Belgian photographer Axelle VM Philtjens
’ fascination with Polaroid photography is a family affair. The 22-year-old artist inherited her great-grandfather’s analog cameras along with his love for art and began experimenting with Polaroids while documenting her grandfather’s hospitalization and eventual recovery from COVID-19.
“He was a huge inspiration for me and always believed in me as an artist,” she said. The resulting work led to an ongoing interest in the nature of time and memory that she continues to explore through manipulating Polaroid prints.
What led you to the medium of photography, and particularly the experimental Polaroid Photography you create?
My family led me to photography. My mother would give me throwaway cameras to take on school holidays and shoot photos. My great-grandfather loved photography, and after his passing in 2016, I inherited his analog camera. That’s where my journey started. I loved shooting film and seeing the results after they developed.
My love for Polaroid photography came later on. Instant film has become a lot more popular over the years. I wanted to try it out, but I wanted big frames, and that’s why I decided on Polaroid. I love that it’s so tangible! After 15 minutes, you’re already holding the photograph in your hands. It makes it real and fun to play with. But most of all, it makes me feel connected with the medium — something I don’t always feel with digital photography.
Was there a particular moment that captured you?
“What Remains of You” (2021) depicts an old dress shirt of Philtjen’s late grandfather, shot on a Polaroid 640 Land Camera and made with her favorite water vinegar technique. “He was a huge inspiration for me and always believed in me as an artist,” she said.
The moment I decided that I wanted to focus on Polaroid was when I shot a documentary series about my late grandfather. He had gotten COVID-19 during the first wave, and I wanted to capture his recovery. It brought me a lot closer to photography, and that’s also when I started experimenting with the medium and cutting the prints open.
Tell us more about how your family inspired your artistry.
Both my late great-grandfather and my grandfather played a big role in my life and my art! I did not know my great-grandfather was into photography until after he passed away in 2016. I did have a great bond with him, but we usually talked about other art-related things, such as music. Art and knowledge were very important to him and an interest we both shared!
My grandfather loved photography and traveling. Whenever he would get back from his travels with my grandmother, he would always sit down with me and show me his landscape pictures. So photography was sort of passed down to me by both of them. He was a huge part of my life, and since he loved photography, he always supported me as an artist. His hardworking attitude and the way he never gave up and always fought until the end inspired me to do the same, both in life and in the art world!
The documentary series about my grandfather was a way for me (and maybe my family) to cope with the situation. My grandfather got COVID-19 and was put into an artificial coma. We were all scared for the future, but he made it through. The documentary series shows both him in his recovery and his absence in our lives.
He had to stay in the hospital for about eight weeks, which was hard on all of us. The series was shot on Polaroid black and white I-type film. The series contained portraits of him in the hospital and portraits of my grandmother but also the empty spaces he left behind in the house. I later used one of those prints for one of my first experiments.
My great-grandfather and grandfather were the most important men in my life. I would not be the person nor photographer I am without them!
What other influences help your work take shape?
My mother took me to countless museums until I was old enough to visit them myself. I’ve always loved the Baroque painting style and its incredible detail and lifelikeness. Seeing those paintings and all the art that came before me made me realize I wanted to pursue the arts.
My influences range from the Baroque and Symbolism painting styles to photographers like Nan Goldin, Goran Bertok, and Kirsten Thys van den Audenaerde. They’re three very different artists, but they all inspire me. I was even lucky enough to meet Kirsten Thys van den Audenaerde and ask her advice on working with expired polaroid film and more. I get inspired by all kinds of artists throughout history, not just photographers.
Tell us about your process. How does your work go from idea to execution?
With her experimental Polaroids, Philtjens documents the decay of the Saint-Michael’s Abbey through time. Click to see her portfolio “Tarditas Temporis.”
Almost everything starts with a fascination for me. My latest work, “Tarditas Temporis” started with my fascination with time. After that, I start my research phase. This includes the scientific side but also the artistic. What has been done before? And how can I visualize this? What’s the story I want to tell? Once I have my research gathered, and my story pinned down, the images start forming in my brain. I visualize what I want to capture first in my head, and then I go out and search for it.
With “Tarditas Temporis,” I knew that I wanted to capture time in an image. I looked for ways to create an ever-evolving Polaroid, and I found it. I work with the images I create in my head and try to recreate them in reality or something similar. After that, it becomes a cycle of research and shooting images.
The manipulation of my Polaroid photography can happen in two stages: either right after the image was taken or at the end. I do research on my manipulation of the image to make it a part of the story. It needs to amplify the story and the image. I’ll start cutting the prints open and add chemicals or ink.
That’s just as much fun as taking the image. I love seeing new images form inside one polaroid, and watching the effect of time on the image. It also brings me close to my work.
At last, I gather everything. I’m a collector of images. Once I have all my pieces, I start to puzzle my story together.
Describe the environment you create in. Do you have any rituals to get in the zone?
The environment I work in depends on what I’m working on. Most of my ideas start in my room, and I’ll quickly take them outside. It starts with walks and travels. I like to work on-site but also develop ideas on site. My ritual is putting on my favorite bands, Type O Negative and Ghost, and then going out to explore, maybe taking a few impulsive pictures of things that I like or that fascinate me. Once that’s done, I come home, and the research and photography cycle starts again.
When do you feel most creative? How do you boost your creativity and push through creative blocks?
Image: In Philtjens’ images like “Stairway to heaven,” the damage and alterations symbolize the damage emotions have on memories, thus making them subjective.
I feel most creative at night or when I’m on site. At night, a whole new world opens up. It’s so quiet, and I can stay in the flow. When I’m on-site, there are so many things that catch my eye and that I need to see and explore, and that piques my creativity.
Something that both boosts my creativity and helps me push through creative blocks is walks in nature. Nature is so fascinating, and it gives me time to think. I use those walks as a moment to think and to follow my thought trails wherever they go. It gives me a moment to unfocus on the world and look inside my own head for a minute.
Another way to push through creative blocks is experimenting on old failed Polaroid prints. I love seeing the process and learning new things.
What is one tool you could not live without?
Except for my cameras? My Polaroid cutter knife. It’s an old hobby knife that’s all rusted due to use and covered in paint and chemicals. I use it to cut open my Polaroids, and it’s the only way I’ll do it.
What subjects are fascinating to you most right now?
My current fascination is time and anthropology. I love the human mind and how it deals with concepts like mortality and time. But also time and how we experience it. We know time has passed, but the only proof we have are our memories. Remembering is time traveling in your own mind. At this point, I’ve nicknamed time “the devourer of things.” I’m fascinated by subjects and concepts that we cannot touch or grasp.
What do you hope audiences take away from your work?
Memento Vivere. Remember to live. Our time here on earth is so short. I hope when people see my work, they remember that one day their time is up. Live your life, explore and learn. That they can find a love and fascination for even the littlest things. I hope my art can help people start a journey into their own mind.
And for the artists who dream of doing what they love, I hope my work inspires them to follow that dream. Chase it, and don’t ever let it go.