A Conversation with Austrian Photographer Karl Hoedl

With a natural eye for capturing thought-provoking images and a formal education in photography, Karl Hoedl has created an exceptional collection of photographic works. From his eye-catching and serene “Thirty-four parking lots”, to works that capture intimate content like “The Anniversary Year”, Hoedl has worked on a variety of projects and been featured in numerous exhibitions. He describes the decisive quality of his work as being “the relationship between the image and the viewer, questioning conventional views and playing with perception and sensation”. Vulgaris had the opportunity to ask Mr. Hoedl a series of questions to be able to better deconstruct his creative process and the meaning behind his images.

I’d like to begin by asking a few more personal questions before moving onto the specifics of your photography.

You were born in the 1960s, but didn’t attend school for photography until the new millennium, have you always been interested in photography, or is it an interest that came later in life? Do you remember what sparked your interest in it?

As a teenager I had my first experience with photography, but at that time photography 2pngwasn’t considered as art and my interest was anyway more in the possibility to capture things or fleeting moments. I stopped taking photos when I turned twenty because I was frustrated about the technical quality I could achieve with my equipment due to limited financial resources.

Almost twenty-eight years later, when digital photography emerged to a level that even non-professionals could take high quality images, I started again to look into these possibilities. But finally the exhibitions I have seen that time inspired me to reengage with photography. I was impressed about the possibilities to communicate through this media. A famous dancer once said, if I could write I wouldn’t dance, for me it might be similar although I’m not famous, but I chose to photograph.

 Would you recommend studying photography academically, or is being self taught just as good? If you think it is beneficial to study it academically, what edge do you think it gives someone over being self-taught?

I definitely would recommend to study at an academy, since doing it by yourself is a pretty hard way, you don’t know which books to read, you don’t know which photographer or artists might be good for your development and there are limited possibilities of getting feedback. In my second attempt to photography I was very interested in the “Düsseldorfer Fotoschule” of the Bechers, but honestly I was already too old and economical settled to peruse this way, so I had to find other options. One of them was the school of Friedl Kubelka in Vienna, I’ve learned a lot about the nature of photography and could meet various artists, even one of them, Bernhard Fuchs, attended the Düssledorfer Fotoschule.

So all of these artists came with their personal list of books to read and this was exactly what I was looking for. After that in the Anzenberger Masterclass, I have met photographers like Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, which showed me another side of the genius of photography.

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 You live in Austria. What impact has Austria had on your photographic life? What other aspects of your life have influenced your style and subject matter?

1pngActually there was no impact on me living in Austria concerning my work, of course I capture mainly things in Austria but in fact what I capture could have been everywhere. Most important for my work is why I take this photo and not what I capture and how I do it. Austria is not well know for photography expect when it comes to the “Wiener Aktionismus” but here photography was used to capture a certain performance or Fluxus. Maybe I should mention that August Sander spend some time in Linz (1901 to 1909), a city close to where I live, but even that had no impact on the Austrian photography.

 Okay, now onto the nitty-gritty. You cite Ed Ruscha as a major influence. For those who may not know, he’s a major American pop artist. Can you tell us a little more about how he has influenced your work? And do your Austrian surroundings have an affect on how you have been “following the idea of Ed Ruscha”? The Austrian city scape is surely very different from the American.

How I capture things is very different to how Ed Ruscha is doing it, his major influence on me was his conceptual approach. So I’ve used this concept as a base for my work, even the content and the result is finally different. Thirty-four Parking Lots in Wels is a good example, the concept is to display empty parking lots but in my work the parking lots are the symptom for an upcoming occasion how autonomous car drive will disrupt an entire industry and will change our future mobility.

And you are right, the Austrian city scape is total different to that one in America. I have been to America several times, as well in Russia and China, I took photos of parking lots and high rise buildings but finally I felt it’s like a tourists look at these scenes and I decide not to publish it.

When I take photos of things around me I’m not biased from the perception of all these foreign impressions and uncommon things, so that’s mainly the reason why I take photos where I live.

Your series “Eighteen High Rise Buildings in Wels” sought to capture the long past hype of modernism in the small European town of Wels during the mid century. It posed the now dilapidated buildings in ways that captured their former glory, and forced people to recognize a zeitgeist few can remember. What prompted this exploration, and what, if any, relation does this series have with your new “Thirty-Four Parking Lots” series?

Well, if you would come to Wels as a non resident and look at the city form the Reinberg, the way I did it when I’m exercising in the morning, you would ask yourself what drives 15pngpeople to build such a house, it looks like a needle pointing into the sky, no other high building next to it and enough space around, so why people do that? This was the initial trigger to investigate why this building was built and why people in general build high-rise buildings. Wels is not the only city in Austria, which built high-rise buildings that time, I found even smaller cities in Austria with the same situation. But building high risers is something what still drives mankind and the competition of having the highest one is still on today as we can see in Middle and Far East. So again, I have used the high-rise buildings in Wels as a symptom to reflect on the culture of human beings.

The only commonality of Eighteen High Rise Buildings and the Parking Lots is the concept borrowed from Ed Ruscha and that I have used the motives as symptoms to point out the story I wanted to tell. In Eighteen High Rise Buildings there are many more aspects, which might be too much for this interview to expand on it, it is captured in the book I have published. The book is in German but there is an English translation available, it’s very entertaining to read through the old newspaper articles concerning the high-rise buildings, but I’m not sure if the English translation transports that.

 “Eighteen High Rise Buildings” was shot in colour, and in my understanding of your work, your use of colour played a major role in showing the once-beauty of the buildings. What does the fact your new series is shot in black and white say? Was there a reason you made this change, and if so, what was it?

That’s an interesting question, I have never thought about that. I shoot mainly with 10pnganalogue film, so I have to decide upfront what kind of film I will load into my camera and it follows more an aesthetic pattern. Colour I use mainly in hazy or over casted light, while black and white I prefer in sunny conditions. In fact if colour doesn’t give you any additional dimension it’s not really necessary. On the other hand we perceive the world in colour although the world itself has no colour and only the light reflected from objects give us the perception of colour.

In various places you have insisted your primary interest that which can be seen throughout your bodies of work, is the relation between the image and the beholder. Can you speak a little about this, be as philosophical as you feel comfortable.

From a holistic view, my images look very fragmented without any common theme, but in fact there is one overarching subject, it’s the relation between the image and the beholder.

When you look at things with your eyes, a picture is projected on to your retina, similar to what happens in a camera on the ground glass and it’s only a two dimensional image. Your brain than will create awareness based on your intellect, rationality, culture and experience, so that’s similar to the process when I display a photo to somebody and that is the exciting thing I’m interested in, how a beholder will interpret what I have captured in this image.

Roland Barth did an interesting essay named “the death of the author” where he expanded on the fact that as soon a text (or photo) is published the author loses his authorship since everybody perceives things differently or Larry Sultan’s photo book Evidence, where he took photos and displayed them out of their original context, it is another good example for this approach. But it would be wrong to say I try to manipulate perception, it’s more to stimulate a thought process.

In my work “The Man without Quality” for example I’ve captured a side of Robert Musil’s20man without quality 3b book “Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften” to explore what will happen when people look at this image. We all have learned how to read and write text, but when it comes to photography, we shoot photos but very seldom we can read them. So how will people react looking at this photo, will they start to read? Will they say I see the book but where is the image?

When you think, “I have seen this image already somewhere” than you are right, it looks similar to Andreas Gursky’s Untitled XII, and it’s a restage of his approach to Robert Musil’s “Man without Qualities”. The difference is that Gursky has digitally altered the text, so the text itself is readable but meaningless. He shows us that in writing, a knowledge of spelling has nothing to do with understanding of poetry.

I did the restage because I was curious about the real content (poetry) written on these pages and how a beholder would respond to my version, showing the original text of Musil’s book. Is it perceived as an image, an image of a text or just a text?

 In the press release for your new series you speak about the parking-lot as a non-place. Could you expand on what you mean by this, and how it guided how you shot the parking lots? Does it have any relation to François Laruelle’s concept of nonphotography?

Honestly I didn’t know Francois Laruelle’s book, but definitely I will read it, the term “Non-Places” in my work is related to Marc Auge’s book “Non-Places” which refers to anthropological spaces of transience where the human beings remain anonymous and that they do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”, which in fact describes a parking lot very well.

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We’re about at the end of the interview now, but before we go, we’d like to ask you if there is something you feel is integral to understanding your photography that we have overlooked in our questions? If so we’d like to give you an opportunity now to talk about whatever you feel we’ve overlooked.

nachtschicht II think almost everything was addressed, the importance of the relation between the image and the beholder, but yes, there is another aspect in my work we didn’t talk about, it’s my interest in traces, things which have been there or things happened but which are visually absent in the image. I did a series of a floor in front of a Nightclub, red painted concrete, later it was changed to a real carpet. I have shot the photos always early in the morning to capture and find out if there is any evidence of things happened during the night. You might see a relation to Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test, where he captures traces of his destroyed typewriter in a way like capturing a crime scene. But I recognized this similarity afterwards and it wasn’t my intent to use this concept. Other works following that concept have been “Das Jubeljahr”(images of unmade hotel beds next day morning after I had overnight as a proof, I have been really there) and “I like America and America likes Me”.

Thank you once again.

To see more of Karl Hoedl’s work, you can visit his website.

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Kira is an avid enthusiast of photography, poetry and the arts in general. She holds a degree in Communications and English Literature at the University of Ottawa.

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