Since the mid-1990s, Jan Michalko has been documenting Eastern Europe, tracking its transition from the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc to its complicated and uneasy absorption into the European Union. With a street style reminiscent of Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Tod Papageorge, and a documentary approach in dialogue with the French collective Tendance Floue, Michalko situates his photographic practice at the interface of the quotidian and the spectacular. Daily life and the transformation of its surfaces are central to the conceptualization of the images. Urban spaces appear often in processes of construction: upon the palimpsest of the former political orders, a veneer of neoliberal capital is steadily being spread. Here and there, magnificent façades have been erected, their scaffolding stands half-dismantled. Billboards get thrown up, pedestrian paths rerouted, fluorescent lights cast new shadows. Unrenovated islands appear, as sites where bodies gather in familiarity, or they are seemingly abandoned, left to be scavenged until their eventual upgrade. How the transformations effect the inhabitants of these spaces, how they alter the dynamics of their bodies, is implicit in Michalko’s images. Each image locates a certain unrehearsed Brechtian Gestus – the embodiment of an attitude, gestures that make visible aspects of one’s social relations – in the little theatres of the public.
I initially encountered Michalko’s work at his Berlin studio in 2004, not long after his first trip to Romania. I did not know it then but the moment marks a significant shift in his geographical attention. Having spent the previous eight years documenting the Eastern European nations that had recently been incorporated in the European Union, Michalko’s interests then shifted to Romania and its contested assimilation within the confines of the Union. The initial element of the photos from Romania that took hold of my attention was Michalko’s ability to slip within particular spaces and configurations of bodies and capture amid them some stunning symmetry. His compositions – their improvisational framing, the proximity to his subjects, the impression of immediacy, the peculiar perspectives, angles, the partially obscured bodies, his sense of light – intrigued me. I was curious to learn about his practice, how he used his camera, his way of being in the field.
In February, I returned to Michalko’s studio in Berlin’s Soldiner Kiez to discuss his photographic practice, recent images and travels, and the trajectory of his work in Romania and the surrounding regions.
Jan, first off, can you tell me what camera you are using in your photos from Romania? Looking through your images from before this time, I can see you always had a flash in hand. Your use of it is a kind of signature in the earlier pictures. In the photos from Romania, this is not the case. You use in some way the lighting from the situation you are in. Are you working with the same kind of camera?
I shot all the photos from Romania with a Leica M7. Before that, I had all kinds of cameras: Nikons, Minoltas, Canons. I was given the M7 by Leica to test out just before I went to Romania. It’s a small camera with small lenses and is very basic to shoot with: you can feel the way it operates, you know its timing, you can hear its shutter exactly. With other cameras I shoot in a more technical way and, yes, use all kinds of flashes. With the Leica I shoot more closely with my body and with a fixed wide-angle 28mm lens.
You’re shooting film?
Yes. I prefer film for the way I’m taking pictures there. If you photograph with film you don’t know what you have in the way that you do with digital. I don’t review the pictures while I’m there. I think, well, I’ve got some pictures and leave it at that.
When we first met in 2004 you had just returned from your first project in Romania. Since then, I believe you’ve returned several times. Can you say something about your relationship to Romania and why you’ve kept returning?
When the Eastern European countries I had been documenting the previous ten years – Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia – became members of the European Union, Romania became an “acceding” nation, meaning it was being considered as a candidate for inclusion within the Union. It sparked an economic boom. It was short-lived. The boom lasted about as long as it took to make the nation an official member of the EU in 2007. It seems as though the money to fund the boom was borrowed and the recession that hit many places a year or two later stopped the construction that was going on everywhere. Much of the development was bought up by the wealthiest within Romania or from the rest of Europe, and the nation itself went into great debt. During these years, you could see and feel what was happening. It was uncertain, unsettling. Swathes of the country’s landscape were undergoing fast changes.
Will you tell me something about your own movement across Romania? Again, looking through your photos from before these times, they’re not entirely set within urban spaces, but nearly so. There’s a different range of locations in the images from Romania, and the images of rural spaces are often a stark contrast to the urban ones.
I’ve been to Romania three times since the 2004 trip. And I’ll go again very soon. Each time I go, I go for five or more weeks, with very few things and travel in a basic way. I make no particular plans. I take my camera, loads of film and take off without thinking much about comfortable lodgings or conveniences. I walk around all of the day and make pictures and take the trains at night. This is something special about Romania, how extensive and inexpensive traveling by train is there. Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s leader from the mid-60s to 1989, was obsessed with building the country’s rail system. So, now it’s possible to jump on a train in the evening and it will go very slow all night. People come into your compartment with animals while you try to sleep a little and other people come right up and begin to talk to you and it could go on all night. Anything can happen. One thing about Romania, which feels different than, say, Albania, is that the people have a great temper, a great energy and they will confront you, come right up to you wherever you are and begin a conversation with you. Then, a few hours later, you might arrive at some place, at five in the morning when it’s still dark and, if it feels right, jump out and begin a day of making pictures.
How long will you stay in that place?
I might decide to stay there for the day or maybe two days or maybe two weeks.
Can you say something about the way you make pictures, in regard to what you look for and your approach? I understand that the projects you undertake or are commissioned to do are often based on documenting particular regions, from the French Caribbean to your work in China, as well as your recent images from Albania. But your work veers away from more traditional photojournalism. There’s a kind of speed and immediacy you can sense in the images, a casual precision.
In the end, it’s a traditional way of framing. I feel close to what Garry Winogrand says in a number of interviews. I think it’s not about going to some place and making a picture to show I’ve been here or there. Nobody needs that picture. It’s about how you move and play with lines, how you compose things in a frame. When you travel all night and get off the train at five in the morning and you try and get a coffee and something occurs – like this one in Oradea with the man and the soldier – you photograph it and then you keep moving.If you go and say, well, that’s an interesting picture, what technically should I include in it, then you’ve lost it. It’s more about waiting for moments to occur. Then you say: This is a nice situation, I will press the button. You don’t have to worry about being technical, but you do have to find a way in that moment to be precise. Then you move on.
But what does Winogrand say in his interviews?
He says that there is no narrative picture. He says that you can’t tell a story with pictures. You can only show how something looked with a camera.
I’ve always thought there was a strong affinity between your own work and Winogrand’s. What attracts you to his photography?
He’s just there. He can be very close. Then he’s moving, moving. He’s interested in space. He says each time he makes a picture that he’s stating problems in photography. He stands in front of figures and presses the button. It’s that simple.
Looking through your photos and seeing these rather ordinary gestures that partially obscure the subject or make strange some quotidian moment, there’s another Winogrand quote that comes to mind. In an interview, he says: “If I saw something in my viewfinder that looked familiar to me, I would do something to shake it up.”
Yes, I feel some closeness to this statement, but I veer a bit away from it or activate it in a particular way. With pictures, often at first I see a background, an atmosphere. I move into a space and feel as though something could occur there. I have in mind some thing but it is not clear, so I circle around in that space and attend to whatever it is that I feel could potentially take place. Then it happens: an entering, a turning to or a turning away, an alignment, a certain regard. There are photographers who go and shoot so much. They take ten or more pictures of the same frame. Look at my negatives and you will see that for each picture I take only one frame. I do not overshoot. A situation occurs and I make one picture.