INTERVIEW with BEAT PRESSER by ALKA PANDE

Werner Herzog und Beat Presser,Bologna 1985

Werner Herzog und Beat Presser,Bologna 1985

Habitat Center, New Delhi. January 2002

Technology, art and culture are coming onto one-platform. The applications of learning and culture in this postmodern world are of particular importance and significance. In the Postmodern, Poststructuralist world, boundaries and barriers are being levelled. Shades of gray predominate where previously black and white did. India has come of age and is now identified and defined by Multiculturalism, a society at once pluralistic and multi-layered. Against this backdrop of outburst and outpourings of creativity by visual artists within and without India a new trajectory is emerging by way of ideas, materials, processes and a breakdown of artistic genres. Basel (Switzerland) born photographer Beat Presser is an internationally renowned figure, Beat Presser’s photographic career has taken him across the globe not only in the pursuit of his ‘perfect photograph’ but also to conduct workshops in Africa, South America, nationwide in Switzerland and now in New Delhi and Chennai. In the dialogue that unfolds Beat draws upon his own experiences as what might almost be termed ‘a global nomad’ to share with his insights not only into his own photographic art practice but also his uniquely personal observations on the pressing issues of globalization and its inevitable impact on mediums of art practice.

Alka Pande: What images do the terms globalization, cosmopolitanism etc. bring to your mind?

Beat Presser: I first came across the term globalization in 1976, after I had completed the first part of my education and when my first photographs were published in different European countries. I was not very happy by the way my photographs were presented and decided to start my own photography newspaper. We were inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the Global Village. In his opinion the future would render obsolete the necessity of living in a large metropolis, to do what you wanted to do, one would be able to accomplish the same anywhere in the world. And I believe he has been proven right. We drew on this concept and put that into our title, The Village Cry. In many ways the paper was ahead of its time. It served as a forum for different photographers, writers and artists from around the world. Here I came across the notion of a global village and/or globalization. If I hear the word cosmopolitanism in terms of imagery I think of Fritz Lang’s motion picture Metropolis, I see futuristic cities with flying cars and the like, things beyond belief, but that might one day be possible. Cosmopolitanism always brings images of big cities to my mind. Mainly movie images.

A.P. As a photographer who has literally traversed the globe what are your observations on the pressing issues of the burgeoning influence of globalization?

B.P. Indeed a difficult question, but I am very critical towards the idea of globalization. I get the impression globalization is directed by the West, multinational interests, global players, shareholders and investors in the search of new markets and influence. Is that what humankind needs? Does it help if in the end we all wear the same clothes, eat the same food, speak the same language? Is it good if all becomes equal and if subsequently all that is unique and different disappears? But globalisation might also have a different impact. Too young to be judged.

 A.P. Why photography?

 B.P. Before I started photography I was very interested in theatre while still at school. But one day, Bernhard Burckhardt, a classmate of mine took me to his parents’ house. In the cellar he had a darkroom, where he developed and printed photographs. He put a negative into the enlarger and started the process. The moment the image appeared on the paper I knew: I will become a photographer! I was only 15 then, but never had a moment of hesitation after that. I was very fortunate, if it hadn’t been for that darkroom I might still be trying to discover my purpose. Or I would have become a theatre director.

A.P. How did you go about charting your course following this revelation?

B.P. First I had to finish school, then I travelled the globe for about 9 months. Travelling has always been an enduring passion of mine and photography is the perfect tool for me to explore, study and journey. In autumn 1972 I met someone in Hong Kong that was from my city. He asked me what I wanted to do once I was back in Switzerland. He told me he knew Onorio Manutti, Switzerland’s leading fashion photographer at the time, and he might be able to help. It was a unique chance to get my foot into photography. I worked at Onorio’s studio as an assistant and in his large darkroom where four other photographers worked. I learned how to develop all kind of films, many different printing and other photographic techniques. I stayed at Onorio’s place for a year and later continued my education in Paris and New York. But during all this time as an assistant I pursued my own photographic work. I was strongly influenced by Duane Michaels then and started photographing my own sequences. After three years of training in photography I started working as an assistant cameraman for 16mm documentary films.

A.P. What would you say is the philosophy behind your work? What do you enjoy taking pictures of?

B.P. I like to photograph what has a significance and importance to me, keep the art and science of photography alive, and I want to keep on exploring. There is much to explore in photography, the more I learn about it the more I learn about myself. In terms of subject matter: Fascinating and interesting themes that capture my imagination and to present them in a way that creates a visual dialogue between my audience and me. Presented as a book, an exhibition or a lecture.

A.P. Where does the Digital Revolution enter?

B.P. Digital photography is still very young and has been a comparatively recent development as far as I am concerned; remains to be seen what it develops into. The digital revolution as it is called seems to me much like a train: You either get on and progress with it or you will be left behind and walk.

A.P. You don’t use a digital camera though, why is that?

B.P. Celluloid is over 160 years old by now and is by far the safest and most tested of all photographic media and the most secure way to put information on. With celluloid – a negative or a transparency ­– I hold something concrete in my hands. A pixel is something different; if you turn off your computer the information is gone. If for one reason or another you cannot turn your computer on anymore the pixel is gone for good. But I enjoy photographing analogue and digitizing the negatives later; this for me is the best option. But one day, once the technology is more advanced I might experiment with digital cameras as well. Photography is a wide field, and experimenting was always part of it – from the very first day.

A.P. You are predominantly a black and white photographer isn’t that so?

B.P. Yes, I prefer black and white! We see the world in color, while black and white is an abstraction of reality, reduced to white, black and millions of grey tones. With filters I can even improve what I see and what I want to convey. Also most darkrooms are mainly set up for black/white and in the darkroom a big part of the work is done. That is where the interpretation of the black and white negatives takes place. The darkroom is indeed, a very interesting place to be!

A.P. When you choose your subjects, what drives you or indeed what draws you?

B.P. I like extreme landscapes and I like the mystical parts of the world. Forgotten cultures, mystical and magic places, the desert, the rainforest, the sea. I photographed on Easter Islands, the Pyramids in Egypt, Mexico and Siam, Stonehenge, Etruscan Places in Italy, in the Sahel in Mali, all over Madagascar, India, the Swiss Alps and other places that fascinated my imagination. And I like to work on themes. The longer the better. I prefer to work several years on the same subject than to move quick from one attraction to another. This allows me to explore different subjects at their depths. Also I like to go places I was dreaming and fantasizing of when I was a little boy, travelling with my finger on the atlas.

A.P. Why the preference for the extremes?

B.P. I like to put myself into extreme geographical situations; I’m an adventurer at heart. Everything is so regulated now, particularly in my country, Switzerland, so clearly defined and structured. It’s good for some but not for all of us, not for those who like adventure and excitement. I like to go where people would not necessarily enjoy going, places in the Alps, the Amazon rainforest, the desert in Sudan, the Atlantic Ocean with no land in sight. To the extreme cold or to the extreme hot. Such places hold a fascination for me. But I do not go there for the pleasure of it; I go there to take photographs.

A.P. What is more important to you, the process of your work, the journey or the end result, the goal?

B.P. Both are essential, without goal no journey, without journey no goal. The two cannot be separated. All begins with an idea that sustains, that is the paramount. Then you think of the logistics. How to do it? When to do it? What material is needed? How to get there? Where to set a base? Who do I know that was there before? What literature is available? All these preparations are essential and time consuming. The actual moment when the photograph is taken is brief and fleeting. It might be the most enjoyable certainly, but it is the culmination of months and months of intensive preparation. What to shoot, how to finance the project, what film to use, how to store the film, how to process it, etc. Then comes the printing of the photographs, the presentation of the work and trying to find someone who might show the results or print the work as a book. All that is part of the process. All is woven in. Separating the individual strands is all but impossible.

A.P. You have also had an interest in film and filmmaking. Isn’t that right?

B.P. I was given the chance to work together with Werner Herzog on films like Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, My Best Fiend and his latest film Invincible. The reason I got into filmmaking in the mid 70ties was to learn how to tell a story and to learn the different skills of making movies. I always find movie making a very unique art and a fascinating challenge. When I worked as an assistant photographer in Paris, always after work I took the Metro, went to the Cinemateque Francaise, and sat there from six in the evening till two in the morning, watching one film after another. Movies are an excellent school for photographers to learn about movement, composition, light, music, makeup, and most important how a story is constructed. Making films was very integral to my art practice as a photographer. I made movies for about ten years, documentary films for Swiss TV, educational movies for the WHO, portraits of artists, medical films, experimental films and one or two feature films. But I always knew, I am a better photographer than a filmmaker.

A.P. After being a successful photographer, why teach? Did it follow naturally or was the decision wilfully taken?

B.P. I do have a bad back, due to different accidents. Seven years ago I couldn’t move much and was in much pain. I was wondering how to manage if I could not move around anymore and take photographs. Out of the blue, a friend called and asked if I would like to teach photography to a group of seven young women. That was the first time I taught photography, and I enjoyed it. Some time later I was invited by ILFORD, the film and photographic paper manufacturer, to teach nationwide in Switzerland. That was a nice experience and I could continue to disseminate knowledge in the form of workshops. Some time later the Goethe-Institute was looking for someone that could teach photography in Africa. Socio-critical photography in Douala/Cameroon and portrait photography in Abidjan/Ivory Coast. Since then I have been conducting seminars and workshops all over the world, India, South America, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. I would not like to teach in a University or a school on a daily basis. I like to go specifically for a purpose, give an input and then leave. Let the students work with the knowledge I leave behind. I’m not a teacher as such. I’m a photographer who transmits knowledge to the ones that are interested.

A.P. Do you find the experience worth your while?

B.P. Certainly! I think that after you reach a certain level in what you do you should share and pass on your knowledge to others. I have the prospect of fascinating people to bring their inner voice or visions out. I try to guide, I don’t tell them what to do but I show them the door to walk through. And it is very rewarding, a lot of people I have taught have made a good career, can support their families, continue in their profession and perhaps teach one day. If I could have a wish it would be that photography is taught at every school, world over! From the very beginning, that would be a wonderful. Since photography gives you everything, chemistry, physics, light, psychology, composition, computer knowledge, taking care of material and a great deal more. Photography is a universe, but unfortunately very few see its real potential, apart from commercial aspects. And very important also: Photography is very peaceful and uniting. There is no violence or aggression involved in Photography. I’d love for every weapon in the world to be turned into a camera.

A.P. How different is it teaching in say Africa or India?

B.P. The cultures are completely different and your approach has to be different. If I was to teach in NAFTI the African Film School in Accra, Ghana, or if I was to teach in Chennai, there is a big difference between the people and their mentality. You have a very strong movie industry in Chennai and India whereas the movie industry in Ghana has dropped dramatically. In Chennai everyone is working with 35 mm and up to 500 films are made every year in that city alone. In Accra all the films done are on VHS and edited on VHS. And the filmmakers themselves distribute their films in small movie houses all over the country. The potential for creativity however remains the same and that is the wonderful unifying factor. You simply work with what you have. When I started teaching photography in Cameroon nobody had a camera, but the students took good photographs anyway. We made little holes in cans and boxes; placed a piece of photography paper in them and started taking photographs. Later we processed the paper in a little darkroom at the Alfred Saker Institute. I like to work with people’s imaginations and carry them as far as possible. This constant adaptation to one’s environment makes it very challenging and exciting.

A.P. How would you sum up your impressions of India past and present since you have been here several times?

B.P. I visited India for the first time in 1972, travelling from Bombay to Calcutta on my way to Burma. I returned in 1979, trying to learn the sitar in Benares. In 1996 I worked as a camera operator for a feature film in Tamil Nadu, returned again in 2000 and now in 2002 to teach photography and documentary filmmaking. In terms of changes, some things remain the same; others change. The surroundings have changed, but so have I, and my understanding as well. Previously there were less foreign products because everything was produced in India, no foreign cars; now all that has changed. Life was more laid back and relaxed then; now many things have become much like the West, with everyone rushing and hurrying. Through globalization all the cultures are in danger of being unified and homogenized. What I like about India and what I have always liked is the combination of the traditional and the modern. I like the richness of culture and the contrasts here; you can see someone with a cellular phone sitting by a Sadhu; a call centre being situated next to a Hindu Temple. India is like a big movie set to me. All seems to blend in, as if different time levels overlap each other.