14 Nov Featured: Photography by Paris Brummer | Telling Stories with Kentridge
Paris Brummer is a 3rd year (going into 4th year) fine arts student at Michaelis majoring in photography. Work of hers has been selected for the SASOL New Signatures Exhibition two years in a row and her thought-provoking photographic series from this year’s catalogue caught our eye. This lead us to her ‘you me and kentridge’ blog, which shows an impressive and comprehensive portfolio of work. Naming her first DSLR after William Kentridge who was her inspiration growing up, Paris meticulously captures movement and moments to tell stories that lie within an “invisible frame”. Impressed by her clarity of thought and conceptually rich imagery, we interviewed her to find out more.
When did you start taking photographs and why?
From as far back as I can remember, I always had either a film point-and-shoot or disposable camera in my hands. But I guess it started ‘seriously’ at the age of 11 when my mum bought me my first compact Canon IXUS. With its amazing 4.2 megapixels, I used to photograph anything and everything that I felt deserved being documented. I remember having the jumbos printed and laying them out and curating them on the dinner table. And that little Canon (8x5cm to be exact!) got me here. It’s been a long line of camera upgrading until my first analog and digital SLR and now I’ve arrived at Full Frame. Also I think growing up with Disney and animations, the idea of the image has become – in a way – embedded within my everyday life. So I guess the reason behind this madness was simple: I loved using images to tell stories.
What do you aim to say with your work and how do you get your photographs to do that?
I don’t think there’s a solid message running concurrently beneath my work. It differs from project to project. But ultimately I love telling stories. So I’ll look at making an image that tells a story but, at the same time, providing just the right amount of detail and information so that the viewer can fill in the rest for themselves. I guess, an attention to specific details is what ultimately drives my photographs. I really enjoy planning my shoots, so preparing props and organising locations or models is probably my favourite part of the production process. It also helps if a project is somewhat comical or enigmatic for me and if I feel strongly about making its existence/story known.
Your photographs are refined, smooth and striking, and your subject matter is varied. How would you describe your photographic style?
Most of my photographs, I’ll admit, are a result of an annoying determinacy to be obsessive about detail. It is quite exhausting and often annoys my friends but I guess I really enjoy planning an image, even if its subject matter is outside of my control. I wouldn’t say, however, that my style is constrained or contrived but instead cinematic. I worked in a video store in JHB for most of my life and have always been a huge fan of cinema so a lot of the work I produce is part and partial of a constant absorption of scenes, angles and movie stills. In high school I wanted to be cinematographer until I discovered the magic of the still image. Whilst films offer a great deal of information to its viewers already, there is something quite enigmatic and mysterious about a still image and the invisible frame that surrounds it.
You jump between light-toned black and white, and vibrantly coloured photography, why is this?
It’s interesting to have this pointed out because I never really picked up on this shift or considered it. It comes down to what you’re wishing to portray because both endow an image with very different emotions and atmospheres. It’s probably because my heart is constantly at war with both. I associate black and white with analog photography – which I have a great deal of respect for – whereas colour photography can be rather glaringly post-modern sometimes. I’ll go through months where I am highly suspicious of colour photography and then others when I am bored with black and white. My admiration and enduring trust for black and white photography is mostly indebted to my mother who brought me up on TCM when other kids my age were watching Cartoon Network. It never bothered me that I couldn’t tell what colour dress the actress was wearing or know the true shade of brunette of Humphrey Bogart’s hair. As long as the story was interesting, the rest were mere formalities. (However the first 20 or so minutes of The Wizard of Oz is the exception because the film wouldn’t be the same without that transition from sepia to colour).
Please explain the concept and creative direction behind your intriguing photographs selected for the SASOL New Signatures Exhibition.
This series consists of two portraits, shot on large format film and hand printed in the darkroom. Both photographs were conceptualised together to be read as one artwork. The series itself was inspired by the model featured in these two photographs; Kyusang Lee. Kyusang (or Q as he likes to be called) was born in South Korea in 1993 and has been enrolled in mandatory military service in South Korea. Although Q has until he is 35 to join, he has decided to go next year so that he can come back, finish his fine arts degree and find work. The enrolment is a period of two years and, though soldiers are paid a minimum wage for their involvement, they are sometimes taught to actively fight and engage in combat. If Q refuses to enrol, he will lose his South Korean citizenship. Conscription, in my opinion, is presented as the ultimate performance. Though not a performance of grandeur or positivity, it is the performance of the boy rapidly becoming a man, at a pace that’s forced and unnatural to his own. It is the expectation to portray and become, something that you are not. The words “the dreams of my young days” (내 젊은 날의 꿈) appear in a South Korean folk song, The Private’s Letter, written and composed by Kim Hyun Sung. The song can be seen as a monologue or letter from an enlisted soldier written to friends, describing the sadness felt by many draftees during their separation from home, family and friends.
Q has been my friend since my first day at UCT and the idea of him leaving has always been spoken about along with the various tensions and anxieties of the whole procedure. The work is a response to this; I felt the fear had to be addressed. So I asked him to model for me, hoping that perhaps the process would be somewhat healing. The helmets, planes and crayons are – and I must admit here – part and partial of a student budget. I needed to come up with a constructive prop for both photos and was running out of time when I passed a toy store and found the helmets. The paper airplanes, crayons and pencils that are glued to the army helmets on his head question the fate of the creative and naïve child after two years of military service. How much change/damage occurs, if any? Essentially the series references universal emotions we all experienced at some point growing up; the incomprehensible naivety, ignorance and childish ambivalence to what the future may hold. My aim was not to create portraits that depict the sadness or fear resulting from conscription, but rather portray an admiration for Q’s decision to do his term now, in the middle of his degree, and not forfeit his citizenship. Essentially the portraits are of a positive and mature young man. I am extremely uncomfortable with photographers who exploit other people’s sadness or suffering for their own gain.
You first studied photography at Vega. Now that you’re completing your fine arts degree at Michaelis, how has your photography evolved?
I owe a great amount of respect for the technical skills Vega offered me, but Michaelis taught me how to solve problems and answer questions that I thought had no answers to. I would say my photography has evolved conceptually and my photos are far more thought out. Whilst Vega made me appreciate a technically skilled and well executed image, Michaelis taught me that this needn’t always be the case – exposing the layers of a photograph, where before I had been brushing only the surface. I guess now I have become far more aware and conscious of the power of images and their ability to speak volumes about something when a simple sentence won’t suffice. Images can very easily become weapons and I don’t think people always take this into consideration. I believe photographers are responsible for an image’s afterlife, so they have to be conscious about what they decide to include or exclude within its ‘invisible frame’. Every institution will offer its own array of skills and what it believes is the ‘right’ process of production. It’s important to see both as a way of collecting different tools to go about creating what you really love.
What have you learnt from your studies or lived experience that has either profoundly changed your perspective or significantly impacted your work?
Tough one. I would have to say that my concept or idea of ‘home’ and permanence has changed quite dramatically. Moving to Cape Town to study and live (a new home), but constantly visiting Johannesburg (my old home) has turned me into quite the nomad. I’m constantly oscillating between these two mega-cities, trying to understand what makes each one tick. This has greatly influenced the nature in which I photograph. Before, I use to wait for a story to come to me, but now I actually go out and find them, truly hunting through both cities searching for their differences and similarities. When I first moved to Cape Town, I used to get lost quite often, but in 3 years, my camera has made me understand and discover the city to the point where I could throw the old car map away.
Where or from whom do you find inspiration?
Cinema is probably my broadest and most direct influence, whilst some of my greatest influences have always been; Jurgen Schadeberg, Pieter Hugo, David Goldblatt, Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, Guy Tillim and Rineke Dijkstra. There’s a long list actually, but I would have to say they made top place.
Out of all your photographs which is your favourite and why?
Wow that’s a difficult question to answer. It’s like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. It’s a toss up between most of my works. I still enjoy my empty UCT lecture halls series, ‘After Everyone’s Gone Home’, which was a Sasol New Signatures finalist last year (2013). But if I had to say what my heart is most inclined to at the moment… I’d say it’s my latest series that was my third year exam, Urban Facade. I looked at abandoned or temporarily / permanently vacant spaces in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. I shot over 15 places, some of these included the Rissik Street Post Office, Conradie Hospital in Pinelands, the controversial Werdmuller complex, the KwaDukuza eGoli Hotel (old JHB sun hotel) and the Kempton Park hospital (which has been abandoned for 17 years!). These were shot on 35mm film and I hand printed them onto fiber paper in the darkroom. It was an incredible experience being able to get into some of these places and photograph them before they crumble or are demolished / renovated. A lot of people have asked me if I was scared going into some of these places, but I was always accompanied by a security guard or contractor and I made sure I had permission to enter the sites (I am not a fan of annoying authority). Looking back I realise just how dangerous the whole adventure was, I signed many indemnity forms without really considering that I may fall through the floorboards. For instance, I was planning to photograph the Orlando Power Station in Soweto, and 3 days prior, it collapsed crushing 4 people! But ultimately, I would certainly say it was exciting and also devastating to find some of these architectural gems left in ruins. I guess, you’ll always love your most recent work, probably because the long nights, sweat and tears are still so fresh in one’s memory; its hard to forget the pain and joy photographs can put you through.
Once you graduate, what are your plans and what genre of photography would you like to work in?
Again, tough one. I would love to specialise in fine art photography and carry on working on individual projects that allow me to travel and see the world. My camera is my passport and I don’t think many people see it as that. It’s helping me understand this beautiful country both geographically and socially, so I would like to continue shooting elsewhere and working on larger body of works. If I had to define a genre on paper, I would be inclined towards documentary photography, but not in the conventional sense. Whilst I admire and respect photographers at war front lines, I have to admit that capturing suffering and sadness is difficult and perhaps not the field I wish to challenge myself in. But if documentary could be seen as the height of narration or story telling, then that’s probably where I’d fit in.
After Everyone’s Gone Home:
The Dreams of My Young Days; Welcome to the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (colour print):