Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published on our previous platform, In the In-Between: Journal of Digital Imaging Artists, and the formatting has not been optimized for the new website.
Danish photographer Peter Funch took to the streets of New York in 2006 to capture life in the city in a different way from street photographers in the past. The decisive construction of the images in Babel Tales shows us stories of impossible possibilities, and portray a real-life fantasy about the relationships that occur in the chaos of 5th Avenue, Wall Street, and other locations throughout Manhattan.
Gregory Jones: First off Peter, tell us how you became interested in photography, and who were your early influences?
Peter Funch: My father was a photo hobbyist. I started playing with his camera in high school when I was seventeen. At the time I was really into skateboarding magazines so I started taking skate pictures of my friends. It was fascinating to photograph something so stylish. Around this time I also got into Krass Clement’s romantic nostalgic subjective documentary photography, however I hadn’t quite yet made the mental leap to art photography or documentary photography as art photography. My whole introduction to photography was either in book or magazine form or my father’s work – I had yet to be introduced to the dimensional idea of photography that you hang on a wall.
When I was twenty I went to university for photojournalism, which is quite young in Denmark. Most people in my class were in their mid to late-twenties. The classes focused much more on storytelling than technical skills. I liked this mode of thinking, of visual narrative.
After university, I worked as a freelancer doing editorials and magazine work to make ends meet, but I wasn’t satisfied: I felt compelled to tell my own stories, bend images to my will, and tell stories the media wouldn’t want to. My discontent in my work grew as I started becoming more involved in the photography scene in Copenhagen. Working with magazines and newspapers not longer interested me. I wanted to activate and engage people and images by putting them in spaces. I think I became an artist when I discovered the third dimension.
GJ: Your acclaimed series, Babel Tales, portrays life on the busy streets of New York. At first glance the viewer can’t help but see these as documentary pictures, but as we see visual cues within each picture such as the “coincidental” relationships between the characters, we realize we are looking at fictional scenes. Please talk a bit about your process and some of the decisions that went into crafting these.
PF: I present them as documents that aren’t necessarily true. It is for the viewer to decide was is real and what is unreal – it’s not my prerogative. I show how the pictures are made. I don’t care about the classifications of “real” or “unreal”. It is the in-between space that interests me.
In terms of process I make rules for myself for every project. This helps me crystallize an aesthetic and the concept behind the work. For Babel Tales I decided to focus on Manhattan, which constrained me geographically, however provided me with a unique set of stories, references, histories, mysteries, and populous. Once I stake out at corner I usually shoot there in the same location at the same time of day for about 10 to 15 days. Sometimes I only need a couple days but usually it takes a long time to figure out if it will work or not
In post I work on 5 to 10 images at a time to keep my eyes fresh. Composing the images is a lot like painting where you build up the images and keep looking at it again and again. This is why I work on multiple pieces at the same time. For me, this is where photography is heading, less of a method of passive documentation and more of a means to produce images.
GJ: Looking at these pictures, I see many possible underlying issues here at play. One is the dynamic and chaotic nature of the “big city”, and how it affects the psyche of those who inhabit it. Another idea is that of over-population, which leads me to many different thoughts on sustainability, health, and environmental issues. Did these ideas, or any similar ones come to mind during the making of this project?
PF: I’m do not intend to make projects that are politically or environmentally concerned. Certainly the themes of chaos and synchronicity, or as you put it “dynamic nature” of the city are considered. This dichotomy was a starting point for the work, a way to conceptualize, however they are not competing forces but two sides of the same coin: the images are surprising because they subvert our perception of chaos and synchronicity to the point where they are one in the same.
I see Babel Tales as both musical and as a musical. A musical in the sense that it seems everyone in the images has stopped what they are doing to participate in some predetermined choreography – to tell a story, although perhaps it is one, which cannot be fully understood. They are musical in the sense that every person is like an instrument, they all have different sounds, but because they are all more or less performing the same actions, it’s as if they are playing a song together.
These songs or stories are, in a way, a meta-story looking into the chaos of the mass of people; the mass of stories is exiting in one city. This fascination of mine comes from films where peoples’ paths cross in serendipitous or clandestine ways, particularly Short Cuts by Robert Altman and Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson. I am trying to show another way of finding commonalities between people, outside race or religion or any sort of predefined background. Where does the individual end and the group begin? And how do you define human behavior if this line is blurred? I think the answers lie somewhere when coincidences are too symbolic to be true, in magical points in time, or Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment”, where randomness always has a place where it clicks.
GJ: One element that I can’t ignore is the tradition of street photography that precedes Babel Tales. This genre is a staple of the medium, and what I see as among photography’s most fundamental applications. Going back to the 17th century we’ve seen landscape painters depict the man within the landscape as a means to create stories of the everyday. I see street photography as a natural progression of this attitude, which has taken different forms over the years as technology has changed. Was the idea of street photography one you considered during this project? With the technology available to us now, is the “constructed moment” a natural progression of this genre?
PF: Well, yes and no. Our technological ability to construct moments is far greater today, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t always been constructing moments. This is just another way of doing it – perhaps more immersive, perhaps more blatant.
GJ: As mentioned earlier, these appear at first glance as documentary pictures, and in some ways they could have been. What is your interest in making fictional photographs? What are your thoughts on this real/unreal dichotomy that is becoming a larger trend in current photographic works?
PF: These are not fictional photographs. Nor are they “real”. Everything depicted in Babel Tales is true to life, however, the elements that construct the photographs were taken at different times. Humans most often can only experience time in a linear manner. Breaking away from a linear perspective of time does not make an image “untrue.” If we were looking at a long exposure, let say Anton Bragaglia’s The Cellist, we wouldn’t be having the same conversation because it is immediately understood as visually beyond our normal mode of perception. Babel Tales isn’t any different. The technologies and techniques are more advanced and the images are produced in a way that looks like our linear mode of perception – there is no blur or other telltale signs of manipulation – but essentially they function the same. Perhaps Babel Tales is a warning not to immediately label things as fiction if at first our senses deceive us.
History or truth is a transforming concept. Like Tolstoy said, “History would be wonderful thing – if it were only true.” It is always being redefined. History books are always being reformulated. Twenty years from now our concept of truth could be very different – maybe then we wouldn’t think twice about the reality/falsehood of Babel Tales.
GJ: These pictures are formatted similarly to movie screens, can you tell us about the relation you see between your work and that of filmmakers?
PF: I draw a lot of inspiration from film. Some of the concept behind Babel Tales was taken from the film Smoke, where William Hurt and Harvey Keitel are talking about photographing the same street corner everyday.
I use cinematic aspect ratios for several reasons of reasons: 1) We see in widescreen. A wider image can take up most of your visual range, which leads to a more immersive experience. The width and perspective of these images allow the viewer to see through the eyes of the other. 2) I can fit more people into the frame. 3) I wanted to keep the cinematic aesthetic that inspired me. 4) A viewer approaches the cinematic view with doubt. We already understand most films to be works of fiction. However, film also provides the suspension of disbelief, unlike photography, which provides another layer of tension.
Unlike film though, I think it is easier for the viewer to be a part of the image – it could be them in the photo. I emphasized this idea when I first exhibited Babel Tales in 2007 in Copenhagen. I made the front window of the gallery into a giant mirror.
GJ: Last but not least, what’s coming up for you over the next year, photographically or otherwise?
PF: Photographically speaking, I am doing a series of triptychs using their religious context and visual power to develop a taxonomy of the profane. By removing religion we are free to question how we define Earth, Heaven, and Hell and discover what exists between them. What is the third way? What is the “Z-axis” that transects and transcends man and nature, creation and destruction? How do we look at this from a secular perspective? I am still dealing with the same problems of how chaos can become a system and the other way around and how people or objects placed in other settings make new stories or illusions, but I am approaching these problems with a much different method
On the same note I am also producing a series of manipulations of photos from the Great Depression Era, which brings me back to this question of “what is history?”. And going further what does it mean to intentionally alter the past: When today’s images are less and less taken for granted as truth. When the reality of constantly mutating histories is more and more pronounced. What does that mean for our identity as a group or as individuals? What new histories can we create for ourselves?
Peter Funch, 1974, was born in a small town in rural Denmark. He has lived and worked in New York City for the past 7 years. He has recently created a new commissioned series of large-scale works titled Danish Diaries for the Danish Pavilion of EXPO 2010 in Shanghai. In 2009 Peter was chosen as Artist of the Year for Dream Amsterdam, Holland, where he created a large-scale public photo installation at the Museumplein in the heart of Amsterdam. He has won several prizes and awards for his work and his series Babel Tales has received critical acclaim around the World. In late 2011 the series Babel Tales was exhibited as a solo show in New York City at V1 Gallery NYC. His work has recently been exhibited at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside of Copenhagen, Denmark as part of the overwhelming Living exhibition. He has also had a large part of the Babel Tales series included in the celebrated Mannheim Foto Festival in Germany and Paraty festival in Brazil.
Interview by Gregory Jones
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