Vera Schöpe Houston, USA
Vera Schöpe was chosen by photographer Marikel Lahana.
Laatikkomo’s interview with Vera Schöpe 23.1.2016.
L: Where are you from? What cities, and/or countries have you lived in – or what places have influenced you?
VS: I made a book to answer that question and called it FREE FROM. Free from the question where are you from and the past in general. I do not identify very much with the notion of nationality though I am proud of my roots. Maybe that is why I feel the urge to create projects in borderlands and explore the notion of belonging. This question used to haunt me. Now I prefer focusing on creating new images and projects, rooting my experience in the here and now, wherever I am.
I was born in Barcelona, Spain. My father is from East Berlin and he moved to the US when I was little. I grew up by the sea, receiving postcards he sent me from all over the world. His absence and travels made me want to explore far away places from an early age. No place seemed out of reach. I started visiting my family in the former DDR after the fall of the wall of Berlin. Meeting my grandfather there had a great impact in my sense of belonging. I visited him often and we gardened together every time I was in Berlin. To this day, that is the closest I have been to belonging somewhere and feeling home.
Regarding specific places, I started painting and collaborating on art projects in Houston, Texas. I studied Photography in Arles, France. I later spent some time in Guangzhou, China collaborating as a teacher, illustrator, and Visual Arts Development Consultant. I recently made Austin my home base but continue to travel extensively to explore and create projects in Bolivia, Morocco, Lebanon, and recently across the Amazon.
Experiences and people influence more than places per se. And yet, I use cartography in most of my multimedia projects.
L: What is your first memory of photography?
VS: I remember my father making me pose in the balcony every time he came to visit me from the US. He used a Polaroid camera and gave me the pictures afterwards. This exchange made me aware of the tangible nature of photographs and how they could capture moments.
L: Photography is often used to talk about memory. For you, in your own work, what makes photography most appealing in dealing with the subject of memory?
VS: I like the versatility of the photographic process. It reminds me of the act of painting and applying layers. I love the different ways I can print images, project them, alter them with paint and other tools, or fix them to sculptural works. I especially enjoy creating unfinished archives that mix old images and artifacts with newly shot photographs, thus creating a new narrative, a sort of map of experience that offers more questions than answers.
I also enjoy digging into historical archives and anchoring personal stories in collective memories. That is why I started working in the creation of temporary installation archives.
Photography gives the illusion of immediate reality. It is fun to contextualize contemporary images with allusions from the past and weave what the people saw and what they remember with their stories and memories.
L: Some of the images in different series are taken in black/white ( as in Crossing, and La Montagne qui Dévour les Hommes) and for others you have made in colour. What makes you choose colour over black/white for different images?
VS: It depends on the project. I enjoy shooting both color and black and white. My choice tends to be instinctive but I like using both. I sometimes shoot in both, especially when photographing open territories.
L: Your images seem to be taken in different formats and possibly with different cameras (Polaroid, digital,..). What advantages do different kinds of cameras have in your work?
VS: I started and feel most comfortable with film cameras. I love using portable yet powerful cameras such as Nikon F3 and Mamiya 7ii. They allow me to walk for extended periods of time while I seek the best angle to approach certain territories or in challenging terrains like mines. I like to challenge myself by using large format cameras (chambre) in extreme situations like balancing on bridges or on train tracks with oncoming traffic. I also like shooting in extreme weather conditions. I find the rapidly changing light conditions and physical constraints highly motivating. They keep me on my toes. For that, I mostly use a digital camera and occasionally a tripod. I recently started shooting with a small compact Polaroid camera. It is a very discreet way to approach people and places. I especially like the instantaneous connection it creates between people and how it makes small moments tangible. It is good to share, show, and create new images. That is the smallest size images I have created. Their simplicity has reminded me why I take pictures: to get close to things, people, and places.
L: In some of your previous exhibitions you have used small prints (Undertide, and A Revision of Memory) although the current trend in photography is to go bigger and bigger. The smallness seems to allude to the past like memories of a photo album. Is the size dictated by the format of the film or how do you choose the size of the prints?
VS: I choose the size of the images according to the place where they are going to be shown. I normally mix large, medium, and small prints, along with archival documents and found materials or artifacts. With your question regarding the use of small format images, I think you are referring to the project FREE FROM, which existed as a small book that resembled a family photo album including multigenerational archival materials from my grandfather’s, father’s, and my own images. That is the most personal of my projects and definitely alludes to the past, recovering and altering memories. The book shows small images but actually the exhibition display created while in residence in Berlin included all types of size formats. There were old black and white originals, as well as Polaroids and printed images from 1970’s through 1980’s, mixed with large format images resembling giant negatives and mural images from both old and contemporary sources. I decided to keep the originals in a smaller size to preserve and anchor the rest of the presentation, as well as to create a time line. Small size prints draw people; they invite the general public to have a closer look at the narrative. For this project, I wanted to convey a sense of intimacy and belonging. In a way, I presented the whole exhibition as a map of experience, an unfinished archive acting as a point of arrival to the here and now considered in Berlin at that time.
In previous and later projects, I have enjoyed printing large format images in conjunction with smaller ones paired with transcriptions of interviews and oral histories gathered. Installations such as “Je suis la frontière,” “La Montagne qui dévore les hommes,” and ‘Another Beirut’ include large format images. When the exhibtion space allows, I like to use encompassing images to show territory and human landmarks and invite the spectator inside the landscape. I run tests before I choose which images to blow up.
Furthermore, I enjoy printing images on different kinds of paper, synthetic, weather-proof surfaces for outdoor displays, transparent acetate to resemble large format negatives. In indoor displays, I like mixing my images with archival documents and found artifacts. I also like printing them on old paper and integrating them with the place to create a specific experience every time.
I never choose the size of images due to the film used. It is my job to shoot with high quality equipment that allows me to be discreet and have full versatility when it comes to printing. I beware of the allure of large images. There must be a reason for them to occupy the space. I spend a considerable amount of time editing images and deciding how to show them, always taking into account the place where they will on display. It is very hard for me to witness curators changing the way I designed an installation, especially if they do not let me know. Changing the order and display of images changes its meaning. One of the most valuable things I learned at the
École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie is to spend time with the images and make sure you organize them according to what you want to say with them. It is all in the how. Size for its own sake is not justifiable if the work does not call for it.
L: Could you list 5 (or more) words that you were thinking about when you made this work, Trans-Amazonia ?
VS: Wilderness, moment, visceral, unknown, texture
Thank you so much Vera!!