The Danish artist Henrik Bøegh is known as one of the most prolific advocates for safer printmaking. His well developed and captivating art practice is equally compelling, and enjoys considerable success. The work raises fundamental questions about the place of photography in contemporary art practice.
From his student days Henrik regarded himself as someone interested in the numerous possibilities of Fine Art photography, and his exhibiting career coincides with the relatively short period in which camera-based work in contemporary art grew from a peripheral artform into a core medium amongst current art practices.
This concern is made manifest in decades of photographic art practice, small scale and large, black and white and in color, and is realized both in more intimate photo-reproductive printmaking works, ‘gravures’, as well in dazzling photo panels mounted on aluminum or dibond, a professional display technique that has become commonplace for photography in contemporary art.
The works that are mediated through printmaking processes, hand-printing and usage of a press are smaller and more intimate –– for instance in the ‘diary series’ of Cambodian Buddhist monuments –– and give opportunities for compositional intervention, juxtapositions, add a sense of depth and the ‘hand-made’ that are not inherent in conventional photographic media or digital printing.
Henrik makes masterful use of newly invented printmaking methods and photo-polymer intaglio printing, and the new aesthetic shows the hallmarks of Rembrandt’s medium: a sense of depth, erosion, and timelessness which typically occurs in all things related to etching.
In his own words he says: ‘Generally speaking, most Intaglio techniques like modern photogravure, spit-bite etchings, aquatint etchings, among others, in my opinion have the quality to be able to produce rough, deep and textural feelings in the expression.'
It is like visiting an old untouched ruin in Guatemala, an abandoned, broken factory in Cuba, or an abandoned iron mine in Andalusia… 'for a ruin-freak like me, they all hide stories that could be communicated especially well with these techniques.'
Textures on Dibond
Some of the most recent work is completely abstract, and that also includes some of the current ‘texture’ pieces which are large-scale professionally printed and mounted photographs based on weathered, eroded surfaces. Although the work is photographic, there are clear references to concerns of ’surface’ known best from the paintings of the abstract expressionists.
The recently rediscovered canvases by Clifford Still look like torn away old billboards and posters, and some of Henrik Bøegh abstracts have similar intricate qualities of weathering, although his are produced by photographic observation and enhancement rather than masterful brush work.
When asked about this, the artist said: 'yes, people like Willem DeKooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Anselm Kiefer, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Tapiez, all belong to my favorite ‘icons’ from recent art history.'
Interestingly, the work also shares something with the German artist Anelm Kiefer who is known for monumental images of empires, conveying a sense of human hybris, the ever-relentless passing of time, the shallowness and futility of 'greatness', and the fading of empires.
Many of Henrik Boegh’s images have a contemplative sense of stillness, and by lacking overt narratives, invite open-minded engagement by the viewer with the history of a surface, history of place, and one’s own personal history; all of which are intertwined in the process of looking.
PUERTAS I –V” Pigment on Paper, 90 x 60 cm, on archival Paper mounted on dibond plates, 2017
The passing of time in Havana
The digital photographic medium is uniquely suited to capturing minute details and surface qualities, and what has been observed gets amplified and enhanced through high quality printing, editing, and enlargement.
Things that may never have caught one's attention in passing by –– crumbling stucco, or paint marks on a rusty steam engine in Havana –– needed to be found and captured by Henrik, only to be transformed into immersive photo-panels that can be appreciated large-scale in an art gallery setting.
Ultimately all things made by man are subjected to such changes and transformations, and exposure to the elements signals their decay, change of purpose, or transition back to nature.
A selection of Bøegh's work from Cuba was shown in 2017 during the Copenhagen Photo Festival; and in the following is an excerpt from the introduction:
"Since 1959, when Fidel Castro nationalized all assets, time has stood still on Cuba. Today the Havana street scene exhibits Cuban national pride alongside decay, social deprivation, and poverty. American vintage cars –– Chryslers, Buicks, and Plymouths –– cruise through the capital's potholed streets amid impressive, dilapidated mansions, remnants of the era when Americans and local sugar barons lived there in extravagant wealth. Now, rich apparatchiks and their friends occupy these Beverly Hills-like residences in the Miramar neighbourhood. Photographer Henrik Bøegh presents Havana’s picturesque reality in artistic pigment prints and photo gravures."
Havana harbor scene, pigment print on archival paper, 60cm x 80cm
Henrik records, edits, and represents captured observation and detail without much alteration or compositional intervention. Images are both a snapshot of a personal observation, and a ‘ready-made'.
With photography as a main medium of aesthetic expression, the artist distances himself from the subjectivity inherently present in any personal creation, such as a monumental Kiefer painting of civilizations in conflict.
Much has been written about the ‘distancing’ between object and subject that the camera brings to the creative process, and especially in the early days of photography, some argued that clicking a shutter was no act of creation at all, …more of a mechanized act of recording visual fact that could ultimately be conducted by anyone.
Despite today’s mass production of such images by anyone –– cell phone ever present –– closer scrutiny by artists, art historians, writers, and copyright lawyers, has over the last century led to the now commonly accepted conviction that photography is after all, and very much so, a form of art.
If, however, the camera-based act of creation is devoid of skillful handling of paint, ‘personal’ mastery of proportion, color, perspective and so on, then how does photographic creativity differ from the masterful thought and gesture of the classical artist? In the following, we will consider this question.
Detail from “Companía Raises”,
Dancing group practicing in an old, abandoned cinema in Havana,
Pigment on Paper 50x50 cm on Epson Matte Enhanced Paper,
mounted on dibond plates
Recent compositions by Henrik Bøegh are completely abstract, with little information about the source object, while earlier ’surface’ pieces give away clues about their origin such as fragments of graffity, paint marks, or logos.
Intensely colorful compositions of rust, paint, and revolutionary insignia emerge on decommissioned steam engines from Cuba’s colonial past.
Some of these works consistently move between lyrical compositions that could comfortably be on display in a show of abstract paintings, while others have a more ‘documentary’ character, or have some reference to the great 20th century traditions of photo-reportage. What are we to make of this tension between visual poetry and keen photographic observation of passing moments?
Things like this abandoned, broken factory in Havana, (2017), hide stories that inspire Henrik Bøegh’s art and thinking
Palacio Guarida, Havana 2012 – Photogravure from solar plate, 30 x 42 cm
Detail from “Grafiti La Habana”, 2017 – Pigment on Paper 40 x 30 cm (framed)
Some thoughts on Painting,
Photography, and Aura
Walter Benjamin, in the famous essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', outlined how concepts of painting and photography influence contemporary art practice either in a more ‘magical', or 'incisive' way.
He predicted a merging of the modes of thinking and seeing inherent in painting and photography, and realized these were beginning to lose identity –– and aura –– as independent expressive forms. Although the prophetic text was written in 1935, it already gave a flavour of what was to come in our age of the mass production of mediated images: Instagram, iPhone, Film and TV, Youtube, and all.
Benjamin writes: "The nineteenth-century dispute as to the artistic value of painting versus photography today seems devious and confused...earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art...
How does camera-based art making compare with the painter's approach? To answer this we take recourse to an analogy with a surgical operation.
The surgeon represents the polar opposite to the magician. The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient's body...In short, the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather it is through the operation that he penetrates into him. Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web."
“Che is still overlooking everything”, Havana 2017, Pigment on Paper 30 x 30 cm
The Decisive Moment
Henrik Bøegh's photographic art practice is connected and indebted to the pioneering work of Henri Cartier Bresson, whom Henrik admires. Sometimes regarded more as a photo-journalist, Cartier Bresson was a tireless traveller and adventurer who used the camera as a tool to find deeper meaning from carefully crafted snapshots taken at places and events far from home.
Trained as painter, Cartier Bresson saw his creative roots in art rather than just in reporting, and was connected to the surrealist movement. In 1957 the artist told the Washington Post:
"Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Ooop! The moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."
The Buddhas are smiling
From the serie “Bagan Temples”, Myanmar 2002 – Photogravure, 24 x 36 cm
From the serie “Angkhor Temples” in the Cambodian Jungle, 2003 – Photogravure, 24x 36 cm
In 2004 Henrik Bøegh visited the temple complex at Anghkor in Cambodia, which is widely regarded as the largest religious monument in the world, and is today a protected world heritage site.
The artist documented what he found through extensive photographic work of architectural detail, and also started the emerging series of ‘Diary Notes’ polymer gravure prints, in which images are overlaid and layered in a kind of 'double exposure' manner.
Thanks to recent conservation work by Japanese and French teams the vast temple sites around Anghkor Wat and Anghkor Bayon have been accessible to a wider audience for a few decades, following the terrible Khmer wars as well as the impact of centuries of neglect, looting, and encroachment by the adjoining jungle.
Yet it is believed that the site had never been completely abandoned and was used for the display of both worldly and spiritual powers since the 12th century, seeing successive changes from Hindu to Buddhist purposes and representations, and being continually used as a place of worship by both locals, as well as by spiritual visitors who had come on a pilgrimage from as far as Japan.The main site is meant to be the representation of a perfect universe, built in perfect symmetry like a Hindu or Buddhist mandala. Anghkor is the result of monumental 12th century construction efforts that surpass pyramids or greek temples in scale and ambition, and that survived 800 years of relative neglect.
Henrik Bøegh took many striking pictures of the famous ‘Face Towers’ of the Bayon temple that are renowned for the unshakeable serenity of their smiling faces.
From the serie “Angkhor Temples” in the Cambodian Jungle, 2003 – Photogravure, 24x 36 cm
Pictorial layering of the 'Diary Notes' gravures mirrors the layered history of this unique site in Cambodia. Henrik was one of the first artists to make extensive use of a variety of photographic printmaking techniques that fall under the umbrella term of 'Photo-polymer Intaglio Printmaking'.
The Danish artist Eli Poinsang found a way to utilize 'flexography' plates for high quality gravure-type works in 1992. Two years later, the tireless pioneer of Nontoxic Printmaking, Keith Howard, found a new way to make artist quality photo-reprographic –– or gestural –– intaglio prints by using film materials and chemistry developed by the circuit-board industry.Howard called the ground-breaking new medium 'Intaglio Type', published several books, and shared the tremendous creative potential of the method with many other artists, including Henrik Bøegh who helped refine and disseminate this versatile technique, which he calls 'polymer gravure', and adapted his own methods that would work in Denmark and the rest of Europe.
This resource, nontoxicprint, contains many technical pages that outline photo-polymer printmaking in greater detail. The medium generally can be seen as form of contemporary photogravure, or rather a reinvention of this method.
The historical form of Photogravure originated right at the outset of chemical photography in the early 1820s.
The method was designed to merge camera-based image capture with the existing technologies of printed mass reproduction, and many of the photographic pioneers, Niépce, Fox-Talbot, and then Klíč, experimented both with photographic emulsions and some kind of gravure-type process that would allow for larger dissemination of photographic images printed with astounding detail and tonal richness, in the intaglio manner.
Photographs could now be reproduced with the look of a Rembrandt etching.
Photogravure chemistry depended on carefully calibrated gelatin emulsions, etching baths, resins and so on, and remained a cumbersome and more applied, or industrial method, until the end of the 20th century.
'Diary Note' photo-polymer intaglio print inspired by Anghkor 2003, 20 x 20 cm
The advent of photo-polymer printmaking finally changed all that, and presented artists with a much more accessible medium that encompassed the aesthetic of photo-gravure, simplified the process, introduced many new creative possibilities, all in a safer working environment.
Especially the work of Keith Howard, and the professional publishing done at Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop from the early 1990s, exemplified and underpinned the expanded potential of this new method, which today is used by a growing number of individual artists, art schools and professional printmaking workshops around the world.
Today it still being further developed and refined in depth, and new applications for the medium –– photo reprographic and gestural –– are frequently added.
For a number of reasons, such as the easy incorporation of hand-made mark-making photography, and the integration with digital methods, photo-polymer printmaking is without a doubt set to become ‘the’ photo-reprographic etching method of the 21st century. Through his artwork, books, and research Henrik Bøegh has had no small part in this aesthetic revolution.
Series of intaglio prints inspired by Marocco, 2006 – Photogravures, duo-tone (2 plates each)
I asked Henrik Bøegh if he could explain in his own words some of the background, concepts and ideas behind his art practice, especially with regard to his extensive travel to places like Peru, Morocco, or Cambodia, use of the camera, and the re-interpretation of what has been captured in the form of photographic prints and/or printmaking technique. He eloquently explained in detail:
"For me, photography and traveling always have to be two inseparable passions. As a young man, I was fascinated by the adventure of the journey and soon the camera became my main tool for maintaining and interpreting the experiences. Especially Cartier-Bresson's photographs from traveling in the more or less unknown China and Far East inspired me deeply."
"I have always been fascinated by the ancient civilizations that seemed to culminate in several places in the world at the same time during the period 800 – 1500. And completely independent of each other: Charm culture, Angkhor culture, Bagan culture, Khmer culture, Maya, Inkas, Islam etc..
But it's not only my fascination of the civilizations of the past, and the secrets that these cultures brought along, I share that interest with researchers, explorers, and others who want to know what and where we are from. To consider and investigate the aftermaths of the cultures, the ancient ruins of their often magnificent decay –– tells something essential about the eternal conflict between nature and culture."
"But there is more hidden in this conflict, a story of greatness and decay. It can be investigated by a scientist and may be verified by available evidence, but it can also be verified by an artist who is necessarily more imaginative at work.
As an artist, I am not tied by historical facts but I have the freedom to identify patterns and hidden contexts on a way that traditional science does not work. My works are an attempt to interpret the essence of things, substance and thought."
"That is so much a philosophical question. And here the camera helps me to tell the marvelous stories –– what I do when I travel is travel back in time to the past into the adventure into the enigmatic and finally a journey into the ancient connection between man and nature.
Once upon a time, the first people and the first buildings were, but today only the bare ruins are left - and the resounding silence. Back the buildings stood, great marvelous buildings and witnessed the life that once had unfolded in and around them. And above all I can notice traces of people, of greatness and decay hidden in the remaining ruins”
Monumental Buddha faces at Anghkor Temples, Cambodia 2003 – Detail from Photogravure, 60 x 60 cm
Humbly, the Danish artist declares: “I am looking forward to finding new motives and returning home” to make up the travel accounts” in works that I originally intended to communicate in photographs, with the old photo techniques and the ability of the photographer to reproduce the mood, the feeling and the adventure.”
From previous thoughts, it has become clear that although travel and adventure provide an extended repertoire of creative stimuli to Henrik Bøegh, the artist is seeking to communicate issues that go much deeper than just exotic moments, and it is clear that his core concerns are connected to some of the fundamental themes of contemporary painting and photography.
What importance does the artist’s hand and gesture have in today’s art? Is a photograph art?
Painters evoke unique experiences through layering of shapes and elements, and a good painter knows the moment when a work in progress has become a finished work of art. By contrast, the process of a photographic artist is both more immediate and more removed, as the picture is the result of instantaneous capture through the camera.
Yet the perfect picture is hardly ever attained in one instant, and a large part of the creative process is in capturing hundreds of potentially valid pictures, editing out those that contain a stronger ‘essence’ –– expressing the artist’s intent ––, and then enhancing the unique qualities found through further processing and printing.
Detail from an ancient Buddhist fresco inside the Bagan temples, Myanmar 2002 – Photogravure
Far from being a medium of random, even arbitrary, collections of meaningless images that it is sometimes derided as, photography as an artform requires artists to find, nurture, and effectively communicate ‘The decisive moment’ in no lesser way, than a great painter would, whether this be, say, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, or Gerhard Richter.
As shown in Richter’s work, today’s artists who are still relying on painterly means of expression, oil paints, brushes, spray cans, and canvas, etc. are as much influenced by the conventions of photographic seeing –– that are now so deeply imbedded in our culture –– as is the case the other way.
Some of the best known photographic artists, such as Cartier Bresson or Jeff Wall, looked towards painting, its ideas, and its history from the outset, as an all-important foundation for their work, and it is a delight to ponder these questions inspired by Henrik Bøegh's travels and his evocative prints and photographs.
For Henrik, traveling has become a necessity, a drug to search for unknown longings, because, like an elderly wise Buddhist monk, once told him during a stop off in his monastery in Nepal: "Only the one who chooses to drift around long enough will find his true longing." – The camera has always been his faithful servant.
Henrik Bøegh: Biographical Notes
Born in Copenhagen Oct 3rd 1950 Henrik Bøegh is a well known author and artist in the printmaking world. Since he established The Printmakers’ Experimentarium in Copenhagen in 1997 he has been working hard to spread the techniques of Non-Toxic Intaglio all over Europe. More than 800 printmakers from all over the world have been participating in his workshops all over Europe throughout the years since 97. His book “Handbook of Non-Toxic Intaglio” has been published in Danish, English, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch and French language.
The book has been visualized in the video and DVD programme “Non-Toxic Intaglio Step by Step.” From the very beginning Henrik has been testing and evaluating the non-toxic printmaking methods and materials. The results of his investigations in photopolymer materials and acrylic etching grounds has been published currently through his free electronic newsletters to more than 1500 printmakers around the world A crucial objective for Henrik has always been to stay clear of affiliation with particular manufacturers or products.
His Printmakers’ Experimentarium remains completely independent of financial or other kinds of stakes potentially held by the industry. In order to realize this project he has only received financial support from The Danish Ministry of Cultural Affairs as well as The Danish Ministry of Environmental Affairs. Henrik is a well known artist in Scandinavia.
As artist he is known from his delicate photogravures with motifs from his many journeys to the old Buddhist Cultural Centers in Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as well as his affiliation to the Islamic arquitecture in the Middle East Countries, Marocco and Southern Spain. He works partly in his studio in Copenhagen and partly in his studio in Andalusia, Spain. He is member of “The Society of Fine Arts, Denmark” and “The Danish Printmakers Society”.
Henrik has his base, Grafisk Eksperimentarium, alternately in central Copenhagen and the small Andalusian mountain village Capileira, in the Granada province of Spain