Studio Visit: Romke Hoogwaerts

Words: Kathleen Hefty
Images: Sergiy Barchuk

July 24 2016

Romke Hoogwaerts’s Brooklyn basement is filled with boxes, which are filled with books, mailing tubes, posters, and address labels.

Like many in the months following a successful crowdfunding campaign, he has a long list of rewards to mail out to the supporters who donated to the cause. In Hoogwaerts’s case, this means to the hundreds who helped cover the printing costs of Mossless, his photography publication now in its fourth issue. Released in conjunction with the International Center of Photography’s inaugural exhibition at their new space on the Bowery, Mossless 4: Public Private Portrait highlights artists producing imagery that straddles the line between public and private spheres and questions how that distinction influences notions of identity and the authenticity of an image.

Hoogwaerts caught the photography bug as a teenager living in Singapore, as many kids do — via skateboarding. “[Skateboarding and photography] go hand-in-hand. It’s like a performance art, and documentation is a big part of it,” he muses. He launched Mossless as a blog during his last year of high school and it went continued to grow while he was at the School of Visual Arts, where he studied Cinematography and Visual and Critical Studies. For the next four years, Mossless featured an interview with a photographer every two days—a unique set of four questions and an image for each. More than 300 photographers later, Mossless went to print.

Within an artistic climate saturated with talented photographers and social outlets to immediately disseminate their work, Hoogwaerts — a photographer as well as publisher and editor — channels his energy into independent platforms to exhibit innovative contemporary photography. “I figured with the state that the industry is in and how many photographers there are, my skills would be better served as a kind of community organizer,” he explains. “What I really want to do is give them a stage, because I feel like there aren’t enough stages, even though it feels like there are more than enough sometimes” In addition to Mossless, Hoogwaerts has self-published a number of small photography books and helped curate the Independent Photography Festival’s first New York outpost last year. “It’s a lot of fun, really low key and all independent,” he notes of the global festival based in Australia.

For Mossless 4, Hoogwaerts explains he “wanted the themes to be fresh, unvisited at this point because privacy in photography isn’t necessarily new.” He has seen too many exhibitions and publications that address the issue of surveillance. Instead he wanted to “move past that and look at work that’s curious about moving the line of what is public and what is private,” which he sees as a great distinction in photography made within the last ten years. “We live in a social setting of people exposing themselves online,” he states. “In a personal sense, we take privacy with us in our smart phones. Now we don’t know where privacy starts and stops and there are a lot of artists who make work that waxes that.” He is interested in looking at our habitual self-portraiture and how it reflects an “absurdist fictional” aspect about all of us. Social media has clearly changed our personal relationship with photography, and with that, depictions of the self have take on an entirely new context. “They’re platforms in which we represent ourselves and we sometimes do that in fictional ways. Some people do it more than others; some people don’t do it at all. It’s still read in a way that’s abstracted from reality,” he ponders.

ICP Curator-in-Residence Charlotte Cotton approached Hoogwaerts at last September’s Printed Matter Art Book Fair with the proposal of creating a special issue to correspond with the exhibition Public, Private, Secret. “I think photography in New York could always use more community spaces, and that’s something that ICP is making a real attempt towards,” Hoogwaerts says, adding “It’s pretty clear that they’re trying to build a space that can house a lot of different ideas.” Hoogwaerts explains that Cotton “wanted to collaborate in a way that brought different voices—something that spoke to [the new exhibition space] but wasn’t necessarily a component of [the exhibition].” Though they developed their respective themes independently of one another, the results were almost identical. “I came up with the concept Public Private Portrait [before I knew] the exhibition title, which is Public Private Secret. That was totally unintentional but it really works. It’s funny, it kind of came together and we realized we had a lot of the same ideas.” Like ICP’s new space, Hoogwaerts’s exhibitions—whether in print or in-person—serve as didactic spaces where an exchange of ideas is just as important as the images themselves.

Kathleen Hefty is a writer and editor based in New York City.

Sergiy Barchuk is a photographer based in Brooklyn. You can find more of his work online and via instagram.