Interview by Irene Calvo, AH MAGAZINE (10th February, 2015)
The photographic language of José Guerrero
José Guerrero (Granada, 1979) uses photography in a way that goes beyond the merely aesthetic. He makes us think about ourselves and our relationship with our environment. His works show “human” landscapes without any trace of people, and make us try to understand our surroundings without ourselves in them.
IRENE CALVO (I)- You trained as a technical architect. What was it that led to you getting into photography?
JOSÉ GUERRERO (JG)- I always had creative leanings and wanted to develop them, but I chose a technical degree. I planned to study Quantity Surveying (now called Building Engineering), gain some experience working in construction, and then to study for a higher architecture degree. But after a while I on the job I was overcome by the desire to plunge myself in something creative that was freer and less regulated than architecture. That was when I thought about studying photography and film, and even Fine Arts. I’d already had quite a lot of exposure to the world of photography in 1999 when, as a university student, I took a course to familiarise myself with handling a camera and using a dark room. The same year I visited the exhibition ‘Desert Cantos’ by Richard Misrach at the Palacio de los Condes de Gabia de Granada and I was really surprised to discover an expressive power in the language of photography that I would never have imagined, especially in the use of colour.
I - How do you feel that your education has influenced your work?
JG - For a while I didn’t think there was any link at all between my Technical Architecture studies and my work as a photographer. Now I can see how connected they are. As a child I was always really good at technical drawing, and at university we worked in depth on our spatial vision through descriptive geometry and drawing the various perspectives, as well as rendering plans. There are concepts such as viewpoint, the height of the horizon, lines of perspective, making a drawing fit a specific frame, etc., which are of fundamental importance in the language of the photographic medium and its inherent technical characteristics. I also suspect that breaking a “materially executed project” down into plans has some kind of direct relationship with the way I organise my work in series, polyptychs and sequences… It’s hard to know to what extent a specific experience impacts on the way we deal with subsequent ones, but it’s clear that a trace always remains.
I - What are your greatest influences?
JG - My influences are not necessarily photographic ones, and I don’t spend a lot of time studying the work of other people, and I definitely don’t worship them. But there are some people and photographers who have produced work that has “touched” me, or that I have in some way integrated with what I’m trying to say, for example Eugène Atget, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Lewis Baltz, Hamish Fulton, Richard Misrach (the “Desert Cantos” series) and Stephen Shore (the series “Uncommon Places”).
I - Talk us through your creative process
JG - Normally every job starts out with an initial idea that I decide to develop in a specific geographic location. The first series that I worked on with any awareness of what I was doing (“Efímeros”) was between 2005 and 2006, with the support of a grant from the Caja San Fernando savings bank. The photographs were shot on the extreme outer edges of various cities in Andalusia, where I was working on the physical boundary between the rural and the urban. Later on, I decided to include vacant lots within the city too and any kind of ruin, be it rural, urban or industrial. My idea at the time was to use these images to reflect on the passage of time. I wander around taking photographs, allowing myself to be led by my instincts. All this work then starts to make sense at the editing stage, when relationships start to emerge, or I start to form them, between the different images in a wide range of photographs on paper.
Other times it all starts with an unexpected discovery. The series “Thames” is a good example of this. I stumbled upon the river’s mists as I left a London Underground station in an industrial district by the River Thames. I immediately gave up on the idea I had started out with that morning, to work on the series “Down Town”, and instead concentrated fully on that atmosphere that was bathing everything. It was only later, when I was processing the pictures, that I first understood the scope and importance they would have in my body of work.
I - Tell us about how you process your pictures
JG - I print a large selection of photographs in miniature format, place them on a flat surface and study the relationships that can be developed between them – some of which are evident and others less so… Many of my creative “discoveries” happen on my work desk, not while I have the camera in my hand. Up until the point where I come to process the pictures, all I have are ‘sketches’, random verses of a non-existent poem, loose pieces of a jigsaw with a final image that I am not fully aware of. My good friend José Muñoz put it well: “Photography is a rather poor language if it doesn’t have a specific message inserted into it”, and this message takes shape during the processing stage.
I - How do you select the locations for your photographs?
JG - I don’t generally know exactly where I’m going to photograph, or rather I only know the region I’m going to be travelling around in. Let’s say I decide to go to La Mancha to do some field work. I think about a route to follow and I drive in that direction. From this point onwards I’m guided by my eyes and my instinct, as well as whatever preparatory work I’ve done, if any. In terms of time, I don’t set myself any limits. I may decide to stop the car and take two shots from the side of the road, then I start walking and I don’t come back until night falls. It all depends on the light, my curiosity about what lies further ahead, and my energy levels. I allow myself to be guided when I’m doing field work – I walk, I take photographs, I drive, I walk, I take more photographs, I drive… I do this again and again until the sun sets. Other times – not so often – I know exactly where I want to go to work. For example, in 2014 I took a few very specific trips – one to work on the ravines of the Veleta and the Mulhacén mountains in the Sierra Nevada, and the other to shoot the badlands around Calatayud.
I - What are the introspective aspects of your work?
JG - I guess the silence, being alone, and the quest for a certain poetic air.
I - Why are human figures absent from your work?
JG- It’s very easy to appropriate and overwhelm a space when you are the only person looking at it. Besides, in most of the series I have worked on so far, a human figure would just be an unnecessary distraction. A photographer’s work is solitary. However, I did intensively photograph human figures as an integral part of the landscape in Cairo in 2008. I am planning a book including this work. We’ll see how it goes.
I - Why are you interested in the theme of memory and forgetting in your work?
JG - As a child I was a bit obsessed with the passage of time and ideas about memory, forgetting and change. When I was thinking about doing my first serious work, I sat down to write and I went out to take photographs, and this theme came out all on its own. It’s what I was closest to in a physical and emotional sense. The result was “Efímeros”. Just a short while ago a good friend said that if an artist’s work has no guts it’s worthless. These were my guts, and the foundations of a Vega de Granada that is disappearing, a place where I rode my bike as a child, collected walnuts and walked my friends’ dogs.
In some of my later series, the documentary nature of my work, or the existence of a specific “theme”, has been less important than a more abstract vision in which “the form” somehow imposes itself on the “content”.
I - Your works go beyond photographing landscapes, arousing different sensations in viewers. What do you feel when you take your photographs?
JG - Many experiences and sights made me tingle before I ever picked up a camera. I was inspired to become a photographer by the possibility of transferring these sensations and others into an image or a group of images.
I - As a person from Granada living in Madrid, do you think it is easier to carve out a career outside the city of Granada?
JG - It’s not what I think, it’s how things are, and it’s quite normal. There are more opportunities in a big city that acts as a focus for major cultural activity than in a smaller one. Anyone who manages to grow and work in an area related to modern art or culture in a province has to be really good.
I - What is the story with your relationship with the United States?
JG - I went there in 2002 after leaving my job as Production Manager in the company Ferrovial Agroman to visit my brother who was studying in California for a year. I stayed for six months, and that trip was decisive on my beginnings as a photographer. Not long after I arrived, my reflex camera, with a black and white film inside it, broke, and I bought a compact digital camera, the best on the market at the time – a 4-megapixel Olympus that set me back €600. I literally went crazy with it, experimenting with no holds barred, like a kid with the best toy in the world. I could see the results too, and I thought what I was doing was really amazing and, above all, relevant – I was very serious. I was certain that what I was doing was important for me. It was only then that I really accepted my decision to leave a job with a future to dedicate myself to photography.
I didn’t return to the United States for eight years, when I went to New York to expand on the series “Down Town”, thanks to an Iniciarte grant. That year I produced and for the first time exhibited some of my first photographs from California in the Alarcón Criado gallery. Then, in 2011 I went back to work with Mark Klett at Arizona State University, with a Manuel Rivera grant, and I embarked on various series that have resulted in me going back to the United States every year since. I have a lot of friends in the industry there, and I stay in touch with the curators and conservers I have been lucky enough to show my portfolios to. I’ve worked with the Kopeikin gallery in Los Angeles, and a selection of my work was recently acquired by the Center for Creative Photography (Arizona) and the Lehigh University Art Galleries (Pennsylvania).
I - The mist in the series “The Bay” and “Thames” is somewhat reminiscent of the romantic paintings of the 19th Century and symbolist painting. It also gives the sensation of a search … Does it have any relation to these references?
JG - Completing the series “Thames” in two portfolios in 2010 marked an important moment in my career as a photographer. For the first time I brought together pictorial, literary and cinematographic references in my work, and I became fully aware of the weight that these references will have on it in future. I think I understand why you are asking this question … The mist denies the landscape to a certain degree, making it intangible… But I truly think I’d be going too far if I compared my work with any artistic movements. I am just as interested in creating the suggestion of intangible sensations as I am in talking about the real world around me and how we perceive it through images. My work treads a very fine line between the documentary and abstract nature of photography, embracing references that even I am not aware of or that I don’t understand at the time. Of course I am continuously searching and learning.
I – What were you looking for while working in the series La Mancha?
JG - I wanted to work on fields of colour, to get rid of architectural references and focus on the horizon as the defining theme of the whole series. I wanted to walk that fine line I was talking about before, which “separates” the documentary from the abstract. This work is an exercise in the direction I will continue to travel in. I want to see how far I can go.
I - In “Efímeros”, your reference is the theme of abandonment, and you show architecture in a very symbolic way. What is the ephemeral?
JG - Abandonment is there, of course, but I would never describe it as the theme. The central theme has always been ruin, that which remains, or traces in relation to the passage of time. The ephemeral is what disappears – life is ephemeral. To start with, this work was called “panta rhei”, referring to the “everything flows” of Heraclitus.
I - In your series “Down Town”, you photograph very different cities such as New York, Paris, Cairo, Moscow, London and Teheran, giving them a new dimension with a certain coherence between them. Why these cities and not others?
JG - “Down Town” is a project that I wanted to carry out in at least two major cities with different cultures or colonial origins on each of the world’s continents (excluding Australia). In total, if I can complete this project one day, I will include these cities – Delhi (India), Shanghai (China), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Mexico City (Mexico) and Lagos (Nigeria), as well as the cities I have already worked in – London, Moscow, Paris, Cairo, New York and Teheran.
I - How much time have you spent on this series?
JG - In 2008 I worked in London, Moscow and Cairo, with a Generaciones grant, and in Paris as an artist in residence at the Colegio de España in Paris. In 2010 and 2011 I worked in New York and Teheran thanks to Iniciarte funding.
I - We get to see people in your photographs in “Órbigo”. Why is that?
JG - No reason in particular. In 2007 and 2008 I decided to incorporate people into my landscapes, to see where this took me and whether it interested me. In most cases I wasn’t very convinced by the results. The two images in “Órbigo” showing people are exceptions.
I - In your latest exhibition at the F2 gallery, “Panoramas”, you showed pieces from different bodies of work that had a dialogue between them. Do you deliberately seek these dialogues between your series?
JG - Yes, this is one of the fundamental questions in my work. I often think about how the verses in a poem or the different notes in a musical composition relate to each other, and compare this with how the different elements within an image relate to each other too, creating a specific “form”, and with this an integral part of its “meaning”. Similarly, the various photographs within a sequence, a polyptych, or obviously an exhibition or a book also relate to each other, giving rise to a new form, which is more complex and more meaningful. These relationships and others – at times evident and sometimes less so – have become established between the various series I have worked on up until now, with ‘echoes’ and ‘resonances’ often occurring in the search for unity and coherence.
I – What projects have you got coming up?
JG - Just a few days ago I finished the combined editing my four trips around the West of the United States for the layout of a book (called “After the Rainbow”), which I have been asked to enter in the Mack First Book Award 2015 next week. This work, in exhibition format and with some variations, will be shown in an individual show at the Alcobendas Art Centre from July to late October 2015. I am now starting to work on framing the piece Night Light – New York that I will show at Arco Art Fair with the Alarcón Criado gallery. I also want to go back to the Sierra Nevada and the Castile and Aragon regions soon to carry on with my recent research, and find a way to leave Spain for a while sooner rather than later. I’m working on a plan.
(10th February, 2015)