Karen Knorr, Heaven’s Vault, Villa Farnese, Caprarola (Metamorphoses), 2014
Pisani – In your upbringing, multiculturalism was an important and continual occurrence, something perhaps other photographers do not experience. How was your identity influenced as an artist after sharing diverse cultural experiences and living in different communities, such as Puerto Rico, Germany, France, and England?
Knorr – I was born in Frankfurt Am Main Germany in 1954 in the American hospital. Both my parents were involved in US overseas forces during WWII, my father as a major, and my mother as a volunteer in the Red Cross, and later as a photojournalist in Germany covering the Nuremberg trials amongst other assignments in the postwar period, during the rebuilding of Germany under the Marshall Plan. My nanny, Ingeborg Jurkutat, an Austrian, spoke to me in German and both my parents were multilingual (German, French, Polish, English). Effectively my mother tongue was German followed by English, Spanish and French. In 1958 when I was four, we (my brother Richard is four years older) moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico from Frankfurt am Main, where my father set up an importing/exporting business. I was to live there for fourteen years growing up in a residential area near Punta las Marias, closely mingling with several Puerto Rican families. I still return whenever I can. I was encouraged to learn French at Saint John’s High School in Condado and boarded for a year in 1969 the Collège Alpin International Beau Soleil,in Switzerland to further improve my French fluency. Later, I lived in Paris after graduating from high school during 1973- 1976 and studied fine art at L’Atelier, a foundation course for entry to L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Arts Decoratifs. I have now lived in different parts of London since 1976, which I love as it is a vibrant and multicultural city with a strong artistic community that I have become a part of. I have lived in Hackney since 1999 near London Fields, in a dynamic neighbourhood with a market and a park with recreational facilities such as the London Fields Lido (swimming pool) and tennis courts. My studio is 5 minutes walking distance away.
My identity has been formed by this layering of cross-cultural influences and by my relationship to the art and photography students that I have taught in different art schools including Goldsmiths College and the University for the Creative Arts (where I am Professor of Photography since 2009).
Pisani – For your work, you have traveled throughout Europe and Asia to create what you refer to as polysemous images, images that have more than one or many different interpretations. When you’re amidst planning, do you plan to work regionally, as in where to go to next or do you work with what is interesting you at the moment?
Knorr – I continue to travel to India, Japan, and Europe yet I am reconsidering the American side of my identity and starting new projects in the USA and Puerto Rico.
I am presently working on a long-term road trip project collaboratively with Anna Fox, an English photographer based in Selborne, Hampshire. We are retracing Berenice Abbot’s Route 1 road trip from Maine to Key West. Like Abbott then, we aim to capture the character of the time in the ever-transient face of America, at a time when it seems to be changing its values.
Pisani – If art is considered a language, and language evolves, what do you think of the future for photography? Your work has moved from analogous to digital, and you use Photoshop to create your composite images, do you think you will embrace new technology as it develops?
Knorr – I was one of the first fine art photographers of my generation to embrace digital technologies and scanned my images in the early 90’s before portable mobile phones! I have continued to embrace new technology and keep up to date with all the recent cameras, computers and iPhones. Recently, I tested a mirrorless Sony A7 but still keeping to my digital SLRs that I think are better designed. I no longer use analogue film but who knows, I may reconsider depending on the challenges that face me especially for night time photography, whereby one has to consider exposures of over one minute.
Pisani – Access to art can be difficult for some. Artworks can be viewed in exhibitions by anyone, but it requires some educational background to understand, for example, the Fluxus movement, the conceptual art movement, and so on. With the introduction of the Brownie Kodak, snapshot photography became an accessible way for a general audience to engage in viewing art and make it themselves. Do you think photography democratizes accessibility to art?
Knorr – Absolutely yes, as people are generally very familiar with photography and have grown up surrounded by all sorts photographs. Even if photographic work comes with conceptual baggage, there is still the wonder of the reality effect and the detail that enraptures.
Pisani – How do you gain access to sacred and dignified cultural spaces? Moreover, do you have any thoughts on your agency as an international photographer using these contexts for your work?
Knorr – A friend and colleague of mine, professor Anna Fox, who is my colleague at the University for the Creative Arts set up a photography student exchange in India with the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and introduced my work to a gallery owner in Bangalore called Abhishek Poddar. He emailed me and rang me up suggesting that I come to India and I dove in! The access and reconnaissance of the heritage sites was through an initial 2000-mile reconnaissance road trip across India with Juliet Wilson, a friend from the U.K. We collaborated on an itinerary together forming our trip across Rajasthan that I had located as the region in India that had a navigable road network into that desert and Bikaner (near Pakistan). We hired a young 24-year-old driver, Annu, who drove us across the region and it was exhilarating and exhausting as we drove a small Maruti. I had researched heritage sites and read Many books on India from Dalrymple to Amartya Sen to Arundhati Roy, The Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the Panchatantra.
In the photographic methodology that I developed, I attempted to circumvent the typical stereotypes of extreme wealth and poverty in India, avoiding the neo-orientalism of the exotic so predominant in travel photography. Yes! India is incredible, vibrant, and colourful! But, it is much more than its appearances and is a complex society with a syncretic heritage that goes back thousands of years, that have influenced our Western culture, and the fables and stories told to our own children in the age of the internet.
I do not speak Hindi but English, yet this is the second language spoken by Indians throughout India, and it has facilitated things for me. When I work in Japan, I work with artists and assistants that help me communicate and translate. Some of those are artists, I have mentored and taught in the UK.
Karen Knorr, Intoxicated by the Moonlight, Obai-in, Kyoto, 2018
Pisani – Considering your work engages different cultures and spaces of social dominance while questioning social norms and is available to broader audiences, can your photography be viewed as a form of activism?
Knorr – Yes, in my case activism protecting heritage which animal life and nature is part of. The animals depicted in my series, India Song, are mostly animals threatened by population growth and mass tourism. My early work Gentlemen, I see a critique of patriarchal attitudes and conservative values that seem to be on the rise again.
Pisani – Do you think choosing photography over other mediums for an artist could be considered a form of social activism? Alternatively, how does choosing photography contribute to your message?
Knorr – Photography is an accessible medium that people can understand and relate to as it appears around them ubiquitously. It is easy to exhibit, transport, and disseminate through social media networks.
Pisani – How much of your work should read as a social statement and how much as an aesthetic statement? Also, is there any inherent relationship between the two?
Knorr – They are intertwined, no form without content and no content without form. I use aesthetics and beauty to engage the audience to consider the “other” differently. The animals are the “others” in my work.
Pisani – Something is perplexing about seeing nature’s wildlife inside highly manicured spaces, that serve the echelons of society. Is there a comedic element to your photography? If so, how do you believe humor or irony could be used to address an issue?
Knorr – Play, humour, and irony are part of my work since Belgravia. I am also implicated in the irony and humour and do not stand above looking down, but I am very much part of the problems and issues referred to in my work.
Pisani – Can you talk about your continual interest for using animals in your photography?
Knorr – I profoundly enjoy the privilege of immersing myself in the extraordinary wildlife environment (parks and reserves) of India … It is a very focused and sustained form of looking. Sometimes hours of waiting and watching. One early morning in India, we experienced a viewing of 20 to 30 pied hornbills that flew above us in the Bandhavgarh Tiger reserve. We seemed to be plunged into an era before the Anthropocene back to the dinosaurs. To see pairs of rare Asian Paradise Flycatchers on one of our safaris in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka was a delight. Many animals I cannot capture, but yet I share their environment with respect and awe.
Pisani –In previous work, like Belgravia and Gentlemen, the aesthetic consists of profiling subjects in interior settings, where perhaps every piece of information in the image is significant, as well as adding a subtext that contextualizes the image. This profiling of subjects, whether people or animals becomes a recurrent aesthetic in your work. Considering your emphasis on using cultural references, do Northern Renaissance paintings influence you? The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck comes to mind.
Knorr – I was looking at the environmental portraits of Diane Arbus, Bill Owens, and the paintings of Vermeer… I love the Arnolfini portrait.
Pisani – Your work in Metamorphoses or Lanesborough deals with cultural heritage and the use of composite elements, having mentioned before that:
“The making of the work which uses composite elements such as animals, for example, is a long and slow process initially that then moves faster when I have found the appropriate visual language to allude to the histories and stories that underpin the heritage.”
When do you feel you have arrived at an “appropriate visual language” to further work on a project?
Knorr – I do a lot of experimenting and try things out … there is a big “failure rate.” When the animal looks totally out of place, then the work has not succeeded. The work has to create a suspension of disbelief. One work can take months to get just right.
Pisani – The photographs can read as a dichotomy between the “wild” and the civilized, as well as the ID and the superego, can you talk about any Freudian or Lacanian influences in your work if they are relevant?
Knorr – I am not sure whether there is a Lacanian or Freudian thread here except that the images I make use strategies of displacement and condensation described in Freud’s Dreamworks and used so well by the French surrealists.
Pisani – To close up the interview, what could be considered a continuous thread that connects your work over the last three decades?
Knorr – The continuous thread would be critical and humorous engagement with the discontents of our civilized world. The work is the product of a curious eye that seeks to understand the stories that we tell ourselves through our engagement with the “others,” which include understanding different perspectives that inform the cultures of Asia.
Karen Knorr, The Parampara, Ramlalji Jainarayan Tibrewala Haveli, Bissau, 2013
Born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Knorr completed her education in Paris and London, studying at The University of Westminster. While in school, she exhibited photography that participated in contemporary cultural studies and film theory. Karen Knorr’s work has developed a critical and original dialogue with documentary photography, using different visual and textual strategies to explore subject matter that examines various cultural and social presuppositions. Her pictures call into question our assumptions of reality and how we live in and use domestic spaces, as well as how we relate to the greater world of nature. She often uses animals as metaphors of the “natural world” as opposed to civilization. In her constructed photographs she creates complex, rich and seductive statements.
Knorr has taught, exhibited, and lectured internationally including at Tate Britain, Tate Modern, The University of Westminster, Goldsmiths, Harvard, and The Art Institute of Chicago. She is currently Professor of Photography at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey.