Ziga Koritnik and The Eye

Ziga Koritnik and The Eye
John Kelman By

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Anyone can take a picture but to get to the heart of a subject and truly capture what it's about requires more than a camera and the opportunity to use it. It requires The Eye: one that sees things most don't, sometimes in the most mundane circumstances.
In a time when cameras are more pervasive and invasive than they've ever been—with iPhones, iPads, Androids and low-price point-and-shoot devices lending the impression that everyone is a photographer—photo artists like Žiga Koritnik, paradoxically, stand out more than ever. Sure, anyone can take a picture, but to get to the heart of a subject and truly capture what it's all about requires much more than a camera and the opportunity to use it. It requires The Eye: one that sees things most don't, sometimes in the most seemingly mundane circumstances.

Žiga Koritnik has The Eye. Capturing more than just the image in front of him, Koritnik's eye intuits those special moments in time to which we all aspire, but only rarely achieve. And it's more than mere documentation; anyone with the money and the desire can learn the mechanics of taking a technically proficient photo, just as anyone with the money and the desire can learn to play an instrument. Anyone can, in time, take a good photo; only a precious few can create great ones, and only an even more rarefied handful can fashion a consolidated work of art that tells a story, as Koritnik has done with Cloud Arrangers, a photo book for which Koritnik is currently searching for a publisher.

Telling tales is nothing new for Koritnik. Un punto di luce (Edizione Archivi Delsud, 2009) told the story of the small town of Gavoi, the drum village in the heart of Sardinia. No words were necessary to articulate Koritnik's journey through farm country to Gavoi, or the sights and sounds of a festival all the more remarkable for his using exclusively black and white photography to capture the nuances often lost in color imagery. Still on the shy side of 50, Cloud Arrangers is Koritnik's first book of musical photo impressions, and even more than the singular experience of Gavoi, it's a book he's been working towards his entire life.

"I consider that I am working for the culture; that I am working for the music scene," says Koritnik. "I am supporting it; I am promoting it with my work. I am happy that I can do what I like in my life—making photographs and listening to good music. I like making exhibitions and books. And if, for instance, I make somebody interested in contemporary improvised music with a picture where everyone can see how much work, passion and feelings are inside, then I feel like I have done a good job.

"Music is the best, as Frank Zappa said, and it felt like it was time to clean out the archive, to put all my good pictures together and, with this book, reflect the time I've lived in for the last 25 years," Koritnik continues. "I have heard so much good music, been to so many beautiful places, and met so many nice and beautiful people ... I want to have all those memories in one place.

"I would like to give it to relatives; to people I know (and don't know), to those who share similar interests and feelings when we listen to or start talking about our beloved subject: music," Koritnik concludes. "I wanted to make a well-produced, well-printed and beautifully designed book, to make an album for my musical "family." There are so many music photography books in the field, but I haven't seen any yet, that cover what I have documented through the years."

Everybody's story is unique; everyone's experiences ultimately come together to create who they are. Growing up with a loving family was clearly significant to Koritnik. "I became interested in photography during the first decade of my life on planet earth," the Slovenian-born photographer explains. "I was always surrounded by creative people in the place where I was living. Two of my neighbours were photographers—one of them even a professional cinematographer. There was also, at the time, a very well-known jazz saxophonist. My father was an amateur photographer, as many of his friends were. They would gather at their homes, after their travels, and we'd have slide projection 'shows.'"

Cloud Arrangers is an apt title for a book of images that represents the culmination of Koritnik's hopes and dreams from such a young age. "I liked the sound and heat of the projector, and all the comments that people gave during the 'show,'" he continues. "This triggered my imagination, as did all the advertisements for different cameras I had been dreaming about. Whenever I held a camera in my hands, I dreamed of how it would work—how would be possible to make, with this box, beautiful pictures like those I was admiring at the time—and how great it would be to have one. My first camera was an East German camera, a CERTO KN35, and I can still smell it, though I later demolished it into pieces, as I was interested in how it looked inside."

Koritnik worked at TV Slovenia as a cameraman for 18 years, honing his skills with a camera the way a musician hones his/her chops with an instrument. Growing up in the 1970s—a time when it seemed like anything was possible—it's no surprise that his musical tastes and the influences that ultimately shaped who he is today were so stylistically broad.

"Beyond my neighbourhood, there was Radio Student in Ljubljana," he explains. "They were always broadcasting very interesting and different music. The first time I heard Frank Zappa was on the radio: The Mothers of Invention, Live at Fillmore East (Rykodiosc, 1971). I would sit next to radio and wait to record the shows on tape so I could listen to them afterwards. Initially, I listened a lot of rock music: Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers Band, Yes, Rory Gallagher, Mike Oldfield...and came to the waters of improvisation through Zappa and a 1987 Miles Davis concert in Belgrade. After that, Pat Metheny came to Ljubljana and became a regular guest of the Ljubljana Jazz Festival. And so began a discovery of music that never ends."

Everyone has to have roots, however, and Koritnik cites seminal photographers including Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, Henri Cartier Bresson, Herman Leonard, William Claxton, Peter Beard, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon and Martin Parr.

Jazz guitarist Pat Martino wrote that you study for years, practice scales, learn harmony, understand rhythm...and then you just forget about it and play. Koritnik has spent plenty of years paying his dues, but from an early time, his eye was already seeing things others didn't, and his approach differed in that it was always about the music. "One of the first shows I ever shot was a Slovenian rock group and a band called Liars," Koritnik recalls. "The place was packed, everybody was smoking and it was so loud I had sound in my ears for another two days. But I was enchanted with the concert atmosphere and all feelings that developed."

While Koritnik's first professional photo shoot was in 1990, "when we were shooting a commercial in Montenegro where, parallel to that, I shot a photo that won a special recognition award at the Olympus International Contest in Japan," the ever-humble photographer still likes to think of his first picture as being "pressing the shutter button on my dad's camera, when I was playing with my irresistible attraction to cameras."

Over the years, Koritnik has shot hundreds—maybe even thousands—of performers, ranging from singers Tom Waits, Cesaria Evora and Dianne Reeves to deep improvisers like saxophonists Anthony Braxton, Peter Brötzmann, Roscoe Mitchell, Mats Gustafsson and Henry Threadgill, Norwegian trumpeters Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvaer, guitarist Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, Ethiopians Mulatu Astatke and Mahmoud Ahmed, and irrepressible Dutch drum legend, {{Han Bennink.

"These are musicians and pictures that all have a beautiful story behind them," Koritnik enthuses. "At least, for me. Whenever I am preparing for shows, looking at these pictures again, I get flashbacks of the great and beautiful feelings I had when I was organizing and preparing myself to shoot them."

Many of these images are in Cloud Arrangers, but they only tell part of the story. "Cloud Arrangers includes many pictures that I had in a big exhibition in my hometown of Ljubljana in 2011, plus other pictures from the archives that were not chosen for display. First came the selection and initial order of the pictures, which I left to Polish designer Marek Wajda. Later we made some changes together.

"When I am doing an exhibition," Koritnik continues, "I always try to find pictures that work well together. First I see how much space I have in the gallery, then I decide, based on the size of the pictures, which wall is good for the bigger ones. When I come into the gallery with all my pictures, I put them all around the gallery to see them and then the magic happens; when you start hanging them they go together almost on their own. I like to play and improvise. It always works."

It's no surprise, given Koritnik's love of improvisation, that his approach to photography is similarly in the moment, and that he structures his work the same way musicians often construct their music. "When I am working on my own, I plan where and when to go. Here, the journey somehow begins; a story that contains planned and improvised sections. Even when someone hires me as a photographer and needs specific promo pictures, I still have a greater freedom to do what I can do. In that case it may be more planned, but invariably ends up completely different from what I had in mind.

"Working conditions change all the time," Koritnik continues. "I just follow the wave. When I am 'chasing' somebody and get a 'Yes, you can do it,' then I improvise on where I'm going to photograph him/her. At that very moment, I must decide very quickly, because I usually only get 10 or 15 minutes.

"I never know what to expect," Koritnik continues, "and that is what I like. You just do what you do, go where your work goes. This is what I learned, among many other things, from the improvised scene. And to enjoy it. I consider myself as a documenter of my time, as somebody who really enjoys his work and has enjoyed great opportunities—the chance to be in the company of some of the biggest artists of our time.

"Photography is something you are enchanted with," concludes Koritnik, "and for me is inexplicable. You either have it in you ... or not. And this, I think makes my pictures different than the others. When you are in the scene with total sincerity, without any special expectations, the scene gives back to you. You just need to be there and be prepared. Everything is about the music that we love so much. And my small contribution to music is my photography...for those who want it, of course."


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