October 30, 2017

Oliver Blohm’s Ethereal 8×10 Fashion Photography

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Amy Heaton.

Oliver Blohm’s finished works look as though they could have been painted, as opposed to photographed. His portraits – all shot on large-format 8×10 film – are inspired by the Berlin fashion scene. To date, he has created over 150 analog original works, recently presented in the largest Polaroid exhibition the city has ever known. His images combine elements of both the past and the future to create another dimension which creates the illusion of looking through a lens into both. In his endless search for the truth of beauty and an aim to see the world in a new light Blohm discusses his hopes for the future, and how it feels to do his work in a highly digital world.

Do you feel that without having found the medium of analog photography, and more specifically instant photography, you would have pursued another art form – or was photography always the direction you wanted to take with your art?

I had the opportunity to rent the camera from high-school, just to train and play with it around, and that’s how everything started. If I hadn’t come into contact with photography I don’t think I would have got involved with another art form. I come from a village in the middle of nowhere and for my parents, it was hard to come to terms with the fact that I wanted to be an artist. I don’t think that without the circumstances and the way the universe has led me I wouldn’t have got into the art world.

So did you change your trajectory to start studying photography after that?

Not exactly. After my final degree, I wasn’t sure what to do so I got an internship as a photographer. But after three or four weeks I decided that freelance photography was a weird business and that I wanted to go into design and commercials. I started to study in Wismar and over the winter holidays, the photography laboratory rented me an analog camera. By this time the lecturer for the laboratory was pregnant and needed a second assistant because she was not allowed to work with some of the chemicals. It was then I got my position as a laboratory assistant and got to know my first real mentor, Michael Nast. He trained me in analog processes from small to large format, from black and white to color, to studio, and that made the biggest impact, on my journey into photography. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a photographer. And all the time I struggled against photography, but it kept coming back to me. One day I realized I couldn’t fight it anymore so I started to follow it. Step by step I discovered instant photography and started with a Polaroid 600 SE and peel apart film.

What was it about instant photography that drew you further into the medium?

I realized that it’s the perfect hybrid between digital – fast accessibility of the image and something original, and analog – having something tangible in my hand. That’s how my love affair started. Like Edwin Land said, Polaroid photography is something that is shifting between technology, science, art, and beauty. He made so many cameras for so many different purposes because his idea was to photograph the whole world, so why not use the kind of techniques he invented and try to see what happens with this kind of film in 2017? When I microwaved my Polaroid photographs it was because I wanted to see what happens. How can I speed up development (in the beginnings of Impossible). It encourages me to experiment and explore all the time. As a student, I manipulated a lot and went to different laboratories. It felt good to create something that gives you a break from our digital world.

Your whole process is very physical. From the tactile nature of the film to the methodical process of working with the 8×10 camera, to the delicate light-painting process inside the shot itself and the scanning and archiving of the final print. Do you feel this allows you to be more intimately connected to the works you create?

Photography is built on something physical, and I feel like it’s a tradition to carry on. For me, the peak of physical photography is 8×10 photography, 4×5 as well, or 20×24. I choose to focus a lot on 8×10 because of the size of the film, the size of the camera. As someone this tall, I always feel weird with the little tiny Polaroid cameras in my hand (laughs). I need both hands to hold it. I need my whole body to lift it. At an airport, we weighed the whole equipment with the processor, and it was like 35kg. You’re forced into a slow process with the 8×10 – you need to load the cassette, you need to put the cassette into the camera, and the model needs to stay perfectly still. I had a shooting two years ago and when I arrived with the 8×10 camera everybody thought it was a nice accessory for the day, a prop. When I told them it was really the camera we were going to shoot with everyone was smiling blankly at me thinking that I was joking. But after the test, they realized that the camera could produce an image, the team around me were a bit anxious because I worked so slowly and the camera looked so old. I was concentrating, and looking for the moment, looking for the light, and working step by step on the picture because I knew I wouldn’t shoot the usual 500 pictures with my digital camera. I just had 30 frames for 12 stylings. After the first shot was developed the mood of the team shifted and everyone suddenly understood, we are his photoshop: the make-up artists ran into the camera and said, “Wait! I have to correct something”, and she came with a little pencil and made the line perfect. That kind of physical interaction is what I love during the 8×10 shooting.

What is it about fashion that inspires your artworks as opposed to say, landscapes or still life?

It was not because of an interest in fashion per se, more about what fashion can express and what kinds of dreamscapes it can help to create in the mind of the viewer. When I started photography I was shooting architecture, fields, dead animals, found objects, that kind of thing. As a student, I started a small graphic design agency and got to know a client that was not in high-fashion but at least they designed their own stuff. Whilst we were re-designing their website they invited me to shoot models wearing their clothes. I had never thought about fashion before. It was then I discovered that fashion is not only the commercials you see that just represents the clothes without any feeling. By way of names like Sarah Moon, Paolo Roversi, Helmut Newton I realized that fashion is more than just a product. As I started to get more and more into the topic I started to depend on forms and shapes in my work.

Most fashion photographers these days are looking for perfection, the best high-res quality or the highest number of pixels. In contrast, you often part-destroy or corrode your photographs. What comment are you trying to make by presenting this potential for beauty in less conventional ways?

I am always looking for beauty in my work. What I don’t like about modern photography is this obsession with hyper-realistic images. Yeah, they are impressive, but they are almost like science fiction. There’s this feeling of society trying to get better and better. New technology, going a step forward, but how far can we go without losing ourselves? Sure changes are good, and development is good, but for what price? If you went around only seeing beautiful people all the time it wouldn’t feel right. Humans are not machines, humans have edges and scratches and I want to portray these in my work. True beauty is not perfect, but something you can feel, something human. People are starting to get bored of these fake dreams, they want to feel themselves again, and I want to show people how viewing photography differently can help them to feel this connection again, to themselves, and to art.

You have an intimate connection with light, but your work seems like an interplay between light and dark elements. Is this a conscious decision or something that is naturally occurring in your work?

For every photographer, and every living being, light is very important. Not just light but darkness as well. It’s all about the highlights and the shadows: nothing is constant. Maybe it’s a nostalgic way of thinking, but in our digital society everything is super fast and has to be light and bright, and I want to challenge this. When I had no money as a student I needed to improvise. I had no money to buy a cool light, so I built my own lights – which took more time but also taught me to understand longer exposure times. When I’m shooting I don’t use this typical kind of studio lighting, I use film lights or what I have in my archive. When I’m free to work on my own projects – or the client gives me the freedom to do what I want – I always use longer exposure times, because the image itself needs a moment to breathe. If you have some darkness, it’s the little mysteries in the shadows that leave room to dream. Leave space for the viewer to interpret and add their own meaning. I don’t want to tell a story that is already explained. I want to tell a story that has an open end, and everybody can interpret what is happening for themselves.

Of all the different projects you’ve experimented with in the last year, which one left an impression on you?

In collaboration with the Kommunale Galerie Berlin and the Photowerk Berlin, I created an exhibition entitled “Sofortbild Portrait” where I invited a totally random group of people to have their portrait taken on 8×10 – from students to doctors, to other photographers – and everybody had a different feeling in front of the camera. I learned to never tell a person how much the film material is worth because they get nervous when they realize how much it costs for one shot; this needs to remain a mystery. Instead, I try to lead them towards a playful curiosity to understand the camera and learn a little bit about its history. This was one of the most interesting experiences I had so far with this camera. Some subjects saw it more as a challenge. With others it was like an unexpected one-shot situation, where I count down to press the shutter, with his energy shifting so much, being so concentrated and so focused. This is a pure moment of photography and I feel that people understand that somehow. What is happening in this camera, and the kind of respect, trust, and understanding that it takes makes working with 8×10 so much different and so much more honest.

Photos: Mathias Voelzke

Your exhibition at Bikini Berlin was named the largest ever Polaroid photography exhibition of its kind in the city to date. What are your dreams and hopes for the year ahead?

The Bikini exhibition was in many ways a great experience. It was made in collaboration with 35 students, and 2 curators. This was the first time in my life that I gave my whole portfolio to complete strangers, even with studies, tests and those things most people would never see. It was such a wonderful opportunity to see all this coming to life, and wandering around this huge room and see what you have created. To have the opportunity to use over 700m2 to present over 160 of your creations, and working with students who had different approaches and ideas. Everything shown there was taken on Polaroid or Impossible film but they were not all originals. There so many different prints, and a lot of experiments like how big can a polaroid be? One was in a lightbox, two were on a transparent glass in front of windows, it was a little milestone for me. This was my past 10 years and a few months ago decided yes, I am an artist. And with all the struggles I already went through there will be more now, but it’s fine because I need to follow this path. There are so many things still waiting in my archive, and so many ideas written down in my books. This big monographic exhibition was different from all other exhibitions but this one always will be a unique one, and the last word in the last chapter that is about to start.

Photo: Mathias Voelzke

All photographs courtesy of IG: @oliverblohmcom