Jan Dibbets in conversation with Sharon Boothroyd
Interview conducted by phone 19 April 2013
Jan Dibbets, b.1941, is a Dutch conceptual artist who has spent most of his life dedicated to photographic art. He was one of the first artists to recognise the validity of colour photography as an artistic medium and has continually developed a thinking approach to photography. The inherent lie of the photograph is of particular interest to him.
For Dibbets, the fundamental goal is to unmask the seemingly self-evident role of photography as a legitimate depiction of the world and to show how even simple operations can expose photography’s illusion. - Brain Wallis (ICP, NY)
His exhibition in the Dutch pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972 established Dibbet’s international reputation and he has influenced generations of younger photographers both through his own work and his teaching at the Düsseldorf Academy. His work has been the subject of numerous museum exhibitions and is in collections including the Stedlijk, Tate and MoMA, New York. His work was recently featured in Colour Chart at MoMA, NY and Tate Liverpool.
Dibbets talks to Sharon Boothroyd about his career and what it takes to make photographic art, in light of his recent solo exhibition at the Alan Cristea Gallery in London (March - April 2013). This interview was conducted via a telephone conversation on Friday 19 April 2013.
SB: Throughout your career what art movements have been the most exciting to witness’
JD: When I was at St Martin’s I saw a strange sculpture on the roof. It was by someone that no-one took any notice of - it was by Richard Long, so I sought him out. I was the first one to recognise Richard Long. There was no background for it. In the 1960s photography and art were not seen to mix. We had to create our own background - we became the background.
You ask about witnessing art movements but as soon as you witness it, it is over. The exciting thing is finding someone you think is doing something new and interesting and someone who can correspond to your own ideas. The exciting thing is making the movements happen. When they are recognised as movements they are over. Then the imitations begin.
What had the most impact on you as a photographic artist’
Photographic art did not exist. Only classical photography was promoted; 19th-century photographs and maybe Man Ray. Serious thinking about photography hadn’t yet taken place.
The art world consisted of people who had success and those who didn’t. We detested those who had success and those who didn’t had no way forward. We had to make our own movement, find common spirits. That was the start of Land Art and Conceptual Art. All that happened in 1967-8 and just three years later, in 1970, Conceptual Art was over.
Photography began for me when I realised I had to document some of my new outdoor work and looked in the camera for the first time. I had given up painting. It came very near to minimal art and it was painful to give up. I had a strange feeling that I was bringing something completely to an end. I ended up stacking white canvases, they became sculpture and there was no place for me in painting anymore. I had to throw everything I learnt out the window, which is not easy of course.
So, in 1967 I picked up a camera and all these ideas about what is real / not real, abstract / not abstract came together in one machine. It became my thing and I created, over two years, the ‘Perspectives Corrections’ series. I really developed an idea about thinking about photography. Then came the imitator. A student at St Martin’s who previously made enormous plastic colour sculptures saw my work and started making works about shutter speed.
What was your response when photographic theory started coming from France in the 1970s’
It was the revolution after the revolution. It didn’t have any depth and they didn’t know what they were talking about. It was a fashion.
What do you think about contemporary photography today’
Hardly anyone is making photography that is interesting to me. I have a hard time explaining how lonely I have been. Money dictates the fashion in art instead of the museums and that is a bad thing. Sotheby’s and Christie’s tell us what is good and bad.
Jeff Wall is a great writer, he writes very intelligently, but his art is something else. He promotes himself very damn well but there is nothing that is interesting to me about what he is doing. He invented the light bulb behind the picture. Very good.
People like Reneke Dijkstra or Cindy Sherman are making nice photographs but it’s nothing new - it’s all in the vein of documentary photography. It’s a very early discipline that is not exciting. Yes they are taking good pictures but let’s not call it art. Even the Bechers; good friends of mine and excellent teachers, but boring photographs. Where is the art’ Not all painters are artists and not all photographers are artists either. Photography is too often about ‘what’ when ‘how’ is the interesting question.
How would you define art photography’
The 21st century is about thinking about photography not about making it. Adding more photographs to the archive is not what it’s about. I heard the average number of photographs in a small archive is now approx 25,000 photographs. My archive is very concentrated, after 45 years it contains about 275 contact sheets. That’s what I call thinking photography.
Every photograph is a lie. It doesn’t represent anything. Therefore it is both real and abstract. Photography is very easy and very complicated at the same time. It’s tricky and in this trick the fascination lies. You need a key and if you are lucky enough to find one it’s like opening Pandora’s Box; tricky and fascinating and dangerous. It’s a wonderful world, photography. It’s the new painting.
What hopes do you have for the future of photography’
I think the great time for photography is still to come. Photography is the medium of the future, believe me. It has yet to develop. It has a very short history and it is in need of ideas, of thinking about what to do with it and how. Not just about what to make. It is such an easy and tricky medium. You can do anything but nobody knows how.
My idea of photography is something totally different. Not many understand it but I see a very clear and enormous future for photography.
People think everything has already been done. When students tell me this I open the door and tell them - ‘Goodbye and don’t come back’. It is a killing attitude. You have to surprise yourself. You can’t blame oil paint that painting is supposedly dead. In everything, whatever it is can be developed with creativity.
It would be easy to describe your career as prolific and successful. How do you determine success and how would you advise younger artists to navigate this minefield’
I don’t care about what people say. Everyone has to sit through this manipulated art world, especially new artists, but if you are self-aware and don’t care about the manipulations, as long as you can live happily and do what you want to do, that is already a success.
It was hard for us because photography was not recognised but it is hard for new artists because the market is so driven by money. So I would tell them to stop making photographs - think first about photography and then make photographs. It is a struggle. You have to fight for an idea.
Photography is not a craft any more and if the idea is lacking you get only nice pictures. Nice pictures are easy but they are not challenging. Nice pictures are the problem.