by Thieu Riemen

© Kai Caemmerer, 'Unborn Cities', No.17, 2015. 55 x 70 inches. Pigment print 

Tell us about your approach to photography. How it all started? What are your memories of your first shots?

Kai Caemmerer (KC): Some of my first memories were actually not of photographs I made, but of negatives I learned to print with. My father was a photographer, and I learned to print using his negatives of baroque Roman architecture. Not knowing or caring to ask where these photos were physically taken, I think, made me particularly aware of and fascinated by how dramatically the photographs changed depending on how they were cropped or printed, and how much control I had with a medium that appeared so specific.

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

KC: My interests became increasingly concentrated around architecture and urban space. I studied furniture and interior design for a few years and was always intrigued by the roll of photography in depicting architecture and interior space; how particular vantage points were used as expressions of how a space or building should look, or with renderings and conceptual drawings, how a space or building could look. To me, these felt like very photographic concerns and I realized that I could contribute to architecture and design through photography, by making photographs that functioned on levels other than straight documentation. At present, I try to make photographs that function not as documents, but rather as reflections or micro-fictions about how a space seems or what kind of response it evokes.

© Kai Caemmerer, 'Sites', No.57, 2014. 40 x 50 inches. Pigment print

Tell us about your educational path. What are your best memories of your studies? What was your relationship with photography at that time?  

KC: As I mentioned above, I studied design for a number of years before refocusing my efforts into photography. I studied for a BA in photography at Western Washington University in Washington State. During this time I began working commercially as an architectural photographer, which was interesting because I was being exposed to very different aesthetic expectations in a cross-disciplinary art school than what was being requested from me by clients. Seeking a larger artistic community, I moved to Chicago in 2013.  I will complete my MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago in April of 2016.  

What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social networking?

KC: I find it exciting and overwhelming - The diversity of audience, and their immediate access to an artist’s work is, to me, exciting on one hand and disappointing on the other.  Nearly everyone with a screen has access to a photographer’s work, and that’s exciting.  But at the same time, it requires very little engagement or follow-through on the viewer's end. I think that this ease of access often breeds a lack of understanding or an unwillingness to investigate an artist’s work. Comparing my website analytics to the estimated number of visitors who’ve seen my work at recent exhibitions, it’s amazing to think that over 95% of people who are familiar with my large format film photographs have experienced them at 72dpi on an uncalibrated monitor or iPhone.

We’ve seen work that pushes back against the digital realm, and work that embraces a wholly digital experience, but I’m more excited by the idea of work that seamlessly bridges the gap - work that acknowledges differences between the digital and physical experience, but remains intentional and successful regardless of where and how you see it.

© Kai Caemmerer, 'Sites', No.63, 2013. 40 x 50 inches. Pigment print

I also think that the notion of universal immediate access will begin to reshape the education of photography, if it hasn’t already. Much of the fundamental curriculum in photography schools has been adapted from traditional darkroom classes, where students often had their first experiences with photography while in class.  Most students now have had a camera in their pocket for ten years by the time they reach their first photography class in college - I think that this needs to be reflected in the curriculum.         

About your work now. How would you describe your personal research in general? 

KC: Much of my personal research revolves around architecture, the development of urban space, and photography’s relationship to both. I’m interested in the intersection between photography and this type of landscape – how photographs can decipher or distill complex urban landscapes, or how they can transform mundane and simplistic scenes into something complex and provoking.

© Kai Caemmerer, 'Sites', No.99, 2015. 40 x 50 inches. Pigment print

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format? 

KC: I almost exclusively use a 4x5 field camera.  I prefer to print at a fairly large scale, and since my work is architectural, I almost always utilize movements offered by the view camera.  Working with such an obsolete piece of equipment is time consuming and unnecessarily expensive, but I think it forces a level of engagement that a more rapid process might not. Sometimes I’ll have to spend two or three months thinking about a photograph that I’ve made before I even get to develop the film; even if the picture doesn’t turn out, I’ve usually learned something insightful during the time I’ve spent thinking about it.  

Tell us about your latest project, 'Unborn Cities'...

KC: 'Unborn Cities' is a body of work that explores the architectural structures and physical growth of new cities located in inner-mainland China. Unlike many Western cities that begin as small developments and grow in accordance to the local industries, gathering community and history as they age, these areas are built to the point of near completion before introducing people. Because of this, there is an interim period between the final phases of development and when the areas become noticeably populated, during which many of the buildings stand empty.

© Kai Caemmerer, 'Sites', No.92, 2015. 40 x 50 inches. Pigment print

During this phase of development, sensationalist Western media often describes these areas as defunct “ghost cities,” which fails to recognize that they are built on an urban model, timeline, and scale that is unprecedented in speculation and simply unfamiliar to the methods of Western urbanization. Using large-scale photographs that look at the architecture and sites of development within these cities and “new areas,” I emphasize both the vast growth and physical scale of these spaces, making enigmatic images that reflect the shifted sense of reality felt in a city that has yet to be inhabited by the people it was built for; a city without a city (有城⽆市) that, at present, seems more like an architectural model than a place for living.

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in some way?  

KC: Bas Princen.  The scenes in his photographs balance precariously between the known and the unknowable - they feel simultaneously familiar and completely foreign.  Within his work, there seems to be an apparent effort to intentionally reduce or dramatically alter visual context from within the frame, without making abstract images.  There’s a sense of suspension in his images that has influenced my own work in many ways.    

Three books of photography that you recommend? 

KC: Geert Goiris, Lying Awake.   Grégoire Pujade-Lauraine, A Perpetual Season.   Bas Princen, Reservoir.  

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?

KC: There is a small exhibition at the Chicago Poetry Foundation that has been up for the past 2 months, Volatile.  It revolves around the intersection between poetry and scent - and while of course I realize that this is not directly related to my work as a photographer, I find myself returning to this exhibition every week because I’m fascinated by how the pieces conjure up images that seem to linger in my subconscious for days.  Many of the pieces are poems, lines of text, or words paired with volatile odors.  The odors are specific and bizarre enough that they effectively etch the corresponding text into your memory, but they’re universal enough that you encounter notes of them in your day-to-day life, which of course recalls the text once more.  I find this balance and interplay between the specific and the common to be intriguing.

© Kai Caemmerer, 'Unborn Cities', No.15, 2015. 55 x 70 inches. Pigment print 

© Kai Caemmerer, 'Unborn Cities', No.02, 2015. 55 x 70 inches. Pigment print 

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future? 

KC: 'Unborn Cities' is my current on-going project.  I intend to spend the next few years visiting different new cities throughout inner-mainland China, as well as returning to a number of the areas I visited in 2015.

Who would you recommend for me to interview? 

KC: I’m fond of the recent work, Odradek, by Chicago based artist John Lusis.  Also, the work of Adam Schreiber is fantastic. His work can be found at adamschreiber.net, and I believe he works with Sasha Wolf Gallery in New York.


Kai Caemmerer
United States