in conversation with Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen
The Cult of the Street

In this rare interview, of which we are publishing a few excerpts, the English artist and author Henry Bond shares his particular approach to photography. The artist compares his images to therapy sessions, from which emerge a framework of how the current and pervasive “cult” of the image and of consumerism seems to have transformed all notions of spontaneity and authenticity.

Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen: Where do you walk when setting out to photograph, what is the goal of that activity?

Henry Bond: One of the things that occurs to me is how the form is parallel to the psychoanalytic session, in that anything can be mentioned, anything can come up and indeed what seems too minor or too stupid is precisely the key to something significant. Like the urban flow of pedestrians and traffic, it really doesn’t matter what passes through, because what is important is how you are perceiving the events. And that is often divergent from any initial aim or strategy. […]

SSW: At this moment we have to come to the question of editing. How is the sequencing in the book achieved? Is this a composition you arrived at or is it something that follows certain topological structures?

HB: The way I engage with the materials is to try and bring back this question of the unexpected or that one type of imagery is always being asserted over another. That equally I may, at any moment, be in a nightclub or in the street, or photographing a celebrity. The value or status of a photograph is a result of how we perceive the context. One builds the context through visual or language cues and prompts that are recognisable and familiar patterns. The way one reacts to, engage with or considers an image placed over a double page spread in Vogue magazine is very different to, say, a photograph proudly proffered from a friend’s wallet.

SSW: You work hard to reinforce the insecurity of genre that you create. When one gets the idea that this might be documentary, you confront it with a photograph which contradicts this kind of idea or if there is something looking like a fashion photograph then you have something which equally contradicts that. […]

HB:[…] I am working in a way which supposes that the context of an image is crucial. What is a vital and necessary dimension in my interrogation of photography is to find out how codes and conventions function and are deployed to produce ‘photographic meaning’. I think that probably the way that I have achieved some way forward in that, is to place these codes into contention, to break them and reassert them and find out where they break down, where they stop functioning.

SSW: […] when you talk about codes, you actually say that a singular image is nothing, but it is constituted as a referential item — like a word in a sentence — it is part of a larger structure.

HB: Certainly, for me an image is always coloured, charged and altered by affecting its context.

SSW: […] What is interesting is that you constitute a structure, you construct a kind of frame, not to fit the photographs in the frame, but to free them to the frame. There is a kind of paradoxical movement in the work you do, in a way. You have to constitute a language constructed out of different genres to show that no photo fits to these genres or types.

[…] If one proposes that the genre is in question, then it is not certain what your role is: there is a basic ambivalence in every photograph you have here. An ambivalence that is present for structural reasons.

HB: I encounter images in a way which is fractured and not defined. I try to reflect that in my approach, I feel that I should not divest myself of that responsibility. In a certain way that is why I started taking photographs in clubs and bars or engaging with the language of glamour photography, because these fields are crucial to the way photography functions images of idealized pleasure, images of idealized beauty.

When I am photographing in a club people often come up to me and see if I need a picture of them or they request that I make picture of them: ‘Why don’t you do a picture of us?’ Sometimes I agree and the next thing that will happen, when I bring the camera to my eye, quite suddenly, they will almost without exception assert this codified pose of hanging their tongue out — like a dog painting — or a kind of mad creaming grimace, rolling their eyes, demented. I might say. ‘That was a great and now, just be yourself’, and then the image will change to a kind of bored, slightly vacant and disinterested pose. My point is that even an idea of a simple, neutral or objective image is a representation, controlled and manipulated even when it seems to be just a straightforward picture in a club.

SSW: The language of photography has already arrived in people’s minds and what they do is a kind of photography without the photograph.

HB: Yes, that is a specific example but it stands as a general point, what I am dealing with is the thoughts and feelings which we are already affected by well before anyone takes a photograph, even if these values or wishes may only be distilled or refreshes in that moment.

There is in this book an interplay and juxtaposition between confrontation to the camera and surveillance. The pose and the facial expression against images made without the subject knowledge, images that are often proposed as ‘candid’ revealing something different to what the pose — the idealized representation — can reveal.

Recently the role of intrusive photography and ‘The Paparazzi’ has been discussed widely, but equally a defining quality of contemporary street culture is the presence of security surveillance cameras, which are now installed at intervals along shopping streets as a typical and agreed part of police activity.

What I am putting forward is that in interrogating the language of photography, it is not my ambition to arrive at a conclusion or an answer but an artistic and creative engagement with these issues. In this sense I have found much to examine and admire in the work of Kippenberger or Sigmar Polke, in the sense that there has not to be something like a formal ritual, only there is always the questioning of the structure of what will make a good artwork, and there is no simple answer there. […]