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Q&A: Sebastian Denz, Hamburg

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Sebastian Denz studied Architecture at the University of Hanover, Photography and Fine Arts at the University of Applied Sciences, Arts in Hanover, and Photography at the University of Applied Sciences in Bielefeld. Denz was a visiting artist at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2008 and his works are in numerous collections. These images are from his recent book, SKATEBOARDING.3D, published by Prestel.

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You teamed up with Carhartt Streetwear for this series. What gave you idea to do this series in 3D, and was your book, SKATEBOARDING.3D, part of the initial plan?
‘I have always been especially interested in the various modalities of “space” as a human system of reference, so after some years of experiments and smaller projects with spatial photography, I decided it was time to work on a more intense project and I really wanted to do a book. I’ve been involved with skateboarding for over twenty years, and from the very start, its subversive element was a welcome alternative to outworn patterns of thought and action.

‘The new patterns and creative strategies I had learned have remained deeply rooted in me to this day — something I’m very grateful for. So I had the idea to provide some deeper insight into the strongly differentiated and codified skateboarding culture. When the project started in 2005, I asked Carhartt to support my work’.

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For more than three years, you photographed the Carhartt skate team while traveling across Europe. Can you briefly describe the process from concept to completion?
‘We travelled around with an old Volkswagen Transporter and made four big tours around Europe, as well as some smaller tours in Germany. My friends, Milena Carstens and Alisdair McGlasson, helped and assisted me. Most of the time we slept in the van, even though it was all full of equipment, lights, and cameras. But we had a lot of fun anyway.

‘In some cases, I knew the location before. But most of the time when we met the skaters in the different countries and cities, we had to do an intense location research. Often it took us days to find a place and space which I liked, and sometimes it was very hard to get permission.

‘All the preparation work for the location — the camera-set-up and the shooting itself — took a lot of time. I always pay a lot of attention to detail, and my 3D “Stein” is not the best with which to take snapshots’.

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Your friend and custom camera specialist, Dr. Kurt Gilde, built a special 8×10 inch large-format-stereo-camera for this project. What did you need this camera to do that existing cameras on the market were not able to fulfill?
‘According to Vilém Flusser, the person and the apparatus are a functional unit. The apparatus does what the photographer wants to, and the photographer can only do what the apparatus’ program permits. Since I wanted to produce particularly detailed and “informative” pictures — meaning, images that have never been seen before — which would also be three-dimensional images of motion, I had to take the leap to a “meta-program,” which involved making my own apparatus.

‘I had the idea of constructing an “improbable” stereo photography camera that would use 8 x 10-inch sheet film, involve brief exposure time, and would have an adjustable stereo baseline and other special technical features. I’m really happy that my friend Kurt Gilde built this apparatus for me. This unique camera’s program allows me to transform my ideas about individual space and time constellations into “improbable” pictures’.

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You photographed the skaters in locations such as sewer systems, forests, and self-made concrete areas. What type of atmosphere were you looking for when deciding upon these locations?
‘One of the implicit themes in SKATEBOARDING.3D is a loss of faith in the natural continuity of the world, which is obviously manipulated through digital processes. This world no longer seems entirely plausible, because when we suspect that something has been digitally manipulated, it takes on an artificial quality, which is not completely artificial, since people continue to believe in its naturalness.

‘Skateboarders are turned into figures that are like avatars in a computer or video game, and yet they seem authentic, too. They appear to exist in hybrid spaces, whose flow of continuity comes to a halt, or whose digital code — like the program mode or state in a computer program — is saved in a kind of savestate.

‘I didn’t want to show the typical skate park next corner, but tried to find locations with a special atmosphere in order to construct these “Postvirtual Spaces,” as I call them. It’s really hard for me to describe that type of atmosphere. I guess, in general, I’m searching for something that’s timeless: classic and modern, simple and complex, concrete and abstract at the same time.’

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My favorite photograph in the book is the shot of the skater in the forest. Because of the way the leaves and bushes pop out, I feel like I’m interacting in that space and not just being an observer. How did you decide what to emphasize in the image, and was this determined in the actual taking of the photograph or done after it was taken?
‘Yes, you’re right, there’s a lot of information and spatial depth in this image. I decided to show it as a double-page detail, so, when reading the book, you can get a first impression about the immersive power and suggestive energy of the much larger, life-sized originals in the exhibitions.

‘The decision about what to emphasize in the image is determined in the actual taking of the photograph. But in later steps, when working on the computer, it’s possible to influence the three-dimensional impression of a stereo photograph to a certain degree.

‘I make sure that the visual points around the eyes of the skaters in each of the two halves of a stereoscopic image correspond to each other. And this also means that I deliberately guide the focus away from the most dramatic sort of “3D effect.” It was more important to me that the images — due to an intentionally selected, slight parallactic shift at their optical center — can also function as “two-dimensional images.” Then the viewer can choose between two ways of looking at it: with or without 3D Anaglyph glasses’.

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Along with the recently released book, SKATEBOARDING.3D published by Prestel, this work has been on display at Robert Morat Galerie Hamburg, Sara Tecchia New York, Dada Post Berlin and others. How does looking at the work in person differ from looking at the work in a book or online? Is it mainly about scale or does the printing/pixels also influence the experience?
‘The book and the exhibition are two different things. The book is very important to me because it shows the total series of spatial images. The accompanying text gives the reader thoughts and background information about the work. But even though it’s an oversized volume, it’s limited in size and the printing colour-space is also smaller in comparison to the original prints. You cannot compare looking at the work in the book or online to looking at it in the exhibition.

‘I’ve seen many visitors to my shows react to the large images with very strong emotions. As you described, they are interacting in that space and immersing themselves in the spatial picture. This pull is especially strong in the highly detailed, sculptural 3D photographs in the exhibition.

‘In my opinion, the images create a permanently intriguing conflict that is communicated to the viewer. By deliberately putting on the 3D glasses, the viewer closes himself off from his environment. His field of vision is concentrated. His perception is intensified, and the 3D glasses enable him to eliminate the veiled, vague areas, to clarify the visual space and keep decoding it.

‘The glasses make it possible to see through a “pseudo-window,” giving the viewer access to another space. This space has magical potential — it has suggestive energy, exercises power over the viewer, and temporarily undermines what the German art historian and media theorist Oliver Grau, in his book Mediale Emotionen, calls the “internal, psychological ability to create a sense of distance. In the process, “consciously experienced illusion [can] transform into the subconscious sort and give the illusion the appearance of reality.” The power of the effect, though, fades away all by itself, and then the viewer has an opportunity to create a sense of internal distance, and start thinking again.

‘For me, this moment of immersion — of being completely inside the picture — and the impression this moment makes on the viewer are of crucial significance. Not only are the boundaries between the viewer’s side of the space and the three-dimensional space beyond temporarily dissolved, but in addition, the pictures themselves can, for a short time, look so “real” that they then seem totally artificial again. They convey a sense of “real hyperreality” — a Postvirtual Space’.

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