Hello Karen, thank you for this interview. I would like to start from the beginning, from your first photographs and the start of your career. The origin of your practice is particularly relevant today with the ‘rediscovering’ of your first body of work Punks (1976); a collaboration with Olivier Richon, now Professor and Head of the Photography programme at the Royal College of Art. Tell us about how it all started.
Olivier Richon and I met at Harrow College of Technology and Art in 1976. The year after, over a period of 3 months, we took photographs in several punk music clubs in London. We worked collaboratively and co-authored all the works. Girls figured prominently in Punks; Ari Up, Laura Logic, Palmolive, Poly Styrene and Siouxsie were among many female musicians asserting their presence at gigs at the Roxy in a music industry dominated until then by ‘cockpower’. The photographs celebrate girl power of the 1970s. Punks we met posed and performed for our camera; we visited the clubs several times in those three months, meeting often the same people who had changed their look radically over a short period of time using a DIY aesthetic of clothes slashed and pinned together.
Working together enabled us to control the lighting – flash, often off camera – as well as being able to establish an easier relation with our subjects. Our starting point was to get away from the candid photography strategy of the invisible but truthful hit and run photographer, as well as avoiding the rough grainy picture associated with that mode of working. We chose a direct confrontation with our subject. This is why our pictures are posed, affirming our presence instead of eluding it. We attempted to achieve such formal approach in order to emphasize punk symbolism and to make it more readable.
It was important for us to ask people to pose, so that they were aware of the camera without posing too excessively. In this sense, these pictures are portraits as much as documents. The architecture of the club can be compared to that of a darkroom where images are in the process of appearing. The club becomes a studio, a windowless space only lit by artificial light against a dark background. As the subjects are posing in near darkness, it places the camera and the photographer in the position of an almost blind person. The flashlight would reveal gestures and details that were invisible at the time of taking the pictures. Posing makes the portrait more picture-like, it involves duration rather than the capturing of an instant. And yet, the flashlight arrests time and turns the pose into a snapshot.
Punks is now a wonderfully curated book, published by GOST in 2013. How did the book come along?
Last summer, in 2103, Gordon Mac Donald who runs a small publishing house called Gost suggested that we revisit our contacts of Punks. I had originally proposed my version in colour of Ladies, a series of photos commissioned by Pop Magazine in 2011 but Gordon checked my website archive and homed in on the collaborative work, Punks, that Oliver and I had produced back in 1977. We decided we would produce contact sheets of all the negatives we had taken of Punk clubs such as the Roxy and discovered 20 images that in the past we had not considered. In fact we only printed 16 and considered those to be the best.
Monies for the book had to be raised as Gost is a small publisher with very little profit margins, and finally I raised the funding with a partner. We launched the book at Paris Photo last year (2013) with a book signing at the Eric Franck Fine art stand. Eric Franck chose with Olivier and I to make 10 modern larger size analogue prints that were exhibited on the outside wall of the stand with a graffitti style sprayed Punks. 10 framed vintage prints were shown at Ibid in January and the book is now distributed in small independent book shops in London.
Your past and cultural identity is quite complex and elaborate. You were born in Frankfurt Am Main and have now adopted London as a second home after spending a long period of time in Paris. What is the effect and impact of these shifts in relation to your practice?
Frankfurt am Main, Germany was my first home although briefly (the first four years of my life), then San Juan Puerto Rico my second, Paris my third and London is my fourth home and the place where I have lived the longest, since 1976 when I arrived fresh out of art school from Paris looking for a course to study photography.
My parents spoke four languages and both were Americans who lived in Europe and eventually resided in London. My mother Betty Luros had been a photojournalist in Frankfurt Am Main (where I was born in the American hospital) who covered the de-nazification of Germany and the Nuremberg trials, an ex red Cross volunteer and writer for The Stars and Stripes, the overseas newspaper for the American military. My dad, Major Richard E. Knorr was a Polish speaking first generation American whose family had lived near Warsaw, a lapsed catholic, briefly a communist in the 1930’s, and in his forties became a successful international entrepreneur. Both parents were ambitious, high fliers and lovers of good food, wine, cigarettes, beautiful antiques and books. They loved travelling and often drove across Europe and vacationed in the south of France.
I became used to cultural shifts early on and loved growing up in Puerto Rico near the Atlantic sea and living in a tropical climate. I spoke German when we arrived in Puerto Rico aged 4 in 1958 with my brother Richard (8), Dad, Mom, Inge (my nanny) and our French poodle Popol. We travelled to San Juan on a freight ship with animals and a catholic priest who held masses on board. I remember being woken up by the roosters crows onboard.
From Punks you moved on to a radically divergent subject matter by exploring class and power in London during Thatcherism. Both Belgravia (1979 – 1980) and Gentlemen (1981-1983) comment on this particular historical period focusing on the privileged elite through the use of images accompanied by text. You have described the use of text and images as a way to add a third meaning, one to be completed by the viewer…
Belgravia (1979- 1981) was a series of environmental portraits on social class and the received opinions of the wealthy who lived in Belgravia, an area near Harrods (London) which now has some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
The work is autobiographical and uses humour (text) in order to reconsider class and its prejudices. It also focuses on social inequality between men and women as well as the aspirational values attached to “taste”. The third meaning, a concept developed by Roland Barthes when considering montage (editing), interested me and I had read the collection of essays in Image Music Text during my second year at the Polytechnic of Central London ( PCL) photography course . Belgravia arose out of an awareness of this effect between image and text that had been developed by conceptual artists such as Victor Burgin (who was my tutor) but also an awareness of Bill Brandt’s and Bill Owen’s work. The texts were constructs highlighted by their arrangement and design beneath collaborative portraits of my parents and their friends. I would stage and style the portrait choosing and arranging furniture and clothes with the sitters. Using a 500 CM Hassleblad and a Balcar Flash with reflective umbrellas, this process was a lengthy one that would take up to three hours. I wrote down quotes from our conversations together and these were then edited and typeset on lith film negative.
The work became well known in France and I began to sell to private collectors. It can now be found at the Tate (given by Louise and Eric Franck) and in Martin Parr’s collection of photography.
What about Gentlemen?
Gentlemen (1981-1983) was a series started when I had graduated in 1980 but it took until 1981 for me to gain permission to photograph in three Gentlemen’s
Clubs: The Turf, The Carlton and Brooks’. I had started an Mphil at PCL and wanted to continue residing in the UK to complete this work (I am a US citizen). Finally I gained permission through the help of Lucius Carey, who happened to be a friend of the man who ran the sandwich shop across from PCL. The irony was that he was Lord Falkland and the work highlights the conflict in the Falkalands among other themes. Lucius was totally supportive and even posed for a portrait in the series, leaning over an iron wrought balustrade overlooked by a marble bust of Pitt the Younger (Britain’s youngest prime minister).
Gentlemen includes empty interiors and staged portraits of club members and actors/ friends. The text is entirely fictional composed in two voices: the past tense historical voice
and the present tense. Under the images of men photographed the voice is in the present tense, often referencing the demise of the British Empire, how things once were. Under the empty interiors the voice is in the past tense… the past and the present alternate. I was reading speeches of parliament that used to be published in the Times newspaper and boys own stories of adventure and spy novels. Gentlemen was very much about patriarchal values and the nature of power in the political center of London, not far from Westminster and the palace. Language and its inflections become powerful in how they include and exclude, turning people into “them “ and “us”. The fetishization of English with its sense of superiority is with us today, disseminated across the British Empire it has become the global language of trade.
Similarly to Punks, POP Magazine approached you in 2011 with the intention of revisiting the aesthetic used for Belgravia and Gentlemen and adapting it to contemporary culture and public figures. Tell us about this commission and the experience of working outside your usual methodology and time-based schedule.
I was incredibly busy with new work, part of India Song, when all of a sudden I was being pursued by Vanessa Reid, a stylist working exclusively for POP, who wanted me to do a fashion spread inspired by my black and white previous image and text work. You were working with me then as a studio manager and encouraged me to do it despite my reluctance. I rarely take on commissioned or editorial work.
We shot 18 fashion portraits of socialites, entrepreneurs and actresses over a period of two days in June at Home House, an exclusive club in a beautiful Adams 18th century interior, large enough to accommodate a crew of 4 of us and at least 10 of the fashion team which included make up and hair artists, mountains of shoes and clothes, authentic jewels with security guards. I had 20 minutes allocated to 9 different women each day who were made up and styled. It was almost a military operation timed precisely. We were based in a large bedroom called the Lady Islington. It was intense and fun and I struggled with the hand bags imposed in each portrait. When Vanessa’s back was turned I asked the sitters to hide the bags! Of course all the bags appeared in the work published.
The text was composed from answers to the questionnaire I sent the women via email. It took several months to produce the first edit and Vanessa Reid chose the ones to include in POP magazine which gave me a 18 page spread in their autumn edition. I wanted the people portrayed to consider their place in the world and the Arab Spring that had just begun.
Your most recent body of work, India Song, is a visible condensation and evolution of the work produced between 1994 and 2008, where your interest in heritage, cultural institutions, history and literature merge together as a crystallization of an extended period of research and photographic advancement. Tell us about this progression, your use of colour photography, stuffed animals, real animals and the path that has taken you to India Song.
I made work in colour since 1980 particularly working with Andrew Cameron and Olivier Richon on an Arts Council commission to photograph new towns in Britain. We chose Milton Keynes, a large in Buckinghamshire, and produced 4 triptychs that explored ideas of utopia and gender roles using colour photography with text that referred to Fourier, Ebenezer Howard and TV soaps such as Dallas. The name Milton Keynes conjured up Milton’s Paradise Lost and Maynard Keynes the economist; it was a cross between staged photographic portraits, topographic photography and aerial photography. It was meant to be a critique of classical documentary and the purely visual of fine art photography. The work was a critical engagement with American colour photography. It had text printed directly on to the colour photographs. In those days we did all the printing ourselves.
Belgravia had included pets and in one photograph it is the dog that addresses the viewer with “I am really looking forward to my Deb Party.” I produced two more black and white series Gentlemen and Country LIfe before working again in colour with Connoisseurs.
Connoisseurs (1986-1990) was shot on Fuji and Kodak low ISO positive film using available light with no additional flash fill in. The idea was to use the aesthetics of rich colour rendering the heritage environments “kitsch”. Connoisseurs are collectors and art lovers who legitimised their status through art collections. I came across the idea when I was photographing a pair of group portraits by Reynolds of the Dilettante Society hung in Brooks club. The Society aimed to correct and purify the public taste of the country and was instrumental in funding the Royal Academy. These group portraits included the “great“ and the “good” of 18th century British society, the cultural power brokers of that era. They included Lord Elgin, the man who removed the marbles from the Parthenon in Greece. These later became a British museum centerpiece and on permanent display from 1817 onwards. So the idea was to look at the underpinnings of aristocratic taste in the 20th century by installing people and objects in heritage houses such as Chiswick House, in order the reconsider ironically the meaning of the contemporary Connoisseur. This was when I first introduced a taxidermised specimen of a chimpanzee that I photographed in the entrance hall of Osterley Park House entitled “The Genius of the Place”.
What is the role of Tasveer (a network of fine art photography galleries present in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and other Asian cities) in the creation of India Song? Should we be paying more attention to new photography institutions in emerging economies such as India and Brazil?
Abhishek Poddar, the owner of Tasveer, introduced to me by Anna Fox, helped me gain permission and access to many of the palaces and helped with my travel itinerary. Abhishek has supported and encouraged this work for the last five years. It takes a long time to put the images together and I produce about 10 a year with the help of retouchers. We created a new market for my work in India. It came at a particular time in my life (54) and has energised my working methodology. A whole new life opened up and I now have a strong lasting connection to India that has become like a home to me.
Photography is global and has always followed in the footsteps of trade and empire. It continues and after all, we live in the age of the internet and the social media that connects us even more. Latin America, including Brazil, has had a thriving art and music scene since the 1960s… Artists such as Alfredo Jarr, Chilean, and Sebastiao Salgado, Brazilian, have made Latin American photography and art become world renown.
You are an extremely busy and productive artist, yet you manage to find time to teach and work on a number of external projects such as Global Archive Photography and Women in Photography (recently launched at Tate). Tell us about these satellite activities and the challenge of finding the time to work on these projects.
Currently I am working on new projects dealing with cultural heritage in Italy, Spain, Japan. I have begun shooting the Mujedar architecture in Southern Spain, Pope’s palaces in Italy (with your help and assistance) and the temples of Kyoto. The making of the work which uses composite elements such as animals for example, is a long and slow process initially that then moves faster when I have found the appropriate visual language to allude to the histories and stories that underpin the heritage. In Japan the aesthetics of wabi- sabi, the tradition of Ukiyo-e print making, karyukai, and screen art are important for my new series called House of Dreams. In Spain I have photographed the Royal Palace in Seville, a layering of influences between Christian and Islamic pervades the site.
Global Archive Photography (GAP) is a new website launched last September at my studio in London created with Professor Anna Fox with support from the University for the Creative Arts. GAP provides in depth interviews with contemporary photographers all over the world. We are now looking for ways of raising money to push it forward. We have lots of exciting ideas for the next group of interviews.
As Professor of photography at the School of Film mad Media at the University for the Creative Arts, I teach mainly on the MFA 2 year photography degree and we have had one of our best years ever with one of our students, Hao Xu [we featured him a while ago here] who will be showing his work with Chandelier Projects at Photo Shanghai in
Chandelier projects (www.chandelierprojects.com) started last September 2013 from my studio in London, with Daniel Campbell Blight as the curator, as an incentive to show emerging artists in London by encouraging experimentation and collaboration. We rapidly realised that we had to commercialise and sell artists work at art fairs in order to create a sustainable business model to raise funds for artist’s production but also to give part of eventual profits we make in art fairs back to Space Studios, a non profit charity based in London (www.spacestudios.org.uk). The idea is to fund a bursary at Space Studios supporting young artists in those crucial first two years after leaving art college. I am very excited to be installing our booth at the first art fair dedicated to photography in China and also to be exhibiting my work with Tasveer based in Bangalore, India.
India Song has been extremely successful and is still growing as a series. What is next for you?
India Song has changed my life and my way of working since it entailed a total shift to digital photography and print making that still allows me to be hands on throughout the
process. There are over 60 works and I am now designing a book with Skira, which is due out in November this year at Paris Photo.
I hope to be able to continue developing Chandelier Projects, GAP and Women and Photography alongside my photography projects. I am looking forward to many busy years ahead.