We Slovaks have a special nature. We open museums and celebrate people who don`t even know they are from Slovakia instead of having focus on those, who claim to their place of birth and are successful worldwide. One such is Robert Vano – Slovak photographer living in Prague. His road to photography and a career of a top photographer was not easy at all. He was born on 5th of May in 1948 in Nové Zámky. Shortly after graduation, in 1967, he emigrated through Yugoslavia and Italy to the United States where he had been living more than a quarter of century. He made this tough decision because he was scared of doing national service in Slovakia. To begin with life in USA was difficult. He worked only part-time as a seller and a belt maker. Later, with the help of the Hungarian family, he was hired as a hairdresser and make-up artist. Then he began working as an assistant for famous photographers such as Horst, Glaviano, Castel, Fallai. He gained a lot of valuable experiences there. In 1984 Robert started his own career as a photographer. He worked in New York, Paris and Milan where he shot for famous fashion magazines such as Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Donna, Seventeen, etc.
Since 1990, he has been living in Prague. During 1996-2003 he worked as an artistic director of the Czech version of Elle magazine. Later, in 2009, he was involved with the Czechoslovakian models Agency. Now he is a freelance photographer. Robert Vano is mainly a fashion and advertising photographer. However, his work also includes portraits, floral still life, landscapes and nudes. He doesn`t hide his sexual orientation. This is evidenced by his work and his male nudes have become famous worldwide. He stubbornly refuses ink and pigment print. He captures black and white portraits and nudes on classic film and he also uses a very rare technique – platinum printing. As he argues for eternal value just one life is not enough and the value of art is just measured by its overlap. Platinum printing is not only beautiful. It`s also the most long lasting of all photographic processes. It is being estimated that the well done platinum print will last thousands of years. By using the technique of platinum printing Robert Vano returns us to our photographic roots.
He has published several photographic publications and has performed exhibitions in New York, Milan, London, Prague and Bratislava. In 2010 he was awarded European Prize of “Trebbia” for his support of art and creative activities.
I`ve always liked his photos his idiomatic humor and detachment. It is therefore a special pleasure for me to publish an interview with such an interesting personality.
It seems as if Slovakia has forgotten about you and now it`s just slowly discovering you. Do you have any feelings for Slovakia?
I think that`s obvious and goes without saying when a man does not live somewhere more than 40 years people might forget him. Some of those who knew me when I was living in Slovakia have already passed away or are retired. I emigrated in 1967 and people mostly know you in your hometown. When I lived in New York I was known in New York. Now I live in Prague so they know me here. I have no relatives in Slovakia. My parents passed away a long time ago and my sister emigrated. There is no reason to go back anywhere. But I can never forget Slovakia or hate it because it is the place of my birth; I have it written it in my passport and it will stay there until my death. I spent there the most beautiful years of my life, my childhood. There I went to school, there I played games…
My emigration was not associated with place of birth. In my childhood grandmother used to tell me to go as far as the eye can see. People were used to commute in the past. Grandma also kept saying that when she was young in Austria, it was usual, when 15 years old boy grew up his father would give him a back pack and send him to Vienna. And after twenty years he returned and was able to speak seven languages and knew how to sew a white shirt. There are certain professions which you must go for. We are a small country. It’s not just that I wanted to shoot fashion. If I had wanted to be an astronaut I would have gone to America or to Russia, from where they flew to the Moon. Here, you can just be a pilot. Divers must go to the sea, actresses to Hollywood and photographers to Paris or New York. Now I am slowly returning to Slovakia due to one man, Mayo Hirc, with whom I am preparing several projects. One of them is the Robert Vano Gallery – a gallery, which in forthcoming months is going to bring to Bratislava the works of famous foreign photographers. The main idea is about organizing workshops and promoting young talents. I am very glad that by my humble self and with the Robert Vano Gallery I can contribute and promote young talented Slovakian photographers.
What is the way to start career across the sea? What was the point at which you moved from an ordinary photographer to elite?
Career across the sea have to be started in the same way as in front of the sea I just don`t know how it starts in front of the sea. America helped me by providing some easy guidelines which a man could follow. I`ve always said that in order to have a dream profession a man needs to know exactly what he wants. And this is the hardest thing, because everyone can do four or five things well. You can be a good father, a taxi driver, a surgeon or a good photographer. And if you know what you want to do, you have to find a recipe. And when you have the recipe, you have to do better than everyone else.
The breaking point happened for me in 1988. At that time I had already been working for several years but it had been slow. When I was travelling from New York to Paris and to Milan, to one show, I saw the enlarged billboards of my works at the airport. There was Cindy Crawford in New York City and a different one in Paris. And I felt that it was working. It happened only once and since then, nothing similar has happened. That time I realized that it would be my job forever.
Do you think today if a photographer wants to be successful must he go across the sea? Is not Bratislava enough?
Certainly, anywhere is ok. Albania is fine as well if it goes ok with a particular person. It would be terrible if everyone went to New York. It depends what you want to do. I wanted to do fashion photography and fashion is not in Bratislava. Fashion is Paris, Milan and London. People go to the Czech Republic to learn how to make a beer, Hungarians have sausages, we do gnocchi, Russians vodka and Paris does fashion. So it is and so it always has been. If this does not change and if a man learns quickly what he wants, he will go where they do the best. Even the Bible says when the mountain won`t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain. After that a man can go home and takes with him his knowledge of what he has learned.
Your statement “Now there is a trend of taking pictures of people crowded in a bus…” is legendary. Today everything nice is considered kitsch. Why do you think this is?
I do not know exactly what is behind it. I blame communism for everything which does not work. I saw a documentary by Věra Chytilová. There was a scene in which, in 1948, national security agents came to the National Theatre and told photographers that the actresses would not be photographed in hats but in towels and not in the palace but by the combine harvester. Everything which was beautiful was bourgeois or capitalist. And this is how it ended. Now, it is difficult to undo. It goes slowly. Some young photographers are doing beautiful things. Many of them are doing documentary. In the USA they used to say about reportage “A lot of music for a little money.” To shoot the story you don`t need any money. You just go on the street and take pictures. But if you want to do fashion photos it makes a lot of money. In order to capture something beautiful, you have to prepare beautiful things. You need a beautiful model, nice clothes, hair, makeup and background. If you are thinking of shooting by Niagara Falls and of taking Claudia Schiffer, you need a million at least. But taking pictures of the homeless, or people crammed in a bus, it costs nothing.
What is your opinion at critics? In one interview you shared that “The best advice is don`t listen to anyone! “.
That`s interesting that I keep saying that, because I`ve always had a good criticism. Sometimes someone says that he doesn`t like my work. Mostly people who don`t know me.
But the critic also needs work. I`ve been told I shouldn`t need the advice of others because if something goes wrong I won`t know who broke it. When I make a mistake by myself, it`s easy to correct it.
I`d rather listen to someone who is a professional and works in the area, because of his experience. Indeed, critics also went to the same schools as photographers did, but they criticize and don`t prepare exhibitions. If a critic had an exhibition at the Pompidou Museum, and told me how to get there, I would follow his advice of course. I always say “The best advice is don`t listen to anyone!”.
After all, how do you know when someone writes about something that it is good? He doesn`t create anything. I won`t be younger or richer. I won`t get an Oscar so why pay attention to it.
It’s known that you like shooting male nudes. Actually your photos in this topic are legendary. Actually you have also taken pictures of many even very well known women. What are the differences between male and female models? I am thinking of their character. Who is more crabby, unruly, etc…?
Girls are more complicated, of course, because they have more experiences and are more interested in shooting and modeling. When I choose a man as a model, he usually tells me that he needs 14 days to prepare and when he comes and is satisfied with himself, there is no problem.
But girls need makeup, hair and want bigger lips and a smaller butt and boobs. From this point of view, collaboration with men is better, and there is more work with girls. Guys say whether to shoot or not in advance and once they agree they say nothing. Or maybe they just don`t care about so many details as girls do.
Are our local “celebrities” as selfish as you often mention in interviews? Can we find among them some real professionals?
Certainly there are also real professionals there. In the work we do they want mostly young people. Our entire company is oriented to young people. And it is difficult to shoot a 20 years old chick. I have portrayed some 80 years old, such as Ms. Květa Fialová or Mr. Brodský, and there was not a problem to shoot them.
When you go to photograph some superstar (pop idol) who has sung one song, it is a problem. They are educated by their agents. Their older colleagues are professionals, in my opinion, due to the fact they`ve already been photographed and know when they look good. When they don`t want to shoot, they let me know in advance. And when they say yes, there is no problem.
And what are you like during a shooting?
I do not know. You’d have to ask my assistant. I once read an interview with a model who was asked what it is like taking pictures with me. She replied that she didn`t know because all the time I hadn`t said a word. When I am going to shoot, everything is prepared in advance. I want to know everything in advance and I prepare everything before people arrive. Then I tell them what I want and after that I say nothing. Maybe, I’m boring when shooting. Well, and nobody photographs me. I do not like it. Usually I photograph myself or I ask my assistant.
We are a photography magazine and, therefore, a classic question. What camera and what lights do you use? Do you have assistants, etc.?
I usually use my first camera that I bought in the late sixties. Perhaps they do not make it anymore. . It`s called a Konica Instant Press. It is 4.5 by 5.5 inches. I use it for my work. You must not change the camera every time there is a new one. Then people would not recognize your work. For a photographer it is important to keep the same style. To be visible. If I ever changed the camera people might be confused. I usually shoot by daylight. If artificial light is needed I use Elinchrom. I have had been using an assistant for about ten years. For large orders, when one assistant is not enough, I have two or three. But mostly I have only one. When I shoot for myself, I shoot on my own and I don`t need to have any assistant.
You work with the technique of Platinotype. What makes it so fascinating?
Bernard Shaw once said a long time ago: “I have very simple taste to be satisfied with the best.” Therefore, whenever I do something, I want to do it perfectly. Platinotype has fascinated me ever since I saw it at the show of Irvin Penn in New York and those photos were wonderful. We may compare it to baking bread. It is quite different if you bake the bread yourself or you buy it at the store. I do not know how to develop a color photo. Once I tried it and it went terribly…
Nobody else works with platinotype and it’s also quite expensive. I read that the platinum print photo is the noblest and that this technique is one of the oldest photographic processes, discovered in 1850. It disappeared during the First World War. They said if the photo is developed and washed well, that it can endures even one thousand years. Well, I know how to do it. I can do it by the light as it only reacts to sunlight or UV radiation. And it’s nice.
How do you get along with digital? Does it have something to offer?
Certainly if I need to take a quick photo I take it with digital. I try to fulfill each contract with respect to clients needs. I say that the truth is always on the client`s side. So if a client wants digital I use digital. I’m not technically proficient to see the difference between digital and analog and I don`t even ask. Those, who used to take pictures on film and now use digital, say that there is not so much noise and sharpness. I just know that films are better to preserve, better than digital, and there isn`t much experience with digital so far. How long can a photo last on CD?
I have 40 year old films and they are still the same. Some say that the photos on a CD are destroyed in five years. I don`t want to comment on it, as I have no experience with it. This is also what I have learned, that the client is always right. I don`t care if a client has bad taste. I still do the same thing in my own way with the same camera and with my hands. That`s my style.
What do you like, or dislike about today’s photography? Do you keep an eye on the creation of younger generation?
Usually, I do not follow anyone. There I am very selfish. I care about my photos. I occasionally keep an eye on younger photographers. But I do not know who the younger generation is, if it’s a 20 year old photographer. When a man steps out from the crowd, he is no longer very young. For example, I consider the younger generation as La Chapelle, who has now had an exhibition in Slovakia. He is 50 years old but is 15 years younger than me, so, for me he represents the younger generation. I know young people only from various workshops that I lead and from some exhibitions. But they are good. I’m not a critic. I care about my photos. I want to support young and talented photographers via “The Robert Vano Gallery” and especially support those who are interested in professional photography.
You meet young people also at the courses you are providing for IDIF (photography institute). Can they inspire you somehow?
Young people inspire me. I learn from them all the new stuff. Mp3, photoshop, digital, and everything I should do with it. Young people inspire me the most.
You have taken a huge amount of photos. Do you have some which you haven`t exhibited yet?
Yes, definitely. Most of the photos I have, have not been published yet, because I follow the principle which I learned in USA, that for the first 20 years a man should learn his profession, for the other 20 years he should work and produce, and for the last 20 years he should release what he did in the past. People usually know my platinum collection because it was the first big show and others will follow. Even if I don`t shoot at all I have enough material for whole my life, which I can publish.
Do you have any unfulfilled dream photo?
I don`t. All I wanted to do I`ve complied. Now I would like (I do not know whether it is a photographic dream) to have a gallery in Slovakia, to be well known at home and I would like to help young people.
And maybe it would be nice to have an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum or at the Pompidou. But I have no photographic dream in the way, for example, I would like to shoot someone like Lady Gaga.