An Interview With Photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg
German photographer, Rut Blees Luxemburg, has made a name for herself by producing vibrant photographs of urban landscapes and environments at night. She has had her work featured on London’s Underground train system and she is also responsible for the production of both The Streets’ album cover for ‘Original Pirate Material’ and Bloc Party’s ‘A Weekend in the City’, admittedly the way I found out about her. London based, she speaks to us about her background, love of nighttime city landscapes and her upcoming projects.
What first got you into photography?
I started studying political science but then understood that I could express my ideas much more interestingly through the visual form. A picture can have many layers of meaning, an inherent ambiguity which invites interpretation and can give visual pleasure, so I got more and more drawn to photography.
What was your first piece of photographic equipment?
Erm, I don’t remember. I am not into the technological side of photography. I don’t fetishise the equipment and now I’m working with a 30-year-old Swiss camera, which is an excellent old school tool.
Who are your inspirations both photographically and in general?
I learnt the most from my immediate tutors, the people who taught me when I was studying photography, especially Karen Knorr who made visually stunning large format photography. She introduced me to a critical reading of the photographic image, questioning and analysing the image culture which we are part of.
Furthermore, I think I was very influenced by my peers, my fellow students and artists and the ideas that swirled around us. I think one needs many influences. I continue to be influenced by everything from Senegalese music to German Romantic poetry, to the elevator in my high-rise. A wide range of sensory experiences coming together.
Talking a bit more about your work, which focuses mostly on city landscapes and at night, why is this the case?
I’m fascinated by the city, by its dense, urban condition. We were talking about influences and in the city you’re in this environment where you’re constantly being connected to something different. Constantly being pushed or pulled, informed or confused, it’s a very vibrant and productive environment because things can happen in a city. Things can also happen in the countryside but usually at a much slower speed. The city is a place of possibility. Possibility for the individual but also possibility for the society as a whole. It offers another type of freedom. I work at night because, again, it’s an interesting zone when the daily events and informal laws, the commerce and trade, all of which dominate the daily experience, come to a standstill. So there’s a gap in the night for anticipation.
Would you then say it’s a time less bound by conventions?
Yes. You could even say it’s a time of resistance. At night there’s less interference with your life – a pocket of freedom. That’s why young people are attracted to the night; it is a hedonistic and a less controlled environment.
So much of your work observes areas and shots that a lot of people wouldn’t notice. How do you go about finding such opportunities?
I’m not interested in the obvious, I’m interested in that which is slightly on the side and on the margins and I’m trying to be perceptive to those elements. I think that is a concern of many artists – whether it is a writer like Thomas Mann or a musician like Mark E. Smith – there is an empathy and an interest with that which is marginal and subversive. In my work I’m interested in what is overlooked. For example you might not notice the puddle with the reflection that shows ‘Rayners Lane’ from ‘Piccadilly’s Peccadilloes’.
I often explore the tension between high and low in my work. Even the title of my monograph ‘Commonsensual’, which plays with that which is perceived to be low as in ‘common’ and also shared by all. I’m interested in elevating this notion. In one of my key works, ‘Vertiginous Exhilaration’, from the series ‘A Modern Project’, you have a tension between falling but never crashing on the pavement instead, bouncing back. It’s not a suicidal viewpoint; it’s a dynamic point of view. The work was inspired by a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Kreidefelsen auf Rügen’. Looking at the painting, you experience the sense of vertigo if you identify with the character who glances over the edge. It makes me giddy as I enjoy the destabilising gaze; a look over the precipice into the abyss.
So why do you reckon that The Streets chose that particular image of ‘Towering Inferno’ for their album?
The urban high-rise is precisely the type of building that you could ferment the music and lyrics of The Streets ‘Original Pirate Material’. The photograph located what The Streets were trying to do musically.
For Bloc Party’s album cover, you used a really long exposure time. How long exactly?
It’s usually between ten and fifteen minutes.
Film or digital?
Film, always. I don’t really use digital. Film suits me because digital is a very difficult medium to work with in darker environments. I also print my work large scale and with digital files, to print that large, you need a fabulous camera. So for the work that I do, film is much better. I don’t take many photographs, so digital has no advantage for me.
So you don’t take many photographs, is your method very meticulous and specific then?
Yes, it’s very slow and selective. I probably make about 10-12 works a year.
Finally, what do you have planned next?
I have just finished a new series in New York titled ‘BLACK SUNRISE’. I’m currently showing my exhibition ‘Lustgarten’ in Germany which brings together a decade of my work. I am now looking again at London, which has a radically altered skyline since I made ‘Towering Inferno’ in 1995 and I’m capturing the city undergoing these momentous transformations for a film that I have given the ambivalent title ‘London Dust’.