Koto Bolofo Interview
Mmmmm at colette
Koto Bolofo, self-taught photogapher originally from South Africa, fell in to photography almost by accident whilst at College in London. Since the early 1980's, Koto has turned his lens to all manner of subjects, with a strong focus on fashion leading him to work with the likes of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Interview and GQ, as well as a seven year documentation of the inner workings of Hermès at the personal invitation of chairman, Jean-Louis Dumas. Having published several acclaimed photographic books over the years including, Dreams, Lord Snowdon, La Maison, Horse Power, Vroom! Vroom!, Grand Complication and Venus Williams, Koto now takes his work to colette in Paris, in an exhibition titled, Mmmmm, where a selection of forty of his personal works, taken from across the span of his 27-year career, will show until July 13. To coincide with the exhibition, we chatted to Koto about his life and work, early experience and what to expect at his current exhibition.
Jack Smylie: Koto, you've spoken of the sense of Voodoo that initially drew you to photography - can you elaborate on the magic of the medium?
Koto Bolofo: What I have never lost is the child in me and really the joy of being happy. I like to see things simply and not look into them and give a blah blah intellect reason for this and that. There are fine people to do that and they do it well. So way back in the early 1980's I was hooked on developing film and printing it in the dark room at college. I remember I was studying graphics and I was in my second year of a dead boring course. It really was watching wet paint dry being in those lessons. One day we had a three week photographic course and I knew nothing of photography. The aim was to show us how to load the camera with film, take photos, and then process and print the photos in the dark room. When I was introduced to the printing side, I was dumbfounded to see a white piece of paper immersed in a chemical liquid and seconds later an image would slowly appear. That was magic!! Voodoo to anyone who did not require the boring scientific explanation. But I still shoot all my current projects with film and cannot wait to see that the voodoo is still working!!
JS: Largely self taught, you must have felt the presence of those who came before you fairly strongly to remain educated and focused in your art. Who in your field influences you?
KB: Let me first kindly explain the reason why I became self-taught, where one did not have much of a choice but realized that one had to DIY (do it your self). One came to the United Kingdom as a political refugee in the early 1970's from South Africa with my family living in exile. This was for a period of 25 years, hoping one's country would be free. What I noticed back then in the UK was a certain sense of silent racism. From the London college from where I was expelled, I looked for a job as a studio assistant and Knock!Knocked! on every door to see if I could get a job. Doors were just slammed in my face, or they thought one was delivering and I should use the back door. Born in South Africa and seeing this in the UK made me determined to say "if you cannot join them, beat them." So I worked hard for years, practicing in a local park with a friend of mine to be the best. Photography was expensive back then and still is today. It meant finding a nightshift job to fund what I loved doing during the day, and that was taking photographs. Soon I had got past the idea that I wanted to beat them, as I saw how small-minded people were, and then solely focussed in building my style of photograph. I learnt a lot on my mistakes and never threw mistakes away as these were the keys to develop my work. My strongest influence has never been any photographer, but my dear father who was a great man trying to dismantle the former apartheid government in a silent way by secretly finding scholarships for countless students that were trapped in South Africa, by getting them places in countries that were willing to educate these students. Seeing this always gave me inspiration and influence. Once you find the passage within yourself, you are the only one that can influence yourself. The seed and root was simply my father.
JS: Your photographs often have a sense of spontaneity to them, yet you have stated in the past that you usually wait to form a relationship with your subjects before photographing them. How are you able to strike this balance in your work?
KB: You see, basically I know my chicken fairly well, meaning photography. When I do a project that takes me two to five years depending on the subject, I put away photography and I am not interested in taking the photographs at first. My crucial balance is trying to see if they would like to play ball with me. I search if my personality will fit with theirs. Once I feel that we do have a molecule in common, knowing we are all human beings in the end, my aim is to break down their airs and it takes two to tango. The camera just begins taking photos as the third friend who is part of that tango. It's just a crucial delicate balance of walking a fine tight rope knowing there is no net to save you when you get the balance wrong. So far - touch wood - all has been good!
JS: Fashion photography remains an important part of your work and has resulted in amazing access to and coverage of some of the most influential fashion houses and publications in the world. How did you find yourself becoming immersed in the world of fashion?
KB: It was really quite simple. When I was at college back in the early 1980's I never had any intention of becoming a photographer or a Fashion photographer. It was just by luck that a 3 week photography course was part of our once in a life time to touch photography. So after that small tiny course on photography I was hooked!!… not in taking photos as such, but processing the film and printing. I was obsessed in Printing, but the content of the photograph was DEAD BORING, which could put one to sleep! I just took random photos with my camera of anything and nothing, no concept!! I was just in a hurry to finish the film!... to just get to the dark room to process it and print and see Voodoo work again and again. So one day a tutor of mine came to me to say my photographs were CRAP and had nothing in them. That really offended me. I explained to him that the printing was BRILLIANT and I had the GREAT talent to capture the tones in the photograph. He still said they were CRAP and they had no concept or subject matter. I was boiling inside with rage because my head was so big thinking I was the world's greatest printer. He then said, "Koto why don't you specialise in a subject?" I did not understand what he meant. He then said, "Why not become a Sports photographer, a Car photographer, a wedding photographer or a fashion photographer... and so on. I stopped him at fashion photographer and asked what that was. He said it was a person who photographed "Birds" meaning girls in beautiful dresses. Now, simple as that was, I went for that. The reason really was only to chat up the girls and hope for a date. TYPICAL MEN!!!... Whats changed!!! So off I went to the college cafe with my camera hanging around my neck, which was a Soviet Russian Zenith 35mm to chat up the Birds!! I introduced myself saying to them, I was a fashion photographer and I would like to do portraits of them, their eyes twinkled!! When I began photographing my first "Bird", things just changed from then on. It became one of the biggest pleasures to now see the face of a woman appear in my Voodoo dark room. I became entranced with this. The name of the Tutor who gave me that advice was called Steve Fletcher. One of his sons became an actor and was seen in many British films.One of the films was called "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels". His son's name was Dexter Fletcher.
JS: Can you name a favorite subject to date?
KB: I guess, it would be the book called "Dreams" published by Steidl Publishing as this was my sister in law. The clothes she was wearing were prototypes I designed using vintage sheets. These prototypes were then reproduced by an American clothing brand called Anthropologie… and I am proud to say that they produced them beautifully!… That I could not tell which was the prototype or theirs!
JS: Your current exhibition Mmmmm is showing now at colette in Paris. How did this working relationship with the store come about?
KB: Sarah, who I really first must thank with deepest sincerity, approached me. She cam with a beautiful idea: " Koto, I love the work which is intimate about you, the beauty, the flowers, the landscapes, the portraits, the real quiet side. Could you select some photographs from your archives, and I would like to make a show of your work." I was so excited as I love the spirit of this fine and edge cutting elegant lady. My archive was huge and went back to 1980. She asked, "would you like just to have the gallery area or the whole shop?" There was no doubt what I wanted… It was the whole shop!
What I loved about Sarah is she had been aware of a very deep part of my work which for me were the photos that can never be thrown away, and that they stood the test of any time. In other words, timeless. It was so gracious how I collaborated with her. Every inch or centimeter of the way her thoughts engaged with my work was perfection. There is only one Sarah I know and hope to know for years to come.
JS: You have selected forty photographs to exhibit in the show - how did you choose which photos to include?
KB: Believe me that was seriously difficult, knowing my archive starts in the early 1980's. meeting Sarah at colette was also a key as she wanted the inner of Koto Bolofo. I am very acute at picking up energy from someone and knowing what they are feeling and wanting. Sarah had hit Koto with hammer and nail and wanted the poetic part of my work. She is pretty sharp!
JS: Is there a common theme running through the photographs in the show?
KB: Well most of this work has never been seen or published and is from the 1980's to 1990's. It's really my temple of painting with light with my camera, listening, smelling, touching, smelling and Click! I have the timeless moment.
JS: What influences/inspires you, apart from photography?
KB: My garden in Vendee, France.