Thomas Demand Interview: It's Only a Paper Moon

Thomas Demand makes detailed paper models from existing photographs, which he then photographs to generate subtly off-kilter photographs. His latest exhibition Daily Show – now in the Common Guild – marks a departure from previous works

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 08 Oct 2015

What comes next may be a bit of a spoiler if you’re not familiar with Thomas Demand’s work. For some time, he’s been reproducing photographs using paper models, which he then photographs. For his latest show in The Common Guild, Demand has turned his attention from the historically significant content he previously worked with, to Instagram and the kind of 'viral photography' that is exchanged between friends.

Before this first major exhibition of this new body of work, Demand takes our call in Los Angeles to discuss The Dailies, as he calls them, and what photography is right now becoming.

Working from others’ photographs has been a structuring principle for Demand throughout his career. It was for this reason he couldn’t overlook viral pictures. As he puts it, “They open a whole new landscape of what photography is.” One picture from The Dailies shows “two cups in a fence and it’s a small love story…” says the artist. “It’s not worth telling anyone but if you do it right, suddenly there’s a whole tiny little story like a poem. Like a Japanese haiku.”

While The Dailies marks an important transition in Demand’s practice to using his own photos, he continues to work in paper sculptures and photographing these. There’s a recognisable clean aesthetic to the pictures. Yet, he has never worked on a look. And as carefully made as these models are, Demand says he is still surprised “how many people don’t see it’s fabrication because for me it’s totally clear.”

While his work might be easy to recognise, he says “I'm not sitting there worrying if it doesn’t look like Thomas Demand.” For him, the process is just a means of being able to translate from two to three dimensions, then back again.

Memory and Openness

That the pictures come across as ordered or simplified comes from Demand’s interest in the filtration processes of memory. “What do you remember? If I think of a picture that I’ve seen that has meant something to me, is it every detail, or a certain constellation of objects?” Further still, this idiosyncratic process allows for a negotiation of “where to stop.”

There is also a negotiation of “how open” to leave a picture, whether it should be obvious – “at any point you can see this is a pile of cardboard.” In the latest works, it is the “non relevance of the moment” that informs the simplification of the images.

Lifting out elements and detail of these already “non relevant moments” could make for a dominating sense of lightness and abstraction, if it weren't for obscure and labour-intensive process he prefers for their production . Demand compares dye transfer to Japanese woodcutting for the level of craft and skill involved.

There’s a crucial difference compared to usual printing processes for Demand, as he explains: “You have somebody who is doing them by hand so meticulously over weeks and weeks. And he is probably one of the last of his profession.” The materials themselves have long been discontinued by the manufacturer.

It might be that Demand strategically adds a weightiness to the pictures, but he’s not interested in heavy nostalgia. He thinks that’s too straightforward. “It’s a very close relative to kitsch in a sense. Everyone knows what it’s for and what the purpose would be.” In essence, when nostalgia enters work, “You stop thinking about it, or analysing what you’re looking at,” he explains.

Speaking about first showing his work, he remembers being considered “ice cold” in this swerving from the sentimental.

“The most defining moments of photography of the last 10 years were mostly done by private people" – Thomas Demand

With Demand mentioning his choice in details to remove and allow, and his exclusion of nostalgic feelings, his own role as author becomes clear. Yet, considering all of the work is a copy of a copy (of a copy, depending on your principles), the notion of authenticity is not so clear. First looking at the work, he feels “It often has a certain anonymity.” However, he counters, “Everything you look at is done by one person.”

Elaborating further, he does remove the author: “I replace it with a very strong voice. I guess that’s why you can’t see too many of my works at once because it’s a very strong dialect.”

While Demand may be present as author, he removes the figure from his photographs. Instead, he includes objects, “Cups, windows, doors. They’re very anthropomorphic, traces of someone having been there.”

Yet, with rooms cleared and empty yards, the photograph becomes a record of  “the moment everybody left already, or the moment before everybody stands in the picture. You see this little thing at the side and that tells me the whole story I need to know. It’s supposed to be very welcoming but I’m not sure everyone shares that view.”

Already having spoken of the “non-relevance” of all these “funny” moments and the “cups, windows, doors”, they feel separated from the kind of news photography Demand has worked with before. Yet, it’s the same kind of “private photography” that he sees as the competitor of the professional photographer:

“The most defining moments of photography of the last 10 years were mostly done by private people,” he claims. “The competition for the newperson isn’t the other newsperson, it’s someone that is there and has a camera and puts it out there before they do.”

From this, Demand wonders if “the briefing has changed” and now the news photographer must generate emotionally charged images that tell a story. He thinks in particular of the recent harrowing image of the drowned Syrian child on the shore.

The Role of the Translator

Maybe the Scottish accent has made for a more difficult call than Demand lets on during the interview, because the role of the translator comes at the end of the conversation. He thinks of  himself translating images from photo to model to photograph of the model. If he’s a translator, though, he thinks he’s a “lousy” one:

“I had a personal translator who had another agenda. I kept saying my bits very carefully, and people were starting to laugh all the time. It was only one sentence, and still people laughed. I guess I’m one of those.”

It’s been a few years since Demand made the switch to The Dailies and started looking at Instagram instead of images of more conventional historical relevance. Talking about the future, he’s confident that he’s set to continue to produce exciting work. That most people are now past the initial reveal that “It’s all paper!” is not a worry for Demand. On his part, the most surprising parts of his work are conceptual:

“I just did a cherry blossom tree in full bloom because it’s the incarnation of kitsch. On the other hand, it works…. How much potential [making and photographing paper models of other photos] still has. For me, that’s the surprise now. The world is constantly producing pictures so I’m not afraid of running out of ideas.”

Thomas Demand – Daily Show at The Common Guild, until 13 Dec