At the beginning of the seventies, Pier 18 was an abandoned pier on
Manhattans west side which turned its back on the soaring vertigo of the
citys business and financial centre.
On the initiative of Willoughby Sharp, the guru of Concept Art, 27
artists were invited to prepare a performance or define an idea that they
would then enact in front of Harry Shunks camera.
As a general rule, photography. in the eyes of Concept Art, is a lingering
imprint basically comprised of the potentiality of recording and preserving
things of an ephemeral nature. In this case, and without exception, Harry
Shunks photographs arc quite magnificent, pouring light, in a range of
contrasted tones and through a meticulously clear-cut effect, on the plastic
beauty of the Pier itself and the sumptuous backdrop of Manhattans skyscrapers.
Each performance is dissected in accordance with the parameters defined
earlier by the artist, then focused and recorded by a highly sensitive
Concept Art is here an art of calculation which proceeds by scanning
time and space. Most of the performances required the physical presence
of the artist concerned, in an attempt to forge an equation between a formal
statement and its implementation, a concept which derives from avant-gardist
commitment, artistic involvement - and humour.
Loic Malle: When and how did you start taking photographs?
Harry Shunk: At age 15. after seeing an affich at the Alliance Francaise
in Paris, I became assistant to the Austrian photographer Madame Dora
(Dora Kallmus), who was then 86 years old and, at that time, was working
on an exhibition about slaughterhouses around Paris. This was all extremely
bewildering for me. since I had no idea how to expose correctly, nor even
how to open her Rolleiflex to put the film in! But somehow it worked out.
I remember, in order to keep me (she paid very little money), she used
to flatter me, saying things like tu as un bon sens de cadrage and it
worked: I stayed with her for almost 2 years.
Did you start doing artists portraits right form the beginning?
I was quite taken by her enthusiasm.
In spite for her age, she constantly talked about future projects.
When I told her that I would like to become a photographer myself,
she first gave me a giffle (really!) and then told me: well, if you most,
find a collaborator, who is on the same level and then work with artists.
Itll be much easier. If you make a mistake, they might even find the result
interesting. She also told me to he careful, there must he about 30 000
artists working in Paris, so dont get lost.
I tried to follow her advice to the letter.
Where you already familiar with the art world before becoming a photographer
Not really, but I had close friend, Dora Tuynman, who was a Dutch artist
and through her I got to know several Dutch artists and their work.
Where did you get the idea of photographing artists in action rather
than doing traditional portraits for which they posed?
It just happened.
How did you get involved with artists from the New Realist, Fluxus
and Pop Art movements at the very outset of your career ?
The very first artist Iris Clert exhibited was Dora Tuynman, who introduced
me to Yves Klein, who passed me on to Jean Tinguely, and so on.
Later I attached myself to several galleries I liked: Galerie
J. Iolas, Sonnabend, etc,
How did you become an integral part of this family of avant-garde
Again, this just happened.
It was thrilling to live closely with the Tinguely clan, for instance.
Often we even slept there or travelled with them.
I remember bringing several works of Niki de Saint-Phalle by
car to Stockholm (for Pontus Holtens Movment exhibition). We also had
2 guns and 1 revolver for Niki hidden under the paintings and there were
5 borders to cross ! We tried not to look like terrorists and fortunately
were never searched.
PIER 18 Project
How did the idea of Pier 18 first come about?
It was Willoughhy Sharps idea.
How did you choose the artists who were to participate ?
We talked it over.
Were they already well-known ?
Some were, others were hardly known at the time.
Did any of those invited refuse to participate in this conceptual
Who were the most enthusiastic ?
The most excited was definitely Vito Acconci,
Who just started at that moment with his first performances.
Which artists actually came to New York ? Did those who
couldnt come entrust you with carrying out their performances ?
All the artists from New York. California and Canada came, except William
Larry Weiner, who were in Europe. Other Europeans who couldnt come:
Jan Dibbets. Mario Merz and Daniel Buren.
This conceptual project seems to have very humann and humorous
sides to it. Was having fun supposed to be part of the project or indeed
of the concept itself ?
It was great fun and that was certainly part of the project.
It also seems that this type of project was typical of what
was happening on the New York art scene at the time. Is that true ?
Yes. This was a very invigorating time to work in New York.
Did you meet with any difficulties when carrying out the project,
either with getting it organized or from a purely technical point
of view ?
Not really. And it all went quite quickly. There were 27 artists and
each event was carried out and recorded in one afternoon or one day at
John Baldessari, for example, was so exuberant, during a couple of
hours he performed about 10 different events to choose from. The only one
I found rather difficult was Richard Serras piece. This was also the only
time we had to come back a second day.
Were you free to apply your own photographic interpretation ?
What kind o/ instructions or recommendations did the artists prepare
for you ?
Except for the written instructions at the beginning of each sequence.
I was on may own.
Of course. I tried to adhere to the artists vision as closely as possible.
Also, some instructions were much more strictly defined than others. Jan
Dibbets series going from light to dark, as the sun goes down, etc. had
very precise instructions.
Where as Mario Merz just asked for 20 art photos, leaving it entirely
up to the photographer.
How was it that the project immediately became a MOMA-exhibition
and what was publics response ?
By accident, Jennifer Licht and Kynastan McShine happened to see some
of the finished prints in my studio and proposed to show the whole project
during the summer months at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The shouting was done in February and March 1971, I developed and enlarged
all the prints during May and installed the exhibition with Jennifer Licht
(then Associate Curator at MOMA) end of June 1971.
1 dont really know how the exhibition was perceived, because immediately
after the installation, two days before the opening. I had to leave for
Colorado to work on Christos Valley Curtain.
Have you worked on any other projects of this type ?
Yes but nothing similar to the Pier 18 Project. This collaboration
was just right at the time and exactly suited to the nature of Concept