Nov 21, 2006

The selection shown here is from Jeff Bark’s first gallery exhibition. Entitled Abandon, it’s on until January 2007 at the MichaelHoppen Gallery in London and features 15 life-size nudes and oversized still lifes. Hoppen, who also showed some of Bark’s pieces at the Paris Photo Fair in November, has been representing the artist since Spring 2006. So let’s say that 43 year-old Bark is probably one of the least blasé photographers I’ve interviewed in a long time. Add to that his American-ness, stir in a drop of California-ness, and you have a recipe for a chat with a thoroughly earnest, thoroughly candid nice-guy.

“Ever since I was 11 or 12 years old, all I  cared about was being a photographer”, he starts as a was of introduction. Bark studied at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California in the mid 1980s. He left before completing his degree for reasons he’d rather not go into. The move apparently didn’t cramp in his career, as he went on to become a successful fashion photographer, shooting covers for Vogue and the likes in Milan, Paris, and New York. He has a studio and office in New York City, but would rather not talk about his fashion shoots either. From his home in the forest in upstate New York was, however, more than happy to tell us some of the stories behind the elaborate sets and emotion-charges narratives he builds within his photographs.

BO: So how exactly do you see your art photography?
JB: For me it feels like I’m sculpting or painting. I can control it entirely. Because we start in an empty white studio everything from the color stains on the walls, to the wear of the fabric on the furniture, to hoe the dirty floors look is considered and manipulated. It’s very much like a diorama, telling the story with the placement of objects. The setup and shooting are non-stop physical acts for me, adding, subtracting and rearranging props, finessing the light until a balance is reached, it’s something you can actually feel on set when it happens. Everything is deliberate with nothing left to chance; I need it to seem real.

BO: Why the nudity? Why the full frontal shots?
JB: The nudity was at first the result of exploring classical subject matter, the nude, the still life, landscapes and religious art. In this series the nudity made the models open up emotionally and you can see that in the pictures, that shared openness. I cast looking for people who are quite regular, ordinary and usually quite shy. I wanted to show the kind of people you might not have seen naked before, except maybe in the bed next to you or in the mirror. I want to show as much detail as possible, every vein, every hair.

BO: But don’t you think that these people are pretty attractive?
JB: True, this series was built around the idea that this was a crummy apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, shared at different times by these young hipster roommates. People in New York tend to be good looking; they come here from around the world because they see themselves as special.

BO: How do you find them?
JB: My assistant Laura and I put an ad on the internet. We had a casting of the ones who interested us. I wouldn’t meet them. I judged them from the video or polaroids my assistant had taken. I was looking for someone who triggered an emotional reaction in me just from his or her picture. It really could be anything. Someone might make you feel sympathy or disgust. It might be physical, veiny legs or a mass of pimples. I need something to build their character so I could narrate a story for them.

BO: What are their reactions to their portraits?
JB: I don’t really show the pictures to them. I feel it would make them uncomfortable.  The shoot is so intimate and emotional, its such a gentle process, and I don’t want to mess that up. I spent a lot of time posing them and they may have never felt more beautiful in their entire lives, because of the way we treat them, encourage and accept them for who they are. They feel very important, its very touching.

BO: Have you shown these photos to your grandmother?
JB: Yeah! In fact, as extreme as some of these are, I’ve never met anyone who’s been shocked or turned off by them, even though I’ve been trying to get that reaction! The one where the naked guy and girl are holding hands, most people are interested in the hands than the sex. Or they’re looking at the little leaf the blond girl is caressing. I’m striving to be as extreme as possible, but because of the artistic quality of the pictures, they are also totally accepted. I find all these photographs slightly funny actually.

BO: Like the one with the man urinating?
JB: I think having a picture like that on the wall next to your dining room table would be pretty hilarious; you would get a lot of double takes.

BO: You seem to focus on an entirely different theme in the still life with the plant and mug.
JB: To me that picture sort of sums up the life of those kids in the dumpy Brooklyn apartment. Here, again, I want to get an emotional reaction from people. I want them to feel the loneliness, just by using what was left behind.

BO: Who do you work with?
JB: I have a small crew of 3 or 4 people including Laura Germida who works with me from the beginning of a project, starting with casting to production to printing the final prints- we do it all together. Then there is Maria Santana the production designer who I’d really like to mention. She has changed the way I work. I’ve always kept diaries full of ideas for my photography, but she is the one who helped turn those ideas into photographs.

BO: Does it take a long time to get it right?
JB: A lot of time and a lot of money and also a lot of favors. I worked on one series, shooting for 20 hours, three days in a row, pushing everyone to the limit and then getting home and realized I could have done more with the lighting. We had to find a new studio, rebuild the set, and pay all the models again. Everyone was totally satisfied with the first results, except me. I went through a lot of pain. I’ll do anything for a picture.