Ștefan Neagu is a Romanian photographer in search of balance, a dentist by profession. In his vision, photography is an individual activity, without spectators and applause.
We invited him to discuss his new photo album entitled "Transsubstantia".
Ștefan, please tell us something about yourself. Where does your passion for photography stem from?
It was probably simmering somewhere deep down, somehow instilled from within the family, my parents being great art lovers. I had the opportunity to see the works of the great painters of the world in albums, and my father was also passionate about photography (with a camera obscura in the small bathroom, as it was customary in those days ...), I think that these at least put me in touch with visual art in general.
Playing with the camera continued until I was asked for permission to publish a photo in a magazine. Probably something clicked back then and made me aware that I could express myself even better through photography and maybe I should pay more attention to it. A more in-depth study at a school of photography followed a "sedimentation" of the information arranged relatively chaotically in my mind, to learn the "grammar" of photographic language. But the game didn't stop, I avoid taking myself too seriously...
Out of all the possible genres, why Fine art nude? What does it mean to you?
The artistic nude, as a photographic genre, says more about the photographer than the subject. I like to look for the elegance of form in a given frame, I like to move from the figurate to the abstract, preferring this shift over the two extremes. In the images I do not want an idealized portrayal of the body; I think we need to learn to live with confidence in our imperfect bodies. Because imperfection defines individuality. And as Vlad Zografi beautifully said, "the grace of small attractive imperfections", precisely those details give beauty.
What would you like to convey through your work?
Artistic interest in the human body has been relevant since ancient times; it seems to be a search for answers that have not yet been found.
Have you thought about tackling another genre of photography? Have you experimented with something else?
I like to think of photography as a verb, not a noun. I'm also more looking for suggestive, rather than descriptive, character. Of course, the search for balanced proportions can happen in any genre, whether landscape, portrait, still life, or street photography. I couldn't put a label on it, I think it's not so much the subject photographed that is important, but how and why. When you fully engage in the act of photography, what you find in the world is your own self, with your own kind of image. I don't impose limits of any kind on myself when taking photographs. Because then I am free to see how I want, what I want. I like the light in your photos.
What photographic equipment do you use?
I usually shoot in ambient light, sometimes I use a light source. I shoot analogue-hybrid in medium format and 35mm, I use pretty much the same type of film, because I've learned what to expect from it. I say hybrid because although the capture and imaging part is analogue (I develop my own film), I scan the negatives to get the final image.
I see your frames as visual poems, female characters, and simple, natural forms. How do you choose your models? Do you have a favourite model that you work with more easily and that fits your vision, or do you adapt depending on the individual?
I think it would be a mistake to impose a standard on myself, I am in search of balanced proportions rather than a certain standard. And balance can also be achieved with a single step to the left or right... With the model it's a collaboration, the role is at least as important in making a successful photograph. Ideally, there should be synchronization, right down to resonance. Sometimes it can be achieved, and then you know before the development that it's a good image.
Let's talk about your album "Transsubstantia". The first question that comes to mind is: how did you come up with the idea for this album?
After five years of shooting exclusively on film, I thought of a "concretization", a selection. Printing photographs seems to me perhaps the best way to "complete" an image. Because other senses are stimulated besides the visual one. Later, finding in a book by Nikos Kazantzakis the term "to transubstantiate" which I liked, I came up with the idea of associating two images, apparently unrelated to each other, but visually congruent, saying the same thing through different subjects.
It's an extremely beneficial visual exercise, which I recommend. And as I was talking earlier about verbs and nouns, here's why I chose the verb form for the title of the book.
What does "Transsubstantia" mean to you? What is your artistic vision, the essence of your project?
I think we are used to looking at what surrounds us through filters more or less intentionally put by society, from which the certainties given by prejudices also arise and often the astounding limitation of our own understanding. There are cultures in which every subject, whether human or material, has its own role. Not to be confused with materialism, which is nothing but a push to extremes... And everything that is taken to extremes, in whatever direction, leads to an imbalance...
If I had to make a short characterization of your album it would be "poetry and philosophy". How long did it take you to create that association, that dialogue that ends in balance?
Look, to answer your album question, I printed out the images I liked best, laid them out on the floor, and started looking for associations. As I usually do, including when I photograph, I mostly acted instinctively. And if on re-evaluation I felt the same way, it must have been the right association.
Apart from the pairs of images, there are two cinematic series and a pair of portraits, each with its own story.
Can you briefly tell us about those portraits?
They are portraits of the same people, 60 years apart. The person photographed, Prof. Popa Valeria, who happens to be a patient of mine, showed me this photograph was taken when she was a child and, while she was playing in the schoolyard, the teacher's husband, a doctor by profession, took her portrait. Impressed by the image, I suggested that she should reproduce the portrait, using the same technique and the same outfit. Each portrait has its own story, but together I think they tell a life story.
Could you pick one pair that means more than the others or do you like them all equally?
The album I think was conceived as a search for truths. And the truth is not self-sufficient, and it lies in the interrelationships between two or more similar items. And truth can be limited in time... I don't know of any universally valid truths. I avoid certainties, also limited by time.
It's hard for me to choose one. I even had to give up other images to fit into the budget allocated for the album, because I self-fund my projects...
Do you think a photographer needs photography to discover himself?
Most of the photographs I make are mental. And I sometimes miss the opportunity to capture an image, either indirectly or directly, through human error - one of the charms of working in analogue format. And this can happen if I leave room for chance if I don't necessarily respect the dosage and temperature of the developer to the millilitre, if I don't methodically respect the exposure measurement, etc. And this is not due to intentional carelessness, but because of the playfulness, the surprise... The important thing is the visual memory of the frame. Because I photograph, selfishly I would say, primarily for myself.
Why black and white?
I like the conversation of grey tones.
What do you think is different about "Transsubstantia"?
I don't know if it has anything different. Probably at best, it's personal. Because probably the most important thing in your own photographs is to be honest, first and foremost with yourself. It is difficult and unproductive to go away with the idea that you are inventing something new in photography, at most you can "season" the image with a piece of your soul, thus giving uniqueness to the frame. Because here we come to individuality.
What's the story here?
It's a series of images, Nycthemeral rhythm, which describes the current tendency to repeat cyclically from birth to death, according to the laws of nature, the same thing. What happens in those spaces between frames is essential, it defines us as individuals.
One last question: are you currently working on something, a new project?
Lately, I've been photographing a lot of still nature, using cameras that are chronophagous in their use and testing the limits of patience. And not out of some obscure masochism, but rather out of the pleasure of preparing, analysing, and studying the frame. I love the act of photography itself. It's a moment you spend alone with yourself, with your thoughts.