There’s just too much going on in modern life. We are constantly inundated with news and information, responsibilities, and messages from any number of programs and apps. Technology has both helped and hindered the situation - it’s just overwhelming at times. One of the things I admire most about photography, and photographers, is their ability to make us take the time to stop, if only for a moment, and take in an art form that gets your blood moving and makes those brain cells fire off. True, that art in general does this, actually, but photography has so much nuance, that it works for me better than anything else. The chance to sit back, relax, and take in the world at your own pace is a luxury, and it’s in the photographs of Hengki Koentjoro that I find that solace. A master of the black and white photographic medium, his photographs give me the time and the chance to appreciate the world around me, and in the same instance, discover what this planet has to offer. Seriously, these images make my mouth drop. I’m thrilled to be able to offer this interview up to the reader.
Additionally, concepts of time and memory come into play during these moments of relaxation, and during one of these times in particular I realized something I had not known until recently. Now, this is simply a side note by the way, but funny to me nonetheless - I discovered that Hengki and I had some crossover time while we both attended Brooks Institute of Photography. Since I never let anyone read these intros beforehand, it is only just now that he is learning of this. It wasn't long, but for about a year we were both driving the streets of Santa Barbara, attending classes, and spending innumerable hours in the darkrooms while learning to refine our skills at an early age. Yet, I don’t know that we had ever crossed paths while there together. Looking back, I find it interesting how one’s creative process can take you down such a different road after receiving so much of the same information early in your career. Sure, there are many factors, but when it’s so close to home it makes you take pause again and realize you have many questions about how this happens. Thankfully, Hengki and I have unknowingly reconnected and now have the chance to address some of these questions. Good timing, right? I also wonder if I ever pissed him off with my loud music, skateboarding in the halls, or general obnoxiousness….we may never know….(but probably). Thank you, sir, for putting up with me then, and now.
Hengki Koentjoro is an accomplished photographer, specializing in capturing the spectral domain that lies amidst the shades of black and white. Born in Semarang, Central Java, Indonesia on March 24th 1963, he proceeded to pursue further education in Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California—an expedition that plunged him into the professional arena of video production and fine art photography. Childhood introduction to camera on his 11th birthday is by now an earnest love affair that involves an elaborate choreography of composition, texture, shapes and lines.
Upon his return to Indonesia, Hengki settles in Jakarta as a freelance videographer and video editor for nature documentaries and corporate profiles. Delving into what he believes to be his true purpose in life's journey of expression, he indulge himself in the art of black and white photography on the side. Exploring along the borderlines of light and shadow, yin and yang. Celebrating complexity in the minimalist. Diving into the spiritual in the physical.
"Photography can never be separated from the aspects of making the common things unusual, welcoming the unexpected, indulging and embracing ourselves with the joy of photography"—Hengki Koentjoro, 2013
Michael Kirchoff: Every photographer experiences that spark that drives him or her into the direction of image making. How did you get your start, and who or what were your early influences?
Hengki Koentjoro: That unique spark came from looking at the works of the master himself, Ansel Adams. I’d seen his original works in a gallery in Carmel, California. That tonality and the details of a large format camera just hypnotized my conscious mind. Never in my dreams did I think black and white photography could be so beautiful and full of spirit and soul. It communicates not just technically, but aesthetically as well. I was in the U.S. during that time working on another university major and decided to pursue this dream. Not long after that I attended a photography school in Santa Barbara, Brooks Institute of Photography.
MK: What led you to undertake your photographic education at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California? This is such a major move from Indonesia, and I wonder how the U.S. cultural influence may have contributed to your photographic work?
HK: The best thing about a school is the atmosphere they provide. Everybody has the same passion as you do and it helps a lot in energizing you to push much further. However, the most important thing is the discipline they teach you, as well as the problem solving that is needed to face the real world. Being in California helped a lot because most of Ansel Adams’ master works were photographed in the Yosemite National Park area. I was blessed to be able to travel around California pursuing my dream.
MK: You’ve led a professional life in video production and editing since returning home to Indonesia after your education in the U.S. What increased your interest in fine art photography during this time, and do you feel that your professional side informed your blossoming fine art side in the early days?
HK: The video works require you to travel around the huge Indonesian archipelago with 17,000 islands at your disposal. You can’t ask for anything better, especially when your passion is in photography. I’ve always stayed an extra week on location to explore the surrounding area with my SLR camera and film. Fine art photography is a hobby, so it is something that comes out of you automatically; it is something that you just have to have. Photography is the tool to communicate, and black and white is the style that suitable conveys ones spirit or soul. It is timeless, atmospheric, and pliable, especially in playing with tonality.
MK: You are known primarily as a photographer solely creating black and white images. Is there ever an interest in working in color, or is the pull of the monochromatic world too strong to lure you away, if only for a moment?
HK: Mysticism and mystery are the moods that I like to portray in most of my works, and black and white communicates this perfectly. However, never say never, as the color world is very tempting, especially in an abstract style. Maybe one day, but at this moment black and white is still my prima donna. I think the difference between color and black and white is not that important, as long as your work has the soul that can be understood or enjoyed by others. The rest is secondary.
MK: I see that you are a Hasselblad Ambassador. What did it take to achieve this title, and how has it been working with a company with such a hallowed legacy in photography?
HK: I received a Master title from Hasselblad from a competition back in 2014, and from there things just materialized as they elected me for an ambassadorship. The relationship has been good, as they provide me with an X1D camera, as well as post some of my portfolios on their official website and social media. I’ve had much exposure around the world because of that, and last year I was invited to Photokina for an exhibition and artist talk. There are some huge differences in terms of sensor sizes with medium format compared to a regular DSLR - 67% bigger. I love this camera because of the better dynamic range, and also the ability to blow up the image to a much bigger print size with greater detail and clarity.
MK: Clearly, at the start of your career you worked only with film. What led to the decision to begin using digital technology in your fine art work, and do you feel like it has had any significant visual impact on your photographs?
HK: I don’t see any big difference between the two other than the grain that film possesses. However, in terms of cost and efficiency, I think digital is better. Post processing during the black and white conversion is also important in my workflow, and there I can always add grain to simulate my favorite film. At the end of the day it is the final image that matters - if it conveys the message, then I’m home free.
MK: What is it about your creative process that you feel is represented most significantly in your photographs?
HK: Composition and lighting. My lighting always works best in the early morning or late afternoon. This is the time when the sun creates long and deep shadows, perfect for the mood I try to convey. It has depth and gives the photograph a sense of the third dimension.
MK: Was there a specific point in time where you felt that you had found your voice in photography and became satisfied with the direction of your work? Do you ever truly find yourself in a good place with your images, or are you always searching for more?
HK: I don’t think I would stop in one direction. There are simply so many routes available out there, and they are all good. I never really pay too much attention to style and direction; they just limit your movement. I really like to photograph whatever I find in nature or on the street, and start from there - whether it's a long exposure or street photography or abstract. I hope I will continue to search for more as long as possible; photography is fun, so the childlike spirit in you can take over to do the playing. It is the playing, Free Play, that one should dedicate their time to, more than the final result. Most of the time when you have fun doing it, the result will expose a positive result.
MK: Do you, or have you ever experienced any sort of creative block during your career? What do you feel would be the best way to overcome these types of feelings?
HK: I usually stop and take a break for a couple of months. I’m a video maker as well, so it is a very good diversion to break the cycle. Another way is to be inspired by other photographers. There are a lot out there and the reverence is endless.
MK: What steps do you take to find an audience for your photographs? Do you find that social media is a part of this process, or is the personal connection always the best means for connecting with others?
HK: Social media is the great tool for advertising your product, because almost everyone on earth is connected thru the Internet via mobile phones. Personal connection is always important. Gallery representation is important, as they know the market real well and most have clients with specific favorites of photographs. Exhibitions, workshops and publications are other traditional ways to enhance ones exposure to the masses.
MK: The majority of your work is of the natural environment, and contains timelessness through long exposure and impeccable composition. Are these the components you look for while out making photographs, or are you merely responding to your surroundings and capturing what feels right at any given moment? I suppose what I’m really asking is, is there a specific goal or checklist you keep in mind while out in the field?
HK: No, I never have a checklist, but at least I know what is the specialty on a specific location. Whatever I find is “que sera sera”. The one thing that I’ve learned is that you let nature do the talking and make sure you catch the moment and expose it correctly on your camera. I try not to have too many expectations. Remember this is your hobby/passion that you should have fun doing, and make sure you get lost in the beauty of Mother Nature. So far she rarely disappoints.
MK: I know that Indonesia, where most of your work is photographed, is a vast treasure trove of beautiful and mysterious locations. Is there any desire to begin working in other locales, or perhaps that’s something that has already been started?
HK: I love Hokkaido in the northern part of Japan. The snow and the Cranes are my favorite subjects to photograph. It is the best time to do a minimalist style, playing with negative spaces to hopefully convey the message that less is more. There are so many places to visit in such a short time.
MK: Anyone working in an artistic field has matured and grown over time. Is there anything you’ve discovered lately that you’d like people to know about you or your creative process?
HK: Just be honest to yourself and only photograph what you love the most. I think you cannot go wrong with passion, and if you do it persistently, then it begets success.
MK: Other than the visual arts, do you have any other creative pursuits?
HK: Not at the moment, just photography, with so many places to travel and many techniques to pursue.
MK: I always like to ask those with a lifetime of experience in photography if they have any thoughts or advice for those willing to take the plunge into photography as a career. Any words of wisdom?
HK: Have fun doing it, because Free Play is the only way to play.
MK: How do you see your work progressing into the future? Do you have anything new you are currently working on that we should be on the lookout for?
HK: I just keep photographing and exercising my passion. A book or two and some exhibitions here and there are in the works.
You can find more of Hengki's work at his website here.