Kunstgang talks: Fred Rohde

By Abril Cisneros

When I look at Fred Rohde’s photographs I feel a certain nostalgia, the sensation of frozen time. He was the first artist to exhibit in the Kunstgang. His work is heterogeneous, from remote villages in Hungary and Romania to Dutch musicians amidst the sparkling world of spectacle. However, all his shots share an aura of intimacy, of entering the subject’s universe quietly and stealing a precious moment.

Born in 1948 and raised in The Netherlands, he describes his trajectory in three phases: the boy meeting photography for the first time, his documentary photos as a rebellious act -when he participated in different protests and movements-, and his official entrance to the artworld with his first exhibition alongside his painter wife Molly Ackerman. In September 2019, I attended an artist talk he held in his gallery as part of the KunstRoute Leiden and asked him for an interview. A few weeks later, on a cloudy Thursday, he received me with a coffee and guided me through a retrospective of his work, including photographs that he never published. It was a glance at the world of the man behind the camera. 

            Fred Rohde in his gallery in Leiden. Photo: author.

Last time I was here you explained this photograph, The trumpeter, from your work in Japan to me, and how it shows the division between the adult realm and the children realm. How do you experience the process of finding the image that says what you want to say? 

You have to be somewhere and then the photo shows up. In this case, I saw it from the side, I was like fifty meters away and I ran over and took a shot. I say I am a photographer but I don’t take photographs, the photographs take me. This is the most important thing that I can say about my photographs, I don’t talk when I take photographs because you need peace, if nothing is happening I look around me and wait. A lot of times you think nothing is happening and that is just the moment before something will happen. So you have to be patient and very alert. Suddenly things can change, and as a photographer you need to be very alert of that change, somebody comes walking from a certain direction and looks at you in a certain way, and you realize there is a moment to photograph. If I have enough patience, the images will show up. All I do is push the button of the camera. However the images won’t show themselves for nothing, they are looking around the corner waiting and will only show up when they want to, if they feel you have the urge to capture them. That’s why as a photographer you’re always uncertain.

              The trumpeter, 2014. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

You photographed the Egyptian ‘theatre of confluence’ performance that R. Murray Schafer presented in The Netherlands. How do you think both artistic disciplines interact? 

I spent a very long time taking those pictures, documented every single step of the performance trying to picture it as pure as possible, it was a long process because the performance is 11 hours long. It would’ve been different if I had just shown up and taken a quick photo and left. But of course, there is an artistic layer that photography adds, you are also telling a story, and how you choose to tell it has to do with the feeling, every photo needs a feeling too. And also with your intuition, because I had no formal training, I learned it myself and through other photographers.

             Untitled, 1985. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Interesting. Do you think art institutions such as art academies are necessary to form artists?

I don’t think so. But it’s always good for an artist to be in an artistic environment, if you try to learn it all by yourself you’re going to have a hard time. My art school was the photographers I surrounded myself with, of course, I have my voice, but it’s a collective process of being critical with yourself and with others. 

Talking about education, I know you did a bachelor in mathematics at university, do you think this degree affected the way you photograph? Do you play with this boundary between science and art?

Yes. I think it has to do with my composition, it is a mathematical process, very precise. And also I’m an abstract thinker, I owe that to mathematics too. 

For the series Law and Order, you photographed a time of political instability in The Netherlands. What do you think is the role of photographers when portraying social processes? 

Firstly you need to be interested in what you’re capturing, you do it because you support the movement, and you’re a rebel too and want to change the world. It’s not only a documentary approach. In the case of Law and Order, students were protesting and occupied a building, but the photos are more about me, nobody paid me to do it and I still did. The photographer says something with each picture because photography is communication, but these photos won’t bring the revolution. However, now you can look back and remember, as a memory exercise. We did an exhibition with all the photographs and the participants of the movement were all there, and they felt proud. That’s another thing photography does, it allows people to see themselves through your vision.

               Law and Order, 1980. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

When you say people see themselves through your vision I can’t help but think about the series you did in Hungary. I feel that portraying cultures is always a bit tricky when you don’t belong to the culture you’re capturing. To what extent do you let go of your constructs to portray someone else as they are?

I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to portray a specific culture as it is, I just want to show which moments presented themselves to me, that’s why I never plan what I will photograph. These photos from Hungary are exactly what I mean when I say the images appear by themselves, you cannot invent this. You cannot think about a woman who’s walking with sticks in this very nice setup. The same with the boy and the toy gun, he gives me the photo, I’m not going around asking him to pose and hold the toy gun like he does. And I don’t want to say this IS Hungary, because maybe this is just humanity, I want to portray humanity and what humanity looks like through my eyes because I find a piece of myself in every person I photograph. This woman is also my grandma, this is kid is also me as a child. My voice is in every photo because photos are something that is already in you and you need to find. But you cannot find it when you’re lazy. I also get to give a voice to those who are unheard sometimes, and photographs become social, people from a small village in Hungary get a portrait too, not just the elite. 

Woman of Tállya, 1992. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Boy of Tállya, 1992. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

So if your photographs are a conversation between your voice and the voice of those you depict, would you consider photography a participatory art discipline? 

It is a participatory process but a very short one. It’s only present at the very moment when the photo is taken, and maybe if I did an exhibition in the same village where I took the photos the process would become longer. But after that is gone. Before I was thirty I was very involved in politics, I even joined the socialist party, as I said, I wanted to change the world. I don’t feel like changing the world anymore, I just want to show it as it is, from a distance. So yes, it’s a participatory process but only momentarily, and that is also okay. 

The world is changing. Nowadays we can take as many photographs as we want with basically any mobile phone. How do you think we can preserve photography as the careful creative process you described it is while living in this era of late capitalism and easy access to photographic media?

It’s very difficult, extremely difficult. It’s a big drama because everybody can take photos but the photos don’t take everybody. That’s the difference. I know many professional photographers who have no job because they were working for magazines who suddenly decided they didn’t need a photographer to take their photos since they could do it themselves with all this new technology. Now good photography is a needle in a haystack. There are so many photos going around, but it’s not the same as photography. That is also why sometimes you hear that in art academies people want to learn how to develop film and use an analog camera, because it’s a careful process and you are aware of what you’re doing, instead of just shooting and shooting in automatic without being conscious and patient. The technology itself is not the problem, you can do the same things with a digital camera than with an analog camera, the problem is you’re tempted not to, you’re tempted to choose the easy way. You are closer to being a photographer when you make every decision on the technicalities of the photograph instead of taking your iPhone and letting it do it for you, losing your voice. 

Circus Elephants, 1984. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Do you evolve with technology?

I’m not going to work in the darkroom anymore. [Laughs] It’s a crazy process and digital photos are as good. But I always try to stay as close as possible to what I did in the darkroom, without big tricks. Maybe just adjust the photo a little bit, a bit more light for example, but I did that in the darkroom too. technology is useful, but it doesn’t determine a good photographer either. I know many people with the most expensive cameras who have never taken a good photograph in their lives. The Hungary series were taken with the cheapest Russian camera I found back in the day. So technology shouldn’t be the most important thing. The most important thing is your intuition, your feeling, the way you look at things, your philosophy. It’s a long way to become a photographer.