Lena Herzog on photography: “It stuns me every time. It’s the stuff of magic.”

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“When I see an image come through in my developer, it stuns me every time. It’s the stuff of magic.”

Lena at work

Lena Herzog is a visual artist and photographer who develops thoughts and ideas as well as images. In his introduction to their conversation, Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison suggests that her camera follows Joseph Conrad’s aesthetic creed to “render the highest kind of justice to the visible world.” The interview is available on Entitled Opinions new channel over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here.

Harrison and Herzog discuss the cultural transition to digital photography and Herzog’s penchant for a ghostly or alchemical – or even sacramental – approach to creating images. Herzog usually works with pre-digital cameras, where latent images are transformed into visible ones with emulsions in a darkroom.

The two discuss how many cultures have believed that photographs steal the soul. Have millions of digital images eroded meaning from places and people? Walter Benjamin said that photography is one of the most powerful instruments of desacralization of the world, so Harrison and Herzog discuss the over-familiarization of images of landscapes and objects, in an era when we live in oceans of images.

Herzog argues that the images capture the “inner state of being” of the photographer: “Five photographers are in a trench, they pop out, they take a picture if the same event, they pop back in. They come out with completely different images. Remember the picture of the naked girl at the napalm bombing during the Vietnam War? It’s Nick Ut’s very famous iconic image. On that bridge stood half a dozen photographers, including a photographer from the New York Times who was far more famous at the time. None of them produced images that stuck with us. They were shooting at the same time with the same group of Vietnamese running towards them. This is an extraordinary and fascinating aspect of photography.”

Listen to the whole interview here.

Potent Quotes

“About five billion people who have cellphones can produce fairly competent images. They’re okay, but okay is not enough.”

“The procedures that I work with go back to dawn of photography, but not for sentimental reasons. It’s just because they’re better. … The possibilities are enormous. When I see an image come through in my developer, it stuns me every time. It’s the stuff of magic.”

“We are three dimensional creatures. We don’t have the companionship and camaraderie with files, with zeroes and ones. Even when you see an image that is perfectly perfect, which is very high-resolution digital, there is something about it that doesn’t speak to us.”

“One of the reasons that I use all these complicated technologies and techniques and large-format cameras is because I want to take special care. It should not be offhand, it should not be careless how I photograph.”

“The mystical part of it is not only that mechanically I can reproduce the astonishing likeness of the world, but also mechanically I can reproduce how I feel, how I see the world. … It not only registers the event, but the photographer’s inner state of being.”

“When an object or a thing or a person is over-familiarized, something happens to it, something in our perception of it happens, and we lose the mystery, the expectations. For me, that’s why celebrities are absolutely uninteresting. Familiar to us, and yet they have become completely unfamiliar because there is a veil of familiarization that holds us back from true understanding. To look at it afresh, to pay attention to it carefully, is a task right now.”

 


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