From the eroded optimism of the heroic building-monuments in east-Europe, to the monochromatic banality of housing developments in the Canary Islands, the photographs of Simona Rota appear to be talking to us about the aspirations and shortcomings of architecture in both its megalomaniac and its quotidian streams.
Often lacking human presence, the photographs tell a tale of evaporated intentions, and failed dreams, making through the images a visual statement about the power of humanity to create, alter, and transform our environment.
Images of architecture about topics that transcend architecture, projects like Ostalgia, Instant Village, and Placelessness take us to a personal journey through some of the faces of modernity in Europe, while revealing simultaneously the seducing beauty of its ugliness, and the vulnerability of its invincible architectures.
We are drawn towards the fantastic journey of an upcoming visual story teller that equally dazzles us with an image of the Georgian Ministry of Highway Construction in the middle of a cloud of fog, or with the metaphoric clash of a natural sea made from the flat surface of oceanic water and an artificial sea made out of identical houses, terracotta tiles, and pitched roofs in Tenerife Island.
WAI: Could you give us a brief introduction about your interest in the relationship between architecture and photography? How did your concern for architectural representation and reproduction start?
Simona Rota: My interest in photography and architecture respectively was encountered to certain point in a natural way. I am related to architecture through several ways. On the professional level a great amount of my best friends are architects. On the other hand, I studied Political Sciences and the project for my Master’s degree was about the construction, representation and reception of the national image, a topic that obliged me to go through the bibliography about the relationship between architecture and politics of national branding. Since 2004 I have been working and collaborating with architects in different ways, as Office Manager, as freelance communications consultant, as exterior marketing Manager, and in that sense, part of my work implies a direct relationship with architectural photographers and publications at the time of hiring photographers or selecting graphic material.
In 2008 after returning from a short holiday in Iceland, I sold some of my photographs to an architectural magazine. They were photographs of a building (designed) by the Icelandic architect Högna Sigurdadottir. I understood that small event –that was unprecedented and agreeable –as a sign and since then I have kept photographing architecture by commissions and with commercial ends.
On the other hand, in the personal projects, I am not sure that architecture in itself constitutes enough reason for me to generate a work of photography. Architecture is omnipresent in my works but is not the objective of them. It’s true, architecture is a passion, but even when my passion for food is even greater I don’t make photographic works that use food as a motif; I have realized that there are lots of things that I feel passion for that will never turn out to be a photographic project.
Because of that I think that my passion for architecture doesn’t explain my interest in it. My interest in Architecture in Photography is an election that has resulted from intuition and reflection. I choose to photograph architecture in the way that, for me, architecture constitutes an adequate visual tool to reflect about the use of territory, the configuration of the built landscape, the artificial context, the construction of images and the expression of power. Architecture is made by us, by humans. Even if in my photographs there are almost no people, my interest is not about the objects but about the authors of those objects.
How is the process in which you generate your photographic series (for example Instant Village, Ostalgia, Placessness)? How do you identify the buildings or the spaces that you decide to photograph? Do you have a personal relationship with these structures and spaces, or is it more about general interest and circumstances?
My photographic series are usually born out of the mal-être, of my impotent discomfort with some given circumstances. In the beginning it was something very personal, so personal that sometimes I trash incipient series because I don’t want them to be transformed into something exclusively autobiographical. To take them from me without suffering, I usually send them to a folder that I have called “yo que sé”(what do I know?), a folder that I will not try to sort out even in my euphoric moments. But the series that I keep developing are those ones that, starting from that personal preoccupation, appear to have the capacity to construct a bigger topic, a topic that could apply to or interest more people, as to myself. For example, Instant Village starts by a feeling of impotent disappointment towards the way in which the territory has been treated in the Canary Islands. I have lived several years in the islands, a spectacular place where it is not deteriorated through the imbecilic urbanistic interventions. I am not adept of the non intervention in nature; on the contrary, I believe that the natural environment needs the human intervention to be assumable. I think that in the Canary Islands the possibility of having a good built environment existed, but in exchange there is a lot of junk. This wasted great opportunity can’t be left without reaction, from me and from more people. I think that Instant Village, even when it’s a project generated by a personal anxiety, has the capacity to illustrate a topic with more general implications.
In order to determine if a topic could be something more than a personal anguish, I usually research, with more or less rigor.
I look for information about the topic, read, watch interviews, and look for other visual projects that could have been done about the same topic. In reality I use the exact same methods of research that I used to do a project in the University. Until when I started practicing photography, I was convinced that studying Political Sciences was the most useless thing in my life. Now I am not sure if it serves me more having studied Political Sciences than having studied Photography.
This reflection accompanies me during all the process, but always before starting to photograph and after, in the selection and edition of the images, and never while I am photographing on the site. While I photograph there is nothing more that the machine with its silly limitations, and me with my physical limitations and doubts, and the weather. If what I am doing doesn’t end up convincing me, I feel quickly tired and it costs me to keep moving. I know when a shot will be good when I get very nervous while shooting; I leave and return to the site a little later to shoot exactly the same frame. The decisions about the concept and the coherence I take them through documentation and reflection, while the decisions about the visual character I take them based on instinct.
In relation to localize sites and reach them, the help of my friends has been fundamental. I owe them a lot. And in the case of “Ostalgia” I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without the managing work of the Vienna Architectural Center and without the assistance of the local guides. Sometimes because they have seen my photographs some unknown people write to me to talk to me about similar places that could interest me. I have a handicap: I can’t drive a car and this, sometimes limits my capacity to move around.
Our attention is called to the narrative power of your images. At WAI we usually work with collages and photomontages that, through the mixture of images previously disassociated, aim to describe visual stories that, until that moment, only existed in our imagination. In that sense our images usually try to construct fictions. In your case, even when you work with real objects in existing environments, we have noticed a type of hidden language that goes beyond what is seen in the images. In the photographs the environmental factors, the tonalities, colors and textures, as well as the angles in which the pictures are taken seem to suggest that architecture (or the context) is trying to communicate a message. Is there a narrative or a theory behind the images? What do photographic series like Ostalgia or Instant Village try to prove? Is the architecture in your images the object of focus or a vehicle to talk about topics that transcend architecture?
If there is a hidden language beyond my images is something that I cannot know for sure. Maybe it is like that, but for sure I don’t try to construct it. What I can affirm is that photography or an image in general can result in being fathomless and give way to more interpretations than what was planned. Just as I see things, my photographs are an extension of me, of how I am and think in every moment of my life. When I decide to make a photograph, the how and why of it, I am not other than the same person that decides what to buy in a supermarket, and why to buy one thing and not the other. As everybody else, I have convictions, fears, opinions that go with me everywhere, also in my photographs. Perhaps that hidden language may be nothing else than the codification of myself and my life.
However, it is true that in every work I try to center the attention (first mine and then that of the public) about particular ideas and give them coherence through the visual expression. These ideas are sometimes very clear before starting to photograph. It happened like that with Instant Village or with Big Exit. I knew very well from the beginning what I wanted to communicate and how to do it. In Instant Village I wanted to talk about how artificial and damaging urbanism can be. I think that in certain moments, the series manages it with success and in others with less success; in fact, I think that this series simply needs more images to better develop the idea, I think that is more a question of quantity, or repetition. Other times, the process is reversed: I start to photograph following my instinct and when I have a certain amount of images, I try to understand myself, think, and discover the ideas that are present already in the images, discipline them, trash the anecdotic, and keep on. That has occurred with Ostalgia. I was photographing in the ex soviet countries, sent there by a commission; from time to time, an image was taken out of the commission, and was only “mine.” At the beginning, I didn’t knew what I was doing, but I kept photographing and when I had about 20 pictures of “mine” I analyzed them, and then I continued but already in a more disciplined way. And when I say disciplined, I mean to give coherence to the frames, to the type of light, to the atmosphere I was looking for, etc. What has had resulted, is a series that touches several topics: the representation of power through architecture, the inexistence of the individual in a society of authoritarianism, the failure of the soviet utopia, and the post communist decadence.
Have you tried to manipulate the photographs (reference point, tonalities, treatment of the pictures) in accordance to the message that you want to carry with each photographic series? Or Do you prefer to leave to the public the interpretation of the photographs?
I don’t know if photography can be conceived independently of the manipulation, as making photographs implies making frames, which mean cutting inside a wider view. From the point that there is a glass between the human eye and the world that shows in front of that eye, we don’t talk anymore about reality but about representation. The manipulation starts there, in the origin of the photograph, in the glass that separate us from reality and that offers an image in which are blended in the same plane all the dimensions of the world. That type of manipulation is the one that I use the most: the framing. On the other side, I follow a normal and necessary process of image optimization: equilibrate tones, clean dirtiness, emphasize a shadow or a light already existent but faded, straighten the canvas or verticals etc. I want to find an efficient image but with poor mediums. Until now, to achieve my objectives with photography, I haven’t needed more post production than a minimum flow of optimization. But maybe in the future I would like to experiment more things that will require the use of more complex tools of manipulation.
I can’t and I don’t want to control the interpretation that the public have of my photographs. It is good to listen or to read what people think about my photographs, it helps me to see them with a critical distance. Above all it helps me to hear opinions while I’m developing a work.
We see a visual relationship between some of the photographic series; have you traced a “master plan” of topics that you would like to photograph? Where do you want to take architectural photography?
I haven’t traced a master plan of topics to develop. I worry about recurrent topics, sometimes these topics become obsessions that don’t stop appearing on everything and giving a type of hidden unity so that ultimately the work seems to respond to a plan.
The topic of power or impotence of architecture appears to be a constant topic in some of your photographic series. The series Placelessness (2009) appears to emphasize on the weakness of urban scenarios of low architectural intensity while the photos that we have seen of Ostalgia (2010-12) appear to explore precisely the persistent power of monumental architectures even in their state of abandonment or decay. Is the relationship between architecture and power (or the lack of it) something that you seek to explore in these photographic series? Do you think that the ideas or topics of these photographic series are inherent characteristics of the object of study, or are these concepts a product of your interpretation as a visual artist?
At the beginning of the interview, I said that in my personal works, I am not interested in architecture in itself, but on the readings that can be made through it. I use and offer architecture as a key to access topics that I deal with in my projects. Between these topics the power or the impotence of architecture exists but as residual. If it’s about power and impotence that we are talking, what really interests me is the power or the impotence of humanity, as the sum of individuals or as a society.
As you mention, in spite of the omnipresence in your photographs, architecture is not the end of your work but a vehicle to communicate ideas about humanity, about the authors of the architecture, and about the repercussions of the ideas of these authors. Do you think that architecture and the built environment as an image is an effective medium to talk about the human condition, about the ambitions and failures of societies and their ideologies? Do you think that there could be other elements that could communicate these ideas with the same intensity? Following this line of thought, Is photography an effective tool to communicate abstract ideas about humanity?
I am convinced that the built environment (or deconstructed, as a negative) and then the images of it are an effective medium to talk about ourselves as a society. What we are, what we want to do, what we try to appear, are there, in how we appropriate the territory, life and death of our colonies. Maybe I haven’t been clear: by authors of the architecture I don’t mean architects, but society in general—which obviously includes them—but architects are not authors of their architecture at all, I think they are just agents involved in a process with every type of pressure, and with many more actors than themselves.
It’s possible that for a musician music represents the highest cultural skill to describe humanity. For me it’s not. In order to understand the world, I need its photographs.
Photography as an artistic element has the potential to convert even the most decadent space in a piece of art. In your Ostalgia series you talk about the failures of a utopia and the repercussions of this failure. Could the message of decadence lose its energy inside the beauty of the photographs?
I wouldn’t define photography as an “artistic element” and don’t think that it’s at all accurate to talk about a “message of decay.” I’ll explain in parts. Firstly, I don’t know how I would define photography. But what I have clear is that for me, photography implies documental attributes, in other words, it is the proof that someone or something has been there, looking or registering something, and photographing it in a certain space and in a certain time. Light is usually present in the process, but not always, that’s why the term “photo” has been made obsolete. In these terms a render is not a photograph, but an image. By being a document, photography is, in the first place, real information.
In second place, I think that the message is something that could or could not be derived from this information. I would say that (the message) is almost a prosthesis, an interpretation added by itself or by whoever that look at the photograph, but is not something that it’s contained inherently in the photograph. Photographs don’t contain messages.
The photographs of “Ostalgia” give indisputable information: buildings and places that don’t appear to be in their best moment. The day that you or me stop thinking and interpreting them, these photographs would keep on showing the same. On the other hand, my message is not so undisputable. In the first place, the message is not one, it is multiple, and in the second place it depends very little on me as the author of the photographs. It’s true that I had the intention of talking about decay, and you have reacted to this part, but also I have had the intention of talking about the conventionality of the occidental look to the East, and I’m afraid that this is something that I haven’t managed to transmit in an efficient manner, because nobody until now has commented about it.
My conclusion about the message is that it results from the interaction between the photograph and who looks at it. Every time it is something more personal that depends on the DNA of every individual and of his or her cultural assumptions. But for the message to be generated, first there has to be someone that would want to see my photographs. And what better way would I have to give them an opportunity if it’s not through seduction? I try to make my photographs attractive, I don’t want to say beautiful, that sometimes they could also be, but attractive.
If you understand the photographs as an extension of yourself, do you see them more as art pieces or as instruments for communication (political, social, personal)?
If my photographs are art or not it’s something that doesn’t worry me because it doesn’t depend on me but on a kind of exterior judgment. I see a lot, understand little, and remember even less. I have defects, but these ones at least I can ameliorate with photography. I have no idea what is art or artistic and of course I am very uncomfortable with calling myself an artist. I see too much, understand little, and remember less. I have more defects, but these I can at least ameliorate with photography and this makes me a better person. Photography keeps me alert and critical to what happens around me, it keeps me permeable. Furthermore, if my photographs make others - not necessarily have to be many - react, think and feel something, I think it’s enough.
Is photography what fascinates your or is it the message that you transmit through the images that calls your attention? Do you see yourself in the future experimenting with other tools?
I am fascinated by photography, first as someone that looks at photography, and only after as someone who creates it. Photography is a curious medium, it appears as if showing something everything as it is, all the details, so reachable that it distorts my capacity of comprehension. When I see a photograph I feel that I’m the same as my cat when he looks himself in the mirror and tries to come closer and touch the other cat that he’s looking at. So photography makes me have my mind awake and in a state of surprise. But when it’s me who generates the photographs, then the need of showing, of sharing, of communicating is more important that the medium I use. What I’m looking for is a medium that is adequate to my form of being and to what I want to communicate. For example, I don’t think I would have made painting, even though when at school I had talent for it, but I am very impatient and painting requires a process a lot longer than the one required for photography. Collage attracts me, I have always liked to cut images of whatever, from magazines, from photographs, and I collect them but I don’t know for what, maybe to make a collage in an undefined future.
Born in 1979 in Romania, she studied Political Sciences in Bucharest and Barcelona and professional photography in Madrid. As a professional photographer, her most substantial work has been a mission of documentation for the Museum of Architecture in Vienna, developed during 2 years, between 2010 and 2012, in the former Soviet republics.
Her personal projects “Ostalgia”, “Instant Village” and “Big Exit” have been distinguished in national and international contests: she received the Award Emergent Pati de la Llotja (2011) and the Photography Award organized by the Museum of Architecture from Vienna (2009); in 2010, she has been a finalist of the IVth Prize for Plastic Arts of the Foundation María José Jove, of the Award Emergent of the Foundation Sorigué and was selected to exhibit in the section “Atlantica Colectivas” of the Biennale Fotonoviembre. In 2012, she is selected at Photoespaña Descubrimientos and shortlisted at the Biennial Prize of Photography Purification Garcia. Her work has been exhibited in group shows such as “Arte40″ at Centro de Arte Complutense, Madrid, April-May 2012, “Emergent. Three authors “Valid Photo January-February 2012, Barcelona, “Puntos de Fuga” at the Iberoamerican Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism, October 2010-2011, Medellín in Colombia; “Balkanology” at the Museum of Architecture in 2009, Vienna in Austria etc. She will proximately exhibit at the gallery The Private Space in Barcelona (July 2012) and the Museum of Architecture in Vienna (November 2012).
WAI Architecture Think Tank
WAI Architecture Think Tank is a Workshop for Architecture Intelligentsia based in Beijing. Founded by Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia in 2008, WAI asks What About It?
This interview is part of What About It? Part 2, a graphic narrative in magazine format made available in limited edition printed copies, and as a free digital resource on the internet.