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Jan Herdlicka: Ghost World

A Parallel Planets piece by Erin Nøir - old account
Ghosts exist. Some people feel them around the conscious world we live, in abandoned grounds, during quiet nights. Other people see them in sleep dreams, like haunting shadows of the past, or lost spirits that run around freely. Vague, unchained, and icy.

I haven’t seen one and I don’t dream of seeing one in this lifetime, but I have always imagined ghosts as strange, untouchable figureless “beings” that are void of colour. It’s quite perplexing how such otherworldly entities tickle, or disturb, the mind’s fancies. Mysterious as they come and go, disappear and appear, there is something about ghosts that make some of us, humans, aware that we aren’t alone.

Finding Jan Herdlicka’s series of black & white photographs transports me into a Ghost World – a murky place where all the things in it are unfamiliar to me. His usually empty nature-scapes appear like they were stricken with a forceful disaster or widespread epidemic, but their stillness as photographs somehow neutralizes the devastation that might have just taken place.

The juxtaposition of his anonymous subjects are manifestations of the ghosts that are only felt if you can truly connect with his photographs. Because of this, there’s also a sense of calmness that brushes over me. Knowing that Jan isn’t always on his own, this somehow pacifies me. I don’t know why, but it’s the similar feeling that I have when scientists say that we are not the only living creatures in the vast Universe.

This photograph, for instance, reminds me of endless waters, innumerable creatures, and unexplored ocean floors. Looking at it for a long while leaves a surge of phobias in me, but just like ghosts, I don’t really know what they are or how they really look like.

His multiple exposures of the urban world are a cross-over between reality and surrealism. The unified monochrome look of his merged imageries make them timeless. He could’ve captured this one on film 3 years or 5 months ago, but knowing when doesn’t really say much about the photograph itself. It can stand alone, like a mystery, and it can still appeal to someone 20 decades from now.

I had the pleasure of talking with Jan and his works. If you want to know his photo series, Geister, his fascination of absurd beauty, his strangest desires, and many other facts about him, I suggest that you keep on reading after this full stop.



Hello, Jan! It’s great to have you here on Parallel Planets. Tell us something about yourself that we won’t find on Google – as a photographer, before you became one, and if you weren’t one.

[Laughs] I hope that you did not find too much personal stuff on Google but let's say so: as a photographer, I always try not to think in any rational categories but rather collect whatever visual impressions I find interesting. I really see it as a trance-like activity and often have problems to find the right answers on people asking me for the reasons I photograph the things I photograph.

Before I became one, I attended a weekly seminar in school on darkroom work & developing film and really really failed there. Somehow, the things I now love to do did not seem to be interesting for me as long as I HAD to do them in a school surrounding.

If I weren't a photographer, I would love to be something in between an architect and/or a product designer. I just love so many things for their look and haptic even if their functionality is quite bad.

How/When did it hit you that you want to focus more on black & white photography?

Initially, I started out as most ones with buying a small DSLR and trying to learn of using all or at least most of its functions. At that time, I was fascinated by the hardware and found reasons for my non-satisfying photographic results in the lack of money I had to buy better gear, etc.

Starting out with analogue photography changed my whole approach towards the medium. Most of my digital photographs were transferred to black & white and so I just continued by using black & white film material, which is also much easier to develop. I often doubt that but most people that say my work has a specific “look.” Without repeating myself all the time, my wish is to develop this “look” and therefore black & white seems to work best for me.

I sense a heave of isolation, solitude, and even surrealism when I look at most of your photographs and since you mainly do monochrome, it makes me wonder how you compose them. Would you share your thoughts on this?

This is a point at which I just do not know what to say. I do not have any kind of pre-made plan in mind when I do my photographic work. Perhaps I will find out what triggers me in the future, but for now, it is a mystery to me as well.

I am particularly stunned with your latest/ongoing photo series, “Geister.” Tell us more about it. Does it have an English translation? How did you come up with such messy yet moving photographs? Is there a deeper story behind those shaky shots, which by the way were taken by what camera/film?

The English word for “Geister” would be ghosts but, honestly, the background or story behind this series is not that mysterious! ;) During the last 1-2 years, I experimented a lot with photographic techniques. I tried to find the aesthetic limits of my equipment and photography in general. In this time series, such as the multi-exposure work “Raumverdichtungen” or the long exposure work, “Geister” was made.

Every photographic manual or teacher tells you not to do long exposures without having a tripod but with “Geister,” I just wanted to try it out that way. To me, this body of work stands for the senselessness of doing “art” following some kind of rules and shall encourage other photographers to use their equipment in a way they never used it before. (“Geister” was made using a NIKON F801s camera with AGFA APX 100 film – my everyday combination.)

Nature versus Street (urban) photography, which would you choose and why? How is it like taking such photographs in Berlin (or Germany in general)?

It is nice but I wouldn`t say that this depends on the country. I started doing street or urban photography mainly in the Berlin U-Bahn, where series such as “Untergrund,” Projekt-U-Bahntüren, and “Geister” were created. After about two years, I moved on towards nature. Somehow, I am fascinated by the absurd beauty of, for example, trees that seem to have grown not in the way they should have – if you understand what I mean. Just like individualistic people, plants also can have a quite edgy look to them. ;)

How does black & white photography relate to your personality? Why do you prefer analogue over digital?

I think black & white helps me to structure my compositions in the most effective and uncompromising way. Perhaps it relates to my personality as a method to bring alignment to the disorder of various thoughts and plans in my mind.

To you, what makes a photograph powerful?

Light, grace, and a small pinch of pathos.

Aside from taking pictures, what other creative pursuits are you interested in?

Collage work, singing, and dancing.

If you were to pick 3 for each, what are your all-time favorite books, films (cinema), and songs?

Books:
1. Franz Kafka – Das Schloss
2. Otfried Preußler – Krabat
3. Truman Capote – In cold blood

Films:
1. Marathon Man
2. Lost in Translation
3. Heat

Songs: (to me, by far, the hardest category)
1. Michael Jackson – Baby Be Mine
2. John Frusciante – Curtains (whole album)
3. Aaliyah – Are You That Somebody?

What’s the weirdest habit and strangest desires that you have?

I am kind of addicted to the feeling of cold buttons in my palms. But only the buttons that come with a certain kind of bed linen have the perfect haptic to them.

My strangest desire is probably my wish for living two lives at once. This would enable me to do cause so much humoristic chaos by acting in ways people would never expect from me without having to live with the consequences.

In this planet that we're thriving in—
What is your power animal?

I really like so many animals and think that there is a certain power to all of them (perhaps except mosquitos) but let`s pick a racoon for being so social and fluffy.

Who is your alternate ego?

Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters. He is a funny guy.

In an alternate universe where photography does not exist—
What would your name be?

Jean-Michel Saive.

What would you be doing instead?

Vineyard cultivation or perhaps olives. I like to be outdoors in the field.


Jan’s photographs are continuously evolving, and that’s what I love about his works. He can take countless pictures of trees, but none of them would look the same. Maybe it’s because he can see right through them, and that’s what makes them astonishing to look at. Some things are not just how we see them. Sometimes, it’s what we cannot see, but only feel, that matters the most.

Fortunately, all of Jan Herdlicka’s photographic projects, both concluded and ongoing, may be found on his self-titled website (in German, though), his Tumblr feed, and his Facebook page as well.

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