Dafna Talmor’s Constructed Landscapes is a book that’s been a long time coming. The work originated almost 20 years ago, although its form today was not the artist’s intention at the time. It emerged from landscape images that Talmor found unexciting and this is when an idea spurred into her mind. What if all is not lost? What if she could still create something out of it, albeit by implementing methods more closely associated with destruction rather than creation? The dissemination of the archive, the quite brutal techniques (certainly an anathema to film photographers and printers who wouldn’t dare to contemplate even breathing on the surface of their film) pose a multitude of questions. What is the purpose of the archive? Should we preserve images that we may find useless now for the sake of posterity? After all, our future selves may thank us for it as we analyse the photographs with fresh eyes and mind. Does a landscape, or even reality for that matter, ever exist or is it simply a collage of multiple segments in our mind’s eye? How can destruction be channeled in such a way that instead of complete chaos it creates something new that would not have existed were it not for cutting, pasting and messing around with the physicality of the photographic materials? Dafna and I had a conversation shortly before it was announced that Constructed Landscapes, published by Fw:Books, has been longlisted for the 2021 Kraszna-Krausz Photography Book Award.
Zak Dimitrov: I’d like to start by discussing your practice overall and the fact that it took you many, many years to produce this book. In a way it’s not a small body of work, but a huge chunk of your career developed over a long period of time. How do you think this slow process, taking the time to make the book rather than rushing into it, has informed and influenced the book?
Dafna Talmor: The ongoing project that the book is based on, Constructed Landscapes, began in 2009 as a response to a personal archive of images that I’d been shooting since 2003 – alongside other work - across multiple locations. Boxes of medium format colour negatives had been shot without a clear conceptual agenda so repurposing and collaging this redundant material - which had fulfilled a sentimental need rather than an artistic function – and transforming the frustration into something productive was the main impulse driving the work. Consequently, I found myself experimenting in the colour darkroom and responding intuitively to the material at hand, having never worked in this particular way before.
The idea for a book didn’t come to fruition until 2018, when the opportunity to submit a book dummy for the MACK First Book Award came about. By that point, the work had expanded to include two sub-series of handprints made from collaged negatives, photograms, spatial interventions alongside process material that became increasingly interesting to me, beyond its practical function.
I’d never wanted to produce a book just for the sake of it. Having accumulated a great deal of by-products such as contact sheets and preparatory studies with darkroom notes (as seen in the Index section of the book) due to the labour intensive analogue printing process - an intrinsic element of the project - there was a fitting sense of coming full circle, and a justifiable reason for a book format. It seemed the ideal way to combine the more expansive elements of the project, most of which had not seen the light of day, similarly to the negatives that had been the catalyst of the project initially.
Following the production of the book dummy, designed in collaboration with Loose Joints, I didn’t want to rush into things. As someone that loves artist/photo-books, I was aware of the wide range of interesting publishers and wanted to focus on finding the right one to work with. I spent about a year doing research, showed the dummy to a lot of people I trust for advice, alongside submitting to various dummy awards. I was absolutely thrilled when Hans Gremmen of Fw:Books agreed to take on the project in late 2019.
ZD: The book itself reminds me of the newest issues of Foam magazine - swiss binding, different types of paper, list of plates, essays, etc. could you tell me a bit about the design and decisions you and the team had to make regarding the physical aspects of the book?
DT: Hans Gremmen designed the book, which involved an incredibly open and discursive collaboration. A few months prior to the design were spent preparing/scanning the material and commissioning the text contributions by Olga Smith, Shoair Mavlian, Cherry Smyth and Gemma Padley, which form such an integral part of the book.
There were certain elements that were pretty clear from the start such as Han’s suggestion for the binding and the size/format of the book. We were also in complete agreement about treating the main plates, texts and process material differently by incorporating various types of paper/finishes in order to allude to natural breaks between each section. It was really fun thinking about paper stocks and coming up with creative solutions. For example, we initially looked at coloured paper as an option for the texts, but very quickly realised we wanted to be more precise with the colour – referencing the colour negatives - so opted to choose a pantone that would be printed on the same uncoated paper as the Index section. This, in turn, affected certain decisions about page signatures, sequencing and ordering. I really love the collaborative problem solving that goes along with bookmaking, which pushes the project in different ways. The book was a big team effort. Besides Hans Gremmen/Fw:Books, the writers and everyone that contributed so brilliantly to the production, the process involved lots of productive conversations with Sid Motion (who represents me in London) about all aspects of the book.
ZD: I also noticed you call some negatives collaged and others are montaged and collaged, could you explain the difference?
DT: The main plates consist of two sub-series, each of which involve a slightly different process. Volume I - the work at the beginning of the book - which was completed between 2009-2013 combined two layers of negatives from differing geographical locations, where only one layer of negative is collaged, hence the montaging and collaging references. Volume II, which consists of the more recent sub-series from 2014 onwards, involves a reconfiguration of fragments of multiple negatives shot on the same roll of film, from one location. It involves one layer of negatives, which is why it’s distinguished from the montaging element of Volume I.
ZD: It’s interesting that you say you never wanted to produce a book just for the sake of it, there seems to be almost a trend now that unless you produce a photo book then your work is not valid, perhaps because it’s become very accessible and almost anyone can self-publish, but what are your thoughts on this? I’ve experienced your work both on my phone screen, in a gallery and now on the printed page, which are three completely different experiences that complement one another and make the work richer.
DT: I’m pleased to hear that, as context and the way it shifts the way work is experienced is certainly something I think about a great deal. It’s why it felt especially important to wait for the right time to produce a book. It can feel so finite, and as you point out, has the ability to be far-reaching and accessible, which are some of its greatest attributes. It’s been exciting to see the book landing in places that I could/can only dream of getting to. . It’s something I became even more acutely aware of due to the timing of the release during a pandemic. That ability for the work to travel so globally, and for people to spend time with it in the intimacy of their own dedicated time and space, is something I don’t take for granted. Although producing a book can be a huge commitment and investment - for everyone involved - what I love about bookmaking is that there are so many ways to approach it, which don’t necessarily involve a big (time) investment or high production costs, and come in all shapes, forms and sizes. For some artists, the book form is deeply aligned with - and integrated within - their practice. It forms an intrinsic part of their work on a continuous basis. For others, as in my case, it’s produced at a very specific point.
ZD: What are your art influences when you research work, I would take a guess and say the surrealists who were tinkering with negatives and prints in the dark room, but perhaps you’re inspired by other art forms as well?
DT: I find it challenging answering such questions succinctly! My influences are quite expansive, and tend to rise to the surface, as the work develops. In terms of photography, I’ve always enjoyed grappling with the medium’s complexity – its limitations, contradictions and slippery relationship to notions of truth. Historically, Pictorialists, such as Gustave Le Gray, and their combination prints as well as experimental film-making techniques and artists tampering with the materiality of film are key points of reference. I’m also interested in the discourse around manipulation in a contemporary sense, and what can be perceived as the analogue/digital divide.
Work that functions, or is approached, very differently to mine intrigues me as much as artists who work in similar ways. I find ‘straight’ images as valid as ones that are obviously ‘constructed’ - all photographs are constructs in one form or another – as well as work that is made digitally or produced in the darkroom, appropriated, repurposed and disseminated across different contexts. I believe in employing a hybrid approach to making work devoid of hierarchy, one that responds to the task at hand.
I come from a Fine Art background and am equally interested in other art forms such as collage, painting, sculpture, drawing and literature. Work is not made in a vacuum, and is by default in-conversation with a range of pre-existing ideas and conceptual frameworks across disciplines. There’s a bank of references and cultural constructs that are deeply embedded and engrained in my subconscious. Furthermore, I’m fascinated by how work is activated by the viewer. I aspire to leave space for the imagination, for the work to be open-ended and accessible from multiple perspectives.
Alongside my practice, I’ve been teaching for over 15 years so the multitude of conversations with students and colleagues - being exposed to their thoughts and ideas - as well as interdisciplinary practitioners, have also been instrumental in widening my references and the way I think about - and approach - making work. Engaging in dialogue with other people is a continued source of inspiration.
ZD: Do you feel the process of cutting and pasting is a form of catharsis? I’ve executed similar methods to some of the negatives I hated in order to create new work and felt strangely liberating not to be holding them with white gloves and worry about dust or finger marks, in a way it’s an embrace of chance and relinquishing control, right?
DT: The process of cutting and pasting my negatives is incredibly cathartic and liberating. I tend to speak of the work as a reaction to feeling burdened by, what I felt, was an incredibly loaded genre – that of landscape - one that’s infused by recurring pictorial conventions, tropes and preconceptions that are culturally constructed. I find these quite impossible to shake off when confronted by a landscape with my camera, coupled with the failure of conveying the actual physical experience of a landscape from multiple perspectives – rather than a fixed idealised view. It’s what propelled me to start cutting my clichéd negatives. Had I felt they were of any value in themselves, I probably wouldn’t have dared taking a scalpel to them! I very much embrace the element of chance, in combination with the highly considered and labour intensive nature of the process – one that is riddled with its own idiosyncrasies and parameters I set for myself. I also tend to refer to a certain playful defiance of the sacredness of the negative, standardisation and traditions which photography can be weighed down by. Saying that, I am very conscious of the fact that once I construct my new negatives, I feel as precious about them as the way other artists may feel about their original negatives. It would be short-sighted not to acknowledge that contradiction.
ZD: One last question, what’s next? Do you ever get daunted thinking about what projects might follow after something that you’ve been working on for over a decade, or perhaps it doesn’t have to be a clean break and this type of work can carry on continuously?
DT: ’What’s next’ is the dreaded question! On a more serious note, I completely appreciate why you’re asking. Although the book has been published, the project is ongoing. On a certain level, I feel the focus on process material in the Index section is meant to allude to a sketchbook – and consequently ideas that aren’t fixed, pointing to the myriad of possibilities, decisions and considerations that are involved in the process of making work.
After a hiatus due to multiple lockdowns, I’ve recently gone back into the darkroom and have been enjoying seeing some minor – yet meaningful - shifts unfolding. It can be daunting thinking about what follows but there is still so much I am keen to experiment with - in relation to the (growing) personal archive that triggered the work – both within and beyond the darkroom. There are also experiments that involve digital technology and a more three-dimensional approach that got put on hold, which I’m looking forward to picking up again, alongside other ideas beyond the project’s current scope. I’m working towards a solo presentation with Sid Motion Gallery at Photo London, due to take place in September, so thinking about how the work will occupy the space is always an exciting opportunity to try new things. More generally, I’m trying to focus on the enjoyment of making work, without worrying too much on what it may become. I want to leave room for mistakes and failure… After all, that is how this project began in the first place!
Constructed Landscapes by Dafna Talmor can be purchased here.
Zak Dimitrov is a photographic artist, lecturer and writer. He received an MA from the University of Westminster and BA (Hons) from The Arts University Bournemouth. Zak’s work deals with memory, the passage of time, mortality and the physicality of photographic materials. He is the Associate Editor at American Suburb X.