Archive for May 19th, 2016

Photographer Lena Herzog: “I fall into breathing with the world…”

Thursday, May 19th, 2016
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Herself. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Russian American photographer Lena Herzog is a phenomenon – well beyond the books she has published and her international exhibitions. She’s witty, incisive, profound, and thoroughly original. You can read for yourself in my Q&A with her at the Music & Literature website – here

I caught her during a recent trip to San Francisco, while she was visiting on break for her tours with her newly published Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. Lena Herzog spent seven years tracking the evolution of a new kinetic species, intricate as insects but dwarfing its creator, a scientist-artist, in size as they roam the beaches of Holland. 

But this particular visit to the City wasn’t a solo visit: her husband Werner Herzog was in town for Stanford’s Another Look book club event, in which Herzog joined author Robert Pogue Harrison for an onstage conversation (we wrote about that here and here). Robert met the Herzogs a few years earlier, when he interviewed Lena for his Entitled Opinions radio show.

But I consider it a privilege to have had a short squished hour with Lena alone, before the Herzogs headed back to their Los Angeles home.

Here’s an excerpt:

strandbeestsHaven: So how do you capture a moment that is movement? With the Strandbeests, you’re trying to take a still photograph of something that is essentially motion, by definition.

Herzog: By definition, yes. That’s the whole point of it. One of my first two books was about dance—Flamenco: Dance Class in 2004. By the way, it was dedicated to a great Flamenco dancer Yaelisa of Spanish decent, the daughter of the great Flamenco singer Isa Mura. Yaelisa lives and works in the Bay Area. I had a similar challenge with her and her troupe, how do you photograph something that is all about motion? Or anything that’s alive, really? A dancer is not a breathing, living being in my photographs, but, I hope, you get a sense of her, of her dance. A photograph is not a calcification. For me, it’s capturing the spirit of something, a tree, a person, an object, a moment. At its best, a good shot is the opposite of clarification—it is a mystery.

I normally photograph at a regular speed, 125 fractions of one second. So it’s one second divided by 125 times. That’s the slice of the time I use to capture something. I click when I feel something—when my heart sinks for a brief moment. Everything that constitutes me, coalesces, dances with that moment.

flamencoThat connection is what matters, what makes me take a picture. That’s why, for example, I don’t use tripods. I have them, I just haven’t used them. I realized that even when I’m photographing a tree or a mummified human specimen in the Cabinet of Wonders I need to be one with my camera. The lost souls are not moving, but I am moving. My soul is moving. It’s breathing. It feels like I fall into breathing with the world. And then I click.

I need that last breath, that sense of becoming the thing I’m photographing—as if my soul jumped out of me and into that person. I need that brief second, that possession, and so that last breath is crucial. When I am responding to motion, to a dance or to Strandbeests, that’s what I’m reflecting—something that’s in me. It’s not technically photographing something and making sure the viewer understands this motion. It’s this after-image effect, the moment when your heart sank because you saw that. And it translates. It’s a mystical moment. I don’t know why it translates, but I know that it does.

Well, you can read the whole thing online here