Recording reality is too simple - I strive to interpret it
The art of digital photography - Ryszard Horowitz interviewed by the editorial staff
Horowitz was born on March 5th in 1939, Cracow. He finished at the National Fine Arts High School in Cracow and studied for while at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts. In 1959 he migrated to the United States where he became known as the author of incredible compositions that the modern viewer might think has been digitally modified. He had the chance to work with such big names as Richard Avedon and Alexey Brodovitch. In 1967 Horowitz set up his own photo agency.
Damian Kwapisiewicz: I would like to begin by asking you of the title of your autobiography where you descripe yourself as a ´photocomposer´. What elements of your art do you want to accentuate with this word? Is this intention understood the way you intended?
Ryszard Horowitz: The matter is actually pretty simple. I combine various elements with each other trying to arrange them, just as composers harmoniously bind together different, independent, notes. That's the essence of this comparison. I had this idea while I was working on the photography called ´Allegory´ where you can see a piano keyboard acting as a seawave. It's not, besides, the only music-related element in this photo. What I want is to seamlessly bind different forms so that the person watching the final result cannot guess how many photos have been used for it or whether these other photos have been used at all. I started using this ´photocomposer´ term to describe my activity when I was already familiar with digital photo manipulation. The crucial part was however a reference to the earlier way of work, the analogue one, when the final picture would be taken in a single shot or the desired effect was acheived through multiple exposures. I would not take the whole ´photocomposer´ concept seriously at first but people started to get the gist and the term somehow stuck.
Let's stay a longer while with the music - you wrote that, during your teens, you used to play clarinet and that you even took a few times an active part in some jam sessions. Hence, do forms of expression used by musician and photographer to communicate with the spectator/auditor converge anyhow?
Horowitz: It's undoubtedly clear as far as jazz is concerned. Every improvisation is this combining of different notes in a harmonious whole I mentioned. When you look at the faces of jazz musicians, you can see, almost feel the love for this music, they're incredibly expressive. I also try to insert some positive emotions, something funny or fresh in my works, so there is definitely something about it. And jazz, well, I like it particularly, I often listen to it when I work on something. Jazz shaped me in a certain way when it was completely unknown in the post-war Poland. Although it was known in Poland before the war, the next generation had no idea about it. I was lucky enough that my family living in the USA would send me jazz records. Moreover, I would listen along with my friends the legendary radio programme 'The Voice of America' hosted by Willis Cannover... I hope I answered the question at all!
Does your current mood mark the creative process in any way? If so, are you able to isolate these two elements?
Horowitz: The creative process is inextricably connected with our subconscious and hence I would not be able to separate it completely even if I wished to do so. It would be simply impossible. What's more, I notice that people commenting on my works read my intentions in a manner different from the one I had in mind. I realised many years before that my concept, my way of thinking, does not have to be precisely deciphered by the viewer, as I greatly enjoy other people's interpretations, I find it interesting what they see in my photos. As for the question, many of my friends claim that what I do is an effect of my past and they try to find in my pictures symbols connected with my childhood. Surely, I cannot completely deny it, but still, I do not transmit it deliberately. I try to employ positive images and avoid the tragedy we see daily on the TV happening all around the world. I admire my friends who have become war photographers, who feel the urge to stay in this world and record it. Leaving aside the fear they feel, I find the very topic extremely depressing. I do not wish to add fuel to the fire, there is already enough tragedy and negative symbols around us, which is why it is so important for me that the viewers find something warm and amusing in my works. That is how I see things and in some way it is my escape from reality. I observe of course what others do, I do read literature concerning rather disturbing topics, this is what life is also about after all. But to face such problems on a daily manner? It is not something that attracts me.
In this case, if you were asked where an ethical boundary, with respect to art, not war, photography should be set, would be it be more or less here? Are there topics that simply should not or cannot serve as an inspiration or a material for artistic treatment? I am thinking about Richard Avedon's photo shoot starring his father.
Horowitz: Precisely! The problem is purely ethical. I am absolutely sure I would never be able to do such a thing and I still remember how shocking it was for me back then. Not the photos themselves but the very concept beneath them. Avedon certainly did it out of love for his father, he had told me they were on good terms. But to record and interpret this kind of material... the need itself of addressing such topics is, intellectually and emotionally, completely alien to me. It is not the only example that springs to mind, the same goes of course for painting, for literature, for film. Many interpretations of the world are possible and within reach and it is up to everyone to find their own means to an end. I do not feel attracted by such topics. I am fascinated though by movies permeated with some drastic matters concerning history, concerning past in general. If somebody however turned up and asked me to create a composition employing some tragic situation, I would refuse. I find it so depressing, so absorbing, that I would not be able to cope with it on a daily basis.
You have actually already partly answered my next question, namely the one concerning your sources of inspiration. You have just mentioned that you seek to draw on the positive elements of reality, whereas in your book you talk about inspirations coming from literature, history of art etc. Is it still valid?
Horowitz: Not quite. The young generation is now completely isolated from the past and its traditions. I am generalising of course, but in terms of photography I find it difficult to communicate with young people as I lack the necessary contexts to have a decent conversation. Young people are ignorant about history, they do not recognise names of great geniuses who are either quite elderly now or have recently passed away. I find the whole situation rather sad. I have always stressed that what inspires me most, are the great works of art, be it painting, graphics, film, music – it does not have to be photography purely. If I am looking for a topic or a symbol, it is more probable that I will find it in a book or a museum. The world of modern photography has become incredibly strange to me. It is not that I do not understand what is going on at all, I just loathe the situation where everyone is a photographer, where nobody feels the need to properly study the know-how of this art, which itself is rather pointless, as the comercially available modern cameras are almost omnipotent. 'Almost' because they will not be able to give any intellectual meaning to the picture they have taken. You can take a perfectly exposed photo, some cameras may even give hints concerning the composition, but the very idea behind the photo became a minor issue.
What I consider as absolutely fundamental, i.e. that you must have an idea before you press the button, is nowadays of little or no importance. It is difficult to talk about these matters, reach any agreement. Maybe the tides will turn someday, who knows.
Yet, we are now moving away from the formation I received as a young man, from the symbols and references I have become familiar with contemplating works of other artists, and which I employ or employed myself. The whole matter is actually quite troublesome, I do not know what position I should assume – everyone has the right to do what they want, everyone is an artist. Of course, every now and then a natural talent is born, capable of creating great works of art without having received any artistic formation, but the majority do not have this flair and yet they consider themselves as outstanding artists. They think they discover something unheard of, oblivious to the fact that it had already existed and, besides, had been better interpreted. I miss this certain sense of continuity, I think that everything broke more than 20 years ago and has been since heading in a completely different direction. I had once thought that it had something to do with my age – people get older and lose contact with younger generations, but I find it false. I have two sons with whom I have frequently discussed the matter and I think that we agree in most cases. When we go to an art gallery and watch some modern work of art, we have very similar feelings. Having said that, I remain optimistic and hope that everything will regain its balance. Just as the other day everything that was digital or pertaining to computers as an artitst's tool was originally condemned in general, but later people went completely crazy about technology and started to believe they could do everything. Nowadays the technology is so advanced that the user does not even have to think, which in turn gave birth to an explosion of narcissism among people.
All these 'selfies', I just cannot stomach it. It was funny to a certain degree but now it is simply horrifying that every single person feels obliged to show their mug, everyone has to publicly show their emotions on social networks and share information only they find interesting. Apart from announcing that they went somewhere, saw something and did something, they have absolutely nothing to say and yet they find this very reason sufficient to share it literally to the rest of the world, not to a friend or a relative, no, in a single shot they flood millions of people with some info-garbage.
I am currently interested in panoramic photography although I treat it differently than most users. I also find it interesting to take pictures of the same object but from different points of view, the result, I think, brings cubist works to mind. This is an example of inspiration coming from the history of art, I mentioned earlier. I seek though a different reading and different tools. I am an autodidact, I hate reading manuals and I constantly catch myself breaking the rules of the game, whether it is conscious or not. Even though I know how to use the computer, which itself took me some time, people who were properly taught how to use it, it drives them up the wall when they see how I work. They constantly want to correct me - 'no, you shouldn't do it this way!', “no, that's not how you do it!”. It does not matter to me how something is done as long as I get the desired result. I have the same attitude towards my assistants. Sometimes they are incredibly slow at work, although I admit they do their best. It is quite rare, however, for them to have received proper visual education and I cannot therefore talk with them about form or colour, which are absolutely essential. It happens sometimes that I take over the task I gave previously to the assistant (without any malice of course!) and simply do it myself instead of explaining for hours what I mean and risking that I eventually won't be understood. These problems stem from lack of commonly shared contexts. When I am talking about a good set of colours, it is black magic to them. The same goes for deformations or the form itself. If I want to use a work of a famous painter they have no idea who I am talking about. Solving this problem would require a whole lecture on history of art and I am definitely not planning such a thing! I think it is sad that they were not given this kind of formation, do not get me wrong, I do not want to brag. The way we work has evolved and we just have to accept it.
Would you say something more about your interest in panorama photography? In what ways does it differ from the one we know?
Horowitz: Our point of view, as human beings, is rather limited. Digital devices are now able to blend multiple photos. You can turn around while taking multiple photos and the software will blend them into a single one, even iPhones are now able to do so. It used to be more complicated of course. I do not find it challenging to simply record the given reality, everyone can do it now. I seek to distract the established order, deform the reality around us, search for another dimension or, as I have said, record the same object from different points of view. At the beginning I would also create standard panoramas but as time passed I began to wonder how could I combine this technology with my interests. I would, and I still, get in touch with producers and programmers, it was not easy at first, as we had no language understood by both IT specialists and artists. They had no equivalents of words that we used to describe some aspects of a photograph. I had to do a lot of talking, explaining, drawing and showing to be sure that the tech guy got what I wanted him to do. We have Photoshop now and everything is designed to suit the photographer's needs. Thanks to current technology, photography has become more like painting, which incredibly pleases me as I have always repeated that what I do is very close to painting.
You have been very long active in the fields of photography and graphic design although both were not considered as a form of art for quite a long time. Has photography, in your view, finally become an art respected enough to be shown in museums?
Horowitz: This difference has never bothered me at all. I do not see any difference between a work created on request or out of, let's say, own higher need. It does not change anything in the œuvre or in the way the viewer will look at it. I am well aware that museums are full of works created for commercial purposes. It's been a long time since I grasped this fact and I have never considered this 'dilemma' a problem. I have always seen photography as a form of art. I will tell you about the way photography was introduced in the U.S. to great museums in the 70s and the 80s. Photographs aesthetically similar to paintings were accepted as art. For example the first grand exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum presented photographs resembling impressionist art - the photos were grainy and brought to mind impressionists' patches of colour – or masterpieces of Flemish still life. There was not a single work that would yell 'photography!' and would be impossible to paint traditionally. The problem still persists. I have managed to discover these differences – there are many similarities, you cannot deny it, but I am definitely more attracted by what is different, other. That's why, when I got my first opportunity to use the computer for artistic purposes, I was looking for themes that would be impossible for non-digital devices, like smooth passage from black and white to colour. It is hard to figure out nowadays what amounts of hard work this effect required back in the day.
I was able to create many basic effects, such as assembling a photo from various elements by other means long before computers became an ordinary part of our lives. It greatly amuses me when people look at a photos I took in the 60s or 70s and are utterly convinced that they have been photoshopped. I was simply doing what I thought was interesting, it was not about proving anything to anyone. When I was getting familiar with the computers, I did not want to go in the direction I had already known well. I was curious what new possibilities this new tool could offer me. As for the museums and the photography-as-art question – most of the museums still present solely classical works, photographs similar to mine are very rare. Art galleries strongly refused for many years to accept digital prints, arguing that it is not photography. Nonsense! When printers, allowing to recreate the results normally achieved in the dark room, finally became commercially available, I left the darkroom for good and started using this new technology. I went a few years ago to a fantastic exhibition presenting works of Irving Penn, and I saw there beautifully framed colour still lifes being sold for tens of thousands of dollars. I took a closer look at these photographs and asked a lady who was the head of this exhibition what kind of technique they used to produce them. And she answered, very quietly, that it is all digital. If then Penn's digital prints can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars, then why other galleries will not accept digital prints? It is a proof that people's mindset slowly evolves. They start to appreciate works without this annoying 'if it's digital, it's not art' attitude as it was the case in the beginning. Others would claim that any manipulation of the photograph is not photography, forgetting thus that this process has been known since the very beginnings. There is a portrait of Lincoln where his head has been “transplanted” on the torso of one of his ministers who was simply better built. History of art is full of such cases.
When so-called photography critics attacked me, they had no idea what to do with me, so they accused me of 'changing the reality', as if a painter, sculptor, movie director was not constantly changing it.
There are of course films based on real and fictions events, there are abstract and hiperreal paintings but when we encounter the photographer has acquired a new tool, then suddenly it's taboo, you cannot touch this because it is an act of dishonesty towards yourself and towards the viewer according to some people. The same critics would of course turn out later to be the most ardent amateurs of computers and photographers employing computer techniques, although it did take them a few years. The discussion whether photography is an art still persists, as you can see, although some photos are currently presented in the greatest museums and sold for insane amounts of money, which I find rather puzzling. A photograph can be easily duplicated after all, the number of digital prints you can get is infinite, contrary to painting. It would not be that striking if a medieval painting or some masterpiece was sold for an exorbitant price to a person who would treat it solely as an investment. But how can someone pay a million dollars for a photograph knowing that it can be so easily copied even not by the artist himself but someone completely random. As far as I know, photography is not generally accepted in Poland as art, even though I know that various exhibitions are organized, in which I take part very often.
My fellow photographers always say that a photographer is not considered an artist in Poland. It is changing but the process itself is rather laborious. It is no piece of cake either in the U.S. Photographers who worked on commercials, like I did, are not generally welcome by those who trade so-called art and frequently use expressions like 'this collage is good for adverts', the composition is out of an advert', 'the light is advert-like' - rubbish! Complete rubbish! There will always be people convinced that only they know what is and what is not art, and that they set the criteria – they are still human-made nonetheless. Furthermore, these criteria are set by people who simply find someone they think can be sold with a nice profit. Take the case of pop-art and Warhol for example. I know these people, I know how it looked behind the scenes. It is beyond imagination that Warhol's works are being sold for millions, even the ones he probably even didn't make but simply signed. People are ready to pay for it and treat as equal to classics, it is completely unfathomable to me. They buy it just as they would buy real estate, hoping that an expensive photo will pay off better than stock investments. All this system is controlled by people whose sole interest is cash and not respect for the artist. I try to keep distance towards it but I know well from my own experience that many people dislike the situation. I do not want to lessen the merits of contemporary art, which begot many marvelous works. I just do not like how the trade looks like.
Speaking of the trade, what is your opinion on the contemporary advert culture? Compared with your activities from the 60s and 70s, how does the Polish and American advertisement look like? Poland had a lot of catching up after all.
Horowitz: The matter is very interesting, I have to admit. There is no doubt that my professional activity in the 60s and 70s converged with a sort of renaissance in advertisement. Outstanding people, outstanding artists were engaged, the attituted toward adverts was completely different. There was no panic, no tension, no hectic money-saving, we were not scared of suddenly losing our job. People were very open to various form of expression, of humour, not only the visual ones. We had also brilliant text-writers back then who were writers or poets treating it all as a sort of odd job. It is not that interesting nowadays, I think. Advertisements became somewhat repetitive. It became a rarity to use original photos taken on request as it was done when I worked. Not that there is suddenly no money for such a project, people are simply not interested. It is easier and more convenient to go to a photo-bank and buy something for $2 than spend $20,000 for something big.
I would not be able now to create works I did back then because nobody would finance such projects. The criteria and interests have changed a lot since then. TV adverts are the only exception here, some of them are actually brilliantly executed short films with fantastic actors. As for printed adverts, their level is dramatically low. Some magazines are trying to imitate the old style, but it is definitely not the same. As for Poland, I remember that when I started to come to Poland after the fall of communism, and the 'advert' was slowly appearing on the landscape, I would be often invited for various meetings to give a talk on it. The beginnings were very difficult but you cannot be too harsh on these people – there was advert-related culture, nobody knows what it is all about and how it should be done. That is why first advertisements in Poland were mostly photos imported from Western Europe, mostly from France and Germany, with a headline losing the whole joke in translation. I stressed something very important for me, I wanted namely that the Polish advert employ Polish symbols, that it refer to literature and history, in order to resonate better with the recipient. It took some time but the adverts started to get better. Can we say that there is such thing as 'Polish advert'? I would say that everything we do nowadays, whether it is here or on the other hemisphere, will be more or less the same due to the Internet, mass media and digital technology. Rarely is it possible to recognise in which part of the world the photograph was taken. I remember when, many years ago, I was invited as a member of the jury for a graphics and digital photography competition, which took place in Hongkong. I was very excited to go there, not only because I would see this part of the world for the first time, but also because I wanted to see what the local people do.
I was terrified to discover that it is no different from the works you could see then in, let's say, New York. It was as if these people had cast away their heritage and completely lost their minds. Not so long ago I was in China with my exhibition where I met Chen Man, a young fashion photographer, who made a great impression on me, because she was doing exactly what appeals to me. Her photographs were modern but full of traditional Chinese elements – she would create vertical landscapes like in the old woodcuts. It was all perfectly combined with modern form, she found a way how to tie these to two elements. But she was the only one to do so. I do not want to say that everybody should take heed of my judgements, but I think that a sense of connection with the past may be helpful for the artist. That is why I am so glad that I had the chance to receive my formation in Poland where I was surrounded with fantastic people and brilliant professors. It had an enormous impact on how I feel and what I see. Brodovitch, whom I've met in the U.S., also greatly shaped me, by helping me to find my own point of view and the strength to believe in what I do. I do not know how many people think the same way, well, quite a lot, maybe even most, are very confident and deem what they do absolutely brilliant, but that is not the point. It is more about the intellectual context and doing what may not be necessarily accepted by everyone. Of course, everyone feels the urge to say something on almost every subject. That is how we get back to the beginning of our talk, to these crazy differences. I do not want to be understood as a sour-grapes type! The key is how to interpret these differences – they also have their good sides, and it does not hurt to be aware of them; that in the past there were some 'cool 'artists', who may teach us a thing or two. There is a world beyond the Instagram and sometimes it will not kill anyone if you delve into the past once in a while.
What is your current attitude towards Poland?
Horowitz: I very like young people in Poland. There is this nice, positive atmosphere among the artists I meet here, they often invite me to the universities for some meetings. They are more fresh, not so polished up. The Americans have already some sort of their own baggage, which often deforms them. It is something that unfortunately happens everywhere in the world as everything heads towards the same direction but for the time being their mindset and how their work, it is all very fresh. I like this atmosphere and I have many great friends in Poland, which I like to visit from time to time. I am not sure if the younger generation in Poland knows about the difficulties we had to face during communism. Some of them seem not to care about it at all, but there was something in those times that taught us to think differently, what inspired us to search for new, other, things, even just for the fact that they were forbidden. After I left Poland I missed it a lot for the first few years. I managed to cope with it only because I knew that there was no chance of return, that the authorities will not let me in. Now it is definitely easier, you can travel freely, you can do what you want and how you want. In brief, the attitude is positive in general.
You have once described yourself as a mixture of a Pole, an American and a Cracovian? Do you still name it this way?
Horowitz: Yes, such things do shape our character. It is extremely useful to be able to get the best what you can from every place. I have never distanced myself from my heritage, I take the best from each of the worlds. It gives a better view than this blind faith 'what I do is the best there can ever be'. The sad thing about Poland is this incredible chauvinism and false patriotism – that what comes from Poland must be the best, that they are the hub of the Universe or that only some elements make you a true Pole. It was particularly true in Cracow. It is good to get rid of such mindset and at the same time conserve your past and be proud of it. Just don't overdo it.
Thank you for the talk.
30 November, 2015
Photos: Judyta Papp ©