The Intimate Proximity of Touch: an interview with Eva Vermandel

The Intimate Proximity of Touch: an interview with Eva Vermandel

In Splinter we are given a miniature constellation of objects and gestures that is both fleeting, intimate and ageless – a litany of small comforts that suggest that we return to flesh for consolation, for surety, for the clarity of connection, and that we do so in an unwitting recognition of our mortality, and out of an unavoidable need for touch. A commonly repeating figure in the work is the twinning, coupling, brushing and curling in and over of one thing upon another – a continual cycle of intersection that envisions mutual dependence not only as integral but re-affirming. These scenes are photographed with a sort of reverential tenderness, an unabashed fascination that turns the act of photographing into an embrace that narrows, rather than celebrates distance.

Themes of distance, interconnection and touch seem apposite to the narrative and the experience of our contemporary moment, which where it is relatively privileged, seems in so many ways to celebrate its obsession with the spectre of connection offered by ever-evolving technological norms. Our means of reaching out to another and of cancelling out physical distance have changed the nature of our awareness of the breadth and scope of the world, but in the mania that so often accompanies their devices they can equally tend to atomise, as much as to mend together. We may have learned little of real substance of the revolutions in Tahrir from texts and tweets, but in the midst of a bloody struggle against decades-old oppression, Egyptians sent pizzas to protesters camped out in the state house of Madison, Wisconsin out of genuine sense of solidarity.

The issue is never settled, and perhaps our anxious need for certainty distracts us from the virtues of the effort of imagination, which is the basis for all human connection. There is, however, something in the nature of our relationship to objects – some trace of our investment in, or disregard of them, some index of the way that they can unlock for us the potted history from which we derive instinctual responses to the things by which we are so often surrounded. Eva’s photographs depend upon and illustrate this fact through the particular capacity of the camera to transfigure the momentary into the metaphoric – by their ability to induce a pause in us just lengthy enough to forget the strictures of use, and take on the challenge of new imaginings.

The repetitive cadence of gesture that extends throughout her work makes the claim that the matter of perception is not settled, so much as prematurely declared to have already been resolved. In her poetic compositions, we see the figure of the bare branch in the naked body not out of some sense of essentialism that ascribes sensuality to gender, but rather out of imaginative sympathy with the wonderful complexity of experience, and the precious gift of sight. It might be commonplace to ascribe to her fascination with the texture of skin and surfaces some exclusively feminine characteristic, but her interest in the vernacular differs from that of Walker Evans’s only in an absence of heroism in her way of seeing. Her photographs thus suggest to me that even in its beginnings there was some essential romanticism at the core of realism, a sensuous and intellectual thrill at the power of the image of the objected transfigured by the lens…

In many of her photographs but most especially in the portraits, there is for me a certain stillness that is produced in the viewing of them – a stillness that is both engrossing and enigmatic, and one that carries with it a sense of the duration of the time experienced by the subject, as though we might, albeit momentarily, find ourselves breathing in synchrony. This cannot but be the result of a certain honesty in the act of photographing, of a certain sincerity offered up from behind the lens. It is in the depth of their absorption that they, as subjects, draw us into a suspension of our disbelief sufficient to enter into this photographic pause in sympathy with the elegant intensity of their distraction. It seems, on an extended viewing, that there need be no other objective than  a will to be momentarily immersed in the intimate proximity of touch.


You seem to commonly photograph subjects at a point where they are mute in their relationship to the lens, to the broader environment in which we find them, and to any perceptible external ‘action’ – they seem to be pregnant with nothing quite so much as their ‘there-ness’. Your pictures do not imply the presence of a chain of events, so much as they seem to marvel, intently, at the quality of a thing or person looked at in the absence of any other visible factors. Does this seem fair, and if it is, to what extent are you fascinated by the camera’s ability to transfigure, and to what extent are you seeing something imprecise but intriguing in the subjects you photograph?

What I look for in my work (and in life in general) is an intense sense of being. This sense of being has a strong feel of rootedness and an opaque time-frame, both in terms of a sense of timelessness and in a certain imprecise relationship between the photograph and a specific era in time.

When I decide to photograph something, I do this because the subject draws me in, it pulls me towards it. It’s instinctive, the pull of the subject comes from its ‘charge’. This ‘charge’ is something I can’t really put my finger on, it’s often a combination of light and matter, but also something that I cannot explain through purely physical form. It’s metaphysical.

I don’t think it’s the camera that transfigures the scene into this charged state of being, this is already there; it’s a case of being aware of it and being able to capture it. The fact that I use a camera to do this is not essential; when I use other tools to communicate this feeling, it shows as much as in my photographs, but the main difference is that I’m not as fluent with these other tools as I am with a camera.

Could you perhaps talk a little about the lack of ‘events’ in your photographs?

Life consists of a flow of events that merge into each other and overlap other events. It’s difficult to separate them. I can’t separate them, I don’t want to do that. I photograph the flow that connects the events, not the events themselves.

An actual event is easy to describe in straightforward words: for instance ‘a person dies’ ‘a couple get together’ or even simply ‘someone cooks a meal’. These statements do not say anything about the underlying feeling that comes with these events – they’re just facts. The build-up towards, aftermath and the interconnection is much more interesting. Life is multi-layered. Art should be multi-layered too, and it should be interpretable on different levels and reveal more on repeated viewing. The single event photograph is for didactic purposes, I don’t think it has a place in art.

There’s clearly a long history of the relationship between image-making and desire, and I wonder when I think of the often unrequited gaze that your camera extends toward its subjects, whether you think that longing is an integral part of what motivates your images? I don’t mean to conflate this with yourself, but rather with the language of the photographs that you make. The lens as you use it invites us toward a subject that typically does not acknowledge our presence, towards a subject that is nevertheless made over into the recipient of intense and individuated beauty, which for me brings the question of desire and longing into play…

Very interesting question, because when I’m taking photographs I do not feel that I am behind the camera, I’m inside the scene I photograph. So there’s no sense of longing, I am there. The viewer is welcome to join of course — I hope he/she does.

The work is all about creating a parallel world, away from certain aspects of contemporary life I struggle with, and there needs to be a barrier between the work and the outside world. Hence the initial feeling of distance that emanates from the work. However that’s a hurdle you can jump across easily once you know the way.

Could you speak to your desire to keep hold of these moments you are drawn to?

The scenes that draw me in have two elements that create that pull: a sense of stillness and a sensual connection between different subjects (these subjects can be a person, object or space). The photograph preserves a world I can dive back into, and I can choose to spend as long there as I like. That extra level of control over time that the photograph brings is something that gives me great satisfaction.

Your photographs seem to frequently make body and object over into metaphor, and I also have this sense from so much of the portraiture that the photographs have only an oblique relationship to identity, and a much more direct relationship to the allegorical properties of the body, so I wonder how you see the balance in your imagery between its objective and subjective dimensions?

What I try to capture is the subjective; communicating certain thoughts and ideas through metaphors, although the latter is a word I struggle with… I prefer the term ‘sharpened reality’ — it’s more suitable for my work and the process I use to create the work. The people and objects I photograph are vessels for my thoughts.

How important is it to know your subjects beforehand, in order to gain access to them – so often in private or at least in private space – and to know them and their gesture and their body sufficiently to examine it in the way that you do?

It’s not essential at all to know the people I photograph beforehand. Some of my key photographs are of people I don’t know, some I’ve never even spoken to. For example the boys in the photograph ‘Brothers, Heath’. They just happened to be lying opposite me in the field near the Hampstead mixed pond where I’d just gone swimming with my friend Ophelia. I’d had my eye on them for a while and when I stood up to take the picture, the boy at the front put his arm on the back of the other boy to wake him up. I don’t think they’re brothers, I’m pretty sure they’re friends, but because they could be seen as a romantic couple, I wanted to keep things more ambivalent, hence I called it ‘Brothers’.

Access to people is not restricted if you don’t know someone, it’s often quite the opposite: people open up more easily to someone they don’t know than to someone they are close to. It’s safer. And from my 16 years of experience as a portrait photographer I can get people to open up easily, whether it’s people I’ve known for a long time or not.

Gesture is something I study all the time and everywhere: when I’m on public transport, out on the street, walking in a park, everywhere. I have a close friend who’s an actor and he spends his life observing people too, soaking it all up and using certain gestures and mannerisms in his acting roles. He also happens to be a good photographer, which I don’t think is a coincidence: there are a lot of similarities in what we do. It’s a case of intense observation, processing that information and pulling it all out again when the creative moment arrives.

The work is strengthened and made accessible through the use of visual rhyming: certain elements interconnect between different photographs. For instance the shape of the legs spread out in ‘Monique, Stroud Green’ is echoed in the angle of the leaves of a plant in ‘Plant, Chantal’s House, Suffolk’ (from the Splinter series). This visual rhyming extends to other works of art that are staples in my visual history; the viewer will recognise elements of certain paintings in my work. It creates a pattern, a comfort blanket for the viewer to enable him/her to more easily enter the work.

So no, I’m not in any way interested in bringing across the objective, the surface, I can’t see the point of that, it’s already there for everyone to see.

Can you talk a little more about surface here? What’s your own sense of the relationship of the photograph to the surface, and how do you think that your pictures are surpassing or bypassing or doing away with it?

Because photography is a tool that is so direct in its ability to record surface, it is challenging to break through that solely physical/material surface and dig deeper. This process happens much more organically in a medium like painting where the scope of intervention in what you’re painting is endlessly wide.

But the limitations of the tool don’t make it impossible to dig deeper; it makes it more challenging, and I like a challenge. I find it hard to explain how I go beyond the surface – the process is so instinctual. I steer away from the anecdotal and direct messages that are easily readable and I focus on scenes that trigger an emotional response in me. How or why these scenes trigger an emotional response and make me want to photograph them, I don’t know. It is still always a ‘surface’ that has this emotional charge, and it is this same ‘surface’ I use in my photographs, but there’s something that also works on an emotional level attached to it.

I often wonder whether people/objects/spaces have an energy field that we can’t see directly with our eyes but that we can pick up on through other senses. I’m not spiritual, but I do believe that the world isn’t limited to what we can perceive directly through our immediate senses. When the existence of the Higgs Boson got confirmed (well, virtually confirmed) last summer it seemed to make sense from an art perspective too. I have always felt things are connected through an energetic field beyond gravity, and this field has areas of higher and lower charges. Whether this has anything to do with the existence of a Higgs field I really don’t know, I’m not a scientist.

A quotation that certainly springs to mind, not only in relation to your landscapes but to a broader proportion of all the photographs in your Splinter work is this one from John Berger’s essay “Painting a Landscape“, and I wonder what your thoughts are about his idea in relation to your photography?: “The nature of metaphor depends on innumerable varying factors; but its raison d’être is always the same: it is what connects the event and the artist’s judgement of it: it is the means of rendering the subject and its meaning visually inseparable. The thing interpreted becomes the interpretation.

I struggle a bit with this question in the same way that I struggle with the word ‘metaphor’. Through a combination of visual elements I create an initially purely sensory experience which then guides the viewer into the more tangible ideas behind the work. Between the subject and its meaning are several steps that separate the two, so I don’t think they are inseparable or that one becomes the other. After repeated viewing the work starts to reveal itself more easily and some elements may become metaphors then, but this only happens through repetition.

On the Berger text, and the excerpt (from the essay “Appearances” in Another Way of Telling) you gave me, there were some interesting elements that apply to my work that I’d like to mention.

There is the idea of history and accelerated socio-economic change through technology that first appeared in the 19th century, and which continues at an even higher speed now. It’s almost as if we’ve become jet-lagged in our own world of progress – change is happening faster than we can keep up with. This is a theme that DH Lawrence also elaborates on in The Rainbow: the novel starts in the mid-19th century at a point when the Brangwen family (originally farmers) get caught up in the changes brought on by industrialisation and technology. Up till that point nothing changed at such a speed that it would create a rupture in the flow of a person’s lifespan. After that shift, and even more so now with the onset of digitisation, these ruptures happen on too frequent a basis.

The other element in Berger’s text I’d like to bring up is the one you’d already pulled out in your email: the idea of how everything has become commodified. We’ve reached a point now where we as citizens have lost all power through commodification, including our democratic rights, because political parties have become commodified — they have become appendages to corporations. Facebook and other social media forms have also commodified our relationships.

I rebel against all of the above through my work.

Should I take it from your response that you understand your work as in some way pushing back against the rapid density and proliferation of communication technologies, or the alienating effects of some common uses of technology?

Yes, definitely. My work rebels heavily against the alienation created by the above, and social media in particular. The latter have been the petrol poured onto the ravaging fires of consumerism, which have been tearing apart our sense of community and connection with nature since the 80’s. I don’t know how effective my work is as a ‘call to arms’ – it’s not going to start a revolution. But I hope it can function as a platform through which like minded people can meet and exchange thoughts and ideas.

I’d just like to spend a little more time here thinking about these interrelated questions of sharpened reality, the function of subjectivity in looking at and in making images, and how they relate to your work. I go back to Berger and that essay we talked about where he writes:

“The way photography is used today both derives from and confirms the suppression of the social function of subjectivity. Photographs, it is said, tell the truth. From this simplification, which reduces the truth to the instantaneous, it follows that what a photograph tells about a door or a volcano belongs to the same order of truth as what it tells about a man weeping or a woman’s body.”

I would argue that it’s plainly obvious from looking at your work that you view the photograph as being capable of resisting this instrumental norm of viewing images, but I also think that this introduces a certain kind of difficulty for a number of viewers. Does this seem fair to you? Do you think it’s a struggle to induce people with images to read images differently?

It can be difficult for people to ‘see’ the layers beyond the very surface at first. If it is a case of the viewer having similar thoughts and ideas about life to the ones I try bring across in my work, recognition will be almost instantaneous. If not, the viewer may need to take a while and see several pieces before things start to bloom, or may never see it.

I don’t know whether inducing people through images into the images is always possible, sometimes the viewer needs a nudge in the right direction, and this can happen through other media (text, music, dance even – the physicality of dance resonates a lot with me). For me personally, reading an article on the writer DH Lawrence by the literary critic James Wood helped me translate my photographs into words: it was there in the article. He came up with the idea that DH Lawrence ‘sharpens reality into the invisible’ which for me has become the most precise way of describing my work in a brief sentence.

Re-reading DH Lawrence while I was shooting the Splinter series helped me focus. The way he uses description of a person, object or scene to immediately draw you into the atmosphere lying underneath is superb. For example in the short story The Last Straw (Fanny and Annie), where Fanny goes back to her hometown to marry her first love, not because she wants to but because she has to for economic reasons. The opening line blusters with her dislike of the man she’s going to marry and the place where she’ll have to settle: ‘Flame-lurid his face as he turned among the throng of flame-lit and dark faces among the platform.’ And in the second paragraph her fiance’s ‘red-and-black scarf is knotted round his throat’. Immediately you can feel the claustrophobia of the protagonist in this most unwanted homecoming.

These descriptions work on two levels: you can see, as well as deeply feel the scene you enter. I also like the use of repetition of words to rub things deeper in (‘flame-lurid and ‘flame-lit’ both used in one sentence). These are elements I use in my photographs, and both are examples of using reality to show the underlying current.

In an essay on your work, Duncan Forbes notes that you use a long-lens at its smallest possible aperture, a technical device that can introduce an intensity, an intimacy or a kind of rhetorical proximity between objects that would appear far more separate to the human eye. In the work of a famous long-lens photographer like Saul Leiter, this changes the interweaving forces of the city as they overlap with his human subjects, so that the life of a broader and more vivid space can be compacted into the confines of his frame. Why do you think that this methodology works for your pictures? How does it speak to your way of seeing?

It’s all part of the sense of rooting I want to bring across in my work. Flattening the image helps me tie people and objects into their immediate environment. It’s also a reference to painters who inspire me like Hans Memling, Jan Gossaert, Holbein, Bronzino, Ingres, Munch, Michaël Borremans, Neo Rauch: the flatness of the subject tied in with the landscape or the room in the background gives a strong sense of grounding. The use of a long focal lens/large depth of field enables this for me.

I think in a number of your images the long lens introduces the idea that we are closer to things unseen than we often acknowledge – this is the case as much in the landscapes and ‘abstracts’ as it is certain portraits… I also think that the lens introduces real intimacy, and wonder whether you see that in your work, or strive for it?

The intimacy created by the use of a long lens is not just because it brings subjects further removed from the camera closer, by but also through the flattening of the different elements in the photograph individually (all elements seem to become cutouts stuck on top of each other) they seem glued on top of each other, impossible to separate. It makes them one. As human beings the survival of our species depends on this longing to become one with another person. This urge, being so core to who we are, extends to a longing to deeply connect with what’s around us in other ways than the purely sexual too.

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One Response to The Intimate Proximity of Touch: an interview with Eva Vermandel

  1. heart and soul

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