Update: Louis Vorster | Of People and Places

We first featured Louis’ photography back in 2013 and showcased his Altered Corners series that captures the subtle features that characterise the rugged Klein Karoo earlier this year. We revisit this Tulbagh-based photographer again now to speak more in-depth about his process, seeing the commonalities between people and landscapes and discovering themes over years of images. 

How and when did you first start taking photographs?

I discovered photography relatively late in life, about 15 years ago. I was already in my middle to late thirties and teaching design at the Vaal University of Technology. I befriended some of the photography lecturers and students downstairs in the photography school; to me it was endlessly more interesting than my own multimedia design department. 

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Has there been a single image that’s profoundly influenced your approach to taking photos? What are some of the things that inspire you creatively?

Yes, a portrait of Linda Evangalista with a Swiss Army Knife in her hand by Juergen Teller. For a long time that photograph was my benchmark for what a portrait should be. Early on I spent a lot of time looking at the work of photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans, Richard Misrach, Stephen Shore, Nan Goldin, William Egglestone , Mark Cohen and others. But ultimately inspiration comes from working with photographs. I look at photographs – the people in them, make associations and recollections, which in turn lead to ideas. 

Your main subjects are vacant landscapes and intimate portraits. What appeals to you about photographing each of these dissimilar subjects?

It’s sometimes easy to be fooled into seeing dissimilar subjects; to me it’s all just different paragraphs or chapters of the same document, diverse subject matter put at work to study the same thing.

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Whilst often ‘featureless’, your landscape photographs convey a strong sense of presence. Can you tell us a little about what informs your eye for these scenes and how you frame the images?

Apart from steering clear of the clichés sometimes associated with landscapes, I don’t really look for anything too specific. I try not to edit pictures before I’ve even taken them. I’m very aware of the fact that accident is part of the process. I don’t want my photographs to look like they’re trying too hard make a point… I adopted a philosophy of subtlety above clarity.

Has your style changed over the years? What has influenced these developments?

I’m sure it must have. It’s inevitable; equipment improves, skills and technique improve over time too. But in another way nothing’s changed. I always favoured smaller, easy to use cameras that dictated my style to an extent. “Style”, I think is also so closely associated with one’s personality and character and may not always be that simple to change. The way I take pictures may have changed a bit, technically, but I don’t think the way I work with photographs has changed all that much over the years. 

Please tell us about your Forgotten Songs series that you shot over 14 years. Who are the people and what are the stories behind some of the images?

“Shot over 14 years” sound a bit misleading… like that was the only thing I did for 14 years! When I have a camera with me and I’m out looking for pictures I don’t always have a plan in mind so the pictures could end up in any number of stories or collections anywhere in the future. In a way I put my work together backwards. I like having hundreds of photographs on my desktop, and then to look for threads connecting some of them, and then maybe even finding a little theme to work with. I rediscovered some music shots from several years back, some live music shots, but also some snapshots of musician friends I hanged out with at various stages of my life over the years. But I’m not a music photographer, only some of the work in this series relate to music. The theme I discovered was a metaphor for “forgotten” memories, photographs as a stimuli for the release of thoughts and emotions. We all have them, you hear a song or see a photograph from way back and it releases memories of places and people that may have stayed hidden otherwise.

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What equipment do you use and why? Do you shoot in film as well as digital? What does each format offer you creatively?

I started out shooting film on Contax and Mamiya rangefinders, but I abandoned those for Canon DSLRs years ago. Frankly, 35mm film just doesn’t make sense to me anymore, except for nostalgic reasons. I still have an interest in medium format film, I’m not that much into equipment but I have quite a few working film cameras and occasionally I put a roll of film through one of them.

Your approach to shooting images seems very much based in response to the moment. Can you tell us about this?

Correct, I rely a lot on instinct, especially with people shots. I just allow things to happen and then take control of whatever photographic resources I have and stay receptive to what’s happening in front of the camera. Naturally things slow down a lot when you’re shooting nature, but strangely for me the basic approach is still the same, I just get more opportunities to explore the subject matter when shooting nature.

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Another subject in your work is music and the raw chaos that often surrounds it. Shooting in the candid style that you images convey, does photography separate you from the scene or draw you in and validate your presence?

Music was never really a conscious theme in my personal work, but there definitely was a two or three-year period that I spend a lot more time with musicians and music industry people than usual.

(I think that it’s important to document your own life as opposed to the lives of others. I also think that focusing on musicians or the subjects of any other industry would be, for me, too commercial to fit into my personal approach.)

Although some of my images may look candid at first glance, and strictly speaking one or two of them can technically be described as such, candid photography as a genre is something I avoid. Most of my photographs of people are the result of engagement with the subjects. Different situations call for different approaches, sometimes you just try to disappear behind the camera even if everybody in the room know you’re there.

The way in which you’ve grouped your images on your site is very considered but also illusive. Please can you tell us a little about how narrative and story play a role in your work?

It’s a process, making order out of something. I don’t always know exactly what I want when I stand there with the camera in my hands. It only becomes clear to me after being involved in the process for a while, it could be weeks or more. The process involves staring at photographs for long periods, trying to look past the obvious, looking at your work in a different way compared to when the pictures was taken. Once I edit the work down to a manageable selection, I enlist the help of a collogue, someone honest without the emotional attachments to help me find the little threads and connections, and work this into a narrative, visually and emotionally. In my earlier series of photographs I did this without too much thought, but in my later work I came to realise the importance of finding those narratives, the relationships and juxtaposition of the images and the sequence in which they are presented.

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In what ways does living in Tulbagh influence your photography?

Not that much really, except that my options for shooting with urban and social backdrops are somewhat less, but I started spending more time outdoors and became comfortable exploring places. But I’m still inspired by the same things.

What are you working on at the moment and what can we look forward to seeing from you soon?

I’m working on an exhibition towards the end of the year. I’m also thinking of putting together a book.


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