Photographer Barbara Flatten Interview
Moving, moving: an Interview with Photographer Barbara Flatten
September 14, 2007
A vivid yet ephemeral red-skirted pair of legs - only just identifiable as such - swirling astride a chaotic cityscape. This was my first encounter with the work of Tokyo-based German photographer, Barbara Flatten. It was May, 2007, at the fourth of the Naked Tokyo events in Roppongi.
This depiction of ghostly flamboyance haunting an impersonal urban clutter kept me in front of the giant photograph for minutes. There was a mysteriousness about this rainbow-toned, unpindownable movement - not only in this particular photo, but in all of Flatten's other works, too. I had to find out more. I approached the photographer and arranged an interview, which took place a few months later, in September, upon her return from a spell back in her native Cologne.
Moving to photography
Flatten began artistic life in Germany as a painter. As well as philosophy, she studied fine arts for seven years at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. Her mentor was the distinguished Friedemann Hahn, famous internationally for his iconographic approach to painting, and propounder of the dictum that "There is no materiality apart from that of color."
As a painter she would work from photographs she had taken as initial blueprints of her concept for the canvas. Then on a visit to her studio one day by a group of collectors and gallery owners, someone noticed the photos she was working from and expressed an interest in them. As a result Flatten's photographs got to be exhibited.
Her reputation as a photographer grew. What clinched the leap from painting to photography was having her first child. "I had to make a decision," she said.
She describes painting as a discipline like sports or jogging, something that has to be practiced every day, from morning to night, but which became impossible with an infant. "I destroyed several pictures, and got angry every time when I painted. So then I purposely put a carpet in my atelier, preventing me from painting anymore, and thus forcing me to concentrate on my photography."
Moving to Japan
Then in early 2006, she and her husband came to Japan. Flatten was the driving force behind her husband's decision to apply for a business consultancy contract with a company in Japan. The couple, who had never lived outside of Germany, were keen to experience life overseas, and the job in Japan offered the opportunity.
The move to Tokyo was not smooth. A bout of food poisoning on the plane coming over, compounded by the loss in transit of her laptop, stolen from her suitcase somewhere between Cologne, Dseldorf, Copenhagen and Tokyo, made her first day here a memorable one - if for the wrong reasons. Her first six months here were devoted to nursing her 10-month-old son, the second of two, who had developed a persistent high fever. The mysterious condition eventually disappeared suddenly, lending credence to the only diagnosis any doctor had been willing to make: "the Tokyo environment". In the meantime, too, came the news that her father had developed cancer.
Moving around Tokyo
Once the elder of her children had begun pre-school, and a babysitter could be found for the younger, Flatten resumed her photography. What she describes as the "mega mega mega town of Tokyo" is now her main inspiration. Flatten's works center on people; yet not in the lingering, penetrating sense of trying to discover their essence. Rather, she depicts people doing the only thing that gives their life meaning, that is, moving.
Says Flatten: "My leading thought when choosing a subject is people moving. I see all these efforts of everybody, and when you try and observe it from a distance, then it seems a bit funny: that everyone's moving and moving and moving but there's not really an aim. Maybe each person has their own aim, but when you see it from a distance it makes no sense; but I like it."
She draws on the philosopher Albert Camus' exposition of the Myth of Sisyphus, who was set by the gods for eternity to rolling a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down again before he reached the summit, the message being an affirmation of life, in spite of its absurdities, through the unstinting application of effort in the face of them.
Continues Flatten, "Stepping out of the house puts me in a completely different world here. It's very easy to escape. Everybody is so busy." She also states her love of Tokyo's architecture: an almost chaotic medley of imaginativeness that puts the carbon-copy concepts of many European cities' new urban developments to shame. "If I have free time, I never go to parks. I always stay among buildings. ... I think every architect in Europe should come here one time during his or her study."
This dedication to movement is reflected in the course of her daily work. "Taking pictures is only 1% of my work. I go to galleries, and opening receptions, talk to people and walk through town finding inspiration for the next series of pictures." Although she finds Tokyo quite an English-language-friendly city, she has been taking once-a-week Japanese lessons since the beginning of the year. A speaker of English, (some) French, and Spanish, as well as German, she nevertheless finds Japanese a challenge, having taken six months to reach the conversational level in Japanese that she achieved with Spanish in just two weeks.
Moving with the positive
Communication, she finds, however, is not all about vocabulary and grammar, it is also about ideas. One idea that she had been told she would have trouble conveying to Japanese photo lab technicians was that of "cross-processing," i.e., developing slide film in the "wrong" chemicals, i.e. those usually meant for producing prints: the technique that gives Flatten's work its distinctive psychedelic coloration. And while she admits that it did take persistence, she managed to get the message across. But she also enjoys the ideas that come her way, too, citing a recent conversation she had in a pub with a Tokyoite.
"A week ago I met somebody in the restaurant, a Japanese guy. He'd had a bit to drink, and he told me that a typical thing in Japan is that they clean up everywhere because they want to be ready for the next big earthquake. But he says that, in a way, he is looking forward to this point because then, okay, some people will die - but we will restart then. He identified himself that as being a Japanese person: the main thing was to restart. That was his heart. I thought a lot about these words. And now when I see women in front of houses cleaning so that you can't see even one leaf, then I think she prepares herself to restart. It's all this movement, and if you get frustrated, you can start the next day again. And so it's this positive thinking, and that's what I love here."