Monday, June 25, 2012

Magnus Stark: Worlds Within
Magnus Stark's visual explorations have taken him in two quite different directions. As a commercial architectural photographer based in Los Angeles, he creates tightly controlled, classically balanced compositions that follow all the rules. But when he unleashes his fine art instincts, the rulebook goes out the window, and Stark finds himself exploring the medium’s outer limits. This propensity for pushing an image to the extreme finds its most potent expression in Stark’s “Alchemy” series. Begun in the mid-1990s, this work channels subliminal impulses in order to effect a singular and disquieting transformation of his subject matter. Courting the element of chance has helped him find heretofore unseen doors that open onto unclaimed worlds of enigmatic beauty.

Magnus Stark

When did you start taking photographs, and what drew you to the medium?  
In the late sixties as a young lad in Sweden I received a plastic Diana camera in the mail. I managed to shoot two rolls before the camera melted in the rear window of my parents' Saab. Later, as a teenager, I came across photographs by Edward Weston and Duane Michaels, and I realized there were many ways to create interesting images. After learning the basics of processing and printing in my father's darkroom, I was intrigued by the craft of photography. Seeing the image develop was magical, and the possibilities to manipulate the print appealed to me. At this time I was also very intrigued by Ingmar Bergman's films, which were all the rage in Sweden. Mainly the cinematography moved me and got me looking at how the lighting really affected image, mood and storytelling.

Alchemy © 1994/2008

Did your environment influence your creative development?  
Not so much early on, but both my father and grandfather were serious hobby photographers, so there was equipment around and lots of glass plates and prints to enjoy. At the time there was only one serious photography gallery in Sweden, which I would visit every time I was in Stockholm. My main source of inspiration at this time was from French, German and American photo magazines.

Did you have formal training, or were you self-taught? 
I learned the basic techniques myself with some help from my father and friends. Later, as far as lighting and composition, etc., I learned by assisting other photographers and especially from processing and printing other photographers' images while working in some great labs in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In college I studied TV production and filmmaking, which also helped on the technical side of things.

What drew you to architectural photography?
I thought buildings would be less trouble than models. [laughs] Seriously, while living in San Francisco I had an opportunity to work as an assistant to a great architectural photographer, and came to enjoy the technical challenges of this genre. I like problem solving, working with location lighting and large-format cameras, but most of all the fact that architects understand and appreciate the effort that goes into creating a great architectural photograph.

The boring middle © 2009

What was the inspiration for the Alchemy series?  
Alchemy is about seeing deeply and about transformation. I wanted to try and create something new that I had not seen before, something that would surprise myself and hopefully viewers would be surprised at their reactions to these images and maybe learn something about themselves. I wanted to explore the fringes of photography and in doing so see what would happen if I went on a technical and creative alchemical journey. Having been interested in the surrealist movement and their amazing art made me want to try and incorporate the unconscious in my photography. Over the years I have developed my own variation of automatist techniques used by others in the past.

Are these straight images, or are they manipulated in any way? 
They start out as a piece of black-and-white 4x5 film which is subjected to my personal alchemical recipe. I like to think of the process as distillation. I work with the image and wait. I watch and discover what can be revealed. Just like karma, many things will influence the image, but at a certain point in the journey, the image is fixed with my scanner. I then post-produce the image and output on rag paper on an inkjet printer. I apply the toning in Photoshop.

Beyond the center of decision © 2009

When did you make these?  
I started this series in the mid-1990s. Since then I have worked on it off and on, and with new technology have been able to finalize the images and output prints that I am happy with.

What is the "parallel universe" you reference in your artist statement? Are you speaking in visual, emotional or metaphysical terms? Or all three, perhaps? 
All three. When you meditate you are able to cross over into another, greater universe. You can see things differently. New insights lead to new images which lead to new insights.

Are you consciously trying to evoke a particular mood with this work? 
Yes. However, I have no control over the mood in each piece. Some come out warm and inviting, some are more ominous. Of course, this is up to each individual viewer to experience.

Hard sex and pancakes © 2011

The images resonate with various kinds of visual tension. They might be organic, they might be metallic. There's a sense of decay and corrosion, yet also the suggestion of strange, amoeba-like life forms. How deliberate are these dynamics? Or are the images more intuitive? 
The massaging of the images is really based on an intuitive reaction to the subject matter. The subject matter is latent inside the images. Sometimes it comes out representing the really big, sometimes the really small, and on a good day both.

You've also referenced the passing of time, which the visual corrosion accentuates. By extension, is the corrosion intended perhaps as comment on the impermanence of manmade objects and structures? 
It has more to do with the fact that some of these images are "exposed" for hours, days or sometimes weeks. Also, in some of them there seems to be an ambiguous time and place. It is difficult to tell if they come from light years away in space or this morning from a petri dish.

Nocturama © 2011

The subtle color changes also suggest a kind of organic transformation. Is this intentional, or happy accident?  
It is all a "happy" accident.

For me, these images also project a science fiction resonance — as if they were details of topographical maps from a far-flung alien planet. 
Agreed. The very first image I created looked like an aerial view of a planet landscape — or maybe it was the torn veil separating the known from the unknown in the hero's journey?

What kinds of reactions do these works elicit compared to your other fine art series?  
It seems that the reaction is a lot more emotional and personal. I have received a lot of interesting feedback, which is very encouraging.

Does your architectural work in any way influence your personal work? 
In some cases, yes, but with the Alchemy series my goal was to stay away from any rational thought or technique, and hope that images would appear more by chance, but with some importance and beauty.

She has left but left herself behind © 1994/2008

Have you been influenced or inspired by any other photographers?  
In the late 1970s I happened to see a show of Michael Kenna's early work, which still inspires me. I am also moved by the works of Eugene Atget and Man Ray.

(My profile of Magnus Stark appeared in issue 69 of B&W magazine. See more of his fascinating work at


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