Maarten Rots - Art on every corner
Updated: Sep 4, 2020
Maarten Rots is an artist based in the Netherlands but his work puts him on the road for several months a year. He travels chasing the light and looking for compelling abstract architectural compositions with focus on texture and colour. He has worked with different mediums such as film, photography or projectors among others, and has taken part on numerous exhibitions around the world.
Photography to me has always been about the human element (or the absence of it). The camera was a tool to tell a story in a narrative way, like the masters Henri Cartier-Bresson or Steve McCurry would do. When I first came across Maarten Rots' work, my view of Photography changed completely. His work helped me understanding that photography is just the medium we use to express the way we see the world and the tools we use should not lead our creative work and, more importantly, should not be a limiting factor.
Maarten has the ability to find beauty and art in every corner and unleashing his creativity using any tool. He has taught us to pay attention to the wold around us, to look at those little places that we very often disregard.
I asked him few questions to know more about his life and work:
You started your creative career as a videographer/film maker and working with footage you came across with on the streets or flea markets. Could you tell us about those years and what do you think you took from that experience to today’s work?
I’ve always enjoyed working with what I can find around me, whether it is pre-existing materials or finding situations and capturing them. I used to go out into the streets with my video camera and tripod hoping to catch interesting scenes happening in front of me. With the material I captured I made installations as well as short films which have been shown on film festivals around the world. Filming on the streets without knowing what is going to happen, or whether something interesting is going to happen at all, is comparable to street photography. The difference is that when you are filming you do not freeze a split second but you provide more context, which doesn’t make it easier.
Usually a scene is already unfolding before you have started to film it, so you have to make up for the missing information in a different way. That leads to the video becoming a different story than the actual story that was happening when I recorded it. As objective as the lens may be, the outcome will always be subjective.
Next to these video works I made a lot of work with found footage, mainly slides and super 8 film. These would often end up in installations, sometimes very large, sometimes very small. I once made an immersive installation with 15 slide projectors that would recreate a panorama of a living room from the 70’s, made out of photographs of typical family situations photographed at different moments over a period of 10 years.
Another example is a short video loop titled “Long walks on the beach”, made by selecting similar scenes from a collection of super 8 films that belonged to a couple living in Amsterdam in the 70s. I never met them, don’t know their names and had nothing else to go on but the rolls of (silent) film they made just for themselves. By watching it over and over again certain patterns started to show and I wanted to use that to tell a story that they unconsciously recorded over the years.
Then you moved from video to photography. Do you think your vision has changed with the medium or you adapted the tools to what you wanted to express?
It was a kind of coincidence when I switched to photography. My video camera broke and I wanted to replace it with a less obtrusive tool (I used a rather large tape-based video camera). Meanwhile because I had worked with found slides and photographs a lot I had also developed a renewed interest in still photography and decided to go for a DSLR. I soon started using the camera mainly for photography. I realized I could take more time to get the shot I wanted and also saw my interest shifted from people towards composition which still is my main subject today.
Your photography has also evolved and has become more abstract. How has been the process of going from a more narrative art (video or street photography) to abstraction?
I wasn’t feeling at ease with photographing people in a straightforward way so I came up with several ways to include a human element in my photos by using reflections, silhouettes, shadows etcetera. Slowly the human figure became less prominent and my interest shifted more and more toward composition, regardless of figurative or narrative qualities. I became more interested in colour, shapes, textures and light and less so in storytelling.
It has been a gradual development, without knowing I would end up where I am now, with the work I currently make. There was no plan or destination that I was aiming for. It’s an ongoing process and I’m quite sure that in a few years my photography will be different compared to what I do nowadays.
The way that I see it, there are two parts to every photograph: the process of discovering and taking the photo, and the actual outcome (the photograph, per se). What is it that you enjoy the most?
I enjoy both parts equally but differently. The process of walking around, knowing what circumstances to look for and when you recognize them taking the time to figure out how to make an interesting composition is very satisfying. I slowly get into the right focus and start to experience the world in a different way, it’s quite meditative. Getting into this state of mind is often already enough of a reason to do what I do, although it’s definitely rewarding when some interesting new photographs come out of it.
The process of searching, finding and capturing is very satisfying, but I also want to bring what I have captured to good use. I want to find a way to present it, to create a context in which a group of photos tells more than just the individual photograph. Four times per year I publish my own magazine, March & Rock, which is one way I deal with this, but it can also be a series that I publish on my website or a print exhibition.
The nice thing with an exhibition is that you have to think about the size of the prints, the material you are printing on and how you use the space, how you guide the viewer through your work. These are all different components that I really enjoy just as much as taking photographs, but this process is a little more calculated, more rational, whereas the act of taking photos is far more intuitive and reactive. I guess in the end it is a balance between both.
For the last two years you have been traveling in a camper van for 6-8 months a year. This has allowed you to discover and shoot in many different places. Do you feel that your work (and yourself) change with the locations? How does it affect to the result of your work?
The light can often be very different from what I grew up with in the Netherlands, I tend to travel to places with more sun hours like Italy, Spain and Portugal. Light has become a very prominent element in my photographs so travelling to these places provides me with more time to take photographs and to learn to understand how certain effects come into existence. Another prominent ingredient in my photographs is architecture and that also tends to be quite different from what I grew up with. For example in the Netherlands it is much more common to use bricks for walls and to not cover them with stucco. Abroad the opposite is true and over the years I have found ways to use that in my work.
These are differences on a visual level, but of course being in a different culture with a different language changes your behaviour. It feels like there is so much to discover, exploring becomes a more common thing throughout the day. So I guess it opens you up on many levels, which also helps me to develop my photography. Just the fact that I have a lot less day-to-day stuff to deal with gives me more focus and opens me up to new possibilities.
When you are out on the road, you also carry your prints and you do pop-up exhibitions. What is to you the value of printing and showcasing your work?
Printing a photograph changes it from a collection of pixels into an object, something you can touch and which takes space in a room. Especially at a larger size you get to see your work in a different way. I tend to use matte, slightly textured paper which really adds to the textures in the photographs and gives the print a painterly touch.
What I enjoy most about exhibiting my work is meeting others, often like-minded, but also very often people that have a different view at things which gives me the possibility to see and hear how others see your work as well as provide them with an opportunity to look at the mundane in a slightly different way. The exhibitions I do while travelling are usually short-lived pop-up shows, so the focus is on the opening. That’s usually when most people come to see a show and gives enables me to have a chat with my audience.
I guess last few months have impacted a lot to the way you usually work, as traveling has been restricted in Europe due to the Covid-19 pandemic. How have you overcome these limitations and what do you think you are taking with you going forward?
We’ve been able to get back to the Netherlands right before the lockdown happened and from that point on it has been an interesting experience. A lot of the things I had planned couldn’t happen and I also didn’t have any opportunities to go outside and make new photographs. So initially I started taking photos inside the house, noticing how the light would change during the day and taking the time to really discover this familiar situation. After a while I also set out to create my own situations, which was something I had been thinking about a lot but never came around to doing it. By using several old projectors from the years when I worked with slides a lot and some pieces of coloured glass left over from a stained glass project I did in 2019 I started creating compositions on the wall and take photos of those. I also picked up on an old passion - before I went to art school I used to make collages a lot and I started doing that again but with my current fascination for composition as a starting point. This all led to creating some larger works with spray paint and other materials.
I think in a way these strange times have enabled me to pursue some of the things that I had been wanting to work on for a long time but never got around to.
Another mean of sharing your work is through your self-published “March and Rock” magazine. In which ways has this publication helped to your creativity and become a better artist?
I believe reflecting on your own work is very important, it helps you become sharper at what you do. When I started making March & Rock I was definitely still searching for my own voice in photography and making a magazine has really accelerated that process. When you are making a printed publication every three months you have to look at your own work a lot which helps you notice patterns and you can start to figure out why these patterns emerge. When you go out to take photographs you take this with you in the back of your mind and it helps you focus and stick to certain interests instead of randomly photograph anything that slightly interests you.
Nowadays, Instagram is the most used platform among photographers to share their work. Some of us are guilty of using the platform to get approval from others. I read in an article you wrote on Eric Kim’s blog, that we should “Go Within” to find the answers. Do you think we can get useful feedback from Instagram or does the platform only boost artists’ confidence?
For the purpose of sharing your work I think Instagram can be a great tool. You can reach an audience that may be hard to find otherwise. The risk with Instagram however is that one starts to compare their own work with that of others, and the amount of follows and likes becomes an important way to ‘measure’ the success of a photograph / body of work. I don’t think the amount of likes or followers says much about the quality of your work. And even if it did I believe it is much more important that you are satisfied with your work. Of course praise from others can be encouraging, but the drive to continue your process has to come from within. On the one hand there is the danger of getting stuck in an echo chamber when you find an audience that likes you for one thing only and you may hold on to that which will slow down your progression. On the other hand there is the risk that you will be discouraged to continue when you are not receiving the praise you have started to rely on. The amount of likes and follows are very arbitrary and mean next to nothing and should not be the reason to share your work.
It does happen that you get meaningful comments, which is nice and they may give you an insight in what you do and how your work communicates to others, I think that is a valuable aspect of Instagram. However for actual feedback I think it’s often best to have a focused one-on-one conversation, or maybe with a small group where the focus is on constructive criticism, with the intention of giving the maker more insight in how and what their work communicates so they can grow from there.
I believe comparing your own work to other people’s work is not a very healthy thing to do. If you have to compare, it’s best to compare your work to your own work. If you want to grow, that’s what you have to look at.
Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions?
In October an exhibition with my work will open in Fine Art Galerie Traismauer in Austria, which runs until December and in November I have a 1-weekend exhibition in the Netherlands. That is of course if the current Covid-19 pandemic doesn’t mess things up. Next to that I am working on publishing a book with my photography from the past five years which I am very excited about.
Could you recommend one artist (photographer or not) and one book that have inspired you lately?
I recently discovered the work of Larry Bell, an American artist and sculptor who has been working with the effects of light, shadow and reflection in a variety of materials since the 1970’s. I especially appreciate the works he made with glass. There is a nice video on YouTube where you can see how he makes these pieces.
During my latest trip through Spain and Portugal I took a copy of PhotoWork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice with me. Definitely an interesting read when you are serious about your photography, it’s very nice to get an insight into how others approach their work.
What would be the best piece of advice to somebody starting out in photography or any other creative medium?
Have fun! Simple as that. Working as a creative gives you the possibility to have great experiences and create wonderful memories. It’s possible to live off your creative endeavours, but I think it’s only smart to start out having a job (any job really) that will ensure you of a monthly income instead of the wonky income you may get from the arts. This way you can put all your free time into your art and if you live a frugal life you will have some of money left to invest in necessary materials. Keep it simple, don’t fall into the trap of buying gear with the expectation it will make your work better. The best lenses you have are the ones in your eyes.
Nobody is telling you what to do, it’s all your choice. So you might as well have fun. And remember that fun doesn’t come in euro’s or dollars.