The material that Jan von Holleben has used for his new series is brightly coloured, sweet and sticky. He has frequently demonstrated a talent for turning surprising and creative ideas into intriguing series. Above all, his unmistakable visual language has been defined by his layered work involving people and a diversity of props, which are laid out on the floor of his studio, and photographed from up high. On this occasion, he was invited by the curator of the »horizons zingst« Environmental Photo Festival, Edda Fahrenhorst, to develop a series around the subject of sugar, within the framework of this year’s festival motto: “Eat It – About Food”. From the first glimpse, the resulting art proved irresistible. We spoke with the photographer about his work and the visual sugar rush.
What ideas were discussed for the series?
The work concerned with the subject of sugar was to be cheerful and inviting, yet also critical. The first shock came when I went shopping: I’d never been able to purchase props and research material so cheaply – and much more that I could ever imagine consuming, myself. The idea actually gave me the creeps, though I was still delighted when it came to unpacking all my booty.
Was the Sugar WOW! title set from the beginning?
Yes, pretty much right after the first pictures, and when a second large order of sweet things had been delivered to my studio: 30 kilos of normal-sized portions in an enormous box. The dream of all children – the horror of all dentists. The smell alone, when I opened the box – it was enough to really blow a few synapses. Such a mass of sugar at its best: WOW! was the only thing anyone could say. It’s both fascinating and scary. As for me, the expression immediately stood for drama and, at the same time, for delight in that magical, and also dangerous, crystal.
It seems as though you dove into the subject with great passion and pleasure.
Yes – the shapes, colours and haptics came together to play around with my own little artistic and aesthetic vocabulary. The series was then assembled very quickly.
There seem to be many references to art history.
Yes, companions and role models are always important. I’m not a friend of copying, but of inspiration, and so I see myself and others as catalysts of culture. That’s why references are found everywhere, and are also important to reveal correlations. For example, I found a sheet of blue paper in my studio and, when I placed a few sweeties on it, my mind went: Miró! And the more I played around with the objects, the more satisfied I felt. Then I also thought of Kandinsky or Baumeister, and so it went on… Space Invaders, Rothko, Pollock, and Warhol, as inspiration. The still lifes came at the very end, once my visual everyday life was taken over by confectionery: I saw sweetness everywhere.
In some motifs the series also appears quite ambivalent.
Yes, of course. The fact that we ended with syringes filled with sugar pearls was simply logical; in fact, during the process, I soon began to define sugar, for myself, as a drug. The fact that one of my acquaintances appears to be growing sugar sprinkles, rather than hair, is also a logical consequence: after all, where else should the massive amount of sugar consumed go, other than out through the pores? The devilish land of milk and honey had me in its grasp, and I was lost to the seduction and terror.
In contrast to your normal work, most of the motifs in this series get by without people.
This made me able to concentrate, more fully, on the object – sugar. I wanted to draw everything out of it, and to act very freely. Working with people always means a lot of advanced planning and coordination. That’s why I only had people in the studio a few times. The rest of the time, I just let myself be carried along by the material.
What are the biggest differences from your previous series?
The six-month time frame was very lengthy, and I’ve never worked so intensively and long on a subject before. I normally spend one to five days on a project – sometimes with a couple of weeks of preparation – but otherwise I’m very much concentrated on a few days for production. This occasion was very special.
What were the technical challenges for this series?
Technology is not really my focus. Everything starts with an idea in my mind. I’m a friend of first ideas. This means that I also don’t have to continue, once they’re in the can. But for some pictures, there is often a need for them to be perfected; though I’m only ever a perfectionist when it comes to the idea – not the technical implementation. The technical realisation should never be quite perfect; otherwise, I find it boring. There should always be mistakes, because it’s the only way my pictures begin to come alive. They become believable.
Since when have you been working with Leica cameras?
Just since this project. It was through collaborating with Leica that I got to know the advantages of the SL2 in the studio. It was a learning curve for me; one that rewarded me, at the end, with wonderful images. I was very surprised by the resolution, in comparison to my own camera.
Will you continue to work on the series?
Even before the series, I already illustrated certain subjects with sweets. That’s bound to happen again. First of all, however, I’m glad that the candies are locked away in the poisons cabinet. Let’s see when I’m allowed to open it up again…
Born in 1977, Jan von Holleben began taking photographs when he was just 13. He first studied Disability Education; then graduated in Photography Theory and History from the Surrey Institute of Art and Design in London. He worked as a photo editor and art director, and founded two photographer groups, before returning to photography himself: his layered work, in particular, has been causing a stir for years. His best known series is Dreams of Flying. He lives with his family in Berlin. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.
The photographer, and a portfolio dedicated to his Sugar WOW! series, is featured in LFI issue 6/2022.