German artist’s Robert Bartholot’s photography can be described as a mixture of vivid dreams and surreal characters, depicted in both colorful and pastel, yet purposely artificial surrounding. The more plastic it looks, the better, according to Bartholot, even though, as a consequence, to a viewer it might seem slightly disturbing.
I contact him just a couple of days before heading to Berlin and, luckily, receive his full of excitement letter back just on time. We meet up in a cafe called “The Barn”, which is tiny but surprisingly busy and loud.
Got to mention — I have once seen him back in Lithuania, where he was presenting his work in “What’s Next?” — a conference of Creative Industries, and this time talking to him in person is both positively weird and exciting.
Robert is slightly nervous but keeps smiling as he sits down by the tiny table just right next to me and a group of loud Spanish women behind us.
When I ask Robert, how he would like to be described to readers, he instantly responds he’s not a classic photographer, but rather a “photo designer” which means being involved in a whole process of coming up with an idea, creating the set and finally capturing the shot. In short, what Robert does is a mixture of direction and photography. Most often it is a digital collage when he shoots several different objects, not necessarily at once, and then puts them into one composition.
Robert has been raised in the South of Germany, Konstanz city, whereas a child he had rather a hard time to live in. “It was a nightmare. There was no Internet, and I was so hungry for information, fashion and music. However, in the main station there was a kiosk, where I would buy a magazine called “The Face”. It was from England and super famous back in the ‘80s, so would be a source of inspiration for me. There was no fashion, nor shops to buy cool things in Konstanz at all, so some of us, the young ones, were trying to break out and dress up crazy. I was expressing myself through the things I was wearing.”
DESPAIR AND 7 YEARS OF CROSSING DAYS
When did you move away then? “I was 19. I finished school and just a week later I left — had been waiting for that for a long time. Actually, since I was 12, I was calculating, how many days in school were left until I finish it. I had a big board where each day I would cross one out.” You seriously did that for 7 years? “Yes, it was 7 years of crossing and waiting to run away. When I would miss a day and I could do two in a row, would be very excited (laughs).
Robert, as same as my other interviewed artist, didn’t have any specific art-related background, and it actually took him a while to become one, as there was no support from aside. The first steps towards becoming an artist for him were very insecure and hard: “I thought I’m not talended, because I couldn’t draw and had hesitations to learn. I mean, when I was at school in an art class, I would always get good grades, but in the final year when some of my school mates were applying to art schools, I didn’t do that because I thought I wouldn’t be accepted anyway.
Then I started to study History of Art and German Literature, but I wasn’t very satisfied with it, so afterwards did an apprenticeship as a media designer in an advertising agency.” What would your role be in there? “I would be a graphic designer and do some horrible stuff (lowers his voice and looks down to the table, what makes me giggle). It was specialized in making CD covers but not like beautiful and artistic, but those kitschy ones, something like “Viva Italia”, “Summer Hits”, and it would look cheap and ugly.”
DISCOVERY OF NEW TALENTS ON A BREAKTHROUGH TO SPAIN
After the apprenticeship Robert started moving through places again but his breakthrough was in Zürich, where he met one Spanish photographer, who was looking for an assistant in Madrid. “This sounded very interesting, so I moved to Madrid and spent there 3 years. As an assistant, I would carry equipment but I would also be asked for my opinion a lot, too. And as I still had this kind of design crisis, I was being pushed to use the camera and do something with it.” And have you done anything with photography before? “No, I knew nothing about it. I had no idea how it works. But it was a really good experience, as he (the Spanish photographer) did all kinds of photography, but mainly shooting for fashion editorials or celebrities such as Boy George, Moby and others. An artist would come to promote his new record or album, so it was really exciting. I saw a lot of people and I learnt how a real life of a photographer looks like. It’s actually a hard business, and I would still never plan to become a photographer. I would do this for experience but never thought of working as one.”
After this period of life, Robert had decided to move back to Germany, however, this time to Berlin. “I moved to Berlin six years ago. I’m 44 now, so I was 36… Hold on, 38 back then (laughs). I still like it, but I’ve been here for six years now, which is the longest I’ve ever stayed anywhere.”
Probably, the main thing, which distinguishes Robert from other photographers, is that he hasn’t got any background from Art School. He has his own approach to what he does, which, in his own words, “can sometimes be helpful”, as he is not restricted to anything.
Could you describe the style in your photography? “To me it’s graphic. In a way it’s minimalistic, but then there are lots of colors and details. For example, the project called “Accessory Plants” and photo shoot of it was different because we were shooting everything separately. We’d then put objects together and make a digital collage. The background is completely fake, also the lighting is impossible as it is in the picture, but we wanted it to be like that. We wanted to create something that looks beautiful and surreal at the same time.”
How did the set, where you took a picture of a purse, look like? “The purse was simply hanging, and we turned it searching for a beautiful angle. We would shoot each thing in many different angles, looking how they would fit into the composition, then take one picture, (makes knocking noise with his tongue) cut the object out and place it in the final composition.” But when you would shoot a glove, for example, would you hold it on a wire? “Oh no, we would just place it on the table. Similar with the paper leaves — someone would just hold them. It’s super fake. But I love this, because it gives you more possibilities, as you shoot everything separately and can then change whatever you want. Move objects until you die (laughs).”
Can you say you’re living out of photography? “Yes. But I’m also doing a lot of things that I don’t show to anybody, since it’s mostly a boring stuff. For example, a month ago I was shooting portraits of one company’s employers. They deal with all kinds of telecommunication, so I had to shoot many devices, too. But it’s a good training because you have to deal with different kinds of surfaces, reflections.”
Did you have any project which you would just art direct — not taking shots yourself but creating a concept? “Usually it’s like a package — clients approach me, ask for sketches first, which I do in photoshop for ideas and concepts.” But would you sometimes tell your ideas to another photographer and not take a picture yourself? “I had this once, it was a TV commercial for Playstation in Spain, some English learning game, and I did the moodboards, styling and set design, but not the shooting. So I might also be booked as an art director (laughs).
Another thing, which might separate Robert’s photography from others, is a background used in pictures. Most of the times it’s very minimalistic, having either one vivid or pastel color or a bright gradient. According to Robert, it’s almost never natural but rather created in Photoshop during the editing process. “I like the background to be minimalistic because then objects in the picture look as if they were in museum, somewhat close to a sculpture put in a clear space” — says he.
You like it to be very artificial, too. “Yeah, totally. Even when I shoot people, it still looks like a still life image. I prefer them to be artificial, because when you look at it, you can question, who is this person. I like to make viewers think what a rigid person in the picture is doing.” Is this the reason why you sometimes cover their faces in the pictures? “I read a lot about where it comes from but when I just started photography, the first figure was with covered face.”
He then skims quickly through his iPad searching for the specific image to show. “It’s actually me. It was the first thing I did related to photography and I was so ashamed asking someone to take a picture of me, so I did it with the timer running from one spot to another (laughs loudly). But I think the face covering on the pictures started around 2009, when socia media made everybody so open to one another, and I wanted something very plain, with no personalities, completely anonymous. This also gives more mystical and surreal feeling to photographies.
Also, now when I shoot people and they don’t have their face covered, I tend to make them look like dolls and cover in make-up. For example, this one (points the picture on his iPad of a gorgeous looking man) — he’s completely covered in such a big layer of make-up. Of course, there’s a little bit of retouch after the shooting, but just a little, as his skin was already perfect and we just adjusted the shades.”
After saying this, Robert starts scrolling through the screen again and this time stops to reveal one series of photos. There’s a man looking from them rather disturbing, but once again — it’s Robert’s intention to get his viewers through these kind of emotions. “Here I just wanted something irritating in the person. It could be some kind of American general, working for an air force. But at the same time you can think of Khrushchev, too — there are so many associations, and I just wanted something to look a little bit disturbing. Here, for example, are fingernails for manicure (points out to the character’s eyebrows).” Was the person wearing them for real or you applied it in editing? “They were glued.” What about the teeth then? “We also glued those nails on the tape next to each other and then put them in his mouth. Here, actually, is almost no Photoshop at all, maybe only little corrections. In the last picture we covered his face with vaseline, so it would look dramatic. He was actually bursting into laughter at that point, however, in the picture it looks like he’d be suffering and crying.”
When I ask Robert which technique he prefers more — collage or a single shot, he slightly pauses to think of the right answer. To him, collage is more challenging and takes more time, however, he likes it a lot. It mostly depends on the setting, whether it is prepared well in the start. Once it is, then, according to him, one snap with a camera can already be enough. “I feel comfortable with a collage, because I can keep changing it until I get the result, which I want.” — Robert adds.
Do you more often happen to have those so called “perfect” instant shots or rather projects that last for days and you’d still be unsatisfied with the outcome? “If it’s for a client, then it’s more like I start taking pictures and getting used to the project in the start. I mean, first days are really like “crying”. Like, “oh my god, this is going to be a nightmare, nothing’s working out” (laughs). And then the other day you already have a lesson learnt and all goes more smoothly. Talking about personal work, I’m very critical with the result but at least I can be more playful, you know.” Are you very self-critical? “Yes. I almost never show completely everything. I send a lot of material to magazines for editorial but I keep my own website very tight. Simply because I think it’s not necessary to have more than it is now.”
IN PICTURES, GAIN COMES RIGHT AFTER THE PAIN
Do you have any preferences for specific objects in pictures or does it depend more on the concept? How do you decide on using one material over another? “It depends on the concept but I have some kind of obsession with liquids (laughs). I mean, not all the time, but just lately. For example here (shows the picture of a man’s face covered in some unknown liquid) we were pouring a mixture of gelatine and food colouring. There was also chocolate and caramel sauce.”
He then scrolls a little bit down through iPad’s screen to show me another picture of a man’s back, where some kind of sparkly glitter is sliding down from hair through his spine.
“This liquid was a little girls’ “Princess” shampoo with glitter inside, and it looked really nice. The funny thing was, as we were pouring it without any water, the guy’s skin, when he washed it off, was very irritated. And can you imagine, this stuff is for kids! Almost like a toxic one (laughs).” I’ve never seen a shampoo with glitter before. “I found it in a drug store! And so it was for little girls and called “Princess Shampoo” (giggles again). But coming back to materials and textures used in photos, so I change my preferences quite often. There was this obsession with liquids, then papers, and I also love glitter a lot.”
What about people over the objects in pictures? What is your preference here? “What I like about things, is that they don’t talk, nor move, so you can do with them whatever you want. With a person you have to be more careful.” But from the pictures it still seems you shape them completely, too. “Sometimes, yes. These UNICEF girls (skims through a couple of pictures of the girls covered in some kind of mud and paint), would sometimes have to hold their breath, but of course, we had to do the shooting really fast. They would have a straw for breathing. And also, the girls weren’t from any kind of modeling agency, they were actually kids of my friends. And both them and their parents took it as a challenge. We had a lot of fun, however, I would always be like “Oh my god, what am I doing to these girls!”. But all of them were fine.
So in the end I like both people and objects. But I prefer to work with my friends, as there’s a more personal relationship and you don’t feel so bad throwing this all stuff to their faces (laughs loud over the whole tiny cafe, and only then I realize we’re the last visitors, sitting there in the corner, discussing)”.
If you looked at more works from Robert, you’d probably spot that many objects from different series tend to float in the air. When I point this out in the interview, he admits it and says he loves that impression of floating. It always seems that after my each question he always has an answer to prove with a certain picture: “This is actually hair (shows me the picture with a huge grey hairball). It was an instalation. My one friend works with sculptures and he did this one, too. So it was a huge empty ball of fake hair, and we would produce steam inside of it to create more volume. I have so many pictures from which I couldn’t choose the final one because they all looked so beautiful.”
Could you tell me more about the series of other pictures with the man covered in colorful clothes and also floating in the air? ”Oh yes. This was actually made in my place and this is my boyfriend (points to the only one model in those series smiling). The close friend of mine is a fashion designer and she was about to send her designed clothes to a store in Japan very soon, so she asked me to quickly do something with them. I wanted to incorporate some architectural details with those clothes, so I ended up with running around my home with them in hands, thinking “What can I do? What can I do?!”. Then I came up with idea of someone jumping in the picture (giggles)”. These are some awkward jumps then. Didn’t he fall down? “The good thing is that when you shoot really low and somebody jumps, it looks way more dramatic and higher than it actually is. In this picture (shows me the one with the highest looking jump) there was a chair, standing right in the corner, and he was making a step off of it. But that was a bit painful, though, because it was done higher than in others. In the end, there is actually no Photoshop, everything was only about capturing the right moment.”
SYNTHETIC OVER AUTHENTIC
I remember reading some other interview with you where you once described your pictures as surreal. So what is actually surrealism to you? “I think it’s more of a situation. In a way, it can be absurdity.” So you can agree that one of your main aims in the pictures is to make them look particularly surreal? “Yeah. Maybe not the main thing, but I want to make it look magical in a way. Now we always want transparency, always know, how it was made. And I want the opposite, so that people while looking at the pictures simply wouldn’t understand what it actually is.
So much photography is supposed to be authentic but at the same time there is so much post-prodution these days and all these make-up artists, that in the end there’s no authenticity anymore, just an illusion of it. I prefer to do something really artificial, cause to me it is even more honest in a way”.
What is irony to you? Where would you point it out in your works? “Irony to me is more related to exageration. Like here (shows me one picture) — this is my Russian girl, we dressed her in a fake fur, that’s a typical cliche of a Russian woman or a person in general. Even though irony might seem as something dark, I don’t take it as bad.” So you want to make it playful in a way too, right? “Yes, that’s correct.”
Having asked Robert about his personal projects once again, and how he comes up with the ideas or topics, he answers that most often it’s very intuitive. It can sometimes happen during a visit of a friend, when they start shooting ideas to one another, which later might evolve to some real photo shooting with make-up artists, plannings and sketchings.
You said you use colors unconsciously but confidently. How you decide on choosing vivid and bright colors for some projects and for others you keep very minimalist or pastel shades? “Well, it comes really unconsiously.” But what then means having a confidence in deciding which colors to choose? “(struggles with coming up with the right answer, but then answers shortly). It means that I just do it and I’m sure about what I do (smiles). Even if it doesn’t have any explanation behind it. I think it has something depending on the mood of the project and the photoshooting. But sometimes I can decide of changing the colors in the middle of the shooting even though I had another vision from the start.”
Coming back to he part, where I mentioned I’ve seen Robert live before, I ask him a question exactly about his staying in Vilnius and speech in a Creative Industries’ conference, held back in 2014. This conference mainly aims to speakers, who come from different sectors of creativity.
Can you tell me how you got a chance to speak in it? “I’ve got an offer from a teacher of the school called “Atomic Garden”, which organizes it. I think he saw me last year in May talking in OFFF festival in Barcelona and invited later.” And did you do anything related to Atomic Garden? “No, nothing. I just came as a speaker, and to have a good time. It was a great conference. As it was made for the first time, was so friendly and familiar.”
How did you find other speakers? Were you inspired by anyone? “Yes, there was this one Lithuanian guy who wrote a book together with some friend of his (Tomas Ramanauskas, Authors Note), and I enjoyed his speech very much. There was also a discussion about advertising in Vilnius, which was interesting to listen to, because it’s still a young and small market, I think.”
As the interview was soon finishing, I had left the last and the most curious question from myself in the very end. It’s funny how I saw Robert once back in the conference we have talked about just a few moments ago, however, I got more interested into his works right after coming across a series of mysterious looking figures, holding yellow painted objects in their hands. It was a set of 12 different human shaped statues, with their faces covered and having been called as “Demiurges”.
I know it was done for the book of the OFFF festival. “Yes. We did it this spring together with my friend Sergio, who works in “Serial Cut” (design studio, based in Madrid, Spain). He was approached by the OFFF organizers and was asked to make something for the book. They wanted portraits, however, anonymous and fictional — like gods and godesses in some way.
Why objects were solid yellow? “Just to make them pop out more, what Serial Cut is used to. This was the idea of Sergio, and also to make them look less sinister. But I was doing the whole concept, sketching and styling.”
What 12 figures stand for? Months in a year or something else? “In the book these figures represent famous designers, that have spoken in the festival, and each figure would have a name of a designer next to it. To make the figures not look too similar to one another, we divided them into groups of different colors.”
Having asked why then they have chosen to stick to purple, grey, blue and black, Robert gets slightly lost and giggles shortly with a following “I don’t know” right after.
“I mean, purple is a very mystical color, and black is too. Also, the topic was related to a religion in a way, as if they were gods and godesses of design. So all of these colors made the figures look more transcendential. There are also more blue pictures but I don’t really like them. I mean, twelve images — you can’t like them all, right? (laughs). Do you have your favourite character in the pictures, though? “Yes, these ones (scrolls through his tablet screen to a bunch of figures).
How did you decide on the objects, which ones to use in the pictures? “I was going through some flea markets and was also shooting them in there, then sending to Sergio for approval. I was doing the work, but he was also involved into decision of images.”
And for the end — the last but not least question for Robert was about other artists in general and if he coud tell who inspires him at the moment the most. Here Robert almost doesn’t need any time to reply and confidently states not the names, but the types and style of design. “Recently or for the last two — three years I had this obession with 3D artists because of all those incredible textures. I follow them on Instagram, however cannot recall the exact names right now. I also love 3D typography artists, classic ones, too, and am actually a lot into Renaissance art.”
Another interview, leading from excitement beforehand to a fullfilment afterwards, ends, and I am very happy of having been accompanied by such a talented photographer. Robert is an interesting human with many weird and fascinating ideas in his head, which more of them, I believe, are just lurking around the corner, waiting to be released pretty soon.
Robert would always be happy to get a greeting email with an offer to team for any rad looking photoshoot, editorial for a magazine or even create a design for a set. Make sure to check out more of his works on links below: