Booooooom x Capture Photography Festival: Philotheus Nisch Interview

Earlier this year we announced that Philotheus Nisch was the chosen artist for our 2022 Capture Public Art Project! Thank you to everyone who submitted to the open call. Nisch’s images were installed on the facade of the King Edward Canada Line Train Station, here in Vancouver, as part of Capture 2022. You can see his work in the image above — photo by Michael Love.

The images selected for this installation address Nisch’s commercial work as well as his artistic practice as he explores the boundaries between these two realms. I had the opportunity to ask him some questions to shed a little more light on the work.

Jeff Hamada: Can you share some of the milestones in your life that made you the person you are today? These could be related to creativity but they really don’t have to be — any experiences that you feel were significant in some way.

Philotheus Nisch: When I start from the very beginning, I’d say that since back to my first memories I was always attracted by the possibility to create something for very different reasons.

When I finished high school I worked a year in art therapy but the creative part here was very little compared to the social and therapeutic efforts of the job. At that time I developed some kind of new fascination for art and design and decided to apply for art school. In between I worked in a design office for some months and felt like that’s really the field and the environment I want to work in and feel comfortable. So I started studying design, but from time to time I found myself not opening any graphic design programs but instead buying more and more cameras, spending my time in the darkroom and trying to understand photography in its various facets. After graduating I had a chapter with some doubts of what I’ve actually been doing with all these pictures. In a way I felt under qualified and overqualified at the same time. And none of the jobs I applied to in the creative industry were something that felt ok or worked out. Eventually I started working in a restaurant for some years and worked on my career in photography as a kind of side job. In retrospect, these were important years where I’ve learned a lot about what kind of photos I’d make without any guidelines and also about things like work-life balance. Making pictures from my apartment during the day and working in the restaurant kitchen by night basically dedicated my full life to work. That’s why I wanted to put all my energy into photography at some point and luckily I had my first editorial jobs coming in at the same time.

What is it about photography that you enjoy?

It just happens a lot, that I see things or create certain set-ups that I would like to be eternal. For me, taking a picture of it is the most simple and immediate approach to that issue.

What I also enjoy about photography is that it includes so many things at once. It seems like photography can touch everything. Not only that, but also when it comes to the process of creating Images it’s endless possibilities on how to approach that and how to transform any kind of concept into a picture.

Also I like to see it as a practice without too many guidelines. I never set any rules about how to work with photography. I try to not limit myself in terms of styles and ideas. Whatever feels interesting to me or somehow comes to my mind I mostly just do it.

That sounds corny but when I look back how I was approaching things in my childhood and when I look at what I’m doing today I think that didn’t change so much in the core. I guess, playing or let’s call it experimenting and observing is something that I enjoy in most moments and also the thing that leads to my images.

How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?

I think my approach to photography is more about capturing an idea than a specific moment. So most of the time everything starts with a stream of ideas.

What I especially like about my practice and about photography in general is that it can be so imprecise.

It’s just so far away from words and anything else and I feel like especially this impreciseness is one of the qualities of pictures and also an adjective I’d use to describe my work to someone who has never seen it.

Also when I think about my work I like to look at it as something that can be seen and read in very individual directions from different people.

Therefore I’d use accessible as a second attribute. I think that kind of imprecisment allows pictures to be accessed and perceived in very different ways.

Give us a bit of context for the images exhibited here in Vancouver. What was your intention when you were capturing each of these images?

Actually all images were created as commissioned work in an editorial context. The origin of all three pictures were either texts or a Headline to work on. The first one was about a story about a prisoner who built a fake gun out of breadcrumbs and managed to break free with that object. The second one was threatening the scenario of a vegetarian world population. And the third one was simply about the straw as a very ordinary object.

When I produce commissioned work I try to forget about the commissioned context at some point in the process and try to produce work that I enjoy on a very simple and everyday life level.

There’s a certain humor in a lot of your work, can you talk a bit about that?

It’s strange because I never aimed to create funny pictures in any way. But I guess I like to play with expectations and also with visual clichés. Questioning these things works best with a certain level of irony. I always like to see my work as something that doesn’t take itself unnecessarily seriously. Also for me it’s an extra point when people get slightly confused while looking at it and when there is a potential for misunderstanding a picture.

Do you feel that what you are doing now is the thing you were born to do?

Not sure if being born is the right description, because I think starting a career in photography is quite hard to plan and there are so many factors besides talent that are affecting the whole course. Just thinking of the huge privilege of going to art school and the kind of ticket into the creative world for most people. I do think there was a lot of learning at art school and experiments in different fields that brought me to what I’m doing today.

At the same time there were and still are tons of examples about unlearning things from university and school. Like unlearning what you’ve been taught about work and life in general.
Also unlearning things you take for granted about creative processes. Because they basically consist of ever changing and sometimes intangible aspects of a very young medium.

Are you from a creative family?

Not really, but my mother always had a great appreciation for creative output. Also growing up in a very tiny village surrounded by a lot of space and emptiness basically forces you in childhood to create something around yourself. Since there wasn’t a lot to do I got really into music in my teenage years, wrote and recorded songs and played the drums in different bands. Even though I’m not involved in making music anymore and the music I’d create nowadays would be probably so different from the sound from back then I feel like I learned a lot back then that I still apply to photography. For instance balancing or arranging a composition still feels either visually or in music so relative to each other for me. I still like to see both music and visual art as mutually inspirations to each other.

Philotheus Nisch photos installed on King Edward Train Station, photo by Michael Love

What was the last thing that blew your mind?

Finding a flat in Berlin.

Can you describe one piece of art or photography you have in your home and what you like about it?

I love all of David Shrigley’s drawings for different reasons, but I don’t own one yet.

What’s one thing you would like to accomplish this next year?

I’m working on a new series that might come together into a book — let’s see if this will come to life this year.

What about one thing you’d like to accomplish in your lifetime?

Someday I‘d love to live in a house or flat with a huge tree inside going through the floor.

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