An interview to Werner Bokelberg: discovering Dalì in black and white

On the 23rd June I met Werner Bokelberg. The interview took place in his elegant house in the south of France. Check out his website:

Werner Bokelberg was born in Bremen in 1937. At first he started a career in theatre and drama, but it was only later that he discovered his true passion: photography. He is known for being a master of the black and white technique.
He and his wife welcomed me with some fresh lemonade and a copy of the book Da-Da-Dalì, which they gave me as a present.
This book and the story behind the photos were the main topic of our interview, together with his memories from a shooting with Picasso, photography today and its new trends.
Da-Da-Dalì was published in 1966, but the photo shoot happened in 1964, in Spain.

Question: First question, perhaps quite predictable, but I can’t help asking: what was Dalì like?
Answer: He was not as crazy as people think. I mean, his insanity was not what is commonly called insanity: it was his nature, his essence, the tool he used to produce his art. Without this so-called insanity he wouldn’t have been Dalì. Further I must say that he was very professional.
Q: So what happened during the photo shoot for Da-Da-Dalì?
A: It was my first time in Spain. I arrived after a very long journey from Hamburg. Then I was told to go and look for a hundred kilos of dried beans. I didn’t know where to find them: I couldn’t speak Spanish, I was in a little town in the middle of nothing and I spent hours wandering around in search of these beans. Once I found them, I went back to where we were supposed to shoot. It was an empty pool and there was Dalì with a girl. She was naked and had a collar and a leash. There was a cheetah cub too. Dalì said:”Oh, here you are, give me the beans”. And then you can have a look at the pictures: he started pouring the beans on the girl who was standing in a corner of the empty pool. That was art, nothing to do with madness.
Q: It makes me think of the shocking performances by Marina Abramovic. People often consider it nonsense, but at the end of the day all of her performances are true statements.
A: I agree.
Q: So this is how you started working on Da-Da-Dalì…
A: This is it. I took the photos, Dalì chose the layout of the entire book.

A shot from the book Da-Da-Dalì

Q: You worked with Picasso too…
A: Actually, I can’t really say that I worked with him. I made a portrait of Picasso in just one photo shoot, this is true. Though I am not the only one who had the chance to meet him and take a photo of him. I reckon that portraying such a charismatic artist is a mere report, a visual chronicle indeed. I mean, if you are looking for a photo of Picasso it is because you are curious about his appearance at that very moment of his life and you may link it to his artistic period, the historical happenings and oddities of that year, fashion and much more. It is Picasso that you want to see, not the photographer’s skill. After all it is only a portrait.

Picasso by Bokelberg.

Q: Nowadays photography is a fashionable art.
A: It is overrated.
Q: Well, it is considered an art that anybody can make: tons of apps for smarphone and billions of photos shared on social networks every day make photography an everyday device. What do you think about it?
A: I would say that today many mediocre photographers have the chance to take very good shots. But, as I said, it is for a chance, maybe because they managed to catch a special light with the right perspective or whatever. If you ask them to redo it, they would never be able to. Go and ask a real photographer to take again the same photo and he will have no trouble in doing it.
Q: What is your opinion about all the technology that has been developped to enhance photography?
A: In the past you were forced to think and to be careful before taking a picture. I mean, you couldn’t take a hundred photos like they do now. Films and rolls were not endless. Nowadays there is no limit to the number of shots you can take. And then you can edit anything with Photoshop. Is this real photography? I do not think so. It is just a way to make nice images.
Q: Now Polaroids are back in fashion. What is your opinion?
A: They don’t do any harm.
Q: What about selfies?
A: Pure narcisism. It has no meaning.

A shot from the book Da-Da-Dalì

A shot from the book Da-Da-Dalì

A shot from the book Da-Da-Dalì

Q: When you talk about photography you are quite detached and it looks like you consider it as a mere tool to represent reality. So, according to you, is it an art or not?
A: This is quite true, actually. I think it is beacuse taking a photo is nothing but a short action. I mean, a painter usually spends a great deal of time working on a painting, a composer burns the midnight oil to finish their music. Photography never takes such a long time, even if you think a lot about the pose, the light and the best perspective. It is immediate, it is short and as a matter of fact you can’t infuse your soul in it, not as much as you could do with a painting or with a song. As a consequence, I reckon that photography was far more similar to what we call “art” at the time of pioneers. Think of Nadar, for example: posing and shooting lasted five or six minutes, a time long enough to make something magic out of a moment. Back then, photos showed much more.
This is why I consider photography not as an art but as an aesthetic way to represent reality.

Werner Bokelberg and Maria Costanza Boldrini


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