Per Bak Jensen / Near and Far
May 2012 Interviewed by David Drake
The Danish artist Per Bak Jensen (born 1949) is often described as a pioneer of modern landscape photography, eschewing more romantic approaches to the subject in favour of an astute reading of contours, shapes and forms as found in natural and man-made landscapes. Until recently he was associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, and he has exhibited worldwide. His work is represented in many public collections such as MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and the Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris.
In his indefatigable search for photographic expression, Bak Jensen has been a prolific artist, establishing him as one of the most important contemporary fine art photographers in Scandinavia. To coincide with Denmark’s Presidency of the European Union, the artist recently had an exhibition Near and Far: Landscape Photographs by Per Bak Jensen at the 12 Star Gallery, Europe House, London, curated by Barry Phipps, University of Cambridge. This offered an informal survey of a number of Bak Jensen’s most notable large-scale landscape images of Denmark, Greenland and Northern Germany. The exhibition is now showing at Churchill College, Cambridge until 21 June.
David Drake, Director of Ffotogallery, interviewed Per Bak Jensen on 24 April at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard in Copenhagen, where an exhibition of new work Fortabelse/Lost is showing until 23 June 2012.
David Drake: When looking at your work, particularly the icebergs and epic seascapes in Greenland, it’s tempting to draw a parallel with Nordic landscape painting, and its evolution from the heroic, romantic wildernesses of the mid-1800s to the dreamy, inward-looking mental landscapes of the turn of the century. But there is something altogether more perplexing about the way you use a camera lens to impose an order on the landscape, the precise way the subject is framed, the stillness, the interplay between horizontal and vertical planes etc. What’s behind this approach?
Per Bak Jensen: From when I first picked up a camera, as a child, to now, photography has been the way that I make contact with and try to make sense of the external world. In a way, I’m searching for the intangible, the unattainable, something that lies just beyond the immediately visible, but something that I take to be reality. It’s about my relationship to the world as I experience it.
DD: I guess it’s easy to be seduced by the vastness and beauty of nature when you’re photographing Arctic seascapes
PBJ: Yes, those vistas are certainly awe-inspiring, but I take exactly the same approach whether I’m photographing in Greenland, a wood in Germany or an unpromising industrial location on the outskirts of Copenhagen. It’s about looking for the signs in the world that unlock the truth of reality. Those signs may be less obvious in man-made environments, but they are there. It’s a question of close observation and patience, and I’m using the camera to hint at unseen relationships within the image, in order to begin to solve the puzzle of how reality is constructed.
DD: Amongst your new work, there are several interior pictures that seem closer to the aesthetics of still life. Some of them remind me of the work of British artist Peter Fraser, or his North American predecessors, most notably William Eggleston. Like you, these artists have found an unexpected beauty and mystery in everyday details such as the folds of a curtain or the curious positioning of an electrical installation. To what extent do you look for this strange beauty, or does it present itself to you randomly?
PBJ: When I’m photographing I remain open to the flow of shapes, textures and forms, and also sounds, as they present themselves. But how my images are composed always remains a conscious process. It can be likened to meditation in that I immerse myself deeply in the process. However, when I notice particular relationships or visual phenomena that seem to have an enhanced meaning, I use my camera to bring them into frame, to draw attention to them. I take many pictures, but not too many of the same subject, and apart from a little touching up and fine finishing in the studio I don’t like to manipulate my photographs after the event. My aim is to capture the being of places, without overemphasising their metaphorical presence or imposing any particular ideological perspective.
DD: That’s interesting. It seems to me that this differentiates your approach from that which might have been taken by a landscape painter or conceptual artist, it roots your practice more specifically in documentary photography.
PBJ: Photography is my chosen medium. It enables me to observe and record faithfully what I see, but also to create harmony and to bring into sharp focus objects and relationships that might otherwise remain unseen. Through the camera lens there is a particular interplay between light and shadow, distance and proximity that transcends any fixed and literal reading of the landscape. It’s about the exchange between reality, image and idea – and the potential nature holds for a greater truth than we are generally able to comprehend. I’m not religious, in the conventional sense, but being an artist working with photography has afforded me many transformational moments, experiences that have at times been ecstatic and which I believe to be ultimately redemptive.
DD: You’re beginning to talk like a mystic now, or should I say ‘shaman’? Is this the Nordic romanticism revealing itself?
PBJ: If you mean by that I use photography to try to connect with another dimension of reality, to grasp the secrets of our existence, then I don’t mind being referred to in those terms. I see myself as being like a scout in unchartered territory, someone who is always on the look out for new signs in the world that might be pathways to truth.