LEMAG: Good morning Julia, thank you for finding time to speak to us. As you can probably imagine interviewing someone so highly respected amongst photographers like yourself is not an easy task as there is so much to say not only about yourself and your work.
Let us start with your (en)Visionography concept. On your website we read that it ‘aims to define a new way of creating fine art photography in the digital age, based on the vision of the artist and their own life experiences and emotion, rather than on depicting the actual subject or the conventions of traditional photography.’ What I would like to ask you what you really mean by ‘new way’ and how you would define or explain it. What is new here that has not been exercised before?
Julia Anna Gospodarou: First I want to thank you for inviting me and for the interesting questions of this interview. It is a pleasure to talk to you and to the readers of this magazine and I am honoured for having the chance to express my thoughts through this mean.
But let’s go back to your question. In my opinion, up to now, with some exceptions, photography, even fine art photography, was more a reactive action, starting from the outside conditions and the subject and relying on them for inspiration. What I am talking about is a kind of photography that is proactive in the sense that the subject and the condition we work with are only of secondary importance in the final image and photography is only a means to an end. What I try to do is to bring photography closer to art, not only as for the result but also for the process of creation. Artists in general, especially modern artists, start from an idea, concept, and emotion and then they find the subject that will be fit to express that concept, message or emotion. They have the freedom to choose anything and they have the freedom to use the subject in any way without needing to keep it in the form they found it out there, but being able to sometimes even completely transform it, so it conveys the message they have to communicate. This is, in short, the goal of (en)Visionography, to apply that process of creation in photography, to detach photography from the limitations of the conditions of shooting or from the subject, from the tools we use, gear and everything related, and to bring it closer to the idea of conceptual art. This not necessarily in the sense that the subject will not be recognised anymore but in the sense that the final result is the process of taking the emotion in a raw form and moulding it into a shape that is the final image, all with the help of the subject and of the tools we use to capture and transform that subject, meaning the camera and the software we work with.
In my opinion, photography is still too much camera-centered and we are still too afraid of all the other tools we have at our disposal to take photography further. My motto is “Create More Than Photography” and what I mean by that is that I want to take photography beyond the camera, beyond the subject, and use the third essential element, the software, to create what I have in mind. I’m telling this to all my students: don’t be afraid of your software. I’m saying it because it helped me liberate myself both from traditional photography and from the rules of the so-called proper photography and it gave me the freedom to do what I want with my images without needing to justify myself. I’m calling myself an (en)Visionographer, and I called the photography I advocate for (en)Visionography because I want to delineate myself from what is generally understood by photography and from the rules that govern it. (en)Visionography is the land of total freedom where the only thing that matters is what the artist feels and what they make the viewer feel. It is not about cameras, it is not about subjects, it is not about following rules. It is about the experience the photographer and the viewer have when this emotional exchange called art is happening.
LEMAG: You also say that (en)Visionography introduces the concept of “total artistic freedom” in photography. Do you think that up to now the photography realm was empty of freedom? I was also curious to hear from you what this photography is free from?
Julia Anna Gospodarou: I think I partially answered to this question but in respect to how free photography was so far, I think photography is every day becoming freer because we are every day less dependent on our tools and we can use more and more our imagination. Cameras are becoming better, computers and processing software are becoming better as well, accessing subjects is easier and easier as we can travel more and more every day. What is left to change is for people to not be afraid to use all these tools in the best way. There is tremendous freedom in the mind of many artists, but there is also tremendous fear to express their mind and soul and be on the outside the artists that they really are inside. I’ve experienced this with many of my students, who many of them weren’t even aware that they were artists just because we are not used to thinking like artists. Our education, especially Western education, is based on reality and on rules, on what is proper and acceptable to do and that is precisely what kills art. This is what I advocate for, artistic freedom, freedom of mind and freedom of imagination, all of these infused into photography to create a wonderful thing. I can never function without freedom. I have said this many times, I’m a rebel of the mind. I need freedom to exist. In my thinking process, I will always go in the other direction than the usual one, so I need the freedom to do it, especially as for artistic freedom. I’m not doing this to make any pretentious statement or in a reactionary way but because it always inspires me to try the other way and to surprise myself and others. I know many others are like me and this is why I advocate for total artistic freedom in photography.
LEMAG: Your work is full of what Joel Tjintjelaar, whom we had the pleasure of interviewing recently, calls ‘presence. You have of course collaborated with Joel on a number of occasions and it is no surprise that both his and your work may be looked upon as representing the same genre – monochrome long exposures or architecture. I would like you to tell us what is your opinion differs your work from that by Mr Tjintjelaar.
Julia Anna Gospodarou: First, if you allow me to say a few words about what creating presence means for those who are not familiar with the term. Presence as a concept was presented for the first time by Ansel Adams in his book The Print, part of his well-known trilogy that I think any black and white photographer should read since it is such a rich source of ideas and inspiration. Also, George DeWolfe who has studied with Ansel Adams, has elaborated more extensively on this notion which is part of his teaching philosophy and he explains it in his writings and workshops about digital black and white printing. He has also created a processing software that can be used in Photoshop for creating presence in black and white images. More recently, as you mention, Joel Tjintjelaar also talks about this notion.
But what exactly is presence? As it was defined, in essence, presence is a metaphor for depth. In simple words it means creating depth and subject definition in a black and white image by creating selective local contrast and enhancing the edges. It means transforming Luminance, which is the way an object reflects light, into Luminosity, which creates contrast and defines how we perceive a print. This was done in the analog era by dodging and burning in the darkroom, as Ansel explains in The Print, while in the digital era it is done in Photoshop, as George DeWolfe explains in his writings.
Creating presence is based on principles of perception as they relate purely to photography. However, the concept of creating depth is not new. It is just that Ansel Adams gave it this name. It emerges from what has been done in art for centuries. And this is where my concept and approach comes from. I have worked with creating depth in drawing and architecture design from even before working with black-and-white photography, and I have discovered that the same rules apply perfectly to black-and-white photography in a certain way that I’m going to explain now. My approach to depth and especially the foundation of my theory of creating depth and volume, that I am calling Photography Drawing, is shaped by my involvement in architecture and by the fact that I have worked with space and depth for the longest time so for me the idea of space and depth is part of who I am. For those who don’t know, except for being a photographer, I am an architect and I have worked in art and architecture related fields for almost 30 years. I have also done for an extended period of time classical and architectural drawing in black pencil and these things have influenced my photography philosophy deeply. I could say that my photography is a direct result of my involvement in art and architecture for the most part of my life and I can hardly separate these directions in my life.
Because of my formation and the way I think, I believe that the simplest and the best way one can understand depth is by thinking about how light shapes volumes, and when I talk about volumes what I mean is geometrical forms. This science of how light shapes volumes is closely related to physics and is a science that artists working with drawing and painting learn in the first phases of their study because on this knowledge relies everything these artists need to do to create an image out of nothing. We photographers are in a better position since we already have a capture that exists in front of us and that we only need to develop or process, but a draftsman or a painter needs to create the image from scratch and make it believable. Even if they have the subject in front of them they still need to recreate it on paper and this is why they need to know how to work with light and shadow and how volumes react in contact to light. This is in a few words the method I apply in conceiving and processing my photographs in order to create light and shadow and this is the basis of processing (and theoretical) method Photography Drawing. I have presented this method more in detail in my book from Basics to Fine Art I wrote with my co-author Joel Tjintjelaar, I have also talked about it on my website, and I am teaching in in detail in my (en)Visionography workshops and my mentorships.
This method is fundamental in my work and I’m happy it helps other people too now by making everything clear when it comes to how light and shadow work and how they are perceived, and it brings everything from an abstract world to reality where you know how objects are lit. Seeing the world like this has helped me tremendously in my work not only in photography but of course in architecture, drawing and everything related to shapes and volumes. And this is the best example I know of combining different facets of one’s knowledge to create something new and to enhance your work in all fields.
Rendering volumes is related to creating presence but it goes further back, to the basics of working with light and shadow so it can be used with any subject we may work with. We’ve discussed these things many times with Joel since we have not only collaborated on different projects, but we have exchanged a voluminous correspondence over the past almost 8 years since we know each other. We have exchanged thousands of emails discussing art, photography and everything that surrounds it and we had many interesting and stimulating conversations on different occasions. I have shared many ideas with Joel over the years, and the other way around, and we’ve been discussing so many things that we could even publish a multi-volume book with all these conversations. Maybe it would be interesting to do that and I think many questions could be answered if we do it. Based on this interaction I can tell you is that we have a very similar way of thinking and we stimulate each other and this is what fuelled our collaborations and our interactions as for ideas. The book From Basics to Fine Art was a fruit of this collaboration. I like to think about this fruitful exchange as being similar to the era when modern art was being born, in the beginning of the 20thCentury, with the myriads of new ideas and the many modern art movements like, for instance, the movement of Impressionism, Expressionism, Constructivism, the Fauvists and so many other movements in art that have been created by the collaboration and artistic debates of a handful of artists. This was one of my favourite moments in art and I think it was the most creative in the entire history of art. This stands not only in art, but also in architecture, poetry, music and all the other arts. I am passionate about art in all forms and this gives me a good understanding of how different currents were born and I can tell you the similarities with what is happening in photography today are striking. Which is one of the reasons for which I am talking about (en)Visionography as a new form of photography, more aware and more inward-oriented. I believe this is what happened with fine art black and white photography the past years and I believe me and Joel Tjintjelaar played an important role in this evolution together with other artists. The book we wrote with Joel has been read by thousands of artists and photographers and one can see the ideas we promoted in that book in many of the photographs being created in the past years. I, for one, I am very happy that our book could inspire so many people and for this reason, I am happy that I invited Joel to join me in creating it.
LEMAG: You have coached many people and we can see that many of your followers try to replicate your approach. It does not go well with ‘total freedom’ concept andI was thinking that perhaps we could ask you for a word of advice to those who are fascinated – and rightly so – by your work and yearn to create high-end images like yourself.
Julia Anna Gospodarou: I think it actually goes very well with total artistic freedom because what I teach the students who work with me is not to be like me but to be like themselves. You cannot be a complete artist if you do what others do and I don’t believe in imitating in order to learn. I think you can learn a technique others are using and it is important to learn a technique whatever that is but you need to use it in your own way and you have to strive to do that right from the beginning. This is what I do with my students. I am helping them become the artists they really are and not to just imitate a style or a way of thinking. And I can say that the people I have worked with, especially those I have worked with for a longer time, have created beautiful styles of their own and are creating photography in an authentic way. If I was to give another advice to those wanting to make themselves happy as artists, it would be to never stop learning and experimenting. Never put yourself or your art into a pattern, no matter how seducing or popular that pattern is and always try to find that unique trace in your personality and life that will allow you to express yourself in an unique way. And yes, it takes a lot of work. If someone is not ready to work a lot they will never get there. Like Henri Cartier Bresson was saying, your first 10,000 photos are your worst. This is a metaphor, you don’t need so many photographs to become good, but it’s true, without serious work one cannot expect to get where they want to be.
LEMAG: In an interview with BWVision a few years back you said: ‘(en)Visionography is so much about a personal interpretation of the world’. It is very close to the concept of departing from reality – and hence my question – where do you wish to depart or where do you hope to arrive? What guides your work?
Julia Anna Gospodarou: I think an artist should never live in reality. Maybe the statement can be considered extreme but I think reality limits us and keeps us from being the artist we can be. I believe art is a very personal matter. And it should be taken personally if we want to create authentic and valuable work. This is why we need to have a world of ourselves as artists that has to be separate from reality. When I say we should never leave in reality I don’t mean that we should follow the cliché of the distracted artist who wears different colour socks because he is never thinking about reality. I mean that we need to be disciplined enough to be able to step into that fantasy world we have every time we create something and be able to come back to reality when we need to be in reality. I know from experience that when you are in that world, that is a perfect world. It is exactly as we want it to be and it helps us concentrate fully. Everything is possible there so we can create everything we want. It is a refuge from reality where you are free to let yourself slip into a state of artistic trance. This is where art is born and this is why artists are happy when they create their art. I don’t know where I want to arrive when I am in that world but this is part of my creative process. I don’t plan or set goals for my work and I work in a very intuitive and free way when creating my images. This happens even if otherwise I’m a very organized and realistic person. But when I am creating I want to do that in a world that has my rules and where I am free to do whatever I need to do to create my photography.
LEMAG: You once mentioned surprise as one of key-points in artistic photography. Can you elaborate on this? Do you shoot scenes that surprise you or do you wish to surprise the viewer of your images?
Julia Anna Gospodarou: I do both. I love to be surprised and I love to surprise others. In a good way of course. I think surprise is an essential ingredient of keeping your mind and soul fresh and in keeping the others interested in what you have to say. I’m trying to do everything I can to surprise myself, from traveling to places I’ve never seen or that I don’t know much about, trying to discover new things and understand other civilizations, to trying to do different things in my photography, either they work or not. This is why I try to work with different genres and even if I have published some of these photographs, many other things are happening behind the scenes that I’ve never published but they are always things that fuel my curiosity and keep me surprised and passionate about what I do. For me, photography is not only about the final image, but it is about the entire process of creation, from the moment I have an idea till the moment I finish an image. Everything that happens in-between is for me photography because it has to do with the creation of the photograph. And I am surprised during all the phases of creating a photograph, from thinking about ideas, to researching, to traveling, to the small or big adventures I have while doing so, to capturing, to coming back to my desk and processing the image. Some images are never seen by the public eye but they are important for me because they are experiences that have all surprised me in one way or another.
LEMAG: What is the question you are most often asked by those who take part in your workshops?
Julia Anna Gospodarou: It is: When is your next workshop? No, just kidding. I am asked that a lot but I’m sure that’s not what we are interested in now. I’m not sure if there is a predominant question but people ask me a lot about creativity and how they can express themselves through photography. And I’m very happy when I get this kind of questions because I am passionate about the subject. We people are such complex beings that if we learn to use this complexity as a starting point for our creativity, there’s almost nothing else we need and we can safely turn towards ourselves for inspiration. When you discover the richness of your own ideas and emotions, and when you take the time to look at your experiences and your interaction with this world, with the people, the other living beings and the nature that surrounds you it becomes easy to find ways of expressing yourself. It is a big subject and I am doing some writing at the moment related to it but it is a fascinating subject to discuss and I am never tired of discussing this with my students.
LEMAG: You also ventured into portraiture which is lots of aspects is on the same level as any other kind of photography – a photography is basically a portrait of something or someone. How did that go for you? How does it tally with ‘total freedom of expression’ and how this allows for including the ‘depart from reality’ concept?
Julia Anna Gospodarou: I love what Minor White had said: “All photographs are self-portraits”. It is my mantra. So I tried to put that in practice in a literal way, by shooting self-portraits. When I started, I didn’t know exactly how I’m going to apply my ideas into portraiture but as I was working on this series, I understood that if I let myself free to both pose and photograph myself and then to process the images, I will be able to express things I could never express in words. I called the series Vipassanã which is a Buddhist term that means mindfulness, mindfulness being the corner store of Buddhist philosophy and what makes it so human, and that title expresses in my opinion in the best way what I tried to do with this series: be mindful of what is outside as well as of what is inside myself as a subject and at the same time as the artist who works with the subject. It was an amazing experience that gave me a lot of understanding and that truly made me much more mindful not only about myself but also about my photography and about photography in general. This is why I always try to venture into different genres because even if I’m not going to stay there for a long time, it fuels my entire work and it helps me discover so many things that I couldn’t discover if I was only working in one genre. I have shot other people too but I think I am too discrete to become a portrait photographer. I think a portrait photographer has to get in touch with the subjects in a very special way and be able to not only understand them but also manipulate them to play a role in the image, be it the role of their own self or the role of the idea that the photographer wants to illustrate with the images. And I’m not sure I have that ability to enter the life of someone else so easily. I love to contemplate others, but I don’t want to intervene which may go against my general philosophy and photography but this is how I feel at this moment. And maybe precisely because I feel like this, I should probably try to do this more often. I’ve learned that wonderful things can emerge when you do things that you thought you couldn’t do.
LEMAG: Do you have a dream project?
Julia Anna Gospodarou: My dream project is to be able to finish all the projects I have started so far. I’m saying this in jest but it is actually true. I wish and hope I will have the time and energy to dedicate to everything I plan to do in photography and to be able to finish everything I have started. I use to joke saying that I will need to live 200 years to be able to finish everything I want to do in this life. But since I know I’m not going to live 200 years I guess I need to hurry up.
Joking aside, my dream project from when I was a kid, or at least one of them, was to discover a new civilization and take photos of it. It is a dream project because probably all the civilisations have been already discovered, so the only thing that remains is for me to discover something that is invisible and hasn’t been discovered before. Maybe something that is inside us, which would be something that would be very difficult to photograph but I guess I can find a different way to bring it to light. Maybe this is why I’m talking about (en)Visionography as a way of bringing everything we have inside us out to light and put it into our photography. It is like discovering a new civilization because each of us is unique and we have an entire world happening inside of us, either we are aware of it or not. So I could say that this is my dream project. To make aware as many people as I can of the possibilities of their own interior artistic richness and to help them be mindful about that and be able to put it into their photography. This is what I’m trying to do and I know that, even if it is not always easy, this is the quickest route to happiness.
LEMAG: I must ask you about your influences of course but would also like to hear how do you (or how did you) free yourself from their impact upon you.
Julia Anna Gospodarou: Truth is, it’s very difficult for somebody specific to influence me. This is because each of us have different experiences, and I believe that experience is what shapes our work and artistic philosophy. I’ve been influenced by many little things in my life that came together and created who I am. I’ve been working in architecture and art-related fields for many years, and I was always passionate about art, architecture and photography. When I was 12 I was already reading books about Impressionism, the first one was, I remember, about Toulouse Lautrec and it was a very old book in French from my grandmother’s collection. My grandmother had a great collection of old books from when she was younger, in the 1930s-40s when she was running a public library. I was always fascinated to read those books and even now after many years, I can still feel the smell of old books I was finding in my grandparents’ house. It was a magical time. And if I want to joke, I will tell you a story about my mom who, because I never wanted to eat when I was little, she was keeping my attention alert to books about art so I can open my mouth so she could feed me. So I can say that I was fed with art literature from when I was in the cradle and I wouldn’t lie if I said so. I have been an avid consumer of art, music and literature for or my life and photography is the outcome of all this.
Photography as an art is very young but I think our voice in photography can be shaped by all the other arts coming together, combined with our personality and experiences as individuals to create something wonderful which is our style. We may need to search for it for a short or a long time depending on how lucky we are and how much work we put into that but if we really want to get there, we do get there and that is equal to happiness. This is why I am not afraid of the people who simulate my work, because I know that if they do want to become the artist they dream about they will become and if they stop at simulating work that they have seen the sad truth is that they will never be happy. I think we make art to make ourselves happy and that is the reason why most of the artists start to create, either because they would be unhappy otherwise or because they think they are going to be happier when they create. We all need to be authentic and feel like we are individuals and this is something I’ve always tried to infuse my students with, not for them to not simulate my work but in order for them to be happy as artists. As for how I free myself from influences I think that if something has a good influence on you, you shouldn’t free yourself from it but you should incorporate it into who you are because it will enrich you and make you better. This is what I try to do with my influences.
LEMAG: You have explored slow motion, which technically is quite a simple exercise, yet at the same time quite demanding when it comes to meaningful outcome. What is that you pursue there?
Julia Anna Gospodarou: I suppose you are talking about ICM, intentional camera movement, as it is called. It is a quite surprising technique, albeit very simple as you mention, but that can have magical results in some cases. What I try to do when I work with ICM is in a way to control the uncontrollable. I think that for something to become art there needs to be an intention so I don’t think that just randomly moving your camera and getting interesting images is enough, even if you can get very interesting and unexpected results. But your role as a photographer wouldn’t be a significant role if you just did that randomly. Even if I haven’t published many of my ICM images I have a complete series in works with ICM panoramas which is something I don’t think has been done before and that is actually quite difficult to make an ICM panorama considering the inherent randomness of this technique. When I work on this kind of panoramas I need to control the randomness so the result is meaningful and sometimes it’s almost impossible to do it but when I manage to do it right it becomes a wonderful thing. The series I’m working on is called “The Essence of Memories” and I’m calling it like this because I consider that the blur and the lack of detail you can create in these images is very similar with the way we recall our memories. Memories are very important in my photography because I base my photography on my life experiences, which experiences are closely related with memories, and this is why this subject is so interesting for me to work with. So I could say that by working with ICM I am exploring my memories and how they impact me.
LEMAG: At the same time your Cadence series, portraying, ballet dancers, is kept far from motion blur. We have recently presented excellent work by Wendy Kennett who allows colour and blur in her ballet images. I my opinion you focus rather on exploring the value of negative space, symmetry and repetition. I do not wish you ask a question here, would rather like you to share your own view on this part of your oeuvre.
Julia Anna Gospodarou: As I told you, I’m a rebel. I want to go in different directions, be it even just to see what happens. But in this case it wasn’t a random decision. I want to surprise myself and I want to see the world in my photography in different ways than the way I see it in reality. Slow-motion in dance photography is a technique that can create surprising images and it can evoke the movement of the dancer in a straightforward and convincing way. It is something I haven’t done yet butI am considering it. However, in my dance photography, I tried to isolate moments that cannot be seen as such by the spectator watching the dancers since dance is about motion and you see the dancer moving on the scene so the information you get and retain is mostly about the movement. Just like when I work with long exposure and I try to show a world that is outside reality, a world that you cannot see with the naked eye, the world of the time passing by, in the case of ballet I wanted to show the same thing, something that you cannot see normally with the naked eye: the stillness and singularity of the moment captured individually from an act of motion that is seen and experienced as a whole. This gives me and others a different insight into dance, just like long exposure gives me a different insight into the time passing. And it helps me isolate and show emotion.
LEMAG: Can you tell us now a bit more about your panoramas please? What inspired you to venture beyond the standard formats?
Julia Anna Gospodarou: It was the desire to see things in a new way. I become uninterested if I don’t have a stimulus for my curiosity in my work and the panorama format helped me transform regular scenes into something one cannot regularly see with the naked eye. Because of the way human vision is structured we see detail mostly in the center of the field of view while on the extremities we see only general information. The visual field in humans is more or less 120° as far as binocular vision. The rest of the scene on each side of the field of view can only be seen by one or the other eye reducing the detail we perceive. Maybe it sounds surprising but we only see enough detail in an angle less than 10° and the eyes create the illusion of detail by moving very fast from one spot to the other. So most of our vision is only peripheral. Which is pretty much the way a camera works and the way we see when we look at a regular format photograph, for instance, the 35mm which is the standard format in photography. When you create a panorama though you photograph more than the camera sees in a specific format and focal length. And you can bring all this detail into view by changing the format of the image and of the scene you photograph. So a panorama can show the areas that are only perceived by our peripheral vision and that usually are represented in our brain with reduced detail and only as secondary areas. The panorama transforms these peripheral undetailed areas into detailed images throughout the scene helping us see more than we see in reality. And it does it in a different way than by shooting with a wider angle lens because you can focus on a limited area and not retain the clutter outside the format of the panorama. The fact that you can use panorama to do this was a fascinating discovery for me and this is why I have used panorama quite often in my work during the past years.
LEMAG: You obviously use a high-end gear that is, for many people who admire your work, out of reach due to its high-cost. What would you like to advise them?
Julia Anna Gospodarou: Indeed, I may use high-end gear now, but I can tell you that I have won many of my awards with pretty basic gear and even if I advise everyone to get the best gear they can afford I know that in order to express your creativity you don’t need too many things. I need high-end gear for some of my projects and to be able to print large prints for my collectors and this is why I am working most of the times nowadays with medium format cameras. But I still have many images I have shot in the past with lower end cameras and I’m still working on them and I would never discard them just because I haven’t shot them with high-end equipment. So what I would advise someone who is budget conscious, and I am a very budget conscious person, is to get the best gear they can afford after they have covered all the other expenses related to educating themselves to become the best photographers and artists they can be. I know that only then the gear they will buy will be used in the best way and will bring them the best return on investment. Educating yourself and working with passion can beat any kind of high-end gear at any given time. I know camera manufacturers are not going to love me for saying this but it is true. You are what counts, you are the photography you make, not the camera.
LEMAG: Dear Julia, thank you very much for your time, we are looking forward to collaborating with you in the future – and best of luck with your new photographic ventures.
Julia Anna Gospodarou: Thank you again so much for having me. It was a really interesting talk and I’m looking forward to repeating it and collaborating with the magazine again in the future. I am wishing you all the best with the wonderful work you are doing.