Carmen De Vos loves pushing the boundaries of her viewers almost as much as she loves pushing the limits of expired Polaroid film. (Almost.) The Belgian art photographer has made a career of working with instant film, and recently published a retrospective collection of the last decade of her work as a large-scale coffee table book called The Eyes of the Fox ([ander]-zijds). She talks to us about perfect imperfections, destruction as a process of creation and why she often tries to shut out the internet.
How did you first get started shooting with Polaroid film? How did it feel?
I was an ardent Lomographer at first, captivated by the beauty of random picture taking and bewitched by the fierce colors cross-processing evoked. The idea that a photo could be mad and wild instead of sharp and technically perfect was an idea that had an irresistible appeal to me. When Florian Kaps and Andy Hoeller started up Polanoid.net and the Impossible Project, celebrating instant photography, I got curious about the artistic possibilities a Polaroid could add to my work. The Polanoid platform offered a little, warm nest in which we could freely experiment with the medium of Polaroids. We were a society of like-minded Polaroid freaks who did nothing but push the boundaries of the Polaroid canvas. Deformations, discoloration, self-made filters, strange subjects, weird compositions, burning the Polaroids, dissecting them, I loved it all. I was totally smitten with this little frame in which a magical world developed under my very eyes.
You shoot with a lot of experimental and expired materials, how does the experience differ shooting with these vs. fresh Polaroid film?
Fresh Polaroid film is often too neat for me. An expired Polaroid film adds stains and off-colors to the image, all by itself. It adds unpredictability to the blank canvas, so in a way, I have to fight the material. I have to try to tame it in order not to ruin my image. It is a battle that attracts as frustrates me. But as it is surprising, it is also the motor that keeps me going.
What inspires your photography to keep growing and evolving?
I have an inner flame burning that gives me no rest. I am trying to become better, sharper, more focused and find a clearer line in which I want to express myself. I’m still not sure whether I’m a photographer or an image maker or a child playing. I want to refine my techniques while at the same time not lose my amateur vibe of not care how a picture “should be.”
What is your favorite narrative that you have conveyed in one of your series? Which ones are stand-out moments for you in the book?
I have no favorites, each story I tell has a time and a place in my history. They are rooted in my personal development. I enjoyed making most of them and the memories they bring back when I look at them. There are pictures I made with Zora Strangefields from my TicKL period that I am very fond of, and a lot of portraits from my Famous in Flanders series are dear to me because of the trust and liberty those celebrities gave me while posing. And of course my Odd Stories, a series of imaginative arrangements, staged, sensual and daring, humorous as well, which represent every bit of naughtiness my mind is filled with.
Who inspires you to keep pushing forward with your art?
There are loads of talented photographers out there. They make me constantly aware of the things I am not. They make it so that I never can be totally content with what I do, that next time I want to do better. I am completely self-taught, which means that I try to achieve the technical results I imagine by unorthodox means. The flaws surround my pictures with something off or odd, which has become my strength at the same time. I was happy to be a part of the 1212 project for a few years. The participation gave me the discipline to come up with new personal work every month, and it is a routine I miss now. Perhaps I need to join again.
How do you stay creative and stay passionate in the increasingly digital landscape of our modern world?
I love tangible objects above all. A digital image does not exist anymore when you shut off your computer, tablet, or phone, unless you print it. With Polaroids it’s the other way round. I cannot help but find this more valuable. I’ve started shooting digital as well, I’m getting the hang of it, but at the end of the day, it’s the Polaroids that surround me in my albums, on my walls and in my heart.
There are periods in which I shut out the impressions of the internet and turn my eye into myself, searching for what I really want. I try not to get intimidated by the flood of talent that overwhelms me as soon as I open the internet.
How do you embrace the imperfections in your pictures, while living in a world where everyone strives for perfection?
There is no beauty without emotion, and the emotion lies in the perfect imperfection. The perfect stain at the right spot, the off-composition, the weird angles and distortions, the unsharpness. It all adds to the fantasy. Loads of digital photographers add that witchcraft to their images with Photoshop, expired Polaroids do this all by themselves.
What is your favorite place to capture a perfect moment?
It’s never the place alone, it’s that combined with the people I portray. The magic of the moment, the chemistry filling the room. That and the perfect wallpaper.
What are your future plans following the book launch?
I have the feeling I’m only just getting started. The Eyes of the Fox is a celebration of ten years of professional photography on Polaroid. Assembling it was a trip down memory lane, a moment of looking back on what I have done during this decade. At the same time it is the foundation of the castle that is there in my head and which I only have to build. There are a lot of stories left I need to tell, digital and on Polaroid. I am taking a few months to promote this book, and to empty my head from future plans. Trying to enjoy the moment, to be in the moment. The next chapter is still being written.
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