An Artist, A Photographer, A Curious Mind - In Conversation with Seb Janiak
Out of all major art forms, photography would be the youngest; but even with such relatively short history, it’s been, and still is, quite a memorable journey. This French artist and photographer certainly is a part of it all, and a man who’s been contributing to so many fields, genres, styles and methods of this fascinating medium.
For over 25 years, Seb Janiak has been following his dreams and intuition, leaving a permanent mark on virtually all the options and possibilities offered by the photographic art. Fearing no uncharted territories, he mastered the analog and was among the very first people to experiment with digital photography, ultimately becoming someone who could do it all.
The discovery by chance has always been his friend, even when he went from being a freelance graphic designer to an artist and photographer in the 1980s, or when it comes to the groundbreaking results of his dealing with Quantel Paintbox – a computer graphics workstation for composition of broadcast television video and graphics which he revolutionarily used for his photographs instead.
Mimesis, The Kingdom, and Other Projects
Seb Janiak’s incredible artistic oeuvre only comes to confirm his insatiable curiosity and the restless desire to better understand the world around us, in all its splendor. He has tackled the means of utopia, in the poetic Uchrony project (1989-1996) which foresees a reality different to ours, yet not completely impossible; in Dark side of the moon (2010), he nurtures the conspiracies of the Moon Landing; and he goes beyond the barely visible to release the magnificence of flowers and insects in Mimesis (2012-2014).
In Manifestations of the Unseen (2012-2016), Seb Janiak’s latest project which incorporates five different series, he is interested in the physical and phenomenal deployment of Being, as he tries to visually represent a magnetic field. The complex Photon series, for instance, saw the solar radiation coming through the lens, while a live-action imagery of a 20-mm water droplet was created for Resonance.
His perhaps most famous and mesmerizing series to date is The Kingdom (2009-2015), created as a touching tribute to Eun Jin Lee and inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the “Bardo Thodol”. In it, Janiak makes an essential step in his career, as he delves into the matters of the soul which, deprived of its mortal envelope, has to face its repressed desires, its angers, traces of its passing through the matter on earth. The photographs from The Kingdom are currently on view at Galerie Piece Unique in Paris (through February 3rd, 2018).
Note that Seb Janiak’s photographs are created without any special effects or retouching; he is only using techniques of analog photography, namely superimposition and photomontage.
From graphic design and painting, to fashion and celebrity photo-making, through music video directing for Daft Punk, Janet Jackson and Robbie Williams, all the way to being a friend of Naomi Campbell, a science photographer and free artist, Seb Janiak is all of it and more.
Seb Janiak – A Pioneer of Digital Photography
Widewalls: It would seem that there is not one specific genre or field in photography we could put Seb Janiak in – you’re simply interested in and inspired by everything. Is there perhaps a different approach you use for different areas of life? How does your creative process look like?
Seb Janiak: I am lucky to have a very intuitive sensitivity. Sometimes I do not understand why this idea fascinates me… since my childhood, I asked myself this terrible question, why there is something (one or more universes, living beings, plants) rather than nothing! Hence the fascination with understanding the reality around us and how it works, and that at all scales, from the infinitely small to the infinitely large.
Widewalls: Are there any periods and/or artists within the history of photographic and art that hold importance for you?
SJ: Yes, some writers have shaped my imagination, like Frank Herbert, Norman Spinrad or Philip K Dick; not to mention the improper duo Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels. In some series, I have more specific [references to] masters like Gustave Doré (Kingdom series) or Berenice Abbott (Unseen series) or more widely Erwin Blumenfeld.
Widewalls: Let’s talk about Quantel Paintbox. You were one of the very first people who found more creative sides to it. Can you tell us how this happened? What were the results like? Did you ever think that something this big would come out of such experiences? What was it like to be part of this revolution for you?
SJ: Sometimes the fate of a person only holds four small metal screws. I had the chance to cross the path of the first Quantel Paint Box graphic palette in 1986, as soon as it arrived in France at INA. After 6 months, I was offered to work for real (I was barely 20 years old). And 2 months later, I took the camera, put it on a photo stand and started filming models.
Then I had to freeze the image and shoot the screen to get a negative one. There was no scanner, printer or computer at the time… so I laid the foundation for digital retouching and digital shooting. It was then that Philippe Starck discovered my pioneering work. Starck was my first client! Hard to start better. Subsequently, while remaining independent, I participated in the first post-digital productions where I crossed Mondino, Sednoui and Michel Gondry. It was an ultra creative time with total freedom in creation.
To Become a Photo Artist
Widewalls: What was the world of advertising like following the year 1995? Being active then certainly got you inside some interesting circles – including the celebrity ones. How do you recall this time?
SJ: The arrival of a new PaintBox dedicated to printing has allowed me to innovate and invent the technique of digital matte painting (a kind of sophisticated digital editing photo).
A matte painting is a Hollywood technique invented for the first sci-fi films that consisted of painting a scenery or a landscape hyper-realistically. The actors were then encrusted by an optical process.
My invention allowed to go from 40 days of work to a few days and to bring a photographic rendering never reached before because I used my own photographs realized with 6×7 Pentax. My first order was for Nina Hagen who promptly asked me to make her video clip in the same spirit. That’s how I went from graphic designer to photographer, and then director.
Widewalls: Looks like 2005 was a pivotal year in your career. Could it be said that this is then you became more free in your art? How did life take your creative interests elsewhere?
SJ: For a lot of years, I could not sell my artistic ideas, [I was] still blocked despite the huge press that I had in my previous exhibitions. Then, thanks to Naomi Campbell who trusted me, I was able to move to another, more international level. That’s when the world of fashion became a part of my work.
Returning to the Analog Art
Widewalls: How has this restriction to the techniques of analog photography, such as double exposure, superimposition and photomontage, actually expanded your practice, both stylistically and technically speaking?
SJ: After 15 years in fashion photography and making video clips, I longed to find my creative freedom even more, and the time to deepen my creativity without imposing a limit to subjects haunted me.
Being one of the dads of digital retouching, I needed to kill this diabolical invention. I turned to the primitives of photography (Baldus, Gray…) who had proven in their day that photography could be art. They invented superimposition, double exposure as well as photo montage of negative.
I was inspired to limit myself technically and return to direct shooting, without editing or hacking. It pushes me in a much more creative direction and in a “noble” sense. Direct shooting brings magic and unforeseen events that are impossible with a retouched image.
Widewalls: Many photographers working today agree that the way to master the craft is to use film. How would you describe the advantages of the ways photo-making was done before the digital era? How does it help artists better?
SJ: I remained a follower of film formats a long time, but for ten years, the digital formats were becoming more practical, and even now, they offer a superior rendering to the medium or large format film. The ergonomics of photographic work has been profoundly altered.
A Photographer of Matter
Widewalls: How did you get into the physical and chemical phenomena, such as magnetic fields and laser beams? What do they represent to you?
SJ: [I’m] always on this endless quest to understand the world and the universe. This project “Manifestation of the invisible” is born from this need to visualize the invisible forces that come into contact with matter, with our atoms, our molecules. Without the action of these invisible forces, our world and the universe would not exist.
Widewalls: Looking at your photos from “Magnetic Radiation” or “Photon” series, I’m curious: what do such projects require from a photographer? Do you do the research yourself or do you consult with someone, regarding the processes themselves?
SJ: In each series, I spend months or years reading, experimenting with physical and chemical processes, meeting scientists who advise me. Then I go to the construction or setting up an installation that will allow me to make my shot.
[For] one of my last installations, I experimented with a resonance process on a material and I could make a nice scientific discovery which allowed me to participate indirectly in an ongoing research at the CNRS on vortex dynamics. Art and science are closer than we think.
Widewalls: What’s next for Seb Janiak? Where can we see your work next and is there any place you’d like to take your arts to next?
SJ: I constantly have several projects under development. I let life and meetings decide which will start first.
Featured images: Seb Janiak, courtesy the artist; Seb Janiak – Photon 02, 2012; Left: Gravity, Liquid 1, 2014 / Right: Gravity, Liquid 5, 2014; Left: Gravity, Bulles d’air 05, 2013 / Right: Gravity, Bulles d’air 02, 2013. All images courtesy the artist.