“The Fundamental Poetry Of Presence”
Hi Fredric. Thank you so much for agreeing to speak to Burning House Press. We are massive fans of your photography and also your writing.
B.H.P. Why photography?
F.N. Because time, ironically. In the beginning. But then I fell in love with visual experience, the paradoxically sublime ’poetry’ or ’music’ of a two-dimensional surface, and couldn’t help myself. It occurred to me – over time – what a soft and rich experience ’seeing’ is and how I’d been taking it for granted, by which I mean, been more or less blind. Also, I was very shy. I remember wanting to be a writer as a child, not because I loved reading so much but because it appeared solitary – in a good way – and unbothered by disturbing elements (i.e. human beings, I’ve warmed up to them since). But I came to realise as soon as I tried that there’s nowhere to hide in (good) writing. Photography is hiding.
B.H.P. When did you start taking photographs?
F.N. In 1994 I think. My little brother (much younger than me) and my sister’s children grew ridiculously fast – I wanted to find a way to keep those cute little monkeys. This was the first occasion of time breaking my heart but certainly not the last. Almost immediately I started experimenting. I remember spreading pins and needles on a table and re-arranging them to see what happened in the viewfinder. I never planned on becoming a photographer but this was like a door opening out of nowhere. School had come easy to me yet I still hated it (and ’they’ didn’t care much for the shy, silent type, either), at this time I worked in the industry (and kind of enjoyed it), but then this cheap automatic camera came along and I started to think there was a future and that I could choose some other kind of life. Or not as much ”choose” as could not stop that thing awakened in me – it had to be so.
B.H.P. How would you describe your process when taking photographs?
F.N. If I bring the camera it will automatically create an intent in me, I don’t have to look for images, they will come anyway: I’ll feel some mental version of a tap on the shoulder. This is not voodoo but what naturally happens when you’re present; ‘looking for’ something means not seeing, but rather trying to control what you’re going to see. I don’t decide how the beauty of the world will look ‘today’, instead of holding a lecture to the flowers I ask them to teach me. I work swiftly and effortlessly and decide the framing without much hesitation. I usually take a few slightly different snaps, as in moving the camera a centimetre or two (should I feel the need to change the angle more than that it’s a sure sign the image won’t work out in the end). From a self-educational standpoint, it’s better to take a few just slightly different shots than disparate ones, because it’s useful to see in editing how one of them always stands out from the others, no matter how similar they may appear at first glance. I say work swiftly because it’s important to be decisive; being present and receptive may appear as a weak position but it’s not, it’s a position of trust and has the power of uncompromising intent. Whenever an image introduces itself to me, I know exactly how the end product should feel to the eyes (albeit not exactly how it’s going to look).
Also, I try to repeat the same few walks over and over again, and once or twice maybe change the direction. This way I have seen most of the subjects or places I photograph many times before until that special day, with that special light, (and those other aspects of the immensely complex web of circumstances) when something thoroughly common decides to be the poetry of an image. And I can just reach for it and pick it up. Everything blossoms sooner or later. When I was younger I wanted to travel a lot in an effort to ‘keep my seeing fresh’ but one can never learn to see that way. Hunting for the spectacular is the performance enhancing drug of photography. Anyone can do that.
B.H.P. On your website you state that “my sole interest is the fundamental poetry of presence.” For you, in which ways does photography articulate, investigate and intersect with the fundamental poetry of presence?
F.N. In the act of photography: seeing is being present in the visual field and photography does not ask for much more than that. It’s easy to learn technically and you don’t have to act on something, the way e.g. a painter adds to a canvas. Photography (well, the way I do it) is almost entirely a receptive act, all that is needed is openness. The photographer simply excludes and can easily stay present in the seeing itself. This may not seem like much but if you insist on telling the world ’what it is’ – as we all do most of the time – there’s no possibility for the poetry of presence to shine through. A clearer way of putting it is that as long as I’m speaking it will be difficult to hear what someone else is saying. And humans never really stop ’talking’, do they?
In the act of seeing a photograph: seeing is being present in the visual field. It’s the difference of letting oneself be enveloped by the visual field rather than trying to contain it through definition. A lot of imagination is needed in order to see a photograph as a representation of something else. The likeness we perceive is not a priori but based on an agreement. Consider how any of these letters will be viewed as a letter and not a graphic structure, nobody’s going to think twice before reading them. Yet both views are equally true and it is in our power to choose which way we want to perceive them. ’1+1’ and ’Two’ are logically the same but visually vastly dissimilar. This power remains in all aspects of our lives. Not to say that the use of photography to represent is bad but if we want to be present in the experience we must stop imagining things that aren’t there. An image of a dog is an image, not a dog. If you still see a dog – it belongs to you. And it is the possibility of oscillating between the two modes of seeing that gives photography a lot of its momentum, or nourishment rather; the observer who is lopsided will eventually suffer from mental scurvy.
And the photograph itself: has no time. An image from a wedding has no wedding night (that’s a very different image). In order for something to have time it needs to have a before and an after, the wedding couple does but not the image. Music has time, for example, and film has time. If time stopped, music would cease to exist and the movie would become a random photograph. The photograph would simply remain itself. Still, the photograph is a product of time, and this is perhaps the most astonishing feature of photography, that: a) it is something out of time, b) that is ageing (if printed) in time and slowly disintegrating (as is every thing), and, c) it (the visual content) has no time. It means something born out of time can be timeless, or that it always was timeless. And we have the images to prove it. That’s some excellent articulation of presence.
B.H.P. You titled the published edition of your photography ‘Death To Photography’ – have you killed photography yet? – and what would the death of photography look like?
F.N. A burning house is a good metaphor for this. Death To Photography grew out of a sense of having tried everything and still failed to communicate the very basics of what I aimed to achieve, paired with a general disappointment of what photography had become. Also, I’d been forced to sell my good camera because of money issues. It was an honest effort to give it up, and a way of setting fire to photography to find out what that one thing I wanted to save was. Or if it was still there even. I think there’s a desperation to a lot of those images and I really needed that. It was a good artistic bankruptcy of sorts. My work got less self-aware and more sincere.
In a broader sense, I think we have already seen the death of photography, for several reasons. So much has changed for those of us that started out with film photography. Speaking in practical, technical and philosophical terms, there’s such an abyss between the technologies that it seems like madness to even discuss them as the same expression. And I used to have regular experiences of bliss while working in the darkroom, which is impossible to have in front of a computer – that whole hands-on experience have all but disappeared. Photography has become very comfortable and it’s way too difficult to make mistakes these days, contemporary photography often looks overproduced to me. I don’t mean to criticise techniques, aesthetics, themes or personalities though; you can photograph puppies to make art, just burn down the house first.
B.H.P. Reading your writing on photography there is often a resistance to summarise or define photography (or poetry) – is your choosing to utilise photography the result of this resistance to definitions and verbal reductions?
F.N. Very much so. Definition is exclusion – which is separation – but life remains a continuum. It’s not made up of separate parts, like bricks of lego to be taken apart and put together. The hegemony of description has been great for science and such but it’s immensely destructive to poetry – robbing it of presence and leaving it anaemic. Most art I encounter seems extremely well thought but kind of closed and heartless. And if instead emotion takes centre stage it often displays a lack of care to develop a stringency of expression. (Mind you, all of these things I criticise are shortcomings I’ve discovered in my own work first; everything I have to say about photography has emanated from practical experience.) I often exaggerate my resistance to definition and representation to make a point, because it makes the photograph into an illustration and kills the magic. Lego is fun but I want magic. Others may feel free to settle for less but not me. I want it all.
B.H.P. Your images seem somehow autonomous, exert a power which doesn’t depend on their being contextualised – by place/biography/narrative/documentary – they appear to evidence a belief in the power of the sovereign, uncanny, poetic image. Is this the case?
F.N. Yes it is. I’m happy to hear that actually. I use photographs that I personally enjoy but don’t understand why. If I can easily see why the image works I’ll likely get rid of it because it’s just too obvious and that will obscure the visual experience. (Though sometimes I like to flirt with the viewer.) I like to think of images as autonomous pieces of visual music. I don’t care about narrative at all, in fact it would be counterproductive in regards to what I want to achieve.
I mean, the photograph is obviously strongly connected to the subject used to create it, and the context in which it exists – in the same way that everything in life is interwoven with and dependent upon everything else – but it need not be constantly underlined. Especially since that very underlining has a tendency to ’steal the thunder’ because of it’s mere measurability and ease of management; it’s important to develop trust in ones own seeing and I believe it’s fully possible to judge a photograph by it’s appearance only.
B.H.P. Given your stated pursuit of the fundamental poetry of presence, could it be said that you are a poet who uses a camera?
F.N. Yes! I prefer to look at myself as a poet, I don’t think I belong among the photographers generally, ’we’ rarely share objectives. Poetry is more to the point for me.
B.H.P. For you, what is the most difficult aspect of photography?
The idea of non-representation will appear unintuitive for most people for understandable reasons. This is my general experience at least. And had it not been because of all these questions – always gently phrased – like: ”I like it, I just don’t know what it means”, I’d never have these strong beliefs about photography. But my work has been shaped by that, and everything I’ve done is connected to those questions. Because I used to not be able to reply properly, the reason being that it honestly did not occur to me that they needed to mean something; they were always just images in my eyes. What I mentioned earlier, about getting a camera to immortalise the family, just to end up being absorbed by how moving around a bunch of needles transformed the visual space of the viewfinder, kind of represents all I’ve done for the last twenty years (I laugh to myself as I write this – sounds really sad, all pins and no party…). However, this difficulty, to refrain from the habitual application of ’description-meaning’ or ’translation-meaning’ at the cost of ’visual-meaning’ or ’presence-meaning’, is also a great possibility for anyone that decides to challenge it. The reward is relative to the difficulty.
B.H.P. What, if anything, has photography taught you?
F.N. It has taught me a way to live, though it probably didn’t intend to. Everything I say about photography is applicable to life as a whole in a decidedly practical sense. Whether it’s about poetry, presence, or to assume responsibility of one’s own perceptions, and so on. I’ve learned this by seeing and incorporated it as a way of life. I have a long history of depression, failure and loneliness of all flavours, leading up to a classic shootout at the O.K. Corral of death anxiety that finally burned the worst of the bad habits away. Today I sort of enjoy living and try to accept the bittersweet characteristics of it all. Cultivating a way of looking at the world that is patient and not dependent upon judgement helps in ’the pursuit of happiness’. (Life isn’t going to be fair anytime soon – it was unfair when we were born and will be unfair when we die, because it was always that way. We should strive for justice but not expect it – equity has never been seen in the world other than as an aberration, it may be nothing but a ghost to us.)
Imagery is a useful way to visualise the understanding that everything relies on contrast – anyone can pick up a pen and a piece of paper and start drawing lines to personally discover when ’nothing’ becomes ’something’. Harmony is when this play of opposites align with the observer. Music e.g. is composition of sound that is in accord with our bodily construct (cats, in comparison, prefer this somewhat hardcore misery: http://news.wisc.edu/move-over-mozart-study-shows-cats-prefer-their-own-beat/). The soothing quality of beauty comes from it being a perfect rhyme with the structure of the body/psyche. (In presence, everything is beautiful because the senses are not dominant.) This life then, based on – enabled by, even – imbalance, suddenly achieves equilibrium in the experience of beauty. It’s a kind of silence actually. Silence is a consonance.
B.H.P. Do you have any obsessions (or deep concerns), are they evident in your work, and what are they?
The simple answer is: only visual poetry is of interest to me as a photographer; it’s all music and dancing and erotics, i.e. presence, which is what happens when dominance subsides and the letting go arises. I have faith in the necessity of that stance, and that I and those with similar motivation have something to offer that is needed in the world.
This has further implications though…
We put way to much emphasis on language today – what exact words are to be used, and what they ‘do to us’, and so on – but language certainly does not form the world, or the experience of it, unless you let it possess you (though some people appear to be in dire need of an exorcism); mind you, I’m not saying it doesn’t have influence. What I’m getting at is that we’ve kind of forgotten about the body and the immediacy of experience.
The thing is that the tool used for inquiry defines the outcome measured. If one investigates natural phenomena using math, the conclusion will appear to be a number (or something to that effect). What science regards as true is that which ’rhymes’ with the body/intellect and the selected tool of measurement; ’luckily’, that tool of measurement arose from the very nature it measures, albeit only an aspect of it, making it ‘true’ yet limited by definition. So, the manner in which I state the ‘question’ will define the nature of the ‘answer’ (= all humans are dominant). Meaning I am the same as you in different proportions, and, in turn, that any personality is made possible by differing personalities. Everything is a metaphor of everything else, and the reason, even, for ‘the metaphor’ as a possibility, is that nature is a play of proportions rather than separation.)
Poetry is in this sense freedom, it destroys the constraint of the body/psyche/intellect and must appear almost as magic to us – but since 95% of the Universe is dark matter/energy, i.e. inconceivable to our senses (and the tools made in their likeness), wtf do we know anyway? The body is a tattoo of its own destiny. What the eye sees is constrained by its own structure; vision is in this sense a reflection of ourselves. And that is useful, to be embraced, because know thyself etc. But not if we immediately start translating what is seen into secondary terms, systems; language is, in regards to this primary dance, but an afterthought; we’re pushing our own experiences in front of us as we walk along, not allowing them to seep through – i.e. we are not alive. So, I guess my obsession is to be alive.
And these issues influence the way my work is presented as well. I don’t like too much sharpness and contrast, for instance, because I want to melt the image together. Likewise, my edits are mainly aimed at facilitating a seeing of the entire visual space as a coherent experience (mostly by manipulating the proportions of light and shadow) – as opposed to steering the gaze towards a specific area of the image. My photographs enjoy democracy, they have no preferred focal points.
B.H.P. Do you have a favourite photographer, who would that be, and why?
F.N. Masao Yamamoto for his wondrous visual silence that never asks me for words. Anders Petersen for his visual stringency and empathy. William Eggleston for being relentless for all of us and keeping it ”at war with the obvious”. Torbjörn Rödland, I have no idea why, he’s a maniac. Jessica Backhaus because she can see and has fun doing it. Raymond Meeks is a such beautiful poet. Martina Hoogland Ivanow for the great and gentle mysteries. I could go on…
B.H.P. What was the last photograph you saw that left an impression on you? (include link to photograph if possible)
F.N. This perfect 100 year old portrait of an old man in a hat, by the photographer August Sander.
So simple, so balanced, so sincere. I found it at Josef Schladek’s goldmine.
B.H.P. What one thing would you pass on to someone who wanted to begin practicing photography?
F.N. Don’t ask me for words. (= If you can put it into words, just tweet it instead. Or write essays. Cultivate the use of photography to its own strength.)
B.H.P. How do you think the internet is changing photography, if at all?
F.N. Photography in the age of social media has become an everyday language, just like smileys and spoken/written words. The effects of this are impossible to grasp for now (to me at least), but it seems obvious that it cultivates speed at the cost of focus in the viewer and that the value of The Photograph is lost. And since everybody can use filters to create effects, most of those tools and mannerisms used historically are not possible to apply anymore. It’s become very easy to disguise immature vision to make it look like great photography. (If that’s not the death of photography I don’t know what is.)
Another aspect is that when I started to make photographs in the 90s, all of the photojournalists were using wide angle lenses to draw attention to the images. Of course, today every smartphone uses it, so now they’ve started making these perfect, smooth and masterfully edited images; open any major newspaper and you’ll see breathtakingly beautiful images of burning buildings, suffering refugees, and so on. (If that’s not the death of photography I don’t know what is.) Photojournalists really need to buy some cheaper gear because this is getting ridiculous. Next stop, I guess, is full-on-renaissance-Sistine-Chapel-mode.
That being said, the quality of photography has benefitted in a lot of ways from the decline of its worth and the escalation of competition. I guess it’s possible to look at it as a maturation process, for good and bad. That remains to be seen though.
Finally, in relation to what I personally want to achieve with photography, which feels increasingly fragile the closer I get to it, presenting it on the internet is a definite compromise. The screen based viewing has had a negative impact and continues to not do photographs justice; and since every screen is different it’s impossible to control how the work actually looks (one must wonder how the old masters would feel about that circumstance). To be perfectly honest: I hate the way photographs look on a screen – they’re basically amputated. Lately I’ve started adding noise to my images for the web just to give them some grit – it’s not really how I envision them on print but the technology is so flawed in this regard. (And nobody seems to talk about it! Perhaps it’s just me…) I imagine (hope), in the future, that we’re going to see screens designed to be more natural – maybe emulating (or using) paper instead – and better adapted to the eyes and experience of seeing. That would be a huge improvement for photography on the internet. Nobody benefits from staring into a lamp. I assume this is an issue to a lot of painters presenting work on the internet as well.
B.H.P. We love your writing. What is your relationship to the written word?
F.N. My very first experience of the power of art was through a sentence by James Joyce from “A portrait of the artist as a young man”. I can’t remember what it was and I dare not re-read the book to possibly find out, I just remember how perfect it was and that it somehow made me want to cry. It was a reminiscence and a recognition of some basic joy hiding behind ordinary life.
In comparison to photography I consider words to be ‘active dominance’ while photography is ’passive dominance’ (’dominance’ without the negative connotations, since simply being human is being actively and/or passively dominant). Photography and writing complement each other as expressions and I’m equally happy to use both depending on which way the wind blows.
B.H.P. Do you have any plans to write more? Maybe essays, poems, stories…
F.N. I recently finished a collection of poems (in Swedish). And I’m currently writing an essay on photography and life (of which some aspects have ended up in this conversation). A working title is “Towards a poetics of photography”. I’m hoping I can pull it off and make it worthwhile to read. There’s a lot of energy in me for writing in a more focused way nowadays and I strongly suspect that it’s on the rise, though I don’t know in what shape.
B.H.P. If the house was burning and you could only take one book with you, which book would you take?
F.N. This was a tough one. But I’d probably go for “Curves to the apple” by Rosmarie Waldrop. It’s a great book to pick up now and then, just to read a few lines, because of the inexhaustible richness and the beauty of language. Her sentences are like wine and wonder with cream on top.
B.H.P. What is next for Fredric Nord?
F.N. I’m pleased to say I have no idea. I don’t plan life because it just ends up ridiculing me for believing I could control it.
B.H.P. Thank you, Fredric!
F.N. Thank you, Miggy! It was a pleasure.
Fredric Nord is a photographer and writer living in Karlstad, Sweden. He enjoys coffee and watching dogs run as fast as they can. His work has appeared in Phases Magazine, Phosmag, Mutantspace and in print via Antler Press. Fredric is currently studying cognition in animals as well as drawing (to make use of his hands again, beyond the fingertips), while writing an essay on photography as poetry and plotting a book of photographs & lyrics to be titled Paracosmos.