• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Ben Cauchi interview - the long version

The photographer in conversation in Berlin.

Apologies for the delay in this appearing. It was supposed to coincide with the shorter print version of my interview with Ben Cauchi but then my iPad ate all 5000-plus words of my transcript and I had to repeat it from scratch. The interview took place in Cauchi's studio at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien arts complex - where he is based as recipient of the 2012-13 Creative New Zealand Berlin Visual Arts Residency - ahead of his exhibition The Sophist's Mirror opening back in New Zealand. You can view an archive of Cauchi's images here. 

I read you’ve just had built this unbelievably giant camera. Yeah, we dubbed it “the Behemoth”. It’s a camera that can make ambrotypes 20 inches by 24 inches, 500mm by 600mm. Which is a feat of manual dexterity I’m still getting used to. 

When was it completed? It was completed a little while ago. In 2010. 

So you’ve had some time to get used to it. Ironically, I was away from home for most of the year. We took a trip to England last year. Then there was a residency in Wellington and so on. It wasn’t actually until up in Auckland last summer that I started using it. So there have only actually been two plates, two works, done with it so far. 

Which are they? They were made up in Auckland at the McCahon residency there for the summer. One of them was in the exhibition they had after that and will also be in the City Gallery show. A view of the dark room I had there. Another was a view directly outside the studio window. Whenever I go to a new studio, I like to make an image of the view from the window. And that one is one that will be unlike any other view from a studio window I’m ever likely to make. Have you been to the studio? 

No, what’s the view like? I can show you actually. [He starts looking on his Macbook Pro.] The studio at McCahon house is about eight metres off the ground. It’s in a gully in Titirangi. [He brings up the image.] So it’s directly of the trees outside. A paradise. 

Very different from the graffiti-covered wall across the way here. Will you do an image here, though? Most definitely. We actually found out I was given this residency in my last week in Auckland and we would go down to French Bay each day from the studio, walking back through the lush tropical rain forest, thinking, “In a few months, we’ll be in Berlin. It’s going to be quite different.” 

Your very big camera – is that pretty much a studio-bound camera? It’s not one to take to the races. It’s most definitely studio-bound. [He brings up another image on his Macbook.] This is it here. It’s a decent size. This is the guy that made it. It doesn’t fit in your backpack. It’s about this size of this table. 

So having a bigger studio will be … Quite handy.  

Does Creative New Zealand give you extra money for your shipping of equipment or does that all come out of your grant? No, that comes out of the grant. 

So for you that would have been a lot more expensive than for a lot of people doing this residency. Yeah, quite possibly. The thing with the process I do, you need to have all your darkroom gear, all your cameras. It’s not a digital medium. So it involves a lot of gear, unfortunately. My wife [Angela Lane], in comparison, paints, on bread boards and coasters, so she’s very portable. It just goes with the territory: wherever I go, the gear has to come, too. 

And it’s travelled quite a bit. You’ve had quite a few residencies within New Zealand. Yep, down to Dunedin and up to Auckland, and Wellington. Wellington was kind of an odd one out because I was working on other things there. It’s gone far around the place, but never as far as here. 

And when you transport it around New Zealand, do you do that yourself or do you get removers in? Well, I try to keep the costs down, so I take what I can. 

I’m just wondering what your packers when they came for this trip made of what you were giving them to take. They were fine with it actually. It wasn’t an issue. 

Are you nervous? Presumably it’s reasonably sensitive equipment. Or is it pretty sturdy stuff? It’s pretty solid! It’s quite solid, actually! Triple-laminated mahogany, I think it is. 

When is it due to arrive? Hopefully this week but ironically I’m back to New Zealand next week to install the show for the opening. So it arrives here just as I’m back there. 

In its absence, have you been recceing the area and the city? To a degree. There have been some other things we’d hoped would be over and done with before we left but which have dragged on. We are doing a book with VUP. 

To go with the show? It’s an associated thing. It’s not a catalogue. It covers more ground. Because this year has been ridiculous for a number of reasons it didn’t quite get off the ground before we left as we’d hoped. So there’ve been a few things like that to deal with. 

So you’ve not had much of a chance to properly… Well, we have. We are becoming Berliners. We are getting to know the place quite well. We still need to get to museums. We’re getting quite keen to check those out. The island! A museum island! What other place can claim that? So that’s quite appealing. 

From your point of view, taking photographs, do you have any ideas about what you want to do here? You’re a photographer who’s interested in the past. You’ve explored that very much in New Zealand. This is a city that obviously has ample themes from the past. History is an interest of mine. What we think of as Berlin comes from its history and it’s a very fractured history, a very eventful history. Colourful, some might say. So that’s most definitely something I’m looking into. Also, the project comes about from an interest in this concept called “eigengrau”, which loosely translates as “one’s own grey”. How would you describe it? Loosely described, it’s the colour the mind receives in absolute darkness. So even when it’s pitch black your mind still sends out visual stimulus and you see a dark grey colour as opposed to black. So it’s looking at that on one end and history on another end - the malleability of history, the subjectivity of history - hoping to intertwine everything. How that actually comes about is not something I’ve been able to work out [until I’ve been here a little longer]. Mainly the malleability of it, and how we receive the world: truth, history … 

And this would be a city where that would be … Dictated! 

And have you found that already? Obviously from afar you had a sense of that – that that would be a theme that would work here – but has being here crystallised it? It’s interesting. In some ways it’s more out in the open than I had expected. Don’t mention the war! That kind of thing. There was an opening here last week and I was talking to the director of the Kunstlerhaus and we were talking about the nature of the Berlin art market, and he made the comment that if you erase all the rich people then you’re left with poor people. 

And that’s what happened. That’s what happened. But just the directness of that comment was quite startling. It’s very much out in the open. The history of this building, for instance, with what happened to the owners. It somehow got taken over at a certain period in its history and so on and so forth. Things get hushed over. 

And then, of course, there’s the more recent history than that. My geography appalling: are we in East Berlin here? We are now in West Berlin. But the eastern part of West Berlin. And the flat [that accompanies the residency] is in East Berlin. 

So you’ve got a whole different level there. On the tram, you go past the longest remaining bit of the Berlin Wall. So it’s … present. The past is very present. And that’s something I’m finding very interesting. 

A lot of your work – presumably largely because of the nature of the techniques you use – has been studio-bound. When you were in Dunedin, you did some exteriors. Will there be a possibility of doing more of that here? I’m hoping to. A lot of it has been has been not knowing what I can do and what I can’t do here. I couldn’t bring my chemicals with me … 

Is that just because of health and safety, MAF-type things? It was going to cause a few complications. Not least of all I was using them up till the last minute when we were trying to sell our house. So everything was getting packed up around with us. But those couldn’t go. Some things just can’t travel very happily. So I wasn’t sure exactly how much I would be able to work with those chemicals here and similarly outside the studio it’s quite complicated. In Dunedin, I actually bought a van and turned that into a portable darkroom. 

Do you still have that in New Zealand for future use? No, we sold it at the end of that year. It was interesting. Having been studio-bound for so long, it’s your own world, and it has its limitations, but those limitations, if you work within those, you can do anything you want, really. Whereas outside it’s the real world and if you want to make an image of a particular thing you have to make do with what’s around it. And that’s something I wasn’t quite used to. I found that quite a challenge. 

It struck me that, in the nature of your photography and the time it takes the photographs, whereas a lot of photographers are looking to capture the passing moment you would actually be looking for the lasting moment, something you’d think would be permanent. The decisive moment – Henri Cartier-Bresson - whereas mine’s more the indecisive moment! Most definitely indecisive. 

So presumably, when you look at something, if it’s going to be gone by the time you get back that’s not what you’re looking for. No. Something has to be sticking around for a reasonable amount of time for me to make an image of it, most definitely. For the studio work, it’s in the setting up of the image, that’s where all the time goes. The actual production of the plate can be quite quick. But it’s all the time before the action. And equally that’s what I’m interested in conveying. The moments before something happens or after something happens. What’s happening outside the frame. Not necessarily more so but equally so as what’s actually there in front of you. 

The different techniques you use – one thinks of the Victorian photographers we heard about, how their subjects had to stay still for a very long time. What is the time span when you’re taking a picture? Well, that varies. By modern standards it’s very slow. On a bright sunny day inside, you might be looking at a 10-20 second exposure, up to five minutes, seven minutes, something like that. It’s a bit of a balancing act with the process. If you’re working with a comparatively slow film, it needs a lot of light to render an image, but equally the plate has to stay wet otherwise it stops being light-sensitive, and it dries very fast. The solvents are fast drying. So you’re working on a tightrope between a slow film and one that’s drying fast and trying to find that happy medium. 

Do you find sometimes the technique determines the sort of photograph. You think, “This is going to take five minutes, so I would like to do these things …” To a degree. 

Or is it more it happens on the day? It’s just the way you do it! [Laughs.] Timing is very much a part of the work. I think particularly with self-portraits when you’re trying to keep still and hold a particular expression … self-portraits from my point of view are the hardest ones to do. You end up having a bit of a conversation with the plate. You can almost feel the image appearing as it transfers onto the plate. 

That was what I was thinking of – that self-portraits would be the ones most determined by the time available, if you know you’re going to be standing there for five minutes. And does it become in a way almost like performance art? Yes, it does. Exactly. It is performance. In fact, I often think of the whole process as a performance. It has its downsides. Because sometimes when you know something’s going to be a case of staring into a bright window for three minutes without trying to blink it can put you off doing the image you would otherwise. [Laughs.] But you can just get over that. 

One of the other things that struck me was that yours is a kind of all or nothing technique. You have so much invested in those moments that your preparation also your conception have to be pretty much spot on because otherwise it’s presumably quite expensive and time consuming to start again. And there’s no post-production. You can’t just get the clone tool and rub out something you don’t like. 

With a view to that, you’ve obviously been looking back over your work for the purposes of the new exhibition. Are there areas where you think, “Damn, that didn’t work.” Or are you pretty much happy what you see there? I think one always doubts. You look at things and say, “Oh, if I were doing that and it were now I’d do it differently.” But I think that’s just natural progression. I’m happy with what was done. 

So there are no things where you thought, “I knew that wasn’t going to quite work and damn it it didn’t”? No. Because of the process –  I keep saying because of the process; it makes it sound like everything’s about the bloody process –  but the way I work means you have to make sure everything is the way you want it before you even start pouring a plate. So that’s where I was getting to with it being the time before actually making the image: that’s what takes the time. And so a lot of thought goes into it before you go into a darkroom. And I suppose because of that, and because I’m quite an indecisive person to start off with, there’s a lot of toing and froing. I think I’ve done all that questioning by the time it actually happens. 

You say there you hate the idea of talking about the process all the time. Does it feel a little bit like you become more associated with the prcoess than with the finished result? I think there’s a danger that if you’re working with something that is novel that that’s what gets focused on. And to me it’s a process I enjoy working with but I see it the same as choosing to paint with oils or acrylic or choosing to work with egg tempera. It’s a means to an end rather than the end itself. 

But not a means you would abandon? No willingly. I enjoy working with it. The reason I use it is because like you say it makes you think of a different period in time and so it disjoints – what’s brand new looks old. So there’s that perceptual shift. 

It’s interesting you say that. There are a couple of pictures you took down in Dunedin. It’s quite a jarring moment when you see I think they’re garages. Because generally you’ve been photographing in old Victorian villas or period-appropriate surroundings, but there are a couple of those photographs where you have a very modern element within what as a whole is formally more Victorian or older. There’s another view from the studio window I made in Whanganui a few years ago. [He calls it up on his Macbook.] There’s a nice little station wagon the background there. There’s this thing, it’s a modern existence, the images are made today, but there’s a distance there. 

In your studio work you’ve managed to banish that a bit more. That is a conscious decision? It is. But the purpose of it is still the same: you’re trying to create something that exists in its own world. It doesn’t look like it’s from now; it doesn’t look like it’s from any particular period in time. 

What initially drew you to these methods and that period of photography? It’s been said of your early photographs that there was a lot more – I don’t know if you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige about a magician doing tricks - of the Victorian period. Were they the photographs that initially drew you to the period? Actually, no. Growing up, I thought photography was basically press a shutter and up pops a photo, but I was working in the library at Wellington Polytech and came across the photography section there, and there were all these books on Fox Talbot, the gear, the early experimenters with the medium, and just seeing the images they were making, using a whole wide range of different processes I’d never even heard of, it was that kind of moment where you realise something is far bigger than what you actually expected it to be or understood it to be. And you can work in many other ways than you thought. That’s what got me interested. So it was really that side of it that had that initial appeal. The more alchemical side of it. And that led on to an interest in the spiritualist movement and smoke and mirrors and studio tricks and that kind of thing. 

It’s interesting you use the word alchemical. It’s a technique where you use a lot of chemicals but there’s the alchemical element of it, too, and those two things come very close together. Well, people say photography is alchemy. I think that’s something I personally believe. It is. For me, I take a clean sheet of glass and 20 minutes later it’s a final thing. Don’t you love that word “thing”. Das ding! 

Once you’d decided you wanted to use some of those techniques, was that difficult for you? Was there an antique shop in Wellington you could go to find the equipment? No. You have to learn that all yourself. 

And where do you get the equipment to do that? For what I particularly do, it’s just a question of picking up the chemicals, it’s actually not a very hard thing to do once you know how. It’s learning all the steps that can go wrong that takes the time. The camera I use is just a standard large-format camera like you’d use for any other commercial photography job – they used to use large-format cameras before digital. The different element is what holds the film. I use a plate holder to hold a glass plate as opposed to what they call a double dark side that holds two sheets of large-format film. But other than that it’s exactly the same. And obviously the darkroom is completely different. In fact, my darkroom is more a lightroom – it’s very, very bright. It needs to be very bright because it’s non-chromatic film. 

And did you find there were fellow-travellers once you’d started? There’s a person who’s now in Wellington but was in Masterton when I first became interested in it, called Brian Scadden, who works at Park Road Post and he was making wet-plate ambrotypes and so on, and I got in touch with him and he showed me the ropes. That’s what got me going with this particular process. Before that, I’d been working with cyanotypes, argyrotypes, that kind of thing. Early hand-on printing processes. 

And do they each lend themselves to different things you want do? Definitely. It’s the look and feel of the end result that has such a determining factor on how something is perceived. 

For an exhibition you did in 2008, you used laser jet… No, not laser jet, ink jet; not ink jet, light jet. That’s digital. See, I don’t even know the names. 

You haven’t repeated that since. How did that go from your point of view? I did two things. One was a little suite of work called The Winter Sun, which came first. That was when I was down in Dunedin. And then a few months later I did a series called Borderland. A set of eight images that I wanted to present as larger prints. In many ways it was a chance to explore a different scale. For my work it’s limited because you have to fit whatever you want to exhibit inside the camera. It’s made inside the camera rather than in the darkroom. 

So you’d have to have a bloody big camera if you did want to have bigger images. Precisely. So it’s always been quite small scale. Through necessity. That particular body of work was more narrative and I wanted to give it more of a cinematic narrative feel. Just explore a different scale. And the only way you can do that was to have them printed and unfortunately in New Zealand it seems the only way to have something printed is digitally. 

And were you happy with the quality you got? Yeah, perfectly happy. Definitely. I’m not opposed to digital in the slightest. Probably if I had a million dollar I’d have done it as something else. But no, I’m perfectly happy. 

Going back to residencies, you’ve photographed quite a lot of houses within residencies you’ve had. You spoke about how in the studio a lot of what you do is devising and setting up the scenario, but also it seems that when you’re in these houses there are the found images. There are found images. And equally a lot of work has an autobiographical context as well. So it’s a little bit of that coming through, too. 

In what ways autobiographical? Any given image usually isn’t just about one thing. It comes about because a number of ideas converge into a particular way of presenting them. And some of those ideas come from … where do ideas come from!? Some of them come from autobiographical elements. It’s how you’re feeling any particular day. 

Some of your works are titled, some not. Most things are titled. 

That’s presumably from your point of view a way of anchoring some meaning, or at least a hint at some of the meanings that are there. The title of the City Gallery show – The Sophist’s Mirror - comes from one of your photographs. What does it means for you in terms of the original image and now the show? That’s to me photography, actually. The sophist’s mirror. Sophists are people clever at speaking, at false arguments. Photography has always had this love-hate affair with truth. People perceive it to be an [indicative] medium and of course it’s never been anything of the sort. And that’s something I’ve played with in the past. 

Did you go through art school? No. I failed to get a history degree at Victoria University many moons ago and then tried a bit of this and a bit of that. Played in a band briefly. 

What was the band? You don’t want to know. You wouldn’t have heard of them. [Laughs.] They’re blissfully forgotten about now. Then I went to work in the library. A family tradition. My dad was a librarian. So actually books to me are such an integral thing. I grew up around books. That doesn’t mean I actually read so many. [Laughs.] But I’m someone who loves books. 

So you became a practitioner without preloading yourself with art history and theory? And actually by the time I got into photography I was a little bit older than the other people doing the course I ended up taking and the course was purely a technical one at Wellington Polytech. Designed to show you the technical workings. I foolishly enrolled in it thinking I’d learn how to make cyanotypes and all these wonderful old processes. Instead they taught me how to do commercial photography, of course, because it was a commercial course. But the reason I went there was because Wayne Barrar was the person in charge, and I’d met him, vaguely, we didn’t know each other’s names, but he got lots of books out of the library, and he’d been acquiring lots of books for the library, and I happened to know he was very much interested in these early processes. So I thought he’d be someone who’d be able to help out in that way. So that’s why I ended up there. 

Did you have an interest in photography that predated the idea you came to when working in the library? I remember having an interest in photography when I was growing up. But it was never something that amounted to anything. 

I was thinking more were there photographer you liked the work of? And since? For sure. Photographers, painters, musicians. To me, I tend to just absorb across the board. I don’t know what it is about photography but sometimes you find people just don’t look outside. It becomes very medium specific. 

In a way you don’t think a painter would be looked at? Or a conceptual artist? But more so the photographers themselves. A lot of people don’t look outside of photography. Maybe that’s the camera club side of it and it becomes a world unto itself. And the technical aspect becomes all important. And that sort of thing. And it just bores the shit out of me. 

That’s ironic, because you’re probably asked more questions about the technical aspects than anyone. Possibly. There are always people who inspire you and what inspires you at one time might not inspire you later. So the names change. 

What’s inspiring you at the moment? At the moment, it’s just berlin. I’m not actually looking too much at other artists at the moment. But no, in the past, I’ve always looked at Goya, for instance, I’m a No 1 fan. Tony Fomison. Jeffrey Harris. Adam Fuss is a photographer I like. Cindy Sherman. There’s a whole range. But I get just as much out of music as I do pictures. 

What sort of music? Low. Joy Division. Radiohead. We went to a fantastic concert by them last week. Laibach. We went to see a gig of theirs. 

How many photographs in the exhibition? Ooh, I don’t know. It’s a fair number. The long space in the gallery upstairs is all mine. 

And this would be your biggest solo show? Yes. 

And how does it feel to be at that stage in your career … Scary … 

Where you have a retrospective? No, no, it’s not a retrospective. 

Is it going to cover the 10 or so years you’ve been working? The vast majority. But we haven’t approached it as a retrospective or a survey as such. 

So how have you approached it? Much the way I’d approach any show, actually. It’s just creating a story. It’s about moments. And hopefully recontextualising the way the work is perceived. 

In what ways? If something was perceived as heavily magic-influenced when it was first produced maybe after a few of the other images made later you’d see it as not so heavily magic-influenced and more something else. And vice versa. 

That goes back to before and what I was saying about how people have interpreted your work. Quite a focus was put on magic in the early years and it was said you’d left behind some of that to move on. But for you perhaps the themes weren’t so much the magic as underlying themes people were missing? Most things are a bit of a mash-up. That’s a quote. 

It’s in the nature of critics, particularly in a newspaper with 400 words, they want to distill you into something simple. I’m not saying that’s wrong. For a good period of time I was looking heavily into that spiritualist thing and there was magic and so on and so forth. It’s just I suppose recontextualising. 

Is it a case of other things going on as well that now you could perhaps link with other later works? The more psychological, phenomenological side of things. The autobiographical isn’t something I’d ever played up, but that’s there. I suppose we’ve just tried to create moments throughout the show. Rather than doing something thematic or chronological or definitive. 

More a memoir than an autobiography. Yes. That’s why I saw we’re not approaching it as a retrospective. 

And the book is going to expand that further still? [Cauchi pulls out a set of page proofs.] The Evening Hours? Is that going to be the title? Which again is from a photograph. It’s not actually one in the show. 

How does that apply more generally as a title? I thought it gave a mood. And seemed appropriate. 

So less of a sweeping philosophical statement than The Sophist’s Mirror? Yeah. [Laughs.] It just seemed to lend itself to it. 

Has the show been illuminating for you? I’ve had other show which have brought together work from a period of time. This obviously goes back the furthest. It’s always an interesting process. I’ve always had this idea that you can take a piece from this year and put it quite happily with a piece from a number of other years and you shouldn’t see much of a difference. That’s how I think it should be. 

You like that as an aesthetic constant, do you? Some artists chop and change. That’s not something that’s ever appealed to you? No. Not unless it’s natural. That’s simply how some people work. That’s fine. It’s not how I work. But equally what always does surprise me is how different things are from one year to the other. You can look at something and say, “That was made in 2005.” That all does still surprise me. But things do sit happily side by side. I suppose the shifts do become more apparent when you pull things together from across that period of time and see how things have evolved and that’s fantastic. 

And how would you characterise that evolution? Going from more the physical to the psychological. [Pauses.] Via magic. [Laughs.] And possibly more internalised as well, I think. Where that leads to I don’t know. 

 BEN CAUCHI: THE SOPHIST'S MIRROR, City Gallery Wellington, until February 17. 

Guy Somerset visited Berlin courtesy of the Goethe-Institut.