaper on the side, a manicured office garden park where one of the very green shrubs looks like it is about to fall over and die… Some of the found sculptural constructions are also humorous. Are your images evidence proving that the world is just one large, ridiculous, imperfect place?
Tobias: Perfection does not exist in my opinion. There is only striving for it. Perfection is also subjective. The curious things that are often imperfect or embody surprising deviations fascinate me and usually have a humorous side. I like art which, despite its seriousness, also has room for humor. In my case, this is usually a sense of humor that is subtle and not immediately accessible. Humor, especially in photography, can also be very specific to an individual. If I use an image of truck airbrushed in a certain way, I do not think the driver has chosen those images because he thinks they are funny. It’s likely the opposite in that he feels proud and that they embody his personality and his work. The question then is whether the image as art is making fun of a subject or rather just admiring the craftsmanship of the airbrush. This is another example of how multi-faceted photography can be and how much it can tell us about individuals and human nature. My photographs ask questions even if they just appear to be funny.
Are there any artists who use humor/wit in their artwork that you admire?
Martin Parr and Joel Sternfeld come to mind right away. Not many other photographers immediately come to mind. Maybe because photography is still taken very seriously, perhaps too seriously.
C & P: Most of your pictures are people-free. Do you prefer to photograph places that are void of humans?
Tobias: The human as a physical subject plays a minor role in my photography. I think the human figure, perceived as an individual, would be more disruptive to my imagery than complimentary. When a human appears in a picture, that picture can often become primarily about the person and the environment becomes a backdrop. Combining an environment and man in the same image increases the difficulty of a good photo for me. Quite often, one or the other element will end up lacking definition because of how time effects them differently. Architecture and environments are very patient and I appreciate that, whereas the image of a man cannot usually convey exactly what is in my mind. When I photograph a street or an urban environment, the context I’m trying to lend the image is about human beings as a whole and not about any individual. Inevitably, the focus is on my culture and my surroundings and my perception. In another way, however, I am always photographing people, just through the actions and influence, even if they are not physically present.
C & P: Have you ever shot portraits or made images where people were the main subject of the photograph? Why do you think you are drawn to one type of imagery over the other (if in fact you are!)
Tobias: As strong as my personal interest in interpersonal situations may be, my interest in portraying this in my photography is minimal. I’m a pretty normal guy with a normal life in a safe country. This means that the interpersonal situations I find around me are not very exciting to me in a photographic sense. I’m not a Nan Goldin or a Mapplethorpe type photographer, able to show glimpses into another world. I don’t even travel extensively. So I am not someone who hangs around street musicians from Eastern Europe for a half an year, and then documents that through my photography. I do, however, admire people who do and sometimes wish I had the balls to do the same. Often I ask myself why I repeatedly photograph the same things over and over again and it probably has a lot to do with the experiences from my childhood. Art is always a subconscious processing of one’s past. There is a lot of room for interpretation if someone is building phallic sculptures from scrap and likes cloaked objects. You can assess these tendencies, but only after decades, and I may likely be interested in something completely different a year later. Ultimately, I think it would be difficult for me to successfully capture the banal aspects of human relations that interest me in my photographic work. I think if anyone seriously wants to photograph people, you must have something to say, otherwise one can drift off very quickly into the trash or end up producing images that have already been seen a thousand times.
C & P: How do you feel about the influence of blogs in the photography world?
Tobias: This is a very contemporary question. Blogs have become a part of my daily routine. Generally, when I observe the development of this trend, I have two minds to it. On one hand, the photo world is growing closer together. More talented artists from around the world have the opportunity to present their work to larger audiences and this creates a greater exchange. Every day I discover new and exciting photographers. On the other hand, one gets easily lost in the crowd. I take pictures for myself as well as for other people. Without the internet, I would store my pictures on my computer and possibly 100-500 people would end up getting a chance to see them through a small exhibition. Now, I can reach 10,000 people on a well visited blog. But this raises the question—what value does the work have for the viewer if they have already looked at a thousand other pictures that day online? Therefore, printed images still inevitably end up better remembered. Just yesterday, I was looking at a photo book by Thomas Ruff and it’s a very different kind of experience. Ultimately, I do think showing pictures on the web can detract from their value, because they are just one tiny part of a huge flowing medium. On the other hand, why not use that medium and be part of the great whole. Only giving a fuck about the traditional, stiff, conservative art world and being afraid to show your work or process on the Internet because you might not be taken seriously as an artist is equally sad.
C & P: A majority of people now see photography mainly online—on the computer screen, at a relatively small size, with only a few images representing the photographer’s work—versus viewing multiple prints in a gallery setting. Do you feel that there is something lost by seeing an image only on the computer screen?
Tobias: I do not think anything needs to be directly lost from working with the online medium itself. What concerns me is the amount of images that we now fly over in a day. The effect of a photograph is entirely different in a book or a museum. The place, the frame, the size and arrangement are real factors that can cause a work to be viewed in a completely different light. Each recombination of these factors can tell a new story and there are many more “knobs” for an artist to adjust to create the specific environment you want for your work. These options on the internet are far too limited. Viewing photos online has something of a fast-food quality to it. Everything blends into a digital mush. Maybe this is the beginning of an important discussion about quantity and quality in the digital environment. I show a lot of pictures on my blog that would not make it into an exhibition or a photo book. But you get a better feel for my process and my work. Without this online component, you would only ever see the drastically edited final results and completely miss the route to that destination that can be equally as interesting. Or you could miss a whole cosmos of artists and work that exists outside the art world on the internet.
C & P: Do you think blogging is changing the way we view images? Are pristine photographic prints becoming a presentation method of the past?
Tobias: I would say no, I think the printed image will still be around for a long time due to its physical existence alone. A photo needs a tangible condition in order to utilize its full value. On the internet, time is a different element. Since photography banishes time, it needs a situation in which the levels of time come together. That is how I see it. Blogging changes photography extraordinarily, but one could write a whole book about that.
C & P: It seems that a lot more “serious” photographers are using Instagram (at least in the USA) as a tool to get their images out into public view now, whereas a few months or a year ago they were a bit more hesitant to post their work in that forum. How do you feel about Instagram?
Tobias: I personally do not use Instagram and will probably never use it. For photographers, it’s another way to present their images, so I can understand this step. Personally, I don’t like the basic idea. I don’t like the filters and the whole smartphone thing. For me, it seems like a kind of modern day diary that responds to the self-promoter in all of us. I’m only able to make up my mind up as an outsider but my sense is that Instagram is mainly about narcissism rather than photography. What I find interesting about Instagram is the fact that people crave analog looks, but those filters are produced with modern technology.
C & P: Do you utilize the platform? Do you feel that it is not as popular in Germany as it may be in the States?
Tobias: It is also very popular in Germany…for selfies, your lunch and your great life. In my opinion, Americans have a more open attitude towards social media than Germans. But Germany will probably catch up over the years.
C & P: What is your photo editing process like? How do you choose which images should be in a series in a gallery or in a photo book or only on the web? Or in all places simultaneously?
Tobias: My blog acts as more of a sketchbook, since I have no official website. I know that is very unprofessional, but I can’t find the time to do otherwise whilst studying. For exhibitions and books, I put the images together by feel and I do this relatively quickly. One could spend days, months or even years doing these things, but I have trained myself to make these types of decisions quickly and intuitively due to the top-heavy nature of my process. Otherwise, I would probably never get anything done. Every week I look at my own work and know pretty much what I want to show, what I don’t, and in what context. I also decide intuitively which pairings of images will lead to a good dialogue.
C & P: Have you created any photo books of your work? How do you feel about the re-emergence of the photo book as a popular medium in the art world (especially the photography world)?
Tobias: I’ve created 3 photo books/brochures so far. My 2012 series Mitteltal and Hornisgrinde. I wouldn’t necessarily consider these real books though, since I think I have only really understood the possibilities of photography for the past two years. A real photo book for me is also a manifesto that includes a certain amount of time spent on quality. The resurgence of photo books is a very good development I think, especially the idea of self-publishing. I don’t think there is any money to be made really, but it’s always nice to see good work in photo books.
C & P: What type of camera do you shoot with? A digital SLR, a film camera, or both?
Tobias: I use both. But I use analog rather rarely as it is too expensive for me as a student and I’m too impatient. I also find the whole technical side of analog rather exhausting. Sometimes I wish that I had a little more patience for the analog because I think it would benefit my work. Maybe if I could devote myself exclusively to photography I would be more likely to devote the kind of time and money needed to analog photography.
C & P: Do you use the computer as a tool when creating your photographs? Do you ever use Photoshop to edit images when finalizing a body of work?
Tobias: For me, digital editing in photography is essential. What did Ruff say? “As little retouching as possible, as much retouching as necessary.” I see things exactly the same way. Retouching is a tool which, if used correctly, can provide a picture with exactly the little thing it needs to bring the whole statement behind the image to the front. I could talk for hours about the process of digital editing.
C & P: What artists/photographers do you find inspirational? Contemporary?
Tobias: I like photographers that show me things and viewpoints that are hidden to me. I like photographers who devote themselves to topics for which I don’t have the courage or patience to take on. I won’t mention any names since they fade very quickly in my internet spoiled brain.
C & P: What could you imagine doing, if you didn’t do what you do?
Tobias: Honestly, I’ve never think about it much. I have worked in perhaps twenty different occupations in my life. Never particularly long at any one, but still long enough to get an impression. However, I was already sure I wanted to be a graphic designer when I was 16. I am very grateful that I can do something I like for work. Sometimes I want a job with more adventure and travel opportunities, but maybe I can combine those things with what I do later.