A Conversation with Erik Kessels
Secondhand, San Francisco: Pier 24 Photography, 2016
184 pages | 197 reproductions | 12 x 9.5 inches | 978-0-9839917-6-2
Allie Haeusslein: What was it that first piqued your interest in vernacular photography?
Erik Kessels: I work as a designer and an art director, which means that I am working with a lot of photography and photographers every day. In the field of advertising, photographs are often pushed toward perfection. I was really opposed to that impulse from the start—it’s why I became interested in amateur photography. For me, an amateur photographer is someone with a blind passion who will make mistakes. In the beginning, I got a lot of inspiration from looking at these “errors.”
The first time I thought seriously about collecting amateur photographs was sometime around 1999, when I was visiting a flea market in Barcelona. I found about four hundred images of a woman posed in different settings. I knew they were something special, but I didn’t really look at the pictures in depth at the time. When I got home, I discovered they had been taken by the woman’s husband over twelve years, during their holidays together.
I think I had the photographs for a year—or maybe a year and a half—before I started to look at them closely again. I sorted through them, guessing at what their story could be. I assumed the couple had no children, because they didn’t appear in any of the images over the years. I also noticed that when I put the pictures in order, the wife appeared smaller and smaller as time passed— the implication being, perhaps, that the photographer lost interest in his subject and slowly moved backward with his camera. I was fascinated by the way you could appropriate these pictures and look at them anew. When I shared these images with other people, they insisted that I bring them out in the open, because otherwise no one else could enjoy them. I didn’t expect there to be so much interest in them.
Allie Haeusslein: The photographs you just described are featured in the first book of your in almost every picture series. Why did you ultimately decide to present these images in book form? What are the kinds of things you’re looking for when you’re selecting images to include in these publications?
Erik Kessels: These images receive another life once they are removed from their original context and put into a new one. The photographs were never meant to be shown to a broader audience. Nowadays, of course, most photographs have a totally different function—they are meant to be shared, and many of them only have a lifespan of a few hours or a few days, and then they’re gone. But these images, taken by a husband of his wife on vacation, were created as a personal journey. I made this first book novel-size—to keep it quite intimate—and I didn’t really want to tell the full story upfront. It is intended to be like a novel with images, and viewers can guess at the story or make up one of their own.
I’m not looking for single images. For me, it’s more important to find hidden stories; I am interested in finding out what’s behind a sequence of images that hasn’t yet been discovered. Those are the kinds of images I tried to find for in almost every picture. I was looking for stories created almost unintentionally by amateurs.
Allie Haeusslein: There are now fourteen publications included in the in almost every picture series. I know that several of these books draw from images you found online. As you have worked on this series, has the Internet become a more important source of imagery?
Erik Kessels: There are fewer and fewer albums on the market these days. The Internet is now like a flea market itself. And just as it’s hard to find good things at a flea market, it can also be difficult to find exceptional things on the Internet, where millions of people are looking at and posting pictures.
For instance, the website where I found Oolong the rabbit. I had already been discovered before I made the book. It was very messy, though, and you could hardly find the images. So the fact that the pictures fit in with the series—and were extracted from that original context—was, in a way, better.Allie Haeusslein: I’m curious about the book that includes Fred and Valerie, the woman who is always photographed in water. How did you start your relationship with the couple and how did you gain access to their pictures?
Erik Kessels: I discovered one of their pictures on the Internet. I was looking for a guy that was clothed and standing in water. I came upon an image of this woman standing in water—pretty deep in it—with all her clothing and makeup on. I did an image search using that picture and came across a photo-stream on Flickr by Fred, who is the photographer. Fred has a passion for photographing trains and his wife, Valerie, preferably fully clothed in water.
So that’s how I stumbled on this whole series. I’ve never met them before, but we correspond quite frequently. I informed them about the book and they were happy to let me make it. I decided to print the first few hundred copies on a plastic material. I sent them a book because I thought, “What would be better than Fred taking another picture of Valerie in their swimming pool, with all her clothes on, reading the book, of course!”
So then they began to send me these really funny emails. Fred would say, “It was a wonderful day to take these pictures. A few clouds. No harsh shadows. Perfect conditions for the pictures.” He has also said, “For us, it was a tantalizing experience.” It’s very nice to have these emails as well as the photographs.
I keep in contact with them and inform them about the project. For example, recently, at Festival Imagine in Switzerland, images of Valerie were blown up beyond life-size and installed standing in fountains or floating in lakes.
Allie Haeusslein: Are there many other photographers and their subjects, like Fred and Valerie, who are aware that you are using their images in your projects? I am thinking specifically about the woman whose life is documented from behind the counter at a fairground shooting gallery.
Erik Kessels: I heard of her through somebody else. She lives in a small town in Holland where there’s an annual funfair. I went to that town to visit her. She was ninety years old at the time, living in a seniors’ home. When I visited her, I took some of my books. I showed them to her and she said, “So now you want to publish my images in another book? I would love it.”
After the book came out, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam saw it and became interested in all of her originals. I helped her negotiate the sale of her original collection to the museum. Now, she’s ninety-four years old, and every year she still goes to shoot a picture, and then the museum adds it to their collection.
Allie Haeusslein: In addition to working with miscellaneous snapshots and albums, I know you have a strong interest in family albums. If you had to estimate, how many of these albums would you say you’ve collected?
Erik Kessels: I own around ten thousand albums. But I’ve been collecting them slowly over the years, and I consider them working material.
Allie Haeusslein: That’s amazing. Where do you store them all?
Erik Kessels: I don’t have them stored on shelves or anything; they’re in crates and boxes. I always have three or four albums that I’m working with, and sometimes there’s no progress. If that’s the case, then I put them away. When I’m working with an album, maybe I’ll chew on it for a year to find a clue. It’s almost like detective work or digging in the ground, always trying to find something interesting. Often, it takes a while for me to discover the right angle.
Allie Haeusslein: Are there certain things you look for as you’re searching albums to purchase?
Erik Kessels: I think I’m looking for things that I haven’t seen before. That’s the only answer, because in a lot of albums you see recurring patterns that can be found everywhere.
Allie Haeusslein: As you consider albums from around the world, do you notice any trends that are specific to different countries?
Erik Kessels: There are many trends. For instance, in less-developed countries, the albums are smaller, but then again, the photographs are smaller, too. They put four prints on a page to save money, whereas somebody in America would just use a page for each print. Countries like Austria, Germany, and Switzerland have a certain precision to their albums. The photographs are always deadly straight, and the captions are sometimes written using a ruler, so they are very straight as well. And Americans often use albums with plastic sheets—you pull up the sheet, put the pictures in, and then close the sheet. This type of album ends up being much more chaotic, as the photographs shift around over time. There are a lot of things in each album that refer to the country it’s from or the people to whom it belongs.
Allie Haeusslein: Your series Album Beauty speaks to the current decline of the family photo album. Instead of spending the time to produce elaborate albums, people are now sharing pictures via email or text message. Or maybe they’re doing print-on-demand photo books. How do you think that’s going to change the ways family stories are told to subsequent generations?
Erik Kessels: That’s a good question. I think this relates to what I said before about the role of photographs today—how they are much more public, but also have a shorter life span.
Printed family albums are visible to only a few eyes. They are usually stored in cupboards and looked at every once in a while. Photo collections now are totally different. Albums are completely out in the open, and decision making about what is kept private and what is made public has completely changed.
There was also a time when if a photograph was flawed—if it had a finger in front of it, or was scratched or was out of focus—people would still stick it in an album. It was only later, when photographic prints became much cheaper, that people felt free to say, “Look, I don’t like this image,” or, “It’s wrong, the camera did it wrong,” and then toss the picture out.
Allie Haeusslein: You seem to really revere and celebrate the amateur’s unintentional errors or mistakes in Album Beauty. Why is it so important to you to preserve and draw attention to these mistakes?
Erik Kessels: For me, it’s nice to look at the fringes of photography and find things to react to that will encourage people to slow down and look at images again. When you’ve consumed an image, that doesn’t mean that you’ve also seen it. Because now, of course, people see more images than ever before.
I think it’s interesting that people have applications on their phones that can intentionally mess up their images and make them look bad—or “more authentic,” with scratches and light shifts. With our mobile phones, we can make the best pictures. Sometimes the pictures look better than the real events do, because the camera phone is so powerful that you can record almost everything.
Allie Haeusslein: Do you ever manipulate the source images themselves, maybe adjusting their colors, for example?
Erik Kessels: I never do that. Never. I don’t touch up anything; each image is exactly how I found it. Where I do manipulate a little bit is with the edit and the direction in which I push the story.
For instance, the story with the twins. There is, of course, a break in the story when the taller sister no longer appears in the images anymore. But the first image you see of the sister alone was actually dated to about three years before their last picture together. When you look at the book or in the exhibition, this image presents a dramatic shift—it almost looks like a funeral because she’s standing next to the car with its door open. I used that image to make that point, but it was also the first image I found where she was pictured alone.
Allie Haeusslein: Many of your installations are characterized by the tactility of your materials and the interaction you ask for from viewers. The results are quite unorthodox. Why is this tactility and interactivity important to you and your practice, especially in museums, where viewers are typically prohibited from such close encounters with the artworks?
Erik Kessels: Since these are not my images, I’m freer to play with them. I don’t have that kind of direct, emotional connection to the subjects. I like to be playful and think, “How can I do this differently, unlike anybody else?” So the pictures are not presented like vintage photographs nicely positioned on the wall. Viewers can almost touch them and walk over them; I try to make an experience out of it.
The rigid system in place at museums is fine for certain types of work, but there are other types of work nowadays that it’s better to be more playful with.
Allie Haeusslein: Do you remember your first experience working with a museum to exhibit some of these works? How did you feel about entering the art world given your work in advertising?
Erik Kessels: Some of the photo cubes and works from in almost every picture that are currently on view in Secondhand came from an exhibition I did in Utrecht, Holland, in 2007. A museum director there invited me to exhibit my work after seeing my books. It was my first experience with a museum, so I was pretty nervous. She offered me all of the galleries in the museum, nine very big, consecutive spaces, and I took them all.
Having all that space to fill made me think, “How do I present this work, and how do I make it interesting?” I needed to do something other than simply hang the photographs on the wall; otherwise it would be deadly boring. I was a bit nervous about what the press would say about the exhibition since I come from a different background and was suddenly appearing in a contemporary art museum as an artist. I was worried that they might criticize me, but that didn’t happen at all!
I think it had a lot to do with the time—it was not that unusual for artists to also assume other professional roles. And I love that. I have so many different titles that I don’t even know what I’m doing myself, but that’s what I enjoy.
It’s the same for Maurizio Cattelan, for instance, who is an artist, an entrepreneur, and a publisher. Or think of someone like Mike Mills, who is a graphic designer, a writer, a director and an artist. You can do a lot of things at the same time, and I have a whole collection of titles that people have given to me. It’s not so important anymore to focus on just one thing, and taking on different roles keeps things interesting.
Allie Haeusslein: What drives your decisions about how to approach the scale or presentation of particular images?
Erik Kessels: I make decisions based on the demands of individual projects, but also based on how the various projects work together, and how they bounce off each other. Album Beauty, for instance, should be seen as a single installation. I often work with wallpaper because it allows you to blow the images up very large and at a high quality. You can also use it as a background for other works to hang on or to lean against. I like to play with all these different layers and different ways of producing the work.
With a lot of the in almost every picture series, my decisions are intuitive, based on how I think every series should feel. For instance, Josephina— the Spanish woman photographed on vacation by her husband—is very proud in her images. So I thought it was important to show them nicely printed, and in classical, beautiful frames. With the black dog series, I wanted to print the images on thicker paper that was really tactile, something you could almost feel. The black is almost a part of the paper, and this is especially obvious without a frame or glass in front of it. The Oolong the rabbit pictures are presented more intimately, like something you might place in your home, maybe on a shelf or in a cabinet.
The installation of 24 HRS in Photos changes and reacts to each new site in which it is shown. What remain the same are the overwhelming mountains of images. For the installation at Pier 24 Photography, I decided to let the huge amount of photographs come at the visitors in one big flood. When people enter the space, they physically experience how many images are uploaded to Flickr from around the world in a period of only twenty-four hours.
Allie Haeusslein: Why did you use Flickr as opposed to other photo-sharing sites in 24 HRS in Photos?
Erik Kessels: That was a very simple choice. Flickr was—and still may be today—one of the only platforms from which you can download images. With a site like Instagram, downloading is much more complicated.
Allie Haeusslein: Do you think social media sites like Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram have rendered the printed snapshot obsolete? What do you think we can expect of the twenty-first-century photo album?
Erik Kessels: All social media forums have drastically changed the role of photographs. We live in a new age of imagery, a renaissance of photography. People now see more images before lunch than a person in the nineteenth century saw in his entire life.
The printed photograph, the way we know it from twenty years ago, will never return. In exchange, we gain new freedom in taking photographs. A lot of amateurs have the same tools and skills that a professional has.
The photo album of the twenty-first century exists purely online, on hard disks, or on mobile phones. It might even be that fifty years from now there will be more extant photographs from the sixties, seventies, and eighties than from the time we live in now. It happens very often that files get damaged or lost. And maybe we are not so attached to photographs as we used to be.
Photography is part of everyday life, and a photograph is not as valuable anymore. A photograph is something to share with many other people, and once it’s shared, it can easily be deleted.
Allie Haeusslein: You avoid the term “collector” in describing what you do with vernacular pictures. I’m wondering if you collect, or have substantial examples of, others kinds of cultural artifacts?
Erik Kessels: I collect collections. Once, I found this woman at a market selling globes. She had maybe 150 different kinds of objects with globes spread out on her blanket. She sold all of them to me for fifteen euros or something. I said, “Don’t you want more for these?” and she replied, “No, no, I’m happy that you’re taking everything.” And then I started to talk with her. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about the globes themselves—I’m not a globe collector. I keep the collection because of the story behind it. These stories are the most important thing to me.