For Belgian artist, photographer and graphic designer Peter De Potter, taking the road less travelled has firmly cemented his status as a multimedia master. One his high-profile collaborators can’t help but giving carte blanche to. From visually defining eras for fashion industry legends (a quick Grailed search will unlock some of his coveted graphics for Raf Simons ) and musical titans alike (‘The Life Of Pablo’-orange will never die) to coaching the vision of burgeoning design students, Peter De Potter has powerfully balanced contrasting arts over the last two decades.
In his newly-released third monograph, 'VAPE SHOP OLYMPIA’, De Potter glibly plays with perceived reality and makes you re-think the visual emblems of modern-product-culture while simultaneously delving into an individual analysis of the self in various stages of physical and mental exploration. High time for a sit-down and some exclusive behind-the-images info.
KNOTORYUS: VAPE SHOP OLYMPIA is the third and final book in this series. Were you always planning on publishing a trilogy?
PETER DE POTTER: Yes and no. I'll take you back a bit. I don't remember when it started exactly, but for years, obviously because of the internet, I was convinced that anything published on paper was over and that print was dead. Consequently, I was only creating work I could release on digital or social platforms. It felt completely natural to take that road.
KNOTORYUS: Your Tumblr-pages were wildly popular.
PETER DE POTTER: In its early days I was all about Tumblr. I thought it was such a democratic medium. It felt anonymous and everything revolved around the imagery. It didn’t matter where stuff was coming from or who made it. Unlike Instagram, which is purely about who is behind the page and how many followers they have. Tumblr felt very fresh and it fit my needs perfectly, since I only wanted to create work that I could upload immediately and introduce directly into the visual stream. So Tumblr and everything it involved represented ‘contemporary culture’ to me, not in the academic sense, but in the actual, everyday-life sense. I just wanted to put my efforts out there and see what happened. Well, the response was immediate and sudden. The work got picked up, spurred reactions and came to life, really.
KNOTORYUS: Which probably intensified your belief that print was obsolete.
PETER DE POTTER: Oh, for sure! I kept that mind-set for years. Then, slowly but surely, I would hear young people talk about books and print in the same way they would talk about coveted sneakers. Their interest went mainly to these limited-edition magazines and fanzines that were considered very desirable objects. At first, I had my doubts about it, dismissing it as a fluke. But the more I thought about it, the more I considered the option. I know I'm pretty late in the game, because you usually publish your first booklet when you’re 20. But I dived in and the reaction to 'The Vanity of Certain Flowers', my first monograph, was similar to the way I had heard kids speaking about those zines: they had to have it. And I like to believe that the main reason was a sincere appreciation for this object I made.
KNOTORYUS: How did you decide what that first book was going to be about?
PETER DE POTTER: It was clear that the books needed to be about what I’ve always been most interested in: identity and the ‘self’, as I call it.
KNOTORYUS: Did you approach things differently when it came to creating the second book ALL STATUES SING PROTEST SONGS?
PETER DE POTTER: With this trilogy of books I feel like doing an almost annual report on the times we live in and the place the individual carves out for himself. In these times, people, young and old, are being conditioned to participate all of the time. In order to become so-called fully-developed individuals we are encouraged to take in things, like things, buy things, be up to speed with things, be able to talk about certain things, and so on. But actually -and I'm serious about this- that’s not the right way to get to know yourself or shape yourself. The only thing that is really important, I believe, is retreating. That was really what my first book was about. I tried to visualise the process of 'retreat' in a conceptual way, but the goal of retreat had to be to become stronger.
KNOTORYUS: As opposed to just hiding and tapping out.
PETER DE POTTER: Yes, because that would be useless almost. Then for the sequel it seemed too abrupt to segue into: “We retreated and shaped who we are, so now that we’re finished we're ready to come back out”. I think there's another step in between: the formation process, meaning: raising yourself literally and figuratively is a challenge in itself. That’s what the second book was about. And as you can tell, I knew there was but one logical conclusion for the third one, VAPE SHOP OLYMPIA: getting back out there and looking at the world anew.
KNOTORYUS: My colleague saw when you did your open call for models and went: "Peter De Potter is doing an Insta-casting, this is going to be crazy." And then when I read your caption it said: “I’ll answer all of your questions”. I thought: “Oh dear.” (laughs) How many DMs did you get?
PETER DE POTTER: Way too many! (laughs) When I was 18, DM'ing or that type of direct contact wasn’t around and even if it had been, I would never have dared to write to someone. But now, that barrier is gone. It's almost like you can sense that these kids approach a lot of people, you know? They’re used to asking for things via social media. And if they get a no, it's fine. That's a very good attitude, really. But honestly, I hadn’t expected that big a reaction, and they were very young sometimes. You never know who your audience is, how could you really, but sometimes they were 14, 15. I thought it was odd I was even on their radar. And I feel like most of the people I spoke to really knew my work. The shoots I organize aren't commercial, you're not putting on a jacket and posing. It’s a process and if you work with me, you need spirit. And most of the people who approached me possessed that, so casting was easy, really.
KNOTORYUS: Could you sense the models' spirit in the DMs, in the way they were talking?
PETER DE POTTER: For sure. Most people would give a motivation in a few words. They'd send a lot of portraits too, and those would say the most. I’ve always been fascinated by the way people portray themselves or which pictures they find representative of themselves. I think I not only have a sixth sense but also a trained eye to see through a lot of bullshit.
KNOTORYUS: Very necessary, since the requirements in the casting call were pretty broad if I remember correctly.
PETER DE POTTER: Look, I’m not a fashion photographer, but I'm not a documentarian either. I’m an artist, I make images. I need 2 ingredients from my models: face and body. In whatever way that is. I don’t have anything else to work with. I don’t work with designer clothes. There's no hair and make-up provided. I don’t do super elaborate sets.
KNOTORYUS: There aren't that many nudes in VAPE SHOP OLYMPIA.
PETER DE POTTER: Are you disappointed? (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: (Laughs) Not at all, just surprised and apparently a bit prejudiced about your work.
PETER DE POTTER: It’s just an aspect of my work, it’s always there but yeah, sometimes people focus on it a bit more. The nudity in my work has nothing to do with eroticism or sensuality even. To me, it really underlines the state of alone-ness. In that sense, the nudes are the loneliest images in these books. It might even be confronting, how secluded and retreated they are.
KNOTORYUS: What were you like at that age?
PETER DE POTTER: What age?
KNOTORYUS: The age most prevalent in VAPE SHOP OLYMPIA: 16 to 24. Let’s go to secondary school first.
PETER DE POTTER: To be honest, I think I never stopped being that age.
KNOTORYUS: A lot of people haven’t, I think.
PETER DE POTTER: For me, the same exact cliché checks out as it does for most Belgians: I grew up in a small town, but whereas other teenagers started going out, riding mopeds, I stayed inside. Up until I was 16, I was exclusively in build-up mode. I was in my room, by myself, all the time. Charging, like a battery. Watching films, reading books, listening to music. Exploring myself mentally and physically. Taking everything in. That’s all I can remember of that time. It falls in line with the concept of ‘retreat’, building yourself up using your own strength.
KNOTORYUS: I only started to recognize that feeling of needing to recharge when I got older, I wasn't enlightened in that way as a teenager. I did have a room filled with records, books and magazines, but I think I'd categorise my recoil as more of an escape instead of a conscious effort to refuel.
PETER DE POTTER: I knew what I was doing. I kept lists with everything I needed to get. There were two, maybe three people at my school that had Einstürzende Neubauten records, and because of that we really felt a cut above the rest. (Laughs) It sounds silly but that way of thinking is still okay for me. I went to a very catholic school and our little group dared to show up in class in New Wave clothing, looking like The Cure, which was not appreciated at all to put it mildly. Going to art school was my salvation, actually. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
KNOTORYUS: VAPE SHOP OLYMPIA is a generous book, 224 pages plus foldout front- and back covers. As you mentioned, the previous two books are sold out. Do you now archive these images and go: "They're in a book, that's it?"
PETER DE POTTER: A great question that I've been asking myself these past couple of weeks, because, damn, it's been a lot. Three years, three books. All are limited edition, because I wanted that. And they get around, that's not what I'm concerned about, but I do think these images still have a lot of potential.
KNOTORYUS: Being a fan of photography, I would really like to stare at a selection of them printed in a large size.
PETER DE POTTER: That’s literally where I’m at right now. Do I move on? Or do I go back and look at what’s there and carry it further? Not out of a commercial point of view, but just to let it live a bit more. Look, my whole concept of 'retreat' didn't come out of nowhere. I use photography, graphic design, writing but those are all things I do by myself. Like a monk, building something. In this industry there are people who, by nature or with a little help, are very connected. At the drop of a hat, someone will be like: “Let’s do an expo.” Or: “Will you rap with me on my track?” or “Let’s produce wallpaper together.” That doesn’t happen for me. I’m perceived as working alone. The side effect is that people might think: “Peter doesn't do collaborations, so let’s not ask him.” That’s something I hadn’t counted on. Mind you, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But again, I do think it's important to be mindful of the right carriers or platforms.
KNOTORYUS: Do you have something specific in mind?
PETER DE POTTER: A ‘traditional’ show, my images against white walls, I’ve done that a few times and I don’t know if that really lit a huge fire inside of me. What I have in common with the younger generation is that when I see an image isolated on a screen, I think it's the best way to look at it. By the way, I film a lot, too.
KNOTORYUS: Oh, I didn't know that.
PETER DE POTTER: At the moment, I use film to grab images from. So it’s already a part of my process. But I’ve never done a YouTube video or a film, really. I think there’s room there.
KNOTORYUS: This is exciting news!
PETER DE POTTER: I'm not talking short film or a feature necessarily, but as you know, anything involving moving images needs a certain budget. Which means you have to attract the right partners and that's not easy.
KNOTORYUS: I can't wait to see you explore this further. But for now, as we wrap up, could you tell me what moments in your career you are most proud of?
PETER DE POTTER: See, that's hard. I don't want to pick a certain series or a book, because that's always changing. (Thinks for a while) I guess I’m most proud of the fact that in my own way, with my self-developed kind of tunnel vision, I’ve been able to construct a very cohesive universe. I look at my own work and I know what others do and it’s not that it’s completely separate from them, but I feel like it stands on its own, without fencing itself off from others. And I’ve done that my way, with very limited ingredients. I never planned for all this to happen in this way. My cover art for Kanye West's 'The Life Of Pablo' album or Visionist’s ‘Value’ for example: to the outside world, that could’ve looked like commercial jobs with certain requirements I had to conform to. But it was the opposite of that. Same with everything I did with Raf. I think that people who thoroughly look at my work really see something delineated and standalone. I think that’s why I’ve been fortunate to be in touch with other artists who say: “Go ahead. Do your thing." They don't say those things because I am someone who doesn't like to compromise. It's more: “We see what you’re doing and we’ve got absolute faith in you.” I didn’t pick the easy road, but it has led to certain people opening up their world to me and my work.
KNOTORYUS: Thank you so much for talking to me.
PETER DE POTTER: You're very welcome.