Erik Kessels

Artist and DBPP nominee 2016


Continuing our Interviews series, Diane Smyth speaks to the trailblazing Dutchman Erik Kessels – art director, collector, curator, editor and, of course, head of unorthodox advertising agency, KesselsKramer – whose project, Unfinished Father has been shortlisted for The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2016. Here they mull over the genesis of his curatorial ideas, the importance of failure and why he believes the art of photography is no longer the preserve of specialists.

Diane Smyth: How did you get the idea for Unfinished Father?

Erik Kessels: Last summer I was invited to do an exhibition for Fotografia Europea, which happens in Reggio Emilia, Italy every year. They asked me if I was interested in working with the city archive or something from the city, but I didn’t have much time to go to visit because of the situation with my father who had had a stroke. I looked through images of the city from the 1930s, 40s and 50s and saw a lot of Fiat Topolinos, which reminded me of him. He was working for 15 years restoring these cars, and was working on the fifth one when he fell ill. It was not an option to finish.

The idea was to take the car from the workshop and show it together with the photographs he took as he was doing the restoration. In the back of the synagogue where the exhibition was originally staged I also exhibited more pictures from locals. I often research images by other people and this was just the same, though of course you have more of a connection if it is your own family. I had never thought about doing anything with my father’s archive of Topolino restoration shots, but when you get a request it all comes together. I just continued step by step until it was complete.

DS: Do you consider yourself the creator of this work, or the curator of your father’s photography?

EK: I’m the artist. If you are curator you take parts of other artists and put them together; my father is an amateur – in a good way – and the images have no interest if they are not presented with the story. When I tell the story, people say they’re beautiful. One image shows a car’s rusty underside. At first I thought it had been shot on a white background but then I realised my father had just put it down on the snow. He just put it there because it was easy to photograph, with no other intention, but because of how the show is put together, it becomes very metaphorical. That’s what I’m interested in – how I can take the emotion from within me and make something.

In general I’m not interested in a single photograph. I’m more interested in a story, or the story behind it, or how a series of photographs can tell a certain story. I have done an exhibition using single images – Album Beauty, which is a lot of single images from family albums, through which I try to show how people behave in albums, first shown at FOAM, Amsterdam in 2012. In art and photography, I think the idea is becoming more important, not the craft needed to make it. Everything is made as so much has already been shot, and anyone can make anything since cameras are so easy to use now. It’s totally different to the period in the 1980s and 90s when photography was still entirely analogue, and photographers were masters of their trade. Everything then was a big mystery. Now it’s much more democratic and anyone can do it – so what you do is the question. Once the technique is there, once you can do everything, what do you photograph?

DS: Were you surprised to be nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize?

EK: I’ve been on the long list a few times so no, but I was very emotional because it is such a personal work. I was surprised maybe two years ago when Mishka Henner was nominated for No Man’s Land, a series of images taken from Google Street view. I thought that that was not typical, not the usual finalist, and marked an interesting shift.

DS: How do you choose the images you work with? And how do you choose how the format in which you end up presenting them?

EK: There’s always a certain starting point, whether it’s an image, a series of images, a personal matter and so on. The preferred outlet for the idea will only come at the end of this. Some ideas work better in an exhibition, others as a book. Luckily there are no rules for that. Books and exhibitions should express themselves totally differently and I see a lot of exhibitions, which makes me feel it’s nice to try to do something differently in the installation, because a lot of stuff is like museums with walls with stuff hanging on them. I find that completely stupid.

For example in Unfinished Father I had pictures on the floor, because my father photographed the objects top-down from above. The installation of Album Beauty had different proportions than normal, i.e the prints were much bigger, as the idea was that people visiting the exhibition would have the feeling of walking through a physical photo album. In 24 Hrs In Photos we started a collection of images found online and took them out of their original context by printing them out and putting them in a huge pile to make people look at them differently. It’s a question of how you can point to things and make people look at them another way.

DS: What did you hope to point to with 24 Hrs In Photos?

EK: We’re exposed to an overload of images, a glut that is in large part the result of image-sharing sites such as Flickr, Pinterest, and Imgur, networking sites such as Facebook, and picture-based search engines. Their content mingles public and private, with the very personal being openly and unselfconsciously displayed, and of course they are facilitated by incredibly accessible technology such as digital cameras, which appear on even the cheapest smartphone. The art of photography, once the preserve of specialists, is now open to everyone. For 24 Hrs In Photos I wanted to explore this overwhelming flood of pictures, and give the gallery visitor a physical means of grasping its vastness.

By printing all the images uploaded in a twenty-four hour period, I visualised the feeling of drowning in representations of other peoples’ experience. This is a sensation you can’t have by flicking through online galleries – though spend a few hours doing it and you’ll get pretty close. But by allowing the public to stroll around the mountains of photographs, walk over them, pick them up and inspect them, the experience can also become more intimate. The installation is at first sight impressively monumental, but when people start looking at the images, they are hopefully moved by the individuality of so many image-makers, each with their own unique take on the world.

DS: Album Beauty seems to have come from almost the opposite impulse, is that right?

EK: It was made as an ode the vanishing era of the family album. Once commonplace in every home, the photo album has been replaced by the digital age where images now live online and in hard drives. These visual narratives in the traditional album are testament to the once universal appeal of documenting and displaying the mundane. Often a repository for family history, they usually represent a manufactured family as edited for display. The albums speak of birth, death, beauty, sexuality, pride, happiness, youth, competition, exploration, complicity and friendship.

DS: You’re an unusual figure in the art world because your day job is as a creative director in an ad agency. Would you like to give the agency work up?

EK: Never, I enjoy it. I have learnt a lot in advertising. Also the combination of advertising and art is interesting. Each one is different, but they both influence each other. If I work on a commission for a client, I can think about something because it has some parameters, also I can do things on a big scale because it is well-financed. On the other hand, I very much enjoy getting commissions from festivals because I can come up with ideas completely freely and with no parameters. I think my role is to communicate, whether that’s how to communicate something with my own work or how to convey something on behalf of someone else.

Having said that, I started my agency, KesselsKramer, 20 years ago and I can’t imagine working at another one. They are too narrow-minded – it sounds bad to say it – whereas I always had different interests. We work for a lot of cultural organisations and museums, often with people who aren’t advertising photographers. I’ve done jobs with Hans Eijkelboom, Mitch Epstein, Bertien van Manen and Carl de Keyzer, for example, which can be a strange combination but exciting. We did a campaign for a mobile phone company using migrants and other non-stereotypical people compared to the typical mobile phone ad. I hate advertising to be honest, but I really like to try to find things in a different way. It’s advertising for people who don’t like advertising. KesselsKramer released a book on this back in 2012.

I do remember when I started to work in advertising, if I went to a party and someone asked me what I did, they would change the subject when I told them. It’s changed now but for years it was very uncool to work for an agency. In 2007, the first time I exhibited a big scale show in a museum, I was surprised there were no critics saying, “who is this commercial guy?!”. But by that time KesselsKramer had already won a reputation for doing sophisticated ads, so maybe that helped.

DS: I’ve heard you say that art galleries are often just as commercial as an ad agency anyway.

EK: Of course, some galleries turn into a BMW showroom, metaphorically-speaking. It’s such a facade – I love sneaking in at the back of these art fairs and seeing the other side, the galleries’ tape and bubblewrap and empty bottles. But maybe I’m naïve. Maybe it has to happen.

DS: You have a book coming out soon encouraging people to make mistakes, Failed it! which will be published by Phaidon in April. Given that your piece is called Unfinished Father, do you think both are interested in showing process, rather than the perfect final product?

EK: Of course it can be nice to have that quality, to feel a bit of process, but it’s not necessary to always have that. Failed it! is more about the idea of how you can be creative, what the creative process is. In photography or design or art I think it’s important to deliberately go in a wrong direction or go towards a mistake, because by expanding the field you may come up with a new idea. Often people only create in their back garden – the front garden is where you show things, but the back garden is the place where you can mess around because no body sees the rubbish. The back garden is the place where work is done and you come up with ideas, and maybe eventually a good idea. Then you take it through the house and show the finished work at the front. But some people have never even been in their back garden! This is what I mean by failure.

DS: One final personal question: Your sister died after being hit by a car when she was 9 years old and you were 11, something which you also produced a tremendous short film on. Do you think your own trajectory has been influenced by this tragedy?

EK: I think it has a lot to do with my work. My parents obviously experienced a lot of grief after the accident and began looking frantically for her last image, for something to hold onto. Eventually they found one just taken at an amusement park, the kind where a photographer takes your picture. It’s printed there and then, and put on the gate for you to buy. My parents took that photograph, cropped the rest of us out of it, and took it to the printers, who made a negative in black-and-white and printed in black-and-white. That is the image they keep in their living room. It’s very mundane, but, quite randomly, suddenly it is very iconic. For me, that image is burned into my brain. I know every detail of it.

Images courtesy of Erik Kessels. © Alek Photography