Interview: Camilo Echavarría

© Camilo Echavarría

Photographer and publisher Alec Soth and I have started a small project on our mutual sites that will take an extended look at contemporary photography in Colombia. Medellín-based photographer and educator Gabriel Mario Vélez will also be joining us on this project.

We're looking at trends and traditions; events, institutions and venues; as well as pursuing conversations with curators, academics, gallerists and photographers themselves. We plan to approach the project through a variety of types of posts including interviews, book reviews, published letters, portfolios of images and more.

Posts in the series include:
What is happening in contemporary Colombian photography?, LBM
Popsicle #40: Guadalupe Ruiz, LBM
Project Release: Juan Orrantia, "The afterlife of coca (and its) dreams" fototazo
Portfolio: Matt O'Brien, "No Dar Papaya" fototazo

Today we continue with an interview with Camilo Echavarría. In addition to reading his statement below, before reading this interview I would also recommend spending a few minutes with his work Cauca. The piece isn't a traditional video, but rather a nine-minute collage of still images to which he has added sound.

Camilo Echavarría was born in 1970 in Medellin, Colombia. Camilo graduated as a Bachelor in Science from the University of Southern New Hampshire and obtained a MA in Art History from La Universidad de Antioquia. He studied photography at Rockport College (U.S.A.) in 1999. In his work, Camilo explores landscape as representation and as a subjective, cultural constructed experience, questioning the truthfulness and objectivity of the photographic record. He lives and works in Medellín. Echavarría was recently featured on the site Lenscratch and has also had his work on Landscape Stories. His piece Cauca was part of the 43 Salón (Inter)Nacional de Artistas in Medellín.

The relationship of man and his habitat has been of consistent interest throughout my different projects. I aproach the landscape as a cultural thus subjective entity for which man is its central element. I build landscapes with the intention of transcending literal photographic representation, searching to expand the photograph's descriptive and narrative possibilities by intervening in the space and time within it. My exploration of landscape involves the use of seriality, repetition and digital intervention as well as the production of photography-based video installations that aim towards diffusing the frontier that separates both mediums.

© Camilo Echavarría

fototazo: How did you come to photography?

Camilo Echavarría: I've been very visual since I was young. Images from family road trips are some of the strongest memories I have. I started to take pictures on one of these trips and took several photography courses when I was young.

f: Your overarching project consists of recreating landscape memories from your childhood. You do so through a variety of ways: straight still photography, composite photographs and also videos/still image hybrids. How does each of your ways of creating landscapes allow you to speak about this overarching main theme differently?

CE: Recreating childhood experiences is an important aspect of what drives me to go out there and work on this project but it is more a starting point than an end in itself. I am interested in landscapes that both convey emotions and provide information. Having a comprehensive knowledge of not only the history of landscape representation but, in a broader sense, of how man explores and describes his environment is essential in making images that are relevant in different levels of perception.

Each landscape communicates in different ways and has a different strength. Some whisper to the viewer, others are more explicit in their message. I try to balance elements such as content, narrative and mood differently in each image. The presence of precise geological and botanical information is ever more important to me. The projected image, the use of video editing tools and the inclusion of sound allow me to expand the sensorial experience and incorporate subtleties that are not evident at first sight but that come to the surface after dedicating some time to a piece. I try to reproduce something similar to experiencing reality. The longer you stay in a place or the slower you travel through it, the more information you will perceive. Experience has so many layers.

© Camilo Echavarría

© Camilo Echavarría

f: In a previous interview with Oscar Roldán you said that, “I look to relive aesthetic and sensory experiences.” Have you been successful in being able to relive experiences through your work of your memories of places visited as a child or is the work more about the search to do so?

CE: Some of the photographs are closer to a state of mind or a memory which I wish to relive and others are more about describing a place in an idealized manner. Some are more successful than others in achieving this. Panorámica del valle del río Cauca... is probably one of the works that has the strongest connection to memory.  However, as I mentioned, this is not the only purpose of this project.

f: You have expressed your interest in establishing "questions regarding the way intangible elements pervade representations of landscape throughout history." Can you expand on this statement – what types of questions would you like to establish? What types of intangible elements are we talking about? Are these historic representations paintings? Photographs? Literature?

CE: I am interested in exploring why some landscapes, both real and represented, are more potent than others. I'm curious about which elements make a place more memorable than another. It has to do with survival, comfort, the feel of safety, the need for knowledge, the pleasures offered by the otherness of a place, aesthetic balance and harmony and even geometry but also a lot to do with the viewer's personal and intellectual baggage. All these aspects have played multiple roles throughout the history of represented landscape. Represented landscapes have been at the service of many of man's concerns: they strengthen national identity and have been used as a metaphor of the power of God, or an unreachable arcadia. They also represent nature as an endless source of aesthetic and material benefits.

© Camilo Echavarría

f: Talk with us about the idea that humankind is necessary for the existence of the landscape as a concept.

CE:  Reality is subjective to the observer. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Time, weather, geology and sunlight were basically the only forces that shaped our environment until the last three or four millennia. The multiple elements that make up a landscape (land, water, trees, sky, rock) have been out there for millions of years. However, the landscape as concept, as something that conveys emotions and incites reflection, cannot exist without somebody looking, representing or thinking about it.  The concept of landscape is also widely discussed as something that's born out of man's urban condition. The innocent eye is a myth (E. H. Gombrich).

f: How important is the Colombian landscape to your project? Could you create work that would have the same basic meaning based on a childhood trip you may have taken to another country? That is to say, is there something essential about working with the Colombian landscape and your memories of it?

CE: I photograph the Colombian landscape because it is accessible to me. In addition to recreating memories, I also seek to achieve images that invite contemplation and rediscovery. My strongest visual memories not only come from physical travels but also from pictures from all sorts of other sources. The Colombian landscape is the subject matter of many pictures in Illustrated Landscapes, but it is not the theme of this project.

© Camilo Echavarría

f: Are there any ways to generalize historic ways of representing or considering the Colombian landscape by Colombian artists? Are you considering those representations in your work? By this I mean, in the US painters in the 19th century, in particular, considered the landscape through the prisms of the sublime as well as the frontier and the West and Manifest Destiny.

CE: Landscape representations in Colombia from the first half of the 19th century manifest the foreign traveler's desire to describe and narrate his experience mainly to a European audience. These travelers were interested in registering not only the otherness and exoticism of our territory but also wished to illustrate their scientific findings as well as the adventures faced while touring our land. Local artists were pretty busy working for the church back then and there aren't as many examples. The watercolor landscapes made by Colombian artists for the Comisión Corográfica, a government funded survey of the country's geography, demographics and natural resources undertaken at the beginning of the second half of this century constitute probably the most comprehensive body of landscape works in our brief artistic history. Objectivity plays an important role in these pictures.

Collective ideals involving human issues that influence landscape painting in Colombian history during the last century and a half are not that evident. Most artistic expressions when representing our landscape are fueled by individual motivations. "Modern" artists from the end of the 19th century and on were mainly concerned with formal and technical issues learned from their visits to academies in Paris. Painting schools from the first half of the twentieth century approach landscape mainly from a romantic and decorative point of view. Most artists aimed their technical knowledge and aesthetic strategies at representing an idyllic interpretation of the landscape.

© Camilo Echavarría

f: I have the sense that your still-video photographs are incredibly time intensive on the post-production side. Would you be willing to talk us through how you created one of them, perhaps Cauca, from being there in the landscape and making the images to presentation of the finished work?

CE: Cauca was born out of photograph I was making near the town of Valparaíso, not far away from Medellín. The Cauca river is the second longest river in the Colombian Andean region and I have traveled along it many times. When invited to the Salón Nacional, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do something with this river as the main subject. Strategies from previous videos were the starting point but I wanted to add something else. Axis Mundi and Inspiration Point are made from stills that merge into each other but there is no presence of the moving image. In Afluente, I construct a natural scenario from different fragments and then blend them into the moving image, however, the scenery is always the same. Cauca combines the transition of images that each in turn has been assembled independently and the inclusion of moving images captured in video or produced through digital animation. It was almost masochistic, looking back at the challenge I decided to undertake. I made several visits to this place each lasting several days and took multiple pictures. That was the best part. Just sitting there and "taking in" the place. Digital post-production was very intensive and I could end up several days doing just mechanical stuff. The relationship to the computer screen is mainly intellectual whereas the experience of being out there tends towards the spiritual.

© Camilo Echavarría

f: What are the factors that lead you to choose photography or video for a given work? How do photography and video work together in Illustrated Landscapes and what do they contribute separately?

CE: So far, except for a few recent situations, I have captured the places I visit through still photography, not video. The four pieces made so far which involve video editing tools are primarily based on photographic capture. These works result from an extended stay in one place or out of several visits to the same place. Only recently have I begun capturing video from places I visit briefly. I am ever more interested in erasing the line that separates both mediums not only in the process of creating a particular work (capture and post-production) but also at the moment I present it either in an exhibition or in a book.

© Camilo Echavarría

© Camilo Echavarría