Cuny Janssen • Photographer, Netherlands

Landscape and Portraits

Landscape Stories: Thomas Struth has been so important for you. How has he influenced your work?
Cuny Janssen: When I discoverd his work, I applied for an intership and he accepted. I stayed in Düsseldorf for three months in 1999. Most important was to learn that making a photograph is just 10% of the work that comes with it. I was priviliged to observe and assist with many aspects of the other 90%. He influenced my eye, the way I frame an image. Apart from that I learnt how important different forms of art are and how inspiring the ideas and work of other artists. Every other day he gave me a differtent book to study.

© Cuny Janssen from 'There is Something in the Air in Prince Albert, South Africa'

Landscape Stories: Has your work been influenced by your early studies in fashion design? “India”, your first book, seems in a certain way to have the semblances of an object of tailoring. Could it, according to your opinion, derive from this experience?
Cuny Janssen: At some point in the last 13 years I realized – first unconsciously and later consciously – that my work would have to be rooted in beauty. That has been the attraction to fashion. Beauty becomes suspect when you make things more beautiful then they already are. Then you lose your credibility. The element of mystery is important. Beauty is a means of getting to grips with that mystery.

© Cuny Janssen from 'India'
© Cuny Janssen from 'India'

Landscape Stories: In a lecture I read, it appears how there was a great plan since the beginning of your career, that was to travel all over the world to take pictures of children and, maybe after 20 years, see all of them together, to see the differences and similarities. There is a source of inspiration from “Family of Man” of Edward Steichen and obviously also the lesson learnt from August Sander in “Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts/People of the Twentieth Century”. Which affinities and/or differences do you think there are in your artistic parcours?
Cuny Janssen: My work is also a collection of people and in each series they are connected by a certain community or situation. There is also a connection between all the people in the world and I am trying to visualize what that connection is. But I am very aware of the cultural and social complexities in the world. I don’t want to prove anything.
Landscape Stories: Thinking at Roberta Valtorta I can say that you propose a photography that shows interiors, exteriors, portraits of people and animals, because all it’s landscape. Your work it’s based on children and landscape. Could you explain us the relationship between these two elements and the value that they bring in your work?
Cuny Janssen: In a practical sense, the landscape is always part of my journey, where ever I go. One of the most intriguing attributes of nature is its indifference. No matter what happens, nature continues to grow, like mankind itself. Everything in nature is biologically determined, and yet we never cease to be moved by what we see. In a landscape I find myself searching – often at length – for the energy of creation. Sometimes there is a moment, a tree, a pattern … or perhaps a certain light in which I recognize something. Something that is incomprehensible. That is the moment I’ve been waiting for. While my three-year-old daughter sometimes picks up a plant and simply looks at it, without wondering about its meaning, I try to discover a direct link to that mystery in both my landscapes and portraits.

© Cuny Janssen from 'Amami'

Landscape Stories: You say that you can control better the relationship with children using the “4×5” large format camera. Please explain us your modus operandi and your intents.
Cuny Janssen:Since it takes time to focus my technical camera, I shoot one photo at the time. Sometimes the problem is that he or she unconsciously assumes an unnatural pose, which makes it harder to get the photo I have in mind. But on the whole my sitters are eager to please the photographer. It is an intense process and that intensity shows through in my photos.

© Cuny Janssen from 'Amami'

Landscape Stories: I saw that, especially in “My Grandma Was A Turtle”, the distance between you and the subject photographed changes a lot of times. Could you explain us how do you find the right balance, the necessary emphaty, between you and the subject?
Cuny Janssen: Every situation asks for the right distance, even in a landscape. Sometimes you can be more intimate and sometimes you need to take more distance. It’s a natural proces more then it is a choice or system.

© Cuny Janssen from 'My Grandma Was A Turtle'
© Cuny Janssen from 'My Grandma Was A Turtle'

Landscape Stories: How deeply are your landscapes influenced by the book “Why People Photograph” written by Robert Adams? What is changed in your landscape photographs from “Macedonia” to “Yoshino”?
Cuny Janssen: Adams focuses on the beauty and the loss of the American landscape. His book “Why People Photograph” had a decisive influence on me. After reading his essays on Judith Joy Ross and Susan Meiselas, I realized that reading about other photographers and artists is one of the most important things you can do outside of photography itself. Without reflection there is no meaning. If there is a change in my landscapes, I would say that they are more monumental now, especially the ones in the book “Yoshino”. I am increasingly interested in William Egglestons ‘democratic photograph.’

© Cuny Janssen from 'Yoshino'
© Cuny Janssen from 'Yoshino'

Landscape Stories: In your lectures you talk often of hineininterpretierung’ that means giving or putting a meaning into something after-the-event, interpreting an unintended meaning. ‘Tokyo Compression’, the work of Michael Wolf: what fascinates your of this project? Which kind of feelings can you find between this work and yours?
Cuny Janssen: I showed his work in my lecture because if you look at the pictures of the series “Tokyo Compression” for the first time, you could get a completely different idea of what it really is. The pictures are alarming and raise questions, because it looks like these people are suffering, but at the same time they are beautiful. When you realize that these people are in their dayly trip to work, in the underground, you look at the pictures differently. At first sight the work is strong, but the context makes the work even stronger. In my book Portrait/Landscape the viewer wants to see the war, because they know that the children experienced it. The context of war influences the way you look at the portraits and even at the landscapes. But the question remains if it is really visible.

© Cuny Janssen from 'Macedonia'
© Cuny Janssen from 'Macedonia'

Landscape Stories: I can’t not pose my attention to the extreme attention that you spend in book design (all of your books are designed from the same designer). When you start whith a new project have you yet an idea of which kind of book realize? All of your books are self published, how important is the relationship between photographer and graphic designer in self publishing?
Cuny Janssen: Actually, only my first book India was self published. My last four books are published by Snoeck Verlag in Cologne. But you can see it as a cooperation between the publisher and me, because I also sell and distribute my books. I really like the book to stay alive and with it the bookstore. Internet and physical bookstores should go hand in hand. In my experience a good relationship between the designer and the photographer is very important. I never have an idea of a book before or during the pictures are taken. The moment that the results of a project are on the table, is the moment for Sybren, my designer, to have his first and most important impression. First he is just looking at the material as open as possible to create his own idea about the work. After this i come in and we start building together.

© Cuny Janssen from 'There is Something in the Air in Prince Albert, South Africa'
© Cuny Janssen from 'There is Something in the Air in Prince Albert, South Africa'

Landscape Stories: I know that now you are working on the city of Naples, would you tell us something about this project? What projects do you have in mind for the early future?
Cuny Janssen: A couple of weeks ago I vistited Naples for the fourth time and I realized later that I have been there in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. I took pictures of Roma children in very bad circumstances but also made portraits of children that have wealthy parents. There are pictures of the city with it’s buildings but also the ones I took in the Botanical Garden. I even went to Paestum and Procida. I fell in love with Naples during my first visit. It is a romantic city but at the same time there is so much chaos. I am curious myself what my pictures will show in the end. Now I am working in Amsterdam, the place I live. I discovered, after thirteen years of traveling all over the world, that everything I am looking for is right in front of me.

Interview curated by Marina Caneve