What would happen if a camera decided to take a selfie? German photographer Jürgen Novotny, who also works under the name J. Flynn Newton, takes this idea as the starting point for his recent project CameraSelfies. He produces intimate “self-portraits” giving personalities to the devices behind the selfie phenomenon. His work has received attention from CNN, LUI, LensCulture, Saatchi Art and many others. We catch up with him about the ideas behind his works and the relevance of analog vs digital.
A: Could you talk about the idea behind your series CameraSelfies?
JN: As an engineer I was always fascinated by everything technical … especially cameras since my father presented me my first camera when I was 6 years old. First shooting film (of course) I also made the transition to digital photography a few years ago, but without losing the connection to my “analog fundament” completely.
Looking again for my analog “heroes” – which I never could afford when I was shooting film – on auction sites like eBay and elsewhere around 2014 I learned that nondigital cameras seemed in fact to be forgotten … beautiful and still great equipment is now available for a few bucks. I told myself: good for me, but somehow sad (reminding me a little bit of the toys’ fate in the Toy Story movies). So what if those abandoned and forgotten cameras would try to depict themselves and their somehow sad situation? Without users anymore, looking back upon their glorious times? In the following I began to collect historic cameras and the idea for my CameraSelfies was born. I tried to capture them in their “natural” and chronologically correct environment, on backgrounds of contemporary wallpapers.
A: How do you think your work responds to contemporary culture and the issues which are relevant today – do you think your pieces make any kind of judgment/ statement?
JN: Another important aspect for this project I didn’t mention before is the still very vivid “selfiemania”; therefore CameraSelfies is also meant as a reference (or better, caricature) towards this trend. Whilst virtually everybody is capturing themselves to prove they are still existing, not forgotten and in a preferably good shape I use this obsessive selfie trend to make those cameras aware of themselves as well as the public.
So, yes, CameraSelfies shouldn’t only be taken as nice depictions of old but nice gear; it also claims to highlight that part of our modern culture (the selfie hype) we all engage in because everyone else does. But please note: if you look at my series closer you will see that I captured them with all their flaws, scratches and bumps they received over the time.
A: Could you discuss the relevance of analog vs digital in your compositions?
JN: CameraSelfies wants to remind the viewer of the origins of photography, and also keep in mind that expressive photography is more than noise reduction, smile detection and technical specifications. These cameras are not only tools reduced to their technical data, but also still an inspiration for artists and a source for creativity. Here, the viewer is out of the frame, the cameras and the creative potential they offer stand in the foreground whether they are analog or digital. But yes, it doesn’t lack a certain irony that I capture my analog subjects by means of digital equipment; I still like film photography very much but digital technology gives me the freedom to tell my story by means of advanced image processing.
A: How do you think audiences respond to the comical idea of these cameras having autonomy, or perhaps personalities in light of the universal digital age?
JN: I hope that the audience perceives my CameraSelfies not only as colourful and decorative pictures of vintage cameras but in the first place as portrayals of sort of “personalities” who accompanied us our whole life (at least speaking for me) helping us to collect and recall memories we would otherwise forget – while those devices which gave us the means to do so accidentally became forgotten. You see, I try to give my cameras a soul – an aspect which in the second place promotes my “selfie statement” mentioned earlier.
A: How far do your photographs attempt to achieve a kind of preservation – for history or otherwise?
JN: Of course! Trying to depict these cameras as personalities I also aim at their preservation. I would like to remind the audience that they are more than a creative tool (which is a very high value by itself) but a testimonial: which tools and techniques were used to capture us, our environment and our culture? How did photography develop, and what can we learn from earlier techniques and their usage? Might there be any aspects we forgot when we will take snapshots with our mobiles solely in the near future? Sounds a little bit dramatic and pessimistic, but an artist – or someone who labels himself as one – has the freedom to exaggerate. Also when his or her artworks superficially show beautiful cameras in front of decorative wallpapers.
A: What do you have planned in terms of future projects/ ideas for culturally responsive artworks?
JN: Whilst following and pushing other photographic projects in parallel it’s important for me to bring the CameraSelfies project to an end – or at least to try. At the time responding to your questions there are 70 images existing; currently my aim is to collect 100 of them and publish them as a photo book – although I doubt that I will really be able stop collecting them … I’m currently looking for interesting and interested publishing houses.
1. Images from CameraSelfies. (2014-2015.) Courtesy of the artist.