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Despite working with the medium of photography, Portuguese artist Carla Cabanas goes beyond the definition of ‘photographer’. “I’ve been exploring photography’s narrative and fictional possibilities, as well as how it can potentially reveal our personal and collective identities”, she tells us in this interview.

Carla’s work involves more than taking a snapshot. It requires thorough research, she delves into public and private archives (family albums are of particular interest to her), and the final result isn’t a series of pictures but an entire narrative about a topic she’s worked on for a long time. Take The Mechanics of Absence for instance, for which she did an installation with various projectors that screened different pictures on several layers of tulle. “It was all about the difficulty of anchoring our memories, of filling the gaps, of actually knowing who and what is absent from our memory”, she tells us about it. Today, we speak with her about the many layers of photography, memory, and some of her personal projects.

Carla, you’ve been practicing photography for a decade. What was it like to be a photographer when you were just a beginner and what does it mean to be one today?
I used to photograph much more than I do now. But I don't feel I need to photograph in order to create a body of work that reflects on photography, especially considering the huge number of images being produced in this particular moment in history. My grandmother gave me some negatives of family photos at a moment when I was trying to understand my personal history, recapturing memories that I didn’t actually have.
In one of the projects, I photographed people out of focus and asked them to tell me their oldest memory. Later, I photographed using other people’s memories as a starting point. For another project, I asked people to tell a story about me while I was taking a pinhole portrait of them that lasted the same amount of time as it took for them to speak.
I see memory is a recurring theme.
These projects were an attempt to fill the lack of memories and an emptiness I felt, as if they could help me create memories, as if I could reclaim the memories other people shared with me as my own. And the best medium to explore this was photography. So, I was doing these sorts of experiments when my grandmother’s negatives of old family photos came into play. They sparkled an interest in old photographs and the relation between this medium and memory.
What about now?
At this point, I think that my work ceased to be as personal as it used to be. I started to incorporate the idea of a family album, something that is more or less common for most people, at least since the early 1990s until the early 2000s (when the digital took over and reshaped how we look at image making and archiving). Anyway, I started to look at flea markets for old, abandoned family albums, while wondering about the frailty of life, oblivion, discarded memories. I was starting to think of family albums as a sort of anonymous archive of times passed, and it was just a small leap to go from there to the collective memory and institutionalized archives.

“Far from crystallizing the past, photography can help us shape how we see ourselves in the present.”
What do you enjoy the most about the creative process? Or are you more result-oriented?
It really depends. Some projects tend to be more process-based, starting with a lot of research, trials and errors, and experimentation. Others are a materialization of a clear image in my mind. For instance, The Matrix and The Interval evolved from research during the Walk & Talk festival artistic residency, in Azores. Being a very free environment, I could work just about whatever I wanted. In these situations, my first impulse is to look for, either public or private, local photography archives.
What did you find and where?
There are some collections in São Miguel Island but the one that caught my attention belongs to the Ponta Delgada Cultural Institute. It’s a large collection with items from professional photographers, namely glass plates from the early 20th century. Some are photographs that have been taken from other photographs as a means of reproduction, a way to make copies when the matrix no longer exists. Each glass plate depicts a single photograph – landscapes, portraits, etc. – mounted on impromptu backgrounds, some a bit silly and chaotic, only to make the reproduction possible.
So, my project evolved from these archival photographs with pictures that were done with the intention of making the image last longer, to preserve this memory, except that I erased them. The viewer couldn’t have access to the image anymore, only seeing the apparatus. In the end, it came to be also about the process of photography and the production of images.
On the other hand, with the Eclipse series, I had a specific idea but while researching for technical solutions, the original idea changed completely, and another poetical dimension appeared. So, I guess what I really enjoy is to experiment, to follow intuition and to incorporate the unexpected, whether it’s a more result-oriented or process-oriented project.
You use different mediums and multiple layers of photography in your works. How do you decide the concept of your next projects and how do you determine which way to proceed is the most suitable?
I would say that the choice of medium and the development of the concepts in each project are intertwined. Being invited to artistic residencies or working with pre-determined materials is an interesting way to begin. Having limited resources is a challenge that makes you step out from your comfort zone.

Could you illustrate that with an example? 
Clouds Game started with an invitation to participate in an exhibition around two paintings from the Dutch artist Jan van Goyen, Landscape with Good Weather and Landscape with Bad Weather. The exhibition was curated by Margarida Medeiros and included another artist, Manuel Valente Alves. The conversations I had with both of them were a crucial part of the process, which prompted me into using the wet collodion technique.
The wet collodion plates create ambiguous images, juxtaposing the positive and the negative of an image. This process allowed me to explore ideas around the instability of the image and of human perception. So, in this project, I explored how concept and medium influence each other during the creative process. Sometimes, I can have a feeling or an intuition lingering in my head for years until I finally start to see it as an image. It’s only after I begin to materialize it that the meaning reveals itself and I can start putting words and concepts into it.
Is it safe to say that you’re interested by the themes of inexistence, disappearance, and mystical things? Archived World, What Remains of What it Was, and Eclipse are only some of the projects that explore these questions. Do you think photography is capable of crystallizing the past, of archiving it?
Well, that is precisely one of the questions I try to approach with my work. I’ve been exploring photography’s narrative and fictional possibilities, as well as how it can potentially reveal our personal and collective identities. For instance, nameless archives like the family albums and other kinds of vernacular photography can be as important as institutionalised archives.
Family albums are a way of social and emotional communication, and also, a way of understanding and dealing with life. They are portable remainders of our ancestors even if, as time goes by, we no longer know who these people are. I find it very interesting to see how we portrait ourselves or our loved ones, and what are the moments worth celebrating and archiving. Far from crystallizing the past, photography can help us shape how we see ourselves in the present.
One of your most recent works is the second instalment in the series called The Mechanics of Absence. What does this title mean? What did you want to show with this project?
That installation is a system with a set of interdependent parts that together create a movement, a meaning, a feeling. I tried to play with the idea of a mechanism that could allow us to recall the absence of someone or something. It’s an immersive installation with several slide projectors, each one screening on fluttering tulles. The images are superimposed, passing through the several layers of tulles.
Along with the repetitive and monotone, mechanical sound of the slide projectors, and the glowing images in the dark, I think I created a sort of eerie and dreamy ambience. The simultaneous projections, with overlapping images, frustrate any attempt of finding a linear narrative. It was all about the difficulty of anchoring our memories, of filling the gaps, of actually knowing who and what is absent from our memory.

“I have a feeling that inside you, somewhere, there's a somebody nobody knows about.” This is an Alfred Hitchcock’s quote that you use to present your project The Mechanics of Absence. Do photographers or artists from other mediums often inspire you?
I love that quote, but in this case, it was my friend and curator Sérgio Fazenda Rodrigues who chose it and used it in the catalogue of the exhibition The Mechanics of Absence. A lot of things inspire me, books, films, music, art, my friends. I don’t quote directly on my work, and sometimes, I don't even remember them, but they are present and extremely important.
One of your works, called Celtis Australis, is composed of 13.200 leaves, which were made from scanned and printed photographs. These leaves act as a metaphor for life and evolution. In your words, they symbolize poetry of life and time – what does this notion mean precisely to you?
In Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, there is a wonderful scene at the sequoia park when Madeleine asks Scottie how old the trees are. He answers two thousand years or more, and Madeleine replies, “The oldest living things.” And a bit further in the conversation, she says she’s thinking about “All the people who have been born and died while the trees went out living.”
I’ve seen this film many times but only this year have I thought about the relation between this particular scene and my work Celtis Australis. The passage of time is a common theme in my work – how brief and ephemeral our presence is in the world. This work was developed in an artistic residence in an old palace that was later turned into an artistic space, where generations of people have lived, always in the shadow of these Celtis Australis L. trees. For me, it’s about how some things stay longer, like some buildings or forests, and others pass by.

Monika Repcyte
Alles Andre

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