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A conversation with Torbjørn Rødland, Guest Editor of Der Greif Issue 17


Speculating on photographic thresholds and the relationship between generative AI and traditional photography, renowned artist Torbjørn Rødland invites to reflect on the possibilities of action at a time of shifting technologies and hybrid images. Taking mysticism as key, Rødland is curating Der Greif Issue 17 under the title “One Day Soon” towards an exploration of both photography and promptography devoid of conceptual constraints.

Curiosity, criticality, artifice and reverence for the natural world appear throughout Torbjørn Rødland’s work and often in the same image, forging links between twentieth-century art photography and twenty-first-century approaches to image-making. Often prompted by non-photographic imagery that he transforms into real-world photographic subjects, Rødland portrays scenes designed to generate psychological reaction through his depiction of highly sensory qualities.

His photography has been exhibited at Fondazione Prada, Milan; Serpentine Gallery, London; Manifesta 11, Zurich; C/O Berlin; the Venice Biennale; and is held in the permanent collections of Moderna Museet, Stockholm; LACMA, Los Angeles; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Torbjørn Rødland lives and works in Los Angeles. His latest project book is titled “The Pregnant Virgin.”

Der Greif: Your most recent exhibition “Oh My God Guys” at the Consortium Museum in Dijon, where it closed on the 31st of March, encompasses all your peculiar approach to the human. Why the title“Oh My God Guys”?

The exhibition title may indicate that I'm aware of the ridiculousness of my expectations of the medium of photography, or that I’m looking for the divine in my sitters and subjects. I’m actually not pulling out the G-word as lightly as it seems here. If we see in my production a pattern of looking for meaning and depth in motifs and material normally not treated with seriousness, then an exhibition title can hopefully operate in a similar way. I’m expecting a lot from a throwaway line.

Der Greif: How did you become interested in AI-generated images, the topic you brought to the table when discussing the call for Der Greif issue 17?

I do not follow the latest technological developments behind the scenes: I had not seen this coming, but when all of sudden in the summer of 2022 it was here I knew everything was about to change. I do not fully understand photographers who weren’t immediately fascinated.

Der Greif: Why do you think AI-related topics are so controversial and misunderstood? How have you tackled both general optimism and negationism of such new technologies?

AI-generated images are not photography, of course, but they will continue to influence how we see and relate to photography and in many contexts they will replace photography. No wonder it’s controversial. I was honestly a little surprised to find that Der Greif already had allowed computer-generated images into the magazine. My enthusiasm is for the aesthetic possibilities, not for the ethical or economical aspects. I don’t think anyone can know how all this will play out in the long run. Most of us may not understand.

Der Greif: A new culture comes in its place through the advent and especially the overuse of AI tools. This new culture seems optimistic and devoid of failure. When you first started tackling AI technology, there were probably some glitches still showing some kind of failures in the system and a raw, imperfect membrane. Are you still looking for these signs of glitches and hacks somehow resisting the homologation of aesthetics?

The glitches were or are definitely exciting, probably because they perforate and confuse our learned expectations for a photograph-like image. But already in 2024 the glitches can more or less be avoided. The commercial drive seems largely to be towards generated images that can pass as photographs. And then there’s the bizarre, the psychedelic, which is impressive but largely in bad taste.

Der Greif: What’s your current relationship with cameras and photographic hardwares? How do you use them in your practice?

I’ve photographed with the same large and the same medium format film camera since the mid-90s. An endless feed of slick AI-images made me, for the moment or season at least, downgrade to tiny, mirrorless 35mm film cameras this year.

Der Greif: What are you looking forward to exploring and researching through the open call for our issue 17?

I’m always hoping to see the work of truly exciting new photographers!

Der Greif: Why is this inevitable relationship between photography and promptography a relevant reading in all you do?

Well, for thirty years I’ve been pushing optical-chemical photography towards a place where the observable mundane world is under the influence of memes and of other potent inner realities both individual and shared. I’ve been expecting to see a few younger artists run with this project and push it further, but now I have to come to terms with being succeeded by large language models and creative diffusion models. By laws of contrasts, this makes the wordless, analogue anchor to the observable world even more important in what I do.

Der Greif: Speculation in arts practices is a rather crucial aspect in contemporary discourses. In the open call you are inviting image makers to speculate about the scope and the impact of the threshold period we’re currently in through the question “What are you thirsty for now?” How do you define a speculative practice?

Great artists create arenas where something unexpected can be embodied. Unexpected images can pave the way for new perceptions and renewed realities. Every culture needs this. We become self-destructive if we don’t evolve. That’s something I didn’t know at twenty-five.

Der Greif: How can images create some sort of (re)actions and stand out of the constant flux of images?

Whatever institution or system you’re operating within, I believe in not giving it what it wants but to insist on what you know to be more challenging, more layered, more interesting. This often involves reconnecting with the archaic and/or the vernacular – but from your unique position within a constantly changing image culture. I also believe in giving gravitas to what you’re looking at. In photography that’s not the easiest thing. A memorable image stands out.