Another artist whose work struck me as being decidedly unique was photographer Adriaan van der Ploeg. Probably one of the youngest people I've ever interviewed, he kind of gave me a run for my money, but a fun person to talk to with quite a few witty things to say. Here's our conversation, for your enjoyment.
Ryan Witte: Do you have one camera you use all the time? What is it?
Adrian van der Ploeg: I used a Mamiya RZ for a long time, but I just turned completely digital with the Canon 5D MKII. The Mamiya is a medium-format 6x7 camera. It's big, and that's what I liked about it, because everybody could see I was a real photographer. So besides the really sharp pictures, I could show off a little bit. Now, however, I prefer everything to be digital because it looks awesome, you don't have the hassle of negatives, scanning, etc., and it's much cheaper. But maybe I'm beginning to get really lazy.
RW: I actually have this really old camera that uses those 6x7 negatives, which I knew would take the most beautiful photos, but I never got around to trying to find the film for it. I guess that's that laziness you're talking about.
You've achieved a remarkable amount of success at a fairly young age. Have you let that go to your head and become insufferably arrogant about it?
RW: [LOL] Good for you.
I assume you had to play World of Warcraft (or similar) for a good amount of time to earn the trust of the other players. What was/ is your avatar?
AvdP: I played World of Warcraft for a while and liked it a lot. Unfortunately, I sucked, and when I went with a group of people on a dungeon raid, I didn't perform what was required of me at the time. Everybody was mad and left me in the dungeon. My Human Warrior Level 36 never got out.
Adriaan van der Ploeg, [LMIRL1] Storm (2007)
--All images property of Adriaan van der Ploeg.
I grew up with games and played Quake II online until my parents got the telephone bill, so I was familiar with gaming. I belong to the same generation as most of the people in my pictures and understand very well what the plusses are of gaming.
[LMIRL2] Huanghuang (2008)
Most people seem to believe that I met these people online. This is not true. I met and photographed them at LAN [local area network] parties and, especially in Beijing, in internet cafés.
LMIRL2 (2008), click for larger.
RW: I think the confusion may come from the title of the project, LMIRL (Let's Meet In Real Life), which seems to suggest that finding subjects online was part of your process. For such an unforgiving visual medium as photography, it'd have been a completely different thing altogether to use a method of finding subjects that would've left you blind. In reality, it sounds like you chose your subjects very carefully.
Gomez (2007) and Meushi (2007)
These are all some seriously strange looking people. Did you have any clue what they looked like before you met with them to take their portraits?
AvdP: No, but probably the same...and I don't think they look really strange, to be honest.
RW: I didn't necessarily mean that in a derisive sense, but perhaps "quirky" would've been a better word. Personally, I think people who are attractive in a very conventional way, like most models, are exceedingly boring to look at.
Out of all the thousands of people who play these games, how did you decide on these particular forty-two (in two sets of twenty-one each)?
AvdP: When I did my series in Beijing, I shot 600 people in three months only to end up with forty-two. Some of them just don't fit. Some of them are too strong. It's like making a puzzle to create something that fits my vision but also has some sort of harmony in it.
Hazy Dawn (2008)
RW: Is it about grouping together people whose facial qualities are significantly different from one another, similar to one another in some way, or something else entirely?
AvdP: This is really hard to explain, but it's a combination of the same facial expressions but also different ones, also the direction of the eyes and the colors (of the clothes, for instance).
RW: I'm sure it's very much an intuitive process.
As I understand it, your subjects were, in fact, gaming when the photos were taken...
AvdP: Somehow people seem to automatically think I shot them during their game sessions. They were, in fact, gaming when I asked them, but I didn't shoot them in front of the computer.
RW: There certainly is a lot of misinformation about your work floating around. It's a real shame, too, I think, because it completely alters the way the work will be interpreted.
AvdP: One of the things I like about photography is the difference between studio and location. I love studios, but I also love to go to people instead of people coming to my studio. So I have to have this crappy-looking little studio which I can set up anywhere I want. I spent hours in the back of smokey Beijing internet café basements where people were playing for hours and hours. With this in mind, it's not really necessary to make the pictures in front of the computer.
2Handsome to Feel a Headache (2008)
If you take people to my little studio around the corner in the same room, you don't have other people looking, which is nice for the people in front of my lens. Also, when you talk to people, wait a little bit and make twenty to thirty pictures. People almost always fall back into their "trance."
Lil Master (2007)
If you look at other photos about gamers, you always see almost theatrical expressions and emotions. This always struck me as stupid and not real, because people don't play games like that. When you digitalize human emotion, it will, at this point, just look cold--look at the smiley face, for instance: :-). I'm not saying these are fake emotions, but I wanted this cold zombie army of mine to be without emotions, just like their avatars.
RW: I find this really fascinating that the process of the photo shoot, itself, uncovers so many analogies to gaming, once the subject or player sort of settles into the experience.
While I feel as if it and environments like it may be the future of the internet, I had a very creepy experience with Second Life. I found it mostly boring and unsatisfying, but for days afterwards, I couldn't stop thinking about going back in (I never did), almost like I was going through withdrawl from a drug addiction. Did the subjects of your portraits behave like addicts?
AvdP: No. This is a question that a lot of people ask, especially in Germany where the government is rather strict when it comes to gaming. Negative side effects come quite quickly into this discussion. Of course, there are people who are addicted, and this is a fairly new phenomenon. However, most people aren't addicted and love to play games as a totally responsible form of escapism.
RW: So you're saying it must just be that I have addictive tendencies?
AvdP: Yes. [smiles]
RW: The player Graceful is the only woman in the whole group. Why do you think it is that out of forty-two subjects, only one would turn out to be female? What is it about gaming that appeals so much more to boys?
AvdP: Gaming is about being everything and everybody you want to be. You can be Ronaldinho on the soccer field or invade some made up Middle Eastern country with a bunch of marines in a Huey. That's great, but most women have other interests. There are quite a few who play World of Warcraft, though. But most have a Wii or love to play SingStar for forty-five minutes. This was not the "group" I was interested in.
By looking a lot at old photography from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, where photos were taken on expeditions far away and showed everybody back home new tribes and people, I got this idea of adapting this way of working and looking at these gamers as a new group of people, a new tribe.
RW: It's interesting that you bring up early portrait photography for a number of reasons. Because the exposure times were so long, and the subjects had to stand around completely motionless for like two minutes, they often ended up with these very blank, zombie-like facial expressions. It reminds me of what you were saying before about the lack of emotion.
The way the gallery described what you did is pretty funny in a disturbing sort of way. Is photography, in general, predatory?
RW: [LOL] Would you care to elaborate? I mean, the terms used for taking pictures, "aim" and "shoot," are the same terms used for firearms, after all.
AvdP: I mean, if you look at it that way...photography indeed is predatory. But on the other hand, maybe only professional photography is predatory these days. I really don't know.
RW: In the sense that the subject's superficial qualities are necessarily extracted and displayed for the viewer's judgement on a purely aesthetic level, is all portraiture inherently exploitative?
AvdP: I guess the answer is "yes" to some extent. Not in the sense of "stealing" one's soul, though. But of course there's always some voyeuristic level of exploitation, because portrait photography has, in general, a strong link to reality. If you paint someone's portrait, the subject can "hide" behind the artistic vision of the maker of the material. In photography, this is much harder.
RW: This goes back again to those early portraits of distant tribes who believed the camera was stealing their soul, or so the legend goes. I never understood that, because it seems that the only thing a photo truly can capture is the superficial shell.
AvdP: It's also a kind of monologue, because people in pictures can't say something back. This makes them vulnerable, and as a photographer, you have to be aware of this and protect them a little bit.
Photo shoot for De Volkskrant Magazine (2007)
RW: In what way does the contextual environment affect the way we interpret a person's character? Is there a natural conflict between environment and the inner personality manifested in facial expressions and so on?
AvdP: In my pictures, I try to minimalize almost any form of environment and therefore also context. I never liked the kind of photography that explains too much. For me, photography is bold and direct but also very much about details. Things like inner personality or "seeing and catching" one's soul in a moment always sounded strangely unlikely to me.
Action Hero #1 and #2 (2009)
RW: I was thinking mainly of your Action Hero portraits, where a simple kind of Pop background critically affects the way the subject will be perceived. There's also the kid with the rocket. The very fact that he's holding the rocket in the photo says so much about who he is and where he's coming from.
Raket Goed ("Rocket Sound")
AvdP: I was mainly talking about my LMIRL series. The Action Heros are still at the very beginning of something new, and I frankly don't know if something good will come out of it. Anyway, the boy with the rocket is a good example, and you're right about that one. However, this picture is fairly old, and since my LMIRL series, I kind of try to minimize environment, etc..
It also annoys me because photography changed so much over the last decade. Everybody makes pictures nowadays without having to pay for it, which makes it much more for everybody than, for example, oil painting or sculpting. Almost everybody you meet has a digital camera or a camera phone and uses it. How many people do you know who paint?
RW: Well, I know quite a few people who paint, but I don't think I'm the best example.
AvdP: That being said, the whole mystery about photography and really "seeing" somebody in a picture is vaporizing. In my work, it's more about "seeing" or understanding a group instead of individual people.
RW: Do you try to ensure that your photos will be purchased as a group and not individually?
AvdP: As a group, because it makes more sense that way. But I try not to think too much about these things.
RW: I realize your new project is a "secret," but the suspense is killing me. Can you give me a clue?
AvdP: ...A (really) small clue:
RW: I think I see the direction you're going, and I can't wait to see what it turns out to be. Thanks so much for taking time to talk, Adriaan.
Adriaan van der Ploeg is represented by Haas & Fischer in Zurich.
©2009, Ryan Witte