‘Shoot first, think later.’
I met Olivier Richon, artist and professor of photography at the London Royal College of Art during his visit to Vienna, where he exhibited his photographs at Lust Gallery. We talked about his students, fine art photography and lessons he learned from Victor Burgin.
Kristina Kulakova: How did you become an artist?
Olivier Richon: It happened by chance (laughs). I was studying art history and French literature at Geneva University, but I found photography, which I had been doing since the age of 14, much more exiting. I had never thought of it as a profession, I just went into it.
When was it that you realized that you are an artist and not doing it as a hobby anymore?
With photography it is not very clear. The first pictures I took when I arrived in London were documentary photographs —together with my friend Karen Knorr I went to punk clubs and took pictures there. That is how I seriously got into photography, but I did not think I was an artist, I just thought documentary is quite cool.
Then I studied photography and one of my tutors was conceptual artist Victor Burgin. That changed my perspective a bit on what it is like to think about images, and gradually I started to think more like an artist.
I do not know, there is something very pleasurable about it. I remember doing photography when I was 15 and not doing my homework, having very bad marks at school because I was busy in the dark room. So I knew I was quite obsessed with it.
Working as an artist came much later, when I graduated.
I always liked art but I never felt comfortable with drawing or painting as a practice.
I did not feel comfortable with it. Watching a painting is fine, but not making it. There is something more satisfying for me with the photograph. Maybe it is due to the transformation it undergoes: I have always been amazed how a photograph does not look like the thing that is being photographed.
If you want a fancier explanation I could also say (but it seems a bit forced): the dominant use of photography is family photography. It is the reason why there is a camera in almost every household. I thought taking these small cameras and pointing it at something else, not people. It is much more interesting.
That brings me to my next question. Technology: now everyone has a camera in their phones. Does that have an impact on the number of students or people who want to become a photographer? How does it affect fine art photography?
That is true, that is a process of huge democratization. Having said that; a lot of pictures are not interesting as pictures. If you take them outside the context in which they have been taken for somebody in particular, they are not very interesting.
What change do you see in your students? Has the approach changed with the accessibility of photography? Or are the questions they ask more or less the same.
What has changed is the link between the still and the moving image. Quite a few of my students do things that are not film, nor is it photography. It is something in between: it has got duration and narration. That engagement with aspects of cinema and photography is strongly blurring the boundaries between the two.
I do not have many students who do works purely for the screen. If anything: quite a few are interested in getting more involved with making analog photographs (printing them, making them as objects). I would say they are interested not necessarily in traditional means but in a way to slow things down. Analog work is more thoughtful.
What is a no-go in your class for students?
It depends on people, but there are some things.
One is if students show me their work on screen, and I cannot really see it. I ask them to make prints, they resist a lot because it takes time. It is a form of laziness. They say: well, it is on the screen. The computer is my office or my studio.
But it is different on the screen.
Another no, if some people are not confident about their photography, so they try to complicate the photograph by turning it into an object or not a very good sculpture. That I find deeply irritating . Sometimes I feel some people want to give the status of more conventional art to the photography, like sculpture.
What is the lesson you have learned from your students?
What I have learned from the students is their response to other people’s work, things I have never thought of before. We do a lot of crits to articulate, verbalize and use language to account for what we see. It is an interesting process. Either it is terrible, because sometimes people give really stupid explanations for what they do or they are completely predictable.
The process of finding the level for the right discussion is quite difficult. Most people do not like to talk about their work. Or if they really do, everyone else is bored.
The image is silent and no one wants to disturb the silence in a way. But if you say nothing, it is not good either.
In your opinion should art speak for itself or should it be perceived together with a concept behind it?
I think the idea that one could just naturally responds to a visual stimulus is not right. It is an acquired process. One has to learn how to look. And it is done by the iterative, one has to repeat it. I do not think it is a natural thing: because it is visual, I just need my eyes. The eyes do not exist on their own. They are sort of connected to the person, culture etc. This question is interesting because you know it is at the root of modernism that one should be able just to see the work for what it is. It is actually quite difficult to do that. It is really a lot of work to perceive the work for what it is.
But that is a good thing.
In terms of a concept… for me a concept helps me to make a work, so you need an idea to build a work, but then you can throw it away.
The term “conceptual art” is very strange, I mean It is often art that is a constructed upon a concept, but the effect of the work is not to produce a concept. It is to produce pleasure; actually it is to produce an aesthetic experience.
Has your personal art practice changed when you became a professor?
I always felt quite comfortable in a teaching situation, I do not know why. So it has always been hand-in-hand maybe that is why I photograph books so often, because I read books, I might as well use them as a subject, they are my environment.
If one teaches art, one has to practice it and one has to know how to think as well.
Was there something you were told during your studies that had an impact on you?
I remember an anecdote from my teacher Victor Burgin, an artist and thinker known for his rigorous analytical and intellectual approach. But when it came to taking pictures or doing work his motto was: Shoot first, think later.
That stayed with me a bit. Which means, there is always a moment of intuition even if one is not the intuitive type. Or one can be intuitive with theory as well, the way one reads it.
Is there something you tell your students at the beginning of the course every year?
If people ask me what is the content of a course, I tell students that they are the content of the course. Their practice is. It is not the teacher who tells them what to do, it is what they create.
Who defines art history?
It is a mixture of influences. Of course, curators and museums would like to own the right to write history, but at the end of the day they are not; it is still the artists. Somebody has to do the work. And yet the work only gets value through the gaze of the audience.
Sometimes things take time and I believe history is constantly being rewritten.
It is not a very fixed paradigm when I think about art history.
If art stops bringing you money, would you still continue your practice?
I probably would, because I earn my living by teaching, more than by doing my art. Some art will remain, some form of it.
Photography does not reach the same numbers in value as sculpture or painting, so there is less of an obsession with value when we talk about photography. If I think of former students who did very well financially there are not as many as one thinks, but it does not mean that their work is always good either. Occasionally the work got worse in terms of criticality.
What is your advice to students on signing up with a commercial gallery?
Good galleries will wait. They will say: let us wait five years and see what this person does. Some give this advice to graduating students: do not rush, keep on working.
Olivier Richon was born in Lausanne in 1956. He studied at the Polytechnic of Central London and graduated with a BA (Hons) in Film and Photographic Arts in 1980 and a Masters of Philosophy in 1988. His work has been exhibited internationally since 1980 including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris; Museum Folkwang, Essen; the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; The National Gallery of New South Wales, Australia; and Tate Britain, London. He is currently professor of photography at the Royal College of Art, London.