INTERVIEW WITH KEVIN WESTENBERG
by Peter Vantyghem
Kevin Westenberg moved to London thirty years ago where he still lives to this day. But the enthusiasm of those days has been replaced by a dark realism. 'Nowadays it’s all corporate business'.
The first thing he wants to know is whether I saw his photograph that will be on the new Triggerfinger album cover. Kevin Westenberg's pride is very much intact. Pride in his work, pride in his contacts, and still under the spell of music.'Actually I first met Ruben Block's girlfriend, Valerie. She works in the Dries Van Noten store in Antwerp, where years ago I bought a suit and we started chatting. That's how I like it: you 'find' the bands you want to photograph yourself. I am also crazy about Ruben, Mario and Polle's energy.'The photograph was taken at the Metropool hotel in Brussels. 'Ruben was talking about the atmosphere of the movie Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) by Wim Wenders, and about the interiors and atmosphere of Kubrick's The Shining. He didn't want a traditional rock photo. We tried all kinds of things at the Metropool. These pictures will be in the CD booklet. I am going to make a very large print of the cover, have it signed by the band, and auction if for charity.
'This intense contact with his customers is becoming increasingly rare, he says. One of the photographs in the exposition shows Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, a face hardened by a travelling rock & roll life. 'I took this picture in the nineties. How I met him? He lived in my street in London. He often went to a pub where I also drank. I just asked him.'
And do you still ask artists if you can take their picture?
'Sometimes. I saw Jake Bugg for the first time in the Borderline, a club close to my house. He was totally unknown at the time, and I found his work very refreshing. He didn't have a recording contract yet which means he was very easy to approach. We came to an agreement and I made a series of about forty classic photographs. If he ever becomes great, they will be like the old Dylan photo sessions. But it is very rare to be able to work so intensely with someone.'
Why is that?
'Well, it is no longer cool to go up to someone to ask if you can take their picture. The nature of the press has changed. There is a lot more media and much less innocence. It is all more corporate business now. The world of the Jay Zs and the Rihannas has alienated from real music, from a standard. What I am actually trying to say is that the digital world has no soul.'
And what you look for in your people is their soul? Their purity?
'Exactly. The session with the young Jake Bugg was so pure. We want to record the person when he is still fresh, not bitter yet and ruined by the business. Every photographer looks for this purity.'
And do you want to know the artist's music to catch his/her soul?
'When I became a photographer, I always wanted to listen to the music first. I didn't know the scene very well and I found it important to feel the right context so that I could sell an idea properly. And I wanted to avoid getting attached to a person whose music I didn't like. That is different too now. You get a call to be somewhere the next day at a certain place, at a particular time. And that's all you know. You need to come up with something there and then.'
This even happens to a reputable photographer such as yourself?
'It's all about the money, isn't it? When there's less, the level drops. Simple as that. A lot of people used to be involved before a musician made it to a stage or the store. They have pretty much all gone now, and the sector is governed by paranoia. Under these circumstances it is hard to build a relationship. Just look at the big music magazines, they are not going to be around much longer. Editorial staffs are declining. Mojo has a big reputation, but it only employs seven people. I have been working for Mojo for 15 years, I must have had 15 covers, but I don't make any money. I get a budget, I want to do a good job, and I blow the budget. How others do this? I think a lot of people work for free on all those online sites.'
You sound like someone who despairs of civilization, you know.
'Really? Well, in my heart I am an optimistic person. But when I look around myself I also see wars, pollution in the harvests and the water, corruption. Doesn't that make you pessimistic automatically? This just happens to be closer to the truth. And I am getting older, and the longer you live, the more things you understand. And how can you look around yourself without realising that life could not be more bizarre than it is now?'
Do you do something about this, do you think? Is your camera a weapon?
'No. Not a weapon, my camera is a flower. I am not focused on confrontations. I try to get the best out of people. That is also a fight, by the environment in which my people live, and because of the enormous egos I have to contend with. Some understand that what I do is important for them, but some also see it as a direct path to women and drugs.'
You trained as an architect, but never worked as one. And you are a self-made photographer. Tell me, what is the value of an academic training?
'I bought my first camera when I was living in Copenhagen for a year. It interested me more than the desk job an architect is promised. Becoming a photographer was like a big adventure. My poor knowledge of the qualities of light, and of the business, set me back years, but it was never a frustration, because I went to work with absolute innocence. It was all possible then: weekly magazine New Musical Express called every other day and I just went for it.'
Do you still live in London?
'Still, yes. But I have been asking myself the last five years why I stay here. Thanks to the Internet it doesn't really matter where you live. You can work from anywhere. I could live on Mars, if it weren't for the fact that ninety percent of what I do is still analogue. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to find laboratories and paper.'
True, you stick to analogue photography. Why is that?
'In part it is a matter of principles. You need to remain loyal to how you work because it contains your soul. I want to be a photographer, not a recorder of pictures. I can put a different feeling in a roll of film than when I work digitally. I'm also still a big of fan of black and white photography. Anyway, I just have to be patient a little longer, better hardware is on the way.'
Can you compare the difference between analogue and digital with the difference between vinyl records and mp3's?
'For me it is a good comparison and I know for sure that some musicians share my frustrations. But it is not about the technique, it is realising that everything is become more stupid. These digital possibilities mean people don't have to work as hard anymore. They have access to a great deal of information, but you don't learn anything from this abundance. You need an objective, and if you have one you will automatically make an effort.'
What can we expect at your exposition?
'Mostly photographs that have not been shown before. Half the exposition will be photographs of musicians: Thom Yorke, Nick Cave, Paul McCartney, Robert Plant,…. And a lot of people from the movie industry, such as Sean Penn, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers. I am very happy with a photograph I was able to take last year of Rick Rubin.
Do you still have dreams?
'Of course, what’s the point of living otherwise? At Christmas I got very close to Prince but it didn't work out. Those kinds of job still give me a high. I've missed quite a few opportunities, I must say, by not working in the US. I'm even thinking of getting an agent because now I have to put so much time in negotiating about jobs I have little time left for the actual job.'
Could you live in Antwerp?
'Undoubtedly. It is a lot more European than London. God, the UK really is the 51st state of the US, you know. I want to live in Europe, yes. Copenhagen certainly. Not in Germany or Switzerland, too severe and strict. Antwerp combines a unique feeling for style with a special kind of humour I like.'