Henri Blommers was the 2022 Denis Roussel Award Winner. “Your work is quite wonderful and as anyone deeply connected to nature knows, there are no straight lines and it is the flaws that are beautiful and special. The fake truths that you write about are the real aberrations and have nothing to do with any nature other than the darker human ones. Your incorporation of the poisons of commerce, e.g., weed-killer, pesticides, and invasive plant species as materials in your work is brilliant (please wear gloves and a mask) and is intimately married to both your concept and study practice and workflow. I love this work.”
Would you please tell us about yourself?
I am a visual artist living in Amsterdam, started to photography as a young boy with an old camera of my grandfather but coming out of a working class family was not really introduced to art and never realized that other images were made by photographers. I just saw them as existing and never thought of the thought process behind it. That kicked in only a decade later. I started to photograph more during military service but only attended an academy in my late 30’s.
Since 2010 trying to make a living out of photography but my divorce in 2017 and being homeless ever since. This was especially hard during the corona period where I stayed in my garden house which is fine in summer but tough in winter and going from house to house which caused some mental issues as both income and housing where unstable. However, it also made me look very closely at everything very close in my surroundings, which also changed my photography process by developing myself and working more on the negative itself.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
So many artists have had an influence. Painters and other makers, musicians, but also my teachers and even people and things that don’t know that they had an impact, like patterns in the house of my great grandparents which was very run down. In the end, if I look back over the past years, I think that Stephen Gill had a great influence. He made me aware that the process is just as important as the end-result. And for me that changed the way I work and to make my work more genuine instead of trying to only work towards a result that works for the viewer. My escapism in esthetics I will never loose (I tried but couldn’t) and my mother who became blind around the time of my graduation, who really made me investigate my own gaze, my arrogance on just assumed healthy viewing of the world, pushed boundaries on color as well.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has inspired you.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits (like self-portrait with whip) have inspired a lot. It is the separation of yourself of your photographic language and the interpretation of the audience and the vulnerability as an artist. Push the boundaries as much as possible as a maker, even if you are the only one that likes it. The courage that he showed in these images (but also artists like Nan Goldin, Tracy Emin) remains an inspiration today to be so courageous. His sexuality playing with his feminine side and his queer identity, keep astounding me. Something I should definitely try more myself but I am too afraid to do so.
Is there an image that you wish you would have taken and can you still see it?
Is it something iconic that I choose? Something that changed women’s rights, or that symbolizes the BLM-movement, queer activism, the amount of destruction of our economic greed and self-centered world view. And then would I have wished to have that image taken?
In the end I think I would choose something completely different and that is the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, a woman as a photographer working with sea weeds. The slowness of the process, the precision of how she planted the material. But there is one other side to that choice as well. Anna Atkins coming from a privileged background is also my worry for present photography where I see not enough representation from working class and native/local makers because they do not have the luxury of even thinking of photography when you are in a survival mode. My worry is that the narrative we see in the news is mostly created from well developed people. Still too many people travel to Africa to make imagery over there instead of working on creating a local view made by local people themselves. I see this slowly changing and I hope that makers are paid better in the future and that the race to the bottom is stopped and that photography and the resulting canon of images is not only built by rich and privileged makers.
How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?
Looking around in my surroundings and the news is already enough. Sometimes you are stuck but just doing is the best thing you can do and to keep it simple, just a glass of hot tea on a table with the right light is already a start. I tend to look at very big themes and that is sometimes also very overwhelming. How to visualize the climate crisis or sea level rise or the devastating impact of neoliberalism or the alternative truth/lying impact? So sometimes when I don’t know how to continue, I just start doing or reflect what I see in my direct surroundings that is linked to it
What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding?
First of all just the photographing. Photography consists of 80% marketing, promoting, networking, organizing, contemplating and of the remaining 20% is in my practice around creating and of that it is 5% using my camera. When I feel stuck or anxious it is also mostly because I have been too busy with the side stuff, too much time behind a computer, writing texts or creating IG-posts, then I always realise that I have to just walk around and photograph and just look and forget the strategy behind my practice and just do and create. That is most rewarding, but also developing and in my process when adding materials in the development process. Also the scanning can be very rewarding because then you know whether the experiment succeeded.
Please tell us about your process and the work you submitted to the Denis Roussel Award.
I chose a series of images that try to show the impact of climate change both as an image and as well on the image carrier/the film, itself. I made images of plants, and landscapes in Switzerland during a residency while investigating the severity of the loss of biodiversity in cooperation with local forestry, local water managers, farmers, and locals that are trying different ways of growing crops. I took water samples and boiled my film together with botanical ingredients like invasive species like Japanese knotweed or with plants like nettles that overtake more and more other species because they thrive on increased carbon dioxide levels. Some of the concoctions I made contains also pesticides and fertilizers. With others I used Round-Up but also the chemicals I use like anti-icing spray for your car, or ecological weed remover directly on the negatives because I am just as much a part of the problem as well.
Also I used salt and salt seawater to make two of images that I included about sealevel rise (number 1 and image number 7). That last image is my daughter, coming from a series of 8
children that I photographed in different areas about the impact of sealevel rise in their area, their connection with water and their potential solutions. We leave out a lot of brain power by not considering their creativity although it is their future. My daughter decided for that last picture to drink a glass of water because for her water is life.
What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?
Essential, I am not sure. The fact that I develop my own film and can add different ingredients to the negative as a canvas is very important in my current work.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
So many techniques that I don’t know yet and I really hope there are more environmental friendly solutions for printing that are coming close to a printer from a depth in color perspective. I have considered to drop color from my work and work more with the limited range of colours due to coffee-based or herbs based developers. If possible I really would like to have in the future the option to print from my garden, use materials from my garden, only use washi-paper like films etc. So much still to discover and to work on.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
I have to be careful, my photography is therapy on one hand but it also mentally tough. I have to convince myself that it is actually also like finding an outlet for my frustrations with the world. So it is a fine line and sometimes I make escapistic but simple yet colorly disformed images of plants around me, to counterbalance the heavy subjects that I sometimes choose (@gardenofhenri and also my corona survival project). So on one hand I work on my world view that can be quite heavy but also only hope and love can keep you going and of course action. Action inspires and even without result, it is only for that mirror in the morning. You tried and you failed but you did it.
To learn more about the work of Henri Blommers please visit his site by clicking on his name.