Humor, subversiveness, and satire are all words that come to mind when viewing the F series’ by Spanish artist José Camara. Within the found photographs, family pictures, and images he’s shot on his own, Camara hijacks existing narratives through the graffiti-like insertion of floral imagery. His processes and interests throughout all three of these series’ establish a wide palate of motifs ranging from political to the familial; from the surrealistic to the absurd.
Luke Shaw: Jose, it’s a great pleasure to speak with you. Could you start out by telling us what brought you to the arts, specifically photography?
Jose Camara: Since a very early age I realized that drawing and painting were what I liked most.
I enrolled in the College of Fine Arts in Valencia- Spain where I got a degree in painting. Being in my third year as an art student, I chose photography as an optional subject, though it was a secondary one at that time. It was really good to have a first contact with the photographic process and darkroom work.
Two years later I got some more experience with the medium while staying the last year of my degree in Southampton, UK. It was a less academic system than in Spain and more oriented to open workshops. There I spent many hours working with both color and black and white photography in the darkroom.
Nevertheless it was not until some years later when I got more into photography and attended a course at a Photography school called Blankpaper. There I discovered many different ways of approaching photography, from documentary to conceptual, but above all I discovered photo-books and the way of sequencing a photographic series.
By then I had been shooting for quite a few years, always with the feeling there was something missing. I was not really happy with the results and felt there were many people doing the same kind of photos and much better than me. In fact I’m not a photographer, strictly speaking.
It was then when, by chance, I started merging images and feeling really satisfied with the result. Then I realized it was not my way to document reality but to invent a new one made out of images taken from different sources.
LS: I think one of the most immediately striking characteristics of your work is the insertion of digitally re-sized or modified flowers in the images you present. There’s an uncanny connection between an image and the type of flower you would give to another person: they are both temporally bound vessels of representation. A flower in a vase is dead, but it refers to the life it had before it was picked. A photograph similarly refers back to a point in reality, but that break that freezes the image onto film or a sensor is what gives the photograph its life. I’m curious what sorts of relationships you’ve formed between the image and the flower especially in the F2 and F3 series. Could you explain to us how you are using flowers in a general conceptual sense?
JC: First of all, I have to explain that choosing flowers as the central subject of the project was something really accidental. I had never really been interested in flowers or liked them specially. I just took a few shots of flower bouquets that I pasted on some other images and really liked the way both flowers and those images radically changed their appearance.
Flowers are often related to qualities such as subtlety, fragility, femininity and beauty. But when they are inserted on certain images they become just the opposite: something grotesque, threatening.
It happens exactly the same with the images where flowers are pasted in. They lose their previous meaning to become something different.
In the F1 and F2 series the insertion of flowers in those images has sometimes a critical symbolism, challenging concepts such as masculinity, power, moral values. In F3 the goal was not the same. I found photographs in my family album where flowers appeared and each one led me to a different composition and way of working, not pursuing a special meaning. It is the most abstract of the three series and more in the realm of aesthetics.
LS: I think a flower by itself is relatively benign symbol. Yet, with a flair of surrealism, it seems like you are using it as an agent to create tension in otherwise mundane, vernacular images. Do you think a flower is a special tool? Or could any object or symbol serve the same purpose if used in the same way?
JC: I think there are other objects that could be used for a similar purpose but flowers seem a perfect element to me because, as I said before, their qualities or meaning are universal and obvious. I don’t believe anybody thinks of flowers as something disgusting, ironic, ugly or monstrous, and this is what I wanted flowers to become in these compositions.
LS: It seems like there are underlying hints of political and social disobedience in the F1 series. For example, in a few of the images you have arranged your flowers upon the bodies and uniforms of soldiers at a parade or demonstration. Is there an underlying agenda here? If not an agenda, what were you seeing or thinking that caused you to put establishments like the state, the military, and the male body in such a close relationship with your flowers?
JC: That’s exactly what I wanted to get with some of the images on F1 and F2 series.
By the time I had started to work on this project I went to Bologna for a quick trip. It happened that they were celebrating a military parade and I took quite a few shots. Once I went back to the studio I thought they could fit perfectly in my F project. Soldiers, army, uniforms: they are images everyone associates with concepts such as bravery, power, and strength, but if a flower appears on a uniform we start to see some other nuances and talk of different issues such as sexuality, masculinity models, seriousness and beneath this, humor.
LS: Could you tell us about any influences that may have inspired you to work in the way that you do?
JC: Many and varied. I could name artists like John Stezaker, Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs, Rinko Kawauchi, Hannah Höch, John Heartfield, Andy Warhol and so many others. I’m interested in artists that use humor as a tool for their work and alter/invent reality in their compositions.
LS: The F2 series is a collection of simple, satirically arranged collages relying heavily on what seems to be found imagery. Could you tell us how you came across your source images and what they signify for you?
JC: The F2 series came out straight from a plastic bag found beside a garbage bin in the street. It contained such items as medical texts, prescriptions, radiographs, two framed photos of what seemed to be successful surgeries, and finally 15 torn photographs which are the ones I restored and used for this series. According to the content of that bag it was easy to deduce that they belonged to a physician.
It was really exciting trying to figure out who this person was and the story behind these images.
I never thought of resetting a given story, but instead, wanted to start a new one.
Besides all this, the photographs were shot in a difficult period in Spain when freedom was nothing but a word, so they were a good starting point to introduce some issues in a similar way as in the F1 series.
Here the images sometimes lean toward a political side but again through humor.
LS: One of strangest images in the F2 series shows us a man in a lecture hall with what seems to be a tulip bud for a head. Could you tell us how you approach the process of collage? What are your points of entry for transforming a banal image into something bizarre and wonderful?
JC: Every image came out after a kind of trial and error system. For some of them hours of work were needed while other ones were finished more quickly. This is one of the second kind. Once the pieces of the photo were gathered, it was easy to decide that the lecturer was going to be the target of this composition.
In Spain there’s another meaning for the word “bud” (“capullo” in Spanish), which is “asshole” or “dickhead” and here I wanted to depict “a lecture of a bud,” which for me is the “lecture of an asshole.” This is related once more with what is or isn’t politically correct and also with the global disappointment we feel with our rulers and politicians.
LS: Do you have any thoughts on the importance of lightheartedness and humor in art?
JC: In my opinion great doses of humor are lacking in art nowadays.
I obviously respect any kind of project but sometimes it’s not easy to believe some artists’ statements (or show/catalogue texts) that wander around a simple idea, but are decorated with so many words that finally they seem to be saying nothing, just pretending to seem deep and thoughtful.
I also think the general tone of somebody’s work has much to do with the artist’s personality.
LS: Finally, we at In the In-Between like to have things to look forward to. What’s next for you?
JC: I’m showing in Spain in March the following project I worked in after the F series, which is “Swapped trips” (there’s already a sample of the series with a few images on my website).
And now I’m just starting a couple of new projects: one of them related to erotica and porn imagery and another one with honor medals and trophies.
Jose Cámara was born in Valencia, Spain, in 1972. He received a BA in Fine Arts from Universidad Politécnica de Valencia and has continued his studies at Southampton Institute of Higher Education and BlankPaper photography school. He has been awarded and shortlisted in different visual arts contests: most recently the Special Prize Club Diario Levante at Incubarte, Independent Art Festival’s 5th edition.
For news on all the latest interviews and features from In the In-Between, click the logo and join us on Facebook.
Interview by Luke Shaw
All Images © Jose Camara.