BI N D E R
฿ Ǝ ₩ i ╬ ₡ H E ᕲ
╚ E ₦ Ϩ E M Λ Ɲ ϟ H i ℙ
Words/Interview: Renko Heuer
“We are obsessed with beauty, fun, and endless happiness in an almost pathological way.”
Pretty much every article about Stuttgart-based photographer Alexander Binder highlights the fact that he originally hails from the Southern-German Black Forest region and that he was born on Hallowe'en (in 1976, by the way), as if the locale and date of birth made him destined to become a person who’s obviously drawn to the occult, to mysticism and to all kinds of vague, unsettling, dark imagery. It’s a nice and obvious angle, of course – and actually true, to some extent – but what made us fall in love with his images, as presented in books such as “Allerseelen” or “Das Innere”, is the fact that they’re always hinting at something larger and more ungraspable than our Insta-ready, consumer-minded reality: these pictures have a “memento mori” aspect to them, they are stunning reminders of the fact that life is way more uncertain, weird, and inscrutable than we might think.
We still wanted to know more about the man, who has been traveling far and wide to visit places he calls “enchanted” – and who’s about to release his new limited-edition book “Kristall ohne Liebe” via Tangerine Press…
Alex, what are you up to these days? How long have you been based in Stuttgart? I moved to Stuttgart in late 2006, after living in Hamburg for several years. At the moment I am looking forward to the release of my upcoming photo book ‘Kristall ohne Liebe’. I have worked on this publication for a long time and now I can’t wait to hold a physical copy in my hands.
Since you grew up in the Black Forest area, do you think it was the dense woods of the south that got you interested in mysticism and rather occult themes in the first place? The woods have a strong influence on my fascination with all things mystical, spiritual, and occult. When I grew up old people still shared folktales with the children about giants and mysterious elves in the forest.
Despite this kind of nostalgia it had of course to do with the fact that there weren’t too many leisure activities for kids in the 80s and early 90s. So actually I had a lot of time, no talent in soccer or tennis and thus I found myself on the way to the local bookstores. There I discovered the visionary world of science fiction, fantasy novels, Lovecraftian horror, conspiracy theories, and comic books.
In addition, my mom always had a preference for UFO-related literature and Egyptian art. I remember that the shelf in our living room was crammed with books about extraterrestrial life, the mysterious Nazca Lines in Peru, Tutankhamen and lest we forget Howard Carter’s discovery of the pharaoh’s tomb.
I read that even as a kid you were mostly drawn to dead animals and such… didn’t the people around you find that kind of weird? Sure, some were even offended. I mean how should a local from a small village in Southwest Germany react to a pale, skinny boy, wearing a Heavy Metal t-shirt and staring at the dead body of a deer in the underwood. Nevertheless a few forest workers gave me some valuable tips after I pretended to make these detailed observations for biology lessons at school.
So when did you first start shooting images that expressed this particular outlook? I guess I made the first shots of obscure findings in my environment as a teenager. But it really started around 10 years ago, when I focused my whole energy on photography.
And when did you first get into building your own lenses? Can you describe the most elaborate one you did? This was around the same time. I hated the clean aesthetics and perfect results of the standard lenses. They just didn’t feel right for my personal vision of photography.
I picked up a book about the ‘Camera Obscura’ and began to experiment with pinholes, crystals, cheap plastic cameras and old Soviet lenses. The designs are not really elaborate and look rather amateurish. I mean they are made of duct tape, old film rolls, hot-melt adhesive or small lenses that I find in vintage cameras. My favorite photographic objectives consist just of a small hole in a piece of metal foil attached to a cover plate.
The most elaborate lens from a visual point of view was a slit aperture that I basically made with two razorblades. I once forgot it in my hand luggage while passing the check-in at the airport. The security officers were really surprised and definitely not amused. Fortunately I could explain the optical theory behind this kind of lens and so I was at least allowed to throw it away and to continue my journey.
“For me it’s not so much about the woods, it’s much more about mystical places in general.”
Do you still feel drawn to the woods, or did the various travels sort of change that? For me it’s not so much about the woods, it’s much more about mystical places in general. The first area where I found this specific atmosphere was in the Black Forest. But this is just one example and in the last few years I had the pleasure of discovering many new places. Iceland was amazing, but also the Aeolian Islands, the Judean desert or Dartmoor in Devon.
In earlier interviews, you’ve spoken about unseen elements, things at work we cannot ever see… can you elaborate and tell me more about those instances when you felt this special, invisible presence? It is rather difficult to talk about this without sounding too esoteric or ‘new age’. What I wanted to describe in those interviews was a unique feeling of the infinite. This feeling goes along with the impression of becoming one with the world that surrounds you – and sometimes, when the borders between you and the environment dissolve, you literally feel the presence of the universe. People very often describe a similar emotion when they start with meditation.
My initial experience was during a trip to Iceland. I was sitting close to a gigantic waterfall and the monotonous noise of the water and the bright sunlight, which reflected all the colors of the rainbow in the mist, created such a wonderful atmosphere that I was literally overwhelmed.
Being into these invisible forces, and then also taking into account a series like “Das Innere” – why did you always stick to photography, a medium that works very much on the outside of things, as opposed to other art forms, like writing or music? I believe strong photographs work like sigils. Beyond their obvious message, which you may decode at a first glance, they communicate other information on a deeper level. A message that resonates directly with your subconscious and your personal background.
Not to forget that I like to play with the idea that photography is widely known as a medium for documentation. Using such a tool for invisible and mystical issues creates confusion, but it also helps to question our perception of the ‘real world’.
By the way: In the meanwhile poetry is often the starting point for my photography. A few years ago I began to compose little poems and my latest images are inspired by ideas that I try to express in these texts. Until now I hesitated to publish the poems, but maybe I’ll find an occasion to share these ideas with a wider audience in the future.
“Our modern, postindustrial society tends to neglect all negative aspects of life.”
Horror movies, old folk tales, black metal… what else is part of the cultural fabric that surrounds and inspires your life and work? Music has always been a very strong inspiration for my work. My interest in sound is not only limited to black metal. I love all kinds of music, which generate an intense or meditative mood, from drone metal to Krautrock, classical, and ambient music. Synth-based electronic music from the 70s has become one of my ongoing passions and from time to time I discover hidden gems at the record store. For example I am a big fan of Edgar Froese and Klaus Schulze. Schulze’s ‘Cyborg’ is one of my favorite records at the moment.
Comic books also play an important role for me. I adore artists like Philippe Druillet. Recently I started to extend my collection of vintage ‘Schwermetall’ magazines, which is the German version of the highly acclaimed French comics anthology ‘Métal hurlant’.
Whereas so many people focus on having the time of their life, what makes you want to remind yourself of your own mortality? All advanced theoretical systems, from physics to Eastern philosophy, are based on ideas of balance and compensation. Yet our modern, postindustrial society tends to neglect all negative aspects of life. Our whole economic system is based on the absurd idea of never-ending growth, high-tech medicine implies that there’s a cure for almost any disease in the future and life can be prolonged every decade. The fact that media is plastered with horror even emphasizes this escape in a universe of joy. We are obsessed with beauty, fun, and endless happiness in an almost pathological way.
At the same time many people feel that a life without contrast is empty, shallow, and boring. They realize that challenges, fears, and death are the reason why our limited time in this physical body is so precious. And these negative aspects are also part of our daily life, even though we often try to forget them. This holistic view helped me a lot because it makes good times even better – but I can also accept the pain and disenchantment that goes along with our existence.
You mentioned meditation earlier… do you still meditate? What’s the ideal state you want to reach through meditation? Meditation is a daily routine for me. It is essential to calm my mind because I usually suffer from a real chaos in my brain. The ability to focus my thinking is one of the main benefits.
Am I right in assuming that you’re still very much into printed matter? Is it the best place for you to show a series of images? Or is a large gallery even better? Or a scarf? I love to give insights into my perception of the world and a book is the ideal medium to take viewers on a journey with me. A single image may work as a teaser for this trip – but only a photo book gives me the space that I need to show all the different facets of such a microcosm. That’s why photo books play a vital role in my work. But I think all mediums have their specific strengths. For me it is also great to see how people react on the photographs in an exhibition. And images on scarves and t-shirts reflect my own passion for printed fabrics.
Your collaborations with musicians are also an important part of your output. How do you usually get started on a music-based commission? Do the artists usually reach out to you? Yes, in most cases musicians, labels or bands contact me. Very often they already have a favorite image that visualizes their concept of a track or an album. But there are also projects where people only send me a song and give me the whole artistic freedom to find the ideal image from my point of view. I normally don’t do typical music-related commissions like band photos or stuff like that. My constantly growing portfolio of images is the main source for collaborations with musicians.
You also did a great video for Umanzuki… think of doing more things in that vein? I am glad that you like it, because it was my first video in a long time. Most of the scenes in ‘Porta’ were shot in South England, especially around Zennor. An enchanted place where Aleister Crowley used to live. Even without his presence, the whole process felt a little bit otherworldly. At the moment I am thinking about new video projects, but they are still in their initial stages. So hopefully we’ll see more moving images in the next year.
Do you usually dress up on Hallowe’en? I really enjoyed dressing up on Hallowe’en, especially because my birthday is on this day. However I spent so much time on creating masks for the protagonists of my shootings in the recent past that I lost interest in Hallowe’en costumes.
What grounds you? Leading a modest life. Practicing meditation. Spending as much time as possible outdoors. Drinking a Hefeweizenbier every now and then.
What can you tell me about your forthcoming “Kristall ohne Liebe”? ‘Kristall ohne Liebe’ (‘Crystal without love’) is my latest photo book, published by Tangerine Press from London. The ‘Crystal without love’ is the ideal metaphor for the duality of my visual thinking. On the one hand it enhances the majestic beauty of the sunlight and on the other hand the crystal is a cold dead mineral. I worked on the images for more than five years while traveling to Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK.
The book is a logical evolution of my earlier publications. And maybe it is my most self-confident body of work so far. ‘Kristall ohne Liebe’ captures a psychedelic universe, in which color images and black and white photographs, life and death, beauty, and ugliness constantly collide.