by Paolo Mattei
On March 15th 2017, a solo exhibition on photographer Irene Kung opened at the Bonomo Gallery in Rome, located on Via del Portico d’Ottavia.
After her participation in Milan’s Expo 2015 and last year’s important exhibition held at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Irene Kung – a painter who has picked up photography with great passion in the past few years – returns to the Trastevere gallery for the third time in her career.
Until next May 15th, the exhibition in Rome showcases a series of her images from India, Russia and Rome, where the Swiss artist experimented with some new methods to work with digital photography and light, which she combines with her trademark architectural and natural subjects, suspended in a dreamlike dimension out of time and space.
After the success of her book “La città invisibile” (Contrasto, 2012), Kung recently published “Trees” (Contrasto, 2016), winner of the 2016 International Photography Award in the Nature and Art categories. Her aspiration is to show how much of reality remains unknown because of our distraction, by capturing the essence of things and the deep beauty from which they take substance, too often obscured by surface noise.
We met Kung for a short interview.
You started out as a painter. How did your passion for photography begin?
I bought my first camera at sixteen: an Olympus I really loved. I also had a darkroom and a “Durst” enlarger, and made my own prints touching them up with a range of homemade tools – like wires scattered with pieces of paper to lighten an image, or a nylon stocking to blur it. Valentina Bonomo was the one who suggested I devote more time to photography.
You are inspired by Italy and its old and contemporary urban architectures. What is your relationship with the country?
I have always found it very attractive, also for its humanistic culture – which I felt was lacking in Switzerland. I was lucky enough to live in Rome and Milan for many years, and I think Italy taught me everything I know today about creating an image. Architecture is a magnificent expression of the country’s cultural heritage, and an outstanding subject that allows me to voice my dreams.
What great photographers and painters have influenced your style the most?
Painters have been the strongest influence for me: Caravaggio and Vermeer for light; Klee and Richter for color. I worked as an apprentice with various painters, and learned the basics of composing an image. Now my camera has become an additional creative instrument…
Are there any art forms that are not iconic – literature, poetry, music… – yet somehow guide your vision of the world and your style in photography?
I think music is the best art form to express the deepest human feelings, and often find inspiration in listening to a song that aligns with my emotional state.
How do you choose what you are going to photograph?
There are two ways. I can photograph everything that sparks emotion during my day. Or – in a more “professional” approach – I can find a subject and then set up a plan to go photograph it. For example, for “La città invisibile” I traveled to my favorite city, scheduling all the shootings beforehand. Obviously this strategy does not always succeed, sometimes due to banal logistical issues… Some monuments were being restored, others had a very important part that could not be seen from the street, others I had planned to photograph on a day that turned out to be rainy. Sometimes, reaching the exact point from where I wanted to take the picture was a real feat – and I end up having to come back after a few days, or even years.
Your style of photography often references dreams and mystery, the invisible and vision, metaphysical intuition and imagination. Yet all your work starts from reality. What is reality for you and what do you look for in it?
I look for authenticity. That might be counterintuitive because I then alter my hyper-realistic shots, but I do so to express subjective reality. I am always seeking “my” reality and trying to communicate it. When I stand in front of a monument or next to a tree, I stop and focus on what I feel. Some monuments give me a sense of peace, others remind me of war, some trees are perfectly healthy and others are obviously suffering. I take a photograph only after that first moment, and often find the outcome is not aligned with my initial feelings because the subject was surrounded by visual “noise”. Once I’m in my studio, I then work on the image to take it back to the original impression. Through my photos, I hope to convey the feelings that correspond to my reality. I think it’s amazing if someone stops in front of a print of mine and can perceive the state I was in and wanted to express! It’s a wonderful form of non-verbal communication… after all, as Italo Calvino said in “Citta invisibili”, cities reflect our feelings and our dreams. It’s not a matter of taller towers or more decorated monuments.
You announced a new research on light for your exhibition in Rome. Can you tell us more?
The photographs in my first collections are on black backgrounds, with subjects emerging as if from the darkness. They express drama and force you to focus on the essence of the monument or tree. Now I’ve created some dreamlike but much lighter images, with pink, ochre, yellow. You can gaze on a wider, more open image. In this work I sought for lightness and a sense of peace. After the opening at Valentina Bonomo’s gallery in Rome, a lot of people wrote to me to say they had felt at peace just entering the space. That’s great!
Images are invading our world, through increasingly powerful and refined mass communication tools. They accumulate in our daily lives quickly and convulsively. How can fine photography challenge this “iconic hyperventilation” of the contemporary age?
Smartphone photos are mostly meant to document and show our own lives. They have a very different dynamic compared to professional photographs, which aim to convey a concept. The countless photos everyone takes during the day are noise that stops us from living the moment. My work is the opposite: it requires silence, time, research and self-analysis… It is a reaction to chaos and noise.
What’s your stand on the great debate between film and digital?
I think the two techniques should coexist. They are both very interesting. I have worked with film for years and still get excited when I see a beautiful salted paper print. On the other hand, digital allows you to work like a painter, changing the contrast, chiaroscuro and color – a bit like you would do on a canvas. However, technique to me is always secondary to the concept and content of a photograph. An image you create can be interesting even if it’s blurred, just like you can come up with a terrible image despite amazing technique.
Photos via: © Irene Kung