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INTRO: Rafael Rojas is one of the most influential Fine Art Photographers of our time. The purity, the aesthetic sense and the sophistication of his images are his hallmark, a signature without excess, able to make him unique. He has been the founder of Whytake, a photography portal that has always stood out worldwide for the artistic quality of its images. Alongside being awarded internationally, this author has stood out, for quite some time, for his unique way of presenting important photographic topics, philosophically and with authority. His words create an eco as much as his images. This means that we are presented before a real contemporary Philosopher of the Fine Art Photography.
Dearest Rafael, thanks for allowing me to interview you, this is an enormous honor! Let’s get started!
- I warn you, I cheer for you… 5 years of extensive traveling around Scotland have been the basis for your beautiful Ebook dedicated to one of the most extraordinary and fascinating landscapes in Europe. I have been living in Scotland since 2007, and I appreciate the magnetism of these locations. The sense of freedom, the remoteness, and the epicity of these landscapes are among the key elements. It seems that the hostility of the Scottish weather could be directly proportional to the magnificent lands against which it storms so powerfully. Do you recall a moment or a place that have most strongly marked your Scottish experience?
Nowadays, for a landscape photographer, it might seem a bit cliche saying that we love places like Scotland or Iceland, such is the amount of images we see from these places and the sheer amount of photographers who travel to those lands. But the truth is my love for Scotland started way before I took a camera for the first time, and many years before I could visit the place. At that time, my interest was more with bagpipe playing, and the Scottish folklore, culture and moods appealed to me specially. Today, many years later, I have traveled extensively to every single corner of this beautiful country. The light, the weather, the sense of isolation, the bleakness and the stark qualities of the landscape are just second to none. And then, there is the people. Scots are unsophisticated, true, friendly, open and full of kindness. It is no coincidence that I am writing the answers to this interview from the Isle of Harris, a place very dear to me.
- Let’s talk about your images and your approach to photography. I have noticed that you often use a square format. Why do you favour this format and how much does this influence the composition of your images?
I like the square format because it highlights the geometrical structure of the photograph, provides a different way of reading an image (as there is no predominant dimension, the observer tends to read “into” the image), and gives a quite homogeneous way of presenting images in a book or portfolio. Then, I use an old Hasselblad film camera for most of my work nowadays, and that allows me to compose precisely in that format, without having to crop later on. When I am working on a certain project, I like using the same format for all images if possible. Square allows me to do that quite easily.
I also use panoramic dedicated film cameras and digital cameras. I have realized that when we use one format camera and select a certain lens, our brains seem to switch and start seeing compositions in that format and focal length. In a way, when you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail, like they say. I crop whenever it is needed, but when that happens I tend to know it in advance while photographing in the field. I have no problems with people cropping their images, but personally I enjoy very much being able to precisely compose in the field so that the final image is as closed in format as the one I saw through the viewfinder.
- One of your hallmarks could be your planning skill, from which derives the accuracy through which you present your works, not just through a single image, but through a portfolio. How does the creation of a portfolio work for you? Which are the criteria that lead you to gather and collect images into a portfolio?
The planning aspect has evolved throughout my career as artist photographer. In the beginning, I used to plan quite a lot my photography forays, my trips, my projects. I used to spend quite a lot of time preparing every photographic trip, consulting images from other photographers, locations, maps, sunrise and sunset directions, tidal and moon calendars, weather forecast. I also used to scout military the areas I was going to photograph, stick to a few good compositions and then repeat my visits to that place until the “good” light appeared. That approach honed my skills and gave me experience, knowledge and confidence. With time, however, it all started to provide too “predictable” good images, and it looked as if the whole process was more military training! Nowadays, all that experience that I obtained works in the subconscious and I tend to favor the intuition, the flow of situations, the serendipity and the lucky encounters, the surprise and the discovery. I just wake up and leave, without any preconceptions or ideas in mind. When I am driving, I leave myself react to whatever sign I might see. Sometimes, it is just a feeling that I need to turn right or go over that hill. This process is less “productive” in terms of number of “keeper” photographs, but it is hugely more rewarding, enriching and provides more opportunities to make those personal images I am looking for. Of course, when I am leading a photographic workshop, I tend to plan more. But I am always re-adapting the plan, depending on the light, the weather and the particular group of people we have with us. The best photographs happen when we live the best experiences, and those cannot be planned. One has to open the eyes and listen to the intuition…
When planning a photographic project, I tend to favor a similar approach. Sometimes, projects have materialized themselves even before I realized I was working on them. One example was my series “watercolours”, made in the Hebrides. Those islands are quite wild, frequently subjected to strong winds and rain. However, while there I felt relaxed, quiet and in peace. All my photographs reflected that and it was only at the end of my first trip there that I realized I had created a very consistent group of images which very much reflected the feelings rather than the reality I had lived there.
With other projects, like Dead End, I start with a certain idea, and then I Iet it flow and evolve as I am working. Working on a photographic project is like creative writing. One starts with an idea in mind, and then things start to happen in an organic way. During the work, it is important not to tap into the analytical and conscious thinking, since otherwise the creative flow will get sabotaged. Once the photographs are made, it is important to assess the whole, rather than the individual images only, and look for patterns, checking the consistency of the group, the way the story is conveyed. I find working on a project much more fulfilling than trying to capture single “best-hit” images nowadays.
- Echoing the intro, although I consider your photographs sophisticated, never excessive, never above the lines, I also believe that they are capable of elating the aesthetic, emotional and territorial sides of the landscape. Today, many are the examples of extreme spectacularization, whereby the landscape becomes the realm of fantasy and whereby photography is more digital art – which I believe is detrimental to content and feelings. What is your point of view on this topic?
I think photograph is like cooking. When we make our first dishes, we tend to put a lot of spices, in big dose and many of them together. The result is we lose the nuances of the tastes of the different ingredients, and we overwhelm them with the taste of pepper, curry or salt. At the end, there is no meal, just spices. Good dishes are more subtle and ask for a slow savouring, discovering how the tastes of the different ingredients chain themselves in the palate. The same thing happens with photography. High impact is cheap, like a ton of spicy curry. However, for those wanting to savoir a photograph and uncover deep messages and different layers of signification, subtlety is the key. I am still evolving in that aspect, and maybe that is one of the reasons why quite a lot of my work currently happens in black and white or color negative. I see the bar going lower and lower every year in my own work.
- In your Ebooks we can perceive (and you highlight this yourself) a philosophy which is open to art in general. Creativity is described nearly as a form of freedom which is pursued through artistic inspirations that are extra-photographic. Can you elaborate on this concept? Do you find similarities among music and photography?
You can be creative going to work, if you choose a different way from time to time rather than sticking to the routine. Creativity is not something just reserved to a few chosen or something that strikes only when the muses align, is a way of thinking, and very often a way of “not thinking”. It is trusting the process and knowing how to listen to ourselves and to the signs that happen around us. Being creative is being curious, breaking the barriers and limitations that we put to ourselves, wanting to surprise ourselves and in a way, forgetting about what other people are expecting from us. Being creative can only happen when we are really enthusiastic and fully engaged in what we are doing. That is why we cannot cheat on creativity. When true interest is lacking, we want to reach quickly the goal without enjoying the process or we want to fabricate an image on-demand, we sabotage creativity and the only way to work is by applying templates, making use of clichés or repeating the same photograph in different places and under different light conditions.
- Lately, you have captured subjects that make you more eclectic and less landscape photographer.
Are you looking for some inspirations other than the landscape?
On the last question I was talking about breaking barriers as a way to live a creative live. I used to say I was a landscape photographer, and that created a certain blockage in my mind. In a way, if something was not a landscape I could not photograph it. The same thing happened with the use of panoramic format, or film, or black and white or colour. Characterization and classification are tricks of the rational mind which allow us make order of the world. This is a fantastic mechanism of survival but a poor way of living creatively. I nowadays tend to find things which interest me, and then think of ways to explore them photographically.
Another thing is we should not confuse subject with subject matter in our photography. I can photograph a landscape, a derelict house or a stuffed animal and be saying similar things. This is because very often, I am not photographing a landscape, a house or a dead animal… I am photographing similar concepts or feelings which transcend from all those three elements. When you approach photography as metaphoric story telling, you can change subject matter and still be exploring the same concepts, ideas and emotions.
- This portfolio had drawn my attention quite a lot http://www.rafaelrojas.com/dead-end. For some extent, I find it similar to Nick Brandt’s work “Across the Ravaged Land”, whereby he has portrayed some mummified animals, giving them a sense of immortal beauty; despite of the creepy element they could bear, with the hopeful objective of creating awareness around species in danger of extinction. Would you like to comment on your work “Dead End”?
That was a self-assigned project that happen as a consequence of winning the Master Hasselblad in the category wildlife. I was supposed to create a portfolio of images from wildlife and the first idea was the obvious one, going to some places to photograph wild animals in beautiful landscapes. For some reason, I could not feel comfortable with that idea, and I felt the obligation with myself to condemn the way most animals are being eradicated. I visited the local museum of natural history and the project started to take shape. I am quite happy with how it worked, because it was for me a great exercise of doing something I had never made before and that I was not “supposed” to do, but that I had to do in a certain way. The resulting images are not beautiful in the sense of the word, and some of them are unsettling. The are supposed to stir contradictory emotions, and to tell a message, which might not be nice to hear. Therefore, they work only if seen as a whole, and in a very particular order. These are photographs which can only work as a project, and which would be perfect for a book or an exhibition.
- Today we are confronted with very strong competition. Many, even the beginners and amateurs are aiming at “results”. Every day someone has an award to share. On this very topic, I have read one of your articles, which i found very interesting and that covered the “obscure side of photo contests”. And this makes me ask you: would you consider photo contests as useful? And above all, is self-loving or the love for nature behind these competitions whose traits are narcissistic?
I do think contests are useful when we are starting in the world of photography, as a way to build up confidence and obtain external opinion about our work. Some of them are also great ways to publicize oneself and obtain commercial leverage. However, the risks of playing with contests are really high, specially nowadays when social media rules the world of amateur photographers and many have seen contests as great business opportunities to make money out of photographers. Most contests are not bad per se, the problem happens when there is a shift in the goal of our photography and when we shift from an internally-rewarded model to an externally-rewarded one. When we need the compliments, awards, recognition and appraisal we are slaves to our egos. Great photographs only happen when we act ego-less, purpose less. Zen masters know that well.
- I have noticed that you are a member of the photographic group called “Bouts de Planète”. We share this affinity, so can I ask you, what is that about? Furthermore, despite of the current photographic panorama being quite individualistic, do you feel it could be an advantage today to be part of a group to be able to pursue some business objectives of a certain capacity?
I think all ways of artistic collaboration can be extremely rewarding, enlightening and exciting. The problem is artistic growth cannot be directed, synchronized nor orchestrated, and that is why I have stopped believing in long term artistic collaborations. Chances of drifting apart in terms of philosophy and artistic inspiration are just too big to guarantee the homogeneity and consistency of the group. From a business point of view, the same thing applies. The life of a creative artist is not easy, is filled with ups and downs, changes (sometimes dramatic and without warning) and constant re-inventions. In the end, whether we like it or not, artistic creation happens in loneliness and in a very individualistic way.
- I can confess you that Whytake was one of the few websites where to admire highly artistic images, without mixing with the concept of “Social Media”.It is a shame that this is not possible any longer. Today it seems that there is not space left for the admiration of photography on its own. What do you think about it?
I agree with you completely. That being said, I think highly personal photography has always being a niche, and in fact it has to be that way. The opposite is popular photography, which like the name implies, is popular for its sheer acceptance among the vast majority of people. We have more access today to photography that we had never before. However, that means we need to search more in order to find the gems. They are there, there is simply more noise than ever before and great photography tends to whisper, never shout.
- Whilst thanking you for your time and great collaboration, I would like to leave you some space for you to share your thoughts on contemporary photography and what it could be and become in the future.
I suppose that, like it happens in every artistic field, we will witness successive variations of fashions, styles and schools of thought in the way photography is taught, practiced and regarded. I think we photographers should focus on our work, and leave the analysis to other people!
You can admire Rafael’s works at www.rafaelrojas.com
Interview by Fortunato Gatto, member of the Dreamerlandscape Team
- Categories: Ospiti