A Conversation with Dieter Appelt

Since the 1960’s, German artists using photography have been in the vanguard of those challenging traditional assumptions about the nature of medium. According to Gary Garrels, curator of the landmark exhibit, Photography in Contemporary German Art, “Artists began using photography in ways conceptually and materially different from those generally practiced prior to 1960. A subtext of this work is a reckoning with German history.” The concerns of Dieter Appelt’s work are both consistent with those of other artists of his generation working in Germany, and aloof from their approach to making art. Appelt, (b. 1935), creates photographs which either document his own body, caked with marble dust or bound in cloth strips, or depict abstract studies of found objects, such as twigs or rocks, exposed over long periods of time. Sylvia Wolf, curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, maintains these images “demonstrate Appelt’s preoccupation with themes of death, rebirth, meditation and transcendence.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, though, Appelt has always retained an equally focused regard for form in his art, in order to express emotions. As Wolf writes, Appelt goes “beyond conventional uses of the medium to give abstract principles a photographic form.” 

 Two recent exhibitions in New York of Appelt’s work - at the Guggenheim Museum - Soho, and at the Pace/Wildenstein/MacGill Gallery - served as the occasion for this conversation.

 PETER HAY HALPERT: I started to walk through the exhibit [at the Guggenheim Museum] right before we got together and the first thing that struck me, that almost interrupted all my previous thoughts, was also the first thing that struck me when I was looking through the catalogue for the exhibition. Namely, that your imagery is very frightening, and disturbing, almost haunting. Is that more a reflection of how you’re feeling or an intent to impart an impression?

 DIETER APPELT: It’s true that my images have this aspect, and they come from my own feelings, my own experiences, but also from my intention to express the agony, the decisive nature of having to be born and to die. For instance, I have worked with Georg Baselitz [whose paintings were being shown at the Guggenheim Museum, concurrent with the Guggeneheim - Soho exhibit of Appelt’s photographs], who is a friend of mine, and this is a preoccupation, an intention, in his work as well, and in Europe, where I come from, in general.

 If you really want to express something, you have to be radical. I am also radical with what I do with myself, which doesn’t mean that I am torturing myself, but that I am pursuing a speculation, an inclination towards exhibitionist traits. I do these things with myself because I can’t work with a model. I want to do them with myself because certain experiences come from inside, from within. I work with myself, because I couldn’t ask it of anyone else; you wouldn’t get the answer. You cannot verbalize certain feelings, because they can’t be described in words.

 This is perhaps a lengthy answer to your question, but first and foremost, it is important in art to find the form. That’s my central concern; form is the most significant thing. A work of art that tells a story, but that has no form, becomes literal. But if an image is formally correct, it is also ambivalent, and not explainable in words. So I do not wish to tell a story with this language of images, but would rather answer an existential question.

 I am not a photographer. I am a sculptor. I see my work,  as photography with sculpture. It’s not a coincidence that photography is able to express the sculptural. Brancusi’s photographic work has  an important place alongside his sculpture. That, for me, made it very obvious; it was a great key for me. He has vibration in his photography, which he achieves by rotating the sculpture, producing a strange shadow. And shadow, of course, is a priority, connected to photography, since photography as it exists, is basically nothing but black and white shadows.

PHH: Shadow and light.

DA: And shadow is related to death in mythology.

So to wrap it up, I photograph form as sculpture, which means that if I photograph myself, it becomes a sculpture. And it is more important that I photograph myself, rather than someone else, because I use myself as a medium. But there is no inner feeling connected to the image. If it looks like I have been hurt, I am just exaggerating the power of expression. For example, looking at the catalogue of Richard Serra, his sculptures have a weight and a mass that achieves the same thing. Of course, I want to provoke the recipient, the viewer.

PHH: Just as Richard Serra provokes a reaction in viewers.

DA: Richard Serra provokes with his silence, and this is something that is very important to me, too, the silence in the finished work. I find the same thing with Pierro della Francesca. And, again, I find this silence in Zen calligraphy, which for me is also an important key.

Even though it is a much abused phrase, the aim, the goal is not as important as the way. I find that I am always in a process of experimentation. The work is never really finished. With this exhibition, which has not been put together by myself, all of a sudden I see that there is this line going through the whole thing. And the earliest work, from 1959, is, in certain degrees, not any worse than what I’m doing today. But I’m not producing for an exhibition at a museum or a gallery. I take my time to go through my work, doing it for me.

PHH: Listening to you talk right now, I’m reminded of when I was reading the essays in the catalogue, it struck me that you’re working with photography as the medium of expression, yet almost all of the references, both in the catalogue and in the work, are non-photographic; when you discuss your influences, they aren’t culled from the history of photography.

DA: I have studied photography and I am auto-didact in sculpture. But I think that after 150 years of photography we might have to re-invent photography at the end of this century. We have to make new experiments. I’m convinced it’s a wonderful medium, and my main work is photographic. Now I’ve developed new printing methods to find a whole new photographic language, and I think photography is far from having reached the edges or the borders of it’s finish.

I find it very dangerous, though, that young people take photographs today like Walker Evans. I find it very important that one deals with photography in a very individual way. Only then can photography be strong again. And we have some contemporaries who do that, who produce a very individual language of images. And that’s a new development in photography.

PHH: Do you see your work as having a place within the historical context of photography? It almost seems to stand outside the historical timeline of photography.

DA: A great influence was Alvin Langdon Coburn, who worked with Ezra Pound

PHH: And made the Vortographs [c. 1917]

DA: They developed Vorticism, which  stood as a strong movement in the intellectual community. A second influence is the Futurists. I still work along the lines that they walked.

PHH: But there aren’t many references to the influence of past photographic masters in your work.

DA: No. I can say that because my pictures are not snapshots. I took pictures of myself sitting in front of the camera for two hours as long time exposures. These long term exposures aren’t one picture. There isn’t one picture that’s been taken as a conventional snapshot. And now I can answer your question, because you have an understanding of that period and also of work outside of photography. A snapshot is like a still in a movie, it is an unfinished movement. Whereas with a long exposure, I achieve the image of the end of movement. It’s the same with painting, which also comes to the still point. Only then is the image an image. Traditional photography, where speed is involved, is literal. I don’t want to tell the story. I want the image, the picture.

There are only a few images is painting where time does not stand still. For example, the Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello, painted an image of a horse, and you see the horse kicking and you see the leg suspended in mid-air. Whereas in my photography, I achieve the end of movement.

The image is on the negative in layers, by means of the long exposure; the impression is reinforced. The camera is stupid, and in it’s action, totally indifferent. It’s only what I think that comes out. I prepare my thoughts and the picture becomes the expression of those thoughts. Representability does not interest me. I create the image in the picture.

PHH: Do you think your understanding of what a photograph can convey has changed over time. When you started working it seems to me that you were using photography as a much more objective medium, to record an “aktion,” whereas in your later work, while the execution may have become more scientific, the end result is actually more subjective and much less literal. Does that have to do with a changing conception of what photography is?

DA: Yes. That’s a very good question. During the 60’s, Beuys also did “aktions” in front of an audience, not unlike a performance. We all made a point in Europe of calling them “aktions.” I also did “aktions” in front of the camera, just by myself in a small room, or outside in nature. And that’s where the search for what I do now started. I did not know yet where it was leading. Today I still use my own body, but there are things, objects, that play an important role in my photography.

Thinking is form. I think the “aktion.” In the exhibition at Pace/Wildenstein/MacGill, body language is still very important, but it has nothing to do any more with the “aktion” pictures. You’ll see that the new work is reaching back to the old work, but through a totally new means; it’s a new and reflective process.

The use of the term scientific is very good. By the end of this century, we’ll have to look back on an enormous period of invention. As artists, I think we have much more interaction with scientists; I can’t deny being fascinated with this process. However, art shouldn’t become scientific. That would put art in a corset and we would lose something. The most important thing for the development of art is freedom. Art shouldn’t be narrowed or confined by anything. Not by math either. But the exchange is interesting.

PHH: But do you feel that your approach to photography has changed as your understanding of what the medium can be has altered?

DA: You could say that my conception of photography has changed. Now, as ever, I  still have this burning passion with photography. I feel I can still make discoveries with the medium. New rites have to be discovered. When I was 30, I had a totally different approach to photography. Whereas now I also look at other mediums, but in order to photograph.

PHH: I recently participated in a symposium in which I discussed how photography had once been regarded as the poor relative compared to painting and sculpture. But as photography has gained acceptance, the issues that initially limited it’s acceptance seem increasingly irrelevant. Contemporary artists accept photography. In fact, the curators, collectors and dealers who championed photography in the 60’s and 70’s now seem to be fighting a rearguard action to maintain the medium as a separate entity, almost ghetto-izing photography, rather than recognizing it’s acceptance within contemporary art. It seems to me that as we move into the 21st century, traditional photography as we have known it will cease to exist, that new approaches to photography will guide it.

DA: Traditional photography is still practiced today, but it bores me to death. The Becher school is conventional and decorative (though Thomas Ruff is doing interesting work). But John Coplans’ pictures, which are straight-forward photographs, have a similarity to my work. Perhaps we have the same intention, but we are not taking the same pictures. Likewise, Duane Michals’ use of language is very interesting to me. I find this development, the incorporation of language in photography, to be very good, particularly that it’s becoming more pronounced. But classic photography is finished. Now we have to find new ways.

PHH: How can we push photography towards new ground?

DA: I still think the interaction of photography and the “aktion” is a challenge. Because by the means of photography I create a distance to the object. Consequently, a new space is created. Something surreal emerges in that space. Yet that still space is different than what we experience in film or video.

PHH: I was once talking to a director who said that film is essentially about going someplace. Film never has a quiet moment;  it must always go on to the next image, the next event. Photography, though, allows that moment, that caesura, that silence.

DA: I agree that this is particularly fascinating. Photography allows a block, a silence. I’m drawn to the paintings of De Chirico and Morandi, who created a cosmological image. I find that the simpler the picture, the more impossible to express the word. It becomes inexpressible. The silence is what is so important.

In a painting, all you can do is move the brush in a circle. Finding the silence is the difficulty. I think Ellsworth Kelly is getting better; he’s getting closer to what is simple and inexpressible. He’s an incredible artist; he’s so far away, yet he has a very common spirit.

PHH: Talking of how photography allows the caesura obviously brings up another area that’s always been of great interest to you - music. Do you find some kind of relationship between photography and music?

DA: Yes.

PHH: First of all, it strikes me that both are fundamentally about fractions of a moment. A musical note is defined as a quarter note, a half note, a whole note in the same way that we define a photographic image as 1/125 of a second. So it’s broken down in similar ways. Yet it seems to me that there are fundamental differences, because sound reverberates; it echoes. The photograph stops. Do you find a reverberation is the photograph as well?

DA: The pause in music is also music. I worked with Schoenburg, von Webern and Alban Berg. This is the first time the modern 12 tone system was established, and it totally transformed the form of music. I studied music a lot, and that gave me great insight into my photography. When I work, I don’t hear music, though, because music forces something on me which cannot be drawn out. The rhythm of music hinders my intentions.

PHH: Not that you would work to music, per se, but do you find music and photography allied?

DA: I don’t think so.

PHH: Going back to what I said earlier, both seem to be fundamentally grounded on the principles of breaking down moments.

DA: I have studied musical compositions in which you can see the pauses. But time is relative. In photography, for me, it is not about a second, but about stretching time over the course of hours. So for myself, music and photography are phenomenon that touch on each other but which I divorce myself from. In photography, I am concerned with the spot on the mirror created by breath. I have realized this as an image. Music could also reach that. An organ fugue works like almost like a drug, so there is some affinity.

PHH: Now we are getting to one of the areas of your work that most fascinates me because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about in photography for so long: the concept of time in photography. Are you familiar with Hockney’s discussion of time in photography? Obviously, Hockney acknowledges the influence of Picasso and Cubism on his work, and that clearly informs his concept of time in photography. He’s trying to take multiple views in order to express the passage of time, in the same way that Picasso, in a portrait Dora Marr, would take the face and bifurcate it. It seems to me, that as with Hockney, you’re trying to redefine the nature of the medium, of how it can encompass time. But it also seems to me that you’re going in a very different direction than Hockney. If anything, maybe you’re work might be closer allied to Hiroshi Sugimoto.

DA: I want to unmask time in a picture. With Hockney it’s a painterly component in his work; he thinks like a painter in his photography. I don’t. I think like a sculptor. For me time in photography has something to do with the way Etienne-Jules Marey used it. I’m interested in having a succession of movements layered in one image. I assemble time in an image. I use time like a mechanic, permanently layering memories and actual experiences. We have all these things in our minds but we continue to combine them and use them with the situation we are actually in. This combining system is like a time montage, which totally differentiates me from Hockney. The original image of Hockney is much different than mine; I’m much closer to Sugimoto.

PHH: It’s interesting. I just recently wrote a book with Sugimoto in which I discussed time in his photographs. It seems there’s still something that further distances you from his work, too. Sugimoto is always concerned with creating a recognizable image. His movie palaces and drive-in theatres are still recognizable for what they are. But in your photographs of objects, in which time is a central component, they’re not about recognizing the object at all.

DA: I don’t want to explain what the object is. I’m not interested in that. It’s more like a ritual, a stripping down. Sometimes I think I go as far as stripping down psychically. I’m really concerned with rituals, with following or creating a private mythology. I wrote a book called MEMORY TRACE which focused on historical archetypes that I didn’t even know existed. Through this effort, thinking about this almost tribal image, I had insights into things I didn’t know had a basis in real conceptual research.

PHH: Sometimes when I lecture about contemporary photography, I have said that I think photographers/artists are the shamans of our modern culture; they’re the only people who can serve as shamans for us. Do you feel that you’re behaving in that manner?

DA: Yes. It’s incredible; it’s what I tell my students, too. Beuys was the autotype. In his hands, art became a magical object. If a work of art has no magic, it will die. Everyday, we are bombarded by millions of photographic images which by the time evening comes are dead in our memory. Sometimes not just what comes out of my mind, but what I conceptualize in my head is equally important. The mystery in art still exists for me. The more this reflection of something of magic, mysterious, is represented in a work of art, the more we can learn from it. In surrealism, the objet trouve was a manifestation of this.

We can find art if we like. I look at this window frame and I think how can I photograph that. It can be replicated in a photograph, but for me it’s also important to find what it has to do with us. I can be walking down the street and get a feeling. Sometimes, I have to look. And in turn, by looking I am giving shape to something, formalizing that feeling. If I photograph that moment, it’s not about incorporating everything that was present. I refuse; I don’t accept that you can do that. Instead, it’s about the way we’re affected that is significant.


Peter Hay Halpert is a curator and author who writes regularly about photography and contemporary art for AMERICAN PHOTO, THE ART NEWSPAPER and ARTNews. He has written for ART PRESS on Adam Fuss and Hiroshi Sugimoto.