Erik Kessels is described by Francesco Zanot in her essay ‘The Many Lives of Erik Kessels’ as a “designer, photographer, artist, curator, publisher and creative director of the communication company KesselsKramer.” (Kessels, 2017: 9) In his art practice, Kessels is fascinated with vernacular photography and exploring “imperfection in a ‘perfect’ world.” In his essay ‘Pausing Photographs’, Kessels describes what motivates him:
“In design and advertising the perfect image is widely perceived as the only acceptable image. That has always bored me. I guess in a reaction to these beautiful but boring images I went in search of real and imperfect photographs: accidents, incongruity, frowns, wrinkles, fat rolls, blood, bruises, overexposure, double exposure, awkward poses, odd composition, bad lighting, and fingers in frame. It’s the faults, foibles and mistakes that make the images I collect feel authentic and human.” (Kessels, 2017: 5)
Kessels sources his images from flea markets and online and often finds the same imperfections, clichés and patterns repeating. He notes however a paradigm shift in amateur photography brought about by the move to digital photography – not only are more images being shot than ever before, but, the ability to instantly review means that images are reshot until they are ‘perfect’. The overconsumption of images is a symptom of modernity that Kessels likens to fast food – designed to look perfect but devoid of substance and leaving our retinas “overfed and undernourished”:
“As a result we have become remarkable editors. We have developed the ability to filter images; to discern in a spit second, a blink, or a click which are relevant or interesting to us and which ones to discard. Thanks to this remarkable skill, the bulk of these images wash over us like water off a duck’s back; we barely register most of them. The downside is that this current image culture is potentially breeding a generation of visual illeterates, passive consumers who don’t read, interpret, or process the bulk of the images they are force-fed on a daily basis. Quality is drowning in a sea of quantity.” (Kessels, 2017: 6)
Kessels makes an impassioned, compelling and provocative argument here, however, I am not sure if I agree with him completely – perhaps his intention is to provoke consideration of the points he raises? There is a suggestion that some sort of visual literacy has been lost due to the amount of images we are faced with today – I am not sure that viewers were more able to read an image before digital. However, the amount of images we are faced with does mean being able to process them is much more challenging. There is also an issue that images are becoming more homogenised due to conventions in style being established, for example, individual representation through social media. This again is no different to the days of analogue photography – proof of this being the recurring themes and conventions of presentation that Kessels has found in the many orphaned family photo albums he has acquired over the years. The fact that virtually everyone with a smart phone now possesses the technological means to produce images of a high technical quality is significant however.
There is much humour and irreverence present in Kessels work that appears very much to be his character. (In the two Ted Talks I discovered by Kessels he comes across as likeable and full of infectious energy – something which appears to translate into his work. See here and here.) He has an ability to approach imagery from an oblique angle, something that is also evident in his advertising practice. See for example the marketing of the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel in Amsterdam which is advertised as ‘The Worst Hotel in the World’ – an audacious piece of truthful promotion that succeeded in making the hotel a cult destination:
“The strategy we followed is probably totally not OK for every company…But in this case everything else you could do to advertise that place would be a lie. So we came up with the idea that honesty is the only luxury they have.” (LBB Editorial, 2011)
Missing Links (1998):
This series, made in collaboration with Julian Germain, is made up of a series of Polaroid images of diverse subjects with possible narrative links and interpretations being left with the viewer. Francesco Zanot observes:
“Kessels does not entrap any image within a single possibility of interpretation, but rather he devises a mechanism which emphasizes its semantic depth and malleability. As such, the book is an ode to the free circulation of signs.” (Kessels, 2017: 11)
The Instant Men (1999):
For this series of 19 portraits, Kessels turned the camera on men who make a living peddling roses and taking polaroid snapshots of couples in restaurants. Kessels sheds light on a subject that usually remains in the shadows and the resulting images of these “forgotten photographers of the night” are melancholic and touching:
“They do not have blue eyes and blond hair, but just bunches of colourful flowers which punctuate the passing of their working hours like great clocks. Resigned and dead tired.” (Kessels, 2017: 11)
Useful Photography (2002-ongoing):
This project uses appropriated imagery which has all been made for a specific purpose, for example, from catalogues, manuals, packaging, brochures and textbooks. Kessels does not manipulate or change the images in any way, merely selects and presents them together which decontextualises them from their original meaning and makes the viewer reevaluate what they are seeing.
In Almost Every Picture (2002-ongoing):
‘In Almost Every Picture’ is a numbered, series of books featuring found photography themed around a recurring subject, person or thing. These can be amusing such as family’s vain attempt to take a photograph of their black dog – every image is underexposed so only a dark blob is seen where the dog should be, that is until the final image which is so overexposed the dog is grey not black. (See ‘In Almost Every Picture 9‘) They can show the obsession of the photographer, such as the series of images made by husband and wife Fred and Valerie in which they pursue the strange fetish of photographing Valerie fully clothed in water. (See ‘In Almost Every Picture 11′) Most impressive and unexpected however is the series that shows a Dutch woman, Ria van Dijk, over a period of 60 years from aged 16 to 88, having her photograph taken at the fairground by a camera that is triggered when the target is hit on a shooting gallery. These images offer a bizarre biography of Ria by showing how both she, the world around her and photography have changed over the years from the unusual, fixed perspective of the fairground ‘selfie machine.’
For Francesco Zanot, both ‘Useful Photography’ and ‘In Almost Every Picture’ are the series’ in which Kessels developed the rules, intentions and characteristics of his practice and approach:
“The titles say it all, the accent is on the re-use of photographs originally produced with specific function and purposes, and the obsessive repetition of subject matters. Kessels dismantles the aura of the original images, often in a crude and irreverent manner, only to then highlight their renewed exceptionality.” (Dannemann, 2016: 46)
Stranger in my Photoalbum (2007):
For this project, Kessels uses his personal, family archive but focusses on the unknown people who happen to enter the frame. The family photoalbum has a reverential quality, however, with this strategy Kessels is making the simple but powerful observation that this sacred nature is only relevant if the album is yours. The chance encounters of unknown passersby who have accidentally ended up in the frame are as relevant for the casual viewer who has no connection to the family in the album than the family themselves.
My Family (2000-ongoing):
Again using his personal family archive, Kessels makes a provocative challenge to the notion that family portraits of children should be happy, benign, banal and sentimental. He subverts this notion by showing photographs of his children after they have hurt themselves, and the result is surprisingly shocking. Photographs of children suffering are seen as unrepresentable, even taboo, and although these images are the result of simple accidents they retain a unpleasant power because of the connotations with violence against children.
24hrs of Photos (2011):
In a response to the huge amount of images available on line, for this work, Kessels printed all of the photographs that were uploaded to Flickr over a 24 hour period and scattered these in the gallery space. Seeing the huge amount of photographs that are mainly intended only to be shown on the internet is truly staggering and brings into sharp focus the reality of how many images are now being taken on a daily basis.
The huge amount of prints that make up ’24hrs of Photos’ could be interpreted as a bewildering, perhaps even depressing state of affairs – not so for Kessels who responds to the seemingly unstoppable surge of digital imagery like this:
“It is what it is, and in a way, photography is flourishing even if some photographers are not. I read somewhere recently that the average person in the west sees more images before lunch than someone living in 1890 would see in their whole life. It’s hard to make sense of what that means. Everyone can make a picture look fantastic now just by using an app, so that is not the point any more. Ideas are the key. Ideas are the future.” (O’Hagan, 2014)
A central tenet of Kessels’ practice is the belief in failure being more interesting than perfection. This is partly a response to the pursuit of the perfect image that is part and parcel of his advertising business, partly a push back against ‘serious’ art photography, but mainly, it is characteristic of his irreverent personality and world view:
“serious photography has grown so boring and humourless…All these photographers with large-format cameras making big landscapes with a power plant in the background and everything so beautiful and perfect. That is something I really hate. What I am looking for is ordinary photographs that tell a bigger story.” (O’Hagan, 2014)
Unfinished Father (2015):
I must admit when I saw this series exhibited as part of the 2016 Deutsche Börse prize I was left unmoved and felt it was the weakest work out of the four short listed photographers. Strangely, it was the work that has stayed with me most since then and my opinion has changed significantly. It is a deeply personal sseries about Kessels father Piet who, after suffering a debilitating stroke, could no longer continue with his hobby of restoring old Fiat Topolino cars. The stroke happened part way through the restoration of what would have been Piet’s fifth Topolino and Kessels uses the unfinished carcass of the vehicle as the basis of his project showing it as if it were a sculpture in the gallery space. In the notes from the exhibition catalogue, Francesco Zanot describes the installation and compares the work to the ‘non finito’ – a phrase used to describe an artwork that is left deliberately unfinished:
“Transposing it as found, frozen in time like in a photograph, the body of the car is placed centrally, surrounded by documentation of the restoration work, some images of which had already been taken by his father. One wounded body thus substitutes another. Laid before our gaze with its clinical, calibrated exposure, the work reflects the sudden interruption of a relationship between father and son which may never be renewed and completed”. (Dannemann, 2016:45)
Now I know more about Kessels other work, I am impressed by the way he has made this personal work while keeping to his favoured methodology of editing, selection and recontextualistion – as Zanot observes, his practice is concerned with intervention through the process of editing rather than manipulation through strategies such as photomontage. Addressing the how the sculptural nature of the work adds a dimension different to Kessel’s other work, she continues:
“In Unfinished Father, the status of the photograph is further investigated and questioned through its recontextualisation into a sculptural space…the ready-made, the forerunner of all forms of appropriation in contemporary art, is transformed into a sort of not-ready-made, which stretched out in various directions, reflecting on time, form, personal history, the medium… Such are the infinite possibilities of the non-finito.” (Dannemann, 2016: 46)
- Erik Kessels website (KesselsKramer)
- Make more sense with nonsense. Erik Kessels – Ted Talk 22nd March 2019
- A new age of storytelling: Erik Kessels – Ted Talk 15th October 2012
- The Guardian – The weirdest photo albums ever made – in pictures
- The Guardian – Giving the finger: photography’s most common mistake – in pictures
British Journal of Photography (2017) Photobook: The many lives of Erik Kessels. BJP online. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/05/kessels-lives/ (accessed 2nd November 2019)
Clark, T. (2013) The vanishing art of the family photo album. Time.com. Available at: https://time.com/3801986/the-vanishing-art-of-the-family-photo-album/#22 (accessed 28th September 2019)
Dannemann, A. (2016) Deutsche Börse photography foundation prize 2016. London: The Photographers’ Gallery.
Grieve, M. (2016) Any Answers Erik Kessels. British Journal of Photography. Available at: https://search-proquest-com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/docview/1776308492?pq-origsite=summon (accessed 2nd November 2019)
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LBB Editorial (2011) Erik Kessels’ adventures in imperfection. LBB online. Available at: https://lbbonline.com/news/erik-kessels-adventures-in-imperfection/ (accessed 2nd November 2019)
O’Hagan (2011) Why you are the future of photography. The Guardian, 13th July 2011. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jul/13/from-here-on-photography-exhibition-arles (accessed 2nd November 2019)
O’Hagan, S. (2014) The world’s weirdest photo albums. The Observer, 20th March 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/30/the-worlds-weirdest-photo-albums (accessed 2nd November 2019)
O’ Hagan, S. (2016) Erik Kessels: ‘All the great photographs have already been taken.’ The Guardian, 15th April 2016. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/apr/15/erik-kessels-unfinished-father-deutsche-borse-photography-prize (accessed 2nd November 2019)
Parsons, E. (2019) Erik Kessels’ found photographs hint of jealousy, love and intrigue. Wallpaper*. Available at: https://www.wallpaper.com/art/erik-kessels-found-photographs-in-almost-every-picture (accessed 24th October 2019)
Pett, S. (2015) Mois de la Photo: making sense of the photograph in the web era. The Guardian, 15th September 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/15/mois-de-la-photo-making-sense-photography (accessed 2nd November 2019)
Photoworks (2006) Erik Kessels. Photoworks website. Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/erik-kessels/ (accessed 2nd November 2019)