Berlin, Sep. 2010 - Maxime Ballesteros's photographs share the same DNA as Kurt Cobain's rough wail, Picasso's sketches, Bill T. Jones's walk and Raymond Carver's sentences. They arise from common acts that people regularly perform, yet when they are realized through uniquely talented artists, they become profound. Ballesteros is a Lyon-born and Berlin-based photographer whose gritty images of rough reality evoke the work of Nan Goldin, Corinne Day, Larry Clark and Ryan McGinley. Like the products of legions of snappers inspired by these photographers' intimate documentary imagery, Ballesteros's portraits, still-lives and reportage have a raw immediacy. But unlike the countless copyists of the snap-shot aesthetic, his work genuinely shares the poetics, insight and empathy of the masters of his medium. His work, even his still-lives, pulses with an intense and genuine sexual charge and captivating empathy.
Glossy, processed, polished photography is much easier to produce than Ballesteros's images. As an editorial photographer, his work has appeared in advertising and editorial for Apple, Artforum.com, Ayn Magazine, Dazed Digital, Extra Fein, Flaunt, Interview, Philips, Saatchi Online, Sleek Magazine, Style.com, SugarHigh, Tank, Twin, V Magazine and Vice Germany. And his portraits, including commercial images, offer striking insights into his sitters' personalities. Inherent in his imagery is an awareness that the sitters are responding to him - his warmth, charm, kindness and remarkable beauty. The quality of rawness in his work comes less from its natural and loose look which strips sitters of their pretensions and reveals the humanity of their flaws and charms. Instead, it emanates from the sense that there is an intimate connection between Ballesteros and his subjects, and that the viewer is witnessing something fleeting and intensely private.
Ballesteros's ability to convey intimacy through his imagery was a prime inspiration for my exhibition "Saccharine," which I am co-curating with my pseudonymous friend "Nadja Veblen" at Berlin's Grimmuseum from October 9-17. "Saccharine" examines "intimacy" in its various guises - sincere, induced, fabricated or imagined. The artists on view will show work expressing the priceless nature of their own intimate connections or the intricacies, boundaries and implications of selling artificial intimacy. Veblen is both a feminist scholar and escort.
Ballesteros, who is one of my closest friends in Berlin, is contributing a series of shots he has taken of his girlfriend in their life together through the city. "Saccharine" includes Veblen's exploration of her experiences selling artificial intimacy. But it is also a celebration of Ballesteros's truly sweet relationship with his girlfriend, fashion designer Jen Gilpin. Gilpin and her designer partner Kylie Callanan produce the "Don't Shoot the Messengers" label in Berlin. Ballesteros's photographs of their life together, usually focusing on isolated parts of her body or wardrobe, are viscerally warm and touching.
Jen and Ginas in a tree; Courtesy Maxime Ballesteros
Ana Finel Honigman: How does the notion of intimacy play into your art?
Maxime Ballesteros: I take photographs of that people whom I have been close with, if only for a moment. In my latest work, I have started focusing on intimacy in the public space - in landscapes or inanimate objects.
AFH: How has your art-education influenced your style or focus?
MB: I used to photograph in black and white photos throughout my education, from high school through art school. I spent the last years of my coursework in a graphic design program. I spent my private time in dark rooms developing photos.
AFH: Who were your influences then?
MB: I was very excited by Klein, Arbus, Cartier-Bresson and Guy Bourdin. Before discovering Goldin, Petersen and that wave, those were my influences. Exposure to their work was the most potent part of education.
Jen - avant le début de l'hiver; Courtesy Maxime Ballesteros
AFH: Was the work of your photographic predecessors your strongest influence or were you also impacted by other mediums?
MB: I was also writing short stories at this time. Writing was my first entry into art expressing intimacy. And I was also influenced strongly by my professors and friends.
AFH: Were you influenced directly or inspired by your professors and peers?
MB: Their influence was not directly on a photographic level. Their identity, ideas and our shared way of living inspired me.
AFH: Community is integral to life in Berlin. How do you think that your work fit for Berlin?
MB: Berlin is full of cracks. My work is focus on cracks on the street and inside people. I look for cracks inside my friends and my relations. It is chaotic and peaceful at the same time. Light is often very neutral and grey in my work because my work is about memory too. Berlin is obviously heavy with its own unique historic charge. This sense of memory suits Berlin well.
AFH: How conscious are you of what inspires you to photograph a place or object?
MB: I am inspired by breaks in reality. When I take a photo, I suddenly get very concentrated. I know exactly what is exciting. I was recently reading something from brilliant photographer and my friend, Estelle Hanania, where she was talking about how visually boring everyday life is. I found this fascinating because this same terrain is where I go fishing. I'm excited by what she finds dull - reality's failures and masques and its nonsense.
melon blanc; Courtesy Maxime Ballesteros
AFH: Why have you gravitated a bit away from primarily photographing Berlin bacchanalia?
MB: When I came to Berlin, I needed to understand the city and the people. Taking photographs is the only way for me to do it. One day though, I decided that couldn't take one more picture of all that. It just was not necessary. And at the same time, I was beginning to look at some other places and languages.
AFH: Are you especially attracted to work by Nan Goldin, Ryan McGinley, Larry Clark and the forebears of gritty realism?
MB: Yes. Sometimes I think that I understand some of their photos and that's priceless. They also prove to that photography is absolutely necessary.
AFH: How has your relationship with Jen influenced your work?
Jen et handwriting T-shirt; Courtesy Maxime Ballesteros
MB: I can't tell yet. It will take a while. But I can say that we are both in love with each other's work. And I take a lot of photos of her. She's part of the story. She is also the best person to travel with. And my work is dependent on where I am.
AFH: Why do you continue to work with analog rather than wholly digital?
MB: I prefer to take fewer photos. I prefer to shoot once, when I believe the moment is right, than to take twenty photos and run to my computer to check if I got that damn bird. I don't like the security that digital camera gives everyone.
AFH: What about processing?
MB: I come from a Black & White darkroom background. I fell in love with film and grain. I never thought there was another way to photograph.
AFH: Are you keen to do more fashion photography?
Jen et bas couture dans les toilettes; Courtesy Maxime Ballesteros
MB: as long as it doesn't encroach on my personal work, yes. Fashion photography is challenging for me and it's also a big playground. I take it as an opportunity to try to produce beautiful images. I don't really focus on the clothes, or the fashion itself. I focus on the personal modeling and the surroundings.
AFH: Do you have tactics for putting portrait subjects at ease?
MB: I show my cock.
AFH: Unfair! You've photographed me before and not done that. Didn't I tell you that I am very uncomfortable when I can't see your penis. Not seeing your penis really freaks me out.
MB: I don't need subjects to be at ease. I want them to be as they are.
ArtSlant would like to thank Maxime Ballesteros for his assistance in making this interview possible.
--Ana Finel Honigman