Be real! – Interview with Andreas Laszlo Konrath
23 • 05 • 25Zita Sárvári
Andreas Laszlo Konrath's work is a modern blend of personal expression and social documentation. Through his documentation of the world as he knows it, his distinctive style has become an integral part of his authentic and visceral portrait photography. His portfolio is full of iconic characters and everyday heroes. But whether he's photographing celebrities or young people on skateboards, analogue processes are at the forefront of his image-making. Through his photographs, we gain a real insight into the raw, free, emotion-filled, pure energies of youth subcultures, an honest and creative world in which vulnerable individuals are represented in a true bond.
He moved to New York in 2004, where he worked alongside a number of portrait and fashion photographers. Between 2008 and 2018, he and designer Brian Paul Lamotte published 53 individual zines, founding the independent zine and book publishing company PWP. He is a regular lecturer at prestigious institutions such as ICP, Parsons School of Design at The New School, and Pratt Institute. He is the co-founder of the zine-making web app 'Shrimp Zine', which allows users to create zines for free on their smartphones - providing a new creative and collaborative access point for digital natives to a highly valued analogue process. He last visited Budapest in 2008 and is looking forward to returning, with two of his photographs on show live at the Mai Manó House until 19 August.
Please place us on a timeline and tell us where and how you grew up!
I was born in High Wycombe hospital in Buckinghamshire, England. This is the town where the photographer Gavin Watson made all his early photographs. Then I actually grew up not far from there, in a small town named Chorleywood, in Hertfordshire. It’s on the Metropolitan Line, in the last zone of the tube map – it’s basically a suburb of the greater London area, a commuter town about 40 minutes from Baker Street. My parents would commute to central London for their jobs. They both worked in creative fields, my father was an architect and my mother was a ballet dancer who then taught dance and movement at the drama school LAMDA. The town I grew up in was pretty quiet, my schools were both within walking distance from my house. I had friends scattered around the town that you could walk or ride your bike to easily. There wasn’t too much to do there, we would go up to the “common” which is some public land, green fields, and some woods. We’d play hide-and-seek up there, or ride our bikes to a quarry and throw stones into it. My parents have lots of books, art books, films, and music around the house. We used to go to the theatre and museums, they just took me to whatever they were going to see. I don’t really remember how I felt about it then, but I’m sure it was a good thing to be exposed to lots of different art forms and artists as a kid. I have an older brother who left home when I was still quite young, he had lots and lots of music, records, tapes, CDs, and posters everywhere that I was exposed to and inherited some of when his tastes changed. The same with his clothes. At one point I had an amazing collection of heavy metal t-shirts that he didn’t want. I got in trouble at school for wearing a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt when I was really young. This changed when I got interested in my own music and skateboarding – that time from about 11,12,13 years old, when you start to discover your own interests and tastes, dressing in your own way, and how you identify, what you want to communicate to the world through your choices in music, your hair cut, the clothes you wear.
In my curatorial and art management activities, it is very important for me to present artists of Hungarian origin to Hungarian audiences who are less known in Hungary despite their Hungarian's, because your success is a great pride for us, and it is also instructive for those experimenting in Hungary to get to know you. Please tell us a little about your Hungarian roots!
My father is from Budapest, but he left in the early 60s, he had a visa to study in Germany for a summer on an exchange from the University of Budapest, and he went to the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and lived in Cologne. When he left Budapest he was only supposed to go for 3 months, but his parents told him not to come back. They said, “this is your chance!”, I guess they had friends or family who left in 1956 but they didn’t, so I think they wanted him to take the chance they didn’t have. He didn’t go back there again until Hungary gained independence from the Soviet Union. My brother and I went there every summer during the 1990s to visit my Nagymama and Nagypapa, who were both pretty old at that point. My Nagypapa died in 2001 and my Nagymama died in 2008, that was the last time I was there, for her funeral. I’ve been meaning to come back for years now, as I have never been to Hungary without my father or visiting my family, it would be interesting to explore Budapest now for myself and through a different lens. The thing I remember most, apart from my Grandparents, and their apartment, is that it was so hard for me to eat! I haven’t eaten meat since I was 8 years old, and in the 90s it was unheard of for people to be vegetarian in Hungary, so I just remember every meal being impossible to find food for me! Everything had meat in it. I remember my Nagymama would cook meals and say oh yes this is vegetarian, but you could taste the sauce had been cooked with meat or meat stock. It was funny because she didn’t understand why you wouldn’t eat meat!!! They thought I was an unwell child!
What is your first memory of the word photography? How did you yourself start taking photographs, and what interested you in photography then and now?
Well, I would say that I was absorbing images in both music magazines (N.M.E, Melody Maker, Kerrang!) and skateboarding magazines (R.A.D, Thrasher, Slap, Transworld, Document, Big Brother) and on skate video tapes (411 Video Magazine, 20 Shot Sequence, Trilogy, Second Hand Smoke, Mouse, etc…) for a really long time way before I thought of photography as something I wanted to do. I think all the music I loved and the ephemera that came with it – record sleeves, pin badges, patches, and certainly with skateboarding – stickers, board graphics, posters, and t-shirts, was influencing me from a really young age. I would look at still photos, and sequences in magazines obsessively, trying to understand a trick and how they were doing it, and then I would watch the VHS tapes over and over, pausing, slow-mo, figuring out what was happening. So I was consuming so much information about these particular things I was interested in. Like an album cover, I would look at the design, the typography, the band photos, the lyrics, and the liner notes, dissecting every single part of it. So design, photography, and video really influenced me without me really knowing it. If you look at early Steve Rocco World Industries skateboard adverts in Big Brother, they were really creative and out there. There were no limits on the design and art that they were making at that time as skateboarding was still a pretty niche thing, I guess they were making up the rules as they went along as no one was really looking over there from a commercial or more corporate perspective. I definitely was looking at some pretty inappropriate stuff as a 12-year-old! Some of those Big Brother articles in the 90s were not suitable for a kid!
I was already filming skateboarding videos from around 16/17 years old, so before I got my first film camera, we were already making moving-image skate films. I didn’t start still photography until I got onto an art foundation course when I was 18 after I finished secondary school. We had an intro to photography class and the teacher asked us to bring something in that related to photography. I had this Larry Clark book of stills from the film Kids, I loved it because I recognized all the pro skaters in it (Javier Nunez, Harold Hunter, Jeff Pang), I couldn’t believe they were in this real “movie”. I brought that book into a class and the teacher was really shocked I knew who Larry Clark was, and I think he thought ok this kid gets it, and he really took me under his wing – his name is Marc Vallée and we’re still friends to this day. So that’s where I first learned how to load and process 35mm, and print. Soon after that, I bought an old Nikon FM from my neighbor after being at college for a few months, and then that was where I really began my journey with taking photos. This was around the year 2000. Honestly, though, I just liked taking photos as a secondary thing, I really wanted to do design of some kind, so I was taking the graphic design course and photography was supposed to just be a supplemental part of my work. Slowly photography started to become a bigger part of what I wanted to say.
So in what genres and themes did this journey continued?
Well, early on I was influenced by was by people like Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Mary Ellen Mark, Corinne Day, Peter Hujar, Nick Waplington, and Richard Billingham. I suppose a blanket term that I don’t particularly like is “youth culture”, but I was definitely interested in the idea of juvenescence right from the start. I think I was quite a self-conscious teen, we likely all are, but you know, there are times when you just totally feel by yourself or confused! I didn’t feel comfortable in my own body and had some odd behaviors with food like calorie counting from a really young age, and I was really ashamed of my body, I never took my clothes off in front of people at school when you would change for sports, and I would always duck out of class when you were supposed to shower after games. So I think the idea of the transition between being an adolescent and an adult really intrigued me as I found it a very odd and awkward time of my life. So the first pictures I began taking were portraits of my friends at the skatepark and I quickly got interested in this idea of finding parts of myself in others, perhaps there was a way to make a self-portrait by collaborating on images with someone, perhaps finding a way to understand yourself better by connecting with somebody else. The camera is an interesting device and it gives you an opportunity to get to know someone, but also it’s something we can hide behind, it protects you in a way. So it’s this paradox between wanting to get close and connect with someone and using picture-making as the excuse to get some level of intimacy with them, but then you yourself are always somewhat protected from being vulnerable by having the camera literally between you and the person you are working with. This is definitely something I have continued to try and work on being better at, not only as a way to strip away that power dynamic but really try to make it a reciprocated process with the sitter so they really feel included in the process. I don’t think I have ever quite succeeded, but you just keep trying. Ultimately the photos become less and less important to me, but the experience of being with someone is the thing that you’re making happen, it’s the circumstance that’s important. The first serious “project” I made was with a younger kid named James from the skatepark, this was around 2001, I was working part-time at the park and this kid would come every day, he was really hyperactive and reminded me of myself at his age (I was around 19,20 and he was 14,15). I asked him and his mother if they would be interested in making some portraits for a college project, and we did that for about a year. I would give his mum the prints whenever I made them which they really appreciated. I knew that duration was really important to me, the idea of returning to something over and over. I always liked the comparison to learning a skateboard trick, you just keep doing it again and again until it’s just innately in your body, and you become more present with the feeling rather than the technique. I think making pictures is the same thing, you want to be in it so that the last thing you’re actually thinking about is the photo itself. But I know it’s easier said than done, and failure is why we always come back.
You have generally produced low-circulation signed zines that were works of art in their own right. Independent, counter-cultural media products with a special production method. What makes a zine art form different from a photobook?
I always saw the zine as a great vehicle to express your ideas and disseminate your work. For me, they came at a time in my process when I didn’t see any other way for me to get my images out into the world. I didn’t have any galleries or publishers asking me to collaborate on an exhibition or a book, so I decided that the DIY zine was going to be my version of a gallery or museum. There are so many ways we can look at images – online on our screens, exhibited on a wall in a frame, and then reproduced in book form. I think in the 2000s we were used to seeing these quite highly produced photobooks, I just never saw a route to get there myself. And from my earlier years being around music and skateboarding, zines just seemed a natural fit, especially with the ideas I was exploring with my portraits, the themes of my work just fit better into this more lo-fi aesthetic. I always loved the photocopier as a medium, as a way to duplicate and distribute things – like fliers for a gig – quickly and most importantly cheaply! I couldn’t afford to print my images in color, so I would just use a photocopier to reproduce the work. I was being resourceful and also didn’t really have a choice, so making this small run, the hand-produced zine was more out of necessity than anything else. And the aesthetic just fit right, it didn’t feel forced. I liked the tactility, and the proximity it gives the viewer to the work, it’s a very personal experience. You can’t touch a print on a wall in a museum, and on a screen, you can’t see any imperfections or nuances, it’s smooth. The zine is textural and amazing as you can have a more “choose your own adventure” relationship with it – open it from the back first, the middle, and play with its orientation, sometimes the toner or ink rubs off on your fingers, and it becomes part of you and you become part of it. Plus, and most importantly, zines are relatively cheap to make and therefore to buy too – it becomes more democratic in a sense as it’s more affordable than a print or a hard-bound coffee table book. I wanted the types of kids I was taking photos with also be able to afford the zines themself, so tried to not ever price them over $20.
The alternative form of the zine has an amateur, DIY performance style built in. That's what makes it so special. The production method of your self-produced zines is very special. You follow photocopied pages, border stitching, book in book editing principles, and I understand you put these publications together yourself on a xerox machine.
Over the years some friends and I made zines in a variety of ways, and initially, it was finding the shop with the photocopier that had some weird eccentricity, just something off about it. We would test all the copiers around Brooklyn and Manhattan and then we knew oh if you want this type of effect go to the Kinkos on 8th Street, but if you want this style, go to the Staples on Morgan Avenue. Then at one point, I remember Staples bought a load of new fancier machines, and we couldn’t go back there because they wouldn’t let us use our own paper stocks, and the results were too clean and nice. Eventually, my friend, the book designer Brian Paul Lamotte and I rented a studio to share together in Greenpoint, and we bought our own Xerox photocopier, a Risograph, and some other things too, like a tape binding machine. So just over time, you get to experiment a lot, try things out, find ways to make a more dynamic and interesting zine, figure out how to best serve the images and the ideas, and how everything relates to the concept, from the paper stock to the cover to the typography to the binding method. You want this object to have an experiential aspect to it, for the audience to engage with something sculptural and three-dimensional, and you want to take them on a journey with it, build a narrative and guide them through it, but then also realize you have absolutely no control over how they will experience this for themself, there’s a beauty in that.
Your own generation, your community, peripheral youth subcultures (punks, skaters…?), and small communities become visible through your photographs. They are at once a documentary and poetic series. You usually assigned a theme to a zine. What was the content you choose to publish in a zine?
As I said earlier, I just think the themes of the work made sense to be formatted in the zine space. It wasn’t something that felt like it didn’t fit in that world, even when I was reproducing color images in black and white, it still worked. I also have a tendency to recycle and remix work over the years, reusing images in a different context. There were times when we’d make a compendium of earlier zines, but spend a bit more money and produce the whole thing in color, use a nicer paper stock, use a thicker cover stock, and bind it differently. I think it’s interesting to see the images be remixed in new ways and new formats, suddenly someone might say oh I didn’t realize that was a color photo, now they can have a new experience with the work. The nice thing about zines is you’re usually making somewhere between 50 and 200 copies, so it’s pretty low edition sizes. It’s low stakes, you can try things out and then come back to them later and try something else. I’m interested in that same theme of repetition, and how you make something unique each time, even when you’re say reusing an image. But maybe you’re placing it next to something newer or totally different, and then a whole new conversation begins. I also like the idea of the process of reproduction and how that can influence the images, for example, one time I made a whole body of work with film, and hand-printed all the images in the darkroom. I then scanned all the images high-res on a beautiful high-end scanner, and I then printed all these scans out on a cheap monochrome laser printer, all the images, both color and black and white, so they all got flattened and looked the same. I then re-scanned all of these prints with a scanner made for scanning receipts, a really cheap generic thing. Then with those files, I re-printed the images again on the same monochrome printer on metallic paper which ended up being bound into a zine. It goes back to the idea of recycling and remixing and bouncing things down, like an old tape recording on an 8-track. You have these limitations and you bounce things down and compress them they get flattened in these interesting ways, then you try to find a way to output it that feels compelling and rich even though there are these flaws to it. And somehow it has to make sense with the content, as it’s not just an effect or a filter, you actively making these choices and trying to work with a material (paper) that is inherently active itself. Hopefully, it says something that illuminates someone else or gets them to ask questions.
Published in 2014, Anthony No Name at Gmail Dot Com is a 114-page zine featuring a single figure, Joshua, through hundreds of portraits taken in different techniques, in different situations, and at different times. What is the concept behind this series?
Honestly, I can’t really say there was an initial concept behind these images. Joshua was my friend and we worked together on photo shoots, traveling around to all these amazing countries and cities. I always took photos of him in these places and these experiences we were having, for over five years. So again, it just goes back to the idea of duration and feeling compelled to document someone over and over whilst you’re in it, and then you come back to it later to try and make sense of it. Sometimes that’s how a project can evolve, you’re not really trying to manufacture a body of work, it just occurs innately and naturally. I have worked on other projects with a more specific or ‘calculated’ approach, but also sometimes you’re making images and not really noticing that you’re doing it, it’s subtle. Before you know it five years have passed and you have accumulated this huge body of work. The reason I paid attention at that point was that Joshua decided to leave New York and move back to Los Angeles, and after these five years of spending all this time together I realized I was really going to miss him, so I started digging through the images. It occurred to me that I could do something with the body of work, as a sort of ode to our friendship and love for each other.
You have co-founded and developed your own independent zine app to open up the genre to a wider audience. What is Shrimp Zine and how does it work? Are many people using it?
Shrimp Zine is a free web app that I co-founded that allows the user to make zines on their touchscreen mobile devices, like iPhones or iPads. It’s really designed with young folx in mind, as I work as an educator mostly with high-school teens, and so that’s the demographic it is aimed toward. During the pandemic, we were having to do all our classes on Zoom, and so I was trying to find a way to have creative classes with the kids whilst they were stuck at home. I got on the phone with a creative technologist friend of mine who used to work at Google, and so together we developed this tool as not only a creative platform for people to make their own zines and tell their own stories but to try and make an online zine community that could eventually lead to a sharable library and archive where people can trade their zines with each other, a sort of marketplace for zines if you will, even having a print on demand option. We’re still a long way off from getting there, but for now, the prototype is working and you can generate zines quickly by just using your iPhone. The goal is to get people thinking about fun ways to utilize the images that live on their phones that we don’t often do much with. Sure we post them on Instagram, or Facebook, or maybe text them to one another, but I think having a chance to generate quick collections of these photos in the zine format, is a fun idea. Especially connecting the bridge between the digital and the tangible. I think zine-making can be light and doesn’t always have to be serious and finding a way to get your images off your phone and onto the physical page is at this point refreshing as we’re so used to only reading these HD images on our screens, backlit on these very hyper glossy and slick instruments. Having the chance to export and print them out in a quick and efficient way just gives people another opportunity to share and express themselves in a more tactile way. This isn’t supposed to replace traditional analog zine-making practices but just offers another access point, especially to digital natives who use their phones in many aspects of their lives already.
Your work is also based on teaching, but you are also involved in incubator programs yourself. Somehow it seems as if growing up and knowledge transfer are happening in parallel for you. You're involved in the New Museum's NEW INC incubator program while teaching at Dia:Beacon. What is happening in the NEW INC incubator program and on what topics do you teach workshops at Dia:Beacon?
I think that mentoring and teaching are only possible if there is a two-way street that involves your own learning in the process, and that there always needs to be a reciprocated exchange of knowledge and information between the mentor and mentee. When I walk into a classroom or into the learning lab at a space like a Dia:Beacon, I have to go in there with the hope that I will learn as much from the teens I am working with as they will learn from me. The history of the school system that has long operated in a framework of vertical hierarchy is outdated and has little desire to help young people become independent and the architects of their own type of learning. I believe young folx should be given more agency in the ways that they can learn, and how we can all learn together. If we have a more horizontal approach, where the teacher or guide, or an ally to the kids, whatever you want to call it, comes in without assuming they know more than the young minds in the class, then we will have a much healthier exchange and transfer of knowledge. Every time I work with the teens I come away with some piece of information I didn’t know before because they know about SO many interesting things that I do not! And if I am prepared to listen, and let them know that their thoughts, ideas, and voices are important and valid, then I will 100% walk away being enriched by them in some way. I know that this is easier for me to say this as I do not work within the public school setting, but more in alternative learning spaces, like education labs at after-school programs, or at museums, so we are not having to abide by certain results or grades that directly correlate with funding and other bureaucratic obstacles. I’m lucky in that sense as we get to try a more experimental approach outside of the DOE. But there does need to be a serious shift in the ways we understand how children can and should show up to a classroom, they should be able to have more freedom and more flexibility in how they choose to be present and participate. There’s no one standard for how young people learn and engage with the world.
As for my own learning, I am always trying to find ways to improve my understanding of what it means to be an educator in a world that keeps changing and to challenge myself as a creative person, a maker, a mentor, and a learner. I applied for the NEW INC program at the New Museum to help find some mentorship in how to run Shrimp Zine more effectively, to get some professional development, and get a better understanding of the mission and what I am trying to do with the software. NEW INC is an incubator focused on the intersection of art and technology, and it’s a perfect place for me to ideate and get some feedback in real-time on what ideas and things I am exploring. I want Shrimp Zine to be a legitimate learning tool for as many people as possible, and since I have never been a co-founder of a technology company before, I need to get access to as many tools and to as many people as I can to help define that role I have stepped into more clearly. We all need help, and we can’t be effective in growth unless we’re given some guidance, no matter how old or experienced we might already be. There’s always room for improvement! 🙂