Jac Kritzinger talks to Naomi Meyer about the way he sees the world. And about the way his camera sees the world. Below is an interview with this multimedia artist.
Jac, you are an art photographer. Please tell me when you took your first photo.
I’ve been fiddling with cameras since a very young age. Back then, it was all 35-mm film, of course, and I was just messing about out of curiosity. I suppose I really fell in love with photography when I went backpacking through the UK in 2003. As is the case today, my eye was stimulated by the ongoing barrage of new sights, people and places I encountered on my travels. Looking back, I reckon that was where my visual aptitude was first roused and roughly honed. I couldn’t afford a digital camera (the technology was still in its infancy back then) or any kind of half-decent analogue equipment, so I bought these cheap disposable film cameras wherever I went. You had 24 shots as per the 35-mm roll inside, and when that was done, you handed the whole contraption in at a supermarket or pharmacy to be developed and printed. The fitted lens was a fixed wide-angle made of plastic, so the image quality was terrible. Towards the end of my tenure on the road, I got involved with an English rose who was a proper photographer, so she taught me the basic technical aspects of the game and the value of decent equipment (thanks, Kate). My self-taught journey into the weird, wonderful and sometimes woeful world of images really took off from there.
Why did you become interested in becoming a photographer in the first place? Also, is photography your main job? Tell me about your background and about who you are.
I quickly realised that photography was a way of turning everyday reality into something more visceral, simply by framing a scene or situation in a certain way, while at the same time applying a range of techniques from a rather sparse bag of tricks. As a creative discipline, photography is pretty limited due to technical, real-world constraints, but the finished product can be something truly other-worldly. The sense of artistic potential within that juxtaposition of the real and the ethereal really drew me in.
Photography as a commercial venture is an entirely different beast. When you’re trying to earn a living from it, the camera as a tool is reduced to its most basic state. You start using it like a carpenter would use a hammer – it’s simply a means of shaping a finished product that a client will (hopefully) be happy with. That being said, it’s still a very valuable exercise – albeit not always financially. When it comes to commercial work, I’ve pretty much done it all – weddings, events, food, travel, interiors, high-profile editorial portraiture, news, you name it. I basically got into the scene when the use of freelancers by clients across the board was already an ill-affordable luxury; and the global economic hardships of the last four or five years, coupled with the explosion of a brand new, image-laden virtual society, basically ended the freelance commercial game for most photographers, including me. I saw the writing on the wall about two years ago. Devoid of income, my woman and I packed our bags and left for China to teach English. The visual chaos (apart from everything else) I encountered over there really opened my inner eye once more and somehow brought me back to my more artistic photographic roots. I also started writing again during my time in the East – something that has always been incredibly important to me. I achieved moderate success and acclaim in the literary field in earlier years, but I’ve always lacked the conviction and perfect storm of circumstances truly to rise as a wordsmith. Although I’m not strictly working as a commercial photographer at the moment, my somewhat forced departure from that sector has really enabled me once more to focus on being an artist, this time using a combination of photography and words to reinvent my craft.
A picture can speak 1 000 words. I looked at the photograph Fushan (with its teaser text: “We did not speak”) and thought the atmosphere was captivating. What inspires you to photograph something? And why do you choose a certain perspective?
For me, inspiration is entirely intuitive. It’s quite difficult to nail it down to something specific. It’s probably a case of many factors coming together on a somewhat subconscious level – after many years of going walkabout with a camera on your back, you instantly know when you stumble upon a scene, whether it will make a good picture or not. The right combination of subject, surroundings, composition and light (and sometimes good ol’ dumb luck) all play a part in combining to “see” a good photograph. Most importantly, I think it’s a matter of encountering something that makes you feel something deep inside, for whatever obscure reason. These days, that’s the surest motivation actually to take the camera out of the bag. That being said, I rarely shoot on impulse anymore – it’s more a case of recognising a potential picture within the smorgasbord of daily life, making a note of it and then going through the technical process of determining how to make it truly shine, usually when the light and other variables are close to perfect, or as you somehow find a way to introduce your own tricks of the trade. The real work comes in trying to marry the real-life scene in front of you with the framed vision in your mind’s eye. That requires a fair bit of experimentation with angles, lenses, perspectives – and, yes, experience goes a long way in getting it right. That doesn’t mean that I never shoot from the hip, though. Sometimes, the Muse smiles upon you, and everything just clicks in the moment. But with my stoically bearing the ever more cumbersome perfectionist’s curse, that doesn’t seem to happen as often as it used to.
What is the most important part of the perfect photo?
For me, the simple answer is light. The right lighting, whether natural or artificial, can infuse the most mundane scene with an almost poetic vitality. The eyes of human beings are drawn to the infinite play between light and shadow, and this dynamic will always arrest the viewer’s attention within a given frame.
For me, the simple answer is light. The right lighting, whether natural or artificial, can infuse the most mundane scene with an almost poetic vitality. The eyes of human beings are drawn to the infinite play between light and shadow, and this dynamic will always arrest the viewer’s attention within a given frame. Apart from being transformative, it can emphasise certain elements within a picture much more effectively than composition, colour, shape, texture, emotional tension and the like. Naturally, all of these elements work together in a kind of visual symbiosis, but without proper lighting the very foundation of a frame collapses in on itself. I usually aim to combine ambient light with remotely triggered flashes and strobes. The use of artificial light has become a bit of a trademark in my work, but I try not to rely on it too heavily. The right balance between natural and artificial light usually makes for a striking picture at the most basic level, something that cannot easily be simulated through image manipulation software. Speaking of which, I always aim to get the results I want in-camera. Imaging software surely has its place, but getting too heavy-handed with it takes one’s work into the dubious realm of digital art, which is fine and dandy, but it can no longer be labelled photography with any kind of integrity, not to mention respect for the medium.
You also combine words and music with your photographs. Please tell me about your latest project.
These days, I tend to think of myself first and foremost as a multimedia artist combining photography, writing and the spoken word.
These days, I tend to think of myself first and foremost as a multimedia artist combining photography, writing and the spoken word. During my time in China – a kind of self-inflicted exile – I went through an intense process of self-reflection and an honest assessment of the direction I wanted to take with my creative endeavours. It took me a while to realise that while my photographic body of work to date surely had its merits, the images were merely part of a much larger story which, to that point, had been left untold. I’ve led a pretty wild, warrior-poet way of life that has always veered far off the beaten track, and my photographs were, in truth – consciously or subconsciously – a kind of superficial visual diary which underwrote these turbulent experiences over the years. There was always more to the majority of my images than actually met the eye, so I finally decided to reveal the weird and wonderful tales behind the pictures. The context and motivation behind taking them, and what these photographs mean to me and why – often exploring intensely personal and private episodes in my life within the larger context of the human experience and the world we live in – are explored and revealed as an accompaniment to the images, weaving what I hope to be a fresh and dynamic narrative. Writing, as mentioned, has always been a fundamental part of my creative process, and I like to think of these hybrid texts as neo-poetic, slice-of-life short stories for a brave, new age. Taking it one step further, I also include audio narrations of the text, read by yours truly and fleshed out with atmospheric soundtracks by musician Albertus van Rensburg (also known as Alberin), to provide an even more interactive experience. If nothing else, this new direction gives the viewer the chance to interact with photography on a deeper, multilayered and more meaningful level in a world so utterly saturated with images that the traditional photographic medium itself has become, however sadly, one-dimensional and essentially defunct by default. This is the central concept behind my new website, which has recently launched with a carefully curated selection of work, and I’m excited to see it grow and evolve over time.
Nowadays, everyone owns a great camera, ie a cell phone. Do you agree? What distinguishes a professional photographer like you from Everyman on the street, taking photos for Instagram?
Not to get too technical, but there are massive differences between cell phone cameras and more traditional photographic equipment. (Hint: it’s not about the number of megapixels at all.) Since most images live on mobile screens in modern times, most people do not recognise these differences, and in all fairness, there’s no need for them to do so. If you’re an enthusiast or a professional photographer who is used to larger format SLR or mirrorless cameras, the limitations of cell cameras become glaringly evident. I rarely use my mobile phone for taking any kind of picture at all, simply because its technical limitations and poor image quality are frustrating. That’s simply where I stand as a purist and perfectionist.
Since most images live on mobile screens in modern times, most people do not recognise these differences, and in all fairness, there’s no need for them to do so. If you’re an enthusiast or a professional photographer who is used to larger format SLR or mirrorless cameras, the limitations of cell cameras become glaringly evident. I rarely use my mobile phone for taking any kind of picture at all, simply because its technical limitations and poor image quality are frustrating. That’s simply where I stand as a purist and perfectionist.
Physical control over elements like aperture, shutter speed and focal lengths – when not rather clumsily dictated by cell phone software – makes a huge difference in the final product, if you know what to look for. Many people would argue that phone photography has opened up image-making for the masses, but it really only points to yet another form of dependence on so-called smart technology without an understanding of the underlying principles of a particular discipline. Modern society has given up much of its basic understanding of and fundamental interaction with the world – and therefore its power – in the name of the relative comfort and convenience that technology provides. It’s a slippery slope.
Many people would argue that phone photography has opened up image-making for the masses, but it really only points to yet another form of dependence on so-called smart technology without an understanding of the underlying principles of a particular discipline. Modern society has given up much of its basic understanding of and fundamental interaction with the world – and therefore its power – in the name of the relative comfort and convenience that technology provides. It’s a slippery slope.
Overall, due to a basic respect for the process, and a better understanding of it, traditional photographers like me perhaps take much greater care in producing images, and often go the extra mile, and it shows in the finished product – more advanced equipment aside. In many ways, phone photography has cheapened the photographic process, and that also shows up in the quality of the “work”. Apps like Instagram have their merits, but it most certainly cuts both ways. On the one hand, it provides the masses with an all-in-one approach for producing and sharing images, but on the other it has practically doomed high-quality work, as it exceedingly drowns in an ocean of photographic mediocrity. In my opinion, social media has caused Joe Public to become desensitised to photography as a whole, with its massive contribution to what can now certainly be labelled as image pollution.
I see that you have had diverse clients from various backgrounds and employment sectors. Why should somebody contact you about a photography job, and where are you based?
My new creative direction aside, I still accept commercial commissions, simply because I truly enjoy working with others, be it on an individual level or in a team. Indeed, I’ve worked with a wide range of clients on many diverse projects in the past, which certainly doesn’t mean I’ve seen it all, but I am pretty comfortable in most situations behind the camera. Simply put, I believe in excellence, and experience helps one achieve that. It also puts those around you at ease, which is extremely important when working under pressure. Also, my sense of humour doesn’t hurt! I am currently based in Hermanus in the Western Cape. Prospective clients are welcome to get in touch via my website or at https://www.behance.net/jackritzinger, where my broader portfolio can also be viewed.