Interview

with Alfred Seiland

Alfred Seiland

Copyright Andreas Langen

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Alfred Seiland

Alfred Seiland
Imperium RomanumOpus Extractum

out of print
ISBN 978-3-7757-3699-2
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The photographer Alfred Seiland has spent years exploring the traces of the global Roman Empire, and he now presents the essence of this large project under the title Imperium Romanum. A conversation about megalomania, tripod permits, and beach mats in Nero’s imperial villa. The interview was conducted by the journalist Andreas Langen about megalomania, tripod permits, and beach mats in Nero’s imperial villa.

 The inevitable introductory question: how did your “Imperium” project come about?

 Rather coincidentally. An assignment for The New York Times Magazine took me to Cinecittà in Rome. I was supposed to photograph the filming of the TV series “Rome” there in 2006. As far as I know, this production had the biggest budget of all time for a television series, something like 100 million dollars. Under the guidance of first-class scholars, each prop was literally made to be as historically correct as possible. For instance, the silks came from India, brass objects from Morocco. Ultimately, these artifacts took up two-thirds of Cinecittà, and they were of breathtaking quality: you had to tap on the sets to distinguish the real marble from the imitation. You can image that I quickly decided to photograph nothing else but these sensational sets. Then, when an influential architecture critic from the New York Times wrote an essay comparing the ancient legacy to what exists today, and discussing how we treat it, I found my version of the theme.

 Hatje Cantz is releasing a beautiful volume about Goethe in Italy, with fantastic photographs from the 19th century. You weren’t attracted by a sense of nostalgia?

No, I’m interested in the confrontation between the modern and the ancient. This is the only way I can motivate myself to even approach this theme. After all, as you just mentioned, many of the motifs in my pictures have been photographed countless times since the invention of photography. I will only take a picture if I can succeed in contributing something to this canon. This definitely does not work all of the time, and it requires a lot of patience. I don’t arrange anything, but I have an idea of how the picture should look. On the beach in Anzio, for example, I wanted to have the tourists strewn across the surface of the picture in a very specific way. It wasn’t until the beach mats looked like they fit in with the ancient ruins of Nero’s villa that I was able to take the picture. It took a number of visits before it all came together.

 Even without on-site obstacles, there’s a messy, persistent problem with your project: the question of how to select the motifs—considering the extent of the legacy, which couldn’t be captured in its entirety, even if you took several lifetimes to do it.

Its vast size is actually helpful: from the start, it prevents any thought of completion. Other obstacles are much tougher than you might imagine when you’re at home doing your preparatory research: in many places, setting up tripods, or getting a permit to do so, requires a kind of special knowledge that is probably guarded by secret bureaucratic priesthoods. But it’s true that the theme is oppressively extensive. The further I went in my research and travels, the bigger it seemed to get. After all, you don’t immediately stumble across things like quarries or cultivated landscapes, just to name two topics. Now I could do an entire book about those things alone. But I don’t want to bore anyone with typologies. So if a certain number of theaters, palaces, temples, or some other subject comes up, then I try to find my own version of the theme for each photograph: from the interior, from the exterior, by daylight, at night, as an event site, or as a deserted place. That already reduces the number of potential motifs considerably.

  Isn’t your work method also helpful in stemming the flood of images? You are, after all, a strictly analogue photographer.

Right now that’s changing a bit: for taking pictures, I still prefer analogue color negative film, even though it’s now extremely expensive. Basically, I have a pragmatic attitude toward technology. Digital is fine, if the quality is good. When it comes to large-format, an elaborate analogue process of retouching is still required to rid the enlargements of any scratches and dust from the negative. A good scan can save you from this. Also, data can be used in different ways in the future, and it’s still possible to print on photographic paper. I basically avoid unnecessary exposures. At the beginning of the project, for example, at Cinecittà, I took about fifteen pictures in ten days.

 The exact opposite of the flood of digital pictures. Are you just as economical about your equipment?

I use what I need. For thirty-five years, that’s been a large-format, 4-x-5-inch camera—I had the corresponding enlarger for it—a normal lens, and a wide-angle. This way, I can get pictures that come close to the way something is actually perceived, due to the larger details and consistent depth of focus. The viewer should feel as if his eye were walking him through the scene, almost as if he were really standing there in front of it. But to come back to your question about the selection criteria: naturally, geography is very important. Historical sites, from Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland to Asia Minor, you have to have those. And ultimately, on a very banal level, external factors like deadlines are helpful: the day the book goes to the printers, and the first exhibition opening in November at the Römisch-Germanisches Museum (Roman-Germanic Museum) in Cologne.

Which leads to the question of which roles are played by the various versions of this project: How do you view the relationship involving photograph, limited edition, and book—which we hope has a large first printing?

Each one has its place. I don’t see a competition; they enrich and expand each other, because the different media complement each other. It all starts with the photographs. As we’ve already said, they have to be able to stand on their own, as autonomous works. Until recently these photographs—my handmade prints—were the focal point of my work: the only printed versions were mainly in magazines, and of course, in comparison to the prints, the quality was naturally dreadful. It’s different with Imperium Romanum, for several reasons. Above all, the quality will be good: the printing, the design, the materials. Also, we’re trying an interesting experiment, and offering two versions of the book: a very affordable catalogue for the exhibition, compact in terms of size and features; and then the whole big show, in the form of a monumental, magnificent book.

There’s also a completely different aspect that lends the book a quality of its own, in contrast to any print, no matter how beautiful: the texts.

  ... which don’t exist right now, at the moment that we’re having this conversation. Could you please outline the setup for this aspect?

They’ll be explanatory essays that establish the historical context for the photographs. When the project began in 2006 I imagined a collection of photos, and since then it’s become an almost scientific enterprise. The longer the project went on, the more I came into contact with archaeologists, and their interest in my work also grew. These scientists benefit from my perspective, because I often combine the environment and today’s treatment of it with their field. This creates new networks of relationships. One example: I show the mighty, twenty-meter layer of lava under which Herculaneum was buried. A second photo shows a gallery in the Neapolitan Archaeological Museum with bronze sculptures from the Villa dei Papiri, which were unearthed from this layer of lava. Further on in the book a visitor bends over replicas of the same figures, which J. Paul Getty had placed inside a reconstruction of the villa, as part of an educational center in Malibu, the Getty Villa. And a couple of pages later you see the really enormous version of the Roman architectural canon, the setting for Caesar’s Palace casino and hotel in Las Vegas.

 Does it actually pain you to witness how the ancient cities are trivialized, or even rudely used, or do you consider it more of a tragi-comedy? Many of your photographs have a distinct sense of humor.

I’m as ambivalent about it as many of the scientific experts are. You can’t maintain these sites without marketing them in some way. That occasionally results in kitsch. Elsewhere, people create festivals, or things are just left as they are, essentially. In the Middle East I photographed great ancient ruins that are just lying there out in the open. Locals go there to relax; they have picnics there.

That sounds very peaceful, for a region that we often associate with conflicts.

These conflicts are not left out of the book. In Bethlehem I photographed the wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian territory. The wall runs right through the middle of an Arabic cemetery. Some residents resist it with their imaginations and have painted a kind of Garden of Eden on the concrete, in a decorative painting style, and its effect here is both naïve and sarcastic. Others rebel violently, are killed by the occupying Israeli forces, and then laid to rest in that cemetery. You can still recognize openings in the wall where, until recently, they used to allow border crossings.

While we’re talking here, the guns in Damascus are speaking. And war is also raging in Palmyra, a UN World Heritage site, where you also took photographs.

 I just happened to be in the country at the beginning of the unrest. In spring 2011 a photographer could still go there under the normal conditions—you register with the state authorities, are accompanied by an official escort, follow a strictly ascertained route, and book the obligatory hotels. After a layover in Lebanon I just barely got through to my quarter in the center of Damascus. They were already having demonstrations against Assad there. I was happy to be sitting in an airplane bound for Vienna the next day, with photographic documents of historical sites in my carryon luggage; by now these sites may have been destroyed.

 You also feature ancient battlefields in Imperium Romanum. In one of these pictures, taken at the Cala Rossa off the island of Favignana, sits a small figure, facing away from the viewer, in front of the immense emptiness of a gray-green sea, almost like the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Why these allusions to Romanticism?

Romanticism? Perhaps for those of us who were born later. In the bay you’re referring to, the Romans beat the Carthaginians in the last sea battle of the First Punic War, in 241 BCE. According to legend, the sea was colored by blood after the battle, hence the name of the place. But this horror happened long ago, and time changes things. It’s not wrong to be quiet and peaceful when gazing upon imperial grandeur and its impermanence. I like those kinds of profound images, and try to furnish them when possible with a sense of ambiguity. In my picture the Bay of Naples is a fog-enveloped prospect of a windless sea in the morning light—but when Pompeii was destroyed, it was hell, and volcanologists predict that there will be another apocalyptic eruption of Vesuvius. In that respect, my photographs, like all of the remains of the Imperium Romanum, are merely something temporary.

September 1, 2013

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