Interview | Gemma Padley With DAFNA TALMOR
Dafna Talmor
Commissioned for Constructed Landscapes, published by Fw:Books (2020)
GP: Perhaps we could go back to the beginning. How did Constructed Landscapes come about?

DT: For many years I’d been shooting primarily in interior spaces. I felt I needed the limitations an interior space provides but there was always a reference to the outside space, to the view. In the work I was making (Obstructed Views) there was an interplay between the inside and the outside, a figure looking out longingly, but also a denial of the view outside the window. Gradually, I realised I was more interested in what was outside than hovering somewhere in-between.

From 2003 to 2009 I had been shooting landscapes whenever I travelled – when I went home to Israel where I was born, to Venezuela where I was raised, or to the United States where my sister lives. And any time I travelled around the UK, where I’ve lived for 22 years, I took my camera with me. There was something about going away with this transportable object, which enabled me to ‘take’ these places with me. I didn’t know why I was doing it; I just felt a compulsion to take pictures. When I came back to the studio, and looked at the contact sheets, I was always disappointed with the images – they weren’t really doing anything very interesting in themselves. But I kept taking pictures. There was a sense of urgency in taking them and then a disappointment that followed. It dawned on me that perhaps the way I could make use of them and turn that frustration into something productive was by making interventions directly onto the negatives.

GP: Had you worked in such a way before that?

DT: Never.

GP: So it was quite intuitive?

DT: Completely. I still remember making the first images and not really knowing what I was doing. It was a completely new language for me. I just knew it was leading somewhere and that I had to keep going.

GP: Did it feel quite liberating? Did working in that way give you a new sense of purpose or direction?

DT: It was incredibly liberating because I realised that in a sense how the original images looked didn’t really matter anymore. The fact that they were ‘failures’ or ‘disappointments’ meant I wasn’t precious about cutting up the negatives. People generally find that to be such an extreme act – there is something so sacred about the negative – but I didn’t feel that way. There was a kind of exhilaration about finding a purpose for what I felt was material that had no purpose. The archive of negatives I had accumulated became source material.

GP: Did this new way of working change the way you saw and photographed the landscape?

DT: I definitely felt there was a shift. Saying that, I retained the feeling I’d always had of being confronted by landscape when I was outside with my camera. I was still overwhelmed by the amount of possibilities and multiple angles and perspectives, and how one image, taking one frame, was never enough. I was acutely aware of the limitations of photography. It made me think about the physicality of standing in a space and how one scans the landscape and looks in different directions versus the fixed point of view of the camera, and the specific choices one is led to make whether consciously or subconsciously in terms of shooting different frames. But all of a sudden I could embrace that feeling of being overwhelmed. Rather than being a problem it became the driving force behind making the work.

Dafna Talmor, (work in progress), 2019, Courtesy of the artist.
GP: When photographing and then working with the negatives afterwards, is your process to some extent about being in but also, conversely, relinquishing control?

DT: Absolutely. The work is very much a combination of something that is quite serendipitous where there are a lot of elements of chance, which I embrace and really enjoy, but there’s also something that is incredibly considered. There’s a lot of back and forth between cutting the negatives and then printing in the colour darkroom to see what the image looks like. When I’m cutting into a negative there’s a kind of blindness. Although I have the contact sheet for reference it’s very small and because I’m looking at a negative it’s very hard to be completely precise. The reveal happens when I get to a certain point of building the negative and I put it into the enlarger and produce a print. That’s when things become clearer. This idea of blindness also comes into play when I’m shooting – I can physically see the landscape but I don’t really see it; what I see is a bank of images I carry with me.

GP: That’s interesting – the idea that what we’ve seen and remember affects what we see and how we photograph, or that we are to a degree blinded by what we’ve seen.

DT: Yes, either consciously or subconsciously. That sense of feeling overwhelmed we’ve been talking about is not just physical. I’ve spoken about it before as feeling burdened by the history of the landscape genre, whether that’s painting or photography, where I feel there are recurring tropes and conventions, cultural constructs which I can’t help but mimic or pick up on to some extent.

GP: What kinds of things do you mean?

DT: There isn’t something specific I can point to, and I’m talking from a very Western position in terms of art history, so romanticism or notions of the sublime or the picturesque, being drawn to a certain kind of composition or perspective I’ve been exposed to in art, as well as vernacular images, since I was a child.

GP: Is it a case of trying to disrupt, consciously or otherwise, those notions or tropes with which you’re familiar?

DT: Yes, although when I started making the work I can’t say I was thinking about that consciously. I was working quite intuitively, responding to the material and to the process, familiarising myself with this new way of working. What really drove me in the beginning was feeling that I finally had a purpose, a function for what had, until that point, just been a personal archive. It’s about the challenge of taking material shot in places of personal significance into a space of greater universality. The reason I say greater universality is because I don’t believe there is such a thing as complete universality.

Dafna Talmor, (work in progress), 2019, Courtesy of the artist.
GP: The work is in two parts, is that right?

DT: There are two sub series that make up the project so far. The earlier work, which is Volume I, is where I took two negatives from completely different geographical locations merged to create a hybrid space. There was only one element that was cut out, from one layer of the negative. In the more recent work, Volume II, which I’ve been working on since 2014, each image is made up of negatives taken in the same location (multiple fragments of negatives shot on the same roll of film, i.e. in close succession), so it’s a reconfiguration of the same space.

GP: Is the idea of a ‘utopia’ present in your work at all, or perhaps a subverting of that?

DT: Yes, absolutely. To me the idea of utopia is a non-place, a place that doesn’t exist, rather than a positive or idealised place, but I also think of utopias as spaces that are driven by possibility. I’m really interested in that space of projection, of aspiration. In the earlier work (Volume I), the fact each image was made up of two completely different geographical locations meant it was crossing time, space and geography. In hindsight, it points to the trans-national way I was brought up. As a child I remember wishing for an imaginary place consisting of multiple countries because I was constantly torn between going home to see my family and having my friends spread out across the globe. That perhaps gets played out in the work on a very basic level, in the construction of places that conflate different locations and only exist as a fiction, only exist photographically rather than physically. The other utopian aspiration with regard to this notion of ‘universality’ is to try and strip places of their specificity and original connotations, whether they are personal or political. Saying that, I’m also very aware that that is a complete impossibility. I’m fascinated by photography’s impossibilities and contradictions, its conflicts and tensions, which I try to straddle in my work. Because photography is indexical it’s constantly pointing to something that exists beyond itself, so as much as I may attempt to remove any references and neutralise the landscape, as soon as the viewer looks at these constructed images I think there’s a general inclination to piece them together – not necessarily in a literal sense, but perhaps by trying to locate or anchor themselves somehow.

GP: Looking back on your work from the past few years, are there certain things you feel you’re drawn to? What elements of the landscape do you have a particular affinity with?

DT: Most of the time the landscapes I encounter are quite circumstantial – I happen to be going somewhere and I’ll have my camera with me – but certain types of landscapes or elements in the landscape resonate with me more than others. What I tend to struggle with most are trees and green rolling hills. It’s not that I don’t enjoy those types of landscapes personally I just find them harder to deal with photographically. In the earlier work (Volume I) there were more of those elements. That’s why that work is perhaps more aligned with traditional pictorial conventions and representation. Although the work was still trying to disrupt that, it was more present. The recent work deals more with abstracting the landscape, taking different elements and thinking, very consciously, about multiple perspectives and points of view that are embedded within one frame. There is never just one way or one position the viewer is invited to look, the aim being to destabilise and disorientate.

Process Image, 8 Negatives being cut and reassembled for GI work, 2019, Courtesy of the artist.
GP: What about the influence of or nod to pictorial processes and modernist experiments in your work – have these been present from the beginning?

DT: I became aware of these references as the work was developing. There are three points within the history of photography with which I feel the work is in dialogue. The first is from the early days of photography – the pictorialists who made combination prints. Most had started out as painters and moved into using photography, so they were borrowing that language or that approach of constructing an image from scratch. The difference, or rather what I was and still am aware of, is that the pictorialists sought to make their images as seamless as possible, whereas for me it is about bringing the joins to the fore. Theirs was perhaps an attempt to make something look convincing and real, an idealised landscape, whereas I am in a sense doing the opposite. I’m trying to disrupt that pristine photographic surface. The second point is the modernist experiments where artists tampered with the materiality of film itself, scratching it, cutting it, or creating multiple exposures. Third: if we jump forward to contemporary practice, I was very aware of the work being made in response to the proliferation of digital manipulation, thinking about the differences between the handmade and digital manipulation. The irreversibility of manual intervention versus a digital master file that can be preserved digitally is something I became acutely interested in.

GP: How, if at all, do ideas of the surreal play out in the work?

DT: Although the images are obviously constructed and therefore surreal on some level, I hope to some extent they remain believable and relatable. For me, it’s about getting far enough away from the ‘real’ but at the same time not taking it so far that it becomes fantastical. I recently started to reflect again and be excited by – and it sounds so basic and obvious – all the potential and possibilities negatives hold, when producing images. That realm of possibilities is the reason I enjoy colour printing in the darkroom, and why it plays such an intrinsic role in my practice. The same negative(s) can be printed in so many different ways, which is reflected through the studies – the preparatory ‘sketches’. Ultimately, it’s about coming to a decision and saying, “I think this works and it’s now finished”.

GP: Do you ever feel paralysed or overwhelmed during the constructing part of the process? It’s occurred to me there’s a parallel between this stage and being out in the landscape where there are endless possibilities that exist with regard to composing the image/s (viewpoint, framing and so on).

DT: Absolutely. There is a funny kind of irony or coming full circle in that I started the project because I’d accumulated material and was overwhelmed by all of its possibilities, and now I’ve, not come to the same place exactly, but there’s a similarity in that I found myself sitting with boxes and boxes of test prints that had a purpose in the making of the work but beyond that had become defunct. The studies point to the process in a different way – through repetition and variations that are sometimes subtle, sometimes more extreme. They point to the series of decisions and hesitations that take place throughout the making, but rather than be purely illustrative my hope is they become something in their own right. I’ve come to think that the work lies there as much as it lies in the final large-scale images.

GP: Do you think of yourself as working in a similar way to how a painter might?

DT: I’m really interested in how the work hopefully points to, suggests or is in conversation with a wide range of disciplines and practices. Painting is definitely one of them. There’s also something sculptural about the work, then there’s the element of drawing (through the residue of lines made with a felt-tip marker to outline the incisions) and collage. At the same time the work is very consciously in conversation with photography as a medium. On the one hand it embraces its inherent qualities and on the other there’s a kind of playful defiance of certain traditional photographic standards that photography tends to comply with.

GP: What about this idea of the void, and the lines or cracks in the work. I’m interested in their significance and how you see the ‘negative’ spaces.

DT: I hope they leave space for the viewer to fill in or read those gaps in different ways. On one level they point to the manual process, literally the manual intervention. When I started making the work I was trying to cut out and leave as negative space any human-made elements that somehow interrupted the so-called purity of the landscape, but what I became aware of very quickly was that by trying to remove those interruptions, I was paradoxically replacing them with new human-made interruptions – the incisions I was making created over-exposed areas that left black blots on the photographic paper. That’s what I thought the black voids were pointing to initially. They’d left physical spaces within the frame, which could also be read as interruptions in the composition. In addition, they flattened parts of the image, signalling or triggering a conceptual warning that pointed to their fabrication. I tend to think of voids as openings and closings at the same time – they block something from view whilst opening up that space. How those voids or black spaces function conceptually is quite different from Volume I to Volume II. In the earlier work there was still something underneath - one layer of negative - that was being obstructed, and therefore concealing that view. In the recent work there are gaps between the fragments of negatives where the light starts to bounce within the enlarger and spills over, creating flares, leaks and imperfections.

GP: It almost looks as though you set fire to some of the images. They look scorched.

DT: I’m interested in their potential to be read in multiple ways visually as well as conceptually. For example, the gaps can be read as elements of landscape in themselves. I also think when we talk about voids we tend to think about black space but actually you can have white voids too, in this context the overlaps where due to exposure variations the paper goes completely white. The void also tends to, through its absence, define what is around it or beyond it, so in that relational sense it seems really fitting in terms of photography as a medium.

GP: I wanted to ask how far you feel your work is a reaction or challenge to the belief that photography points to reality or is a faithful documentation of its subject?

DT: There is certainly an acknowledgment of the indexical nature of the image. There is a certain link to ‘reality’ embedded within each image evident through the elements that are recognisable as belonging to specific environments or locations. Simultaneously there’s an acknowledgment that it’s purely a construction. All photographs are on some level a construction it’s just that some are more obvious than others. Hopefully there is a balance between these oppositions, a constant push and pull that gets played out through the work in what I have referred to as an imaginary space rooted in reality.

GP: You’ve spoken before about how your work blurs or brings together place, memory and time – how does that play out in the work?

DT: Something I’ve thought about again recently is this notion of the decisive moment – how there’s this ‘one click’ where supposedly everything magically comes together to create the perfect image. The work, in a way, responds to or rejects the idea that there is one pure moment. Instead, there are multiple moments. Time and space collide because each image is made up of different points in time and different positions, which are brought together into one frame. If we’re talking in relation to painting, in a kind of cubist sense, it’s attempting to conflate these multiple positions, multiple realities.

In terms of memory, there are the multiple memories associated with being in particular locations, but there is also the experience of making the image and the thought processes that happen. So when I’m looking at the work I’m not only thinking about how I felt when I was in a place originally, I’m thinking about the making of the piece itself and all of the decisions that were made along the way. As much as I think about where the images originated, the constructed landscapes really do, for me, become somewhere else. Hopefully the work enables the viewer to think more generally not just about how one might view or experience a landscape, but also how one might experience or view an image of a landscape, a landscape that has been mediated. A lot of landscape images attempt to draw people in or get lost in the image whereas I want people to remain very conscious of their point of view, of their position, and this act of looking. I hope it’s a very active way of looking.

GP: Has it become easier over time to cut into the negatives or is there still a sense of, “Is this going to work”?

DT: Every time I make a new image I ask myself whether it’s going to work and whether I can make something interesting out of these ‘failed’ images. As long as I can still feel challenged when doing so, there is still work to do. There are so many right or wrong decisions – it’s not the case that there’s one. When I struggle, I say to myself, “It’s fine, there isn’t one way to do this, just do what makes sense now and work with what you have. See where it takes you, respond to what you’re looking at rather than trying to visualise or anticipate what it’ll look like”. That ultimately allows me to keep going. What’s important when I make my work is for there to be a kind of internal logic to the decisions being made so they’re not arbitrary. The ‘visual effects’ that come about through the process are mostly a result of practical reasons rather than purely aesthetic choices. For example, I started to draw onto the negatives with a felt-tip pen to make an outline I could follow when cutting them, and when I printed the images I noticed traces of those marks. I became interested in how the residues could be read in different ways, visually as well as conceptually.

GP: Where do you see the work going next?

DT: I’ve been thinking about how to push the work beyond its current parameters. For example, the studies and process material included in the book and in the form of architectural site-specific interventions I’ve been making in exhibition contexts that take it beyond the two-dimensional photographic analogue image. Although the work has been predominantly analogue, for me it’s never been a case of establishing any kind of hierarchy. Film and digital are merely tools that open up the space to conceptualise things in different ways. While I feel certain elements of this work can only be made using film, other elements I want to experiment with further require digital technology. It’s about exploring all possibilities and trying to push the work beyond its current scope.