Afsad / Interview

* AFSAD Kontrast Magazine, 2011

After completing the Textile Design Department of the Istanbul State Academy of Fine Arts (IDGSA) in 1970, Ahmet Öner Gezgin went to Germany with a State Scholarship in 1972 and completed his postgraduate training in Experimental Photography and Graphic Design at the Kunsthochschule, Kassel (Germany) in 1977. He attended workshop and seminar studies in Chalon-sur-Saône (France) in 1975 and at the Salzburg Summer Academy in 1981.

In 1978, Gezgin took up his academic post as an Assistant at IDGSA. In the same year, he co-founded the Photography Institute. Gezgin became assistant professor in 1987, associate professor in 1988 and professor in 1998.

He participated in many collective exhibitions at home and abroad. In 1974 he opened his first solo exhibition titled Objects (Objeler), at Kassel. This was followed by Truth and Fantasy (Gerçek ve Fantezi) (1980) in Istanbul, and Experimental Photography (1980), in Germany (Osnabrück), at the 2. International Art Biennial in Istanbul, Conceptual and Visual Images-1 (Kavramsal ve Görsel İmgeler-1) (1989), and Conceptual and Visual Images-2 (Kavramsal ve Görsel İmgeler-2) (1990) exhibitions.

Gezgin has participated in many seminars, conferences, open forums, discourses and symposiums, his articles on photography have been published by the media.

Many of Ahmet Öner Gezgin’s works received awards in National and international competitions, and in 1991 he was selected the Most Successful Photographer of the Year by the Ankara Art Foundation.

He held administrative positions as the Deputy Rector, Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, and Chairman of the Department of Photography at the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts.

Ahmet Öner Gezgin who has been working as the Dean of the Department of Fine Arts and the Chairman of the Department of Fashion and Textile Design, as well as being the founding member of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Işık University since 2007, is one of the most important pioneers in bringing experimental photography to and advocating philosophy in Turkish photography.

As you are one of the notable pioneers of ‘Experimental Photography’ in Turkey, we must begin the interview by talking about ‘Experimental Photography’. Can we talk about the philosophy of Experimental Photography and the main reasons that lead you to the experimental approach, going beyond traditional photographic patterns?

Before starting the interview, I would like to thank AFSAD (Association of Photograph Artists in Ankara)-who have maintained their dignified stand for years-for giving me the opportunity to reflect my thoughts on experimental photography. I think the information I will try to relay here is important for those who see today’s technological possibilities as being beyond the creative power of mankind and reflect these possibilities in their work with great confidence, especially art students and young creators in general.

It’s common knowledge that aesthetic theory until the second half of the eighteenth century was influenced by ancient philosophy. Aesthetic theory, along with the Sturm und Drang / Depression Period, which emerged in the years following the Romantic movement in German literature starting from the second half of the same century and influencing all plastic arts, began to gradually move away from the usual objective criteria towards subjective interpretation, and the personal experiences of the subject started to make up the theoretical structure of works of literature, music and plastic arts. When Dada’s rigid artistic understanding based on the principle of saving the person from the captivity of the mind was replaced by spiritual self-motions, the new search for internal reality beginning from expressionism, reaching to the fantastic and gradually extending to experimental dimensions. The reflection of this search on photography has been maintained in parallel with the developments in the technological structure of photography within the historical process. With the acceptance that photography, invented as a technological tool, could be used for an artistic action in the first half of the nineteenth century, experimental investigations for expressing the new inner reality of objects and events through subjective methods outside the perceived objective reality also started. Eadveard Muybridge, Thomas Eakins, Henry Fox Talbot, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Man Ray, Moholy Nagy and many more are worth examining when it comes to this.

Generally, experimental photography aims to reach the original artistic message by using all the technological, aesthetic, semantic and pragmatic possibilities of photography and plastic arts in an interdisciplinary connection. In this respect, personal opinions and experiments are valued and definite evaluation and judgment are avoided, there is no fixed plan, no attempt to impose a certain thought or understanding, imagery (intuition, imagination) is the basic competence leading the action of experimentation; the basic principle of the artistic language that is being aimed at is the creative idea determined as thesis/hypothesis or thought.

The relationship between humanity and nature produces unique and most simple works of art every moment of the day. It is us humans, who perceive any momentas art, with our ability to interpret that is particular to our soul. But, instead of photographing that moment, I have always preferred to observe, to practice the photography I dreamed of as a fluid way of facing the other reality by combining the images of the things originating from fantasy, a dream or a subliminal impulse during the process and just as in the theater, to create my own subjective reality. This is based on something that appears trivial: Primarily, based on Man Ray’s manifesto, I wanted to create and share a free environment where every forbidden thing was done; a liberation that will open up to another inner truth beyond the description of daily life, where the past/the present and the future is lived at the same moment, that will not force the viewer to look at the image from a certain angle. Thus, I have brought a new insight against the modernist thought, that to a great extent values the purity of the traditional tools of expression and considers photography worthless for being a product of a technological process, and have brought this up for debate in our country, in the early 80s.

The recognition and acceptance of experimental photography in Turkey occurred quite late. What are the most important reasons for this?

For this, one of us had to go abroad in the 70s, to do research there, and upon his return present a report to the art circles, that is to open the exhibition truth and fantasy (gerçek ve fantezi)/1980 in the halls of the Academy. This is the humorous version of the delay. You may need to go back in time to reach the real reason. That is to say: The use of photography within the visual communication system and finding its field of application, it gaining prevalence, creating a language of communication fulfilling the needs of the contemporary society in our country, is a process that commenced with the Republic, where the transition from verbal communication to visual communication was realized. After the Republic, we see that the village, which had determined the general trends between the late 50s and early 60s, turned to the big city until 1970s and the urban ghetto between the 1970s and 80s; and social realist tendencies gained importance in the period between the 60s and the 80s, integrating all these developments. In the same period, a comparative look at the matter in parallel to the overseas developments of the conceptual arts, reveals that the only irreplaceable and generally accepted way of expression in our country consists of partly critical, mostly local and regionally inclined photographic images, carried by the 60s generation into the 70s and 80s. The 1980s marked significant changes in our country: First of all, education, the most important prerequisite for the photography to fulfill its social and artistic functions, gained an institutional identity under of the Academy (İDGSA-Istanbul State Academy of Fine Arts). The exhibitions, held as a part of international cultural relations, paved the way for breaking traditional patterns and the creating of an alternative in efforts to integrate with the formations and tendencies of the contemporary world. Although in the transition to the contemporary order, many concepts and disciplines have acquired definitions, interpretations and evaluations beyond and out of the ordinary, the passive nature of the obdurate stance of the pre-1980s, delayed the transition to the contemporary art scene and the flow of interdisciplinary information.

Can we talk a little about ‘Experimental Photography Student Works Exhibitions’? As far as I know, the last one was held in 1996. It has been about fourteen years. Why has there been such a long pause between exhibitions even though they have a crucial place in the development of Experimental Photography? Should they continue? Will they?

The importance of the Experimental Photography Student Works Exhibitions, the first of which took place in 1989, in the context of the manifesto: “It is a necessity to force the traditional patterns from time to time, to be able to adapt to innovations and new developments, to be able to produce new knowledge both in the theoretical and practical field”, is undeniable from the point of view that it opened a new window to the world of exhibitions. I thought of opening the fourth as the continuation of the three exhibitions held between 1989-96; but in the 2000s I can say that, such facts as the light chamber taking the place of the darkroom with the transition to digital technology, and people basing their creativity possibilities in a darkroom, on the computer programs, and the loss of the importance of fiber-based paper for the amateur masses, all these facts curbed the future plans. Another factor is the attitude of the young academics towards the continuation of these and similar organizations. Maybe it is better not to overdo certain things; for example, the New Trends exhibitions, which started at the Academy under the leadership of a group of people and marked an era, were stopped years ago. In my future plans, when the project that I have been working on for a while is completed at a suitable time, it is my primary goal to hold its exhibition.

In the last sentence of your article ‘Photography from the Republic to the Present Day’, dated December 1995, you say ‘I hope that the coming years will not be the continuation of the unconcerned atmosphere that has been experienced in the last fifteen years’. Is there something that has changed since the last 15 years?

The lively discussion environment of the 80s was cut off like a knife at the end of the 90s. The disassociation, which already hinted at its presence in people and arts in the past, is felt now with all its weight, especially with the new millennium. Today, being an individual is the predominant element. I think that the dizzying development of information technologies has isolated people, making them withdraw into their own world. In the virtual environment provided by technology, the individual can now find answers to all kinds of questions, share their images, discuss them. From this point of view, we may think that technological developments are not an advantage but a disadvantage to mankind. While today the question how much does the documentary photographic image document in digital age? Should be discussed extensively to look for an answer, however, no action is taken. Why are associations that were once active now silent? For example, I want to ask why the symposium AFSAD planned to organize in the year 2010 cannot be realized or what is the function of the federation? Everyone is busy in their own cocoon…

What would you say about the educational situation so far as teaching aesthetics, in other branches, but especially in photography, in Turkey?

For young people studying photography at undergraduate and graduate level, this emerges as quite a significant problem. Aesthetics is a discipline; being the most important one of the 4 components (technical/aesthetic/semantic/pragmatic) of photography, it cannot find a significant place in the educational programs when considered from both the theoretical and the form-oriented point of view. A technology oriented education system should not be imposed on photography education. It is easy to obtain technology oriented practical infrastructures. But the real issue is studying the semantic structuring in the dimension of the philosophical thought, enabling the state of the object to be carried to the dimension of meaning of the mental activity by aesthetic structuring that integrates the personality expressed in the communication of the subject with the object. The education received will be solid as long as practice is backed up and supported by theory.

You use the term ‘Photography’ rather than ‘Photograph’. Why do you prefer to use this term?

Very simple; because photography is the valid term for international use.

What would you say about the advantages and disadvantages of photographic art in the face of the rapidly developing imaging technologies? Do you think that technological developments kill or harm photography; or is it a freedom opening doors offering new possibilities for photography?

Developments in the field of technology have positive and negative aspects in the machine/human relationship. I think the developments with unpredictable outcomes are extraordinary. Today, there are none of the limits imposed by the optical and chemical processes of the past. An environment that brings more freedom to imagination is presented to a person limited with the passive structure of photography, having no other anticipation but reproducing the reality. The machine has been so developed that it is almost impossible now to produce a technically wrong image. Thus, while it was expected to enter a further concentration process on the object, machine and virtual dependency and trust have reached such points that in the process of perception of the external reality, nothing can be done without devices. Man has been made an extension of the automatic release of the machine. The consequences of this situation are frightening. While expecting the images to express the knowledge, experiences and values of the human factor standing behind the camera, the fact that it showed the hollow capabilities realized by the functions of the device and the virtual environment with the air of an operator, indicate the negative developments we will face today and in the future.

I would also like to add here that although I think that technological developments are fantastic, I am not a person who uses the opportunities presented, in his work.

Once again coming with technology is a serious pollution of photography, maybe as a negation, is in question today. Do you think there is a possibility to stay away from this visual pollution when facing thousands of photographs, lacking photographic basis, or what might be the consequences of this situation?

Taking photographs is an act that develops automatically and is habit forming. The camera -with some exceptions- is an integral part of this action, without which it is impossible to carry out this action. It is that machine that asks his owner to continuously take photographs and to produce photographic images; no matter if necessary or not, or more precisely expects this from him. This is something like a drug addiction. This habit on the edge of madness, along with the approach of seeing photography as a machine gun, leads to continuous flow of unconscious photographic images. There is not much work to be done at this stage for our brain, the center of the biological structure; as the work created is not new information, but only machine memories. It is almost impossible to avoid today’s environment for the producers of display in the name of photography; to be in or not to be, that is the question!

What are your thoughts about photography as an art; even for this purpose should every photograph be considered as art? What are the things that make a photograph a product of art; what should we look for in artistic photography?

As I mentioned before, the process of photographic action has 4 complementary components: 1. Technical/production, 2. Aesthetics/aesthetic methods and tools, 3. Semantic/meaning-content, 4. Pragmatic/utilitarianism. How this process is carried out during the formation of the display, the expression of the outcomes of the close relationship between theory and practice in the display, can be quickly noticed by an experienced and trained eye. I can tell you this; for a photographic display to adhere to the rules of general art history, to transition to the position of artwork, it is necessary for that display to elude from its semantic structure so that its aesthetic readability remains, only then can it be affiliated to the de facto reading rules of art and make references to art.

I feel like photography should be a part of Art History classes at universities. Is this right?

If you are looking for photography in comparative art history lessons beyond the regular art history lessons taught in the universities, then this means that emphasis is made on theory rather than on practice, which is a positive development. But if today, artists and photographers, art history and photography history are still talked about, this will be a futile effort.

What are your suggestions and warnings to the self-trained photography enthusiasts who have no chance of academic education on photography?

Encountering photography is nothing more than a coincidence that turns into a passion. Passion is like a stone that is thrown into the water, forming rings that extend outward in the water. At the beginning the rings are small. Then the rings gradually grow, until they exceed themselves. There are also traps in this process. The person is hasty; makes a few image thefts, holds an exhibition and his name reaches the rank of photograph artist in the written/visual media. Or he participates in a few exhibitions of the International Federation of the Art of Photography (FIAPFederation Internationale de L’art Photographique) which hands out the titles of artist and is entitled as artist. It is beneficial for the youth to notice these and similar traps. For young people who want an education, there are ample opportunities today. With my identity as an educator of more than thirty years, the most important negativity I have observed among youth who are studying photography is the lack of passion. The reason for this is that the students feel lost in our world drenched in visuality. Self-education is important for those who are not educated. In this context, historical process should be learned comparatively, accumulation of knowledge should be provided by establishing interdisciplinary communication, image producers of the past and their work should be examined. In this direction, the process to contribute to the formation of a unique language should be initiated.

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