Penelope Umbrico is one of the most forward-thinking, successful photographic artists working today. I heard her speak at the Filter Festival in Chicago last year, and she was kind enough to agree to an extensive interview earlier this year. You can see her work on the wall at the Mark Moore Gallery in LA, April 16-June 18, and at the Milwaukee Art Museum, May 5-August 7.
Jonathan Blaustein: How did you get started as an artist? Are you a lifer? Were you making things when you were four?
Penelope Umbrico: I was making things when I was four, yes.
JB: What was your four-year-old art like? Were your stick figures particularly dynamic?
PU: I can’t really remember. There are a few things I do remember having made. A set of bookmarks which featured tiny, little, extremely detailed marks with watercolors. Repeated marks, over and over again, which is oddly relevant to the work that I do now.
PU: And a dollhouse that I made out of found objects. Which is also relevant, actually, as it was all repurposing stuff. Things like spools and matchboxes. Things that I could find became the furniture, and I also remember a set of figurines that I made out of bobby-pins. So I guess I’ve always been repurposing things.
JB: Have you always made stuff, or did you do it like all kids do, move on, and then re-find it later. That’s what I meant to ask…
PU: No, I’ve always made stuff. I remember, as a kid, my family would be downstairs watching television, and I’d be up in my room making stuff.
JB: I saw in your bio that you went to art school in Canada.
JB: That doesn’t seem to be a common phenomenon, for Americans, so it struck me that there’s this whole SCTV, subversive comedy thing. Countless Canadians to who came to America with this skewed, almost twisted perspective that seemed to do well here.
Given that your work is subversive and edgy, I wondered if you thought that stepping out of America like that had anything to do with your evolution? Maybe that’s random?
PU: That’s interesting, because I actually grew up in Toronto, Canada.
JB: You did? Ok, I wondered, but Wikipedia said you were born in Philly.
PU: I was born while my parents were going to music school at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. They got jobs in the Toronto Symphony so I grew up in Toronto.
But I’ve never made that connection before- that there’s a subversive, Canadian element in the work of Canadians who move to the States. It’s a healthy outsider skepticism of corporate culture, maybe?
I would guess most American artists are skeptical of corporate culture as well, but maybe Canadians are more so (laughing.) Canadians definitely have a skepticism of America.
JB: What was your work like before the Internet? Your art is so connected to digital reality…
PU: Well, I moved to the states in ’86. But before that I went to Ontario College of Art, as it was called when I was there. My major was Experimental Art – which I guess was the equivalent of new media today – but we also had to do conventional stuff like life-drawing, printmaking, dark-room photography. I think my final project was a grid of dried peas that I hung, at eye level – ha ha, all round things in a grid.
JB: Organization and structure. I love it.
PU: Yeah. I also made a project, I remember, that was a total failure. I wanted to suspend glycerin in oil, so I made this plastic cube. I thought if I filled the thing with oil, and then injected glycerin into the center of it, because the glycerin and the oil are the same weight, the glycerin would create a perfect sphere in this cube. I tried it, and it didn’t work at all.
JB: Sounds cool.
PU: But “Experimental Arts” then was mostly video. It’s interesting, one of the things I remember most about the video class was the first half concentrated on how to organize cords. How they needed to be organized and wrapped properly. And at around that time, one of the instructors asked me to draw a computer, because I had done a lot of illustration and drawing. He needed it for something, and I thought, “What does a computer look like?” This was 1978, ’79, and he kind of sketched out one of those early Apple 512k machines.
JB: When did you start working with Photography?
PU: Not seriously until I was doing my MFA in Painting at SVA.
The earliest photographs were really looking at consumer culture, moving through it in a virtual way. I think all of the photographs that I‘ve made deal with ‘virtually’ occupying another space.
I’ve never been interested in going out on the street and taking photographs. I’ve always been interested in the illusionary spaces that we, as a culture, create for ourselves.
Does that make sense?
JB: It speaks to the way you see your through-line. But I’d love to talk about appropriation for a moment, which is another constant in your work.
I appropriated images from the Internet for a project in 2006–7, and I remember when I first started, it felt kind of naughty.
For you, did it ever feel improper?
JB: There was never a moment for you where you thought what you were doing was transgressive, as opposed to natural?
PU: I think it depends upon how one defines transgressive, and in what context is it transgressive.
PU: I actually think all art is, or should be, to a certain degree, transgressive. I take that as a given and don’t think very much about it.
For me, what drives me to make work is stuff that affects me, and makes me question why it’s there. I’m seeing things on the web that, and whether it would be transgressive or not, I have to work with them because they’re asking questions of me that I can’t ignore.
I’m thinking, “What is going on here?” And then I have to look at it closer. And since I’m finding something going on there that is not the original intent of the images, I feel I have absolutely every right to use them.
The simplest example of this is a set of canvases that I had printed at places like Costco and Kinkos of that iconic image of the sun rays coming down in Grand Central Station. You know that photograph?
PU: If you do a web-search of it, there are four versions of it that nobody really knows who the photographer is. If you look for the attributions for these four images, a multitude of different titles, names, dates, licenses, copyright-holders claim title. Poster companies, photo-stock sites, souvenir manufacturers etc.
And often, the image will have a company’s logo right across it claiming copyright. In my mind, this ungrounded claim to ownership, which would have most people believe the corporate entity actually does have the right to ask you to pay to use the image, begs to be tested.
The fact is, that image is in the public domain – it’s old enough that nobody owns it. Everyone has, or should have, the right to use it. I’m appropriating, yes, but those copyrighters are also appropriating. And they are hindering creative fair-use, I am not.
JB: To me, you’re the edge of this, in how much of it you do, and the way in which the digital universe is subsuming reality in many ways. I was curious how you got started, and it sounds like you never felt wrong, from day one.
But do you think that copyright is an outmoded concept? Should it exist anymore?
PU: I think it needs to exist in certain contexts, for sure, but I think within the art world, no. (pause.) That’s a very simplistic answer.
I think authorship is a given in an artist’s work. There’s an element of a work of art that has an inherent sense of having been authored to it. It has the signature of the artist… without actually being signed – I mean, this can register in the work’s form or style, or its concept, or they way it engages a context… but it’s there.
Copyright in relationship to an artist is a different issue than to a photographer who is hired to make photographs, for instance, in service to an industry, and the livelihood of the photographer is dependent on that industry.
The difference between those two photographies is so great that to lump them together and ask does copyright apply is an almost impossible question to answer. There are so many fields within it, and they have such different structures and markets.
Does that make sense?
JB: Let’s be honest. It’s a tricky subject. The reason I asked is that you’re sitting on the edge of what can be done with it. With respect to your famous project about the Suns from Flickr, I haven’t yet gotten to see the installation, but I look forward to it.
You’re also speaking about aggregating and searching with that project. I’d think some people think it’s cool as hell that their Suns ended up in your work, and nobody will ever know. But it is a touchstone topic. Not everybody thinks it’s OK to take that.
Maybe I do, and you do, but we’re speaking for the purpose of an audience that’s going to have some skeptics in it. That’s why I wanted to ask these questions.
You always thought it was OK to take the Suns, and in so doing, you made a piece of contemporary art that is highly relevant to the way we live today.
PU: But I’m also not just taking the Suns. What I’m doing is, I have multiple levels of…
JB: I know. It’s crazy. Here’s how I remember it, from your lecture at the Filter Festival in Chicago: You showed images of the Suns, the installation of the Suns, then you found pictures of people standing in front of the installation, as if they were standing in front of a sunset backdrop, and THEN, if I remember correctly, you found pictures of people taking pictures of the people who were photographed in front of the installation.
PU: But you’re jumping ahead.
PU: That’s true. There are multiple iterations of the work. One has sort of come from another, but before we even get there, there are multiple filters that I’m using in my own conceptual framework that will allow me to use an image, or not.
JB: Sorry to have interrupted. We’d love to hear about it.
PU: On Flickr, I search for sunset. There are millions of them. So the images are fairly large, and they have lots going on in them.
One of the filter criteria for me is the sun has to be able to be decontextualized on its own – I need to be able to crop it out of the picture without anything from the Earth interjecting into it – in order to get a lack of subject in the image. In my cropping, it’s just the Sun that’s being depicted, with no reference to where the subject who’s taking the photograph is standing.
Number 2, the sunset image has to be iconic. Not a purple sun with black clouds, or a black-and-white-filter arty pic. I’m not interested in other photographer’s idiosyncratic, individualistic points of view of what a sunset is.
What I’m looking for are those kinds of collective, iconic ideas of what a sunset is. Right now, we can picture what that is, right?
PU: Orange-y yellow, with the sun hovering just above the horizon. That was the other filter: it had to look like a script.
JB: A cliché?
PU: A cliché, yes. I think that cliché is a really interesting word. It’s something that we all know. For me, the word scripted is maybe more how I would describe that cliché, I guess.
I think of it as kind of a script, rather than a cliché, because it’s following a certain set of patterns.
You get the camera. You see that the sky getting a little darker. You imagine there might be color in the sky. You might go to the place where you could see more sky, and everybody’s doing this at this moment. And instead of sitting there, and really enjoying that sunset, you’re snapping it.
The snapping, the whole act of it, is kind of a scripted behavior that we’ve followed for years and years.
JB: But you wouldn’t call it Universal?
PU: I would call it Universal on a certain level, although I don’t like the word.
JB: (laughing) You don’t like the words I’m using.
PU: Well, the reason I wouldn’t call it Universal is I don’t assume anything is Universal. It’s certainly collective. Universal seems too over-arching.
JB: How about this, I’ve got a real short word: Why? Are you interested in why people feel compelled to do this, collectively?
PU: (pause.) I think at the beginning of this project, I was kind of shocked. We have one sun up there in the universe. One Sun – warm, singular, life-giving – and the first search I did in 2006 found 554,000 images of it… in this digital, electronic, blue-light virtual space. That in itself was odd and strange. It was something I couldn’t ignore.
JB: We both know that underlying the entire digital reality, is just string of ones and zeroes. An endless, unimaginable block of binary code. Just like you said, there’s one Sun in the Universe, it’s one star of billions.
If one were to have that Gods-eye-view of stars in the Universe, it would look like just a pattern of dots.
This idea of pattern and structure underlying all of the things that you photograph, it seems pretty connected to the way you use organization, structure and rigor to comment on it. It’s all just one big structural metaphor, no?
I wanted to throw that “Why” at you, because when I heard your lecture, it was all about what you were doing. Everyone has a different perspective. I like to dig into the “Why.”
What is the meaning of these metaphors? Why do they make so much sense, and why do they speak to so many other people?
PU: The “Why” of it does speak to, is a kind of exploration of, what it means to be digital, or to feel digital; to be a number in the world; the sense of the subject-less-ness of existence in this kind of a consumer web context.
In the act of making, sharing, and consuming images, it seem like the more one shares images of oneself, the less one exists in the world. This sharing seems like a manifestation of an anxiety or fear of disappearance.
You started to point towards the “Why” when you were raising the issue of the iterations of this work. For me, the project of the suns was about erasing the individual.
In the project with the sun, I am using an image that speaks to the intended individualized position of those photographers, but I am erasing the subjectivity I find in the image to point to the subjects’ inadvertent, unintended, participation in a collective process.
PU: The second part of the project, with people in front of the sunsets themselves, further extends this questioning of individual agency. Here technology is erasing the subject because the camera technology is exposing for the sun.
And in witnessing thousands of these silhouetted subjects, the individual disappears. When you see a big installation of this work, you can identify with those disappeared people because you yourself have been in this exact situation.
Perhaps the next time you stand in front of a sunset and have your picture taken, you’ll better understand that sense of disappearance…. Or you’ll be more aware of it. For me, that’s the why of it. If that makes sense.
JB: That’s kind of what I’m getting at. You chose a symbol, this powerful orb that represents our ephemerality in so many ways.
People look at a sunset, and they think it’s beautiful, and the colors are pretty, but you’re really staring at a star from the face of a planet. And your time on this planet is almost a statistical anomaly. None of us is here at all, relative to Deep
Time, so we can talk about Flickr, and collective behavior, and I think that’s all true.
But it also seems that there’s a reason people do it, and a reason why your piece was so powerful. That’s because it’s also connecting to a perfect symbol of Deep Time. When you say we’re disappearing, I agree, but I think there’s a double-meaning there that’s interesting.
PU: That’s a really interesting way of putting it. I never thought of the notion of Deep Time in relation to those people clicking away, taking photographs. I think the consideration of Deep Time you’re talking about may actually concern people who AREN’T taking pictures of the sunset – the possibility of sitting in front of the sunset without actually taking a photograph – it’s pretty rare now, right?
I’m wondering if taking the photograph is to deny yourself the sense of Deep Time: “I got the picture. I got the sun.” It’s a way of owning an object that you actually can’t own – the photo trophy thing.
JB: It seems to be a pretty powerful impulse. Because the easier it’s become, and the more cameras are in everyone’s pocket, the more global the obsession has become. I have photographed in the real world, as well as doing conceptual stuff, and I know that joy.
It’s probably futile, but I think it comes from a deep desire to stand up to time. To freeze it. To capture it. Keep it. Hold it.
PU: Yeah. And in the manic sense that we’re experiencing it now, it actually presents itself as an anxiety, I think.
JB: An impediment.
PU: Yeah, sure. And I also participate in this capture, keep, hold, by the way. I photograph all the time, and I also make photographs that I’m not appropriating for my work. But in general, the photographs I take are the same as everyone else’s.
JB: Do you feel guilty about it? Or conflicted?
PU: No, not at all. But I don’t share them. (laughing.)
JB: (laughing.) OK.
PU: As soon as you put something on the web, you’re crossing a threshold from the personal to the collective. No matter how personal an image is, if there’s another image somewhere that shares the same subject and approach, it becomes part of a phenomenon.
The other side of it is people who won’t put pictures online for fear of being exploited. I know someone who won’t put pics of her kids on Facebook because she’s afraid of pedophiles, or something.
JB: Weirdos. Right.
PU: For sure. And there are those who’s kids are definitely going to be embarrassed by their parent’s Facebook posts later in life. Two sides of the equation – of the severity of what it means to do either – participate or abstain.
JB: When you first did this, Flickr was a big deal.
JB: So as your project has aged, the way people read it changes. Does anybody still use Flickr?
PU: Yeah, in 2006, it was where everybody was putting stuff. And it was a useful platform to find all kinds of different photographs by a large cross section of users. I think it was mostly family photo-sharing. Now, if I’m looking for sunset images, all I get are stock-like photographs. People do use it, but they’re all photo geeks.
I’ve got a story for you. My sister came and visited me a couple of months ago, from Canada, and we were sitting outside. It was a full moon, and she had her iPhone out, and asked, “Why I can’t take a picture of the moon the way I see it with my eyes?”
I explained you need a good camera with long lens and got my 5D, took some pics and showed them to her on the camera display. She was impressed, thinking I was an exceptional photographer, until I proved not by suggesting a search on Flickr – I had no idea, but I imagined there would be thousands there.
Typing in “Full Moon,” resulted in the most incredible thing. Thousands upon thousands of full moon images came up. The relationship to the Suns from Sunsets from Flickr project was striking, because anybody, really, can take a picture of a sunset and have it look great, but you can’t take a detailed picture of the Full Moon unless you have pretty good camera equipment.
I started to dig in to the Flickr posts, and read them, and it was fascinating because there were more than 1 million of these full moons, with descriptions about how the photographers took the photograph – “I used this camera, and this lens at this F-stop.” and you have the sense it’s really about getting the picture. Right? I got it.
PU: But the face of the Moon never changes for us. All the images are essentially the same. And, this is the other amazing thing – half of them are licensed as rights reserved. Which means these photographers see their images as exceptionally different from the rest, and therefor worthy of licensing protection. And this is based solely on access to equipment, since the form or concept of these photographs is not exceptional in any way.
For the project at Bruce Silverstein Gallery, I contacted 654 of the rights reserved Flickr photographers, through Flickr, and asked for permission to use their rights reserved images of Full Moons. I wanted to create a wall of them in the gallery.
If they agreed to the conditions, they gave me their name for a credit, and agreed to the pricing structure if the installation was sold – that is: the gallery gets half, I get half, and in this case, they would get a quarter, and I would get a quarter of the percentage of their image in the entire installation: one 654th.
JB: We can pretend to do the math, and just keep going.
PU: Yeah, yeah. So of the 654, I got 84 replies with permission granted, plus a few no’s. One guy said yes, and then wrote back retracting his permission after looking at my website. And the rest I didn’t hear back from. I replaced all the images from people who didn’t respond with full moon images that had Creative Commons licenses. So there is a wall of 654 full moons of various sizes – in all cases, I downloaded the highest res file that was available on Flickr and this determined the scale.
So your question about Flickr. It really has changed since I started using it – it has become a stock-photo site.
JB: So the meaning of the work changes. Let’s say you’d never done this, but nobody else had done it, and you got the idea in 2016, you would use Instagram.
JB: The way the format ages, and these things have such short shelf lives, becomes a part of the project. For example, anybody who’s in the industry at all heard years ago that Facebook claims ownership of everything you post, so nobody puts their artwork up.
Some people are going to get angry at you, but what you’re doing is no different from what Facebook is doing, and they’re the most popular communication platform on the planet.
PU: It’s a trade. Facebook is offering something to you in an exchange. You get to use the platform, in exchange for letting them use your images.
JB: Which they’re never going to do anyway, realistically.
PU: Actually, I heard, I forget where, that someone saw their image in an ad for something. I think what you’re raising is a really important point.
One of the things I think about a lot is making something concrete at a moment when you know it’s going to change in a year, or five years, or a week. Using Flickr for me right now is kind of amazing. It becomes a kind of record of a very specific time.
And the whole project is in some ways about recording time.
JB: Craigslist. Ebay. These things too have aged. I’ve got a really cheesy segue, and I’m going to go for it, but you’re either going to giggle, or you’re going to think, “Oh my god, why am I talking to this dude?”
You talk about Full Moons. You brought it up. But you showed work in Chicago in which you found photographs of television screens that were being sold on Craigslist. And you have screens with reflections in them of naked people. Hence the Full Moon segue. You’ve got pictures with naked people reflected in the TV screens.
PU: (laughing) That is pretty cheesy.
JB: It is. And yet, as an interviewer, sometimes you have to segue. You know?
PU: Weirdly, I did not find any butt pics among the Full Moons images on Flickr. Nor reflected in the screens of TVs on Craigslist.
JB: You only found boobies and vajayjays? You can tell I have a 3 year old, because I say the word vajayjay.
JB: I found it to be so ridiculous and absurd and funny. Your talk was very serious, and your ideas are rigorous, but that is ridiculous. That A, it exists, B, you found out it exists, and C, you made high art out of it.
But people might not know about this project.
PU: The project itself is not about that, right? It’s about how people are selling objects they don’t want anymore – objects that used to be the height of entertainment technology, and are now like dead bodies in their homes. They’re really useless, lifeless things.
Part of it is thinking about attachment to objects – why not just stick it out on the street. You have to imagine that the object could have value to someone else. But where does the value lie in that equation?
And in this scenario, the people who are selling these objects get caught in them. In the last photograph of these objects, the reflections of people, living-rooms, bedrooms, beds…
JB: But why would any sane person take that picture stark naked? It’s crazy.
PU: First of all, you have to know there are not that many of them. Over the past 7 years I’ve gone to every city on Craigslist, and searched though every “TV for sale” listing in those cities, and every once in a while I’ll find something like that.
JB: Because you’re looking for it.
PU: Because I’m looking for it, and I’m hoping to find it.
JB: Right. But as far as human behavior goes…
PU: Well another part of it is that the technology of smartphone cameras used to be 1 or 2mp when I first started finding images on Craigslist. There would be a very small photo of a television, and when I downloaded it and enlarged it, it would be very pixelated.
But now with 5mp, 6mp smartphone cameras, people are taking the same pictures, in their bedrooms, and uploading what looks to be the same size file, because Craigslist takes it, and puts it in the same little image field as a 1mp image.
JB: Compressing it.
PU: Well, when I download it, I get this 5mp image. I’m not sure if they’re actually compressing it. I guess they must be to some extent. You probably know people who have cameras that can take very big files, and they have no idea.
Someone will send you an image that’s like, 20mb, of their cute dog for you to look at on your iPhone, when a 1mb file will do.
I think there is that aspect of it. And also, people don’t see themselves in the images. They’re not looking for it. They’re selling their TVs and they’re not thinking about anything else. What I find are unintended, inadvertent reflections.
JB: I found it to be ridiculously amusing and interesting that such things ever happen, much less that in your obsessive searching…
PU: You live in a place where it snows in the Winter, but some people live where it’s 90 degrees in the Winter. And 120 in the Summer. Maybe they’re just walking around with no clothes on?
JB: I guess we’ll never know. That’s the beauty of it, right? That degree of anonymity? But you’re also photographing broken armoires, and useless remote controls, and screens.
The Sun, and the Sun installation, are so completely aesthetic. That’s why you’re choosing it. It’s the most scripted symbol of perfect aesthetics. But then these things, like the broken-down furniture, they’re so anti-aesthetic.
They’re not beautiful, but they’re interesting. Sometimes, pure aesthetics are important to you, and other times, they appear not to be. What do you think about that?
PU: I don’t think of the Suns as being pure aesthetic. I guess some people do, because that’s why they take the photographs.
JB: Almost everybody. You may not, but that would be a very common way to describe a sunset.
PU: A sunset might be purely aesthetic, but you talked about the depth, and the Deep Time relationship to it.
JB: I think your piece is beautiful. Most people would.
PU: But part of what you think is beautiful is what it means to stand in front of that many images. It’s conceptual, not aesthetic.
JB: It’s conceptual, but it’s also about pattern and repetition and color.
PU: Of a particular subject.
JB: The repetition of a circle, in that many ways, with the variation of powerful digital hues. I don’t want to disagree with you…
PU: If they were paintings, I could agree with you that it’s pure aesthetic. But because they come from this many different photographers, who are asserting an insistence of presence, in this context, I feel like it’s first and foremost a conceptual work. That just happens to be aesthetically interesting.
JB: That’s what I’m saying. That piece is aesthetically interesting, along with its conceptual rigor, while others almost go 180 degrees in the other direction.
JB: That was the crux of the question. What does it mean to you that some of the projects utilize aesthetics, and others give a middle finger to it?
PU: I actually think that all of them utilize aspects of aesthetics. I think the desk project, or the television project, with the flashes, are incredibly beautiful. But because you don’t…(laughing)
JB: Well, I haven’t seen them in person. But I don’t want to get caught up in semantics.
PU: (laughing) I know, I know.
JB: And I certainly don’t want to insult you.
PU: No, no. It’s just that the conversation about aesthetics, to me, maybe it’s more about taste and style, that we’re talking about.
I mean, I get really excited when I see all those little remote controls – or “universal remotes” as they are often sold as. I really love them. I think they’re kind of amazing. And I love that someone has gone to the trouble of arranging these remote controls into a kind of little box of a photograph. The fact that I could find these, that they exist, was enough for me to think about them as a work.
So though the idea of used universal remotes– the almost ontological condition of the term in relation to digital communication and being – is what drove that work, when I put them all together there was something tantalizing and delectable about these tiny little arrangements people are making.
For me, it’s conceptual, and formal. They function on the same level. It’s a different kind of form than the aesthetic you are talking about with the suns, but I am thinking about the form in the work. I just don’t get excited or feel the motivation to work with something unless there’s more to it than that.
JB: That, I totally get. I guess where I was going, and then we can shift, it’s almost like looking at Robert Rauschenberg vs Mark Rothko. To me, the tradition of anti-aesthetic is strong, in the history of Art. Ugly-beauty, there are so many words for it.
JB: They wouldn’t call it ugly-beauty if it was just ugly. Using anti-aesthetic is a powerful way to communicate.
There are so many Rauschenberg pieces where you’re not going to feel that sense of calm sublime that you might feel in front of a Rothko. But then again, Rothko went and killed himself, so it’s not as if he was such a calm dude.
But let me use that as another segue. I would love to talk forever, and ask about all your inspirations, but one of the artists that came to me, preparing for this interview, was Gerhard Richter.
Are you a fan? Or if not, who are some of the giants that really inspired you?
PU: (pause) I love Richter. I think the Atlas Project is great. The Baader Meinhof paintings are brilliant. His relationship to photography, history and time is more interesting to me than the multiple aspect, if that’s where your question was going.
JB: It was instinctual curiosity. It struck me that he might have been someone that influenced you.
PU: It’s interesting about influence. People always ask, and I can never narrow it down. I could almost say everybody. I know that’s way too general. But I don’t think there is any one artist who influenced me more than anyone else.
JB: Sure. When we’re looking, there are many. But when I’m thinking about where someone is coming from, it’s fun to be less obvious. With all the categorization, and repetition, we could say Ed Ruscha. He’s someone who also crosses boundaries, and is forward thinking. He utilizes anti-aesthetics as well as aesthetics.
PU: Maybe Ruscha would be better. Definitely West Coast Conceptualism was a huge influence. It’s interesting, raising the question of anti-aesthetics. I think it comes back to your first question about being from Canada. West Coast to East Coast is a little like Canada to US.
JB: We’ve covered so much. Maybe end with an advice question? Now that you’re in a place where your work is ubiquitous, and so well-received, it seems like you’ve “made it.” Do you feel that way? Do you feel like people are always looking for more, or have you reached a point in your career where you feel satisfied with your success, and critical reception?
PU: It’s kind of strange. I’ve been making this work since 1986. That’s a long time. The fact that it is being well-received now is kind of a shock to me. Especially in the Photo World, because for so many years, I was considered not-relevant – i.e, not a photographer by photography-world standards.
And so maybe now that actual photographers are also using digital media, and art is on the web, the relevancy of my work is being understood in a different way. But I haven’t gotten used to it yet.
So I don’t perceive myself as having ‘made it’. I’m not really sure that exists. I don’t really know what that means.
JB: Of course it’s an abstracted phrase. I do think in a world, with social media, everybody always sees what everyone else is doing.
You can’t go on Facebook or Twitter without being bombarded by people saying, “Hey, look at me. Look what I’ve achieved. I’ve had this show, or that book.”
I feel like it almost creates an endless loop of ambition. That’s why I asked that question. Even if it seemed random.
Does anyone ever reach a point where they’re satisfied?
PU: To me, being satisfied that way is not why I do it. I’m not really concerned with that. It’s great that my work is selling a bit now. That means that I don’t have to teach so much. You know? That’s what it means to me, really. I’m not doing it for that kind of notoriety, so it’s not something I think about.
PU: I don’t know if that makes sense.
JB: Of course it does. It’s actually a lovely ending. You’re doing this for your own reasons, and however one defines success, it’s not driving your creative practice.
PU: The reasons are more about being in dialogue with the other things that are going on. I’m always a bit cautious about the idea of the insular artist, who doesn’t care what other people think – the idea that you’re just doing it because you have to do it.
Of course, there’s got to be a necessity in what you’re doing, or you shouldn’t be doing it. But at the same time, if you’re not in dialogue with everything else that’s going on – socio-cultural/socio-political conditions, other artists, other photographers – it isn’t very relevant.
For me, the dialogue is what makes it worthwhile. And the idea of success in terms of “having made it” isn’t part of that dialogue.