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The Steam of Punk

[An interview with the Romanian photographer Nicu Ilfoveanu]

by Adrian Ioniţă

click per la versione italiana

click pentru versiunea română

Adrian Ioniţă: Several years ago, the Romanian art critic Ştefan Tiron wrote a review
about a photography art exhibition announcing “Nicu Ilfoveanu is Steampunk”. Please
give us some details about the show and your opinion regarding this critical statement.

Nicu Ilfoveanu: The show was named "Tourist you are the terrorist" and it was a kind
of reaction to the stampede of glossy commercial imagery we were flooded with in the
past decades, especially those depicting places which were in reality dirty, even
unsanitary. My images were made with an old camera, a box-camera, through my own
technique in which a positive film is “developed as a negative”, using untreated lenses for
color, filters, scan and prints based on pigments, etc. By this means I was able to record
reality in a strange way - a combination of autochrome, a process invented by the
Lumière brothers in 1906 – and the appearance of a romantic picture. The locations I
chose were around the industrial belts of the city, places that look “cool” for some
contemporary artists, but which have a specific “warmth” for myself. I mention this fact
because sites like these belong to the memory of my childhood; I was born and grew up
in a typical Communist apartment, which is a concrete cubicle, in an area in which
demolishing and construction was the norm, not only on an architectural, but at a
human level as well.

[The Grant Bridge © Nicu Ilfoveanu]

Adrian Ioniţă: Tell me more about the interaction between this human aspect and your
artistic orientation.
Nicu Ilfoveanu: Before the show, it happened that I started gathering gramophone
records. How? Well, I found at the flea market a box of brand new gramophone needles.
It is known that one needle is used for a record and each face of it has only one play, so
every time you listen to music, these needles get worn - a good enough reason for
vendors to sell them like match boxes. Concomitant to this purchase, I received a bunch
of records as a gift from the library of a famous musician, obviously, too busy to listen to
them in a digital world. Their sound was extraordinary and transported me in a
miraculous world, completely different from the world I was living in. Back to your
question, I did an analogy between photography, music and the gramophone as an
instrument, and in 2004 I opened a show with steampunk flavor, which was named
“Brand New Gramophone Needles”.

Adrian Ioniţă: Sounds like the name of a song!

Nicu Ilfoveanu: The text with the instructions from “His Master’s Voice” records, from
1920, was written in an archaic Romanian, and since I have one here, I think that it is
worth reading it:

“His Master’s Voice”:

1. Disuse is bad for the machine.

2. Don't wind the spring too tightly. Allow the instrument to run whilst winding, hence
stop when the spring offers resistance.

3. Avoid the slightest injury to the Mica Diaphragm, on which the reproduction

4. SPEED IS IMPORTANT as it vitally affects the reproduction, thus do not interfere

with the speed regulator, unless an adjustment is necessary.

5. Keep the leathers which operate on governor friction plate well oiled. This will
promote smooth and uniform running.

6. Never use a steel needle twice. Avoid cheap needles, they ruin one’s records.

The reading of these instructions served me as a guiding model in my artistic activity,

being almost like an artistic statement.
[Trains at Galaţi © Nicu Ilfoveanu]

Adrian Ioniţă: What does Steampunk mean for Nicu Ilfoveanu?

Nicu Ilfoveanu: The first time when I conscientiously started thinking about the word,
I translated it as a “Steam of Punk”, or closer to my imagery, a “scent of punk”. It may be
a coincidence, but I was born during the times when Punk surfaced, and largely, my
childhood was impregnated by a fog, in fact a dust from demolitions, or an illusion
produced by it. I carried this “dust” with me in photography and film, so that on the one
hand Steampunk, became more of a style in capturing images from reality with as simple
as possible means. On the other hand, it is an exercise with the memory of a locus. The
past and the flow of time become transparent, not only by employing techniques, but
also by the sheer chance that these radiography-images from my mind be recorded on a
real or imaginary film, a process which seems to be dependent metaphysically on an
internal state of expectation or on the crazy intensity and belief that I am the witness of a
mutation in time. To be more explicit, I will tell you the story of my first box-camera that
started the Steampunk Autochrome series. A friend of my mother’s found out that I was
a photographer and gave me a Box-Tengor. I was happy for the gift and I thought it was a
pretty, but useless, thing. I am not a collector, so I simply threw it on a shelf. But then,
out of curiosity, I opened the box and, to my surprise, I found a film inside. I closed it in
an instance, and in a dream-like state I went into the darkroom, prepared a strong
solution, took out the roll, that had a wooden spool, which meant that it was a film from
before the 50’s and I developed it.

Adrian Ioniţă: It happened to me several times, but please, I do not want to interrupt
you, as the story is very exciting.

Nicu Ilfoveanu: Two images appeared on the negative - I will talk about their content
some other time -, but what baffled me at that moment, was the fact that the film
survived for so many years and, once having been developed, it looked as if it had been
done a day before. Thus it happened that I was taken by this feeling of making photos
with the aura of an image ready to evaporate, but stubborn enough to survive. Maybe
such a perception about the phenomenon is not in line with the way we define
Steampunk today, but these are the feelings that animated and motivated me during the

Adrian Ioniţă: For many, Steampunk means a return to the golden years of steam,
particularly the Victorian era. There are artists who are doing this journey back in time
by altering the actual design of the objects or by reshaping the existent technology into
forms reminiscent to the 1890’s. Do you believe that nostalgia for the times when
craftsmanship was oriented towards individualization played a role in defining

Nicu Ilfoveanu: Individualization in what sense? I can say that the craftsman of the
steam era had a highly individualized profile compared to today’s anonymous craftsman,
but in essence his motivation and nature was expansionistic. Anything done since that
time until today comes to demonstrate that he was not only victimized by the frenetic
industrialization, but that he was also the visionary of the new world. The first forms of
industrialization and mechanization were born in the shop of the simple craftsman. Once
that this Pandora Box had been opened he realized that he, involuntarily, had
participated at his own destruction. The spreading and development of new forms of
craftsmanship followed a logical chain of events that, dialectically, landed out of his
hands. Steampunk is looking nostalgically to that times, but this process of
individualization is not only a simple return to an older technology, it is a return towards
the spirit that governed it; and that spirit was hygienic, compared to the irresponsibility
of the contemporary consumerist spirit.

[The Chitila Triage © Nicu Ilfoveanu]

Adrian Ioniţă: The Steampunk lifestyle requires some sort of discipline. Do you think
that changes in our lifestyle will lead to changes in the social context we currently
Nicu Ilfoveanu: If I can continue the idea of individualization, then I can definitely say
that the change in lifestyle affects the social structure of our society. If instead, these
changes create the same pattern we experience today, I don’t think that it is worth the
effort. I do not believe in a “consumerist Steampunk”.

Adrian Ioniţă: The digital technology had a brutal effect upon the classic photographic
techniques. Do you think Steampunk is a reaction against over-industrialization?

Nicu Ilfoveanu: On the one hand, I remember that, even before I had heard the word
“Steampunk”, I had a reaction towards digitalization. On the other hand, I use digital
techniques to implement my analogical works. Therefore, I can say that Steampunk as a
reaction against industrialization and selfsameness of the human being is enjoying its
current popularity thanks to digital technology. The photographer, of course, is not
considered a magician anymore. Even if the digital world produced millions of
photographers overnight, the way we see them on the Internet, it does not seem to be
followed by the same measurable progress in the photographic art. On the contrary, the
simple fact that it is so available and anyone can afford it, leads to a lesser appreciation
of the effort and talent behind the making of photography. Ironically, the same thing
happened to painting when photography was invented. The portrait painting as a genre
suffered a terrible blow and the controversies surrounding Steampunk today are,
symptomatically, similar to those in the art world, a hundred and some years ago. The
classical analogical photography will never perish; it will eventually become more
expensive, and evidently more appreciated.

[Pantelimon © Nicu Ilfoveanu]

Adrian Ioniţă: What is in store for the future, Nicu Ilfoveanu?

Nicu Ilfoveanu: A History of Romanian Photography. Since we did not have a school of
photography, the history of the photography practiced in Romania cannot be done
without some degree of speculation. Of course, we have a large database of photographic
images in our archives, family albums, flea markets etc., and through a rigorous selection
made by an artist’s eye this database can be the source of quality images even if the
authors are anonymous. This fact does not seem to affect their beauty. The Romanian
folklore, as you well know, is a treasury of anonymous pieces, if one were to mention
Mioriţa for example, which is a masterpiece, it would be sufficient proof to support this
argument. For some time now, I have started doing a selection in my personal collection
and it has a beautiful Steampunk flavor. I hope to publish the first volume of the book
this fall. In the meantime, I am going on with an older project based on sound.

Adrian Ioniţă: The project is also a Stempunk experiment ?

Nicu Ilfoveanu: I have an edition of CD-s with processed music from ‘recovered’
gramophone records and I will continue a series of “video clips” using these records,
which, as I said, are rather sound retrievals. I am interested in “their” sound, that is the
sound left in the crevasses of the records that fell into my hands after such a long time.
Let’s not forget that, due to the conditions in which they were stored and due to their
degree of weariness, the songs have a different sound compared to the sound played at
the time of their recording. Whoever has seen the movie “The Story of 1900” by Giuseppe
Tornatore, can perfectly understand what I mean. Steampunk offers a high dosage of
contemplation at the threshold of a world that keeps us suspended between the
dynamism of a technology, which alienates and keeps us dependent by it day by day, and
the calm of an epoch that reverberates through the spirit of our grand-fathers and great

Adrian Ioniţă: Thoughts that stand as a perfect conclusion for our conversation on
Steampunk; thank you for the interview, Nicu Ilfoveanu.

techno-editing by Irina Stănescu