Sometimes we are forced to face with aspects of reality that we cannot fully understand or that, by our choice, we do not want to fully understand. The idea of moving away from something that remains unknowable for us, that disturbs us, that causes us unrest, is certainly the fastest way to abandon this form of illness.
On the other hand, the choice to move away deprive us of an aspect of the world that we do not know and that, at this point, we will not know. Everything that lies beyond the surface will, therefore, inevitably be denied to us: welcome to a state of denial, where we ourselves are our greatest limitation.
But of everything that lies beyond the surface, Max Eicke makes it the engine of a perpetual investigation, from social to personal. Extremely curious, the hidden and unknowable reality of man is what makes him proceed in the search. As he himself says, one aspect that makes his curiosity explode is the feeling of unsettlement: it is what makes him an active observer, an investigator of reality in all its most particular substrates and in all its most daring and unusual facets.
Max breaks his denial and experiments with reality and with his own perception. He propose himself as a guide in the search for a reality that actively exists beneath the surface and, in doing so, fully enters into a sociological research aimed at exploring the perturbing aspects of human nature. With a soft step and total respect, he creates images that have the possibility of implicitly conveying the rawness of realities that are not recognized by most. And he invites us to investigate in faces, spaces and landscapes what he returns to investigate about himself.
Now, to the interview, enjoy.
Hello Max, I’m glad you are taking the time to answer my questions. Tell me something about yourself and how did you start using photography as the way to talk about your themes.
Thanks for having me! Well, as a teenager I was too shy for graffitti and too dumb for conceptual art. So when I first picked up a camera it became my gate to the world, my excuse to knock on doors. Not much changed ever since. Photography is also an act of love. Love as in attention. My first photos were taken underwater, when I started scuba diving and was totally blown away by this fascinating universe.
Your work is certainly linked to a visual sociological research or is moved by it. How do you start a project or a series? Are there any main influences that help you start your work?
You’re right in a way. Sometimes I wonder if I’m rather a sociologist with a camera than a photographer with an interest in sociology. At the beginning of my projects there’s always a strong sense of curiosity that functions as catalyzer to get started. Questionmarks make me get out of bed I guess. It’s tricky to break down my influences, I’d rather say that life itself is my main influence. Living a present and compassionate life, a life in which you see yourself as a voiceful part of the world, the continent, the city, the community you live in.
It is not a coincidence that your work contains a multitude of meanings. One of your main works is Dominas, a photo-book in which you present female BDSM workers, specifically the world of Dominatrix, and present them in rough, very direct portraits. All these portraits, however, are presented on backgrounds which, I imagine, are extracts, zooms or crops of theirselves. These backgrounds are creened, to underline the hidden and almost socially unacceptable nature of this reality. Can you tell me about this project? How was it born? What were the main ways to get in touch with these people and how did it develop in practical terms?
After I had stumbled upon this parallel world by reading an autobiography of a female literature student who started to work as a dominatrix, I got interested in looking at this universe in a more documentary and observatory way than the usual freak-show like features. Looking at our society through the eyes of sex-workers from the BDSM and fetish community became interesting to me as I believe that it says a lot about the condition of our society and how we deal with sexuality. There were a lot of questions: What is a mask? What is real? How much veracity is there in the way the women present themselves – beyond glaring red lips and a stern gaze?
I found myself slowly researching on the internet and ended up with a plethora of obscure websites, all in all, I contacted well over 150 women. First I tried to contact them via emails, but I realized quite quickly that calling was the better deal. It took some time but after I had arranged the first couple of meetings in cafés to talk about my idea in person, it got better. Mostly, we first had a personal meeting to get to know each other and to talk about the project before we would meet for the actual photoshoot and extended interviews. I’d say that we spent at least half a day or a day together, which was quite necessary for establishing a personal and trustful atmosphere.
Speaking of the portrait in theoretical or abstract terms: a portrait has the maincharacteristic of portraying a subject. But portraying a subject, you will agree, does not only mean bringing it back to any background and photographing it. There is a preparatory work, an intuition, a choice and by the time this portrait is taken, all the work has already been done. All this allows the shot to live on a layering of meanings and, especially in this work of yours, my immediate impression is that the gaze of these people is distant, that it is almost impossible to read their eyes and all this is extremely coherent to with what you wanted to express through the book. Can you tell me what taking a portrait means to you? Is there a specific preparation for you or a specific process that you follow in view of the final shot or series?
I think I need to respect, love, or in some way embrace all the persons that I photograph. The process of making a portrait is a very substantial artistic act and it’s always a very direct human exchange. It can be very embarassing to approach someone and say you want to look at them. Without risk-taking though, nothing will happen, so I have to make myself vulnerable. What Paul Celan once called “the mystery of encounter” applies to photography as well, I feel.
The themes of secrecy and the hidden is present in most of your works. The works themselves live directly from them, and this is, in my opinion, one of the main characteristics that makes the projects so interesting. There is certainly a layer of unknowability, the very existence of individuals takes place in the unknowability of the surrounding reality. At this point I would like to talk about New Landscapes, a work that I found extremely interesting because of its explicit intention in creating limits to knowledge. It almost seems like a manifesto on unknowability, a series of places that we can observe from a long distance but which, for them, are unreachable and therefore unknowable by nature. What is New Landscapes for you? How was the project born and how did it develop? And on a technical level, how did you come to choose to capture and print images in this way? If you think it is coherent, I would ask you to also talk about the 2016 Duplicities installation.
New Landscapes was an attempt to develop new ways of seeing and expand the concept of landscape by infrastructural systems and structures. I travelled throughout Germany to photograph the outposts of the NSA in order to not only capture those places through representation but to reveal them within an unsettling atmosphere. Figuratively speaking, this project is about visualizing the idea of bringing something to light, wherein the aesthetics of night vision gear seemed to offer the only true way to realize these mythological places, as this equipment was originally designed for military use: for watching others, even when there is no light left. My camera provided circular images of bizarre special zones — radar sites with parabolic antennas and geodetic domes, hangars, bunkers and barracks. What might have been just as well documented by a normal camera, is raised by sophisticated simulation into a metaphor for the threats of military, political and economic spying by the NSA in Germany.
Duplicities was a collaborative installation with the American artist Alice Bucknell in London. It was a combination of our research-based visual projects (New Landscapes being one of them) that joined forces to investigate the social, political, and aesthetic stakes of the landscape as a site of memory and surveillance.
Even Extended Play does not betray the nature of your works. It amplifies this visceral aspect of the most hidden and intimate nature. As I see it, it could be a great anthropological manifesto on the need to make this nature explicit, an extremely delicate and ethical personal impulse which, by nature, reveals itself in a raw and instinctive way. Can you tell me about this work? How was the collaboration with Gabrielle Vitollo born and how did the project develop in view of the exhibition?
Extended Play was another two-person exhibition with my artist friend Gabrielle Vitollo, a very talented American painter. We’ve been discussing the idea of showing our works together for quite a bit. In the end we did not only include Gabrielle’s paintings and my photographs in the show, but came up with some collaborative works as well for which she painted onto my prints. That idea was born out of many conversations we had about the thematic and aesthetic overlaps in both our work. We explored topics like surface and masking – whether by using tape and paint or latex and flesh – to explore what is hidden and revealed, and where bodies begin and end. It was quite fun and playful to give up control and let go. As a photographer you’re mostly working on your own and to me it feels quite liberating to work collaboratively from time to time.
Dear Dad is an excruciating need for reconnection, an explicit and raw tension towards acceptance. How was Dear Dad born? What is the main intent of this work and how did you decide to proceed in capturing such a delicate and personal action?
After having worked for years in a documentary mode delving into other worlds I became curious how it would feel to turn my lens inwards. In fact the performative video work Dear Dad was another collaboration with the American artist Miranda July, who reads a letter of mine to my biological father, whom I barely know. Miranda appears as a kind of messenger and the whole work became a reflection about origin, identity and absence. While working on this project I stumbled upon Kafka’s letter to his father that definitely resonated with me.
Everything we have talked about so far makes it clear how visceral and profound the nature of these images and objects is, how much personal work is behind it and how much weight is given to these aspects of the human nature, to unknowability, to the hidden and anything that flies under the surface radar. You create implicit realities, which explain themselves only if the viewer himself decides to immerse himself within a mental system that allows him to understand the substrates of the soul and human nature through your eyes. At this point, the question that arises spontaneously is: could you explain, in purely personal terms, what drives your need to create certain projects? Is there an aspect of yourself on which you return to reflect and which allows you to analyze these realities or these aspects? So where does this very deep tension towards the most implicit substrates of reality come from?
What drives my need to create work in general is either curiosity or love I’d say. I need to observe, not just talk and shout; a careful observation with the potential to change my mind, when things I see differ from my preconceived ideas. An aspect of myself I’m returning to is definitely unsettledness. Feeling unsettled makes me leave my comfort zone, makes me observant, trying to look at the world with fearless eyes. It’s this gaze I’m trying to embrace.
We are now at the end of the interview, before I thank you and say goodbye I would like to ask you a couple of more things: is there a project you are working on at the moment that you would like to talk about? What are your plans for the future?
Over the last couple years my photographic practice slowly shifted away from this serial approach I noted. I’m finding myself turning my lens more often towards my own life and reality now, less looking into others’ worlds as an outsider. Considering my practice rather as an ongoing process of picture making now, it feels quite liberating to stop thinking in projects. After having published my last book Dominas with Kehrer Verlag I’m keen on doing more self-publishing again, zines and stuff. So stay tuned and thanks for your great questions!
We’d like to thank Max again for taking the time for the interview. We’ll stay tuned and we can’t wait to see his future works!