Elmar Dam ~ by Elektra Dekker
On a sunny spring time Sunday in Rotterdam we met at his studio—a phenomenal building dated from the end of the nineteenth century. It used to belong to Cornelis Jamin, a candy baron whose statue I happened to pass while on my way to the location of the interview.
Paradoxically enough, yours truly was dealing with a sugar hangover caused by eating wentelteefjes (literally translated from Dutch as ‘flip-over-bitch’) for the first time in a decade the day earlier, which was Kingsday: an event during which everyone literally sells their trash on the streets, many get severely drunk, and few decide to tuck into a national dish like wentelteefjes, obviously risking the underestimated consequences of such a(n ad)venture.
With disappointment that a traditional men-only chamber in the mansion did not preserve the smell of cigars, a cup of black coffee in one hand, a recorder, writing pad and pen in the other, I asked Elmar about the artist and the person behind the artist; meanwhile, from the corner of the room a toy horse winked a naughty spell on my fleeting saccharine state of mind.
– So, Elmar. You’ve been busy with photography for five years. You want to tell a story with one frame, purely because you’re fascinated with this aspect of visual storytelling. One famous photographer stated: “The more an image tells, the less you know.” Do you agree with this?
No. I want you to look at my images in such a way that you have to use your own thoughts to make up its story. I surely lift the veil a bit, I allow you to take a glimpse, but it is up to you to decide what you see. What preceded this capture of moment in time? What will flow out of it? Next to this I also photograph series, and in those I literally tell the history and the development of the storyline, either with an open or a defined ending.
– So telling a story is very important for you?
I find it more fun, yes. Something has to happen in the image to make you think. “What is going on here?” or “ What do you want to tell me?” And what I definitely do not like, is when someone eyes my images, sort of hangs in there and says: “Well… That’s cool..”
So I work a lot with emotion, and place an image in a scene setting. I tell my models to crawl into a character, I ask them to practice it at home beforehand, I also work with dramatic makeup.
Expression of reality is not important to me. I prefer surrealism, fantasy.
– You also work with your dreams. You write them down the moment you wake up. Do you get a lot of inspiration from them?
Yes! Well, it depends, really… Sometimes I wake up, and those are the periods, when… I might sound silly… [laughs]
When you quit smoking, you have the possibility to use a nicotine patch, you know? Well, sleeping with those patches gives you one hell of freaky dreams! And when I wake up from those, I feel the need to write them down, as my mind would’ve never been able to conjure those ideas in an awake state.
– I’ve also heard that eating eggplant before bed gives you freaky dreams as well. In fact I experimented with that and yes, indeed. It never misses. Maybe an idea?
Really? Haha! Okay! Maybe I better make a combination of those two, then!
– But how much percent of inspiration do you get from your dreams? Is it a lot, or…
No… 1 in 5? And sometimes I only use the idea a whole lot later. I’ll sit down and page through my dream diary and think: “Oh, yes! Maybe I can use this…” And yet, there’s no guarantee this will actually happen. So you end collecting for a month… And one time you do use it, and another time you don’t.
I don’t dream in a detailed way either. So I don’t get ideas for lighting through my dreams. It’s just the idea, and never a literal one either. Although exceptions do occur. Although in these cases I reflect it all upon my own self. Sometimes there’s chaos in your head, and you dream about items flying through the room. So I have used that once. But oftentimes it’s more figuratively speaking. The feeling behind it. When you are on the edge and someone or something pushes you backwards into the endless blackness. My attempt is then to transfer this feeling I experienced onto my viewer. Make it into a tangible reality.
– Interesting! A lot of artists dream very vividly and use those ideas literally in their creative work. It’s an interesting way of working.
– And speaking of inspiration. Your Muses come from different sources. Photographers, models, films, tv series, dreams. What I am wonder is: what is the exact definition of a Muse for you? Most people associate it with a living person.
I find an attempt to define the exact meaning of a Muse pretty complex. What is a Muse? Do you know?
– I observe that it’s different for every one.
A Muse is something you find beautiful, right?
– Well, most people associate it with a person that inspires them. For instance: “She is my Muse”. Others don’t need further explanation of what you mean.
I think Muse for me is simply a source of inspiration. And everything can become a muse.
– Is having a Muse important for you?
– Do you create from inside out? Or do you always need external inspiration?
Depends. It differs. One time it’s a dream—another, a TV series. I’ll see a scene and go: “Hmmm.” It’s really all about moments.
My wife inspires me as well, although she doesn’t inspire me with an idea for an image. She inspires me with the details, when she looks at the result. “Maybe take a better look at this?” or “Do you really want to do it this way?” But never in a sense of direct ideas, as in: “Well, you should do this!” or “Have you thought of this?”
– Is your wife an artist? Does she have a background in visual art? Or is it purely because the two of you know each other very well?
She is a policy officer. So she is creative on a totally different level. But not in the realm of the arts, no.
– It can be a benefit. A partner with a totally opposite occupation is able to observe your art from a healthier distance, and hence provides you with surprising insights.”
– Some artists create from within. All they need is their inner worlds while others always need a muse around them—an external source of inspiration in whatever form or shape.”Some combine the two. And when one observes your work, one can surely state that it’s, well, dramatic. Lots of drama is to be found in there!
Yes. I love a bit of darkness, that’s right.
– Drama and darkness! What do you associate with darkness?
[laughs] I don’t know! I am actually a very cheerful person! Maybe it’s something hidden within my own self? For why would an image become dramatic otherwise? I don’t know!
– Yes… But what do you understand with darkness?
Well, when you switch off the light…
– So you mean it literally?!
Well… The vibe in my images is pretty dark… yes… but where it comes from?
– Well, some wrongly assume that darkness is equal to evil…
No, that’s not how I see that. But fact remains, that when you create a darker looking image, literally darker looking, a certain vibe gets transferred than when you shoot a lighter sort of image. And I feel that drama evokes more emotion than when you look upon something cheerful happening. Maybe it’s a total opposite of who I am? And I am willing to express it, showcase it, because I don’t get a chance to do so in a daily life?
– Sort of a hidden side that’s dying to come to the surface?
Yes. It’s the first time I actually think about it…
– So we won’t catch you making cheerful images in any near future?
No, I don’t think so. And if it will, not much laughter will be allowed.
Whenever I work with models I ask them to prepare their act in advance. For instance: “You’ve been to a party, and you drank too much. It’s been so much fun… “
– Too much alcohol, you mean?
Yeah! And you walk up the stairs and your hangover is killing you. Well, try expressing that in one of my images! Or you had a fight or something… That kind of thing. [laughs]
– Gaudi is one of your Muses. One of the artists you’d love to have a conversation with, might it’ve been possible…
Yes. I think he had a sick mind. To be able to create such stuff! To be so full of fantasy! Well, you’ve got to have some screw loose in your head! And he was able to sell his ideas as well. How did he get the money for it?
When you drive through Barcelona, you see buildings, buildings… and then “WHAM!” Gaudi, with all those shapes popping out. So, yeah. It’s a big source of inspiration for me.
– Before I knew he was your Muse, I actually concluded I saw his way of thinking in your work. I was amazed I was right.
Yes, maybe our ways of thinking do have some similarities. I am still learning from his work, so…
– For instance, one of your latest projects—the angels with wings made of human hair. Gothic background. Lots of drama. Unusual use of color…
Well, that idea didn’t come entirely from me. It was Sandra Krouwer’s design. She is very creative with hair. And she asked me to make a series out of it. We came together, brainstormed on the many ideas of portraying wings. So sooner than later we arrived in the angelic realm.
By the way I am colorblind…
– Colorblind? Wow! Fascinating.
I used to work with black and white photography, but now I do both.
– And what about your own creative process? Do you always sit down with a team to work on ideas? Or do you do this on your own?
Half of my work I conjure with a team, the other half on my own. Then I connect with a multitude of people I find useful for that project, for their expertise.
– Do you work with an assistant? Someone who shoots the factual images, following your direction?
No, no assistant. My friend (peter Kemp), who is also a photographer, Told me that it doesn’t make much of a difference whether you do or do not work with one. You make the photographs with an entire team. It’s a combination of everyone’s vision combined. And i think he’s right.
– Do you edit the images yourself?
– And makeup? Also of your making?
[laughs] No! I’d rather leave this to a professional. I’ll make a moodboard, but everyone in the team has sufficient freedom to decide which direction to head to.
– So you models are also welcome to contribute to the creative process?
Yes! It’s a preference actually. I never expect my models to be passive. Of course I do give directions, small ones, but I will never let them ‘sit’ for me, as if they are puppets or hangers. I do explain what my vision is, and then I give the model the freedom to express emotion the way he or she finds most effective.
– So freedom is very important during your shoots?
Yes, for I strongly believe that it’s the best way to get emotions out there. I also leave plenty of room for improvisation. Shoots last a whole day, and at times the idea you had in mind happens to not work, so you have to change it all of a sudden. I learnt to adjust.
– A funny question: Do you feed your models?
Haha! Do I feed my models? Ehm… Well, sometimes I do get a sandwich for them, yes. But usually everyone schlepps their own bread and butter along.
– Do you work with professional models?
I prefer to, yes.
– From modeling agencies?
– And if you suddenly come across a beatiful girl or woman on the streets? Do you approach them?
No. I don’t have the guts to do so. (but maybe i should)
– Oh? Haha!
– Are you able to see whether someone photographs well?
– But do you make mistakes now and then?
Yep… But I will never admit it, haha.
And if it’s for a big project, I’ll do a test first. Also to see whether we understand each other well, you know?
– Yes. An ideal face also reacts dramatically to light and makeup, and is able to transfer an emotion.
– So you don’t seek the standard faces of the season…?
No. I seek a model that fits into my idea.
A casting call on my facebook profile usually does the trick.
– And do you pay your models?
No. It’s always a TFP [Time For Print: when a model gives her time in return for a number of images, sometimes in a physical print version’ red.]
Oh dear! You start laughing…
– Yes. You said that your wife “puts you back with both feet on the ground.” So I wonder: in which context? Because your dreams are too big?
Yeah… [laughs] If it was up to me I’d be working every day, evening and night. I won’t sleep anymore. But she is utterly unimpressed: “You, come home, have dinner. Put your kids to bed.”
– So imagine: you suddenly get a big chance. Work fulltime in Paris, doing what you love. And your wife says: “Ah! I am not relocating…” Then what?
Well, if a big chance suddenly appears, she will actually stimulate and support me. Actually no one has ever asked me such a question… [laughs]
I’ll have to discuss it with the team!
– For well, it’s something you see often in the contemporary photography and fashion world. Models who possess little personality, images seem empty due to it. What are you thoughts on this?
It all comes down to the realm of emotions. I find it beautiful when someone dares to show parts of his or her self, or the imaginary being they are told to portray. They need to have character, for sure. No empty doll who has no depth in her eyes. Depth is an important element for me.
– And to get back to the big dreams topic. Do you allow yourself the freedom to dream big? Or do your big dreams always border on realistic expectations?
Yes, but I do stretch those limits. Limits are meant to be stretched. You have to want it badly, too. Having big dreams. For Sure! Crucial to your development.
– What is your biggest dream, photography-wise?
Ehm… To get an assignment from a big brand. As in: “Elmar! We love your images. This is the direction we want to go, here’s your budget, do whatever you like, it will be published here and here.” That sounds far out! And it’s by far my biggest dream. But… whether it’s attainable?
– Of course! Why not? The trick is to go on, never quit… They say, ‘It’s not the luck you ought to have, but the people you come to meet.”
Yes, that’s correct.
– Alright! Last question. One that I find essential. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Achieving my biggest dream! I really see that happen. It will make me so happy!
My assignments flow slowly but steadily into my hands. I love being published. I find this the most fun with what I do: seeing the results in a magazine, in a physical form. And if it’s for a big publication? Involving a big brand? With a budget? Oh, yes! Totally doable.
Despite his young age covers the work of photographer Elmar Dam (1976) is now a broad field and he may rejoice in assignments of artistic/fashion magazines and advertising agencies. His work is regularly exhibited and published.
Elmar challenges the viewer to form his own thoughts on each frame what he deludes. He lifts the veil just slightly and allows the viewer to catch a glimpse of his surreal staged world and thereby to form his own idea. What preceded the moment and what future can know it? This so-called open end in the storyline of Elmar Dam creates an image that the viewer triggers, leaving them slightly longer dwell..