Birthe Piontek Vancouver, Canada
Birthe Piontek is a photographer based in Vancouver BC, Canada. She describes her photography as an exploration of the individual and is interested in the concept of Self. Her main focus is portrait photography but she also utilizes other art forms like installation and sculpture to investigate the essence of portraiture and to what degree identity can be visualized.
Birth Piontek was chosen by American photographer Justin James Reed.
Laatikkomo’s interview with Birthe Piontek January 6th, 2014.
L: Where are you from? What cities, and/or countries have you lived in – or what places have influenced you?
BP: I grew up in Germany in a town called Erftstadt (near Cologne) and went to University in Essen. After my graduation I moved to Vancouver, Canada where I still live. Originally, I had planned to stay for a year, but since Vancouver is such a beautiful place I decided to stay a bit longer – it’s been 9 years now. I do go back to Germany quite frequently though to visit my family and friends, and still feel a strong connection to my roots there.
L: What is your first memory of photography?
BP: The first memory of photography would definitely be the photos my mom took of me and my sisters at Christmas or birthdays. So my first association with photography was the idea of being able to capture and freeze a moment in time and try to make it last. This perception shifted when I grew older and saw my grandfather taking pictures. He was a very ambitious amateur photographer, and through him I learned that there was more to photography than just taking candid family photos. I became aware that you could actually create an image by arranging, staging, paying attention to details and that you could use photography as a way to express yourself.
L: Your images are incredibly calm but full of potential action. What photography technique(s) do you use, digital or analogue, and what is your relationship to these techniques?
BP: I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to my equipment and techniques. I’m shooting with a Hasselblad camera from 1974 and I’m still using medium format film (mostly Kodak Portra). Most of my work has been printed manually in a darkroom and has never seen any Photoshop tools. But there has been a shift with my new projects. I’m still using film but the times of the darkroom are over and I have moved on to digital printing. I own a digital camera and use it occasionally – mostly when I am on assignments for magazines, but I sometimes wonder if it will ever feel as comfortable and natural to me as my Hasselblad.
L: All of the work, visible on your webpage has an extremely consistent signature. The lighting is almost identical in all of the portraits, as is the mood, even in different projects. How has your photography changed over the years through the different people you meet and photograph?
BP: I’ve always been trying to further evolve my photography visually and conceptually. While there has been a similar aesthetic in my earlier work – inspired by the cinematographic style of David Lynch’s movies and the work of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall – my recent projects, Lying Still and Mimesis, have taken a bit of a different direction. Both projects explore the idea of portraiture and identity on a more conceptual and less literal level, which to me feels like a very natural progression, but might appear like a bit of a shift from previous work. To me it’s just another attempt to go behind the surface, and look at other, deeper layers embedded in a person’s photographic image.
L: Are you working out personal questions or do you create your projects from the position of an outside voyeur?
BP: My photography has always been very personal, even when I take portraits of other people. There has to be an aspect that matters to me personally, and that I need to investigate, articulate and express. I don’t think I’d be able to dedicate the time and energy that goes into my projects without finding something that grabs me on a very personal level.
L: What is your relationship to your subjects? Or do you know them at all? – Is that relationship important to how you photograph your subjects?
BP: Most of the people I photograph I don’t know. They are people I met and wanted to photograph. But I never take a photo on the spot. Before I photograph a person I need to establish a level of trust that allows both parties to be as relaxed as possible. It’s a bit similar to a casting process. I often approach people on the street, then we might meet again and I tell them a bit more about me, my work and what I am looking for. Then we would meet for the actual photo shoot.
L: Your images seem to be carefully staged. How does the actual situation influence the development of the story in the process of taking pictures, or does it? How much room do you leave for chance?
BP: I like to be prepared and have an idea of what I am going to do but sometimes this idea gets thrown overboard and then I work with what other situation presents itself. The images for Sub Rosa are a lot more staged in terms of location, clothing etc. In The Idea of North I mostly worked with the personal environment of the people I photographed. If you do it this way you have to be quite quick and decide on the spot what could work. As much as surprises can be stressful, I like the feeling when unexpected things fall into place.
L: You create strong narratives with your images. Do you seek inspiration from literature, film or other photographers?
BP: I don’t necessarily seek it. I think it’s something that happens naturally and almost subconsciously as soon as you start looking at the world as an artist. There is a lot of work that I admire though, and that has influenced me and my work. Jeffrey Eugenides’ book The Virgin Suicides was a huge inspiration for Sub Rosa, and The Idea of North was inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. My interests and photographic approach have shifted a bit since then. I’m currently inspired by a lot of installation and sculpture rather than other photographers.
Could you list 5 (or more) words that you were thinking about when you made this work (shown in Laatikkomo)?
L: Thank you so much Birthe!