Interview | Sherif Elhage

Die Geschichte von Sherif Elhage ist ein wenig kompliziert: Geboren in St. Petersburg, wächst er als Kind einer russisch-estnischen Mutter und eines libanesischen Vaters in Beirut auf. Irgendwann verschlägt es ihn dann nach Frankreich, wo es eher zufällig zu einer ersten Konfrontation mit dem Thema Fotografie kommt. Schuld daran ist nämlich die Vergesslichkeit eines flüchtigen Bekannten, die ihm einige unverhoffte Stunden mit dessen Kamera beschert. Umringt von Fotografiebänden findet er sich nur wenige Zeit später in einer Bibliothek wieder und lässt sich von M.C. Escher und Harry Callahan inspirieren. Ehe er sich versieht, experimentiert auch er mit Formgebung, Licht und Schatten - Erste Ausstellungen folgen dann fast schneller, als ihm lieb ist.

Heute hat er seine eigene, etwas eigenwillige und deshalb umso interessantere Ausdruckssprache gefunden. Er ist zu einem Verfechter von etwas geworden, das man als innovativen Minimalismus bezeichnen kann. Transzendentale Erklärungswut ist ihm fremd; genauso wie Kunst, die sich monologisch selbst zu definieren versucht. Auf die Frage, was genau er damit meint, wenn er sagt, seine Bilder besäßen keine übersinnliche Bedeutung, antwortet er deshalb nicht ohne Grund ein wenig wortkarg, jede weitere Erläuterung dieser Aussage sei überflüssig. Das ist logisch. Und konsequent. Denn: Er möchte keine Begrifflichkeiten oder Intentionen hinterfragen, um den Blick auf das Wesentliche zu schärfen. Wesentlich ist für ihn wiederum einzig das Bildmotiv, reduziert auf dessen Kerncharakteristik - Ohne digitale Nachbearbeitung, befreit von künstlich-emotionaler Aufladung. Das Bild ist für ihn also ein Abbild dessen, was es zeigt. Nicht mehr. Aber vor allem auch: Nicht weniger.

Was bleibt dann noch thematisch, wenn man nicht über fotografische Inhalte und Bildintention reden kann? Genau: Die Person dahinter, deren Arbeitsweise und Geschichte. Und da das doch mindestens genauso spannend ist, reden wir doch einfach darüber. Auch gut. Oder vielleicht sogar noch ein bisschen besser.

You have been doing photography for 5 years now. What made you realize you wanted to become a photographer? Was there a crucial moment or a situation?
I’ve realized that I’ve always been a photographer but that I hadn’t come to grips with it. I’ve always been interested in the visual arts, I’ve always been curious and a bit voyeuristic, it’s a combination of things… The key moment was when I picked up a camera someone left at my place.

How come you don’t digitally tweak your pictures? Was that ever an option for you?
I like things that are straight and simple, I don’t see the interests of transforming or composing an entire photograph on a computer when you’re supposed to be a photographer. Slightly retouching certain tones or contrasts is ok, but nothing else is necessary… On the other hand I have a lot of respect for digital art but that’s an entirely different story.


You experiment a lot with long exposure shots, especially noticeable in your “Light on Water Series”. You took a series of boats moving through water by night. The result of the long exposure effect is pretty surprising here: The sense of motion is so far removed that it feels like we are looking at some unknown object. Are there pictures that surprise even you in the way they actually turn out?
Yes and No. Very often I do have a notion of what the photograph will look like, but there’s also moments when I’m surprised. Concerning light on water: That was an idea which I had four years ago. I wrote down the idea and drew what I thought it would look like - I always keep my notebook with me. When I took the photographs three years later it was actually even better than what I had originally envisioned. If you have an idea you never know how it’ll turn out.

Also, your recent series called “White” seems as if it had been edited in photoshop at first glance. But the result is actually caused by total overexposition. How come you always discover those optical trickeries?
This is photography as I love it. I like to try new things, new experiences, and to view things as if it was the first time. In terms of photography, I believe the possibilities are infinite, and I love that. I’m under the impression that I’ve only shot about one percent of the ideas that are running through my mind. And I can only hope that the best is yet to come.

So how big is the influence of coincidence on your work then?
Coincidence is undoubtedly part of my work. It’s quite an influence. But I have to say I am influenced by literally everything.

Speaking of influences: You also list Harry Callahan as one of your main influencers. His works show a strong sense of line and form, and light and darkness at the same time. I think this is also recognizable in your work. What do you find most inspiring about him?
First of all thank you, I’m flattered. Harry is an exceptional photographer and is autodidactic just like me. He took pictures of the things he loved throughout his entire life, simple things, things he experienced in his everyday life - banalities. But the end result is extraordinary. Other photographers take pictures of extraordinary things and the result is a banality. I especially enjoy the elegance and the creativity behind his work, he developed a lot of new ideas, and conducted a lot of experiments. He photographed photography. I recently went to his show in Paris at the HCB foundation, it was the first time I saw his photographs in the flesh. I own his books but this was different. Each photo brought a huge smile to my face as if I was setting my eyes on his work for the first time, despite the fact that I know his work by heart. Harry makes you a better person.

Do you think it’s an advantage to be autodidact in the sense that you have more artistic space with only very limited influence of academic guidelines?
Yes completely! I have never wished not to be autodidactic.

Where do you usually take your pictures? And what makes you choose the landscapes and spots that you take pictures of?
It can truly be anywhere. Just as long as the idea is appealing to me, I never really know the way things will turn out. All I know is I really have an urge to try.

How does working during the day time differ from working at night? What do you prefer? Why?
It’s very different but I really need to do both. Honestly it’s like asking a child if they prefer their mother or their father. It’ll say both. But there’s an idea lingering in the back of the child’s mind that it’ll never share with you.

Last question: Could you define your work in three words?
I’d say: Sincere. Passionate. Obvious.

All images © Sherif Elhage