Renate Graf, from thoughts to image

Renate Graf presents her first exhibition in Lisbon, The Photographer’s chronicles: thoughts become images 1992 | 2019, an archive of her images over the last three decades. Her work is a continuous process of travel documentation, particularly in Italy, France, Morocco, USA, India, among others.

Through black and white photography, Renate presents an effort based on collection research and anthropological mapping. It’s a process, from beginning to end; it’s a testimony of various spaces and cultures. Her images document a concrete and abstract reality, in a constant dialogue between the sacred and the profane. They are linked to her understanding of the world, reflecting an intimate and personal journey.

Renate does not consider herself a classic photographer, but a traveller who captures the “here” and “now” of these spaces. Her photography resorts to handcrafted methods, important aesthetic elements of her images. There is a strong editorial component, the book materializes itself as an extension of thought and the immediate act of photographing. The photographic image connects with the text and these two make the book emerge. The text is not a caption of the image, nor is the image an illustration of the text. There is a greater presence, a symbiosis that unfurls a new interpretation and a new language. In conversation at Palácio Anjos, where the exhibition is located, the author talks about her journey, about the exhibition and what will follow in the future.


Diogo Ramalho – How did photography come about?

Renate Graf – I started studying philosophy in Vienna, where I was born, and continued my studies in the USA. I entered the art circuit by working in galleries and magazines.

And, it may sound like a joke, but then someone gifted me a small Canon, an instant camera. I’ve always travelled a lot, I started taking pictures of all those trips. The first long trip was in 1992, to the Taklamakan Desert in China. That’s how it all started. I didn’t look at that as a career; I saw it as a documentation of life, a diary of images.

DR – You don’t consider yourself a classic photographer. How do you position yourself in the world of photography and art?

RG – No, I’m not. However, everything is possible today. There is always a reinterpretation of things you see or do. I’ve always liked the “here” and “now”, the spirit of the moment. What I appreciate most is the fluidity of things, the transparency. Interacting with the “here” and “now”, with what is happening at the present moment.

DR – The paradigms of photography are changing, with the internet and social networks. How do you see this new side of photography? Is that side distant from your work?

RG – Not much. I believe in the collective consciousness. All of us Europeans were created based on the classical idea of Greek beauty. Suddenly, we were thrown into a world where our cultural references clash against a larger context. When we travel frequently, we understand this more and more. If we are in India, the things that are important to us have no meaning there. We need to find a more unifying language, which is one of the advantages of the internet or the virtual world. I want to communicate with other cultures using images that they understand. I also use these black and white handcrafted processes, I like to use them in my images. It’s all about my travels, my life and my experiences. And, as with any other artist, this is part of my world’s creation. I started this process 20 years ago and it worked.

DR – The photos from your archive and shown in the exhibition were taken all over the world, but there is a clear connection between them.

RG – That’s what I’m looking for, yes. For instance, India has all the things important to me. The dialogue between the sacred and the profane is extremely strong. In our culture, on the other hand, the separation between the two is clear. I like it when they interfere with each other.

[Referring to the exhibition] On the lower floor, we have all the temples. Here, on the top floor, we have the mountains in Utah, USA. I love that combination. The mountain could be a ruin or a temple, but it’s nature. I like to decontextualize, to show that this is not so different from how we build our temples. Nature can also be a sacred building. It’s all the same. That visual similarity between all the images. There is continuity.

DR – The book has an important role in your work. What is the importance of thinking, composing and creating these books?

RG – The book is very important. In my mind, it’s the continuation of a journey. It’s not just an image, but a continuous flow of images and texts. For several years, I did the books manually, still in the studio where I lived, with Anselm Kiefer. Nowadays, it remains a manual process, but it’s now conducted by other people. My next project will be a film. I haven’t started yet, but I’d like to do a film project, travel for a year and just take pictures while moving from one place to the other, of what I’m capturing with my eyes. This project will be like my books.

DR – How is your creative process?

RG – I don’t do anything for a long time. And, suddenly, everything changes. I can travel without seeing anything for two months. Then things change. I don’t travel to a place with the specific purpose of taking a photograph. That can happen or not. Sometimes, nothing happens! It’s something extremely random. I’m not an artist who works hard: I don’t have a studio, just a camera in my pocket and my feet. I’m a traveller. If you visit the room that presents a series of images of fireworks, you’ll see a great example of that. There were fireworks celebrations in a small village near Noto, Sicily. I took a small analogue camera with me and suddenly the celebration began and the sky quickly became filled with confetti. I was totally fascinated. I took 200 pictures in half an hour. What I like about this process is trial and error. It’s a different approach, which has been explored for a long time. Basically, what’s new is digital.

DR – How was it to present this exhibition in Lisbon?

RG – In relation to the body of work, this exhibition had already been in China, exactly as it is here. It was ready when I was presented the proposal. I’ve been in Portugal since 2006, I have a house at Comporta and I love being here. I don’t spend much time in Lisbon but, when this project came about, it was incredible, because one of my greatest literary heroes is Fernando Pessoa. It’s always a pleasure to do this exhibition in Portugal. Portugal has a unique role; the Portuguese don’t look at Europe, they look at the sea, which is a very poetic vision. It’s a calm, tolerant, musical country. It’s a vibrant place that absorbs new energies from other countries. We have the feeling that there is a confluence of energies, different from most of Europe.

The exhibition Renate Graf – The Photographer’s Chronicles: thoughts become images 1992|2019 is a collaboration of the Municipality of Oeiras with the Mirat Gallery, Rui Freire – Fine Art and Tiago Feijoo. It will be at Palácio Anjos (Algés) until 29 December.


By Diogo Ramalho

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