Javier Vallhonrat: The Life of the Senses, the Life of the Mind

Spanish photographer Javier Vallhonrat applies an intellectual vigour to his personal work that may come as a surprise to those more familiar with his innovative, sensuous fashion stories for the European Vogues.

Starting in the early 80s, he was the herald and major influence for a generation who learned that the natural hue of a garment didn’t have to dictate its colour in a photograph. He relied on low-tech spotlights and gels to shape a vision of style that answered only to the emotional demands of the image. Then, in spite of other photographers’ acclaim, Vallhonrat left fashion photography to concentrate on his own photography projects and directing commercials.

This native Madrileño shares the passion and ironic stance of his compatriots, such as Pedro Almodovar, and fuses this with an awareness of the immense heritage of Spanish art: of Picasso, Gaudi, Buñuel and Balenciaga, of Velasquez and El Greco. With Vallhonrat’s personal researches in photography now bearing fruit, he is preparing to enter the editorial field once more. This time, however, instead of fashion photography he intends to explore a direction rarely portrayed in any magazine – the illustration of abstract ideas, of feeling and of spirit.

Karin: I understand you studied fine art originally, that you were a painter?

Javier: I went to the Fine Arts Faculty in Madrid, and it was extremely practical, too practical. It was an old faculty with a very strong division between conceptual art and the old ways, and there was a big fight between the teachers who were trying to make the students think as well as paint and produce objects, and the others who had a very different set of ideas.

Then I had to go into the military, after which I had an offer to work as an assistant to a commercial photographer doing documentaries about artists, and I started to get interested in photography. I began to invest more time experimenting with photography, then in 1981 produced my first series and I started working commercially.

Karin: Have you made a complete break with painting now?

Javier: It happened step by step over a long period, unconsciously. In 1982 I was constantly producing pieces in photography, and the more I used it the more I found I was not painting any more. At one point I got nostalgic about painting, but the more I became involved in photography the more I discovered they’re both just media, and it doesn’t matter what the medium itself is.

You get deeply into this knowledge of the language of the medium, which you then explore and explore. But in future I’ll get back into exploring the boundary between photography and the other media. The basic similarity is they are all fields in which you express your current preoccupations, theoretical and visual. I’m interested in the ones that are most similar: photography, painting and sculpture, all those that deal with icons and images and the world of objects. This is my field, and a photograph is ultimately yet another object.

Karin: Tell me about your project, The Possessed Space.

Javier: I’ve been very interested in the photographic language basically, not only as a confrontation with daily reality, but more with its inner reality as a language. Some of this work was in an exhibition that toured here a couple of years ago called On The Shadow Line: Ten Spanish Photographers. It was called that because we were working on the edge, the frontier of photography.

When I did The Possessed Space I was very interested in questioning the nature of the photograph, both as icon and as object. In my pictures, the frame is no longer a window, it’s more a frontier, a border in relation to the body.

The body creates a tension around itself, and the body defines a space. When I present a hexagon in a photograph, I am actually photographing a cube, a three-dimensional object. In translating that three-dimensional reality into a photograph, what it once was is now meaningless. What’s now important is that you have a hexagon, a two-dimensional object, in your hands.

So what I was symbolising is how photography deals with the reality in front of the photographer, and how the photograph deals with its own nature as an object. A photograph printed in a book or a magazine is no longer a photograph either. It’s part of that book.

Karin: What are some of the other projects you’ve worked on?

Javier: When I finished The Possessed Space, I started work on Autograms, where I photographed myself during different actions using the element of light, time and space. I was taking photographs while burning objects and the only source of light was the one I produced myself as an actor in front of the camera, handling an element that used to belong just to the photographer.

I was doing this by lighting a match and when the flame was dying the picture was dying. Action directing the photograph, not the photograph deciding which part of the action to record, because the whole action was inside the picture. Condensing time, not fragmenting it.

I’ve been exploring different elements of the photographic language to get deep into it, to open up other horizons. I have a new series, Precarious Objects, which again deals with the photograph as an object and its interaction with what it represents.

Karin: How have you done that?

Javier: All the photographs are about elements in a precarious state. For example, there is a big stone balanced on its corner, about to fall down. A very big photograph showing an enormous volume of stone in this precarious state, presented as a very thin aluminium sheet with the photograph itself mounted on the surface.

No frame, not hanging on the wall but leaning on a little shelf in a vulnerable balance. The other elements I present in this series are weight, temperature, mobility, uids, liquids and solids, so you perceive the photograph as something completely apart. I am exploring this area constantly.

Karin: Is the photography scene in Europe lively at present?

Javier: People are starting to look at it without putting up the kind of barriers dealers and collectors used to. They’re starting to consider a photograph not so much as a document, but as an artistic expression no matter if the support is just photographic paper.

Contemporary artists using photography in their work have contributed to this change, and also curators who include it in their exhibitions, combining it with painting, video, installation and sculpture. At the Helga Alvear, a gallery in Madrid, I’m the only photographer showing among painters and object makers. It is a very common situation.

Karin: So photography has pulled itself out of the old separatist ghetto?

Javier: Yes. During the 60s and 70s, some of the specialist photography galleries helped photographers achieve consciousness of the autonomy of the photographic language, but they also contributed to a wall between it and other media. Some galleries understood photography as an open field with a foggy frontier and helped to break down the ghetto walls. But then some specialist photography magazines in the 70s and 80s tried to reinforce the idea of photography as being separate.

Karin: Do you have a number of collectors buying your work?

Javier: Yes, several institutions all over the world, but mainly in France at an institution called FRAC [Fondation Regionale d’Art Contemporain]. For some reason in the 1990s, Spain has become very interested in collecting my work, but France started it all. Funny, because I live and work here in Spain. This year there’s a bank with a very large contemporary art collection, several museums, and many, many private collectors.

Karin: But why are the French such keen supporters of photography?

Javier: France is very active in collecting it, more than any other nation in Europe. This long tradition is not so much to do with their discovery of photography – America has had a much longer history of supporting it as an art medium – but with the political structure of different museums, foundations and institutions, the structure of French culture.

Karin: Is it now ‘One Europe’ in photography? Are the French collecting work from all over Europe?

Javier: They are very open to that, absolutely. And not only European photographers, but everyone. They have wonderful collections of contemporary photography, they follow very closely photographers who’ve not yet been discovered. It’s partly because they are sort of in the middle of Europe. They are the same with photographers in other countries, maybe even Australia too!

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