Spanish born Javier Vallhonrat is a renowned name in photography having plied his trade for over thirty years. Lauded for his ‘distinctive eye’ the 67 year old is perhaps most well-known for his work in the fashion industry. Images of names like Milla Jovovich for Vogue and Tilda Swinton for Pomellato the tip of a who’s who list.
Here at #itchysilk however we were most interested in Javier Vallhonrat and his work away from the polished world of fashion. In this more profound (one can argue) and thought provoking world, Javier Vallhonrat talks with a quiet but intense passion about photography and its ability to capture the power of nature. In essence something more than “superficial beauty”.
Our lives are made up of moments that stay with us. Can you describe a moment that immediately comes to mind that helped to shape your interest in art?
Both my parents were sensitive to art, my father was very interested in different artistic disciplines: photography, cinema and painting. My mother loved painting and studied ceramics. There was a very open atmosphere towards artistic expression.
My father left home when I was quite young, but many of his photography books remained at home. I remember being very intrigued by these strange images and thinking that the reality that I perceived with my eyes and the mysterious reality created by these images was very different. At the age of 17, I started to meet some young painters and photographers that influenced my wish to go into fine arts.
You studied fine art and psychology-seemingly quite distinct. Talk to us about the interest in Gestalt Therapy and how it impacted the work you created.
Gestalt Therapy focuses on the process of perception. As a Gestalt therapist I am very interested in the phenomenology of the perceptive process, in its connections with the complexity of human experience, and the creative process. As artist, I was always very intrigued by the connections between internal experience-fantasies, obsessions, emotional experience, perceptive experience-and artistic expression. Years later (I was 50 years old) I decided to study psychology and Gestalt.
We read this from your bio-“Early in his photographic career, Vallhonrat developed his visual identity through the use of light as a form of photographic painting”. Can you explain this more as a technique and as a way of forming your visual identity?
In photography, more than in other visual media, light and shadow are as real as any other representations (people, nature, objects) visible in a photograph. The abstract and the representation of what we call “the real” share the exact same space. In the beginning of my work, I wanted to explore this border. To me photography is much more interesting in its borders, when it is contaminated by movie culture or painting. Photography shares many elements with other visual media; it is a complex, ambiguous media full of contradictions. This makes it a very interesting medium.
Has that visual identity changed from your fashion photographer?
Fashion photography was a way to apply photography in to a professional field. It was a way to live from photography. At the same time, Spain in the early 80’s was so interesting. Photographing its emerging fashion and music was a way to be part of my time. The editorial fashion industry was so full of restrictions: size, materials, art directors, commercial restrictions, the need of immediate impact, the superficial beauty. At times all that was a challenge. It was in fact a huge pressure. Subsequently my personal series and explorations was a place to express my other wishes in photography.
La sombra incisa, 2016-2019 is a telling project on the impact of climate change. Discuss this more in terms of your ideas.
La sombra incisa 2016-2019 is a more recent big project. I have been working in glacier surroundings for ten years now. My previous project Interacciones (2011-2015) started as an investigation of the first “portrait” of a glacier in the history of photography. It was a photo taken by Joseph Vigier in (1853) from the Maladeta glacier-quite close to my house.
I could see strong relations between Vigier’s photo of the glacier and the works of Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, something in between the experience of walking and the limits and possibilities of photographic language. I started to visit Maladeta Glacier regularly in the summer of 2015. The state of the ice was very shocking. It was decreasing in a dramatic way.
I decided to sleep by the edge of the ice during the month of August. It was a way to accompany this ancient creature, maybe in its last years of existence, a form of tribute to its greatness. I transformed my tent, first in a camera obscura and after in a photographic camera. It was a way to live in my camera.
Tell us more about that field notebook. Why did you decide to do it? We had ideas of you being like this Edmund Hillary type of person on an adventure.
Edmund Hillary did adventures of epic dimensions. My experiences are artistic, more conceptual and introspective than physical. Spending long periods of time by a glacier with heavy photo equipment is demanding. To me it was more about the internal experience of silence, extremely slow time, solitude and voluntary deprivation that was extremely intense.
Looking back over your career what work/s do you think came closest to your vision?
Looking back, Autograms (1991) it was like opening the door to concepts and images in a very direct, literal way. I created and worked on Autograms alone in the studio, with my eyes closed. I wanted to find an action (a physical action) involving time and light. Working with matches seemed to the way to create a photographic action. The camera registered the combustion in the dark studio and condensed an action of time and light. Concept and action being one single thing.
Lugares intermedios (1998) allowed me to explore the “construction of reality” working with scale models, to introduce model houses in manipulated terrains. The “transparency” of the works was an illusion to the supposed transparency of the media. It was a way to work with the culture: nature opposition and the predatory attitude of the technological society towards natural environments.
ETH (2000-2001) also explored the fine border of the real and the fake in the Swiss Graübunden. It’s a region in the Alps where in the 1890’s an ambitious railway project transforming the vision of nature as the most powerful force. Through the Raetian Railway Project, engineers, with the help of technology, acquired this titan like perception.
We have to ask: Is it possible for humans to live in harmony with nature. Is it innate to use until there is no more?
We have the capacity and the responsibility, as humans, to move towards a more conscious and respectful way to live. That means we must be more respectful with the living system that we are part of. The extreme consumerism of humanity is an immense challenge we face. Humans have always been somewhere in between the; animal and the spiritual, the generous and the selfish, the compassionate and evil, the profound and the superficial. I believe each of us has a responsibility to help the human species to grow in a positive and harmonious fashion with earth.