The Guggenheim’s Nisma Zaman asked Vandy Rattana about his background in photography, the influence of music on his practice, and his thoughts on working with digital and analog cameras.
How did you become a photographer?
I started taking pictures in 2005. I am self-taught. In 2004, I went to university to study law. It was during the first two years that I met my communication teacher, who bought me my first analog camera. I also met Erin Gleeson, my art history teacher. They had an exhibition called Visual Arts Open and asked me if I would like to participate. She asked me to make pictures. And I just said, “Yes, but . . . why not?” Because I like looking.
When I make pictures, I have to treat the light very well. You have to love light, because light gives so much.
What is the primary source of inspiration for your photography?
I just realized that cinema—you know, Indian films—have really inspired me. Because I spent so much time watching Indian films in the1980s—I was just, like, eight or nine, I think—sometimes from the morning until late at night, or until the next morning.
There were some families, who were kind of rich, who had VCRs, which hundreds of people would gather around to watch the films. I’m one of them. I spent a tremendous amount of time with these films. And I think all the images just, you know, stay in one’s head. When I got my first analog camera, I realized that I had seen this somewhere before—it’s really like cinema.
Which artists or photographers do you admire, or feel have influenced your work?
I just fell in love with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work. He is really something else. The way he sees the world is very strange. I think to myself, “How is this possible, that a photographer could look at the world like that?” It’s very surreal. He’s very humble, Cartier-Bresson. He’s very, very humble. And he said that he has no message in his work. And I just learned that he wanted to be a musician—like me—but a trumpet player. But his teacher told him that, you know, “Just get out of here. You don’t have the ears.”
You wanted to be a musician? Can you elaborate?
I have two pianos, Of course, I like classical composers like Mozart, Chopin, Bach. But when I listen to Bach played by Glenn Gould, I really, really love it. And then when I go to Chopin—yeah, that’s something else, Chopin. But I listen only the Nocturne. And then there’s Mozart. Mozart is really, you know, like a human being. Bach is very clinical. And Chopin, too. But the Nocturne is very soft, calm, and about love. There’s only one perspective. But Mozart, you know, death, love—it’s all inside one piece. So, you can cry, smile, and laugh at the same time.
How does your love of music relate to your work?
You know, when making pictures, or a piece of art, all you need is to listen to the right music, or watch the right film. I love looking at illustrations of the universe, you know, black holes, big bang theory, things like that. But I feel, really, when I look at those images, that it’s not normal. And I feel like I’m just a small drop of water on this Earth, like I might disappear at any time. But my friends, they don’t really understand, because each person has their own romance. But you need to bring that romance out. It hides somewhere. With films, the concentration on two dimensions brings out that romance, and all the poetry inside. If we don’t have that deep feeling, we cannot see the world inside, and we cannot find poetry in our reality. I don’t believe that when we were born, we knew how to take or look at pictures. We have to find our romance.
Which of your photographic series represents that “romance” most authentically?
I still love my first series Looking In, because it’s really me. The me that is inspired by the images of Bollywood films. When I use my analog camera with a 50mm lens, you can see that cinematic look.
Can you elaborate on this distinction between working in analog versus digital photography?
I’m really deeply in love with using analog cameras. Because for me, it’s like a phenomenon—capturing reality on film. And they are not identical, in term of light, color, or mood. Digital, for me is like a destroyer. Of course it’s easier, faster, and more economical. But it’s difficult to switch from analog to digital. It’s not as nostalgic.
The reason I changed is that the film now is very expensive. So when I make pictures now, I have to be really, really careful. And that consumes my energy and my freedom. So, yeah, it’s not possible. So, I switched to digital.
With analog cameras, we see the image in our brain. For me, that’s exciting. To see the image in the mind’s eye. And when you finish the roll, you take the roll out and there is an excitement to see the image. For me, I find it very exciting to live this way. But not with digital. You see the image instantly on the camera. Your imagination, the excitement—little by little, it just fades away.