With a confessed passion for literature, Argentinean-born photographer Daniel Mordzinski has been photographing writers for the past 30 years. His pictures come with a twist: he takes his subjects out of their usual writer’s pose and positions them in unusual settings or stances, which he says is key to capturing an original take of a profession that is often difficult to capture in a still image.
Part of his work is currently on display at the Cervantes Institute in Bucharest, in an exhibition titled De tinta y luz. Una mirada al alma de las letras hispanoamericanas.
Mario Vargas Llosa writing by candlelight on the side of a bed, Salman Rushdie inside a bathtub, and Umberto Eco pulling up the straps of his pants are just some of the photographs that can be filed as a “fotinski”, the trademark of the photographer who has earned the good will, acclaim and friendship of many literary greats. While Mordzinski insists that he employs no particular method, he has managed to build an impressive collection of portraits of writers from all over the world. The names often read like a Who’s Who of Spanish-language literature: Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Luis Sepúlveda, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez among many others. But it is not just stars he has been photographing. Mordzinski is a regular at literary festivals around the world and has served as the official photographer of the Hay Festival, among other events.
The local writers he has added to his collection of literary figures so far are the German-Romanian winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature Herta Muller, whom he photographed in 2013, and novelist, poet and dramatist Dan Lungu, whose portrait he took at Italy’s Torino book fair in 2012.
How do you work? How do you stage a photo?
There is no Mordzinski method. Every encounter is like a blank page. Whenever I take the photo of a writer the result is the writer as seen by me. When I say “seen by me” I mean the photo is the outcome of my readings, of my disposition, and this is also what allows my work to remain alive. There are no two similar encounters.
What it comes down to is many years of experience and a lot of gratitude to journalism. Right now, I’m at a point in my life where I can choose to do the things I like to do. Many times, my journalistic side and my expressive one overlap. I think I owe a lot to journalism because it left me with a speed of analysis. When I enter a place, I can immediately tell where the light is coming from and what its visual potential is. Of course, I can often be wrong!
I also owe to journalism the speed at which I work. The journey I propose to writers is original and fun, one without risks, but above all it is rapid because I work very fast. And another important element that journalism taught me is how not to let myself be intimidated. After having photographed so many royals and celebrities I can focus on the essential, that is the individual I have in front of me. Because often the emotion can be paralyzing, as can the technique.
How do you decide if a photo is worth showing? How do you make the selection, both in general, and for this particular exhibition?
All selections are arbitrary and incomplete, but you have to make a choice. It has happened, more than once, that I later realized that a photo I had selected was not the best one because I had made the selection in a rush for time or wanting to see the result faster. At times, I exaggerated – for example with my first portrait, which was the one of [Jorge Luis] Borges. I used to take analog photos, and that day I had shot a pair of rolls, from which I chose one photo that hadn’t completely convinced me but I chose it because it was the only one in the series where Borges was alone. For a long time I was bothered by a hand that had entered the frame and twenty years later, perhaps because of my experience, what I had learned traveling and looking, I realized that what was bothering me was what really brought value to the picture. To sum it up, photography does not change; nor do we.
As for the selection for Bucharest, the exhibition is an itinerant one. It is a like a diplomatic passport, in the good sense of the word, because this exhibition serves as an ambassador of literature, feelings and passion. It is a passport for a borderless country, which is the Spanish language, and a passport for 35 years of my life as a letraherido (e.n. a person who is very fond of reading and literature).
This exhibition originated in Frankfurt and has toured many Cervantes Institutes around the world. It always has more or less the same format: around 70 portraits. You can imagine the difficulty I have in choosing, the moment I have to ask: what do I go for: Borges or [Julio] Cortazar? So I always have this dilemma: to offer the most complete aspect of my work and strike a balance between, for instance, Spain and Latin America.
How would you say your photography has changed over time, if at all?
We are the protagonists of our own lives and in this case I find it difficult to talk about a transformation or a period. What I can say is that, as the years go by, my work has gained more freedom because they [the writers] let me do what I like. At the same time, it has also become more committed because I feel grateful for this liberty I have in my work and I’m afraid of letting them down. Before we were talking about formulas or the Mordzinski method. I would say there isn’t any, but what’s important for me is the respect I feel for the authors and that the intelligent humor and the irony never transform into something ridiculous. This I think is fundamental.
Has the label “the photographer of writers” changed the way authors relate to you?
Before anything else, let’s agree this is not a label I came up with myself. The first time someone brought it up I found it very showy. I swore not to repeat or use it and then, the other day, while trying to answer a question I labeled myself as such because it was easy, because it had a headline quality and it summed up what was difficult to summarize. And now I use it myself – better like this.
Anyhow, I am the photographer of what I consider some of the best literary festivals in the world, which are the Hay Festivals. There are Hay Festivals in many Latin American cities and in Spain but it originated in Wales. Many authors here are international ones, Anglo-Saxon authors, and I realized that they didn’t know me. So it is an exercise in humility and seduction convincing V.S. Naipaul or Ian McEwan to accept my proposal to photograph them without their knowing me or having seen my photos.
What did you learn about writers while taking their photos, if such a generalization is possible?
I would say they are human beings just like dentists or football players, that they are as fragile as butterflies and that perhaps the profession of writer is maybe the least easy to photograph in the world. Starting from this idea I invented this Mordzinski non-method, which doesn’t exist, but if it did it would consist of taking the writer out of his or her writer’s pose and proposing a new pose which doesn’t go through the common places/clichés of literature.
What is your next photo engagement with a writer? Is there anyone you would like to photograph but have not managed to yet?
My schedule is quite full. I would like very much to do a portrait of a writer in Bucharest. From here I’m going to Cadiz to open an exhibition in Andalusia. A week after that I’m travelling to the book fair in Santo Domingo and from there to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, where I will take part in a festival that is called Centroamérica Cuenta.
Another showy term that I ended up adopting is that of the “mapping” I do. And if an atlas is what I’m doing, it is filled with oceans because it is full of absences. The more writers I try to photograph, the more I have to photograph. It would be impossible to take photos of everybody and there are authors I would have liked to photograph but died before I could do so. Not to avoid your question – if there is an author I would like to photograph it is one whom I admire a lot, who lives in my own city and with whom I feel very in tune: it is Milan Kundera.
Is there anyone or anything you would never photograph?
I have been asked more than once what would be the limit and I think, for example, that it would be a writer that collaborated with the military dictatorship in Argentina or a writer who has been a mouthpiece for whatever regime. But in the end, I tell myself that instead of denying myself the photo I would take a portrait of them and let my feelings on the topic show in the photo.
What can and what cannot be shown in a photo?
Often my photos unconsciously show things that writers are trying to hide. I’m not doing this on purpose; it’s just how things turn out. In any case, it all comes out with good faith and, when it happens, what I do is share the photo with the writer, ask for permission to publish it without explaining why I’m asking for it or revealing what I see. I simply look for his or her complicity, not only in taking the photograph, but also with bringing it to light.
The “fotinski” is a fun photograph showing the author outside his or her customary writer’s pose. Mordzinski explains the importance of ensuring the humor or irony that often accompanies these photos never crosses into the ridiculous.
A selection of photos taken by Daniel Mordzinski
Born in Buenos Aires in 1960, Mordzinski started working in the national film industry aged 18. In 1982 he began his career as a professional photographer as a correspondent in Israel. He has been living in Paris since 1980 and is currently the correspondent of Spanish newspaper El Pais.The Argentine is an official photographer of several literary events, including the Hay festival, Vivamerica in Madrid and FILBA in Buenos Aires. He photographed Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Lllosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, at the awards ceremony.
His works have been exhibited in museums across Latin America and at European festivals, and are to be found among some of the most prestigious collections of contemporary photography. Mordzinski made news last year when it was discovered that negatives he had built up over more than 30 years of work had disappeared from his office at the French daily Le Monde after a move. The event caused indignation on social networks and Le Monde and El Pais later issued a statement apologizing for the loss.
Ink and Light. A look inside Hispano-American Literature.
De tinta y luz. Una mirada al alma de las letras hispanoamericanas
The exhibition is open from April 16 to May 30.
Visiting hours: Monday to Saturday, from 10.00 to 19.00.
Instituto Cervantes, 38 Regina Elisabeta Blv.