Minneapolis still-life photographer Karl Herber talks Europe, pre-visualization and purity

Photographer Karl Herber rolls out prints of his work at his home in South Minneapolis on Oct. 15, 2016.

Maddy Fox

Photographer Karl Herber rolls out prints of his work at his home in South Minneapolis on Oct. 15, 2016.

Gunthar Reising

Karl Herber’s home doubles as an office — the walls are covered with photographs and paintings. Knick-knacks litter all available shelf space; Herber is a collector of memories.

In an artist statement, Herber explained his peculiar style and subjects. “I don’t understand a lot of what I do, but I don’t see comprehension to be a prerequisite for expression,” he wrote.

A&E sat down with Herber, a Minneapolis still-life photographer, to gain a little more insight into his “no thought process” thought process.

How did you get your start in photography?

I’ve been doing it in some form or another since I was a kid. There was a study abroad program in Salzburg, Austria. That was a pivotal year because I figured out that I can really do photography [as an occupation], and I became who I was as an artist.

What was it about your time in Europe that was so influential?

It was just really productive — seeing a lot of other work, taking a lot of photographs, being in Europe and having experiences. It slowly crystalized over the course of the year so that when I came back to the United States it all gelled.

What motivates your personal style and your subject?

I don’t pre-visualize. I don’t think to myself, ‘I’m going to go take pictures of trees.’ It works better if I’m out somewhere just responding. I like photographing in museums; I like shooting dioramas.

Inanimate objects are a consistent theme throughout your work. Why is that?

I don’t know why that is. When I’m in these stimulating environments … that’s when I feel like photographing. If I liked baseball, I would go shoot ballgames, but I like museums and cities.

The less I pre-visualize, the more pure my images get. I think I’ve always known that, I just haven’t trusted it.

Sometimes I feel like I’m taking the same pictures, but it’s like how you want your eggs done a certain way. I’m always going to be stimulated by these kinds of images.

With your still-life images, there’s almost a surreal feeling to these ordinary objects. How do you obtain that?

By getting closer — it’s a process of refinement and purification, stripping away all of the other stuff. I just use one lens; I always find myself wanting to get closer to subjects.

Purity is one of those overriding concepts that I think a lot about … purity and memory.

On your website there’s a portfolio called revisionist nonfiction — what do you mean by that?

It’s nonfiction because all the images are true — they all happened to me. It’s revisionist in the sense that I’m changing the story by putting the images in pairs.

Why do you think photography is important?

I don’t understand a lot of my work and that’s why I keep doing it — there’s some kind of curiosity or interest.

I think that art is a simple human activity, at least the art that I like. Artists like Mark Rothko have a purity to them. I’m not drawn to art that has a big story or requires context to appreciate it.

The other part is memory — our memories make us who we are. What you remember, what people remember about you … I don’t believe in an afterlife. We remember people, we remember life — that’s all we have.

I think photography is a way to record these things. [However,] it’s not a true recording; it’s fallible just like memory.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.