Arno De Pooter is an artist and photographer based in Belgium. His photography projects are made of few shades of colors, great geometry and a linear composition, through which a sense of calm and purity can be perceived. All his visual series come from a long period of reshaping and molding of images until the deeper and obscured narrative comes to live.
Taking the photograph takes little time. I’ve almost never done what all my art teachers so ardently preached: “Go out there when the light is different, Arno, and take the photo again.” I only take pictures when it’s cloudy; problem solved.
Which is your first photographic memory?
I would be lying if I said I knew. I have many pseudo-photographic memories which are all based on actual pictures. The border between a true memory and a pseudo-memory of remembering seeing a picture has become very blurred.
Could you describe yourself with a book?
The book “Glamorama” by Bret Easton Ellis but then without the glamour. In particular, the neurotic and often psychotic main character in it, Victor, felt very familiar.
Which of your pictures would you choose to introduce yourself?
That would be a self-portrait I’ve made for my graduation project from the Royal Academy of Art, Antwerp. It’s a very white and clean image where I look like some sort of guru. The image is heavily digitally processed. I removed all my facial hair pixel by pixel and tweaked my facial expression until I was satisfied. The picture was then printed on a 3 by 4 meters scale, and glued to a wall – which it completely covered – in a room which I had specially prepared for it. This room, its floor, ceiling and walls were painted pure white to create a brilliant atmosphere. I emphasized this effect with ten of the most powerful neon lamps on the ceiling and another four embedded in the walls. The final touch was the scent, which I acquired from my local drugstore because I had been intrigued by it for quite some time. It’s the product they use to clean the store. Its smell is a mixture of hospital disinfectant and something else I can’t describe. The very kind owner made me a small bottle which consisted of two different products which I then used to clean the room several times. I think that the effort put in that room, together with what you experience when you sit in this pure white very light room watching me, would be a nice way to introduce myself.
A famous picture, not yours, you would have liked to take.
It’s not really a picture, but it’s an installation made by Belgian artist Hans Op De Beeck called situation 5. It’s a big work. You can walk in it, and really feel, smell and inspect everything in great detail for yourself. This work is based on the very typical non-places you can find next to highways. Or, sometimes, over it. This installation depicts such a restaurant that is suspended over a highway in Belgium. You can literally walk into the dining space and take a seat in a booth with a window that overlooks a completely deserted highway. It’s nighttime and the only light there comes from the deep yellow gas-discharge lamps. In the near distance the highway makes a long turn to the left until you can’t see it no more. Now the beauty of all this, to me, lies in its construction. Hans Op De Beeck designed this installation in such a way that the highway has exactly the right size and proportion when viewed at the right angle. So, in a very nifty and smart way this art work deceives all your senses. For me this is the famous picture that I would have loved to make myself.
Let’s start from your “Bleach” series: everything here seems to belong to a distant world, a kind of dull, muffled planet made of empty places, pervaded by silence and calm. It almost looks like a world parallel to that of our present days, where everything is fixed and very well organized. A feeling of calmness and tranquility can be perceived. Is this something you recreate on purpose?
Yes, it is. Although it’s hardly ever my main focus when I start working on an image. But, eventually, I always end up with a more organized and cleaner version of the original.
Your palette is made of few shades of colors, clear pastel tones, delicate and subtle pigments with a highlight of green, red or pink. May you please tell us something about this artistic choice?
The series was made on a trip to Florida and most of the images were made in Miami with its characteristic pastels. I’ve selected these images only guided by my intuition. Yet, especially since being asked this question, I noticed myself often dramatizing the pictures, adding something of a narrative to them. I’m intrigued by the clash between the sunshine-and-roses pastels and the sneakily enhanced, slightly harsher tones.
How much time do you spend in taking a photograph? How much in retouching it?
Taking the photograph takes little time. I’ve almost never done what all my art teachers so ardently preached: “Go out there when the light is different, Arno, and take the photo again.” I only take pictures when it’s cloudy; problem solved. Although my approach has changed over time. Nowadays, I take a sort of base image and often I will take multiple images of the sky and surroundings so I can recreate the feeling that I had when I was taking the base image. This base image is never complete on its own.
Retouching the image on the other hand can take a very long time. It’s not unusual that I work for more than seven full days on one image. I first opened Photoshop when I was 14 years old. Ever since, my interest in and love for the program has increased steadily. Making a picture is easy, you don’t need to be creative to do that. Creating a new reality in a digital program by compiling lots of elements from different photos: that’s where the fun starts.
In your visual and minimal series, everything is perfectly tidy, well composed and a sense of order and linearity is evident. Where does your interest for geometry, lines and composition come from?
Although I tend to appear utterly disoriented to many people I’ve actually always had a great need for rhythm, planning and order. My parents have always known this. They taught me many, many ways to cope with the extreme disorder in my head, and in the outside world.
My need for order is very evident in many areas of my life. A tiny example: my music choice. I have an exclusive taste for rhythmically consistent music. Melodically developing music, I simply cannot bear. Most of the radio music sounds extremely noisy, even disorientating to me. To me any rock song for that matter, sounds like a clean start with a person singing, but then, in the middle of the song, suddenly everyone forgets what to do and just starts smashing everything. The same goes for live concerts.
My need for order is very evident in many areas of my life. A tiny example: my music choice. I have an exclusive taste for rhythmically consistent music. Melodically developing music, I simply cannot bear.
You say you never shoot with models. All people in your shots are random passengers, unaware of you taking a picture of them. Is there something hidden behind this choice?
Nothing hidden, I’ve just never liked taking pictures of people. At the age of 16, I stopped taking family pictures while on holiday even though my mom really wanted me to keep doing so. It just kept on distracting me. I have little images of people in my archive. Even for school assignments I always searched for a way to avoid having people in front of my lens as much as I could. Moreover, I lose focus when I have to give instructions to a model while photographing. I notice myself viscerally disliking people in images because – to me – they clutter an image just like parked cars do. All the people in my images are random passersby whom I most probably moved from their original place in the picture to make its composition feel more serene.
In your series fixation, the sea is the main protagonist. Its crushing waves, white froth and tiny drops of water are fixed in pure close-ups. What does the sea mean to you?
I don’t have any special bond with the sea. If I had to choose between the mountains or the sea for a trip, I would head for the mountains. But I do have a strong fixation on water in general. When I was hiking in the Himalaya, I spend the better part of a day with my feet in an icy stream of glacial meltwater to capture the absurd, molten silver droplets that formed behind a particular rock. Focusing in on a tiny detail against a backdrop of 6000-meter high mountains.
We know you are working on a new project now, background. What is this visual narration about?
I’m not sure myself yet. I never really know the narrative of a series, before creating it nor afterwards. Intuition guides me, even during 7 days of retouching an image and making the decision to add 1% more cyan to the trees in the background. background refers to the decors used in the film industry. I draw attention to what normally is created to do exactly the opposite. Hence, all pictures in the series are sky-less; the background fills the image.
How much have social media helped you develop your career as a photographer?
When I was younger I really clung to the screen when I posted a new series waiting for another like. Now I realize this doesn’t lead to happiness. The thing is that you really have to be involved and keep on nurturing your social media channels. You have to keep posting on a regular bases or your account will not be in the main interest feed of your followers. I tend to be very bad at this. Nevertheless, I have around 350 followers on Facebook. I don’t have a Tumblr account but, funnily enough, there are images of me circulating on Tumblr. Part of the series fixation has taken on a life of its own with over 160 000 likes and reblogs.
What lead you to become a professional photographer?
At 14 I had to change schools due to bad grades and a similar attitude. My parents introduced me to a secondary art school because I was very interested in architecture. Once, there, I changed to photography. After two years of struggling with the complete lack of rules and organization in the secondary art school in combination with a pretty tough curriculum I finally found my real passion for photography. I graduated with honors in photography and film and enrolled at Karel De Grote university, Belgium’s leading school for learning the highly technical part of photography. For example: if a model’s eye wasn’t perfectly sharp you lost half the grades. The school’s main goal is prepping you for a life as a professional fashion or advertising photographer.
I’ve just never liked taking pictures of people. At the age of 16, I stopped taking family pictures while on holiday even though my mom really wanted me to keep doing so. It just kept on distracting me. I have little images of people in my archive.
I loved it, but when the end of the Bachelor drew close, I realized I wasn’t ready for the life I had been molded for. I missed meaning in my pictures. Most of my work felt empty and I didn’t even knew why I chose to make or edit an image other than the obvious technical reasons. At that point in time, I could never have written answers like these ones here about my work. So, I opted for two more years to earn a Master degree. I was allowed to the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts of and started the two toughest introspective years of my training. When is something art? Why this image stronger as a statement than another one? Why did I choose this image and what do I want to say with it? Many, many question and still so little were – and are – answered. Notwithstanding 8 years of art history classes on photography, practically all the photographers I came to know during my Master years were new to me. That’s because the Academy examined photography in a much broader way than the one I had grown used to. It was eye-opening and although everybody was very kind to me, I really felt like an outsider. It was very difficult for me to ignore the technical aspect of photography for once. I also started to paint digitally during this period with a pressure-sensitive pen. I used Photoshop as a canvas and started to copy low-quality pictures from my Blackberry in a hyper-realistic way, adding more detail than what the Blackberry’s camera could produce. It took me four months to master this technique, but I lost interest when the school year was over. My final Master project took place in an abandoned office building in which I created three different rooms.
In these rooms, I devoted considerable time and focus to the setting of the pictures on show; even – I think – moving beyond pure representation. One room was 12 meter long and draped on both sides in black theater cloth. At the end of this dark space there was a 2 by 3 meter cut-out where a Plexiglas picture of waves (from the series fixture) was illuminated from behind in random, near epilepsy inducing bursts. A second, equally dark room showed an image 1 by 1.5 meters printed with a very matte finish. A special lamp only cast its low-intensity light on the photograph that almost seemed to disappear into the darkness. The third room was the pure white one I’ve talked about above.
Your next project.
I always have several projects ready to go stored on my computer. I’m quite prolific but show very, very little. I’m currently immersed in a project for Michelin-starred restaurant De Pastorale. I dissect images of the restaurant’s surrounding landscape, and I select separate elements like trees, leaves, clouds, etc. I then work towards a 3D-picture of a part of the landscape. With a virtual camera I can then travel into those images and, again virtually, film away. The end result is a video of 90 minutes for the restaurant-goers to watch while dining.
Your main flaw and quality.
Being a perfectionist, even though I know this is the most classical evasive answer you can give to this question. To me it is a very real burden however. Sure, it’s a real quality that ensures a fine product but I really don’t know when to stop, and often end in sheer paranoia about my picture.
Make a wish.
I wish I never grow fat.
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