michel szulc krzyzanowski

 conceptual photography


(updated until March 2023)

“The link between camera and soul”

interview by Theo IJzermans.


In July 1989 Michel Szulc-Krzyzanowski had an interview with the psychologist/photographer Theo IJzermans (1944 - 2009)

Excerpts of this interview:

I was trained to become a photographer at the Kunstakademie in Breda, mainly under Hans Katan, and then at the Kunstakademie in ’s-Hertogenbosch under Wim Noordhoek. Noordhoek worked in the tradition of landscape photography. Once I’d graduated in 1970, twenty years old, I took this tradition further, I travelled, intending to photograph landscapes and do portraits of local people. All this time things were happening inside me. I was searching for my own identity and trying to absorb the experiences I had had before I was twenty. I was using photography as a therapeutic aid, though I wasn’t so aware of that then.

It wasn’t clear at first why I went to the island of Schiermonnikoog in 1971. I stayed there for weeks on end, going for endless long walks and taking lots of photographs. That was where I made my first sequence. I saw something far away on the horizon. I didn’t know what it was, but was curious enough to want to find out. I decided to record the slow process of discovering what the object was by taking a photograph every so many meters. That process of discovery is reconstructed when the photo series is shown in an exhibition or in a journal. I understood immediately after I made that first series that I’d trodden new ground in photography, and that there was a lot still to be explored. That was more or less the moment that I finally broke away from my academy training and the influence of my teachers. I continued to make sequences until 1984, exploring them further each time. I travelled for that purpose to places in Europe, North Africa, the United States and Mexico to find locations ideal for sequences.

Apart from the sequences I concentrated on documentary photography projects, as a counter-weight to the sequences to bring my work, and my mind, more into balance. Making the sequences was a lonely business; it was also a very specific photographic form. I saw myself being in danger of over-specializing. I didn’t want to go with my photography exclusively in one direction.

Because the sequences were successful almost immediately. They were first exhibited in 1972 in the Noord-Brabants Museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch. They sold well enough to give me financial independence.

However, because of the tremendous success I felt I was in danger of becoming isolated. The success of the sequences could end up limiting the way I functioned as a photographer. I believed then as now, that photographers are different from painters because our photographic technique opens the door to so many more possibilities. We can work much more socially. He or she can reflect opinions that lend themselves to photographs and perhaps play a leading and influential role in the social processes that are at work. I tried that too in my sequences. They’re about awareness and how to interpret reality, about how reality is related to oneself. It’s the reflection of a process of awareness which can be of value to the viewer.

In 1984 I decided to stop making sequences. Personally I couldn’t develop any further through them. The sequences allowed me to build up a strong inner foundation, a basis with which to confront now my fellow human beings.

One way of confronting people photographically is by making portraits. The work is very immediate, revealing and confrontational. Besides the portraits I also came to create and carry out photographic projects that started with the question: what’s going on inside people ? I’m constantly concerned with how to gain more insight into myself and others and how to communicate that insight as clearly as possible. One example is the “The most beautiful people in the Netherlands”-photoproject. I published an advertisement in newspapers: would those who think they are the most beautiful person in the world get in touch with me in order to be photographed at home. I chose twelve people at random from among the many, many answers I got. I visited those people, interviewed them and photographed them. In the portrait the person reveals his or her beauty; furthermore half the image is taken up by the interior of the subject’s room. Being beautiful turned out to mean different things to people. Some are concerned with their inner beauty, others with their outer appearance. Everyone shows that in their own way. This is an example of how photography can give insight into fellow human-beings. It has enriched me and can enrich those seeing the results of the project.

I started photographing when I was eight. That’s how I learned at an early age to let creativity flow and to put it in images. This has meant that photography is a deeply rooted and intrinsic part of myself. It is extraordinarily exciting to photograph creatively. Creativity to me is the voice of the subconscious. Just like dreams. I may take a photograph; then when I look at it later I suddenly realize what I may already have known subconsciously. Which process of mental growth has been at work. Or which emotional development inside me has led to a new result.

I’ve learned to handle my creativity carefully, to create situations which are kind to my creativity. To prepare the ground so that creativity can come in and take root. It’s the same with dreams: if you sleep on a bad mattress, you’ll have horrid dreams or you won’t even dream at all.

When I made sequences on deserted beaches in Mexico I challenged my creativity by living in a very structured way. Every morning, before the sun came up, I did physical excercises. I had a light breakfast and then went on the deserted beach with my apparatus without any clear plan or ideas. All I knew was that I would leave the beach with new sequences. That total emptiness would be filled by my creativity expressed in sequences.

I did this seven days a week, for months on end, constantly challenging my creativity to come up with something. I’d made sure that everything else was right for my creativity to flourish. I had a beautifully equipped camper with enough food on board, good music and books. The climate there wassub-tropical and I lived healthy eating vegetarian food and doing excercises to keep fit. All conditions ideal for a productive dialogue with creativity.

I still make use of what I learned there about creativity. I live my life according to it. It’s bound up in the sort of people I go around with, for instance; spiritual, constructive, positive people inspire me and stimulate me. It’s also bound up in things like not drinking alcohol, no drugs, only vegetarian food, not watching any rubbish on television and going to bed on time so as to be clear the next day. It’s a way of letting creativity constantly rise to the surface; that’s my goal. After all, the more I let my creativity bloom, the happier I am.

I’m working at the moment on a monumental photo project in a large Government building. First I visited and explored the building in order to let the spaces work peacefully on my consciousness. To help me come up with an idea. I prepare myself spiritually for that. First I sort out the everyday chores so that they don’t get in the way of my thoughts and feelings. I make sure, for instance, that I’ve done the shopping. I have to have rest inside. I make sure too that I’m in the building when it’s still, when nobody’s around. Then it’s mainly a question of not wanting anything and being very relaxed. If I get an idea: great. If I don’t: fine.

I’d been in the building for a while, but I still didn’t have an idea. No panic. The more I want it, the more I know to have less of a chance.

It has to come naturally. The idea has to fit, as if by chance, without my needing to think about it. So I go on thinking about the staircase, but not in the way I think about things like politics. Just keeping it somewhere in the back of my mind. Once I’ve done that for a couple of days, something bursts out and I suddenly see the idea before me. It’s a fantastic feeling; an idea’s been born that’s also a revelatory message from the subconscious. When I was working on the beach and I got the feeling I was making a very special sequence, I felt exalted and I had to jump around and dance. I still get that feeling, and not only when I have good ideas. Recently I’ve begun to understand more clearly how the creative process works. I’ve come to see what exactly is involved in opening a door to my source of creative energy. Since I stopped making sequences and came to live in Amsterdam, I’ve concentrated on the development of that process. That’s what made me start to meditate. When I concentrate, bring myself to a state of rest and go deep into myself, I can open a door and let the energy flow. It’s a life elixir. It’s very addictive.

I remember genuine joy and spontaneous expression from my childhood. Children have it naturally. You lose it, but as a creative and spiritual being you can regain it. My father’s Polish and my mother Belgian. That means I was not sure where I belonged. I don’t even know whether I’m Dutch. I believe that’s a good thing; it means I can direct my own life. I’m not weighed down or limited by specific traditions and cultural patterns. It did give me problems with my relationships though. If you don’t know exactly where you come from, you’re disoriented. If you haven’t a decent inner foundation, you can’t really mean anything to others. Making the sequences has brought me to the point where I see the importance of having contact with others. Exchanges can happen now, like the portrait I recently made of Brigitte Raskin, winner of the AKO prize for literature. I concentrated on the confrontation in advance. Not rationally, but super-rationally or irrationally. I read large chunks of her book and let it sink into me. I saw her on television and studied her. I thought almost constantly about the coming confrontation. I was uncertain and nervous. I was scared in case we didn’t make contact. If we did, then there’d be a chance of something creative coming from it, something I could share with her. When I arrived at her place in Brussels, Belgium, I tried to link what I was feeling and what she must have been feeling. After all, she’s a creative woman who’s written a fine book. I succeeded in making contact with her. It was a euphoric moment. I began to see images. Then a driving force came up in me with flashes of creativity. As I was taking the portrait I felt either it would become something or it would fail completely. Could I grasp the essence of this person or not ? I can see it reflected in the contact prints: lots of ordinary photographs one after the other and then suddenly something special happening.

The photographs I make arise from my own personal interests. They are the result of processes within myself. That’s what I work on exclusively and that’s what gives me such intense pleasure. I’ve been a photographer now for twenty years and I still enjoy photography and find it stimulating. Every time. I’ve taken thousands of photographs and it still fascinates me.

July 1989.