Interview by Bennet Togler (Amsterdam, Issue 02/2006)
An underground icon since the early 80s, Miron Zownir has gained the reputation of being one of the most uncompromising contemporary photographers. Zownir's stark existentialistic b/w photography focuses mainly on people in subcultural environments; his subject is the outsider, the invidualist by choice or ill fate. His often obscure and shadowy photos present the viewer with intensely disturbing and indiscrete images of lust, obsession, insanity, fear, death, loneliness, violence and pride on the rims of society. Although in part of an undeniable documentary value, Zownir's photographic work has an ultimately ambiguous air, which defies easy categorization. His imagery leaves the spectator with a hard-to-grab sense of disorientation and mystery, creating questions rather than providing with answers and clear information. Legendary screen-author and notorious ultra-hipster Terry Southern thus once labeled Zownir 'The Poet Of Radical Photography'. Zownir's painfully raw and candid view of life and death on skid row frequently crosses the common borders of decency and good taste, and appears to violate even the art establishment's extended asthetic and ethical standards. So censorship in various forms has been a frequent companion of Zownir's career as a photographer; and consequently the countless odd jobs of his life generally provided him with a steadier income than an artistic body of work which has barely ever paid the bills, yet is considered groundbreaking by many. Miron Zownir was born in 1953 in Karlsruhe, Germany. He moved to West-Berlin in his early twenties, and then lived in London during the heyday of the punk movement, before expatriating in 1981 to the United States, where he stayed for almost one and a half decades, living in the cities of New York, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. Since 1995 he works and lives in Berlin as a photographer, filmmaker and author of crime novels. As a filmmaker Zownir has since 1986 written and directed ten short films, collaborating with the likes of Alexandre Rockwell, Ryu Murakami and Chosei Funahara; and one feature-length documentary, which was shown at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival, among others. He has repeatedly worked as a lecturer at the dffb, the German Film and Television Academy. A retrospective of his short film works in Frankfurt, Germany, is currently in preparation, while a feature film script of his, which he is also to direct, is in the process of financing. As an author of crime fiction he has published his first novel in 2003, with two more in line, and recently finished his fourth. Zownir's photographic work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in several countries from 1981 on. His first photo book, Radical Eye, was published in 1997. He currently works on material for a new photo book.
BT: How did you break into photography?
MZ: Okay... my early fascination was literature and film; and I believe there is an affinity between photography and film and also literature. Photography, though, offering the easiest initial access. I got rejected in several filmschools, and I wasn't ready to write yet, so I took up photography. Initially as a compensation, maybe, but it wasn't a conscious decision then. – I wasn't saying: Okay, I'll do something else. But my girlfriend at the time was a student of photography in Berlin; and she had a camera: making still-lifes, one boring sujet after the other. So I borrowed her camera and just began taking my own photos. But the whole thing really got started when I moved to London in '78. I went there to get clearer about my artistic orientation, living extremely isolated, alone, without any contact to people; except through photography: certain people caught my attention, and I was selecting them, sometimes following them around for an incredibly long time, like a stalker, more or less, waiting for the right moment to photograph them. That's how I got involved.
BT: Were others photographers an influence to you? What sort of photos did you notice or were attracted to back then?
MZ: As a kid I was living with my grandparents. And they had subscribed to most of the popular magazines that were around then in Germany. These magazine pictorials definetely fascinated me, because they were an opening to the world. Naturally, it wasn't about who took the picture then, but what was there to see and the effect it had on me; the photographers stayed anomynous to me. Later, when my interest for photography became more concrete, the photographers that impressed me most were probably Weegee, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.
BT: So that was tabloid-stuff mainly, the early images?
MZ: Tabloid, sure.
BT: Why did you decide to only shoot in black and white?
MZ: Well, I still believe that b/w allows for more mystique... especially in photography, which is a very explicit and indiscrete medium. Because of that I like working with layers of shadow in my pictures; in a way it's a photography of shadows. I'm generally after a certain magic and mystique in the images, which fascinates me a lot more than the obvious foreground action. Just lately I photographed a gangbang, and I've just been looking at the contacts. Since my method is so intuitive, I am as surprised as anyone concerning the actual results of shooting. So the enstrangement of these women – two women and twenty guys -, in this jungle of cocks and legs... the loneliness, the air of being lost in between... I mean, I've seen this in colour, live, and it all seemed plain repulsive and sort of fuggy. Whereas on the photos, there is this sense of being lost, of Verlorenheit; ...something that goes much deeper, although the image is much more abstract. I believe that is what sticks after all, and I'm still fascinated by that. If it would be all clear and definite already at the actual moment of shooting, beyond any doubt..., I don't think I'd have bothered to get into photography head-on again as I have.
BT: You mean, your photos make things ,or aspects, visable that weren't as clearly visable in the actual situation?
MZ: Well, they were visable, obviously; since I can photograph it. But I think perhaps the photos do create an altered perception of the depicted situation. Making elements visable, hopefully, that one doesn't see right away... certain archetypes of angst and fascination, things like that. Fixing stuff that gets easliy lost in the natural movement of things. And i think in that respect, photography might be the strongest of all mediums.
I keep looking at contacts, going: wow! - it's right then that the second of shooting becomes eternity. (laughs)
BT: Your photos often appear to be documentary at first glimpse... but you don't see yourself as a documentarist?
MZ: Mainly not, although there certainly is a documentary quality about my photos, a degree of authenticity. But I'm not interested in a detailed, documentary disclosure of things, but I rather try to sustain a certain magic, I think that shooting in b/w is a stylistic device in that respect.
BT: Many of your photos are obviously snapshots. Some others leave it open to the viewer whether they are staged or not.
MZ: I never pre-arranged anything. But whenever a talk, or some sort of verbal intervention, allowed for a better photo, or a better access in any way – I made use of it, of course. I never categorized myself as somebody who was into a pure documentary image. I feel, if you provoke a lion, and he attacks you: that's just as authentic, as if you photograph that lion chasing after a hyena. Because, those are still real emotions. The inconspicuous guy who shows up out of nowwhere, takes a photo and disappears again... that was never an option for me, it just doesn't work. I've always been too present for that, and people reacted to that presence, in different ways... and naturally I used that presence, too, as another stylistic device. So, each of my photos clearly has it's own story.
BT: This preoccupation with the bizarre and obscure, with extreme individualism, where does that stem from?
MZ: Out of my own fascination. I am completely and radically devoted to what fascinates and interests me personally; things that I really want to get into, because they are mysterious to me, uncertain. I fully rely on my intuition. I care about my own curiosity, a possible return of impulses... a sense of atmosphere rather than answers. In this thing, I knew I'd never reach a degree of saturation, when I'd say: now i've seen it all. You can never see it all. You know, Dante's Inferno, here and now; that'll always be there; while very few people dare the approach, or if they do, they have rather superficial objectives about it. For me it's a radically subjective matter. I also have no mission to elucidate or inform, I don't have a mission at all. I never put up theories as to what attracts public attention, or asked myself, which photo gets me where?
I always have an individual approach: a person interests me – perhaps for their expression, their behaviour, or their special situation... so I try to get involved. And then it's up to that person how close an approach they're willing to permit; they must also know, when I fotograph them, it's a relation that exhausts itself in photography.
BT: The milieus you show in your photographs, did you specifically search for them?
MZ: Yes, I was consciously looking for certain environments, and when I found one I lingered around. For example the Fuckpiers in New York... I would keep showing up there, and people got know me, accepted me or not. I had to recognize individual preferences, confront people. Or in Moscow, same thing: I kept hanging around the train-stations, because I knew things were happening there. That's why I reached a certain depth; because I didn't just take some snapshot, and then be off to the next corner, maybe having to wait for a week, till something interesting would come up again. I was looking for places, and when I found one, I stayed on. I become a part of it, in a way.
BT: You usually shoot at very close range, and also in rather precarious or intimate situations. I imagine that people didn't always approve of you photographing them. Did you sometimes ask for permission before taking a photo?
MZ: Exhibitionists, and people that didn't have any moral reservations, they didn't care; but many others cared, of course. Being photographed wasn't allright with them at all. The range of what happened was wide: brawls, verbal attacks, threats of all kind. I mean, I had to fight for a photo sometimes, or fight for not getting the film taken away from me; or I got welcomed with open arms. Naturally, having to fist-fight for each photo wasn't in my interest. Still, if you see someone having fellatio, or some other sort of sexual intercourse... well, you simply don't ask: oh, excuse me, Sir, do you mind? – you just shoot. Generally, this asking-for-permission interrupts a certain authenticity. I've done it in some situations, but it changes things, and usually these photos didn't turn out well; or if they did, there was a whole new development of the initial situation after I was given this permission, thus leading to a photo that had an authentic quality again. But this: excuse me, can I take a photo of you? – and click, and off again... well, in my experience, that will rarely be a good photo.
I know, my work is extremely indiscrete. The entire thing was, and still is often, utterly embarrassing and awkward for me. Really the only way to remove or break down your own inhibitions for that matter, is to pull on the medium over yourself; saying, the camera is my cover, my safeguard; and my task is to shoot here. You need some sort of justification. I would say, I'm a rather gentle and obliging person normally, but the medium doesn't allow that. I mean, if you are too polite, certain things simply stay out of reach. And naturally there is that contradiction in my personality, really having to go too far at times in order to find good photos. The sphere of indiscretion is crossed very, very quickly.
BT: What is your criteria in selecting the photos? How do you know: this is a good photo...
MZ: Very subjective, very much out of the belly; an intuitive choice. I have no standards or pre-set expectations. And obviously I don't produce my photography for a market, in order to sell the pictures well; I never worked commercially, so I don't ponder about what other people might think is a good photo. I'm radically subjective in that respect. I couldn't even tell you exactly what I consider a good or a bad picture. The right photo is the one that I find most fascinating, this is the only criteria I apply.
BT: In the past couple of years you devoted yourself mainly to filmmaking and writing crime novels. Recently you've taken up photography again; can you tell me what you're working on at the moment?
MZ: Right now I'm photographing during and around the shooting of a porno-production; I'm not employed there, they just let me go along, and I am basically free to shoot what I want. It started with machine-sex, then s/m, gangbang, next is fetish... the whole range. After that I plan to fotograph illegal dog-fights in Berlin, pitbulls fighting for life or death; as well as ultra-illegal bare-knuckle-fights between two men, that take place in the very same pit. It's all very secluded and tough, I hope it works out.
My current goal is getting enough material together, till the end of the year, for a second book; which will hopefully level with my previous book, Radical Eye... that is a high standard to meet