Laura Van Severen — Hermetic Worlds

interview by Dieter Debruyne, published in Urbanautica

Tell us about your approach to photography. How it all started? What are your memories of your first shots?

Laura Van Severen (LVS): On vacations I would often ask my dad for his camera and when I went on school trips my mother gave me an analogue point & shoot camera to take with me. I liked the freedom to shoot whatever I wanted but felt restricted by the 36 shots. In my teens I had saved up to buy a digital compact camera. I took pictures of all kinds of stuff, mainly because I enjoyed shooting and less because of a subject.

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

LVS: Before entering the academy I knew very little of photography, photographers or even about technique. Picasa en auto mode had been my best friends along with Tim Walker and other pretty pictures in fashion magazines. The following years were a rollercoaster ride for the mind. Art history, photo history, art theory and above all the (sometimes confronting) talks about my evolving work opened my eyes to numerous possibilities and ways of working. Now I have the feeling that maybe I have something pinned down. I guess that is something temporary though. Every step is a step to a new area of research.

What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social networking?

LVS: I think it has allowed me to evolve faster and to be more in control while conceiving pictures.

About your work now. How would you describe your personal research methods in general?

LVS: Usually my projects start with a choice in setting. This can vary from a geographical demarcation to a broader setting like city streets and interiors. Within this setting the act of walking or even wandering is key to create the first images. From there on I observe the pictures and the initial place over and over again, slightly adjusting my walks, my focus and my choices every time. You could say my research and process are entirely photographic and based on the images themselves rather than on a preconceived idea. While taking pictures I often try to get rid of the overall context of a situation, a moment, a place, … by using meticulous framing or by shooting unnoticed everyday actions. To me, the focus on composition, colour, patterns and lines are extremely important to construct a hermetic world that distinguishes itself from the context where it came from.

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format?

LVS: I think every project demands a specific approach. At the moment, I usually shoot with a digital dslr because I want to be in control from start to finish. For the projects I’ve been working on over the past years I wanted clean and clear pictures. The surface of the image needed to become invisible. I wanted the focus not to be directed on the image as something tangible but on what is visible in the image.

Tell us about your latest project.

LVS: My latest work originates from the brief memory of a landscape. It is a series of pictures that depicts the gaze on that very landscape. The landscape is a construction, or one could say, a destruction of what it once was or will be. In this work I transformed the landscape in a way of making images. As a result the images and the landscape seem to merge together in a new world.

For this particular series you began from from the point of time and memory. What are those memories and what did you think to find there? Is there anything left of those memories?

LVS: The memory is rather a glimpse of a place that was set in my head for several years already. A few times a year we (my parents, sister and dog) drive past this place on our way to family visits in Spain. It is a place I did not know nor that I had ever visited. I was intrigued by the way these villages glided past the car window against the backdrop of the steep mountains every time we drove by. Rather than expecting a certain kind of landscape I was expecting to find something that could trigger me as an image maker and that would lead me to new paths, new images and a new work. Through the process of making, the memories or emotions linked to this place, became almost irrelevant. The place is not referred to in the work, it becomes part of the whole because of its lack of references.

You say you work from image to image and it’s like stream of consciousness how your work develops. Do you use any restrictions for this method? Like a some kind of boundary for your walks?

LVS: Sometimes I feel like I could make, start or continue a work everywhere. What attracts me in photography is that rather than filling a blank space, I need to make choices out of what is already there. It’s a game of constant reframing. It enables me to connect or even merge several places, people, situations and meanings into one.

Some of your pictures seem like scale-models made in a studio. Is this rescaling of reality the concept or working method for you? Could this be a technique you use to deform reality?

LVS: When walking or driving through the mountains or other vast places, it is curious to see how the different layers of the landscape slide over each other continuously. While moving, the surrounding landscape is slowly shifting and concepts like distance, size and scale become relative. These overlaps demand my attention. On the other hand, I also try to achieve this effect where it is not present, on a smaller scale for example. The appearance or effect of shifting landscapes is turned into a technique or way of looking in other images I make. Not only while making but also by editing the images into sequences or combinations I try to play with this (mis)perception.

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, who influenced you in some way?

LVS: What really influenced me most are talks with teachers, friends and others. However, I do feel a certain kinship for the work and personality of Saul Leiter. Once in a while, I like to read the interview at the back of his book ‘Colors’. It tends to make me smile. At the very end, he says 'I laugh too much. It’s a minor fault.’ and I have this vision of an old man with 'an everlasting grin, who took pleasure in looking and saw the world simply and as a source of endless delight’ (in his own words). I’m also very much impressed by the Estonian cinematographer Veiko Õunpuu (and director of photography, Mart Taniel, who assisted Õunpuu in all of his movies and helped creating that unique visual identity). He tells the story of several, very different people and how they deal with the human condition and their struggle with existentialism.

Three books of photography that you recommend?

LVS: Robin Maddock’s 'III’ is a quite simple book. The work contains three elements that are repeated in the images. A white sheet of paper, a small white ball and spilled milk require the viewer’s focus in the contrasting black and white pictures. The work is oddly mesmerizing and demands for several readings even though there’s no real point to discover.

- Federico Clavarino’s 'Italia o Italia’.

- David Hornillos’ 'Mediodia’. What happens in front of the orange brick wall at noon is reassuringly strange and excitingly ordinary.

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?

LVS: Some months from now and thus after graduating, I’m planning to move to Catalunya, Spain for an unknown amount of time. I’ve spent many holidays there; in the Pyrenees, at the seaside and in between. To me, these are places of many things that I can’t describe. I’m always full of awe and in desire to depict these places and at the same time I’ve felt unable to do so, so far.