Nap Jamir II established himself as an emerging artist in 1970s Manila, the Philippines, and was selected as one of the young artists for the 1974 Thirteen Artists Award by the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. In keeping with the energy and spirit of the times, he was highly experimental with the photographic medium, playing with exposures and the physical form of the photograph for his work. Nap took a break from artistic work to concentrate on his commercial studio before turning his attention to filmmaking, working as a cinematographer for films such as Rizal sa Dapitan. In recent years, Nap has returned to his roots in photography and is currently working on a series of large-scale photographs that are ripped apart and reassembled into montages.
How did you first get into photography?
I really wanted to do cinema but I didn’t have access to a video camera so I thought I’d take pictures instead. In my mind, the way I take pictures is not just single images. One of the people that influenced me was Duane Michals and his sequential work which was very close to my heart at that time. It influenced me a lot. Even work by Arthur Tress because of the Surrealistic style. Duane Michaels is also Surrealistic too at times.
Back in the 1970s, things must have felt very fresh and exciting for a young artist.
Yes, it was. For me, as a student, I came into college in 1968 at 15 1/2. It was a mind-blowing experience, especially since I came from an all-male traditional Jesuit school. At that time, I wasn’t even into photography but poetry and literature, that was my thing. Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg. It was a strange time. We had to go through a change from the traditions of the college and we were influenced by the Beat generation, Woodstock and all the mind-bending things that came along. We grew our hair long and tried to refuse military training, which was mandatory.
In my second or third year, I was part of an organisation called Words and Music. We wanted projection screens of images and literary text. They found out my dad is a photographer so they said, here, you take the pictures.
Were you already taking photographs?
No. So I went to my dad to teach me and he gave me all this stuff to read. It started from there. Some people say it’s essentially there, in your skin, you just don’t know it. But from the moment I picked up the camera, I never let it go. From there on, I started taking pictures. But my friends and I wanted to do film, photography was just on the side. They were non-traditional filmmakers, avant-garde artists of their time. We used to do a lot of experimental film and that was also an influence on me. I also really loved literature and read a lot growing up.
You come from an artistic family, which has contributed to your own growth as an artist. Can you tell us about that.
My dad was a photographer and my mum was a writer. My dad was once the leading architectural photographer in the Philippines. That was in the 1960s, 50 years ago. If you look at his prints now, you’d think it was just printed yesterday. I’d help my dad on the periphery, washing his prints. Those were some of the things that I had picked up.
We lived in an artistic environment, my dad’s friends were painters and a couple of them were national artists. I would interact with them and they taught me how to draw at a young age. At that time, there was no traditional route to doing photography in the Philippines. I went to an American school growing up so I had a very mixed environment.
What were your impressions or thoughts about photography at that time? What were you trying to do with it?
It was never a mission thing for me in photography. I didn’t really care about that. I wasn’t good at drawing so I took pictures instead. Photography allowed me to make images that I could take and create. It was also interesting because it was like directing and creating your own tableaux or small movie.
What are your influences?
My photographs are a by-product of my cinematic influences. When I was just starting, I was influenced by the Surrealists. I love Magritte, Man Ray, Eugene Atget. I started with single images and then moved on to double exposures. When I saw Duane Michaels’ work, I was inspired and shifted my work towards that.
There was a lot of experimenting and you were having fun with photography.
Definitely. I guess art now is a very codified process. For me at that time, I didn’t really care to categorise what I was doing. I wanted to do images of people’s faces burning but I couldn’t talk to anybody so I said ok, I’ve got a tripod and a timer so I’ll just use myself as a subject. My first series, which I call Auto-Retratos, was myself in the kitchen with a knife and blood flowing out of the frame. I had a two-dimensional picture, so I thought, why not make it three dimensional? The action within the frame and outside of it. What’s next? We are looking at the physicality of photography and it is a self-portrait, so why don’t I take the context of the photograph and the photographic paper and tear my face out? Which I did. I took the concept of long exposure and blurred movement, so it had a cinematic quality to it. That’s one series. It was things like that that I was fooling around with.
It’s really more about the process and the elements for me. I wasn’t so much aware of the content at that time or the single image or the defining moment. For me, it was the process and experimenting with it. At the same time, I was beginning to do commercial work and the quality of the work was very professional.
What came after this body of work?
After the sequences, I started doing the Photo-Me and the Xerox series. Every time I had a show it was different – a different material, a different approach. I was like a person on fire. All this was going on at the same time as what was going on abroad. I started getting into conceptual pieces. It was really the process, not the content, that mattered to me.
After my Foto-Me stuff, I found a cache of my grandmother’s graduation photos. They were shot with 4×5. They were really old in old traditional clothes. I took them and Xeroxed and Xeroxed and Xeroxed them until there was nothing left. I Crayola-ed on it, put ink on it, I scratched it up and cut it up. At that point, I was influenced by Helen Frankenthaler and her paintings. So I’d do that, I’ll drip paint on photographs and drew on them.
I went back to my sequential work and started doing an interpretation of passages from Jorge Luis Borges and his Surrealistic writings. And at that stage, I was also doing printmaking. The curator of the CCP took my work and put it in their Biennale. I was doing all this crazy stuff.
Your portfolio also includes straight photography. The street photographs have a noir feel to them.
I went to Europe in 1978/1979 and started doing straight photography. It was a strange coincidence that when I left for Europe, I forgot to bring my glasses and only brought my sunglasses. People probably thought it was an affectation but I’d just forgotten to bring my glasses along! I started taking pictures and everything was dark to me but when processed them, they didn’t look like how I saw them so I started fiddling around with them, underexposing them until it was closer to how I remembered them. I had a show when I got back and even brought them to Magnum for a critique. They said they were great but the photos belonged to an art gallery! It’s not for us. I said it’s fine, I just wanted a validation of what I was doing.
At that time, I thought why not become a photojournalist and so I started taking pictures like that. But again, the process person in me was more interested in what else I could do with the pictures. I started doing landscape photos on a large format camera and I’d do time exposures. So everything I shot would be really sharp except for some parts. That’s the thing that I started doing. And again, it’s always dark.
After that, I thought I’d already done sharp, I’ve done blurred, so why not combine both? I started shooting the religious processions on Good Friday for nine years. I shot with a flash at half a second, so everything is blurred but for a face or a hand. That was the last permutation that I was working on. After that, I said, enough of this stuff!
When did you make the shift from doing experimental to commercial work?
I wasn’t really making money and was partially subsidised by my parents. I started out doing small commercial work like audio video presentations and was getting some money. I started doing more of that kind of work. At that time, I already had my studio with my partner and it was taking off. We were art-based photographers doing advertising so our mindset was a little different and the advertising people liked it. We became the biggest studio in the country for awhile. We introduced the concept of more art-related shots in advertising. I was doing a lot of fashion at that time and my fashion shoots were kind of strange. One of my fashion idols is Nick Knight. He has an art mindset and is successful.
What was the point of departure from that into cinema?
It was a natural progression. I was already doing cinematography for advertising. I had a friend who was a director who asked me to light for his film. I have a background in film. I never stopped. I was well-versed in cinema so it was a natural transition. So I started shooting and directing for advertising. It was good money. That eventually took 80 – 90% of my time. It was fun. As a director, you have bigger control of the material even if it’s an advertisement and you are beholden to your clients, you could still play around. And that’s what I did. The kind of work I did wasn’t so cut and dried.
Now that you are re-entering the photo scene, are you seeing a lot of changes?
Yes, but within the context of where I am, it’s still very pictorial. Within the Philippines, it’s good for artists and also photographers now. Isa Lorenzo from Silverlens Gallery started there. There are people supporting photography like MM Yu. Frank Callahan is doing stuff like Stephen Shore. But it’s not much like what I do. I stopped doing photography for 20 years because I was doing advertising. It was a big break after these permutations and processes in photography.
Things are different now within the art world and you’re required to have an artist statement to accompany the work.
Yeah, I know and now what justifies the work is what’s written in the statement but when I look at the work, I’m not moved.
Why did you get back into photography?
I’ve been doing some documentary, or essay, work all the while but the most radical shift I had was when I started tearing up my photographs. This was in 2006 when I was thinking, what can I do that’s different? I was doing figures and manipulating the images so they’d look like lithographs. It’s interesting but if I show them, so what? Again, I have to be physical about it. So I tear up the pictures and layer them over each other. You will see different layers but from the right spots, you can see the entire image or collage. The prints are huge, 20×24, some are 50×30. The tearing has become an obsession for me. I’d tear wide side up and I’d tear wide side down, and I’d tear thick, and I’d tear thin. I played around with that, it’s very graphic. In my old house, I have high ceilings so I’d stand on the walkway that led to the bedroom and look down at the work. It’s on-going work. I think this work will define me, it’s worth being a Nap Jamir.
When’s the exhibition for this work?
I don’t know. Once I do the stuff! (Laughs) Again, I’m like your old-fashioned artist, so when it’s there, it’s there. When I feel it’s right.
Have you made any photobooks of your work?
Not at all. I’m asking (Zhuang) Wubin to help me out here. But for me, I would rather print my dad’s work first. And my mom’s book. At that time, she was the leading expert on the Philippines’ colonial furniture. I’d do my parents’ books then I can do my book.
Published 7 June 2017
*The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.