When I first met Dirk Westphal in the fall of 1999 at an informal Sunday morning soccer game at the East River Park, I wondered why this guy would want to bring a camera. But as I was to discover, Dirk is an amazing photographer so the camera made total sense (though I don't think any pictures of those games have ever made it into his work). Dirk's work is transformative, taking the mundane and ordinary, materials such as plastic bottle caps, tooth paste, nail polish and snack cakes, and morphing them into extraordinary visual works. I was excited to have a chance to visit Dirk's Chinatown studio and to later have him agree to talk about his work.
Green Spot Blue: How did it all start for you? Was there a Damascene moment, a point when it hit you that you wanted to create art, or did you come to it more gradually?
Dirk Westphal: Mmm well, how did it all start? Was pretty gradual. My parents assumed I'd take over my father's back surgery business- he was an orthopedic surgeon- and most people in my extended family seem to be MDs, but somehow it became clear, slowly that maybe I didn't have the temperament for medical school. I was always into experimenting, which is better for research medicine I suppose but nobody wants an orthopedists who is experimental, unless of course you're making Frankenstein. I didn't figure out I wanted to be an artist til relatively late- was about 20 and I was thinking much more in terms of traditional photography. It appealed to me cause one could be creative, experimental and make money if one knew what they doing with a camera. I knew I needed a job and at the time I enjoyed traveling and not sitting down- so photography made sense in a lot of ways.
GSB: What was the first camera you had?
DW: My first camera was a gift from my parents . My father ( the surgeon always had good cameras/super 8s etc) so photography was relatively serious with us. I received a Kodak Instamatic when I was about 10. I loved it- it used this strange film size that was cheap and you could get flash cubes for at at supermarket check out . I also remember getting a black and white film developing lesson in 4th grade and being knocked out by the magical moment of watching an image appear on paper in a darkroom.
GSB: Were there any artists who influenced you dominantly when you were growing up, not so much in a stylistic sense, but as touchstones, work you would turn to find inspiration?
DW: As a teenager I was very into music. Where I grew up hard rock was normal- I was way into Black Sabbath ( first 4 records), AC DC ( first 4 records ) Rush ( first 4 records ) and then I got into punk. The Stranglers, Clash and then post punk like Joy Division, and it was this stuff that I found so inspirational. Especially the feeling certain bands had, whether it was rage, melancholia or a sensitivity about politics - not the fashion though. I still find some of this music to be my favorite or am into bands that pick up where Black Sabbath left off, for eg. I don't know much about it but some of it falls into the doom or stoner genre... and I've always liked psychedelics well, you get the picture. I think along with that, to answer your question, similarly to a lot of young people I liked Dali, Max Ernst and then the whole slew of german 'junge wilden' or young wild ones that was a resurgence of expressionistic painting in the early 80s. It was probably the attitude of these younger ( but still older than me ) expressionistic painters and sculptors and artists in general from Germany and the whole 'scene' from Berlin that was most formative for me.
GSB: What was the first work you created where it felt like you had found your voice, so to speak?
DW: Not to be a jackass, but I'm not really sure I've 'found a voice'. Often I think I have, and then after a while things change and then I'm not so sure. The way I see it, if I do find a voice, then maybe I'm done searching or looking, which is important to my artistic practice.. I'm aware of my various reoccurring interests and fascinations but things seem to always change around me so I never really have a firm handle on anything, maybe just a grasp. So, although when I'm done with a project I'm usually satisfied with it, over time I always think I could keep working on it and improve it- so maybe I felt that I had found my 'voice' with my first organized exhibition which was in college ( called exhibitionist) but I always think my voice could be clearer or stronger.
GSB: I've noticed that over the years that you seem to work in series, finding a core image or subject matter or materials and expanding and exploring its possibilities. How do you decide when you have finished with that exploration? Is it a matter of you reaching a point where the subject seems to have been fully mined or does something new come along and usurp your attention?
DW: I do almost always work in series. I usually have an idea, try to execute it, do so and then look at things for a while and go from there. I also have never gotten anything right the first time, and only learn from my mistakes so it seems to be a real part of the process for me. I let it sit, re work, come back and tinker about . Sometimes thing will lead me to a place I hadn't considered , or sometimes things aren't as interesting as I'd hoped etc... I never know til I do it. When to stop is a matter of intuition. Although I'm a bit obsessive I can stop and move on when I think I'm done or I feel maybe things are getting stale or repetitive. I think the working serially tendency comes from my years as a journalistic/commercial photographer where one always had a 'book' ( before websites) that showcased ones talents, and I've gotten used to or have always enjoyed working in a book format if that makes sense- each project is a 'book' in that there's a beginning, an end and lots of stuff in between...
GSB: When you are working on new stuff, are you thinking in terms of putting together a show of the work in a complete manner, that is shaping the gallery space as a total experience, almost as if an installation or is that an afterthought, something that surfaces later?
DW: The way a project gets shown in a gallery is always a funny thing for me. I have plenty of material usually to fill giant spaces, but I try to leave the particulars of how a show is presented up to the gallery- they usually know their space better than me, presumably. As I'm making work I never think about how or where it might be shown- that is an afterthought. I'm more focused on making it exactly the way I'd like in a perfect world. The realities I try to not think about. I know most of my peers are considerably more difficult about this type of stuff and hanging a show is always a big pain in the ass, but I don't think it should be, and it usually isn't for me. I guess I react to a specific place but try to let others take control. In my space that'd be different though.
GSB: What would you consider the five most essential things in your studio, the things that you could not work without (not so much materials but the ephemera tho you could include materials)?
DW: 5 most essential materials brains, eyes, tools ( includes camera film and computers) food and toilet I guess- without these I'd be really screwed. Not sure where 'supply' comes in on this, maybe it's part of tools...
GSB: How has new media and technology become a part of how you work? How has technology affected how you approach "the photograph"?
DW: New media has affected me in a lot of ways. It's so much easier to research imagery for example but I do waste a lot of time either trying to keep older machines ( computers) going or the constant backing up and making certain all info is where I want it and accessible the way I want it to be. For me here I thought things were fine before digital revolution. I've had to spend a lot of time learning a lot of new ways to do things I already knew how to do another way. Some things save money, some save time. For my normal process I still use film ( chromes- that means positive aka as 4/5 sheet film) that way I can see what I've got, exactly. Then I do a hi res scan and it becomes digital, as it's printed digitally, and all correspondence etc obviously goes via digitized imagery. I do think the positive chrome film shot on a Schneider lens from the 70's and then scanned on a top level scanner gives the very best result out of any combination, a bit clunky but it's very methodical and I think the old glass lenses are much better than the new ones. I'd guess everyone's thinking about chips and how they work and resolution and no one thinks much about the lens anymore. To me resolution and sharpness/clarity are very things. On the plus side, the whites are whiter, so much is faster- sending an email with a photo attached is still kind of thrilling to me- it's so easy and quick! I don't approach the photo any differently I suppose. There was a brief awkward moment for photography where wanted to know if it was 'real', unmanipulated in Photoshop- but that was always a boring conversation for me. A good photo has always had 'unreal' or often unbelievable qualities to it so the manipulation conversation is usually a bit of a snooze.
GSB: How would you describe your work, your aesthetic to a blind person?
DW: Dear Blind Person- my work lately is all about color and form lately, made with a camera mostly. I try to eliminate shadows as I feel I just want to show the thing itself, and I find shadows annoying as part of that conversation. Others have said my photos are slick, glossy, funny, dumb and or gross- which is fair enough, but I think depending on whether or not you are interested in the topic I would describe them as colorful, eye popping, visually overloaded and usually celebrating some thing that is often quite commonplace but but by taking it out of context or rearranging it slightly it becomes more than it was...
GSB: What are you working on now?
DW: Right now I'm making targets and flowers/kaleidoscopes type things out to thousands of colorful plastic bottle caps that I have collected for several years now. I make designs, and repeat and over lay the caps on each other and then photograph it directly from above. It's a sculpture of caps that is temporary and photographed for posterity. It's designed to be a photograph. It's on a lightbox so it's just the caps on white nothingness. I'm preparing for a show I have next winter in Aspen at a gallery there called Baldwi Gallery. Also, I'm working on a book with a book publisher of art books called 6Decades. We're making a book out of the 100 or so Mondrians that I remade out of nail polish, and then scanned to turn into photos. That project is done EXCEPT for all the work that goes into making a book, which is substantial. The editor, Jeremy Sanders is great at making the work come alive in book form, so at this point most of the work is on his end, as I have made the work that the book is about, he's making the book...