I like all sorts of photography. My book shelves are full of works from a range of photographers including Garry Winogrand, Walter Niedermayr and Taryn Simon. My book shelves also hold four books by German photographer Peter Bialobrzeski. I like all sorts of photography but in my book, Peter is right up there at the top. I’m very happy that he’s agreed to talk a little bit here about himself, photography, education and anything else he feels like!
Please enjoy! – James Pomerantz
A little background:
Peter Bialobrzeski studied politics and sociology before he became a photographer for a local paper in his native Wolfsburg, Germany. He travelled extensivly in Asia before he went back to college in Essen and London to study photography and editorial design. After having worked as a photojournalist for almost 15 years, Peter started to focus more on personal projects. He interprets his work neither as documentary nor as art but defines it as cultural practice. In the last seven years he has published four books, “XXXholy“, “NEONTIGERS” “HEIMAT” and very recently “Lost in Transition“. [NOTE, Peter has two more recent books to check out: “Paradise Now“ and “Case Study Homes“] His work has been exhibited in Europe, USA, Asia, Africa Australia and New Zealand. He has won numurous awards including a World Press Photo Award in 2003. He was a member of the jury of the Fuji European Press awards in 2001 and 2002 and a member of the World Press Photo jury in 2007. From 1999 to 2000, Bialobrzeski served as a visiting professor for documentary photography at the University of Essen. In 2002, Peter was appointed as a professor for photography at the University of the Arts in Bremen. The reproduction rights of his work are handled by laif agency in Cologne and he is represented by Laurence Miller Gallery in New York and LA Galerie in Frankfurt.
JP: Hey Peter, thanks for sharing your thoughts. First of all, a quick question about you. There is a clear shift in your work from the early 1990s to the work you were producing in the late 1990s. What was going on in that transition period for you?
PB: I started photographing for a local paper in my hometown Wolfsburg in 1983 where I worked til 1986, then I went travelling to Asia for almost a year. I went to University of Essen in 1988 and at that time the New Color Photographers were en vogue. nevertheless I continued to work in narratives (Sicilians) and later tried to merge a formal photojournalistic style with some of the new color elements (my England essay which was the piece I graduated with). The problem I had then was: People thought my work was too artsy for journalism and too journalistic for the art world. That gave me few, but interesting assignments for stories that were difficult to visualize and rather required an interpretation then an illustration. By the end of the nineties that freedom faded, simply because a lot of those magazines went out of business. At the same time I started working on my xxxholy project and it was so much better doing my own work, making books, selling prints, teaching and writing instead of going some place for a travel magazine.
Ye Olde Bialobrzeski:
JP: You’ve been teaching at the University of Bremen since 2002. The program has a great reputation (I think it’s great). You took your students to Calcutta and Hatje Cantz published a book of the work, there is a Bialobrzeski Students website. It seems like a really great community. Can you give a little info about the course you teach?
PB: It’s rather flattering that you think that the course has a great reputation. If so, it has nothing to do with its structure. In fact, the design of the course is rather contradictory to what I want to teach. Why? Simply because I am supposed to teach photography within an “Integrated Design” course, meaning people who will be designers are supposed to join some courses with me to get an idea about photography, but when I started I was told by the authorities that I was not there to educate photographers…
Nevertheless, a lot of students started to share my passion and came back every term, so that unintentionally the whole thing became a closed group like in art school. Since the other parts of the education are dedicated to other design diciplines and also the theory is aimed at that, I can only speak for my class. Of course, I would love to have things like technical classes, history of photography and all that. I mention them all, but it could be much better.
JP: So what is your take on MFAs? I’m in a program that is based around critiques while also providing a heavy dose of theory, history and some technical courses.
PB: A lot of MFA programs in the states and in England have this rather heavy emphasis on theory. We had a girl from Yale a couple of years back and for me, it felt like a system based on fear. High in quality but with an unhealthy competitiveness. The really sucessful years in my class where based on a core group of students who trusted each other and helped each other. Our class met once a week and we discussed each others work the whole day. We looked at others people’s work and tried to help each other to focus on our goals. It was a luxurious situation, which is simply based on the fact that if you manage to create the right energy in a group and have enough sincere work to discuss, everybody will go home charged and inspired. It does not always work, though…
I am really ambivalent about theory, I think it is important to learn to think, to express yourself, to get to the point, to learn to read difficult texts, but the real question in photography/arts for me is: Does it really matter to other people what I think and what I do? Most of my audience hasn’t read Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Marcuse or Luhmann. So? I think really any education has to create awareness and has to teach people to think. And really, most stuff that matters in photography today is making connections betwen pop and trash, psychology and Hollywood, just look at Gregory Crewdson!
Of course you need to know the main topics in the arts. There is lots of stuff you won’t understand if you do not know who Jackson Pollock was. You need to know about FSA, Nick Nixon and Joel Sternfeld…
But again to sum it up: Teaching is about creating awareness, there is an analogy with Buddhism and meditation and really doing art is about trying to understand life.
JP: A reader posted the following on the blog. What are your thoughts?:
“An MFA is good and all, but at the end of the day one needs to get out and make photographs, not be inside reading a book. Think of Koudelka or Pinkhassov. They are prolific photographers. Photography is fundamentally about creating imagery, not reading philosophy or art theory. Sorry to break the news.”
PB: In a way the last answer is about that, but of course that comment is short sighted. As a lot of journalists say “It happens out there, you just have to take ‘good’ pictures.” But there’s a problem: Images are always an interpretation. Without understanding and without context there will be nothing “good” but a brief aethetic chill which is based on drama and instinct. If you want to be rude, you can have that same chill in watching pornography, but does that take you further in your development of sensual pleasures???
Also check out this interview with photographer Jason Eskenazi.