“It stuns me every time”: Lena Herzog on the Uncanny Powers of Photography

About Guest:

Lena Herzog is a visual artist and photographer who develops thoughts and ideas as well as images. In his introduction to the conversation, Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison suggests that her camera follows Joseph Conrad's aesthetic creed to “render the highest kind of justice to the visible world.”

Harrison and Herzog discuss the cultural transition to digital photography and Herzog's penchant for a ghostly or alchemical – or even sacramental – approach to rendering images. Herzog usually works with pre-digital cameras, where latent images are transformed into visible images with emulsions in a darkroom. 
The two discuss how many cultures have believed that photographs steal the soul. Have millions of digital images eroded meaning from places and people? Walter Benjamin said that photography is one of the most powerful instruments of desacralization of the world, so Harrison and Herzog discuss the over-familiarization of images of landscapes and objects, in an era when we live in oceans of images.
Herzog argues that the images capture the “inner state of being” of the photographer: “Five photographers are in a trench, they pop out, they take a picture if the same event, they pop back in. They come out with completely different images. Remember the picture of the naked girl at the napalm bombing during the Vietnam War? It's Nick Ut's very famous iconic image. On that bridge stood half a dozen photographers, including a photographer from the New York Times who was far more famous at the time. None of them produced images that stuck with us. They were shooting at the same time with the same group of Vietnamese running towards them. This is an extraordinary and fascinating aspect of photography.” 

“About five billion people who have cellphones can produce fairly competent images. They're okay, but okay is not enough.”
“The procedures that I work with go back to the dawn of photography, but not for sentimental reasons. It's just because they're better. … The possibilities are enormous. When I see an image come through in my developer, it stuns me every time. It's the stuff of magic.”
“We are three dimensional creatures. We don't have the companionship and camaraderie with files, with zeroes and ones. Even when you see an image that is perfectly perfect, which is very high-resolution digital, there is something about it that doesn't speak to us.”
“One of the reasons that I use all these complicated technologies and techniques and large-format cameras is because I want to take special care. It should not be offhand, it should not be careless how I photograph.”
“The mystical part of it is not only that mechanically I can reproduce the astonishing likeness of the world, but also mechanically I can reproduce how I feel, how I see the world. … It not only registers the event, but the photographer's inner state of being.”
Lena Herzog is a visual artist and photographer who lives in Los Angeles. Born in the Ural mountains of Russia, she moved to the city of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) to study Languages and Literature at Leningrad University. She immigrated alone to the United States in 1990 and worked at Stanford University two years later as a research consultant. She then completed her BA in Philosophy at Mills College, specializing in the history and the philosophy of science and doing a comparative study of the paradigm shift theories of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.

In 1997, she discovered photography, and apprenticed to Italian and French printmakers, with a special interest in early and alternative photographic processes. Her work now ranges from classical documentary to the experimental and conceptual.

Her photography has been featured and reviewed in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Cabinet Magazine, The Believer, Vanity Fair, among others, and she is a regular contributing artist to Harper's Magazine. She is the author of five books of photography and her work has been internationally exhibited. Her book Deus Ex Machina, the Strandbeests of Theo Jansen, was published by TASCHEN in 2015. She is married to filmmaker Werner Herzog.

For more information, please visit her website, http://www.lenaherzog.com