Yves Ullens and his influences
Interview with Francesco Rossi in Brussels, 24 February 2016.
Francesco Rossi: What have been your main influences from the history of art in terms of your photographic work ?
Yves Ullens: My work is predominantly based on light. So my two pictorial reference points are connected to painting and above all to light: Turner, a true magician in terms of handling light, and Monet for his delicate touch with color and light, particularly in his Rouen Cathedral series. Of course there are other Great Masters I could also cite, like Vermeer for his masterly and subtle handling of atmosphere, or Picasso for his creative richness. I mention this great contemporary artist because I feel close to his universe. He was extremely creative and open to a variety of mediums and supports. I myself have need of this creativity and I like to undertake experimental research beyond the photographic medium per se. My first sculpture, Délivrance, combines photography and sculpture. First and foremost I consider myself a colorist, and not solely a photographer.
F.R.: And regarding more contemporary artists, whom do you look to in terms of abstraction and photography ?
Y.U.: I would liked to have met László Moholy-Nagy, someone who was always on the lookout for new and innovative techniques and aesthetics, notably with his experimental photomontages. The 1930s was the Golden Age of abstract photography in Europe, particularly in countries of the East. Abstract photography provided an experimental dimension and visual renewal.
Concerning contemporary photography, I am greatly interested in the work of artists who also develop their research regarding color and abstraction like, for example, in Thomas Ruff’s very hypnotic series Substrats, where experimentation with the image is pushed to the extreme. And another, more recent series by Thomas Ruff entitled Photograms, where the forms and colors are also computer-manipulated, and where the result is more cerebral and complex. I’d also like to mention the Helsinki School. It has generated photography that is both quite varied and creative, with an approach specifically tied to the light of the North. Some of these Finnish photographers particularly explore abstraction in their work. I’m a fan of the gentleness in Ea Vasco’s images, of Niko Luoma’s experiments and the poetical prints by Nanna Hänninen. As for contemporary painters, Mark Rothko has been an important source of inspiration for me from the emotional and spiritual point of view. Hans Hartung, too, is a great representative of abstraction. I much admire his gestural abstract style and above all his way of having developed his own tools.
F.R.: In this same vein, which are your own creative tools? Because looking at your work, one notes a certain gestural language as well. How do you go about obtaining this ?
Y.U.: I grew up close to my grandmother, Marie-Thérèse Ullens, who let me set up my first darkroom in her house. I remember the magic of seeing the image appear in the developing baths. So I initially started with traditional film and progressively moved to using digital with the advent of newer and better performing cameras. This also allowed me to make photographs of larger format. A tool easier to handle since all my images are made from direct shots, as it were. My gestural language is connected to daring to liberate my gesture and body movement. I use my camera like a painter uses his brush; it’s a tool one has to indeed master in order to catch the light with the accuracy one wishes. The creative possibilities are broader using digital, but it’s about learning to maintain a demand for quality with oneself. The selection of my images is very rigorous; in the majority of cases they are not retouched nor re-framed.
F.R. : Tell me about the subjects photographed. What are the starting ingredients in the making of your images ?
Y.U.: The subjects are quite varied. I collect everyday objects that are colored or whose texture and volume provide a source of light. Otherwise, they’re details of subjects found outdoors or else in interiors during my travels. My photographs are not always shot in the studio. The first stage of my work is rational; I spot the potential of the color and the light of an object that foreshadows an eventual result. I immerse myself in the object by turning around it and questioning its potential. Then with the shutter speed and camera movement, I capture the play of reflections rendered by the subject. So, I try to free myself from this rationality in order to create other magical universes. Emotion takes the upper hand over rationality.
F.R.: Can you give us an example of an object you’ve photographed ?
Y.U.: Yes. Take for instance a packing carton. I’ve worked for years on the phenomenon of metamerism or iridescence, something often used in cosmetics packaging. These are variations in color visible to the eye in function of the light source, and these effects interest me a lot. Sometimes I use the same material and obtain different results, because the material decomposes the light differently according to the angle of view and the lighting. Every light is characterized by two things: the frequency of vibration and the color generated by the light. All these factors influence the result of the final image. It’s a fairly scientific approach. The colors obtained in my photographs come solely from the object or its reflections.
F.R.: You clearly have a passion for color, but you also work in back-and-white…
Y.U.: That’s right. I like black-and-white too, though that’s rather the exception in my work. It’s a more tender palette, and evokes something different than does color, which nevertheless is at the heart of my œuvre and more connected with energy. For me, black-and-white is more pure and soothing, and led to the title of my series Zen Attitude.
F.R.: What is the place of abstract photography in terms of today’s creative panorama, and as regards the current practice of the hyper-mediazation of images ?
Y.U.: Abstraction has a quite particular connection with my childhood. My parents would often take us to museums, but looking at abstract paintings made me uncomfortable because their meaning left me completely in the dark. Reading an abstract image, be it a painting or a photograph, is less immediate and tied directly to emotion. Today it’s the opposite, and abstraction has given me a sense of well-being and a positive feeling that corresponds to my nature. For me, abstract photography is a more intellectual discipline and linked to emotion. My images provide a stimulus for positive emotions. The digital age has revolutionized photography and made it more accessible. It permits greater creative freedom. This said, one has to maintain a discipline and be rigorous. In abstract photography, there are numerous ways to work the medium and many possibilities open to photographers. Some work directly on the negative, others on the paper – like the chimigramme developed by Pierre Cordier. The possibilities are endless. I like this medium because it’s experimental, thus more scientific, and that’s something that just fits with my nature. So while abstraction scared me when I was a child, today I take great pleasure from it. When I started my career as artist, photography was a rather closed universe. But now I see more and more young artists delving into abstraction. For that matter, as a collector, along with my wife, we’ve often supported young talent working with abstraction in their art.
F.R.: In terms of painting, what do you see as the potential of abstract photography ?
Y.U.: Painting is a gesture of control, contrary to my photographs which are organized fortunate accidents of whose final result I’m never sure. Control and pure accident are both necessary in my photographic work on abstraction. My first abstract photograph was born after a trip to Turkey. An accidental image, but one whose result quite fascinated me. Two years later, I made my first deliberate abstract image with a long exposure and controlling the camera’s movement. This image, that I called The Birth of Colors, was a ‘provoked accident’ arising from a subject I felt had strong potential. Over time, I’ve improved my physical gesture, and developed my investigations into light and color with a variety of subjects and objects. Reactions to my work are quite varied, but for me what’s important is what people perceive. The viewer has to rely on his or her emotions, keeping a child’s heart and above all not over-rationalizing or intellectualizing the image. My work has two directions: pictorial photography and kinetic art. Movements allied to painting and sculpture based on the play of rhythm and visual effects. I’ve tried to go beyond the aesthetic and technical possibilities of conventional photography. I continue to experiment, using my images with other tools, like the computer, to create a series connected to op art. Each image is created starting from one of my images, injecting forms and colors. Photography remains my main medium, but I’m always on the lookout for other possibilities… why not the creation of objects ?
F.R.: Coming back to your influences, your reference points are very much allied to painting. Why ?
Y.U.: It’s true that my references are often connected to painting, and less so to photography. For that matter, I discovered abstraction in my youth through the angle of kinetic art. There was a tableau by Vasarely at home. Today, I use my camera like a brush. I admire the sculptures and wall-drawings of Sol LeWitt, the accumulations and the coulées de peintures of Arman, the sensuality of forms and materials of Jean Arp, the painted black vibrations of Soulages… These are the essential references with respect to material and color that I try to re-transcribe in my photographs. I use photography like a painter; painting is an essential reference. I’ll always remember that little boy who, on seeing one of my photographs, asked his father: “How does he do it with his magic crayons ?” But I also admire the great names of photography like Horst P. Horst, Yousuf Karsh and Henri Cartier-Bresson who, nevertheless, one day expressed to me his rejection of abstraction !
F.R.: What about the format of your images ?
Y.U.: The format of my images has also evolved in function of my series, and has followed the evolution of contemporary photography (Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff as mentioned before, Thomas Struth…). The images don’t all work in the same format; they have to be adapted according to the particular image but also with respect to the technical possibilities. I like small formats for their precious and intimate side. On the other hand, a large format acts more to absorb the viewer, as is the case for my series Coloured Meditation, dedicated to Rothko.
F.R.: From the start, art is at the service of architecture to modify the perception of space through color. Might your large-format works have the same function ?
Y.U.: Yes, undoubtedly. I’ve used photography to extend my creative possibilities in space with monumental installations that surpass human-scale. Recently, I’ve had several important commissions and it’s interesting to work in a particular space to find just the right proportions. You have to reflect on the relationship between Man and his environment, on elevation and infinity. A notion that we can equally find in my recent sculptures Pi and Triple Pi. There is also an aspect of spirituality present in my works.
F.R.: Emotion seems to be at the heart of your work. What message is it that you’d like to transmit ?
Y.U.: Indeed, I’d like to transmit a feeling of well-being through my works. Since childhood I’d kept bottled up an experience connected to death. With the start of my artistic career I’ve been able to unlock and express these emotions by grace of my photographs. I work on light sources and channel them so that they become radiant and warm. Light is an essential vector to my work, it’s an énergie vitale, almost healing. My researches are not uniquely tied to an aesthetic result; they are equally an expression of personal emotion. Above all, I’m expressing my own nature. Those formative emotions I’ve found in the work of Mark Rothko, Bernard Frize, Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely and Carlos Cruz-Diez, that have so much inspired me.
All images, © Yves Ullens - Traqueur de Lumières