Glasgow International

Artist Interview: James Pfaff, ‘Alex & Me’

by Erifili Gounari, April 24th, 2018

James Pfaff’s ‘Alex & Me’, at Street Level Photoworks for the duration of the festival, is a tribute to the artist’s relationship with a woman who significantly impacted his life during a road trip across North America in 1998. Photography, printed texts and handwritten journals come together to create a captivating visual diary of a journey and a broken love.

In GI2018’s inaugural blog post, Erifili Gounari talks to James Pfaff about the show and its context.

James Pfaff, from the series 'Alex & Me' James Pfaff, from ‘Alex & Me’. Photo: Erifili Gounari

Erifili: First of all, your work focuses on the concepts of time, memory and change. It’s been twenty years since your road trip with Alex. What would you say are the roles played by memory and history in your creative process today?

James: As you rightly point out, time, memory and change are necessary ideas for me and my work. If when we talk about history, we are talking about facts, then I’d say that up until recently I have always worked on actual events.

Lately, I have allowed myself some more room, some interpretation, partly because of my own fading memories and the new perspectives that time brings given that my process involves working with a contemporary response to my archive with such a long time lag. In the case of ‘Alex & Me’, it’s been twenty years.

E: Part of your work focuses on how you were changed as a person through your relationship with Alex within just a couple of weeks. You’ve said, “At times I was not myself”. In what way did that road trip, that period of freely living with Alex and a camera, change you?

J: I have always understood that the people closest to yourself can, if you let them, influence you the most. In 1998 I would say I was primed for change and Alex was the spark. The fact is I had not met someone like Alex before  – she has many unique qualities – and she would help me to become freer and to broaden my horizons. After our trip together we both lived our lives freely, often too much so, before somehow I managed to rebalance myself.

E: Would you say that there are personal sacrifices that you inevitably make when you publicise some of your most personal memories and your life’s defining points? 

J: The process of making ‘Alex & Me’ what it is today and the opening up on a personal level has been a painful one. Being open, on the other hand, is very liberating and it allows me to be much freer for my next work, ‘The Artist and Japan’, which is a very self-critical work. When dealing with emotion sometimes I feel the male voice is understated – I’d like to think projects like ‘Alex & Me’ can address this situation – even if only for a few.

James Pfaff, from the series 'Alex & Me' James Pfaff, from ‘Alex & Me’. Photo: Erifili Gounari

E: ‘Alex & Me’ is described as a “tribute to a significant broken love”. Is keeping a relationship alive through art, be it photography or writing, an obstacle to change, or is it simply a way of immortalising something temporary, having moved on?

J: I am over Alex. The trip was the most critical period in my artistic life – the source of all water – and is the first body of work I have in my archive, so it was the right place to start my research when I wanted to make work. Also, I wanted the book to be a tribute to Alex, a way to say thank you to her.

E: Finally, if you’re comfortable answering this: what’s your relationship with Alex today, twenty years on from the events that inspired some of your most admired work?

J: It’s no secret that it all ended very badly. Alex and I have not spoken for some years now. I lost my closest friend and muse. Alex was involved with the production of the book and has always loved the photographs I made of her, but someone close to her didn’t like the publication, and she asked me not to publish. I went against her wish, and we broke off contact.

I think she made the right choice for herself and I can understand her. I consider this action to be the second most crucial moment in my artistic career. In the show, you can find my last words for now to Alex written for the small edition I made with my publisher (Danilo Montanari Editore) to coincide with my show at Street Level Photoworks. I hope that one day things can be better for us.

Read more about James Pfaff’s ‘Alex & Me’

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