Romanian photographer Ovidiu Gordan recently released his self-published book Familiar Place, which is comprised of photographs made over the last ten years in and around his hometown in Romania. I recently saw some of the photographs from the book and I was immediately intrigued about where they were made and what compelled Ovi to make them. Ovi was kind enough to answer some questions by email about his book, and about his working methods more broadly. A few signed copies of Familiar Place are available from TPR Gallery.
Hi Ovi, your new book 'Familiar Place' is comprised of photographs made from 2007-2017. I counted 52 images in the book, both colour and black and white. Can you talk a bit about your daily life in Romania and what you get up to while you have your camera on hand to make these pictures?
Hi Sean, thanks for the interest and for asking a few questions about the book. In Romania I live in my small a quiet hometown of Simleu Silvaniei, in a house on the local hill near the forest, so I am close to nature here which I love. Being a local, I know a lot of people and I have lots of friends here and so I have access to photograph in a more personal manner. For the images in this book I did not go out specifically to take pictures but I had my camera with me while doing activities like helping my neighbor move some furniture or going out with my family to pick mushrooms for soup.
The title Familiar Place refers to places you know and that are local to you. You once told me Romania is a wonderful place to photograph, and that I should visit, and I hope to one day! What is it about your home country of Romania that is so appealing to you to photograph there?
I guess I feel that in my country you can still experience genuine people and places, the land has a sort of hidden beauty that is always surprising. There are many people here who have very little yet they are hard-working, industrious, creative people and it’s their creativity that fascinates me the most, it’s like the purest most sincere form of artistic expression.
I love the people in the photographs in this book. You are obviously close and welcome and they seem to feel very comfortable with you there. Can you give us a few examples of what you were doing when you made some of the pics?
For example in the picture with the lady touching the little girl’s face, the lady is my aunt and the little girl is her granddaughter, I was at their house with wedding invitations and I had my camera with me. The moment I photographed happened while we were leaving and it was getting dark. In the picture with the lady nun I was with some of my friends in a mountain village near here where we were looking to visit a bison farm, we asked a nun for directions and then I asked for a picture, she gave me this most wonderful smile and I took one picture. While I did not know her personally I felt that she gave me a loving personal moment. The picture with the two women from the back dressed in black, they are my mother and her sister, we were at a funeral in the courtyard of the local church.
The implied narrative of the book seems a lot to be based on your daily life experiences. It's like we are just with you, spending time. Did you struggle to come to accept your own working method or is it something you have always favored, instead of a more themed project way of working?
I find projects that are about one specific thing, boring and very limiting, especially if it’s something physical, like a project about chairs for example. I would look at three images from a project like that and I could guess what the rest of the pictures will be; I’m also not very fond of the photojournalistic stories. I like a photographic narrative based on something metaphysical like a feeling. I find this gives me much more freedom in working and this speaks more about life and the human experience, things which I am interested in and would like to explore. I believe the genius of the photographic medium is that it can show us life and speak to us about what it means to be human. I did not struggle but at the beginning I did experiment a lot with photography until I found my way.
What role does photography play in your life? Why is it important to you?
I express my creativity through photography and this brings me joy. Also I am quite nostalgic but not in a melancholy kind of way, I believe there are things we can learn from our past and photography helps me explore these feelings I have. It has become now very important to me, like religion to a devout person.
You have lived in the UK; tell me about the difference between working in Romania and the UK (on your personal work).
I did not do any personal projects in the UK, but I did found out things about myself and my photography as I stopped taking pictures there for the two years I stayed in London. I just did not find my familiar place that I could relate to and so I realised my art may be dependent on environment.
Are you also a professional photographer? If not, what do you do for work?
I have a BA in Art Photography and I did a lot of independent research, I don’t know about professional, that word is misused a lot. I guess I can say I’m a visual artist. For money I have an independent internet company providing retouching services for fashion photographers based in New York and Tokyo, usually working on editorials for magazines like Vogue and Elle. I find that this craft fits well with my image making skills and I enjoy it.
Ovi, would you mind telling me a bit about your influences and what has shaped the way in which you work (other photographers as well as music, art etc.)?
I have a long list of artists I admire including famous photographers like William Eggleston, Saul Leiter and Alec Soth, but I also enjoy the work of lesser known photographers like Mark Steinmetz, Bertien van Manen, Boris Mikhailov, Nikolay Bakharev and many others. I especially enjoy and relate to the things they have to say about their work, these are people who truly understand photography and I consider photography a very hard thing to understand. Other artist I like are Lucian Freud, Constantin Brancuși, Modigliani and Mark Rothko. As for music, I listen to The Doors, Muddy Waters, Led Zeppelin and many others. I also enjoy the old Romanian peasant folklore music recorded in the 1930’s. Also I have to mention I watch a lot of cinema, especially European films.
In regards to your book, did you work on the edit yourself or do you have someone you work with? Tell me about the working relationships you have with other people in making this book happen.
I showed my pictures to a few artists I respect, and was carefully watching their reactions, but mostly I worked on the book edit myself for a long time. I selected the images, edited them and made the sequencing you see in the book. A friend from Poland made the design of the cover, I had my good friends from my hometown help me with the making of the promotional video for the Indiegogo campaign, to raise money for the publishing of the book. I got sponsorship from three local companies and together with the preorders from Indiegogo I was able to independently publish my photobook. I went to Bucharest the capital city of Romania to print my book and assisted in the printing process.
Ovi, thanks so much for the insights into your work and your photographic processes. I found the book really engaging and not at all predictable, but rather full of life and wonder. I have been through it numerous times now and I still feel like I come across new things in the pictures with each viewing. Best of luck with the distribution of the book. Congratulations again!
Thank you too! I look forward to hosting you in Romania one day! All the best, Ovi.