Getting to the Gateway to the Underworld and Inners of Alexander Binder

Binder spent three years making these photos, with endless trips down south to Sicily and the Aeolian Islands. Initially inspired by Iceland’s volcanoes, he spent days and nights lurking through Italy’s volcanic wasteland, watching the elemental forces...

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Oct 21 2013, 12:46pm

He was born on Halloween in the Black Forest. Loving all things spooky, the self-taught German photographer Alexander Binder just finished his latest series of photographs which brought him to the foot of exploding volcanoes, a series called Das Innere.

In German, the name refers to the inner or interior of something. Typically, the soul, but there’s no way of knowing. This series—just like Binder’s past work—explores dark subjects through psychedelic splashes of color, fusing the line between fantasy and the real. This stuff is based on the contrast between color and black-and-white, as a series in two parts: Solar is the color series filled with dreamy clouds, cats, and bumblebees while Sulphur is a black-and-white peek into something darker.

Binder spent three years making these photos, with endless trips down south to Sicily and the Aeolian Islands. Initially inspired by Iceland’s volcanoes, he spent days and nights lurking through Italy’s volcanic wasteland, watching the elemental forces at work and capturing unique moments that somehow feel timeless.

The photos have a weird look to them: Binder is known for using optical toys, old Soviet cameras, oh and sprinkling the photos with magic dust. There is a mystical, sugared quality to this surrealism, which feel dowsed in occultism.

Binder says dreams and nightmares are the same thing, it depends how you read them. Since he was curated into a portrait series by Tim Barber, he has premiered his new series at Lookout Gallery in Warsaw, launched a scarf line, and talked to us about visiting the Phlegraean Fields, which was once believed to be the gateway of the underworld.

VICE: What have you been up to since the Tim Barber-curated shoot you did?
Alexander Binder: “Ten pages of portraits” was actually my first feature in VICE magazine and it helped to introduce my photography to a larger audience. Since then, I’ve worked on countless projects, exhibited my photos all over Europe and the US, and, of course, I traveled a lot. I went to Iceland, Israel, Italy, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, I collaborated with bands and designers, met many artists, magazines published my images, I released books and zines—and most important, I had the pleasure to work with a bunch of passionate people from various backgrounds.

Das Innereis a photo series divided into two parts: color and black-and-white. You continue your positive and negative, good and evil duality in your series, here is it defined by before and after? Inner and outer? Dead or alive?
I guess it’s a combination of all the extremes that you mentioned. On a formal level, it’s the contrast between color and black-and-white, but I wouldn’t go as far as to describe the black-and-white series as the “negative” and the color images as the “positive” part. It’s just a different view on the same occurrence. For example volcano images can be found in both parts. One time they are bright explosions with wonderful colors and the other time they are dark symbols of the apocalypse. So at the end of the day, everything on our earth carries these extremes. Dreams and nightmares are the same. It’s just our individual interpretation that makes the difference. 

What was it like traveling to Sicily and the Aeolian Islands over the past few years? Why did you choose that location for shooting?
There were two influences that motivated me to travel to these wonderful places. During my stay in Iceland, I discovered my fascination with volcanoes. Southern Italy, especially Sicily and the Aeolian Islands, are definitely the place to be when you are into lava and sulfur smoke. Ancient cultures even believed that the volcanic area around Naples, the Phlegraean Fields, was the gateway to hell. The other reason was a phenomenon called Italienschwärmerei. It describes the passion of people from Northern Europe for the Italian lifestyle, culture, history, and the unique countryside. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a lot of German painters, writers, and musicians traveled to Italy. After spending so much time of my life in the Black Forest, I thought it might be a good idea to follow this trail.

Do you believe in the unseen, a mystical counterpart to our world? Are ghosts a theme in your work?
We live in a superficial, technology-dominated time, which is just focused on the material world. So, I really hope that there is a mystical counterpart. I mean, I am not a medium or a seer—but there were situations where I got the impression that something otherworldly exists, something we cannot see or photograph. In those rare moments, my small and unimportant life felt much richer. It wasn’t about the popular concept of a “ghost,” it had much more to do with the force of the elements that I could literally feel on a much higher than just a physical level. By the way, the eerie creatures on my photos aren’t ghosts. They are the strange beings that populate my nightmares, dark memories that crawl out of my subconsciousness. 

Did any spooky shit happen on your travels while shooting for this series?
One night at Stromboli Island was actually pretty spooky. I walked up to the foot of the volcano in the evening and stayed there until it got dark and all the other spectators were gone. While sitting there completely alone, waiting with my camera for the perfect volcanic eruption, a heavy thunderstorm approached over the Mediterranean Sea. The waves down at the beach got bigger and bigger, the stormy wind whirled up the ashes and countless flashes of lightning illuminated the whole scenery. At the same moment, Stromboli suddenly spewed out its magma with tremendous noise. For me it felt like being in the middle of the apocalypse—flashes of lightning and glowing lava in the sky, black ash in my face and the stormy, dark sea all around the small island. Compared to this night, the Sicilian crypts with their mummified bodies were contemplative places.

In German, Das Innere means being on the inside of something. In part, is this series about an inner world?
First of all it’s about the inner of the earth, about magma and the forces of nature. But on a more abstract level, Das Innere is also about the inner world of man. The photos document various emotional states like fear, anxiety, despair, joy and hope—thus they also portray the inner of my soul.

How close were you to the erupting volcanoes? Was it safe or dangerous?
With the help of an experienced guide you get pretty close to the volcanoes. There may always be a risk, when you are hiking on volcanic ground, but as long as you listen to the local people and stay on the official paths, it doesn’t seem to be really dangerous.

What did you learn about the forces of nature?
Be careful.

Your photos look like paintings, is it more about the process than the product for you?
I draw my inspiration mainly from painters of the Symbolist and the Romantic art movements. So, I guess this may have a strong influence on my works. In the past, I would have answered that the process and the product are equally important. But in the more recent years, my personal experience while taking the photographs has gained a lot more relevance for me. Today the final image seems to be only a snapshot of a much more complex, multilayered process.

What is it about the altered-focus photo surrealism you love so much?
It is the same thing like with good horror movies. They just indicate a terrible event, but they do not really show it. My blurry and diffuse photos also leave a lot of room for the imagination of the viewer. The images don’t look like sharp, professional, high-end photos—they look exactly like the vague memories that I have in my mind.

Alex, what is next for you—other than celebrating your birthday on Halloween?
I avoid making plans. Plans for the future always feel like a burden because they put so much pressure on me. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to working on new images. Everything’s in its early stages, but I hope to release a new photo publication at the end of 2014. As far as I can judge it from now, it will be some kind of nature book, a psychedelic ode to the woods. Besides all this photo-related stuff, I discovered my passion for short, sad, and surreal poems. My texts are still very bad, so maybe I will never share them with anybody else… but writing is another good way to pass time.

@nadjasayej

More spooky tales:

An Interview with a Witch

Voodoo Zombies

Magic Jews

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