Gunārs Binde the fine art photographer. He photographs and lives in photography, looking at the world in terms of potential photographic images. He collects cameras and photographs, both historical and contemporary. He's not a photographer, but an artist in the authentic and precise sense of the term, and each of his photographs is a work of art created by an Author, rather than a "recorded image". On nude photography, he has said: "I don't deal in nakedness, but in messages!" (interview with Andris Grīnbergs in the paper Vakara Ziņas, 20.12.2003). Every photograph by Gunārs Binde is a message, and precisely this creates the value and uniqueness of his work.
We should remember the significant difference between photography as fine art, photography, and art that uses photography. What we have been seeing for some time in all exhibitions of contemporary art is for the most part "art that uses photography" - the documenting of performances and events, the genre of snapshot photography, which grew popular in the 90s thanks to its element of chance, intimacy, indeterminacy and lightness. Photography as an adjunct, a projection, a paraphrase, as one means of conveying information for complete analysis of some idea.
Contemporary photography, in its turn, represents a creative quest by professional photographers within the frame of one particular technology, one tradition. For example, the works of Sisley advertising photographer Terry Richardson will always remain in the realm of advertising, even if they balance fashionably at the border of pornography and are exhibited in a prestigious gallery.
Fine art photography is a concept that people associate in large measure with the salon photography popular in the 60s and 70s, and with some experiments that were seen as important at that time, involving the technical possibilities of photography. But such general opinion has no connection with the fine art photography that Gunārs Binde has been engaged in already since 1957, working at it seriously and perceptively, and this is best related by the artist himself. The master of the posed (or in his words "directed") photograph keeps with surprising constancy to his views on the essence and aims of fine art photography, and these views have not changed with fashion, politics or economics. In 1967 (in an interview in the February issue of Liesma magazine) Gunārs Binde said, "The art is in creating a photographic visual concept, raising it to the level of a symbol, a problem. The photographic concept rises above documentary truth, becoming a generalisation." In early 2004, Gunārs Binde says the same thing in an interview in the magazine Studija.
On 27 December 2003, Gunārs Binde celebrated his 70th birthday. A decade earlier, the artist had marked his 60th birthday with a series of photographs, and this time too the occasion is connected mainly with photography. Binde envisages a series of exhibitions in the coming years under the title "The Subjective Encyclopaedia", where the works will be exhibited in alphabetical order of the titles, from A to Z. The first exhibition in this series, "The Subjective Encyclopaedia. A", has been shown at the Latvian Museum of Photography (10 December 2003 till 28 February of this year). In parallel, at the "Archive" exhibition in the House of the Blackheads (13 January to 8 February) one photograph was shown from each year (1957-2003), the exhibition "Erotica" was held at the Sarmīte Sīle Gallery, while the Daugava Museum on Dole Island saw an exhibition of landscapes and nudes entitled "Girls". After this, a series of photographs will be shown at the Motor Museum under the title "Flight", and there will be more.
As the artist himself says, the lasting photographs are those that study individual experiences and the force of relationships. Many of Binde's photos are classics of Latvian art photography, while countless others mark the road to the classic works. And this has not been easy or simple - no wonder Binde's views on the meaning of fine art photography have not changed significantly over many years. The artist doesn't wait for chance. Rather, he consciously seeks the possibility of creating the conditions for things to happen according to his will. In November 1971, Binde described himself in Liesma's "Chronicle of art life": "I was born in 1933 in a family of farmers from the Maliena region. From the people of that area I've inherited a thirst for truth and the perseverance of the slash-and-burn farmer, since all that I've gained has required much effort on my part." Binde has also created a newsreel "Art" (1966, No. 4) and a photo film ("Hello, Moscow!", 1966, etc.), and has taken part in the creation of documentary films by Ivars Seleckis. Photography is a means to realise ideals: this is what was brought home to me in our conversation.
How does photography become fine art photography?
(In an interview in Liesma magazine in February 1967, Gunārs Binde said: "Cinema can be staged. And nobody imagines accusing it of a lack of truthfulness. So why can photography not be posed? For me, photography is art. I don't need informational truth. The main thing is artistic truth. Fine art photography does not purport to be documentary. Though remaining documentary in terms of the means of expression, it bears witness to my truth, my attitude towards the subject, towards life. The main thing is not documentality, but the artistic concept.")
These are two different things. For me, it's simply photography when photography itself is the sole final aim. Documentary photography intended for publication in a journal, simply information recorded by photographic means, and this I don't call photography. This is the work of craftsmen and professionals, their job is that of the photographer, and this is the way they earn their keep. They simply take information from the scene of the event and bring it to the reader. This is a debasement of photography. I don't earn money through photography, I earn the fulfilment of my dream. I find the meaning of my life through photography. If someone buys it, of course I take the money, but this is not my aim.
After all, a photograph does not exist simply as an image, as a tangible surface. This is only the result. The beginning is photographic thinking, which in fact is an abstraction. If, looking at a landscape, I see a photograph, even though at that moment I'm not engaged in photography, it's because I'm endowed with this photographic thinking and vision. This thinking is closely connected with form and light. To see light in form, to see form in light - such is the deepest essence of photography. But at the present day, photography is being impoverished, becoming a slave to the task of conveying information. Painting, for example, does not convey information. Painting is painting of itself, and photography too can be of itself. I compare it with painting: painting is not intended to convey information, and photography too can be like that.
How, in your view, does "capturing the moment" differ from the "posed" photograph in terms of the creative process?
Cartier-Bresson is also an artist. His thinking is conceptual. By his "captured moment", he records not a fact as such, but a concept. Here, the documentary aspect is not significant; it's photographic mystique. Over here, we often meet with a primitive kind of capturing the moment: if the moment can be captured, then this is something in itself. But that's not photography, that's a pointless activity. In my youth, I did this too, in order to train, to improve my technique. Thinking is not a moment. In photography this is an attraction unconnected with art. Capturing the moment is significant when it is necessary to capture the moment for the purpose of information, but it's not significant as a concept. It's only information. A beautiful landscape is not significant either, if it does not encapsulate the author's subjective attitude towards the landscape. It might be placed in a geographical atlas, but it's not art.
Photography can be either an image or a visual concept. An image is a visible optical projection, while a concept is something newly created, which an author has subjectively rendered. A portrait of Eduards Smiļģis that can be regarded as a "captured moment" is not a portrait of him, it is my view of how an elderly person experiences the tragedy of the end of his life. And this is shown in his face. Not for nothing was he piqued and refused to accept it as a portrait of himself, though I had never intended it as a portrait.
How do you feel when passing by the New Riga Theatre, where the picture is reproduced on the wall of the building - don't you nevertheless regard it as a portrait of Smiļģis?
Back then, when I was invited, I had imagined the result would be different: that the face of Smiļģis would be one of several theatrical elements. But in any case I'm comforted by the fact that my Smiļģis looks much better than the photograph of a salad bowl on the wall of the Stockmann shop.
How do your photographs come about?
(In the interview in Liesma magazine in February 1967, Binde replied as follows to a similar question: "A photograph does not come about at the moment of pressing the shutter. It emerges earlier. It begins as an idea, and then the moment comes when the setting, the light, the material and the model appear that correspond to my idea. That's when I realise the idea.")
Since I've learned a photographic perception of the world, I carry within myself many ideas; I have many semi-products in my conscious and subconscious. These may be visual coincidences that I suddenly see in life and can realise as my photographs. When the time, the mood, the light and the society all come together, a revelation comes from somewhere, an impulse that was in my subconscious awakes, and I photograph it.
When it's been photographed, I develop the film, maybe I copy something and then forget it, putting it away. Only after some time I come back to sift through my works, and time is the test - if a photograph still seems interesting to me or has become even more interesting, then that's good. If a photograph has lost its value in my eyes, then it's gone. The deciding period of time is about two years. Photographs that have withstood this two-year period and are still topical and interesting can be viewed after 20 years too. This is my technique. A photograph made just a moment ago cannot be assessed.
Over the course of time, do you not change your view of photographs you've once recognised as good and which have been acclaimed and published in many albums?
If a photograph has passed the two-year test, then everything's OK. There are also trends that change, but nowadays I look at my photos from the Soviet era and wonder at how they haven't become dated, how they're still suitable today. The same themes are important to me today. People are still wrestling with their problems, living in their spiritual world, watching, going mad, just as in those days you could go mad... If it's a serious picture taken back in those days, then it's viewable today as well, particularly if it's connected with human relationships - these are lasting values. I haven't served the ideas of that day, and I don't serve those of today, since they're not long-lived. It's important to me not to get absorbed in short-term developments. There must be eternal themes and problems, and then the work will not become dated.
What inspires you to create photographs?
I enjoy the feeling of finding something unseen, some approach unused, some possibility of doing things another way. Why, for example, could I not show how a woman conceives, show her pregnant and show how she gives birth? (The series "9 months" - A.T.) Or how a woman flies? (The series "Flight" - A.T.). I suddenly had the idea of doing this. It was a sudden idea. Inspiration does not come to me from the warmth of the sun or from birds singing. It is when a new feature is suddenly revealed, specific to photography, a new way of realising an idea, that is inspiring. Like a loutish reaction to what is generally accepted. Overturning it - not destroying it, but putting something up in opposition to it. That's also an inspiring feeling, when I see that I can do what I intended, when I see that it works. Of course, often this cannot be. If I succeed in producing two good pictures a year, then that's a lot.
Tell me about your cooperation with Arnolds Plaudis. How did it start?
I became acquainted with Arnolds when he was still a student at the Academy of Art. I was also dreaming of the academy, and I even did some drawing. When he started working at the theatre, I got to know him as a very attractive personality with a rich imagination. First in Alūksne, where my work had taken me, then later at the Valmiera Theatre and at the Riga theatres. This collaboration was an education for me, and allowed me to grow. He helped me enter the world of art. Thanks to him, I ended up in the theatre, and this has been one of my schools. The principles of theatre are the same as those applicable in photography. As in a theatre, one can stage a play precisely according to the script, or one can interpret and develop it during the process. I never gave any precise instructions, letting the "actors" live in this process. And in this case capturing the moment is an important skill - catching the moment when the situation I've created brings forth the truth. There are various methods, starting with provocation... This was used with Smiļģis too - letting him go to work without saying in advance what I wanted and then recording the reaction. In working with models, they often reveal by their essence something I could not have thought out myself in advance. The model, with his or her essence and mood, appearance and whole spirit, has helped to create the concept I have intended. And the model determines the result. Plaudis was the generator of ideas and also an "actor" in many of my pictures. In any situation he quickly grasped what could come of it, and these situations can be reduced to the theme of male-female relationships. I have a whole cycle on this theme. It's not information about how Plaudis kissed some girl. Specific individuals convey a generalised concept. I would rather call it directing than posing. Arnolds never taught me composition, but he resolved the situation dynamically, and his presence too was important. Both while photographing and while travelling to a location, our conversation was always serious, the discussion of various significant matters... In photography, we've made our mark.
Have you enjoyed such long-lived collaboration with anyone else?
No, it's not as if you can just call someone to help and it all begins. There has to be some kind of spiritual correspondence.
In an interview in the paper Diena (27. 12. 2003) you said that collaboration with a man you can imagine only in cutting forest, not in a spiritual sense...
And I still agree. With Arnolds Plaudis we never had an easy time, only work and activity, which is the same forest cutting I talked about. A serious matter. With women it's entirely different. The essence of a woman is not intended for logical, robust action. She cannot design or build a house, but she can decorate it with flowers.
You've received countless awards. How does it seem to you now: are any of these awards significant?
On the one hand, it's nice to be appreciated, and an award means appreciation of your work. But before the public assessment of my work, there comes my own assessment. If I see I've produced some good work, if I'm satisfied with it, and if I get a medal for it as well - OK then, thank you very much. I have quite a healthy attitude towards medals.
Your photographs have been (and still are) exhibited in many so-called photo salons, international exhibitions to which one could send pictures during the Soviet era...
Nowadays, I don't know why, one talks derogatively of salon photographers, meaning the salons of the 60s and 70s. The salon as such has existed in all times. And salon art too, all the galleries are nowadays full of salon art and serve contemporary fashion. Photo salons exist just as they did in the 60s, and many people who engage in photography as a hobby find it the place to express themselves. This is wonderful, what more is needed? It's a kind of mass culture that needs to be taken seriously as a phenomenon. I still send photographs here and there, if I feel that a picture of mine could arouse interest in a salon. And why not. There are different kinds of salons: photo exhibitions with a particular style, for example one school is involved in studies of form, a kind of school of form where one can show off some extravagant photo of form... Of course, the most vivid expression and the most serious kind of exhibition is a solo exhibition.
How do you keep up with current trends in world photography?
I find out about current trends from the journals. In my time, I was very active in keeping up, and tried to obtain the latest journals, the Swiss Camera and the Czech photo journal, which was very interesting. Since 1967, without interruption, I've received the Finnish journal, and I buy those that you can get here: French, Russian and American journals.
Does contemporary art interest you?
Of course, I'm interested in all that happens in art, but in "contemporary art" I see a lot of speculation. There are two extremes: outstanding personalities and the bunch of speculators dragging along behind them, and they are in the overwhelming majority. It's been that way in all times, and it's unavoidable. But I am interested in trends. I feel that the term "contemporary art" is imprecise. More appropriate would be "trend" art or "art of the trend", since the trends in themselves are important. But "contemporary art" as such need not exist, and the term has evidently been coined by the speculators who are now sponging off art, which may be contemporary or timeless. Timeless art would be a better term.
In my view, "timelessness" relates to art history, to works that have already withstood centuries...
But what is contemporary? What is this age - it has no connection with art. This is a very rapid, tumultuous age, as in wartime, when cannon speak and art is silent. All is in turmoil, and the world is in confusion at the moment. And I'm not sure we should be bringing to the fore the art of this time of turmoil, which might just as well be wartime art. What sort of art can you have in wartime, when some are fighting, others are stealing and when each has withdrawn into his own shell...
If we call what is happening today "contemporary", then the most sympathetic aspect is the unrest, the searching and bubbling, and this is what most interests me in present-day art. There is movement, searching. There is a striving to free oneself from what is old, from some outdated idea of art, for example. An example is the transition to virtual art, when art as an object disappears and is transformed into an intangible illusion, which lives in the world of people's imagination. It starts with the building of an installation: the viewers come and wonder at it, then the artist demolishes it and it goes out of existence. It's a tendency towards creating nonexistent, intangible art.
And this too is a feature of a time of turmoil?
A feature of a time of turmoil is that the world has no clear ideological meaning, that there is an absence of aims. Some people with ideals struggle against others who have ideals. In the name of one idea, some go and cause explosions, while others struggle against this phenomenon, without pausing to think why those first ones were acting this way, what the idea was in whose name the person went to his death. Without love for something, you have a battle against something. Some do not love the ideals of others, do not understand them and struggle with the consequences.
Returning to contemporary art - would you like to represent Latvia, say, at the Venice Biennial or some such exhibition?
I think Inta Ruka represented Latvia wonderfully at Venice with her traditional photography, so why couldn't I? If I'm suited for Venice, then why not - I'm all in favour.
Do you always develop and copy your own pictures?
Yes, because very important in photography is what's called the author's copy. In reality, the author lives only if he is preserved in material form - if the original copy is preserved. The author's copy is that copied and signed by the author himself. The photograph does not come about automatically from the negative. In the course of copying, there is manipulation with light, creating lights and darks, there is cropping and so on, and this is all original work. The end result of the photographic process is the photograph itself, not the negative. The negative is the equivalent of the accountant's pencil, which is written out and thrown away.
Has colour photography too ever seemed interesting to you?
I've come to the conclusion that colour, the most important means of expression in colour photography, cannot be controlled, and I can't use it in the way that, for example, a painter can freely choose colour and manipulate it to express his concept. A photographer is subject to the projection of reality, and colour cannot be influenced. There have been precedents such as Antonioni, who, when he filmed "Red Desert", spray-painted tree canopies to create a landscape in accord with his idea.
Digital technology can achieve all this much more simply. What is your attitude to it?
In my view, new possibilities are emerging here, though as yet they are only in the developmental stages. But, theoretically, this technology has already become stable. The only thing unacceptable to me is that the photograph is no longer substantive, but rather is virtual. Digital photography does not exist in material form.
In Latvia, we have the term "the Grant school". Is there such as thing as "the Binde school"?
No. I don't have my own manner of photography. I have no weighty principles or standpoints that I pass on to my pupils. And I wouldn't like to see the development of my school, to have people deliberately imitating me. In a sense, I have had pupils: I've taught photography for 11 years at the Secondary School of Applied Art. I've taught Atis Ieviņš and Jānis Borgs, likewise Sarmīte Kviesīte, Zenta Dzividzinska and many other artists. I've never set myself the task of bringing up a generation of pupils. And in general I consider that the role of teacher can be played by a good master, a professional, but not by a personality. The vivid personalities cannot be teachers, since their vivid style is so dear to them that they can't take it off and hand it to others. Teaching can be done by those who know the craft well, but aren't willing to shed their skin. That's why I've avoided going into "professional photography". I will never regard fine art photography as a profession, since professional work is the work of a craftsman. Either it is art, or it's not.