My muse Du Yan and I visited the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Its collection of art is arguably one of the nicer ones in the world. You can wander for hours with works of the greatest artists of time surrounding you. Picasso’s cubism, Tinguely’s kinetic art and Kandinsky’s expressionism, Newman’s huge abstract canvases—any work of this caliber is heavily inspiring.
Filled with admiration, I began to ponder, it seems almost everything in art has been done already, especially when it comes to photography—
I always have certain perceptions of limitations towards what can be done. So I set out on a experiment to produce work inspired by great masters, see what difﬁculties I encounter on the way, try to work around problems and create a new approach to my photography.
The same evening, I wrote and sketched down about a dozen concepts to put on ﬁlm. All I needed was a few sheets of thick paper, scotch tape and a sharp scalpel. On a 4x5 camera, every part is easily accessible. After all it is just a box with a lens, bellows, and a ground-glass.
My ﬁrst project was a cubist nude. I sketched a Picasso-inspired ﬁgure, cut out all the individual pieces and taped them back on. Then I uncovered one piece at a time, exposing and ﬁlling the area with the corresponding body part. Staying true to cubism I varied lighting and proportions from piece to piece. After each exposure, I taped the mask shut and moved to the next piece. Eventually, I uncovered all the pieces and doubled over everything with a painting of my uncle René Fendt. Although still far from perfect, the results motivated me to do more.
The next frame was comparably simple, a photographic approach to Warhol’s ﬂowers. I drew a mask of four ﬂowers and again cut out each piece one after another taking one exposure of each ﬂower. One without ﬁlter, one each with red, orange, and yellow. Finally, I exposed some wild green grass over it, ﬁlling the background.
For me, kinetic art is amazing for its creation of movement even in two-dimensional spaces. I took a break from masks on this one, shooting a simple double exposure of Du Yan with one of her own kinetic spiral drawings. Matching the eye with the center of the spiral, it does lead the observer’s eye ﬁrst inwards and then out again, creating an effect I found rather intriguing. Using positive paper, I knew I would get really nice contrast and a strong spiral.
Next, I approached the spiral concept itself and created my most complicated mask since. Partly inspired by Man Ray’s surrealist photography and collages, I took a total of 14 exposures throughout this slow process. First, I exposed each eye individually. The eyes appear bigger and bigger, so the distance needs to decrease evenly with each shot. As the bellows start to get more and more extended, the exposure needs to be compensated for the additional distance the light travels. After the eyes, I inverted the mask by cutting out the negative space around it. Only now I was taking the exposure of her on the ground. Last but not least, I exposed another one of her own kinetic line drawings on top to give it some overall texture.
As you can see, the concepts change a lot, however the technique and process of each mask is very similar. The next one was refreshing as it was merely squares and thus very straight forward to cut. I initially thought about creating a ‘pure’ Mondrian photograph, but after all my goal is to create work ‘inspired by’ and not purely to copy. So I decided to shoot a still-life with an old wood airplane in the same infamous Mondrian color combination.
Similar to the spiral collage, I needed to make a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative’ mask for the following image. With the Matisse leaves cut out, the background will end up just black. In order to turn the background white, the mask had to be inverted in the end. I took a clear sheet of plastic on which I taped the cut-out leaves for a ﬁnal exposure towards the sky. Unfortunately, the strong overexposure and slight texture of the plastic sheet resulted in a somewhat blurry shape of the leaves. I will be back with a vengeance on this concept.
A hiccup, maybe it was time to return to a simple concept. Some of you might have heard of the Miaz Brothers. The two artist have an interesting body of work consisting of ‘blurred’ portraits. Personally, I love those and it was worth a try for photography as well. The idea being a radical new concept towards portraiture. Telling myself if the framing works, the soft light and exposure is correct, the sharpness of focus may be neglected? I do like the result especially the way the bokeh reproduced her eyes.
Kandinsky is one of my personal favorite artists, with works spanning from abstraction to cubism to minimalism. His early work of color studies, collages in both black and white and vivid colors gave me this idea. I used my whole palette of colored ﬁlters and twelve individual masks one after another to build this study of shape, layer by layer. This is also where I started to bend the line from photography to…something else. A line I would deﬁnitely cross with the next picture.
The next one is titled Exposure-graph. A simple looking result, but nonetheless fairly complex. It is my own study of contrast and light. Although there was a camera involved, the lens did not see anything but a white wall. I drew a mask, inverted all the pieces of the cube onto a clear piece of plastic. I took the ﬁrst shot, exposing it in Zone III (two stops under meter reading). Then I uncovered the ﬁrst piece of the cube, taking another exposure at Zone III. Continuing this way piece after piece, 5 exposures later the background ends up in Zone VII, however the shadow of the cube only gets exposed once, thus staying in Zone III. I did end up with all sides of the cube being 1 stop apart from each other in terms of brightness, creating a seemingly 3-dimensional object just out of shades of grey. This concept stuck with me. I do love the fact of using photography in a purely abstract way. It opens a whole world of ideas and already I am working on a big series of my Exposure-graphs.
I wouldn’t have found my own approach to abstraction if it wasn’t for all the trials you have seen. I believe that inspiration is everywhere, you just have to go out and grab it. Do get inspired by the masters, by your friends, by songs and paintings. Do try, copy, create, fail and then try again. In my experience, the more you create, the more you pre-visualize your ideas you will continually be drawn towards your own individual concepts and eventually end up creating something unique.
Thank you for reading, I hope this article inspired you. If you have any questions to the individual processes, your own experiences or ideas for future mask work, kindly share them in the comments section!