The sparsely populated, vaguely haunting photography of Christian Aschman owes as much to niggling loneliness as it does to a love of perfectly empty spaces. Taking a hiatus from a busy career in commercial and fashion photography, the artist got to work on two personal projects in 2011, the fruits of which hit the shelves at the beginning of 2012. In late 2010, Aschman was rewarded a grant to make a collection of a lifetime in photographs, for which he recruited the help of long time collaborator Stéphane Leger. The result is a very “open space” devoid of title, page sequence or cover, a collection of images of “free time”, both the artists’ and ours, manifest in a world of winding, moving, vibrating pictures with no real sound or sentiment or flavour, just light, exactitude, and vision. The release coincided with that of the commissioned “747-8”, Boeing’s perfect coffee table collection of images of the insides of their very metallic and cavernous Washington factory and the construction of its brand new behemoth 747-8 planes. With these projects, and with the freedom that came with them, Aschman’s artistic spirit was unveiled after years of increasingly restrictive commercial work. It’s been a busy year.
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
I’m from Luxembourg, and studied Visual Communication at the Ecole de Recherche Graphique in Brussels. It was always a bit of a dream, to work in fashion. I started doing tests when I was studying: one of the students in my class was a model, then I worked for 2 years in Bruxelles and Antwerp as an assistant. Now, I work between Brussels, Luxembourg and Paris doing fashion, advertising, portraits and architecture.
What’s the idea behind the Untitled collection?
I was awarded a grant from le Centre National de l’Audiovisuel in Luxembourg in late 2010. The grant was really good for me because I often start a project and don’t follow through to the end! So it was great to have a deadline. My proposal in my grant application was a project around the idea of “free time”. I worked a lot with images of the places people go to spend their free time, often empty spaces whether they are still in use or abandoned. I chose images that were not too narrative: I tend not to work on concepts. It’s very spontaneous, really, and most are images from my travels. Also, there is no real cover, which was deliberate. I didn’t want to put limits on it. There is no hardcover at the beginning or at the end, making it much more open.
How big is the collection?
It was a selection of 22 years of photos. From thousands, I narrowed it to 300 and then filtered it down to 120. But I could redo and redo and redo the book, there is an unlimited number of possible combinations and selections.
How difficult was it to make a selection from 22 years of images?
Stéphane Leger helped me to select and to filter the images according to their frames, and their relationship to one another. For me that was a big step, to open myself to collaboration, something very new and challenging. There were some images it really took me a very long time to understand that I had to take them out. Especially one image that was in there almost until the end until I recognised that it was really out of place here. It was too strong and too emotional and that was not necessary. Anyway it’s not lost, the image…
…you must trust him a lot…
Yes. I have known Stéphane for more than ten years, and he really saw things in my images that I could not. He was the one who came up with the idea of adding text, which at the beginning was really much more like blocks of text, which we then changed to simple words. He also helped me to recognise the need to remove images that held a lot of sentimental value, which were not that interesting in general.
You don’t like to reveal too much of the personal?
Sometimes as an artist it is difficult to separate from an image because you have a personal relationship with it, even if it’s not that interesting. You need somebody else to tell you. I needed it, and that’s the really the big part Stéphane played. I showed it to many other people, too, and by showing it and showing it I saw that there were images that didn’t have any place in this book.
There are very few people in the images. Why is that?
The people are there, they’re just not showing. This book is about me. About loneliness, the search for… I don’t know what. I really liked what the gallery owner in Liége said: for her, it was about love.
How have other people reacted to the collection?
One thing I notice when I give it to people is that they open it and they very quickly close it again, and then they say “OK, I will look at it at home”. I have noticed that now several times. It’s not an easy book. People don’t really know what to do with it.
“I didn’t want to put limits on it. There is no hardcover at the beginning or at the end, making the book much more open.”
What is the Boeing book all about?
It was commissioned by an airline in Luxembourg, and it took almost a year to get done. It’s a collection of images of the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, and features the interior of the factory and of Boeing 747- 8 airplanes being assembled. The book is available in Europe, but the idea behind it really was for Boeing to have an arty book to give away as a corporate gift. I really wanted the opportunity to be more independent again, and to work alone. Boeing was the real opportunity to do that. I had complete freedom, and I was able to do images that were very close to my way of doing things.
Does your personal style influence your commercial work? Or the other way around?
When I look back to my older fashion work, there is some relation in the way of framing, the way of putting the models and the choice of locations. Those older series were much closer to my own personal style. But with the magazines I’ve worked with in the past couple of years, it has not really possible. It’s mainly been commissions, and for quite commercial magazines. It’s become too restricted and it’s really more about showing the clothes and the brand. At the moment I have a bit of diffIculty with that…
In the 22 years you have been working as a photographer, how has your work changed?
Ha ha. It’s always the same! I have noticed that I always come back to the same things. Stéphane always calls me on that!
…what are those things?
There is often no centre in the image, no focus. It’s not clear what I want to show. It’s a lot about framing, and what’s not to see in the image. It’s a lot about empty spaces, a lot of mise en abyme. And it’s also about distance. Its not very confrontational, but more contemplative.
“It’s not an easy book. People don’t really know what to do with it.”
Which other artists inspire you?
I love looking at photographs, but sometimes I find I am more inspired by painting. One painter who has always been very present is Edward Hopper, but also David Hockney. In terms of photographers, there’s Robert Frank, who has inspired many many photographers.
Tell me about the upcoming exhibition in Liége
Both the Untitled collection and the Boeing “747-8” book will be featured at this exhibition, because it’s clear that they are both the same, in a way. When I showed the curator the Boeing book she insisted that we feature it, too. In terms of the Untitled collection, I wanted to go out of the book. As it is an open space, some of the images at the exhibition are not included in the book. This is to reinforce the idea of openness.La coexistance de Christian Aschmann Exhibition runs from 10th March to 14th April Les Drapiers, rue Hors-Château 68 – 4000 Liège