Photography happened to be a split of the moment decision for Bastiaan Woudt that has turned into a life he never expected. He started his journey as a photographer with no formal training or experience only seven years ago but has already made a name for himself in the world of contemporary photography with his monochromatic style and unique interpretation of his subjects.
Inspired by the surrealism and documentary photography of the late-20th century, Woudt has managed to incorporate the principles and experimental techniques of photographers like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn in the creation of his work today. We talked with him about everything photography, including the organic process it took for him to find his signature style and the relationships that he develops with his subjects on the camera.
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Bastiaan, could you please introduce yourself and tell us what sparked your interest in photography?
My career in photography didn’t start as you might think. I bought my first camera after my first son was born (in 2009). Of course, my interest in photography started sometime before by collecting photography books and buying work from other photographers – especially, old photography interested me the most. When I bought my first camera, I was studying Hotel and Event Management in Amsterdam and was planning on having a career in the hotel or restaurant business.
In 2011, I graduated from the school and was at a point where I had to decide what to do: find a job that complemented my study or take a year off and try to find my way into photography. I decided to take a chance and commit myself to photography. After six months, I met a photographer whose studio was for rent. I started renting it and slowly got my first assignments. Six months later, business was going very well and I bought the studio.
Your photographic style is extremely unique with its black-and-white images, attention to detail, and faded look. How did you develop this visual style? Was it an organic process or did it happen quite suddenly?
No, it was definitely an organic process. My love for photography started when I looked into the old photography and studied the old masters and techniques. The feeling, dynamics and experimental ways of shooting the photographers in earlier stages of photography were showcasing are, in my opinion, mind-blowing. In the digital age of photography that we are living in now, I never got the same feeling. So when I was trying to find my own signature, my own style, I was looking to find a way to incorporate the feeling and dynamics of the old photographers combined with the aesthetics of film photography, but in a digital form.
It took me a few years to reach a point at which people were starting to recognize my work. A very important part of this process was being coached by Roy Kahmann, owner of the Kahmann Gallery in Amsterdam, which is now my gallery. We met in the time that I was really looking to find my own signature. He said to me that he saw something in my work, but I was not there yet. He never said what to do, or how to shoot. But he taught me how to look, select and think of how images work together.
Portraiture and nudity are common themes in your images. What is it about the human body and our relationship to nudity that attracts you to photograph it?
I love to work with people. I love to hear people’s stories when I photograph them in my studio. I think a fascination for how other people live their lives is what got me into portrait photography. One of the most important things in portrait photography, in my opinion, is when you have your portrait taken by a photographer: he gives his interpretation of a person at that time at that moment. I don’t think you can photograph a person ‘as he is’ in a studio environment. I meet with somebody in my studio, we talk, we have coffee, but when I start photographing, I’m giving my perception of that person. Having that freedom is one of the greatest things a creative artist could ever want.
The same goes for nude photography. I love the aesthetics of the female body. I think it's very pure, to photograph a person without clothing. It brings everything back to the essence. Having somebody to take their clothes off in front of my camera is the ultimate trust in me as a photographer.
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Unlike most photographers, your images aren’t limited by genre and you capture anything that catches your eye including portraits, still lives, and landscapes. Do you believe that genre should define a photographer’s work? Why haven’t you let it define yours?
No, I don’t think so. I believe that once you find your signature style, it doesn’t matter what you have in front of your lens. It all should be your vision of a subject, whether it is a person, a landscape or an object. For me, these three blend together when you look at my work. Some of my landscapes have characters, so they could be portraits. Some people I shoot as static as a statue, so it could be a still life. For me, genre doesn’t matter; what matters is that people recognize your work as yours.
Your most recent trip to Mukono (Uganda) was for the Marie-Stella-Maris foundation and focused on the relationship between community and water. How did you manage to photograph that relationship while you were there? Did the project come out as you expected?
I began this project as I do with any other: without a detailed plan. I don’t do research before going to a country or taking on a project. I want to be surprised by what I see. I want to be completely unbiased and want to start photographing based on my instinct and feelings. So when travelling to Uganda for Marie Stella Maris, I knew a few things: we had a guide who spoke the language, we had a place to stay, we had only three days there, and there had to be a connection with water in the images I was making.
The plan was to not shoot very literally, but to photograph the people that were part of the project, the landscapes that the people were living in and everything else that came across my path. I think I captured the relationship by including images of everyday life, with or without the water. Dry pieces of land (showing the lack of water), jerry cans that are used to carry water, children playing in the water and still lives of the water sources. Combining those images with all the portraits makes the relation very clear.
Photography, like any other art form, is a mean of expression. How does photography then allow you to see the world around you? How do you express yourself through your lens?
Just by doing it my way. I think it's very hard to explain what that is. It's an instinct, a gut feeling to do things the way I think they are right. Of course, you are being shaped as a photographer by looking at art, graphic design and films. But at the end of the day, your choice of subject, the way you approach your subject and the selection of the one image that comes from that encounter is something that is for the most part personal, and something that is hard to decipher.
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Surrealism and the documentary photography of the 1960s and ‘70s heavily influence your work. Compared to photographic practices in the past, what do you think about the current state of contemporary photography today?
The evolution of technology has brought a lot of great advantages. Shooting digital is a blessing for me as I shoot so much work and as analogue techniques became quite expensive in terms of buying film. This evolution, on the other hand, also raised a generation of people that are shooting for a certain perfection. Everything has got to be sharp, high-resolution and flawless. Photography, at the beginning of the surrealist era, and later, during the period of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, had this element of surprise, a way of experimenting with techniques and the overall feeling and dynamics – that’s what got me into photography. I guess I miss these imperfections, flaws and elements of surprise in the photography I see nowadays.
What’s next for Bastiaan Woudt? Any upcoming projects that you’re excited for?
A lot of exciting things coming up! I have the honour of shooting for some great magazines that will publish my work in the upcoming months. And new collaborations and exhibitions, and also a new project in Nepal in 2019.
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