Interview by Devon Caranicas in Berlin; Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011
After a year-long Fulbright placement in Los Angeles in 2005/06, Berlin based artist Mirko Martin has continually used the West Coast hub as the subject for his artistic practice. Inspired by Downtown’s urban grit punctuated with glossy Hollywood films sets, Mirko photographs and groups his images to blur the line between reality and fiction. I sat down with the artist over coffee last week to discuss the series L.A. Crash, which is now on view at C/O Berlin through December 4th.
DEVON CARANICAS: Why did you choose Los Angeles for your Fulbright placement?
MIRKO MARTIN: I have always been interested in sociological and psychological themes, especially in the subject of self-perception versus external perception. In Los Angeles, as it’s a place where image creation is a constant topic, I was curious to see how the fictions created by the film industry would inform everyday city life and vice versa.
In the L.A. Crash series, you mix authentic street photographs with motifs from film productions. When did the fictional movie sets enter the project?
Right at the beginning. Hollywood uses downtown L.A. as a backdrop a lot, because it’s one of the few urban-looking areas in L.A. Initially I took tourist souvenir photos but looking at the pictures later on, I thought it might be interesting to photograph the scenes in such a way that the viewer can’t tell that they were taken on movie sets. After spending more time downtown I realized that some of the staged scenes were actually mirrored by real-life incidents there. That was bizarre. So I took pictures of them too, and that’s how the project developed into this kind of charade between reality and fiction. Addressing the line between the two seemed very fitting in L.A.
Los Angeles has so much stereotypical content in terms of excess, wealth and the American dream but you chose to focus on this impoverished, minority based, Downtown view. I’m wondering why you chose to expose this specific part of L.A. culture. What drew you to those characters? Is there a political message involved?
Downtown L.A. is one of the most fascinating places I have ever seen. There’s so much condensed in this area. I do want to convey a certain amount of hardship and rawness that I observe there, but what really draws me in is not a moral impulse but curiosity. Downtown is like a parallel world. You come across unique rules of communication, and everyday situations are more intense, absurd and of course sometimes more shocking than one is used to in our cultural context.
And the bright sun illuminates every little detail. The light is important to me because it almost creates an overabundance of visibility. Everything is exposed, every greasy sidewalk, rundown storefront, dubious gesture. Many of the problems of our society that usually remain rather hidden are visible there in plain sight. At times it appears almost too evident to be believable, like an exaggerated reality. That’s probably what triggers my cinematic memories, too.
So you see a connection to the movies even in the Skid Row area?
You mentioned the stereotypes. In how many movies have you seen big-city streets depicted as a dark underworld full of crime, poverty and corruption? With homeless hordes stumbling out of sinister-looking alleys? You think you already know what to expect before you actually get there. The streets often looked strangely familiar to me because I knew their aesthetics from films. In my photos, I’m playing with those stereotypes, but I want to complicate matters. I try to challenge the expectations that a viewer might have when looking at images from a particular milieu.
From a technical standpoint, how much manipulation is involved? Do you use external light or post-production work?
I don’t use any extra lighting. I do use Photoshop but I keep it to a minimum. I work with a small format camera in order to maintain a low profile. In the case of very detailed motifs the camera might not have sufficient resolution to portray all the details of a scene satisfyingly. Then my trick is that I’ll zoom in a little more and take, let’s say 4 or 6 pictures, and stitch them together later on. It’s basically a simulation of a large format camera, in order to have a bigger print made. However, I’m cautious not do overdo post-production work because my project involves different layers of artificiality already.
The quality of light is really beautiful in so many of the shots. A mix of ambient and artificial.
The light just never becomes boring in LA. I like all kinds of light sources there, also the artificial ones. Diffuse mornings usually make way for harsh daylight—and then the sunsets, oh my God. Even after having spent quite some time in the city it’s still like I don’t want to miss a single one when I’m there. It’s a great inspiration. Sometimes it feels like I’m taking all those pictures just in order to capture the light.
See more of Mirko Martin’s work:
Devon Caranicas is an artist living and working in Berlin.