An interview with Nicu Ilfoveanu
Topic: Research work in the archive of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant, Bucharest, 2019
Slide multi-projection installation, screening in the framework of
All images: credit Nicu Ilfoveanu
Q and A to NICU ILFOVEANU
Marta Jecu: Many of your projects are shot in the Romanian countryside. How do you relate to it
and what was your approach in these projects?
Nicu Ilfoveanu: There is a common thing for my generation in Romania, to have grandparents in the
countryside. Well, I didn’t. But, while I was still a pupil in junior school, my parents bought a summer house, thus I became half peasant, during the holidays. So the
relationship with the countryside in my later artistic approach, began for me as a sort of forgotten or, better said, missed childhood, having the sensation of a ‘missed
One of my first photography series after finishing art studies was entitled Domestic
Pictures, and it consists of pictures I took of people without any artistic motivation
during long walks in search of landscapes – nature per se. Years later, when I
revisited the negatives, I realised that those people I met, and not the beautiful landscapes, were the true impulse in my wanderings – those are unchanged anyway.
M.J.: Why did you decide to work on the two characters Gigi and Valerică?
N.I.: Actually I didn’t decide myself – it was them coming to me knowing I’m a ‘picture-taker’, so I took their pictures.
M.J.: How do you view the relationship you established with them?
N.I.: While it’s about them deciding when we shall have the photo session, all I have to do
is to be prepared, which is not so simple, because they come whenever they want –
the only thing I’m sure about is their unavoidable arrival.
They come and I, trained in the artistic field and spoiled by it, recognise in them
characters from the history of visual arts. And, since they never ask to see the
result, their picture, our relationship is suddenly staged by acting photographically in its
There is something about this term: ‘taking’ or ‘making’ pictures. I like to say I’m
‘giving’ pictures, which is much more what I’m doing with Gigi and Valerică.
M.J.: What attracted you in the archive of the MTR, and especially in the periods before and during communism, that you wanted to explore?
N.I.: As a matter of fact, it is the lack of difference between these periods you’ve
mentioned, which attracts me in this particular archive. Rurality is not necessarily
changed at the level of the image with the advance of the so-called communist age.
Rural people simply follow their own path, whereas alteration comes from the
centre, that is to say from urban life. To digress: in December 1989 when the
Revolution was announced on the national TV station, my parents and I were in the
countryside. Almost jumping the fence we rushed into our neighbour’s courtyard to
watch the TV (we didn’t have one at that time). Well, they were just sacrificing a
Christmas pig (a ritual in Romania), therefore our neighbours said they would come to
watch the news as soon as the fat pig was finished. So, for them, ‘the change’ of the revolution had to wait – winter provisions came first.
M.J.: What was your previous experience in working with photographic archives?
N.I.: Ten years ago, along with some colleagues, we wanted to create a history of
photography taken in our country, as we lacked a proper Romanian
school of photography. So we delved into vernacular photography, and grabbed
the pictures which seemed to be well-known examples encountered in international
photography. Thus we invented a local history of photography, a photo-book called
Oana Tanase, Magda Radu, Matei Caltia, Alexandru Gustea, Nicu Ilfoveanu (Eds.), 2010, Petite Histoire, Posibila Editions, Bucharest, Bookcover
Petit Histoire (2010) as paraphrase to Petit Paris, the alter ego of Bucharest (as Bucharest was known before WWII).
Perfectly linked to old and new international trends, but entirely created from amateur pictures, this book is, I would say, pure visual culture, even though it is spoiled
by the speculative vision of the selectors, which, by the way, happened in the
fashion peak of ‘working with the archives’.
The cover of the book shows a group picture with the photographer in the middle,
having the camera on the tripod, covered under a chapeau!
Is it a photo in a
mirror ? Who is the actual photographer? Were they really there, the people in
the group? Because the lens is literally covered, unable to transmit the image on
the photographic plate…
After this ethereal try with the archives, I continued to dig in the flea markets, looking for discarded pictures and taking fresh ones with my own camera, imagining a new book containing a mixture of characters we are longing for with actual people.
Found and Lost (2011) is named after this foggy job, and finally it includes a
single old archive photo, in which a young lady says, smiling with a finger crossing
her lips: Keep the secret!
Found picture inserted in Nicu Ilfoveanu, Octav Avramescu (eds.), 2011, Found and Lost, AAI Editions, Bucharest
While my own archive of vernacular photography grew, and with the desire of keeping the substance of the pictures alive, I still wander between these two feelings: looking for the anonymous photographer and preserving the secret of an archive.