Tom Callemin: It's all theatre

Portrait #5-1, 2016 © Tom Callemin

Belgian photographer Tom Callemin is most known for his hyperreal scenarios in black-and-white. His working methods are lengthy, laborious and complex. Here is a sneak preview of some of his newest, never-before-seen work, which will premier in Amsterdam in February 2017, alongside a conversation between the artist and Foam curator Hinde Haest. 

Hinde Haest: A lot is happening professionally for you at the moment, could you give us a brief update?

Tom Callemin: I’ve just returned from a short trip to Rome, and next week, a group exhibition around the theme Black has just opened in Kranenburgh, Bergen (NL), which features my work alongside Awoiska van der Molen and others. In February, a solo exhibition of the series Index will open in the Brakke Grond in Amsterdam and I’m working on a solo show for tegenboschvanvreden. Apart from all that, I'm making time to isolate myself in order to work.

River, 2016 © Tom Callemin 

Can you give us a sneak preview of your new work? Is it an extension of your series Index, which has been running for years now? How does the new series relate to your previous work?

Index is the result of more than four years of work, which I compounded without a premeditated idea of how the series would look. It came into being very organically, whereas I currently work from a preconceived theme and number of around ten to twelve images. Up until recently, the atmosphere in my exhibitions was relatively clinical. My recent work in colour make the whole much more playful and lively. What remains unchanged is my fascination with capturing a fleeting moment. How to cut off tiny slices of time through photography.

"I'm looking for a meaningful moment
inside a story or situation."

This is a recurrent theme in your work, but your methodology is very versatile. How did you go about making this new series?

I’m always searching for ways in which the photograph can visualise what remains invisible to the naked eye. I then attempt to reconstruct this moment in my studio. For the new series I invited a model to come into my studio and take the same picture every day for thirty days. The resulting images visualise something you can’t see in a single picture. A similar thought was behind another work: I built a sensor that triggered my camera automatically at the exact moment an object or person appears in front of it, in order to catch a moment that is normally impossible to capture. That’s the starting point: to search for something between layers of time.

Freefall, 2016 © Tom Callemin 

Your way of working is both intuitive and calculated. You’re searching for a defining moment, but the translation into imagery only really starts after you’ve found it. How do you translate your thoughts into pictures?

I’m always collecting images and stories. I only start taking photographs after three or four months, after compiling a great many images and sketching up my ideal photograph based on all of these different pictures. Every image is preceded by a lot of preparation, but that does not mean I work towards a preconceived narrative. Rather, I am looking for a meaningful moment inside a story or situation that goes beyond the anecdotal.

"I like the idea
of creating infinity."

For this method, the studio seems the most convenient workplace. But instead, you appear to have photographed Index outside: we see traces of a grassy field in the darkness.

To get that effect, I actually dumped earth on the floor of my studio. The backdrops are derivative of the black box in theatre photography, which is used to create a visual infinity. I built a stage with a decorum in my studio. I like the idea of creating infinity in a small space.

Hole, 2015 © Tom Callemin

Even the image of the hole in the earth was created inside the studio?

For that photograph, I dug four different pits in the ground at the harbour, after having built a plaster model first. There I was, looking for the perfect pit in the middle of the night. It’s all make-believe. It’s all theatre.

The method you describe is vastly different from your previous work, which was very much concerned with chance and unguarded moments. You photographed Portrait #1  in total darkness, whereby the photographer and model remained invisible to one another until the flash went off. For Portrait #2, you photographed performers in the hope that they would get lost in the moment, oblivious to the camera. Index, by contrast, is decisively directed. How do you reconcile these two methodological opposites?

Both methods serve to create a perfect image. There are two ways to realise this: either by taking full control through staging, or by undermining people by shaking them out of their comfort zone, which makes them let go of their pose.

You often use a bright flash, which isolates the subject from its surroundings. Is that one method of eliciting an unguarded moment?

For Portrait #4, I photographed the model with a flash every second for 10 minutes. You recognise a strong physical reaction to this way of being photographed; it’s exhausting. It’s almost a violent way of photographing, like an attack.

"My work is becoming
more and more Baroque."

For your early Portraits you photographed in colour, but for Index you chose to exclusively use black-and-white. In your latest work, you use both. What makes you oscillate between the two?

When I work in colour, I’m showing the psychology of the subject. If I work in black-and-white, I am primarily concerned with the subject’s body as a formal element. Black-and-white is less realistic, more symbolic, whereas colour references reality more directly. When I photograph a person, I work in colour; when I photograph a persona, I work in black-and-white.

Examination, 2015 (L) - Model III, 2016 (R) © Tom Callemin 

For the feature Inspired By... on Spotlight, you wrote about how the masterful depiction of skin colour by the painter Anthony van Dyck influences your work. Another characteristic of the Flemish Primitives is the razor-sharp depiction of something romantic and mystical. I recognize that dynamic in your work as well. Typically Flemish?

Looking at a Flemish Primitive, you almost feel guilty for watching the beauty of another person’s suffering. I just returned from Rome and realised there that my work is becoming more and more Baroque. I search for a frozen moment in mid-action. Before, I was looking for the contemplative moment: a hidden romanticism or magic. Technical perfection and aesthetics can be used to seduce people, which makes a beautiful but uncomfortable subject cut even deeper. I like to use this sharp edge of aesthetics.

About Tom Callemin

Tom Callemin (Oostende, 1991) graduated from KASK Gent in 2016. His work was shown at BredaPhoto and the FoMu in Antwerp, among others. He published the books Tom Callemin (Ape#41) and The Uneasy Realization of a Coincidence (2016) with Art Paper Editions. Tom Callemin lives in Ghent and is represented by gallery tegenboschvanvreden (Amsterdam) and Gallery Zink (Berlin).

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