‘It doesn’t work to just shoot everything you see... I had to learn that being a photographer means knowing when not to take a picture.’
Henri Blommers is an Amsterdam-based photographer who captures moments of strange beauty in the everyday, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. He graduated from the Fotoacademie in Amsterdam in 2010. In addition to his fine art photography, his work spans various projects including portrait photography, projects with other artists, image editing and some photography for hellogorgeous.nl, an organisation of volunteers contributing to a quarterly glossy magazine to fight the stigma around HIV. Henri’s photographs have been published in various books, magazines and newspapers, and exhibited at photography festivals and art institutions including the Noorderlicht festival, GUP gallery, Nhow, the new Rotterdam Central Station and an outdoor exhibition in Vondelpark. In 2014, he was selected as one of the 100 most talented upcoming photographers by the New Dutch Photography initiative.
How did you get into photography?
I started taking photographs when I was about 10 years old, but I never thought about doing anything with it professionally until much later – probably because of my upbringing. You were supposed to pursue a normal, standard job and photography was just a hobby – and that was that. It never occurred to me when looking at photographs in magazines or galleries that I could actually do that myself! That never clicked for me until much later on.
When I was a little kid, I was quite shy, so I liked having my camera to walk around with and make my own world with. But I just had a little box camera and I wasn’t that impressed with the results. Later on, I got a Kodak Instamatic, which was better, but things really clicked for me when I was 19 and I went to England for half a year to travel around. I shot about 10 rolls of film, but then I lost all of them because something went wrong in the processing stage at the laboratory. I learned that it doesn’t always work to just shoot everything you see. You can take too much – too many. I had to learn that being a photographer means knowing when not to take a picture.
What was it like studying at the Fotoacademie in Amsterdam?
I started to study photography in about 2004 thanks to the encouragement of a friend who said: ‘Ah, this is really something for you. You should do this!’ At first I thought maybe I was already too old, and then I realised that that was the most ridiculous obstruction. If you really want to do something, why shouldn’t you start at 80 even?
My studies were great – and difficult as well. After three years, I stopped because I wanted to make sure that I was making things for myself – not just to please an academy. I wasn’t interested in doing it just for the diploma. It had to be close to me. If it’s not close to me, then it doesn’t make any sense to do it.
In the end though, I did return and finish the course. I really needed my studies to bring my practice to a higher level. It was good for me to be very focused at something. Still today, I like working to a deadline, or from exhibition to exhibition, making new work. It helps to have some sort of goal or end result in mind.
What are you looking for when you step out into the world with your camera?
I always look for something that is very common, but with something different about it. Even when I’m working with everyday things, like plastics or dirt, I’m always looking for an aesthetic of beauty. I try to find beauty in things that are really mundane so that the ordinary becomes extraordinary. There’s always something a bit strange about my photos as well. I try to look at everything from a different angle.
The flowers I photograph tend to be quite standard flowers – maybe even just grasses. But if you look at them more carefully, in greater detail, they’re immensely beautiful. There’s so much beauty around us everywhere. We often don’t see it, but it’s there. Even in your house when you wake up, and when you walk around – it’s everywhere, so close by. When I was younger, I used to search for it far away and abroad or in big stylish things. But the older I get, the closer it gets.
‘The flowers I photograph are often quite standard flowers – maybe even just grasses. But if you look at them more carefully, in greater detail, they’re immensely beautiful. There’s so much beauty around us everywhere. We often don’t see it, but it’s there.’
Do you impose any technical limits in photography, like shooting in a specific format or limiting yourself to black and white or colour?
Not really. I use a lot of different cameras – from a Hasselblad or a Mamiya, to a 35-mm analogue camera – and decide which one suits the series best. So for Vondelpark series, I used an old Minolta camera – an ordinary 35mm camera. I took the photographs in an area in Vondelpark that is officially off limits. I wanted to show the areas where people can’t go and the things that people usually step over or miss during their walk. I thought 35mm would work well, because I was shooting a lot in the dark. I could have done it digitally, but I like the process of waiting for the end results. Sometimes you’ve screwed up, sometimes it’s a surprise – much better than instant feedback. Everything is already instant in life these days anyway, so it’s good that things take a while and you have to wait and you’re curious and you think: ‘Oh, I want to see them already…’ I like that feeling.
What’s the sense of time or chronology that you’re wishing to convey in your photographs?
First of all, I like to shoot at night or when it’s dark. Even if I’m shooting in the day, I’ll pretend it’s dark because I want to isolate certain details. I’ll use a flash to control the light and make it darker than it really is, if possible. I like things that are dark or strange, so I try to enhance that in my pictures. I tend to under-expose a lot, using certain types of film.
‘I like to shoot at night or when it’s dark. Even if I’m shooting in the day, I’ll pretend it’s dark because I want to isolate certain details.’
In what ways does new technology shape your practice?
Mostly, what you see is what I shot, although I do like to shift the colour. I shoot on film and scan the film, then choose what colours I want to enhance, using Lightroom. I really like vibrant colours and sometimes make my greens a little bluer than they are in reality. I also like to over- or under-expose, so I use Kodak Ektar film.
What would you say are the defining features of your work? If I saw two random photographs taken by you, what would be the link between them?
Apart from the type of scenery I choose, I think it’s the colours and the aesthetic mainly.
In a lot of my photographs, there’s a sort of classical aesthetic. Also, if you look at my portraits, you’ll see that light is very important to me. I was shooting a boy from Burundi on Friday and I was really looking for shadows or harsh light and how I could bring out the different structures of his face. I have a difficult time when the weather is very plain. I like it when it’s dark or when there’s a lot of shade. There has to be some form of contrast for me.
Are you conscious of creating a particular spatial dimension in your photographs?
I like it when there’s a sense of depth in my images. The surroundings are very important as well. Even though I shoot at night to isolate the thing I’m shooting, I still want the background and foreground to come into play to give a sense of place. This morning, I was taking a photograph of a water drop with the sun shining through it, creating the sense of a planet in this drop. There was a vague black tree in the background and it had to be part of the image to give a sense of place, to introduce an element of weirdness and give it another level – because otherwise it’s just a drop of water.
‘I find that I need boundaries in order to really look properly.’
Where do you live and what inspires you visually about the place?
I live in the eastern part of Amsterdam on what I find to be an ugly street. I don’t really like the architecture, but it doesn’t really bother me, because I find that ugly things determine what is beautiful. Even though this street is ugly, there are lots of little plants that you don’t expect to be growing here.
For a few years, I photographed the exact same spot on the street where people were just throwing down their garbage. Every day, I took a photo of what I found over there. It started out as a kind of irritation with how people can treat their environment, but it turned into these little stories. Through discarded things – like toys that were thrown away, a pan of spaghetti, or old videos or postcards – I found all these stories of lives unfolding.
I like to travel, see different places, meet other people. I’ve been to Argentina a couple of times; I stay with a friend of mine who lives there. There’s so much to do, I could stay there for a half a year and lose myself in the visual. But I find that I need boundaries in order to really look properly. If I’ve got endless visual opportunities, it can be difficult to make a decision. I tend to become less conscious about what is happening and lose a lot of things.
In my immediate environment, there’s always something changing, something new to find. There are always seasons, something else happening, something I’ve missed – endless inspiration in my own direct surroundings.
Is Amsterdam full of vegetation, or do you have to travel out of town to find the flowers, foliage and natural life in your photographs?
I’m constantly surprised by all the little plants and flowers I come across in the city – growing along the pavement, for example. The train track is just behind where I live and it’s amazing what flowers you find there. I’m really interested in how strong nature is and find it wonderful the way that plants grow up in places where you’d think nothing could grow. I really like that aspect.
‘I’m careful about exposing myself to too much external influence. It can be very inspiring, but it can sometimes also be demotivating. I stopped going on Pinterest because I found myself getting completely lost. I don’t like to be too influenced by what other people are doing.’
From a public culture perspective, how do you keep yourself updated in relation to evolving trends in photography? Are there any specific websites or magazines that you follow or galleries that you visit?
I go to Foam, the international photography museum in Amsterdam, which is great, because it’s very contemporary, and I follow the Polish photographic magazine, Fotographia. I was recently at the opening of Unseen Photo Fair and it was interesting to see some of the emerging photographic trends. I saw a lot of rocks and moons this year – there’s a lot about space going on right now. But I’m careful about exposing myself to too much external influence. It can be very inspiring, but it can sometimes also be demotivating. I stopped going on Pinterest because I found myself getting completely lost. I don’t like to be too influenced by what other people are doing.
Do you associate with any movements or collectives?
I like discussing my work with my photography friends. For example, one of my fellow contributors to hellogorgeous.nl, a magazine about living with HIV, is a woman who I also worked with on the Vondelpark project, and we like to look at each other’s work and offer criticism. For the Vondelpark project, I was part of a collective, Collectief Lucifer, and we staged an outdoor exhibition in the park and published a book featuring five photographers and five writers responding to our images. We found the images we see of parks very clichéd, so we wanted to do something different. The Vondelpark has existed for 150 years and there’s a lot of history there. Parks are common meeting grounds, lots of relationships start and end in parks, and lots of things have happened there during hard times in history. During World War II, for example, Vondelpark was closed and people were shot in the park. My question was: What is nature? Do people really see all the small living things in the park?
SO 2015 Nomination
GUP NEW PHOTO 2014 – Upcoming Dutch Photographers
PANL Awards Nomination
Kunstroute Leiden PAR
ACF (Amsterdams centrum voor fotografie) 2015
Open ateliers Amsterdam 2015
'Het faire oosten' currently on view since beginning April 2015
'Made in…', BISH art collectieve 2014 Oosterkerk, Amsterdam
SBK exhibition Amsterdam 2014
Indoor exhibition Vondelpark CS, Amsterdam 2014
Outdoor exhibition Vondelpark, Amsterdam 2014
Rotterdam central station, 2014
'nhow rotterdam', selection of GUP 2014 - 2015
Unplugged Paradiso, Amsterdam 2013
GUP Gallery, Amsteram 2013
Group exhibition Internationaal dans theater, 2013
Oosterpark: Arena, Amsterdam 2013
"ijfff - like you", 2012
- open ateliers: mei 2010, 2011, 2012
Noorderlicht Groningen, 2011
"Free", Pakhuis 33, Rotterdam
Henri Blommers' works have been published in various books and magazines, amongst which: Parool, Trouw, DJ Magazine, Hello Gorgeous, New Dawn, GUP NEW PHOTO 2014, CBK, Herenhuis, Libelle, Expreszo, Spiegel, Elle France, Washington Post