Dutch photographer Wouter Le Duc sheds a light on the uncanny ambiguities of human nature through his desire to tell stories. He disconnects the viewer from social stereotypes by staging marginal individuals and building up enigmatic pictures, as can be seen in his latest projects The God Machine and Landslide In My Mind.
When did you buy your first camera and what was it? What models do you like to use now?
When I was sixteen years old, I took a music course in school where the teacher also shared his enthusiasm about photography. Although there weren’t any real facilities, just a box with some analogue 35mm cameras, it sparked my interest in photography. He gave me a Minolta from this box, and I bought my own equipment for a dark room from the local thrift shop not long after that. It included long expired photo paper and chemicals. In the basement at my parents’ house, I created my own small darkroom. I used garbage bags and tape to make it completely dark, and I did the rinsing of the prints in the bath tub upstairs. Although the prints lacked any quality of focus and contrast, the moment I saw the magic of the appearing of the photograph, the magic of the photograph appearing on the paper, I was hooked.
After experimenting with a range of techniques and cameras, I decided to stick with analog cameras. For my projects and commissions, I use a Mamiya 645, and for my visual diary, I use an Olympus OM10, which I inherited from my grandfather.
Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind your The God Machine series?
A year before I started with my graduation project The God Machine, I did a project about people who believe in the end of the times as we know it. I interviewed and photographed people from different spiritual, religious and practical movements. Part of one of the religious movements was a cult which called themselves ‘The Watchmen of the Night Ministries.’ It consisted of 13 people living on an isolated farm in the east of The Netherlands, preparing for the end of times. I was completely convinced this would be a visually interesting place to visit and photograph. The opposite was true; it looked like a regular farm with a vegetable garden, chickens and fruit trees. Although I did photograph them, the result did not show their beliefs, which, as a photographer, I clearly wanted to convey.
After finishing this project, I went on researching several cults and the reasons why people start or join one. During this research, I found the story of John Murray Spear, and I immediately knew this would be the story for my next project, titled The God Machine. The story of Spear was properly researched by several professors, which gives you a total insight in his life. He lived in [the] 19th century close to Boston. Starting out with a rough youth and having faced hard times during his life, he eventually started his own cult. With his followers, he built a machine, which would become god on earth, following messages he received from a group of prominent deceased.
You take commissioned photographs as well as photographs for your own projects. How does commissioned work differ? Do you enjoy it in the same way?
I think the main difference between my personal work vs. commissioned work is the work flow and dynamics. In my personal work, I spend a lot of time researching a range of different topics and subjects from which I create a concept as a starting point. There has to be a reason why I want to tell the story, why it’s important to show it to the public, and then you have to figure out in which form you are going to tell the story. With commissioned work, a lot of those initial questions are already answered; there is a reason why it has to be photographed and what the context and goal is — you do research on the topic and you get out there and do the best you can. I like both ways of working for their own qualities, but the combination of the two is what I really enjoy. You take commissioned photographs as well as photographs for your own projects.
Where does the inspiration for new subjects to photograph come from for you?
After being a photographer for quite some years now, I’ve recognized a pattern in the process from loose ideas which form into complete concepts. It all starts by experiencing things in life: relationships, traveling, works of art, getting lost and unexpected conversations. I always keep a list of the things which attract my attention; this can range from rather small observations such as the existence of garbage dumps (which are quite obvious in the flattest country in the world), the mystics of the Bermuda Triangle, a word which sparked my fascination or a weird but fascinating story which I read online. After a while, this list of rather unlinked observations starts to show a pattern in subject matter and a vision on how to visualize it and certain themes jump out. When I get to this point, I gather all of these things and together it forms one project which I have to execute. It’s really quite an unconscious process, but I can follow the steps of creation.
Which photographers, or indeed artists, have inspired you?
Photography wise, I am fascinated by Hellen van Meene, Rineke Dijkstra, Alec Soth, Gregory Crewdson and Jasper de Beijer. They all seem to have found a way in which their photographs show a lot about bigger themes in life. My own photography and thoughts are much more inspired by painters and directors such as Johannes Vermeer, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Thomas Anders Jenssen, Roy Andersson, Michaël Borremans, Kay Pollak and Alex van Warmerdam.
What can we expect to see from you in the near future? Are you working on any particular projects at the moment?
I am working on a project titled Landslide in my mind from which the first two photographs are finished. In this project, I examine my memories of the winter when I lived in an isolated cabin in Sweden. These memories have ever since proven to be liquid. They are transformed and mixed with desire and fantasy to memories of places that don’t exist, except in my own mind. By constructing views of these liquid memories in my studio, I reflect on escaping this world within my own consciousness.
If you could sit down and have a meal with one artist in the world, who would it be and why?
It would definitely be the Belgian painter Michaël Borremans. His work has inspired me a lot since the moment I discovered it a few years ago. His perfect balance between the real and surreal and exposing a state of mind without becoming abstract is what really fascinates me. His book has its own small separate table in my house. When I come home from my studio, I go through his book — even on the roughest days, his work always inspires.
Do you consider a country’s art galleries when you select your travel destinations? If you could take a photographic tour across one country in the world, where would you go?
Yes, I most certainly do! This summer we even made a detour of a few hundred kilometers to visit the Vitra Campus in Switzerland again — even the architecture alone is worth it.
My dream trip would for sure be a Scandinavian one. I would start in Copenhagen to see the works of Vilhelm Hammershøi; he painted light so magnificent that a painting of just a room with light is worth looking at for hours. Then I would go up north to Mora in Sweden to visit the old house and now museum of Swedish painter Anders Zorn.
What is the best piece of creative advice you have ever received? Who was it from?
I always appreciated the quote of Chuck Close. Although I think being inspired is a great thing, he sums up what makes the difference, especially for people who just graduated from art school and face ‘the black hole.’
‘The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.’ — Chuck Close
Henry Miller wrote 11 work schedule commandments in his book, Henry Miller on Writing. Number 7 is ‘Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.’ Do you have a particular morning routine or way of working which helps you to create?
I completely agree with him! I always start with coffee and give myself a moment to start the new day. Then I ride my bike for 15 minutes to get to my studio, and I start working. I don’t have a real routine; I just work until I am not productive anymore or until I have something else planned. My own set of rules is that I don’t work at home, always at my studio. And I try to keep working for daytime and fun for nighttime, although I have to admit that being at my studio until midnight is quite common.
Wouter Le Duc is one of the winners of The Culture Trip’s The Netherlands Local Favorite 2015 Award. The Local Favorite badge is awarded to our favorite local towns, restaurants, artists, galleries, and everything in between. We are passionate about showcasing popular local talents on a global scale, so we have cultivated a carefully selected, but growing community.
Interview by Isabelle Pitman