Music & Literature found photographer Lena Herzog early on a February morning at a San Francisco landmark, the Renaissance Forge. The venue, on a gritty South-of-Market alley, is a marvel: the cavernous dark interior looks like a modern alchemist's lab, with a large open kitchen, cooking utensils, and pots hanging from the ceiling. Jars of herbs and spices line the walls. They share space with red-hot forges, wrought iron, sheets of metal, and iron rods. Blacksmith, hunter, and master chef Angelo Garro, the Sicilian proprietor, is a personal friend of Lena and her husband, the filmmaker Werner Herzog. Angelo is in the kitchen area as we speak—and generously prepares us for our conversation with two perfect cappucini and shortbread fashioned into serrated circles, decorated with a sprig of rosemary. Lena and I talk at the long wooden table, the venue for so many legendary dinners.
The occasion of the Herzogs' visit to the San Francisco Bay Area was Stanford's Another Look book club event, in which Werner Herzog joined author Robert Pogue Harrison for an onstage conversation. Harrison met the Herzogs a few years earlier, when he interviewed Lena for his Entitled Opinions radio show.
The Herzogs are in a rush to return to Los Angeles—he has a film schedule and Lena must resume her tours for her newly published Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. Lena Herzog spent seven years tracking the evolution of a new kinetic species, intricate as insects but dwarfing its creator, a scientist-artist, in size as they roam the beaches of Holland. Her previous book, Lost Souls (2010) takes her back to her Russian roots: Peter the Great purchased a remarkable collection of human and animal anomalies and kept them in the “Cabinet of Wonders,” housed in Russia's first museum on the Neva. It is the human remains that are the “lost souls”—never alive, not even ghosts, these Siamese twins and deformed fetuses remain heartbreaking in their eternal vulnerability, preserved in Herzog's humane and intimate photography.
But Lena Herzog has a lot more to say in the brief hour before her departure, and not only on her photography . . .
Haven: You were born in 1970, in Sverdlovsk, a city east of the Urals and certainly a far-flung place. When Joseph Brodsky was arrested, he said the authorities threatened him by saying this: “We’re going to send you far away, where no human foot ever trod.” Since he had made a meager living on geological team expeditions, he said he wasn't terribly impressed because he had already been to many of the regions they were talking about. You grew up in one of them.
Herzog: Yes. That very place.
Haven: Certainly it wasn't quite as remote as the places he was threatened with, especially since it’s a city that had its own distinction: it's the city where the tsar and his family were murdered. That’s pretty much the end of a world, anyway. So what was it like? I’ve been to Novosibirsk and Khabarovsk, but not Sverdlovsk, which has now resumed its pre-revolutionary name, Ekaterinburg.
Herzog: It was great. It was a city of mostly scientists. Unlike Novosibirsk, which was exclusively an academic town, Ekaterinburg has had research communities and laboratories that worked with academia, but also industries and defense. So it was a closed city; they used to call it “zona.” My parents were, and still are, professors there. My father is a well known geophysicist and my mother is a professor of economics. And that’s what my family was, more or less: scientists and doctors, a few surgeons. My aunt was a professor of mathematics, my uncle taught physics, the other one was a surgeon. One of my grandmothers was a doctor and an epidemiologist, and my father’s mother ran an orphanage where she also taught history.
Nobody blinked when you, age five, would fire off questions like, “so what is infinity exactly?” Despite the fact that their preoccupation was science, everyone was affected by literature and art in ways the way Russians have always been affected—deeply. This is not a sentimental romanticization, believe me. I can quickly recognize that same kind of upbringing in many of my fellow Russians anywhere. It’s written on their faces.
Ekaterinburg is pretty far away from Moscow and Leningrad, and, with all the scientists populating it, it was a privileged way to grow up, as much as privilege went in the Soviet Union in those days. And by “privilege” I mean a habit of constant intellectual engagement as a way of life. It also had a fairly good standard of living compared to other cities in the Soviet Union. Everybody around was very smart. Everybody read. It would have been odd to see a friend and not ask, “What are you reading now?”
For us, ideas were all that mattered. It was a very pure way to live and form your ways. We never had the strange things that Americans, and Westerners in general, get obsessed with—fame or some kind of an acknowledgement by society. Perhaps because it was never in the cards for us.
Nobody was interested in getting an Oscar or a Pulitzer. It never came into our existence even as a possibility, so it never mattered. It was something remote happening to some other people, surely, a nice thing if you can swing it but, crucially, it was just not important.
We had bigger fish to fry! Ideas, and a meaningful, moral way to be in the world. I did not realize then how unusual and lucky it was to grow up with that kind of innocence about the power of ideas, art, and stories—that devotional aspect to it, almost like being religious, the opposite of bourgeois. We spent sleepless nights talking about Pasternak’s poetry, or reading The Master and Margarita to each other aloud. We were permeated by the thrill of it.
Haven: A lost world indeed! Incidentally, Joseph Brodsky described his Leningrad circle in much the same way.
Herzog: That era was pretty much over by the time I arrived to St. Petersburg in 1986 at age 16. People had already begun their descent into the mimicry of what they thought was bourgeois; into the insecurities about what was important and what was right. Everybody wanted jeans, wanted to be a Westerner, but in the most superficial, shallow way. And yet it still was St. Petersburg. It still had walls and the canals that whispered with the voice of Dostoevsky. It still had culture and ideas and architecture.
Saint Petersburg is such a beguiling city. For me, the best parts were not even the predictable ones, such as the Russian Museum or the Hermitage. I lived in the very far outskirts of Saint Petersburg where I was renting half a room, as I was attending the Philological Faculty of Leningrad University. I walked an hour and a half each way. Not because there was no other option—I could easily have taken the subway, but I preferred the long walks. The moment I left the outskirts, which were full of ugly Soviet architecture, I got into Old Saint Petersburg. I loved to walk through the fog enveloping the cathedrals and canals, heart pounding, anticipating the gold-winged griffins on the Bank Bridge over the Griboyedov canal, which emerged from the fog as I walked past them.
Haven: The perfect formation for your calling. Photography fulfills Goethe’s wish, “Stay moment, you are so beautiful!” In its own way too, it refutes Rilke’s “Everything is once and once only.”
Herzog: I love that, but it’s a toss-up really, either Goethe or Rilke fits to how you feel about a moment that strikes you.
Haven: So how do you capture a moment that is movement? With the Strandbeests, you’re trying to take a still photograph of something that is essentially motion, by definition.
Herzog: By definition, yes. That’s the whole point of it. One of my first two books was about dance—Flamenco: Dance Class in 2004. By the way, it was dedicated to a great Flamenco dancer Yaelisa of Spanish decent, the daughter of the great Flamenco singer Isa Mura. Yaelisa lives and works in the Bay Area. I had a similar challenge with her and her troupe, how do you photograph something that is all about motion? Or anything that's alive, really? A dancer is not a breathing, living being in my photographs, but, I hope, you get a sense of her, of her dance. A photograph is not a calcification. For me, it’s capturing the spirit of something, a tree, a person, an object, a moment. At its best, a good shot is the opposite of clarification—it is a mystery.
I normally photograph at a regular speed, 125 fractions of one second. So it’s one second divided by 125 times. That's the slice of the time I use to capture something. I click when I feel something—when my heart sinks for a brief moment. Everything that constitutes me, coalesces, dances with that moment.
That connection is what matters, what makes me take a picture. That’s why, for example, I don't use tripods. I have them, I just haven’t used them. I realized that even when I’m photographing a tree or a mummified human specimen in the Cabinet of Wonders I need to be one with my camera. The lost souls are not moving, but I am moving. My soul is moving. It’s breathing. It feels like I fall into breathing with the world. And then I click.
I need that last breath, that sense of becoming the thing I’m photographing—as if my soul jumped out of me and into that person. I need that brief second, that possession, and so that last breath is crucial. When I am responding to motion, to a dance or to Strandbeests, that’s what I’m reflecting—something that’s in me. It’s not technically photographing something and making sure the viewer understands this motion. It’s this after-image effect, the moment when your heart sank because you saw that. And it translates. It’s a mystical moment. I don’t know why it translates, but I know that it does.
Haven: And what happens with a tripod?
Herzog: For me, some of the work that I have seen on dance feels stultified and dead. Despite being highly technical studio pictures, something very clearly on a tripod with light blasting. You know what I am describing, you have seen those things many times: the dancers are mid-air, contorted face, contorted muscles. You see them leaping, grimacing, and you know the photographer is dying to show you that this is motion. Ironically, these are some of the deadest pictures I've ever seen.
Haven: Have you ever attempted to do news photography?
Herzog: On several occasions, I was in the middle of nowhere and something newsworthy happened and I shot it. It should have been on the front page but it wasn’t, because it was on film, rather than digital, and two minutes later, it was too late. That’s how the news moves now. But I love doing documentary work, street shooting, you know, the nitty-gritty of a “shooter.” I like the fact that I am just a shooter.
Haven: You still do a lot of your work in darkrooms, rather than on a computer.
Herzog: Analogue is still a far better technology than what a chip can do. It is beyond high or low resolution issues, too long a conversation. Another aspect of it: the process of shuttling between exposure to the world and a return to my cave.
Most of my projects are global; it takes a while to shoot them all over the world. I photograph mostly analogue—90% of it is on black and white negative film, large and medium format. So it’s rather heavy equipment. And then I come back with the negatives and I go into the darkroom—a place to think. I don’t have a telephone or computers there. I don’t have anything there to disturb me, which, I think, is a modern definition of freedom. For me, it’s in the darkroom and my studio. It’s not just the silence. It’s that you’re left with yourself. There are no distractions. I can’t see things and can’t hear things. It’s just me and my thoughts and my work. It’s where I go to think about what I am doing and why.
After the first two to three hours there, I come out to get some light, and then go back and put on an audiobook or podcast. You have to or else you get a “deep diver syndrome”—losing orientation and sense of space, time, context. So, for a break, I go running in the woods nearby, or I swim, and I come back into the dark to a sound of another person’s voice and thoughts. That’s, by the way, how I discovered Entitled Opinions, and the LRB (London Review of Books) podcast, also, The New Yorker, KCRW’s Scheer Intelligence, France Culture —they are all good. So after the first three four hours of silence I listen to other people thinking aloud, almost like listening to someone talk into the night in the kitchen in Russia.
But, above all, what you go for in the darkroom, are the images: working on them, living with them, seeing them appear. Some of them work, most don’t. Even after all these years, every time I see the first outlines of the composition slowly come out in my developer in the darkroom, I have that same heart-sinking feeling. The darkest shades hit the paper first, telling you if you managed the composition, then the whole image emerges. It’s as if it were talking backing to you. The aliveness of it . . . it knocks me out every time.
Haven: Why do you say “heart-sinking”? That usually implies disappointment.
Herzog: No! It’s the moment of truth. I have this expression that our sinking heart always knows the truth.
Haven: Lovely. Is that yours?
Herzog: It’s mine. “Your sinking heart always knows the truth.”
Even if we don’t acknowledge it, our heart knows it. It’s the same way when someone is lying to you, even when they’re really good at it. You feel your heart sink. Your sinking heart always knows the truth.
Haven: Disappointment is much too glib a word for it.
Herzog: That’s right.
Haven: But it registers on some level as disappointment, a letdown.
Herzog: No. It’s an insight.
Herzog: I think part of the insight is akin to what Werner was talking about last night: the existential solitude, even when you're a happily married man or woman. You know you are alone in the world, on your own. Your sinking heart knows that.
Haven: There is no insurance. It’s like the crushing, 24/7 vulnerability of being a parent and knowing you are ultimately powerless to protect your child from the world. There’s an unbearable helplessness in knowing that nothing is certain, nothing is under control.
Herzog: A work of photography or literature or anything that’s any good, in some way or other, reflects that. That’s why our heart sinks, I think. At the realization of the stark solitude of our existence.
Haven: Given the vast psychological distances between your projects, how do you keep them separate in your head? You were working on Dreams of America while you were working on Strandbeest, and Strandbeest while working on Lost Souls.
Herzog: I become very restless. There are moments that I feel when I am working on something particular—like Lost Souls—where I start looping and I have this vertiginous feeling that I'm closing in on myself.
Psychologically, for me, it's important to step out into entirely different spectrum, with entirely different paradigms, sets of ideas, sets of images. I'll go from something incredibly pure, like photographing trees and snow, which is a stark, pure project, to something very messy, such as Dreams of America, in gaudy colors. I find my eye starts to sharpen in both places. Psychologically, it's both rewarding but also really hard. You feel like you are ripped. Not only do you close in on yourself, but you also become very comfortable. You find out what’s working in that visual paradigm and you develop, very quickly, habits that you fall back on. To step out of this safe system is both a relief and an extreme discomfort as well, but it’s very healthy for work.
Haven: In both projects, you are, in a sense, giving a life to those that have no life. With Lost Souls, you’re creating a life where it existed only for a moment in time, or in the case Strandbeests, where it never really existed at all, but only gives us the illusion of having existed. You moved from “lost souls” to creatures that, for all intents and purposes, have no souls at all, and yet they are mortal. People react as if the Strandbeests were . . . well, if not human, at least pets, and they are doomed and mortal like pets are.
Herzog: But in a way I also preserve them because Strandbeests don’t last long. They are very perishable. They last maximum a couple of years, especially if they are let to live in the world of sand, saltwater, and wind. A lot of the beasts that you see in the book, they are no longer around.
Lost Souls and Strandbeests felt like a perfect balancing act—both exist within the realm of wonder, in the Renaissance, or even the pre-Renaissance, interpretation of the word, that is to say, questioning norms and being open to new lands, miracles. That’s the reason those places were called the “Cabinet of Wonder”—it’s wondrous, fantastical, collections of strange keepsakes from around the world, including anatomical anomalies. The cabinet makers who preserved these fetuses intensely concerned themselves with the boundaries of the norm, the world, the boundaries of humanity. People were becoming conscious of the New World, anything seemed possible there, fountains of youth, dragons, El Dorado. People were trying to reach out and feel the dark. Lost Souls was ultimately, a tragic tale, while Strandbeest trotted on the lighter side of Wonder, and I feel now that that search was completed; I came full circle.
Haven: In the age of irony and doubt, Jansen has created something surprisingly upbeat, optimistic. Calvino described lightness as the subtraction of weight—and so it seems with Jensen’s project, which has such joy and lightness. Even dogs and horses react to them, as if they were alive. There’s an obvious appeal to Theo Jansen's work.
Herzog: Strandbeests are archaic and futuristic at the same time. They evoke sketches of Leonardo da Vinci and dinosaur bones, the Surrealists and the Futurists but also Panamarenko, Gerrit von Backel. Hence the cultural DNA within us responds to the wide range of references that, even if we cannot name them, still float through our bloodstream. Few things have such a range and remain so . . . unself-conscious. And Theo is completely independent from the world of art, or, rather, the world of art market. Science and art, as ideas and ways to be, are not separate for him. Both are just varied ways of engaging with the world.
Haven: I understand you've done some experiments with photograms, that ancient art of using the sun to make a photographic image. Photos without cameras, so to speak—another connection with Leonardo, since he experimented with the camera obscura.
Herzog: I made a very explicit reference to the surrealists in my book. Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy experimented with both kinetic sculptures and the photograms. Sometimes they did both and made photograms of their little mobiles. I needed to tie Theo to that art reference as well. A leg, a joint, one pipe—basic elements. I asked Theo, “Can you ship me a box of the discarded Strandbeest parts?” He did. And I spent many happy days in the dark making photograms. I also moved the light source to mimic the sun. Making photograms is incredibly addictive, so fun.
Moholy-Nagy made beautiful pieces and then made photograms of them, and then wrote in his essays on sculpture that the fifth most evolved stage of evolution for sculpture was kinetic. So, it seemed like the right connection. As fate would have it, one of our sponsors was the great nephew of László Moholy-Nagy. Small strange world.
Haven: “The line between art and engineering exists only in our minds,” Theo Jansen said. There’s lots of talk about the marriage of art and science—but I wonder if we’ve lost the sense of what a great work of art produces inwardly. Has art lost its ability to provoke contemplation as well as wonder, in the way a Rembrandt or Leonardo does? Art is more than ingenuousness. I’ve seen artwork at Stanford and elsewhere that is more of an engineering feat—it daunts and overwhelms with its scale, but it’s not the kind of overwhelm you get from Van der Weyden, or a Bach cello suite. It lacks the quiet delight, the inwardness.
Herzog: It’s not inward awareness, but a substitution for it. A very long tradition of humanism used to be at the core of art. It was largely channeled through religious portrayals because the Church was the main sponsor and the moral arbiter. The stories were moral tales with everything at stake. And no matter what you think of religion, that is powerful. For the last hundred years, we did, and we needed to, reject the old ways of experience. But, in many ways, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. You can resort to abstract expressionism only so many times before you hit a wall—and we’ve hit a wall. Even if we don't say it, the sinking heart knows the truth, no matter how clever the discourse and the captions are.
Science has become a way to fill the vacuum in the world of art without compromising or rejecting the previous period. We are desperately missing humanism in the visual art, photos. Documentary photography is not a substitute for it.
A few years ago, New York’s Contemporary Jewish Museum had an exhibition called, “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951.” The level of the work produced by these New York photographers is so high, so extraordinary, and yet so full of life. None of them could continue work because of what was done to them in the wake of the McCarthy hearings.
I believe, humanism in America vanished in the McCarthy times—Arthur Miller has written about it with his play The Crucible. Miller was one of the few high-profile people who survived, as he was so prominent already at the time of the hearings. The rest were “cleansed.” Humanism was almost totally destroyed in that era, in my opinion, because it was, idiotically, equated with Communism. The world of culture is incredibly fragile. How many set the tone in a culture? Five? Ten? Postwar France had Sartre, Camus, five more perhaps—no more than that.
When a culture is utterly scrubbed of humanism, you get Donald Trump. When the world we live in is full of shallow and meaningless gods, and that’s what people will recognize. People develop affinities, at the expense of their own fate.
Haven: That brings us to Dreams of America, an entirely different project . . .
Herzog: Completely different and it’s completely different from shooting in black and white. The way the color weighs is different.
Haven: Will it be the next book?
Herzog: It’s kind of on hold. I’m depressed with the political landscape. I don’t want to go to a dark place. I love America: its optimism, its ability to reinvent itself. It sounds terribly sentimental, but it’s true.
Haven: Love it? Why?
Herzog: Because here we believe that anything is possible, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s a great deal of power in that. Great force in that. That is unique, and genuinely American. That forward-looking also has a flip-side of instant amnesia, which can become so dangerous.
Haven: We’re saturated with images, nowadays—billions of selfies alone. What you were saying about Ekaterinburg is the polar opposite of Palo Alto and Silicon Valley. You can’t get much more driven, much more conscious of the evaluations of others—and it shows in this trend. We live in the place that invented photoshopping and ways to manipulate the images to make people look better, bustier, trendier, in photographic memes and fashions. We increasingly pressured to look and live like imaginary images.
In that light, I was remembering what Robert recounted in your interview on Entitled Opinions, with the early explorer in the Yukon who tried to photograph the inhabitants. When the village leader peeped under the cloth and saw the images on the ground glass, he cried out, “He has all of your shades in this box!” It's a feeling in many cultures, of course, that photography captures and diminishes something of the soul.
A naïve question, perhaps: Have we lost our souls to the boxes?
Herzog: And then those photoshopped people have to match the image of their own selves in real life surgically which is an incredible spiral. It’s fascinating, actually. I have thoughts about that.
Haven: I recently saw a photo of an 81-year-old film star lying across a bed in a negligee. I felt a little sad. Why does an octogenarian have to prove she’s still hot? Isn’t it okay to pack it in at some point?
Herzog: Again, I didn’t grow up with that. Where I grew up, you weren't expected to be hot after 25. You were expected to pack it in after 25. Babushkas were revered, and nobody expected them to be “hot.”
I have an idea so obvious it is radical. Consumerism is dehumanizing to women, in that it uses the desirability of women to sell stuff—as a quantifiable value. So every day we walk through a maze of signals that only value us according to how desirable we are. It’s self-destructive to believe this valuation on a cellular level. The problem with feminism nowadays is that it’s a slick political package. They say one thing, and believe another in their sinking heart, because they are trained like Pavlovian dogs. The cumulative propagandistic impact of the messages by a consumerist society on how we view ourselves as things of value and barter is something for anthropologists and neurologists to figure out together. It’s worth it!
Haven: Often we don’t feel like an event has happened unless it’s photographed. We go into the Eiffel Tower and have our pictures taken, but we are no longer observing the Eiffel Tower. We want to be observed observing the Eiffel Tower. “Watch me watching the sunset.”
Herzog: For me, it is an impoverishment. The moment we’re starting to only observe ourselves and circle around our own navels and circle around our own selves, we stop looking at the world, as you are essentially are saying it in your question. Now we’ve become so professional about it. We’ve become professional about this. And it’s kind of frightening.
Haven: Yet we are not the first to curate these masks. Akhmatova relentlessly fashioned her image. She was a master of PR.
Herzog: And in general, they were performers some of the time, not all the time. If all your life energy goes into the mask, what’s behind it? In the past, that was an aspect of their lives, but it wasn’t their lives. Their lives were, say, painting or poetry. The best work Goya did was when he painting the walls of his house, thinking no one would ever see. Those are called the paintings of his oscuro period, the ones that are downstairs in El Prado Museum. Later, they had to cut the paintings out of the wall to display them. They are incredible. They are dark. But they are so dense, and so uncaring about what people thought. Ultimately, they’re his strongest work and to this day, unmatched in their unflinching radicalism and modernism.
Despite the fact that our conversation is drenched in nostalgia, I think we are trying to sift through the high decibel noise to make sense of the world—easiest to do in retrospect. And yet, when you look and compare the way that people engaged themselves with ideas and making art, for lack of a better word, it is apparent that our generation and those that following are crippled by the constant drowning of noise and all that . . . small meaningless stuff. At this point, seeing posturing feels oddly old and conformist to me.
Haven: Last night, Werner spoke of the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin. The French theorist René Girard was, towards the end of his life, very interested in Hölderlin and his withdrawal from the world. He felt the withdrawal was deliberate. He wasn’t nuts. His madness was to some extent faked.
Herzog: Right. He just was sick of the world.
Haven: René would say that he was sick of the extreme oscillations it created in him, the idolatrization of others and his repudiation of them, the self-exaltation and the self-contempt.
Herzog: Right. I think it’s an incredible moment to let go of this problem. Again, I grew up without care for being perceived a way or becoming anything that’s what you are in the eyes of others. But obviously I’m not blind; I have been in the world, and in the Western since I was 20. I emigrated to the west, to the United States. I lived in France, then in Japan. My hermetic self was reinforced throughout these travels since being a stranger took many forms, it became my norm.
Not to worry, to not care about being understood, is liberating on some very important level. I think once that is not important, then you’re very free within yourself, within your safety to do whatever you want, especially when you’re not counting on the world. You should not count on the world. The world is not cruel. It’s indifferent to us. It’s cruel as well, but it’s only cruel in its indifference.
Haven: Last question: How do you see? What does the world look like to Lena Herzog? I read a passage recently from Nabokov’s Pale Fire: “All colors made me happy: even gray. My eyes were such that literally they took photographs.” He continues: “Whatever in my field of vision dwelt— / . . . / Was printed on my eyelids’ nether side / Where it would tarry for an hour or two, / And while this lasted all I had to do / Was close my eyes to reproduce . . . ” Sound familiar?
Herzog: Sometimes, and it’s exhausting. That’s when I have to put down the camera and not do it. I keep thinking there must be a reason to take pictures. It’s easy to reject something when you don’t try it.
Sometimes I take no pictures at all. I live a life of regret because I didn’t take this or that picture. But sometimes that moment, the moment of the image I didn’t shoot, is the strongest, the sharpest moment in my memory.
At this point in the conversation, Werner Herzog, who has been packing the car for their return drive to southern California, emerges from a back room. He is beaming and happy: he carries a canvas bag with several fish and two dead ducks—a special treat for dinner on their return, before Lena prepares resumes her book tour the following week in Chicago, where she speaks about Strandbeests at a standing-room-only event.
Lena Herzog is a Russian-American photographer. Her work has been featured and reviewed in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine, Cabinet Magazine, and many others. She is the author of several books of photography and her work has been internationally exhibited.
Cynthia Haven has written for The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Le Monde, and others. Her biography of French theorist René Girard is forthcoming.