Monday, August 12, 2013

Asger Carlsen - The Prestige

Asger Carlsen on the roof of his Hester Street apartment and studio. New York, July 2013

Asger in his studio / editing space.

A portrait of the artist as a young crime scene photographer.

A self portrait by Carlsen.

It’s no small feat to be a photographer with an inimitable style these days. There’s something like 500,000,000 photos posted to the internet every day. But amid that tidal wave of images, I would wager you could easily spot Asger Carlsen’s work.

A couple of weeks ago I got a chance to visit Carlsen in his Chinatown studio to talk about his work. As a huge fan of Asger’s photographs I was excited to see his process and just how he creates his wonderfully impossible images.

Asger was born and raised in Denmark. At 16 he started a photography internship at a local newspaper. He said at the end of the internship he just kept going in, and he soon found himself working as the crime scene photographer. After a decade as a journalist he shifted into commercial photography, eventually leading him to New York. It was here that he began to focus more on his photographs as an expressive art form and developed his singular style.

Upon arriving at his apartment / studio I was surprised to see that the area where he shoots his photos is relatively small. Many of the photos in his book Hester were shot in the corner near the door. In fact the book takes its name from the street he lives on. He said it’s taken some wrangling to convince subjects of his commercial and portrait work to make the trek to his 6th floor walkup, but that he wants to be a studio artist and prefers shooting at home to more elaborate studio setups. 

Asger shoots digital images and then sets about transforming them at his computer workstation. When I asked if he used a tripod or flash rig to make sure all the shadows were the same angle, he showed me how he can simply create any shadows he needs in photoshop.  As someone who barely edits anything I shoot I was floored by freedom of that demonstration. “You can make the photo anything you want?!”

Lest you think that the use of a computer somehow means that these images were easy to create, I want to note the extreme patience and skill required in this process. The task of matching skin colors, textures, lighting, and shadows is painstaking. While a photo shoot for source material may last only 20 minutes, there are some images that are worked on for years before they are finished.  There is a post-it note on the wall above his computer that reads simply “you exist”, a good reminder when you spend days at a time alone in the studio. 

In his first book, Wrong, Carlsen presented a surreal vision of everyday life. Full of looming amorphous globs, elaborately constructed artificial limbs, bulging eyeballs, and bizarre portraits of impossible anatomies, the collection was both disturbing and humorous. Like seeing a magic trick, these images demanded to be inspected and explained; your eye scanning for a clue as to how they were made.

Some images from Wrong:

Wrong embraced photo manipulation as a creative tool and eschewed the notion of photography as simply a means of recording the world in front of the camera.  Photographs are the raw materials from which he works, but the final images are a combination of photography, collage, painting, and sculpture.  

His most recent book, Hester, represents Asger’s take on the female nude. The book is full of unsettling arrangements of faceless limbs and torsos and hulking mounds of flesh whose grotesque morphology defies biology. There’s a journalistic aesthetic to the work that calls to mind his days as a crime scene photographer; heavy on flash, and high contrast, the contorted human objects that he molds evoke the abstractions of a disfigured corpse.

Some images from Hester:

The work is extremely sculptural, and he fluently incorporates influences from a broad survey of art history: prehistoric sculpture, ancient statuary, surrealism, cubism, seedy pin-ups, science fiction, Francis Bacon, Schiele, and Picasso. They are all in there, and yet the result feels like something entirely new.

I highly recommend that you check out his site to see tons more of his pioneering, challenging, funny, beautiful, and complex work.  I promise you’ll see something that will surprise you. Also note that his books and editions tend to sell through quickly, so get them while you can. If you want to know more there are a couple of good interviews here, with Vice and here with Glossom.

Thank you Asger for your time!