Zine with interview between Francesca Gavin and Peter Funch, Published by At Last books.

Rough Version With Peter Funch

An interview with Francesca Gavin in the style of Rough Version on NTS

Rough Version with Peter Funch
An interview with Francesca Gavin in the style of Rough Version on NTS, published 2023.

Get the zine here.
Buy Rough Version, The NTS Interviews With Francesca Gavin, 2016-2021 here.
Buy When You Invent The Ship, You Also Invent The Shipwreck here.

Hi, you are reading Rough Version not on NTS. My guest today is Peter Funch. Peter is a Danish artist currently based between Copenhagen and Paris. He was based in New York for a long time and has exhibited his photographic work internationally – the V&A Museum in London, the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, and has had a number of published books, most recently with At Last Books, ‘When You Invent the Ship, You Also Invent the Shipwreck’. And how are you doing today Peter?

Thank you, very good.

Let’s start from the beginning of your approach to photography. A lot of the work you do is in series. I’m really curious about what you find interesting about that as a format.

Firstly, the document or the book is always the goal, when I start a project. I think manifesting ideas and concepts. I think they work better when they’re being repeated and done again and again. That’s why many of my projects are based on a conceptual idea or approach. I use that approach for not only one, but 40, 50 or 100 images, and that becomes the document. I tried to do single images, but it needs to be more. Needs to be folded out more.

Can I ask you where the idea comes from in the beginning? Does it come through experimentation? Where does the inception of the ideas come from?

It comes out of a lot of trial and error. I have a sense of idea what I would like to do, what I like to combine, like be able to tell. It needs to be something about time breaking up the decisive moment of photography. It needs to be more cinematic, more fiction than documentary, and it needs to break the rules of how we understand photography. Is it truth? Or is it not? Is it representation or not? Is it a plateau. Then I start playing, trying out ideas and get inspired. By Paul Auster for this project with Auggie Wren. The idea of the coffee shop. Going out taking a picture every day. Can I use that and bend it? Can I tweak it? Can I steal it? It’s trying a lot, a lot of errors. And then here’s something, here’s a technique, here’s a way of doing it. Once it’s settled, I use the same technique, again, and again, for a long time, making the project. And that has been adapted into many other projects.

I’m thinking about sense of narrative in your work and how you create that in a multiplicity of different ways. It’s either repeated characters, or in the last book with At Last, that layering of images, which is a completely different way of using comparison and contrast and editing to create narrative. 

I love reading. I’ve rediscovered reading again here the last couple of years, or in the last half year. Of course, films, the idea of stories. Are these two images? Is that a new story? Does that give a third story when you layer them or like the Babel Tales, are these two people who work together? Are they a couple without knowing it? What does it do when you combine people or images or different words together?

Let’s play your first track, which is Nina Simone. Why did you choose this piece?

We have been talking about jazz. I am obsessed with Nina Simone – her whole story is so wild. And she’s such an amazing musician. Training in classical music, rejected from the schools and coming into the music world. Having to play covers but then rejecting it with a stubbornness. “No, I want to play my own stuff.” And then going into civil rights. I’m just imagining her playing at Carnegie Hall as a colored woman at that time. She played ‘Mississippi Goddam’, which was just the most amazing piece of music. People didn’t want to play it because of the subject, but also it had ‘goddam’ in the title and it was sent back broken. That’s just the insane – this is just such a story. I chose ‘Pirate Jenny’. It’s just an amazing track. You can hear her powerful voice, a way of playing piano, which is linking to classical music. She’s just combining so many genres into her own voice. It’s nice and interesting to listen to how she plays it – in studio, how she plays it live, how she plays it when she was younger, how it was when she was older, with a smaller band, with a bigger band. She’s such an amazing musician.

I think she’s one of the most played artists throughout Rough Version history. So this is Pirate Jenny by Nina Simone (live at the Carnegie Hall in New York), 1964.

Let’s go back to the work. Some of your work feels more composed. I’m particularly thinking about your mountain landscapes where you’re really playing with original sources, and reworking them. They feel quite manipulated. And in total other contrast is the street photography you did in New York. What do you get out of those different approaches?

Visually they are very different from each other. But I tried to trace the story of humanity, how we are as a society, how we are in the city, how we are in our rituals. In ‘42nd and Vanderbilt’, how we act as groups. How do we not unite as in ‘Babel Tales’, but how do we affect the nature when you go out to ‘The Imperfect Atlas’. It’s more than the rings in the water of society and humanity. I think the approach comes more of that way of thinking instead of ‘it’s portrait, or it’s people, or just landscapes. For me, it’s all one song, it’s all one story that’s connected.

Let’s talk a little bit more about ‘42nd and Vanderbilt’ for a minute. How long did that take to put together? You’re there in the same location repeatedly over time capturing what turned out to be the same individuals on different days and then presenting them together. That process must have been very heavily based on editing.

Yeah, it’s funny. It’s the same idea. I start out on a project but I’m not 100 percent – I’m not completely sure what it is. I liked that. I was fascinated with the idea of finding the regulars. I was even playing with the idea of contacting these regulars and finding names. But does it change anything? If we know one person’s called Frank or something? I seemed like a complete idiot and trying to stop these people down. ‘Excuse me, what are your name I’m doing project’. It didn’t work out. It’s more about this flow of ideas, of observing people… I didn’t know how I was going to edit it before the end of it. I think it was 2015. I built up such an archive. I needed to figure out what to do with it and I made these big groups of images where I see 20, 30, 40, 50 images of the same person. I think I was a little bit inspired by ‘The Imperfect Atlas’ where you compare images, like a postcard and an image I create. It gives the story and imagine what’s happening between. What about if it’s just two images. They look like they’re seconds apart, but they could days, weeks, months, or even years in between.

I think I spent 14 days just like editing down this book made a PDF. When I finished the PDF, I sent it out to a few publishers and TBW, from Oakland. Paul, he responded right away and said, ‘Oh, it’s a very fascinating project. And we had a meeting, I was like, let’s do a book. And, you know, that’s the way it came out. And we made a book, and it was just a synthesis, consciously a one liner explanation. It went viral on everything from the Bored Panda to weird places. Now it’s hanging at museums. It’s quite fascinating how to how a project could communicate so widely.

Were you ever approached by any of the people in the images afterwards?

Yeah. I have funny stories of the book fair, in New York. Somebody looked at the book, and one came with a mobile phone and showed a picture of one of the guys. “I just went on a holiday with him”. From the picture in the street, with formal clothing, he’s now hanging in a pool, just being on a holiday. To other kinds of funny stories of people writing me. I could only say thank you for un-voluntarily being part of this project. I’ll send you a book as a thank you. But nothing negative. It was really positive. I think also when you when you look at the book, it doesn’t really show people in a compromising situation. I tried to make it very impassioned, based on empathy and humane. We think about the ‘what if’ but I don’t show. I just open for your way of thinking about it. What could happen? What’s our daily rituals?

Let’s play another track. Let’s play your Madvillain track. Madvillain, Madlib and MF Doom, what a trio of M’s. Why did you choose this piece?

I don’t know it’s funny. Putting together four tracks, I wanted toshow what I really liked with a variation of music. I love hip hop. I think this is just one of the most jazzy, wild samples, hip hop albums made in such a long time. The sound is so raw, the rhythm is so amazingly smooth and the rap is, of course, amazing. I think it’s one of the albums I listen to the most.

Okay, this is ‘All Caps’ by Madvillain, Madlib and MF Doom from the album ‘Madvillainy’.

This might be quite an obvious question that a lot of people working with photography as a medium get asked, but I’m really curious about how you think about things differently when they are on a wall of museums and when you are exhibiting in books.

Because I work a lot digitally, a lot is on the screen. A lot is on the phone. I think when it becomes print, it’s definitely the final statement of how it is supposed to be done. The final version of the product I’ve been doing. I think the big difference of when it’s on the wall, is the whole dimensional aspect of how you look at an image, or a painting. You make a narrative by walking around. The viewer is the one deciding what the storyline is. I think that that whole idea about how you hang the images – are they over or under each other, or in a line or even play with ideas that they could be lying on the floor or leaning up against the wall. I tried so many different elements. I think this whole dimensional spatial aspect of watching, of playing or working with images in a frame on a wall is so fascinating. I’m not talking quantum physics, but it’s a whole other dimension than working with a book.

Let’s talk about the last book. Let’s talk about the one that At Last published because you were quite experimental.
I think there was some multiplicity of covers. I’m very curious about how it came together, because it covers 25 years of your work. 

It started with Hans [Munk] at At Last Books, as a conversation. We talked about what to do, and he said, I really like your archive. I had on my website a very loose, not very organized archive with all this old stuff. All these experiments that has been leading to my other projects. I think it’s just nice to show because it has a story. Our frame for making the book was let’s do it with that. I said I would like to edit it – play with the idea of making a book that had flow but not a narrative. It’s a grid. The book that becomes the flow of the book that becomes the whole aspect of images that is put together. Again, it was just sitting with a computer and editing and adding pages. I think at some point, I said ‘Hans, I have now 300 pages’. I can’t remember now, like I was at 192 pages, and then I narrowed it down, and [thought] let’s add another layer to it. Let’s use leftover papers from the printer company, from Narayana. Let’s do different covers. The idea that it’s not one thing, it has multiple options as well. Meaning that the paper changes the whole way way through the book. So it’s not one narrative. It’s changing all the time.

Let’s play another track. I want to play the Floating Points. I love this album, which is from Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and London Symphony Orchestra. Why ‘Movement 6’ and why this album? It came out during the pandemic?

It’s an album that came out in the middle of the pandemic. Was it in 2021? I listened to Floating Points. I heard so many concerts. Pharoah Sanders – in jazz he’s one of the most amazing saxophone players. And then Floating Points – Sam. His ability to combine genres of music and put it into one. It’s the most meditative beautiful psychedelic album. It’s like Nina Simone. He combines everything into one. I’ve listened to this album so many times in so many different ways – using it for meditation, using it for sleeping, using it for working. It’s so amazing. Why ‘6’? It could have been 2, it could have been 1. I think it’s where the album starts changing a little bit more. Where there’s a few more elements being added to this same repetitive aspect that the album’s build up on.

Cool. Okay, this is ‘Movement 6’ from ‘Promises’, by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and London Symphony Orchestra.

A lot of your work recently has been included in exhibitions around climate. As a curator, I’ve never asked this question, how do you feel like your work shifts when it’s placed in different contexts?

‘The Imperfect Atlas’ was always meant to be about climate change. Not climate change – I think our changing relationship to nature and how we affect nature. I was always aware that it was going in that context, but I also didn’t want to make something was a direct proof. It’s not really comparative. I wanted to be standing in between the chance of being poetic and science. First by using a postcard to compare a photo that’s already done with a technique that looks more like a painting than a photo. I was interested in being between the two chairs of the poetic and effectual storytelling of climate change. Where it’s more the viewer who has to think about what is it? What is the nature? Why does the images look so intoxicated and beautiful, almost like the sublime aspect of the painting? I think it’s a relevant, very important conversation to be part of.

The work also, in a wider way, is about defining or exploring what contemporary ideas around beauty are. Because your work can be very beautiful.

Yeah, the mountain images are very beautiful. But they are ugly, they’re beautiful. It’s saddening idea, but it’s also you get a certain respect for nature.

Some of the images in the At Last book, which are like about destruction also have like elements of psychedelic beauty.

Even the last project with the bunkers from Second World War, looking out of the this terrible, the darkest moment of European history, looking from these bunkers out to the horizon, the day of tomorrow, and me insisting it has a positive aspect,. It’s not cynical. I really am fascinated with this idea – can you see from the darkest moment into something beautiful? Is there a poetic or optimistic aspect in that? And I think a play with a title borrowed from Viktor Frankl, ‘Possibilities of Tomorrow’.

The images are incredible. They’re slits of beautiful landscape in crumbling, weird, concrete, rusty views. You almost don’t realize what you’re looking at without the explanation. But that there is this sensation of inward and outside. They’re really dramatic.

I’m doing it from northern Norway, down through Denmark, Belgium, Holland to France. And, of course, Paul Virilio’s book ‘Bunker Archeology’ was a huge inspiration for making this project. I started just before the pandemic. I think, coming back to Europe, how to do something about European history, and also move away from the whole figurative aspect I’ve been doing to something very abstract, or very metaphorical.

A lot of your work has involved like you traveling and movement and going to places. Travel is in there.

Yeah, I would say in the New York was very ritual based. It’s being in New York, and the observer. Maybe because the city is so busy and everything’s happening in front of me, I didn’t need to travel so much. There’s definitely a road trip romantic aspect of all these projects. Of going on a plane, going to a place, discovering. Not in a Marco Polo sense, but in my own naive little world of ‘how does it look there? How does it look from that side?’ I’m still fascinated with this idea that you travel you go, you explore, you experience and you tell not a true story, but some story.

I’m thinking of Robert Frank’s road trips. The road trip is very intertwined with the formation of photography.

For sure. It’s a way of exploring. Like, I chose this. I went there and an accident happened and that’s the way the story’s been told.

Let’s finish with your last track, which is PJ Harvey. Why did you choose this piece?

She’s such a powerful woman, such a musician. The core of rawness in music. She is so poetic. She comes out of that generation of Nick Cave, who I find so good in explaining what they’re doing and being so true to how they’re experimenting. I played music as a kid. I wasn’t very good, but I love the idea of all the sounds it made. Playing drums and guitar and bass – I was obsessed with it. I think when the camera came in, it was like, ‘okay, that’s another tool I can play with that I’m better at’. I just left the music. I really enjoy just listening to the rawness of each instrument. For classical, for techno, for everything, just listening to how it’s put together.

Cool. Okay, this is PJ Harvey ‘Rid of Me’. And thank you very much, Peter, for coming in.