"I've become a bit of a snob." Nicolas Karakatsanis tells me. We're in the car and both banging on about our favourite fashion designers. Nicolas says he favours Loewe and all other things JW and that -just like me- he is a big fan of Demna Gvasalia's work for Balenciaga and Vetements. Then, after explaining in great detail the difficulties of harvesting enough vicuña wool for just the one Berluti coat -another one of his paramours, he suddenly turns self-conscious and says: "It's probably crazy that I'm willing to fork out so much money for clothing sometimes." To which I blurt out: "Nicolas, You. Deserve."
Now, this might have sounded like a fawny rebuttal geared towards resetting a conversation. But, I honestly truly feel that if Nicolas Karakatsanis, Belgian photographer and cinematographer extraordinaire, wants to spend his hard-earned dollars soundproofing his entire house with a fabric that is spun by five different generations of elves who can only work while touching feet during the months that Jay Electronica puts out a track, he so very much should.
See, Nicolas Karakatsanis plays his part in pushing art -and therefore us- further by redefining what we think of as beautiful or even better, what we think of as being worthy. He did it for instance in Michaël R. Roskam's 'Bullhead' when he defiantly lensed the ugly life of the meat-trade and framed Matthias Schoenaerts' pumped-up, sweaty persona in such a way that we were all: "Hot damn, I hate waking up early and being outside tbh, but sure, I'll risk it all to be a Flemish cattle farmer's wife."
He kept doing it throughout all of the other gorgeous films he worked on as a Director of Photography, including but not limited to, offering the late and extremely missed James Gandolfini a worthy cinematographic send-off in "The Drop" (another Roskam).
But -and it's a Jacky Vanmarsenille hefty one- as fans of Nicolas' photography know, if you revel in his work for the big screen (go see 'I, Tonya') you've only been privy to a small part of what his genius eye and analytical mind is capable of churning out.
So I urge you to go see DISGRACERS, Nicolas Karakatsanis' fourth and out-of-this-world solo photography show housed at Alice Gallery in Brussels, which opens tonight and will run for almost two months.
Nicolas hired KNOTORYUS to produce the shoots for this exhibition. I got to see everything unfold and I still have zero clue how he does it. It's magic. All I know is, you have to come see this, because it's very unlikely you ever will again.
Here's what we talked about when we hopped on FaceTime a couple of days ago:
KNOTORYUS: *was going to use their inside-enthusiasm but starts beaming like a Vegas-billboard and waving enthusiastically as soon as NK appears on screen* Hey Nicolas! Where are you?
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: Hey D, I'm in Prague at the moment. I'll be on set the next couple of days but I'm flying back to Brussels immediately after to help finalize the exhibition. I don't mind letting Alice and Raph make decisions on how the show is set up. Before I left, I asked to cover a couple of walls in this sort of deep-ish pink velours and I trust them in how they want to position the works. I'm so on top of everything from the beginning, that I don't mind letting someone else take the reigns for that final part. And I still get to change stuff if I want to.
KNOTORYUS: Just before Christmas, you explained to me what you were envisioning for "DISGRACERS". Does the end result match? Did you get what you wanted?
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: Well, as I said to you during that breakfast, the idea for this show was set in motion by a work by Hendrick Goltzius I saw at the MET a couple of years ago, even before 2015's 'Ways of Seeing - Part 1'. Some days later, I saw a picture in a newspaper of a guy standing in a gym. And while the focus lay on him, in the background there was a gymnast who was still practicing and probably oblivious to the photo being taken, hanging mid-air. That's when it clicked for me that I could and wanted to do a whole series based on this idea of people hanging mid-air. Obviously you can never predict how the actual images will turn out and although initially I was hoping to end up with 20 images good enough to send off to the printer's, I was intrigued and pleased enough to finish 30 of them. A good sign, I guess.
KNOTORYUS: Does the shooting process itself bring you any joy? I wasn't expecting a party atmosphere on set because you are a very focused person and since you were working with athletes and dancers we also had to avoid anyone getting hurt, but I couldn't really tell if you were enjoying yourself in that moment.
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: I've done the shoots for my previous shows in my home. And the models were my friends. So it was much more intimate and relaxed. For this one, there were a lot of different parts that needed to come together: specific accommodation and equipment, models whom I hadn't met before and who needed a particular skill-set and physique, we had to consider the naked-or-not aspect and if we were going to forgo the nude aspect, what type of fabric and shapes would complement or embellish rather than take away. So, on a much tinier scale of course, this shoot resembled more of a film-set because of all of the technical aspects. And that is something I do need to be mindful of next time, because I did love the intimacy of the previous ones. It felt more poetic in a way, more emotional. But when it comes to the process, I really think the actual fun begins when I get home. During shooting I don't look at the images for too long. I do quick checks, of course, but I've learned not to judge too much, because oftentimes what I think works in the moment might not do anything for me in the end and vice versa. I enjoy being surprised by that later on and I love playing around in my digital darkroom. Mind you, I only fidget with lighting and colours, there is no retouching of any kind.
KNOTORYUS: Even on set, when I caught glimpses of your monitor, I couldn't believe that what I was looking at in real-time and what you were capturing were the same thing. I tried to hide it and stay all the way profesh of course, but I was dumbfounded. I have been on a couple of sets but I have never seen anything like it. Anyway, besides making your beautiful subjects hurl themselves into well-cushioned voids, you also made them stand still to capture their portrait.
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: Yes, and this is getting back to this bigger volume of unique images I ended up printing, because that also has to do with the fact that I decided to take these portraits at the end of every model's session. At first I worried that it was going to be too far off from my original idea of the falling bodies, but portraiture is an art-form I really love, so why not. I do hope that none of the models whose images didn't make it into the final show will be too disappointed. There's just so much to take into account when I make my final selection. It's all about whether it fits what I'm trying to show right now and it's certainly not personal, nor a judgment on whether they performed well that day.
KNOTORYUS: I know it must be hard to nix faces and bodies, but I do think it is really important. If I go to see somebody's work, I want to see their particular view and not some diluted version of them trying not to offend anyone. I can still be offended afterwards, but at least I know it's honest!
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: I do love how it turned out, though, the difference between the movement of my original idea, and the stillness of the portraits is good.
KNOTORYUS: Not counting the duo-show you did with your buddy, the great director and photographer Toon Aerts, this is your 4th photography show at Alice Gallery. I asked Raphaël how you guys got to know each other and he told me a story about you and your brother (L.A. based director Dimitri Karakatsanis, ed. note) dropping in one day and telling him you wanted to invest in a friend's book, because you had some money and weren't interested in getting a flashy car.
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: I think that was after Dimitri and I had put out "Small Gods". I knew the gallery, because I practically lived down the street and I liked what they were doing. This was back when they were still in Rue Dansaert and they had the shop in front and the gallery was down the back. I asked Alice and Raph if they were interested in publishing a graphic novel with us that one of our friends had written and they said yes. We got to know each other better and after a while they started asking me if I wanted to do an exhibition and it took me a while before I relented, but eventually I did.
KNOTORYUS: And now we get one every two years, which I am very grateful for.
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: For me, it's very important to allow myself the space and time to create the works for these shows. It's very dear to me and I don't want anyone or anything interfering. By the way, I know what I'm going to do for the next one, but I can't tell you yet.
KNOTORYUS: I don't even want to know. Let me digest DISGRACERS in peace. (laughs) But let's talk about something else, then. I saw on your Instagram that you visited Willy Vanderperre's first London soloshow 'prints, film, posters and more'. What did you think?
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: It was fantastic! First you enter this room that's flooded in red lighting and feels a bit like a Berlin club, but then you pass a black curtain and go down a staircase to enter this beautiful white gallery space which is filled with Willy's amazing work.
KNOTORYUS: I think it's awesome how supportive you are of each other's work. But it's also funny seeing how different your approach is in output. Each print you make is unique. One photo, one print. That's it. And oh my god, Nicolas, the dread you exude every time someone or even you, hints at the possibility of a Nicolas Karakatsanis monograph is so palpable, I'm afraid to bring it up anymore. Willy on the other hand, he puts up a website of his show where you can see all of the images, he prints his work on t-shirts, pins, stickers, record sleeves ...
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: Great, right? He's just so generous, don't you think? But he comes from a whole different background. His works immediately got printed in magazines. So, twenty years ago, he probably didn’t have the luxury to obsess over the right kind of paper and printers. He also has such a huge and devoted following, so he feels like it's a way of giving back. Not all of his fans are going to be able to afford a print, so he also puts out T-shirts and pins.
KNOTORYUS: Speaking of fans. I just had a flashback to this moment on our final shooting day when we were discussing one of the models and when I told you: "He's a big fan of your work", your entire face lit up and then when I continued with: "Bullhead, Triple 9, The Drop", you got a bit moody and quipped: "oh, that work." First of all: I haven't seen Triple 9 yet, but Bullhead and The Drop are every-fucking-thing and people need to go see 'I, Tonya' it's a trip. But I really wanted to know what was happening in that moment. Are you frustrated that everyone lauds you as this sought-after Director of Photography rather than knowing you as a photographer?
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: (Thinks for a while) That is difficult for me to answer. I guess. Yeah, probably. But I also know it's most likely my own fault since I don't put out books or produce and sell multiple prints of the images I make. I don't know. I would like to do more fashion photography. Get more involved with that world. But then again, I'm not sure if it would make me happy either. Because the focus needs to be on the clothing and most of my images are nebulous or ill-defining. They would have to give me carte blanche. But I can't give you a satisfying answer. It's something I think about a lot, how to reach a bigger audience with my photography without compromising what I respect so much about the art.
KNOTORYUS: You are on IG now, which already feels like a big step for someone who wants to keep fighting against the endless duplication of images. How's it treating you? Do you get nervous?
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: Oh no, I mostly follow furniture designers and other artisans obsessed with their craft. How does Instagram make you feel?
KNOTORYUS: Good, because just like you I have a feed that makes me happy. It took me a while to figure that out, though. Years ago I noticed that after spending twenty minutes on the app, I didn't feel that dandy, so I unfollowed a lot of people. It wasn't anything personal, but I like to look at work of people who have skills I don't have. A lot of painters and photographers or super social out-there individuals. And Beyoncé of course. (Suddenly serious) That reminds me, I have to talk to you about something.
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: What?
KNOTORYUS: I showed up to the DISGRACERS set not once, but twice wearing my treasured JAY-Z 4:44 hoodie. And to think, I had to hear from your boyfriend, on the final day of shooting, and then had to process - which I never will - the data that you passed on filming a video for "Smile". Which is only my favourite track of that record.
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: Oh, right. (laughs) Well, I did want to do it. I said yes, even though there was no money involved. But then they moved my flight and I couldn't make the date they moved it to anymore. If I make a commitment I like to stick to it. I accepted the JAY-Z job, but I also promised to show up for something on the day of their rescheduling. Hopefully I will get to work with him on something else, we'll see. I did see the video later and I really liked it.
KNOTORYUS: You were also asked to shoot an episode of season 4 of 'Black Mirror'.
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: I was asked to do 'Call Me By Your Name' too. Same story.
KNOTORYUS: Booked to capacity. But doesn't it break your heart? I'm faithful in my marriage, but I can't guarantee my availability to any of our clients if JAY-Z or Oprah come calling. "Where's Dominique?" "On a plane about to pull-up to God herself."
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: (laughs) The way I see it, every good job leads to another one. And whenever I have to decline an amazing opportunity, I like to think it means something in the same realm or even better is in the works.
KNOTORYUS: People should see what sorcery you pulled in 'I, Tonya'. I was punch-drunk after seeing it. What a classic cinematic experience.
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: I'm really proud of that one and I can't wait to see what it leads to.
KNOTORYUS: Well, I can't thank you enough for this conversation and for working so hard on broadening and sharing this singular gift of yours.
NICOLAS KARAKATSANIS: Thank you! Good talk!
Nicolas Karakatsanis portrait by Leonardo Van Dijl
Interview by Dominique Nzeyimana
More info HERE