Pinned butterflies
Interview by Lars Mextorf


LM
Miklos, I would like to start with a question concerning a common reaction to your work. Due to the focus differences that are unusual for extreme long shots, by looking at your photographs one is almost inevitably reminded of some kind of model landscape. My impression is that you consider your work a bit narrowed by this connection to a world in toy scale. Why is this and what is your personal focus on your work?

MG
Yes, the unfocused photographs confuse the scale unfamiliarly and it evokes this reaction of a small-scale model very often. It seems like it is the most common and obvious way to interpretate the surprising and confusing experience. The blurredness is a method that was developed over a period of time and experimentation. My primary interest in the blurredness does not refer to scale models as such, but more directly to show things in a new way. A new way of looking is able to question things that we take for granted.

LM
But what exactly is it that we take for granted and that you want to question?

MG
By this I meant the subjects I am photographing and I am interested in: scenes and moments of everyday life, public space, the built up urban environment, work and leisure, and so on. When looking these subjects through the unusual photographic perception, one is invited to make an interpretation of one’s own. Even a tiny moment can tell a story, and a familiar scene can be looked at in a new and even surprising way. For me a surprise can reveal something previously unseen, and it can therefore change my conceptions around me and within me. All of a sudden you have the sense that you feel and understand something intensively.

LM
I would like to focus on this aspect of revelation. Am I right that you are not interested in taking a photograph using the method of the tilted film plane when, for instance, photographing a wildlife park without people?

MG
You are right, it does not sound like a very interesting subject as such. I am interested in people to reflect a social aspect. In an uninhabited milieu one lacks the human figures that give scale to the space, and essentially a motif for projecting oneself into the picture. Without the people it might be that an unfocused image would be more about the way of looking and photographic vision itself.

LM
Would you say that the appearance of people in your photographs inevitably implies a social aspect to your work?

MG
For me they involve a social aspect of people and society. Initially I was fascinated by the certain scientific attitude that first appeared in photography of the 1920–30s. For me this has been an influence and a kind of a starting point. It is present in these photographs as the overview perspective, a way of showing that is as like being a neutral observation of its subject. It is like attempting to show some sort of an sample but being quite clumsy in it. Reality is a little amusingly oversimplified into categories. The initial idea with the blurred photographs was indeed to assemble a collection of this kind of depictions of people and society, including photographs each being like a comprehensively describing depiction of a subject.

LM
It seems to me that there is an interesting link between this scientific attitude and the instantaneous perception of the scenes in your photographs as part of a model, since the aspect of a frozen motion in photography is doubled. A model landscape that situates people can be seen as a kind of three-dimensional photograph insofar as it also shows them at a certain, momentary position in space. The assumed model character of your photographs transfers this static character of the model back into photography and thus reifies the people and the social relation between them. This appears to me to be the reason why the anticipation of motion which we have learned to apply to people in photography doesn’t really work in your photographs. So, in a way, you are showing people like pinned butterflies. How, do you think, does this change the perception of the social settings in your pictures?

MG
These photographs have elements of both preplanned arranging and the famed found decisive moment. Ideas for subjects occur to me often at first, and it is only following that I start to look for a location to realize them. Usually I would go to the same place several times to catch the “right” moment. So making these pictures is a combination of staging the subject and finding it. Though I don’t literally stage the subjects, people or scenes in these pictures, they are rather arranged compared to the prevalent preconception of what photography is.

I am interested in using photography for “real” found events and views. The technical complexities involved in using the large format camera that is necessary for this kind of focusing, reduces the degree to which intuition can play a role. Even if this working method is quite non-spontaneous, typical to photography there are always surprises and unexpected things included I want to remain open to. The photographs mostly turn out to be something different what I occasionally had as a preconception of the scene or the subject. The focus is not completely controllable and that brings up a somewhat random selection of focused details from the vast view, also things that otherwise would be perhaps disregarded. Maybe it is also worth noticing that the final images are chosen and edited from a much larger amount of material, as it remains frequently unsaid how editing the material is an essential part of photography.

I think the blurredness resembles some elements of the human sight. We often think of photography corresponding our natural perception, though it hardly resembles human sight: a photograph is a halted moment in time, it is geometric and it focuses on many things simultaneously. In fact there was a landscape photographer Peter Henry Emerson who used the blurred manner in the 1880s and called the technique ‘Naturalistic photography’. The selective focus is used frequently in commercial imagery, studio photography, and also a number of contemporary photographers are making use of it.

LM
Undoubtedly, the use of selective focus is by no means a new invention in photography. But I think the way you use the method gives the motif a certain artificiality that is specific. Emerson is a good example of an opposing approach to yours in fact. He attempts to mimic the eye’s alleged way of seeing by reducing the depth of field so that the plane in focus is relatively thin, and so represents, more or less, the actual inability of the eye to see things at varying distances in focus simultaneously. In most of your pictures, the area in focus corresponds in no way to our ordinary visual experience. What interests me is how the perception of the content of your photographs is altered by this method, compared to a photograph of the same view with no blurred areas. What do you think about that, especially in regard to the social aspect?

MG
The area of focus is unusual for a photograph, and the reception is easily contradictory. But I don’t think it would be reverse to our visual experience, even as a vast overview image. In our sight we follow singular subjects at a time. Our sight actually “zooms” in and out in with our attention and senses. Maybe our way of looking is more similar to cinematic storytelling than halted single photographs: The film montage makes flying shifts in direction and attention, like our sight. Similar kind of montage can happen when looking at these photographs, when one can feel as if drawn into a scene when observing the image at close range and making accidental observations in the focused area. So maybe there is a resemblance to our sight as an experience. The unorthodox way of showing directs some of the attention to the image itself, instead of recording objectively and almost unphysically.

Before becoming more involved in photography, I was more into drawing and was studiying graphic design. I mention this biographical background because I believe it points out something about my relationship to photography. With the preconception of making images spontaneously, directly and physically as in the process of drawing, I initially found photography complex for its technical and industrial character, but interested in it’s characteristics of the halt of moment, the illusoriness and in it’s relationship to interpretation. It seems sensible to think of photography as an experience, event or a process – instead of a reproduction or an object.

Anyway, these were some influences that led to this method that I see as appearance of different elements: the sense of dimensionality, scale and photographic stillness, reflecting on stereotypes and commonplace ideas of the day-to-day. These are some recurring interests that are present in many of my works also besides this particular body of work of photography.

LM
This slightly caricature-like aspect in your work came earlier to my mind when I was thinking about your titles. Often they have a certain innocence that is reminiscent to coffee-table books that show, in a very opulent way, life in foreign countries. The photographs in these books are usually accompanied by captions that describe the scenes as if they were not in themselves expressions of a society that is structured in a certain way but rather some kind of performance that stage a cliché detached from society. Titles such as your Event on a Shopping Street, Demonstration Day, Perfect Tan, etc. pretend an almost naive glance that collides with the social reality shown in your photographs and so create a tension which I find very convincing. Did such kind of considerations influence your choice for the titles in any way?

MG
Yes, these were particular inspiration not only for the titles but for the photographs in general. The coffee-table books introducing distant places appeared at the time most people were unable to travel, and in later times they have revived through the tourist industry. They imply this characteristic attitude that is not devoid of humouristic effect. It is indeed often forgotten that these depictions are expressions themselves, it is as if they are indiscriminate but nevertheless depict their subjects competently.

This caricature-likeness does have a link to model landscapes. Model makers look for distinctive characteristics and qualities that emphasize the subject and makes it recognizable. It is like collecting the typical and exemplary for an extreme illustration, constructed as a condensed assortment of milieu and people. You mentioned model landscapes being three-dimensional photographs. I think there is a connection also in the way how they reproduce their sources. They both have such a strong similarity between the depiction and the subject that it can make them even a confusing experience. For instance, the accurate resemblance makes them often not to be seen as material or an act of expression but plainly as that what they depict.

LM
Following these very interesting insights regarding the motif, I would like to come back to some more technical aspects mentioned earlier. A photograph taken in a conventional manner is usually organised through space, i.e. there are people, things, architectural elements or parts of a landscape in different depths that provide the viewer with the information necessary for orientation. Additionally the viewer’s glance may be directed by a short depth of field that indicates what is supposed to be important in the picture but since the plane of focus is parallel to the image plane this does not affect the overall organisation of space within it.

Your photographs are different insofar as they show usually only a comparatively small area in focus and this area is not coherent to the spatial organisation because it does not run within a plane parallel to the image plane, but on the contrary is entirely independent of it. This makes instantaneous orientation difficult. Although it is possible to grasp the spatial organisation very quickly one often has more or less to search for the area in focus. Within this small zone that runs from one edge of the photograph to the other usually lies the subject indicated by the title but also a lot of other things that would normally be of minor interest. So again one has to look for something that captures the attention. I agree that this process is closer to the ordinary perception in everyday life. But I wonder to what extent you are still directing the viewer’s glance, and if it is possible to have a more contemplative sight on your work or whether its layout inevitably activates an interest in finding the subject. What do you think of your role as choreographer of the viewer’s glance?

MG
Employing selective focus creates some predetermined conditions. It is a method that has to obey some restrictions and that on the other hand offers possibilities. The sense of a space that can be operated on affects the forming of spatial depth and the condensation of subjects. I compose the focusing instinctively regarding the motifs, the space and their composition as a flat image. With the final output image I have made effort to get the composition and the spatial impression rich and triggering. With the titles I have often the aim to create a new awareness to the image and the subject.

LM
You already pointed out that the decisive moment is still of some importance to you. I wonder if this also applies to the classical composition as spatial counterpart to it. I find it interesting that you mentioned your previous studies in graphic design since I believe there is a close connection between graphic design and classical photography. Both are concerned with the partitioning of a plane which is, contrary to painting, really two-dimensional and absent of any gestural expression. But this kind of composition requires a defined plane. By blurring the boundaries and most areas of the photograph my impression is that you weaken the compositional potential of the elements within the picture. Is composition in the classical sense still of relevance for your work?

MG
I don’t necessarily see photography as so flat but it can carry a strong illusion of space. Using unfocus and focus inside in a photograph is kind of composing or showing in a three-dimensional space. When thinking about the decisive moment, for me it is slightly different than the classical crystallisation of a moment and its mastery capturing on film. In many of my photos there is lack of visual drama as there is often a deliberately chosen moment when nothing special is happening, an idle in-between moment, or the motif being an understatement.




E-mail interview conducted in June-July 2007. Published in German in Fotografie im Diskurs performativer Kulturen, Kehrer Verlag 2009 (ISBN 978-3-939583-42-4), and in English in the exhibition catalogue Fluid Street: Alone, together, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art 2008 (ISBN 978-951-53-3063-5).