KNOTORYUS TALKS TO NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS ABOUT WAYS OF SEEING – EPISODE 1 (INTERVIEW)
(above image : Nicolas Karakatsanis by Willy Vanderperre)
Raise your hands if you have been fangirl-ing over a Director of Photography and Visual Artist for almost ten years straight. No one? Nicolas Karakatsanis makes it so easy, though. He has captured groundbreaking music videos for artists like Baloji and The Hickey Underworld, is currently one of the most sought-after DOP’s in the world (watch “The Drop” with Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini if you haven’t and hold out for “Triple 9” with Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kate Winslet, set to be released in 2016) and he has won multiple awards doing so. Over the years he has also shot some of the most gorgeous images ever, plus he is now collaborating with legendary fashion photographer Willy Vanderperre.
Because Nicolas has a brand new exhibition called “WAYS OF SEEING – EPISODE 1”- coming up at A.L.I.C.E. Gallery in Brussels, Alice & Raf are the best curators/gallery owners/people ever and Nicolas knows me a bit by now, I find myself sitting at his dining room table one beautiful morning. Nicolas has already given me a tour of his amazing place, his rather gigantic cat Rollo has already firmly planted its claws in my denims and is now pointing its paw towards my Hedi boots. (You know how people will leave you alone with their animals/children after introducing you to each other with an adoring look like “this is xxx, don’t worry, he/she is really sweet.” and when their backs are turned said creature will immediately try to mutilate you and you don’t dare to say anything as to not seem a bad guest/ total pussy). Luckily, before I can shriek : ” Ay Kitty Krueger, how u going to try and scratch the first pair of Saint Laurent chelseas a girl could ever afford?”, Nicolas has returned with a cup of comforting hot brew, Rollo gets bored and walks off and therefore I get to spend another day without anybody having to see me ugly cry.
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS : Conceiving this show was scary for me. When I was younger, I used to think themed photography exhibitions or publishing a series of photos for a book were a bit corny. But when I had to actually set up an expo, of course it became a series. Also, “Chromes“, the last show I did more than a year ago was really controlled and I wanted to step away from that. So now I had to think of a concept on my own. I had to start from scratch. The idea of this show really came to me when two years ago, I saw this painting that in that moment had quite touched me.
KNOTORYUS : Which painting was that?
It was a work by Philip Pearlstein, an American painter. I had never heard of him before. He had made a portrait of a woman and a man and while it kind of reminded me of Lucian Freud, turned out Pearlstein developed his style a couple of decades before Freud. I found it to be a quite harsh and cold image, of a man and woman in a relationship. I thought that was beautiful.
KNOTORYUS : Can you be more specific about what exactly was going on in the painting that triggered something in you?
I presume the subjects are a couple, but they’re facing away from each other and the woman is sort of crouching, looking uninterested. And the man is sort of standing there embarrassed-looking. They are both naked. It was an African-American couple. To me it was quite a bleak but at the same time poignantly real depiction of a relationship. That spoke strongly to me. It moved me and I decided I wanted to work around that theme. I started thinking about how I could make work revolving around relationships between man and woman. Very open, very universal. I like that because it allows people to interpret the image any which way. I don’t like it when an image just ‘is’ and that’s it. I like a bit of mystery, a certain mystique.
At the time, I coincidentally needed a cast for another shoot. I wanted to take pictures for someone and had the idea of making a plaster casts and photographing around that. My boyfriend made one. He had never made one before but was interested and got really into it. He learned about it and our downstairs floor was filled with masks of women and men, just faces of friends of ours. So I thought : this goes perfectly with my theme. Masks and casts of people. They represented copies of peoples, or the masks you put on to keep your relationship together, you know? I felt like that fitted well together. So I went in that direction as well. So now you have a mixture of the relationship aspect, just images of people, but also those masks that represent what goes on in a relationship, backstage.
KNOTORYUS : So how do John Berger’s BBC 4-series from 1972 “Ways Of Seeing“, from which you took your show’s title, tie into that?
For me that’s kind of a parallel storyline. John Berger is a journalist and writer and in the 70s he made a documentary series about how we look at images. The first part is specifically about duplicates and that images are industrially duplicated in large quantities. Before photography you could only give an interpretation of something. If there was a landscape, you could draw or paint that. Which is an interpretation, not reality. When photography came around, it also gave a blurry image in the beginning, but it was ‘realistic’ to those people. Someone who would draw a landscape in Italy could bring it to Belgium and show the landscape for people to imagine it. Now there are pictures and people can feel like they’ve really seen it. That’s a fundamental difference. From then on, photography grew into becoming a duplicable medium.
KNOTORYUS : Something you don’t really like about it, because if you buy a Nicolas Karakatsanis print, you buy a 1 of 1.
Correct. I want my prints to be unique, not in different sizes or editions. I want to protect the image. If you like an image, you don’t really want it to be seen as a sort of poster. That takes its power away. The way John Berger explained all of that and shared his vision was really interesting to me. It was very simple. I was working with the masks and with duplication, the man-woman relationship and how you create an image of yourself to maybe save a relationship, so I meshed all of that into one flowing entity. That documentary allowed me to tie everything together. Afterwards Berger wrote a book about that, called ‘Ways of Seeing’ which became very well-known. The guy just made really interesting stuff. He based his work off of Walter Benjamin, who had written an essay about the same subject in the 20s. And before that, Paul Valery, the French philosopher had written about the same thing in maybe 1914, very remarkable. He said people would look at images in the future, which would be so striking that we would be able to swipe from one image to the next. He literally said that, which is exactly what we’re doing now on our iPhones. He said that 100 years ago. That’s crazy, right? People who grow up now think that’s normal, that images have no value. Available right here, right now. But that didn’t used to be the case. For the new generation there will be some other evolution in 20 years which will make them think images were treated more respectfully in the past. It’s just going faster and faster. So that’s how those two concepts tie together for me.
KNOTORYUS : When I will be editing this interview, this would be where I would put a new image of the exhibition. But although you generously showed your new works to me beforehand, you are not allowing anyone to publish them, not now and not afterwards. No social media at the show.
The way we look at images now, with Instagram and all that stuff… The cheapness of images, their worthlessness but also their essentiality. We need images. Without images we find things to be boring. You need an image but you give it no value. I hope that people will starting thinking and wondering why there aren’t more people doing that. Why is an image not more protected? There are a few artists who have done that in the past, where I’ve noticed that by not getting everything you want it even more. I was a fan of director Chris Cunningham, who had done some videos I liked. The Internet wasn’t as big back then and he released a film called Flex, which he had made for some museum or gallery. And you could never see the entire film. That was so frustrating to me. The idea that you want to see something but you can’t and the fact that you have to go out to go see it… I thought that was a strong message for an artist to send out, the way he protected the image. Another example was the films I did with Michaël Borremans. Those films are not on YouTube, they’ll never be. I think that’s nice. Now for this expo, we don’t have moving images. I can’t even show a teaser, I just need to show nothing, which I think makes it a bit more exciting.
KNOTORYUS : The media cannot use any of the images and the only photos you do give out are portraits of you taken by another one of our greats Willy Vanderperre, who has also been Raf Simons go-to photographer from the very beginning. It made me laugh, as Willy just published “635”, a book containing all images from his Instagram feed of the past 2 years. Can I just say : like other people spend imaginary time on a deserted beach, imagining you two working on set together is one of my favourite things to daydream about.
For me, to collaborate with Willy, is an absolute privilege. I have a lot of respect for his work and to me it’s remarkable that he lets me into that world. It all grew very naturally, because I think Willy likes my photos.
(above image : Willy Vanderperre by Nicolas Karakatsanis for Document)
KNOTORYUS : This goes back to the time when you and I and your good friend Toon Aerts worked together a couple of years ago. Just before our shoot, Willy had hired you as a DOP on a Dior-commercial, right?
That was the first time he and I had worked together, yes. It was strange to me because here was this other photographer who liked my work and brought me into a film project where he was director/photographer. Strange balances. Willy had already done some movies then, but he’s mainly a photographer. Currently, we’ve worked on a short film and there’s another one coming up. Now it’s great, but it took a while for me to ease in to this kind of collaboration. He would talk about images in a completely different way. When I’m on a film set with a film crew and director, I’m used to everyone speaking a very specific film language. Willy doesn’t talk that way. He has his way to put things in words, and because that was our first time working together it was tough trying to translate everything into what I thought he wanted or meant. That wasn’t so simple for me, but that’s what really interested me about it. A challenge. Just like how I worked with Borremans, who would say things like: ‘I want that to be dark’. But what does that mean? With Willy it was sort of the same, in a totally different way. I see Willy, because I didn’t really know his work that well before, more as an artist than just a fashion photographer. How he does things and makes his choices. They’re not just commercial. He does things because he wants to, not because it will make him a lot of money. I find it hard to say how I fit into his universe.
(above image : Willy Vanderperre by Nicolas Karakatsanis for Document)
KNOTORYUS : You’re very complementary. I’m a huge fan of both of you, and I think it’s fantastic that you’re collaborating now. The portraits he made of you and the ones you shot of him are beyond, I actually think yours of him are even better, but that might also be because you haven’t shown yourself completely to him. For the record, I am aware that preparing for this interview, I had way too many internal conversations about you and Willy, for which I apologise. But I do have the impression that you saw something different in him. Very vulnerable. The fact that he let himself be captured like that, and then you – who I imagine doesn’t like to be in front of someone else’s camera either, posed for him. I sense a kind of tenderness and respect that you have for him, and I’m sure you handle a lot of people with the utmost respect, but this… It’s like he’s tapped something else inside of you.
Willy’s long-time boyfriend Olivier Rizzo had guest-edited Document and Willy needed a portrait of himself for it, so he asked me to shoot it. I was feeling honoured. But then I said: ‘You know I don’t retouch, right?’, which made him laugh. I asked him what he was expecting and what the magazine wanted. He told me I could do whatever I wanted. So I went to his place and we shot it pretty quickly, in about half an hour. I had taken some images that were more flattering and a few that were more unforgiving. The image they chose for the magazine was the frontal, harsh image. I thought that was cool. I feel like it’s sort of like walking on egg shells, you want to shoot a respectful image, but you were also asked as that specific photographer to make an image. I don’t want to censor myself. But that’s why I liked to reverse the roles in the case of my own portraits and see if he wanted to go along, if he had the time. And that was the case.
(above image : Nicolas Karakatsanis by Willy Vanderperre)
Why aren’t you on social media? Is it a “you will never catch me” situation? Are you up on things?
I’m just like other people in that aspect. I’m constantly on the internet, checking out stuff. As a photographer and cameraman, I feel like that’s my job, to know what’s going on. It definitely interests me. When Instagram accounts are publically viewable I go check them out. I run a blog with photos but one that doesn’t tell you a lot, whether my pictures were taken 2 days ago or last month. I could post pictures in the desert but you won’t know what I’m doing over there. It stays abstract; it always has a certain air of mystery. I think that’s important. The fact that you show everything takes away the mystery surrounding your person, your private atmosphere. I like guarding that. And that also shows in this expo. I just don’t want to become repetitive. I want my photography to stir up something emotional, to bring up something in people.
For me it certainly does. I allow myself to only visit your blog once every couple of weeks, because I always lose myself in it. It’s a bit weird to say out loud, but for me it’s like a world that amplifies the way I feel in that moment. If I feel good, then it’s encouraging me to dare more. When I’m a bit sad, I feel like I want to crawl inside your work. Inside a world where a kind of loneliness is okay. I think that’s remarkable.
(both go a bit quiet)
But for some final lighter stuff : How was working with Woody Harrelson and Michael K. Williams on Triple 9? Did you like The Wire?
Yeah, of course I did! Wait let me get you a present.
(Nicolas walks to his fridge and comes back with an amazing polaroid picture of Michael K. Williams in his Triple 9- character’s full women’s drag.)
That’s for you. I took that on set.
KNOTORYUS : Are you serious? Thank you SO much.
No problem. Michael was a super nice guy, but he only plays a small roll in the movie. The main actors were Chiwetel Ejiofor and Casey Affleck. They carry the film. Then there were people like Kate Winslet.
KNOTORYUS : Such a crazy cast.
Kate is very cool, a very nice woman. She didn’t have to come in on the first shooting day. There aren’t a lot of actors that come really prepared. So on the first shooting day we were all squeezed into a small apartment. And at a certain point I look ahead of me and see a cleaning lady, so I wondered what she was doing there. And then that women came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Kate”. She has a giant, mob-style hairdo in this film and she’s pretty small. She wasn’t wearing any shoes as well. So me not recognising her was funny. She was super cool, very down to earth. Not a lot of ego. I’m not saying Woody has a big ego, but he was smoking a lot of blunts. (laughs) He lives on a different planet.
Yeah, he’s a proud weed-smoker. He was super stoned on Saturday Night Live last year, but on that kind of show, it’s just extra hilarious. So which musicians mean something to you?
There are two people I really looked up to as a teen. I was a big fan of Mike Patton and DJ Shadow. They were so stubborn, had their own identity and totally went against the grain. They had a visual world, especially DJ Shadow. Mike Patton was interesting to me because of Mr. Bungle, he had such an eclectic taste. Everything was possible, he had total freedom. Those two guys represented mental and creative freedom for me. They have really influenced me, not just because of their music. Dj Shadow also dj’ed under his own name, and did that Northern soul thing. I made a documentary about that, with Toon Aerts. I don’t know if you knew that… It never got finished. Him and I still discuss that a lot. Toon had just graduated and I got kicked out of film school at the same time. (laughs) We shot hours of material, on 16 mm and video. We travelled and talked to so many cats surrounding that specific scene. One of the labels at the time that had people talking was called Soul Fire, and we met the founder, Philip Lehman -related to Lehman as in Lehman Brothers-, in New York. We shot hours of material, on 16 mm and video. But back then we didn’t know what direction to take it in. Now I do have an idea and I really want to finish it. I also met Shadow then. I never told him that he inspired me. I once talked to Mike Patton in the Ancienne Belgique. The guy from AB knew I was a bit of a fan, and I was spinning records as an opening act so they got me in touch with him.
What do you mean, you were spinning records as an opening act?!
Yeah! Toon and I used to DJ as Kapp und Kutt.
A few years even.
KNOTORYUS : If only I had known when I got married, I would have hired you to play a set. I knew I couldn’t ask you to do our photos because asking the best DOP in the world to photograph your Nan is a bit much. But I would like to say Stefaan would’ve adored an entire wedding album full of necks and backs. You should really finish this documentary though. It sounds amazing.
I really want to. I will talk to Toon again. Maybe we should set up a Kickstarter. (laughs)
KNOTORYUS : Do it. You know Imma fund. And thank you so much for talking to me, Nicolas.
WAYS OF SEEING – EPISODE 1
Land van Luikstraatje 4
12-11-2015 until 23-12-2015
Come join us at the opening tonight
Thursday 12-11-2015 /6pm – 10pm