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The Uneasy Realisation of a Model. On Tom Callemin

In 2014 Tom Callemin published a book with the publisher Art Paper Editions, its cover plainly listing the titles of the twelve photographs it contains. All twelve are literally dark images, with pitch-black backgrounds from which emerge peoples and objects: Man with child, Two trees, Cage, Chapel, Room, House. The final title of the series, The performance, is descriptive on a less tautological level: a blond-haired girl with her eyes closed, her elbows being grabbed by the hands of a girl in the penumbra behind her. Everybody and everything in Callemin’s powerful photographs is enclosed, à huis clos in that beautiful French expression, by a darkness that is as inviting as it is disquieting in its theatrical isolation. Callemin says that he creates meaning by omission, by letting go of a detailed background. He finds a theatrical setting and and an ’empty’ background to be of crucial importance, as it opens ‘a reservoir of meaning’.

All the portraits Callemin makes, whether shooting still or moving images, are made inside, in a measured setting. Events underlying images don’t interest him so much, but rather the iconicity that certain images obtain by lingering on in our minds and memories. “When I’m fascinated by a photograph, I often encounter multiple images of similar situations shortly after. These images then melt into one, for which I make sketches as a model of an image I want to make.” Such an image may still have hints of the iconic, but minute changes in the way Callemin creates these photographs may result in enormous changes in how such an image will be read. “These are the balancing acts I perform. It’s about how much you, as photographer, want to show.”

The act of photography is performance in the work of Callemin, whether he works with people, animals or objects. Callemin’s own role is also brought into play, to an extent that the viewer of his work will be confronted with his own role vis-à-vis the model, but also the artist in whose place he has come to stand. “With photography a viewer in a certain way comes to replace the apparatus.” Furthermore, Callemin hopes that his careful and attractive compositions will create an experience within the viewer, but within that experience also a capsizing towards something more unsettling, perhaps through identification with the unease of the models, who usually are put to the test when collaborating with Callemin on the realisation of a photograph.

“I like to throw my models off balance,” says Callemin, “and search for something that otherwise wouldn’t come to the fore. A modelling session should be an intense experience demanding the utmost concentration from model and photographer alike.” This is akin to how filmmakers like Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson treated the actors they worked with and what they expected from them. During the filming of what later became his influential silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer was pushing his lead actress repeatedly to her knees for her to arrive at a more credible performance.

“How far may I go as a director of my photographs?” Callemin wonders and immediately responds to his own question: “Quite far, I think.” This may lead a viewer to being in disagreement with the photographer’s position, but because Callemin took that standpoint as the photographer, “the viewer of that image sees exactly what I saw and becomes a model too, in a certain way, a role he is invited to reflect upon.” But Callemin’s own role isn’t that well-defined either, it’s as insecure as the roles of the models and the audience. “One creates one’s own character, like the photographer who wants to show something different than the obvious. Therefore one needs to push through limits sometimes.”

Callemin says to seek ‘credibility through aesthetics’. What kind of lighting must he use to find that zone in which fiction enters the stage? “It all has to do with the nuances of careful lighting and I find it really exciting to create ambiguity that way.” How then, I wonder, do the plain titles relate to that ambiguity? When it comes to the use of text, Callemin wants to be as neutral as possible, avoiding the addition of new layers to the work. “I want to do a minimal suggestion, but I’m also interested in the hidden symbolism of the titles, for example House also comes to symbolise the generic notion of a house. It gains wider meaning through such dry naming, offering the viewer a screen for his own interpretation.”

The few photographs finally shown result from meticulous preparations and dozens, sometimes even hundreds of failed takes. “I attach so many conditions that it becomes almost impossible to realise a photograph as I had imagined it beforehand. It’s incredibly important that an image comes into being exactly as it should be and I sometimes go to great lengths, including detailed replicas of situations built in my studio, to arrive at that precise image. But in the end each image may prove to be a failure.”

This text was first published, in a slightly different version, in Foam Magazine #42 (Talent issue, 2015), pp. 255-256.

Images © Tom Callemin

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