Intimacy, physicality, and evolution as reflected by art.
Closeness, softness, wetness – the feeling of a lover’s eyelashes brushing against your cheek. This is the intimacy and sensuality that BIRK THOMASSEN captures in his pieces. Whether he is shooting still-lifes or portraits, this gentle energy permeates every image, lending the viewer his eyes and approach to the world around him. We sat down with the artist to ask him how exactly he manages to channel such an impactful yet gentle energy into his works, and to figure out what exactly his key to human connection might be.
Hey Birk – it’s so nice to meet you! How have you been?
Hey! I have been pretty good. Recently I have been focused on getting back to some kind of daily routine, now that Denmark is open again after a really long lock-down. My boyfriend and I moved out of our flat in the city center of Copenhagen during the first lockdown, and into a house in the sort-of countryside, so I’m trying to figure out how to keep doing my work in this new environment.
Definitely – big moves tend to make you completely reconceptualize your life. Naturally, we wanted to set up this interview to discuss your work, but how would you describe it? How do you see it and what do you try to communicate through it?
Well, I am always interested in what people have to say about my work, so whenever I do an interview, I love reading the questions and comments people have. I never really set out to communicate anything specific.
Truly leaving beauty/art to the eye of the beholder – I love this whole vibe of a decorated/blank canvas that allows the onlooker to write their own meaning. But as you’ve been on the other side of this artist/audience dichotomy, what would you say is one of the main inspirations behind your work? Is it specific scenarios, other photographers – maybe just a specific person in your life?
Good question… I cannot really mention one specific thing or artist. I find inspiration in a lot of places like books, music, movies, and long baths. However, I think the core of it all stems from my teenage years – the struggles I had with body dysmorphia and a fear of being touched. While I am not sure this actually qualifies as “inspiration”, I think it is where my preoccupation with touch, texture, intimacy, and skin comes from. As I got older and better, I started looking for the things I had missed in my youth in my own images, and over time it just became a natural focus in my work.
I think that definitely counts as inspiration – you want to do better for your past self, and actively heal from past pain that made you feel so isolated initially. You can definitely feel this reclamation of power in your work, especially in its genuine and intimate imagery – when was the first time you started to experiment with more sensual shoots? How does the freedom to capture these moments influence you as an artist?
During my first year in art school, I was still afraid of working with and photographing people. I mostly shot images of plants and flowers. Then, during a critique, some of the other students said that my images were very sensuous – almost alien – and clearly about sex. This surprised me, but stuck in my mind. After that, I started looking for these feelings more consciously in my images, and over time, I slowly incorporated people into my work as well – starting with my then-boyfriend. It has been a very slow and natural process – learning to work comfortably with models in an intimate setting – and in the beginning, I only used models I knew intimately. Actually, it is only in recent years that I feel confident enough to work with strangers, and even then I always like to meet and chat with the models first. It is very important to me that the models I work with feel safe and comfortable.
Feeling comfortable is definitely integral to any impactful piece of work. Not to dwell too much on COVID, but that was definitely an uncomfortable situation. What was pandemic like as an artist who works so closely with physical touch? Did you face any challenges, and if so, how did you manage to overcome them?
Yes, well COVID clearly sucked in many ways. Although I have been lucky, I suppose. Because I moved out of the city and into a big house during the early days of the pandemic, I have not felt claustrophobic and trapped. Isolated, yes, but the isolation has also meant that I have had time to think and consider in what direction I want to take my life and my work. In a way, I think this forced break has been healthy for me – although, I do sometimes miss the old me who could easily attend art openings and be around people for several days in a row without having to recharge my social batteries afterward. In terms of photoshoots, I just did not do any for about a year. In my practice, I also make a lot of images that do not feature people and I had some much-needed time to focus on and plan that part of my work. To be honest, I did not miss working with people at all. Remember the plants and flowers I mentioned earlier? It gives me a lot of satisfaction working by myself with abstract imagery, flowers, liquids, textures, and surfaces. I feel at ease when it is just me, my camera, and a simple setup. I lose my sense of time and just focus on being present. Overall, I also think this type of imagery adds a lot to my practice – without it, it would just be a lot of repetition of skin and bodies, and I would get bored very quickly.
I completely get you – it also gives you the time and space to hone your signature lens, with this kind of work giving you more space to inscribe your perspective than, let’s say, someone else’s body. A lot of the artists we’ve spoken to lately have felt that Queer love and eroticism is typically hypersexualized in media – what do you hope to accomplish by intentionally framing your images through a softer, more vulnerable lens?
I actually do not mind terribly when my work is sexualised. What I really hate though, is when my images are sometimes dismissed as “hot”. This is just the worst comment I can possibly get, and whenever it happens, I feel like I have failed as an artist for a moment. Is that really all there is to say about this image? The reason my images look the way they do is because they are made by me – I do not think I could work in a more aggressive visual style because I do not function like that as a person. What I hope to achieve with this, and with my work in general, is to evoke some sense of emotion and maybe even recognition in people. I think that is all an artist can ever hope to do – even if it is just for a moment.
I think that you can definitely feel all of the emotion encapsulated in the images. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us! You are such a talented artist and congratulations on how far you’ve come. Are there any big projects coming up that we should look out for?
After my hiatus from working with people, I recently started working on a portrait project, “Open Call”, in which I meet with people who contact me through social media, wanting to get photographed. We then have a chat about why they wish to be photographed and what they hope to gain from the experience. This then becomes the premise of the shoot. The project is still in its early days, but to me, it is about shifting the power balance between photographer and subject and letting the subject set the rules of the shoot – I just help facilitate it, whether it is based on curiosity, fun, practicality, or fantasy. So far I have already learned a lot just by listening to the models talk about their reasons for being in front of the camera, and the feelings it evokes in them. So, if you are a person with a body and a desire to be photographed, feel free to contact me and tell me about it. Hopefully, it will end up as an interesting body of work someday.
Words by Glamcult