These advertorial spots are a perfect example of where editorial is headed. That and I really enjoyed learning more about Jonathan Mannion.
thx, Addison for the link.
I think one of the dynamics at play is that work that was recognized in the past triggers interest in similar work in the present. In other words, we have this library of images in our minds and when we see images that are similar to the images that we think are great, there’s an association, a connection that is positive. These are derivative images. But instead of being a negative aspect, these images get elevated, often to the highest awards and often without realizing we’re just awarding what worked in the past.
via Blog – Mike Davis.
On its visual merits alone, this show could have conceivably earned my first zero star review in the history of this site, which pains me severely given my love for Gursky’s previous work. That said, after much reflection, I think it jumps just barely to the one star category, mostly because I would recommend seeing this work to consider for yourself how one of our most shining stars could swing and miss so egregiously.
via DLK COLLECTION.
Jonathan Blaustein: I wrote a long article recently about my trip to Reno, and you pulled from it a particular question and posted it on Conscientious. I thought it might be interesting to turn that back on you and start there. I have the question right here on my little note sheet.
Jörg Colberg: It doesn’t look like a fake note sheet like Jon Stewart’s, though.
JB: No, it’s real. I even have magazines here (waving them in front of the webcam.) We’re going to get into all the good stuff. Let’s start with that question, and hopefully it won’t seem ridiculous that I’m quoting myself right now.
“I’m wondering why I didn’t hear more [at the A+E conference in Reno] about how we, as artists, can use a variety of skill sets and methods to expand the reach of our work, to recruit new viewers, to communicate a message in a manner that will speak to more people without dumbing down the art in the process?”
I’m assuming the question must have been intriguing to you, because you quoted it. So what were your first thoughts on that, as a starting point?
JC: There are a lot of hooks in that quote.
JB: Sure. We can start with any little part of it. Maybe I can give a little back story. You responded to a Google+ post that I did on the Reno article, and then you and I started going back and forth briefly, before we decided to flesh it out further in this interview.
JC: I don’t know whether I have the real answer. I have my own personal answer, and that’s biased in all kinds of ways.
JB: Of course. I’ll stipulate to all of your biases, and you can stipulate to mine. How about we start there.
JC: All right. I think the first thing is, a lot of the talking that’s going on online is about artists using their skill sets for social media and promotion. That’s the first thing. There is very little talk (or maybe I’m just missing all that talk) about what you’re talking about. You know, how artists can use a variety of skill sets to expand the reach of their work. Expanding the reach of their work doesn’t seem to get beyond making sure that more people see it to potentially buy a book or buy a print. I could be mistaken, but that’s something that I’ve been rather critical of, more and more. Social media is really just about blanket promotion, because, in theory, it could be about exactly what you’re talking about. Reaching more people, and talking about the work, and what’s behind the work, and how what is behind the work has connections to all these other things that go on in non-artists’ lives.
JB: You went right to social media, and of course social media was the impetus for this talk. Perhaps the rampant self-promotion we’re seeing on the web is finally wearing people out. You agree, I agree. But the exact same infrastructure, the social media infrastructure, just brought down regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The tool itself has already proven it’s power to do the impossible, or at least what people consider impossible.
JC: Yes and no. I think it’s disputed what the real power of social media is and how it contributed to the Arab Spring. But that aside, it’s a little like quoting the lottery winner. These are outlier events. I don’t deny that they’re true, but I think that using outlier events to prove a point is always a bit risky. Even if we stay with the Arab Spring, what brought down those regimes or what made people go to the street is not social media. It’s the willingness of those people to go out of the house and demand change.
JB: Of course.
JC: Social media alone are useless, unless… it’s the same with photography. I’m sorry if I’m hijacking this a little bit right now, but it’s this question, “Can photography change the world?” I don’t think it can, unless we learn our lessons from what it shows us, unless we decide do to something about it.
JB: That’s why I wanted to have this discussion. I’m talking about social media as an infrastructure. As an architecture that can be used, because all it is is a fancy term for the perfect information dissemination vehicle. Free, (sometimes) ubiquitous, let’s call it perfect, or certainly the best the world has ever seen. That’s where I think it starts to get interesting, when we talk about Art. You said, “Can photography change the world?”, and my article was basically written about an event where a bunch of artists were conceding that they could. And that they needed to, because Climate Change was such a dramatically horrific issue for humankind and animal kind.
I come from a background and an age where I’m trying to get over my cynicism about that idea. I feel like, coming up with Post-Modern theory in art school, there was an indoctrination against the idea that art could, or even ought to, aspire to create change. So leaving aside the bigger question of whether it can, we’re living in an age where most people don’t think they ought to try. It’s like a limited set of expectations of what our chosen calling can offer to the world. That’s where I want to start. That’s what the rallying cry was, though we’re probably not at that level where I can even call it a rallying cry. The question really is, “Why aren’t people even considering that it’s worth an attempt?”
JC: You know, I honestly don’t know. I think people make their decisions based on their personal beliefs and comfort levels. I have this idea that there’s this talk about the creative class. You’ve heard that term, right?
JC: I always thought that another name for the creative class would be the complacent class. It’s really rude, in a way, but I think it’s true. We’re so complacent about what we do. We want to change the world, and then we don’t want to do much about it. We think, “Well, if just click on ‘Like’ on Facebook for that cause, that’s going to make a big difference.” I suppose it makes a little bit of a difference, but you know, there are no consequences.
There are people who are really going out to change the world. I’m thinking of Pete Brook, who was just visiting here with his “Prison Photography on the Road.” He’s literally taking his blog to the road, staying with all these people and talking to them. He got started on Kickstarter, asking people for money, and a lot of artists donated prints so that he could give something back.
I think you can do something. Why people don’t do more? I don’t know. The situation is, I think, quite overwhelming. Every day, there is some other disaster. Some other drama going on. I guess there’s a sense of hopelessness. Of course, nobody can change all of the disasters and all the dramas, so I think you just have to pick one. But I don’t have a good answer. I don’t know why there is not more happening.
JB: To be clear, I don’t ever expect you to speak for anyone beyond yourself. In my belief as an artist, I find that ideas are often in the air. Oftentimes, you find that different people, in different parts of the world, are working on something similar without any connection. It’s our job, I think, to reach into the Zeitgeist and try to pull out these little nuggets of contemporary culture and then transform them, synthesize them.
In this week’s Newsweek, there’s an interview with Thomas Campbell, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (By Blake Gopnik) In the headline, it mentions expanding the audience and not dumbing it down. And in the New Yorker, there was another article about the Met, because they’re rolling out the new Islamic Galleries. It discussed how the Met devised a really fancy lighting installation at the edge of the gallery to entice people inside. I was surprised that this idea was reflected back at the highest institutional level, because, in a sense, we’re talking about artists on the street and the power structure as well. Clearly, the idea is out there.
We both could speculate as to why people aren’t necessarily ambitious or political in their content, oftentimes, but I would say that the bigger idea that we can talk about is, how we even consider going about enlarging the tent? What can we do to try to increase it’s power? At least here in the United States. What are you seeing, as far as artists’ attempts to reach across the divide?
JC: The problem in the US is pretty unfortunate, because the arts are pretty marginalized. I grew up in Germany, I lived there for 30 years. I don’t want to pretend that it’s the artistic paradise, because it certainly isn’t. But Art is talked about more often than here. There’s Art education in schools. All the way up to high school, I had to take classes in Art and Music. That was just something that I had to do. I didn’t have a choice. Just like German and English and Mathematics, you’d have a class on Art. I actually learned how to knit in school. That’s completely useless for me, as far as I’m concerned, but I learned it anyway.
JB: Knitting was useless for you, and Algebra was useless for me. We’re even.
JC: Art here has a different connotation. The high falutin’ people with their crazy ideas that are very different from the common man or regular folks. You have that in Germany too, but I know that a lot of people go to art galleries or to museums in Germany that would never go here. I know a lot of people are really interested in Art, and what’s going on here. I go to a diner every Saturday for breakfast, because I like to hang out at the counter. I talk a lot with people, and they are actually interested in what’s going on. The discourse about Art is just messed up. Funding for Art doesn’t exist, or is very minor. And that’s sort of at the very basic level.
One way to really make a difference, and I know it sounds naive, would be to send a letter to your Congressman saying “Why are we not funding the arts more?” Because there are jobs in the arts, obviously, but also because there is something that Art has to offer everybody. That’s the first aspect. The second aspect is maybe related. Art has such a weird standing. A lot of people don’t really like to talk about themselves as artists that change the world. It sort of has a bad feeling to it, and I don’t know why that is. Maybe the people who went to art school know there’s all this Post-Modern bullshit, so I can’t do that. I don’t think that every artist should try to change the world. It’s completely up to them. But I think every artist should really think about this. Do I want to change the world, or what do I want to do? What do I want my Art to do?
JB: I agree with you, but I don’t want this to just be, “Well no, I agree with you.” “But no, I agree with you.”
JC: That would be boring, right?
JB: Exactly. We have to get the controversy in here somewhere, or I won’t sell newspapers. Oh wait, that’s right, I’m not actually trying to sell newspapers. What I’m very curious about right now is…you’re presenting Art in a different context and a different culture, Germany. I think most art-literate folks are going to know that it’s the case. In Europe, there’s more cultural support for the arts. In the US, we acknowledge that the arts are marginalized, and that there is a heavy emphasis on Class and Status and Power within the Art world.
JB: It’s a separate question to say “How do we go about changing that?”
JC: Really, that’s what it comes down to. I just watched this documentary by Robert Hughes, the art critic, called “The Mona Lisa Curse.” I don’t know whether you’ve seen it.
JC: You can find a version with Spanish subtitles on Youtube. He was talking about how the art world has changed, has become incredibly commercialized. And how that is affecting the way Art is being done and talked about. I think we can, as artists, (and I’m calling myself an artist), we can take that back. It’s just that easy, but of course it’s not really easy. It’s just like Pete. He went on the road, and he’s doing it. There’s nothing, in principal, that can stop us from doing that. Creating something where we interact with people, and just disseminate what we do, and talk about it more. Bringing it to people who might be interested.
JB: I suppose we’re doing it right now. Or at least, the first step. But Art has always been used in service of power and in service of information dissemination. Look at the way it was used by the Catholic Church, or by the Mayan Ruling Class. At this point, I think we could say that at it’s highest levels, maybe it’s been hijacked in service of Capitalism. You said Commercialism, but in service of the Market.
JC: It doesn’t have to be that way.
JB: Referring back to that Newsweek article, it said that the Met had something like 5.8 million viewers last year. Now, it’s probably more than this, but let’s say that 1/3 of those viewers are tourists to New York coming in on the cheap dollar. So let’s say 4 million Americans. That’s not much more than 1% of the US population right there.
JC: That should tell us something, right? The Met is kind of a special example, because it’s the artificial environment that is New York City. I read that there was some talk about where do the 1% live, and there are several zip codes in New York where many of the top 1% of the wealthiest people live.The people that go to the Met, a lot of them are actually well off, as are many people who go on vacation to New York.
I think we should be looking at museums in places like Pittsburgh, or Cleveland. Places that are more regular, or behaving more like the average American city. Let’s see how museums are faring there? Whether people go to shows? Then we should think about what we can do to bring Art to people. I think museums are great, galleries are great, but of course they are environments that are kind of artificial. I think they can be intimidating. They’re certainly making every effort to be intimidating.
JB: I agree. I don’t think that point gets made enough. American’s really don’t like to talk about Class, I have found.
JB: So let’s sit on that idea. Museums in Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. Or, like I speculated in that article about Reno, outside of museums entirely. Listen, I’m a huge fan of Art Museums. I was brought up in suburban New Jersey. It was Bruce Springsteen country. Unpretentious. Blue collar, or at least a Blue Collar Mentality, where you do your work and you keep it real. I was just back in New York, and I’m going to write some articles about it, but I saw this fantastic show at PS1. (Article to come…) I was in New Jersey, talking about it with some relatives of mine.
I thought they’d be interested in the exhibition, as they had some personal connections to the subject matter. I brought up the show, and I talked about PS1 and Long Island City, and they said, “How come we’ve never heard of it?” Actually, what they said was “How come no one has ever heard of this place?” Of course, I said, some people have heard of it. You have to kind of be inside the club, or in the know, to hear about these things. As I was saying that, it just seemed so absurd.
So this is where we have to start. Because once I told them what I’d seen, they were ready to get in the car and drive to Queens. What we’re talking about is, if the mechanism of communication is there, which it is, and I think that the quality of work that one could see in the United States, probably across the country, is really high. So we cycle back to enticing or alluring people to open their minds enough to experience a different kind of media. Isn’t that really what we’re talking about?
JC: To an extent. I don’t think people have to be enticed, actually. I think a lot of people are actually more interested in some of the issues we deal with than we think they are. I think the PS1 problem is a good problem. For example, I don’t know where your relatives live, if they have a local newspaper. But that’s the first problem, is if they still have a local newspaper. And if that local newspaper still has an arts writer, then that arts writer might have written about it. It’s likely that there is no local newspaper any longer, and even if there is a local newspaper, then the arts writer is long gone, because there is no money for that. So it’s no surprise that your relatives have never heard of that show because…
JB: They never even heard of the venue.
JC: Is there a local newspaper?
JB: They live in New Jersey. It’s the New York area, so their daily newspapers are the Times and the Post. But it’s not just access to information…
JC: It is access to information. That’s part of it. But we need to create a culture where Art is being talked about on a more regular basis. Not just as a special section that’s called Art. People have to start realizing that what’s in the Art section is not just abstract paintings of things that nobody understands. It’s a lot of stuff that affects our lives. I guess that’s where we start agreeing again.
JB: Right. It keeps coming back to the How? And in a sense, the Why? Of course it’s about access to information, but I think it is very difficult for people to want to talk about that attitude and air of exclusivity that derives it’s power from keeping people out.
JC: So we have to take that away.
JB: Well, we can say “How” all day long, but maybe by saying “How” we’ll get some other people to think about it. It’s interesting that I got to read about the views of the head the Metropolitan Museum of Art talking about these issues in the same week that we are. When you read this stuff, it comes with this defensive slant. Like, “Yes, it’s nice to get the attendance numbers up, but, God forbid, too many people seeing this stuff means it’s less good. Or, it has to be a blockbuster show. If you want people to come, it has to be Tim Burton, you have to show movies. I disagree. When I first encountered the World’s best Art, and I was very fortunate, before the dollar went to shit and the economy went to hell, I was able to travel to Europe, and I lived in New York. A lot of my passion for Art comes from that physical experience of standing in front of something, and having your mentality shift in realtime. I believe, like you, that if more people were introduced to that experience, without changing that experience, people would get it.
JC: It is a big question. You have to start somehow. I don’t have a magic solution. There’s all kinds of things you could imagine. What it comes down to, literally, is bringing art to people. By showing it, by talking about it. There is no reason why interesting Art should always be in big museums in big cities. You can imagine, something that I’ve always talked about but never done it, is to rent a barn from a local farmer and do an art show for two weeks. Just bring in a bunch of artists, and put up a show, with advertising and everything. People have to drive to the countryside to see it. It’s a beautiful drive out here (Western Massachusetts) anyway. You would visit art, and it would be embedded in a community that maybe doesn’t have so much access to that kind of stuff. And then after two weeks, its gone. You don’t have the overhead of keeping up a museum, and you would take art of of it’s context that it’s in right now. This high falutin’ world with a lot of pretense. With a lot of money. With a lot of expectations, and a lot of stuff. I think it’s doable.
Even the web. Just talking about Art, or making multi-media pieces about Art. I think that’s why multi-media can be good, it is because you can bring the experience of Art closer to people. As photographers, we’re lucky, because photography is an ideal medium for the web.
JB: Sure. Photography and the web changed my life. I’m living proof of how well jpegs can work. Yet that was never my goal, nor was it the optimal way for people to experience my work, when things are meant to be big. But I think you hit on it…
JC: That’s the thing. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but people are worried that that’s not the optimal way to experience their work. Of course, I hear that a lot, because I’m a blogger. People say that it doesn’t look so good on the screen. But that’s totally missing the point. If you get curious about photography, or you get curious about photo books because you see me flipping through a photo book in a crappily made video, you might go out and buy that book, right?
JC: And then, suddenly, you have the book and you start looking. That’s kind of what I think I can do. Show and say let’s look at this, this might be interesting. The viewer still has to make that step: I’m going to go and see that show. Or: I’m going to buy that book. I think putting it out there, and saying this might interest you has got to be the first step. And with photography, there are books. They’re not even that expensive.
JB: Look, I’ve said this in print several times. The experience of knowing that millions of people around the planet were thinking and talking about my work, it was indescribably awesome. Brilliant. But when I know that the pictures, in my head, and on the wall are meant to be seen at 30″x40″. You can’t experience a 30″x40″ print on a white wall through the Internet. It’s not either or, here, between the Internet and the wall. It’s both.
But the idea that I want to sit with, for a minute, was that you talked about this idea of bringing Art out to the people, and I talked about it in my Reno article. Now Kickstarter is there. Maybe we’re really talking around it, but Occupy Wall Street came from a call from the media, right? Adbusters. I’m not, in any way, about to speculate that you and I chatting via Skype can have even a fraction of the impact. However, maybe it’s something as simple as saying, let’s do it. Let’s try to organize a series of ten pop up art exhibitions in interesting places in the United States, and let’s raise the 50 Grand that’s necessary, and let’s publicize the shit out of it. And let’s take Art to the people. And whether “Let’s” is you and me, or people that we know, or people who read this…maybe that is the start. Is to say, “OK. Let’s do it.”
JC: Why not, right?
JB: Well, I live in Northern New Mexico, and you can bet your ass that people would like to see photo installations and projections on the sides of cliffs. I know I would.
JC: I think it’s actually doable. You could certainly reach enough people. We’d have to plan it.
JB: Of course.
JC: You’d literally make these shows for a week or two. Maybe you could tap local arts organizations. They might be happy to help. I don’t know. But I think that something could be done. Yes.
JC: And I think that would be a good start. You do this in ten cities? Just imagine. Even five cities.
JB: Or, as you said, rural areas.
JC: It would be so amazing.
JB: Or maybe it’s both. You just never know. I’m not saying we’re going to light the spark. I’m just saying we can’t rule out the possibility. I think we hit on something.
JC: It’s just something that we have to do now.
JB: Do you want to follow up on this? Do you want to put a little elbow grease in? Or should we let other people do it?
JC: In this day and age, especially with something like this, it shouldn’t be something that one or two people are doing. You have to make sure you get 5 or 6 people together.
JC: So you sort of have a collective.
JB: Let’s get Art out of the temples, and out into the cow pastures and smaller cities.
JC: I think it’s a great idea. It sounds so populist. It is a really good idea.
You may remember photographer Jason Lee Parry from the $28,000,000 lawsuit brought against him in August by parents of a young model he photographed (APE story here). The parents flipped out when a sexually suggestive image that Parry took of their 16 year old daughter on a motorcycle (she was 15 at the time) appeared on clothing in Urban Outfitters. In an email to us Jason claims the lawsuit is nothing but a publicity stunt because: the models father was on set for the majority of the shoot, the parents and Ford modeling agency approved of the images after the shoot, and the model posted the images to her blog after the shoot. Finally, he says the images appeared on the shirts in Urban Outfitters without his permission. Heidi Volpe asked him a few questions about what happened:
Heidi: How did you find out you were getting sued?
Jason: I received a phone call from a reporter of the New York Post named Bruce Golding on August 15th 2011. He broke the news and emailed me the documentation of the lawsuit before I received it from anyone else or knew I was even being sued.
What is most upsetting about the lawsuit?
The images have been out in the public for 18 Months, it’s the second image that comes up when you google her name. It has been on my website and I’ve never been asked to take them down, it has been on Ford models website and was never asked to be taken down as well as on the Model’s Facebook page, blog and thousands of other fashion blogs. The second it comes out on an Urban Outfitters t-shirt, the Model’s parents try to sue for $28 million. It is obviously 100% about money. Why didn’t the parents contact the magazine and ask them to not publish the images?
How long after you did the shoot, did the lawsuit come up?
Were the parents on set during the photo shoot?
The model’s father was present for a majority of the shoot. He was shown photos while on set and sanctioned them long before they were published.
Was the treatment approved and discussed?
The treatment was discussed and approved with Meg Day of Ford Models, the teen Model’s booker at the time as well as the teen Model’s father the day of the shoot. Both approved, and the second the editorial was published, I personally dropped off the magazine with her booker at Ford Models. Everyone was very happy with the story. Ford at that point even hired me to test shoot their new faces, which I did.
Did they have any comments during the shoot?
Her dad just spoke about how he used to ride motorcycles.
Did the model have a problem with them prior to the t-shirt coming out?
After the photos were released the model proudly posted the images in question to her Facebook, blog and the Ford models website. She also posted behind the scenes photos of the shoot on her blog. Also, before the lawsuit, the Model’s brother and two of his friends had posted a photo of themselves on her Facebook page all wearing the t-shirt in question. The Model had commented under the photo that her friends all need to get one of the t-shirts.
What prompted them to sue?
When the parents of the teen model figured that they could try to make money off of this as well as create buzz for their daughter. It’s 100% about money.
How did Urban Outfitters get the images?
Blood is the New Black manufactured the t-shirts and sold them to Urban Outfitters for further sales and wider distribution.
Why didn’t you get a model release?
Hailey is under-age so she can’t sign a model release, instead her Booker at Ford models is in charge of the model release. The model agencies don’t allow the model to directly sign with the photographer. I do have the release for the publication in my files and the booker has one as well.
Is there a resolution in sight?
I was officially served on October 5th 2011. I believe that the truth will prevail and the lies will be revealed.
What has this done to your career?
This has definitely been a learning experience and has been beneficial for me in terms of my name as a photographer being recognized. But this is obviously not the way I want others to learn of my name. This lawsuit has caused much stress on my family and myself,. It was just a ploy to scare Urban Outfitters out of money. Since this lawsuit came out I haven’t skipped a beat, and have only gained clients. I just hope this burden is resolved soon, so my career will continue on the path that it was on.
…Saatchi says he finds the new art world toe-curling. “My little dark secret is that I don’t actually believe many people in the art world have much feeling for art and cannot tell a good artist from a weak one, until the artist has enjoyed the validation of others. “Few people in contemporary art demonstrate much curiosity, and spend their days blathering on, rather than trying to work out why one artist is more interesting than another.”
via The Guardian.
Three local high school kids got very lost on Thanksgiving night. It was nihilistically dark out, and they inexplicably drove their car into a ditch in the middle of our pasture. I’d never of known, as I was already sleeping when it happened. I awoke to violent pounding on my bedroom door, and after the initial fear-based adrenaline dump, I realized that my mother-in-law was outside making a ruckus about tress-passers, and imploring us to let her in. She had a very big gun wrapped in her sweatshirt, and we scattered about trying to figure out what to do.
After deliberating, we chose to call the Sheriff, and learned that it would be 15 minutes or so before help arrived. That’s a long time to wait when shit goes South, and nasty things happen out here all the time. Fortunately, my father-in-law arrived, ever the voice of reason, and walked out into the night, unarmed, to find out what was really going on. So I found myself, shortly thereafter, canceling the cavalry, and helping to tow the probably-stoned-out-of-their-mind kids out of my fallow irrigation ditch. Crisis averted. Gun returned to its proper home under my mother-in-law’s pillow.
This time of year, with Thanksgiving a week behind us and Christmas fast approaching, we often focus on the annoying and obnoxious aspects of family. We don’t like their presents, or their body odor, or how much noise they make when they chew. We bitch about the boring stories, the TV remote gamesmanship, and the leaden, lard-based Christmas cookies. (OK, that was an exaggeration. Lard makes the cookies lighter. Mmmm, pig cookies.)
What’s my point here? Since we’ve been walking upright, family has been the core bond that ensured that our species survived, then thrived, and now is back in survival mode. Our family is our backup, our own personal army, our clan, our blood. I’ve never doubted for one second that if anything ever went wrong, my wife’s Mom would be breaking down the door, gun in hand, ready to kick some ass. And now I know I was right all along. But the funny thing was, there wasn’t any actual danger. Bonnie, in her fear, succumbed to irrational thinking, and imagined the worst of the situation. 30 seconds talking to the kids would have alleviated her concern.
Since the Renaissance, enlightened scholars have tended to focus on our ability, as creatures, to reason. We have the intellect to act rationally, and over-ride our emotional response to the world. So they say. Nowadays, it’s more fashionable, at least within the world of Behavioral Economics, to accept the opposite. Our reptilian brains, the core of our mental functioning, are strong, and we often act in manners not commensurate with our own best interest. Yes, we can think. But we’re animals. And we’re still afraid of the dark.
It’s funny, but after ten plus years of fighting in Afghanistan, we’re still no closer to democratizing the joint. It’s too tribal, they say. Too remote to conquer. Loyalties are always to the clan, and not some faceless bureaucratic enterprise in Kabul. You know why? Because the government doesn’t come rushing to your aid when there are demons at your door. Your family does. Your neighbors. The people right there in your face. Your blood.
Which is why I was so blown away when I slowly, carefully unpacked a pristine copy of Taryn Simon’s new book, “A Living Man Declared Dead, and Other Chapters.” Straight off, I’ll say this book isn’t for everyone. It’s expensive, for starters. And it’s so big that it would be perfect for braining an intruder, if you could actually lift the thing to do the dirty deed. So let’s not assume I’m shilling this thing for Ms. Simon, or for MACK, her perfectionist British publisher.
For the project, which was presented as a solo exhibition at the Tate Modern earlier this year, Ms. Simon spent four years traveling around the world, a modern-day-art-sleuth. She’s very good at showing us what we don’t know we wan’t to see, and in this case she focused on the aforementioned issues at the core of our collective human nature: the power of the clan, and the absurdity or our irrationality. Given that the book is so big and well-constructed, I can see future anthropologists giggling over their coffee pills as they look back on our ridiculous manner of navigating through the world.
Ms. Simon divides the book, and the project, in to chapters. 18 to be exact. Each begins the same way, with a grid of portraits of a clan connected by blood, starting with a particular person, and charting their descendants through time. She’s gone around the Earth to bring back the kind of stories that you think nobody could make up, which is why it makes such a fascinating truth. The title refers to a man in India who was declared dead so that several of his relatives could steal his land claim. Another chapter follows the family of a man abducted by the North Koreans, who’ve resorted to finding immigrants by any means necessary. There’s a chapter devoted to Uday Hussein’s body double, a family of Tanzanian albinos, the “perfect” government sanctioned Chinese family, victims of the Srebrenica massacre, the Scottish mother of a set of thalidomide triplets from the 70’s, and many, many more. (Each is separated by a strong piece of beige canvas. Nice touch.)
After the initial grid, Ms. Simon includes evidence-style images connecting the clan to the crime, so to speak. From there, we see larger, individual portraits of every member of the blood-line that she was able to photograph. Though she’s often been criticized for her super-dry style, I found each portrait to be compelling. Which is really hard to do. The book is so large that you think you’d just glance at the portraits, all these strangers an after-thought, but that’s not how it works. Each face is different than the next, and odd in some magical way. When she encountered people she couldn’t shoot, Ms. Simon published blank gaps in the grid, which becomes a powerful visual symbol. The text explains the reason for the omission, be it religious conviction, travel restrictions, or fear of being kidnapped. Of course there’s plenty of text, explaining the stories, making the connections. And plenty of rabbits too. Lots and lots of rabbits. (Her only non-human narrative focuses on the explosion of the rabbit population in Australia, where the creatures are non-native, and the extreme measures taken by the Aussies to kill the little buggers.)
At it’s core, this book feels as much like a science project as an art series. It’s methodical, categorical, and clearly obsessive. (I have a little vision of Ms. Simon ordering lunch in a diner: egg white omelette, cheese on the side, wheat toast, lightly done, butter and jam on the side on separate plates, coffee, not too hot, with milk instead of cream, shaken, not stirred.) We’ve all heard the stories about how August Sander really wanted to photograph every German, broken down into sub-sections, one at a time. It seems as if Ms. Simon has accomplished the root of that dream, by making our craziest realities a proxy for everyone. Her clans, meticulously traced, represent us all. In a time when the worst predictions feed fear of our imminent decline, it feels like an accomplishment meant as much for our descendants as for us.
Bottom Line: Expensive, but worth it
I get a lot of questions about the photography business and for any answers that are more involved I refer people to my list of photography consultants. I’ve always been curious what the process of working with a consultant is like so I asked Suzanne Sease to tell us about it. She interviewed a handful of her colleagues to get a broad perspective on the practice. I can assure you, after a few times consulting with photographers myself, that these people are really good at what they do.
Working with a consultant 101
You have done what you think is right for your business. You edited your images for your website, portfolio and promotional materials but still nothing is happening. To get another valued opinion, you have made a big decision to work with a creative consultant to help take your career to the next level or jumpstart it. There are a lot of consultants out there so it is hard to decide who is best for you. This article is to help you make the best decision for your business.
I reached out to several veterans whom I respect because of their experience before they chose to be consultants. I asked them the best way to maximize working with a consultant. The resulting checklist is designed to help you make the best decision for you if you want to work with a creative consultant. For this article, I interviewed Amanda Sosa Stone, Jennifer Kilberg, Leslie Burns, Katherine Hennessy, Mary Virginia Swanson and included my own thoughts from my experiences as a consultant since 1999.
It is best to e-mail several consultants to check their availability and a time to talk about your work. Please understand that we get a lot of e-mails each day so it may take a day or two to get back to you. Be focused about what you are looking for and what you would like to achieve. Make sure you clearly articulate your needs and expectations regarding your hope of working with a consultant. Most consultants will review your website before they talk with you. Leslie says she looks at a potential client’s website before returning a call or e-mail to gain more information about their level of creativity or sign of it. Katherine and I do that as well. We look at your website as we want to see how you are presenting yourself on your website. If your website is not organized with a clear vision, it makes a buyer confused. Jennifer, Amanda, and I all agree that you need to ask what it is that you are currently doing that is not working and where you want to go. Mary Virginia Swanson has created a page on her website on “how we work together”, and requires potential clients to fill out a “client fact sheet”. Amanda has the philosophy that she wants her clients to hire her because she is the perfect match for them. Katherine feels like you need to be able to have open dialogue and set reasonable expectations regarding where you are and the expected outcome. Mary Virginia adds “Not every photographer is open to constructive criticism when it comes to their work and their business model(s) currently in practice. I encourage those investing in consultations to anticipate a tough review and the suggestion of investigation into new markets.”
The Editing Process:
Before a consultant can begin the process, the photographer needs to take the time to edit the images that they want to represent them. Jennifer asks for 250-500 images per market. She says having clients send her everything and anything does not benefit her client and is a waste of her time. I couldn’t agree more. Amanda and I both prefer about 1,000 images in one folder and not separated into categories. I have received thousands of images before and after selecting great images, the photographer says “ I have never liked that image”. You must not be emotionally attached to images and you need to remember that a photographer carries baggage about imagery – you need to look at working with the consultant as an independent force that will help you cull the best, not getting bogged down by your perspective and past perceptions. As Amanda says “ You should go into the consult completely open (in your head and in your calendar- meaning you have time to do the work you want to do).” Most consultants like to work with digital images that are sent to them and are editing in Aperture, Lightroom and other software. Amanda, Jennifer, Katherine and I like to create contact sheets of the images in the order they should appear in the website galleries. A portfolio is also created for the client to use on an iPad as well as a printed portfolio. Leslie likes to work on the backend of someone’s website or with jpegs. But for the printed portfolio she requires prints to play with. Since Mary Virginia works primarily with artists on their personal projects, many of her clients send physical prints so she can gain a sense of their craft, project edits and publication layouts utilizing on-line editing tools.
Discussing the Editing:
Each of the consultants in this article spend the time discussing the edits that have been tailored to their client. The edits are created to your vision and the markets it should target. Amanda and I both agree that the discussion needs to honest and about the photographer’s strengths. Weaknesses can be indentified, discussed and pushed aside for the strengths to shine. Each of the consultants discusses where you want to grow and their edits are a reflection of that. As Leslie says, “ Be open, be willing to listen and learn, and have some faith in her/himself in the process.” Mary Virginia helps her clients gain awareness of today’s diverse marketplace and where their work/skills are most likely to fit and teach them the necessary research skills aimed at targeting those most likely to respond to their work. Katherine, Amanda and I like to use our previous skills as an art buyer to look at your images as to what they sell- either a product or an emotion. In advertising and graphic design, your images have to stop the viewer to look at what is being advertised. In editorial, your image has to entice the viewer to read the article or want to buy the products featured, cook a meal or decorate a room. I look at the production value to your images. If your images look like you stumbled upon something, you got lucky. If your images look like you created a scenario and knew how to shoot within it, I know you have talent.
You have done all your work with your edits, you have uploaded the images on to your site, designed your portfolio from the edit, and have a selection of images for your marketing. At this point, we look at your marketing plan and discuss how it is best to approach your target. For Mary Virginia she enjoys seeing her long-term clients achieve their goals of exhibitions, gallery representation, publications and/or creative commissions in the style of their personal work. For the commercial side of consulting, you need to decide how you are willing to spend your marketing dollars. But you HAVE to market. Each of these consultants will work with you on your target market. The best way is to purchase the rights to use a database. Agency Access has merged the research from Adbase to create an excellent researched database of companies, contacts and brands. Each consultant knows how to create lists for you on your account and will select images for your e-promo materials and direct mail. Katherine adds “Direct Mail cannot be discounted in this technological world. It is an avenue that should still be pursued.” I like my clients to create personalized e-mails complimenting the work a buyer has done showing they have done their research on a case by case basis. It is encouraged that you go on the road and show your portfolio. I have clients send out personalized notecards telling potential buyers that you would like to meet with them and then giving them a call to set up a meeting. One of my clients said it perfectly “ I came to realize when I did all my marketing virtually, that client didn’t want to hire a virtual photographer.” But if folks are unable to meet, create a virtual portfolio that is an extension of your website. A PDF portfolio is usually too large to send to buyers (2MB can crash a buyers computer even at large companies). A good virtual portfolio company is www.issuu.com.
The Lessons Learned:
Each of the consultants agree with what Amanda wrote so perfectly:
My wish for all my clients is that once we show them the path – they learn to trust themselves and listen to their gut instincts.
The lessons I have learned from clients who hired another consultant and then hired me to fix what the first consultant didn’t do the first time (which I know happens to the best of us):
- Sometimes it wasn’t the consultant who didn’t do the work, sometimes the client didn’t communicate they weren’t happy and felt bad and didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the consultant.
- As a consultant you have to edit without an ego – you can’t please everyone and if you can’t, you better hope they speak up so you can fix the problem.
- It’s a two way street – you have to be respectful of each other’s time and feelings, but still be honest about the process, the work and the state of one’s business.
- Spending a lot of money doesn’t mean you are getting the best, it just means someone charges more than another (same with designers).
- Listen to the work. Sometimes, the consultant is given a verbal direction by the photographer, but the works demands another direction, which might be out of the artist’s comfort zone (i.e. you want to shoot fashion, but your best work is portraits). In the end, the artist may not be ready to take their work to the next level or that direction, in which case the artists needs to clearly communicate this to the consultant. If they do not, they will have wasted their money by not communicating their needs.
Mary Virginia says “Not every photographer is open to constructive criticism when it comes to their work and their business model(s) currently in practice. I encourage those investing in consultations to anticipate a tough review and the suggestion of investigation into new markets.”
Jennifer says “When hiring a consultant you need to make sure you are a strong communicator and have expressed your expectations up front. A good consultant will help you figure out your goals and help you prioritize where your focus should be. We can help build a strong foundation to get you out the door, but you still need to do the work.”
Katherine would add “You need to come with focused goals, but also be realistic with your expectations, acknowledging the industry and the economic situation. There is work out there, but our relationship and business partnership will not be the crystal ball answer. It’s simply one step in the process.”
And Leslie sums it up “ I draw the map, they have to drive the route.”
Most of the consultants are available ala carte or for packages. Check out their websites for more information. Mary Virginia doesn’t offer packages and bills for time spent on working with her clients.
The contributors to this article are:
Amanda Sosa Stone- www.sosastone.com, She has over 12 years experience as a former art buyer for FCB/Draft, rep/producer for over 27 photographers and photo editor. Amanda was the photo editor for Elyse Weisberg’s book. Co-author with Suzanne Sease on The Photographers Survivor’s Guide. Currently, Amanda is the in-house consultant for Agency Access.
Jennifer Kilberg- www.fluidvisioninc.com. She has over 15 years experience as a former photo editor for SciFi Channel, NYC Kodak, American PHOTO, professor at Parsons (NYC), current professor at Creative Circus and The Portfolio Center (GA), and producer for clients like American Airlines.
Leslie Burns, Esq.- www.burnsautoparts.com and burnstheattorney.com. She has worked for clients and commercial photographers since the 1990s, including being a photographers’ rep and adjunct prof at CCAD: A consultant for over 10 years, she is the author of 2 books and a frequent speaker. She recently passed the California Bar and can help with copyright and legal issues, too.
Mary Virginia Swanson- www.mvswanson.com is established in the fine art and quality fine art stock world. She maintains a popular blog “Marketing Photos” that showcases upcoming opportunities for photographers. Swanson contributes to many industry publications, lectures frequently, participates at portfolio review events such as FotoFest and Review Santa Fe, and earlier this year coauthored Publish Your Photography Book with Darius Himes (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). Her next publication “Finding Your Audience: An Introduction to Marketing Your Photographs” is due early 2012. Swanson is based in Tucson and NYC.
Katherine Hennessy- www.kate-company.com Katherine has over 20 years experience in the business. She managed the art buying department at Arnold Worldwide- Boston, prior to that, was a buyer in NYC with McCann Erickson and Scali, McCabe, Sloves. Currently, in addition to consultations, Katherine is a photographers’ agent with her business, Kate & Company.
And me, Suzanne Sease- www.suzannesease.com I have over 25 years experience. I established the art buying department at The Martin Agency and when I left I had the opportunity to work at Kaplan Thaler, Capital One, Best Buy and many small agencies. I co-authored the book with Amanda Sosa Stone “The Photographer’s Survival Guide: How to Build and Grow a Succesful Business.” I am a contributor to blogs here on APE as well as Agency Access’s The Lab.
The best advice I could possibly give you, and forgive me if this seems glib, is to work. Work. Work. Work. Every day. At the same time every day. For as long as you can take it every day, work, work, work. Understand? Talent is for shit. I’ve taught school for nearly thirty years and never met a student who did not have some talent. It is as common as house dust or kudzu vine in Alabama and is just about as valuable. Nothing is as valuable as the habit of work, and work has to become a habit.
Jonathan Blaustein: I was in New York this past week, and I was able to see both of your exhibitions that are currently on display at Bryce Wolkowitz and Howard Greenberg. It’s such a great lead in to our conversation, and I definitely want to ask some questions about those shows. To give you a bit of backstory, I come to this process as an artist, not a journalist or a professional. I’m one of those people who seems to be faking it until I make it. The goal will be to try to provide some information for the audience, and get a sense of where your head is at, because I think, realistically, everybody who reads the interview will be familiar with your work. So let me just jump right in. I have a lot of specific questions, but from a standpoint of my personal curiosity, I was hoping to start with something really broad. I wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about why you do what you do?
Edward Burtynsky: I have no idea what else I would do. Creating ideas and objects, and being involved in art making, whether it’s in the form of photography, or something else is part of my being. The creative urge feels as if it’s in my DNA. If I’m not creating something, then I feel as if I’m having a slow death.
The “why” of what I do is fairly straightforward, it’s why all artists are compelled to do their work. Most of the artists I know who are successful don’t have a lot of choice. It’s something they simply need to do. That’s as close as I can come to why I do it. I’ve always made things. I’ve always been involved in the arts.
JB: Kandinsky had a great phrase for it that I picked up in grad school. He called it “Inner Necessity.” When I get asked the question, I give a similar answer, but given that you’re so accomplished at what you do, I was curious to hear your take. Anyway, because I got to hear you lecture for 40 minutes at the Art+Environment Conference in Reno, and because I got to see two of your exhibitions in the last four days, my questions are kind of focused on what you’re doing now. We also got to chat in Reno a bit as well, and you mentioned that in 2011, you are now working with “drone helicopters.”
We continued our conversation, but that phrase kind of stuck in my mind. When I mentioned it to other people, everyone had the same reaction, which is, “What? How? Why?” I was hoping you might share a bit about how that process works?
EB: We call them “drones” but I guess it’s kind of a misleading term.
JB: You can see why I got curious. We all have visions of toy airplanes firing guided missiles at bearded dudes in the hinterlands of Pakistan, so I had to ask.
EB: I refer to them as “RC-copters”, remote control helicopters. I’ve always been interested in being able to position my camera at an optimal viewpoint in order to take a good picture.
My response to a subject determines the appropriate distance, angle and time of year. I’ve been working – and scratching my head – in China for almost a decade now. China has no civil aviation. It’s mostly, if you want to get up in the air, you either have to deal with industry, or you’ll have to deal with the military.
For instance, the hydro-electric projects. Up in the regions where they’re putting the dams in, the Chinese use huge Sikorsky helicopters to shuttle men in and out of building sites. These overkill choppers can carry a dozen men and their gear. You can rent one but it’s ridiculously expensive. The only other way to use airspace by helicopter in China is through the military. Getting them on side is a major hassle and again you’re paying buckets of money to use their craft, at their convenience, and it means you’ve got to go right to Beijing and talk to them. The beaurocracy is staggering.
One of the workarounds we were sorting out was to try getting my Hasselblad up in a helicopter without me. The whole process started from the question “How can I stand where I want to stand and shoot from where I want to shoot, in a place where I can’t get up in the air? If I want to take pictures from a lofty perspective in China, or in India – where it’s equally challenging to get chopper space in remote areas – how do I accomplish that?”
With the small RC helicopter I’m able to shoot in isolated areas utilizing the same opportunities that a regular helicopter provides, without having a full-on rig and related expenses. We’ve been successfully doing aerial tests, shooting with the Hasselblad at about 700-800 ft. We can shoot down rock-steady and control the point of view—totally remote.
JB: Do you have a live video feed to tell you when you want to click the shutter? Are you seeing it in real-time?
EB: Yes. I’m watching in real-time, so I have a camera in the eyepiece of the Hasselblad. I have three-way positioning on the camera, so I have all the movements of a tripod head. I’m working with a helicopter operator to say “Freeze it in that spot.” Then I’m working with a guy on the head, and I hold the shutter release. So I’m getting live video feed as I compose from the camera.
EB: You can fly as far away from base to the point where you lose visual contact, which is a bad idea with a remote, because you want to be sure to get it back. It’s a lot of expensive equipment.
JB: No doubt. When everyone reads that, they’re going to be mentally tabulating the bill on that equipment. That’s insane. I’m really not a tech-obsessed guy, but that concept, especially with the contemporary context of remote control warfare, I had to ask.
JB: I just saw your two shows in New York. I was fortunate to get a preview of the Dryland Farming series in Reno, but seeing the prints of the new work on the wall at Wolkowitz was kind of astonishing.
I hope you won’t assume flattery here, but I’ve seen a lot of your work through the years. Part of being an artist is just being aware of what’s going on. And I thought the new work was absolutely fantastic. I think people my age are often afraid of the tendency to do your best work early on, and then kind of slowly crater. Seeing something that awesome and invigorating was inspiring. The prints were extraordinary, and hopefully we’ll get this interview up in time for people to go see the show. But they are somewhere in the range of 40″ x 60″, just gigantic images, and they are abstract to the point where they were almost vibrating. The fingers of the Spanish landscape reminded me of little alien fetuses. People familiar with your work will recognize the thumbprint, and yet they were kind of a new aesthetic to me, particularly the color palette. The photographs looked like digital capture to me, as opposed film.
JB: I was wondering if I interpreted that correctly, or if it was just the palette you were using. Have you shifted your process at all to make that work?
EB: They are now shot digitally.
JB: They are…
EB: Yes. I’ve tried every way I can, and film isn’t capable of that quality in aerial work. When I first started shooting from the air in 2003 I took a large format film camera up. I was using my Linhof 4×5 with a rangefinder on it, and ran into a host of problems. One is, because you are in motion, and there’s vibration, so you’re trying to get high shutter speeds. You have to expose at one five-hundredth of a second or better, even with a gyro and a copter pilot trying to steady the craft as best he can. That’s pretty much the fastest speed on the older shutters. To get that speed, you’ve got to expose wide open, and most large format lenses don’t render optimally wide open. In my case F5.6 is wide open, and it’s hard to get the picture sharp at the corners. They really need to be at F16, or better at F22.
JB: These are technical reasons. But the color palette, the aesthetic, certainly on those large prints, it reads as Hyperreal. Which to me kind of grounds it in the 21st Century, and makes them even better. The non-linearity of the land was just shocking, the way the water movement shapes the parcels for farming. Was that a project that you’ve always wanted to do, or was it the kind of thing where you were in Spain, you saw something, and it triggered an idea in your mind?
EB: All my work is research driven. When I started doing this Dryland Farming series, I was already working on the idea of water. I had just finished my Oil project, having spent twelve years, exploring that; at different times I’d go back to it, then do something else, take a year off, think about it, research some more, and go back to it.
I often work in chunks: research and then implementation. When I started looking at water, one of the key things staring me in the face was that, well, I’m not necessarily interested in water as Water per se, because that’s one big subject. We have oceans that cover two-thirds of the planet, and I’m not so interested in that part of the story, but I am interested in human intervention. How do we interact with water, and how do we re-shape and synthesize water into what we want it to be, into the various things that we need it to be.
When I started researching from that perspective things get fascinating, 70% of human water usage is in agriculture. So agriculture becomes a dominant theme within the research, to ask “where is agriculture done in conceptually and visually interesting ways? Where can I find that?”
So I started researching agriculture subjects, working with researchers here at my studio. We’ve looked at everything from California’s Imperial Valley, where they are using the Colorado River with aqueducts; to Dryland farming in the Monegros, Spain, a natural usage of available winter rainwater, where there’s no irrigation at all, so it’s one crop per year. And I was recently photographing near where you live; driving through New Mexico into the Texas panhandle, then flying over and photographing gigantic pivot agriculture systems that are drying out the aquifers.
These are examples of the very different ways in which humans intervene with water, but again, it’s all research driven. I’m looking to find the visual representation of various ideas in the landscape, and then allowing the ideas to push me to the place that needs to be photographed. I’m trying to find the form which best suits an aspect of the research, and for the most part, the best visual description of what we do with water cries for elevation. I need to get up above it to see it from a great height, because it’s often such a vast thing I’m looking for, that the point of view has to be from a bird’s eye view. That’s basically the way I’m developing the project.
JB: It leads to my next question. You talk about oil, you talk about water, you talk about research and planning, and yet sometimes a disaster can make an idea, or the intersection of two ideas, suddenly achievable. At the Howard Greenberg gallery, you had a few images, super-large scale, of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. There was a particular image, I think it was titled “Riptide,” where you could literally see the line between the encroaching Oil/Water, and what was presumably the water not yet polluted, which had a different color. They’re aerial, using copters or planes. One thing I was curious about was, certainly within the photo community, there’s this sense that with each new disaster, there’s a crew of guys, a slew of people sprinting there as fast as they can to be the first to document that particular scenario. That’s not the way you typically work. I wondered what that was like for you on the scene? Did you see any competition of photographers trying to get up in the air first? What it was like for you as an artist to witness the journalistic practice?
EB: I wasn’t necessarily separated, but I wasn’t trying to get my work out in AP or anything like that. That wasn’t my intention.
JB: Clearly. When you see the work, it was almost like it had to be. It fit so perfectly within the through-line of your work.
EB: You’re quite right to pick up on that. I had a foot in both worlds. I just finished up doing a twelve-year project about oil, which is traveling the world until 2013. And I’m three and a half years into a project on water. Almost two years ago, when the Gulf oil spill happened, both of these themes were present in one place. I don’t generally follow disasters or current events in that way. If I am photographing a disaster, it’s a slow, intentional incremental one. It’s not typically where a natural disaster kicked out, or one where something went horribly wrong. In the Macondo well, something went horribly wrong. I generally don’t go after that kind of subject, but in this case it involved the two liquids that we, as humans, engage with on a massive scale, and both were present. That’s something I rarely have a chance to witness, as an image-maker, where two big themes that I’m working with are suddenly come together in one landscape.
“Riptide,” the image you’re talking about, is actually where the water goes out, about eighty miles beyond the Mississippi, where the water streams into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s silted, so there’s a certain opaque tonality to the Mississippi water. The Gulf of Mexico is a clearer, and has an aquamarine-blue appearance. It’s where brackish water meets the salty ocean water of the Gulf. That particular intersection in the photograph is where these two different types of water are actually coalescing and blending together. The oil had found its path into that water too, so it was caught into the confluence of these two waters. The oil is being held in that tide, and that is one of the few places where I was actually able to see the oil. Mostly, no one was seeing it for days and days, because they were using dispersant. Deep down, something like 4000 feet down somewhere, they had a pipe that was blowing dispersant over the oil as it came up, and it was atomizing it. So the oil itself was never surfacing. This was one of the places where an oil mass made it to the surface.
JB: I had a really interesting reaction, standing in front of the print. As much as the world relies on jpegs, there’s really no substitute for the physical experience of being in front of a 40″x 60″ like that. It was one of the most disturbing, beautiful photographs I’d ever seen. It was so luscious and gorgeous, that for the first time as a viewer, I actually felt guilty about appreciating the magnificence of the photograph. It’s not subtle, why you’re seeing what you’re seeing, between the title and the visual. I felt like you took it to the outer edge of how to use the seductive power of beauty to get people paying attention. I don’t know if there’s a question in there, but obviously, you use aesthetics to draw people’s attention to these environmental disasters…
EB: What I’ve often said is that it follows, very much, a state of mind, collectively, that we’re all in. If I had to put a psychological term, on it, it’s that we’re all in a state of cognitive dissonance. In other words, we all know that the collective impacts the earth. You’d have to be pretty out of it to not have some sense that as a species, we’re having a profound effect on our planetary systems, water systems, air systems, the forest, life in the oceans. Everywhere you turn, humans are doing things on a large scale, and Nature is really getting the brunt of it, is being pushed back. So many of us know that this is happening. It’s getting harder to simply enjoy life, and go on, buy another car, fill your tank up with gas, take your favorite vacation down South in the Winter. Whatever it is you do.
Everything now is almost a guilty pleasure. Everything we do has consequence. So we live with the desire on one hand, to live a full life, and the consequence that we’re all having in that collective expression of Capitalism, and Democracy. These are two irreconcilable things. “
Cognitive dissonance” is when you tend to deny anything that contradicts what you want life to be. It’s also called “myside bias.” We accept any information that supports living life as usual, and not having to change our behavior is embraced, and anything that sounds like “Oh, I have to change my behavior if I want to be a good citizen,” we tend to shun. There is a kind of attraction/repulsion, but rather than deal with the repulsion, we tend to try to close it off. I think it’s societal, so in terms of a psychological state, it’s happening on a very big scale.
I think the work itself, that I do, also mirrors that dissonance. On one hand, we’re attracted to the image. The aesthetics are equivalent to the desire that we feel, the beauty we long for, yet once we come to terms with the fact of its subject matter, the content then puts us into a state of realization…”What’s that telling me?” It’s hard to feel good about what you’re seeing, because you know this is a disaster. It’s tragic.
JB: It’s great to hear you say that. I know I stumbled to even formulate a question there, but I’ve seen a lot of photographs in my day, and that sensibility really came across in your work. The use of structural metaphor in your practice, I think, is probably a big part of why you’ve achieved what you have. You used the word mirror, which is a great segue, because I had a question about that. There was some new work up at the Greenberg gallery that I’d never seen before, and I’m assuming most people haven’t seen it either.
You had a mini-exhibition within the gallery called the “Pentimento” portfolio, which were damaged, beaten up, aged-looking, black and white prints from the Bangladesh series. (The project where you photographed the ship yards where they deconstruct aging oil tankers.) I’ve seen those images in color, but these were black and white chromagenic prints, which left me curious.
It seemed like another case of structural metaphor, where the destruction in the print mirrored the destruction of the ships, which are taken apart by hand, piece by piece. Which is then a mirror for the destruction of the environment, with all the oil that seeps back into the water. Given that you’d gone so far out of your way to make a statement with your process, I thought that maybe you could talk about that for a moment. Did you intentionally trash those prints? Was it a digital manipulation?
EB: No, it wasn’t done intentionally, and it wasn’t done with the computer. This was in 2000-2001, so twelve years ago. Basically, what happened in that situation is that I usually shot Polaroid Type 55s to proof, and then colour neg. I was shooting 4×5 and I had to work quickly out there. I did have 8×10 along, but most of my work in Bangladesh was shot on 4×5. I could work faster using my Linhof. I could easily find infinite focus, it was a real extension of my way of seeing, and have the shot done quickly. To ensure that I had the image, I would always shoot a Type 55, and then I would inspect the negative for sharpness to make sure it could go up to 40×50 or 50×60 size. You have inspect those proofing negatives on site with a 10x magnifying loupe if you want to be sure that you’re going to be able to produce the prints back in the lab at home.
I was used to working with 10x loupes and 4×5 negatives, but in Bangladesh, I decided for the first time that I wanted to keep the black and white Polaroid negatives. The one’s just before I shot the final images. You have to place them on site in the sodium sulfite bath until you get back to the hotel at night, then wash them, and then hang them to dry, which I did, religiously every night during that entire shoot. I went there twice, and spent almost a month in that location. And then I went and did all the color negative work, and released the work. But all the Polaroids were in boxes, and I stored them where I keep all my negatives, in a safe at my lab in Toronto. I opened the boxes up three years later, and they were all fused together as a block. Basically because the moisture differential…
JB: The humidity in the air…
EB: Right, the humidity in Bangladesh was so high that they never really dried out, until they were in the safe and then they stuck together. So I kind of ripped them apart, and said, “Yikes, well that went wrong!” At the time I had an intern working for me and asked him to “make contact prints, because they’re kind of interesting. Let’s see what I got.” So contacts were made, and there were about a dozen that I found quite interesting.
When I made the black and white contacts, it seemed like these images were coming from a bygone age. When I was in the field in Bangladesh, I felt like I was getting the vision that Charles Dickens had at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, or Blake’s reference to Satanic Mills, a dark workplace where everyone was in harm’s way. Environmentally, the place was a disaster, and a dangerous. It seemed like I was looking at what Industry might have been like 100 or 150 years ago, before safety regulations were in place, before human life was ever considered as something precious. Back then, if you got killed on a job too bad, you weren’t being careful enough, but that’s exactly how it was there in Bangladesh only ten years ago. If you didn’t survive the day, well, that was your own bad luck.
Ultimately, the actual tears were where one emulsion was transferred to the other emulsion. What you’re seeing is a black hole in the negative is where it’s emulsion came off, and a white area is the emulsion from another negative stuck to it. It was like clarity and resistance, in terms of light. To me, here was the distressed look of the negative of a distressed situation, distressed for the workers, distressed for the environment. The pictures seemed like they were made at beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So for all those reasons, I felt that there was enough aesthetic resonance in those images to release them as a suite—as a small portfolio of ten images with a book.
As for the title of this project Pentimento, it’s a term used painting. Basically, what it means is… let’s say you’re a court painter in the 17th Century, and you, or your patron didn’t like the person to the left side of the composition, or no longer wanted the dog in the foreground, or something like that. The artist would then hide it. It was still there, but painted over. They’ve actually been able to recover paintings under paintings, with technology today, with X-rays and all that. They can see the layering. For me, these photos were very much the image as it existed the minute before I took the final image that I released into the world. These were the images just behind the final rendering. So the idea of the pentimento is the idea of underpainting. The image just on the other side. If you see the book, you’ll see the image that I did, the Type 55 black and white Polaroid field proof, and then flip the page, and you see the colour image that ended up being released into the world—that was based on the field proof.
JB: We started the question with that idea of structural metaphor, and it does come through, the connection between destruction and destruction. When we talk about Climate Change, I went and visited the Greenberg exhibition in the middle of the eye-tooth of Saturday’s Nor’easter in New York. The October 30th snowstorm. It was madness.
Anyway, I recognize that I’ve probably gotten more of your time than I deserve, but I do have a question that I want to ask, because the article I wrote about my experience in Reno was just published today. I know that we discussed it a little bit when we met, but one of the really powerful things for me, as an artist, coming out of that conference, was the sense that we, the artists, the intellectuals, the intelligentsia, call us what you will, were all talking to each other in this modernist fishbowl, while the insanity of Reno, Nevada surrounded us. We keep hearing all this talk, from a political and economic standpoint about the 1% this and the 1% that, and I came away from the experience wondering how we, as artists, might try to expand the tent. To kind of grow the pool of people who do interact with contemporary art, who see what we make. As opposed to just preaching to ourselves.
You’ve worked in film, with “Manufactured Landscapes,” and you mentioned that you’re working on a new one. I know film can often have an audience that transcends. You’re a guy who has put your money where your mouth is for decades, working on political issues. I think many artists of my generation try to stay away from politics whenever possible. (little p) So I suppose the question is, do you often think about expanding the artist’s reach beyond the gallery and museum?
EB: I do try, by virtue of doing films, and I do a fair amount of interview and media work, radio and television, which gets it outside of the museum thing. But I try not to couch it in a political way. I think, particularly in America, politics has become terribly polarized. You’re either left or you’re right. The centralist is kind of dying out.
JB: Binary politics for a binary world. Zeroes and ones.
EB: That division seems to have become entrenched, quite negatively entrenched, because no one is listening to the other side anymore. I think both sides have valid points, but when people stop listening to each other, then it doesn’t lead to the proper outcomes and solutions that we need to have through policies and government actions, and through collective human actions.
That being said, I’m a firm believer that what we do with our environment is ultimately our habitat, and this is what provides us the conditions for life. When things go wrong with the water, when things go wrong with the air, it doesn’t select the left or the right, you know? When consequence comes home to roost, it doesn’t respect religion or politics. It hits us all equally, for the rich and the poor.
I don’t think it’s a political question. It’s more of a human, moral, ethical question. With the knowledge that we have today of what the human impact is, what are we doing about it? Whether you’re left or right, to me, is irrelevant. Do you believe that we’re having an impact? That’s question number one. If you don’t, then obviously you’re not looking at the data properly, because if you look at the data we’re clearly doing something big.
So the first thing is to accept that there’s a problem of collective human action on the planet. As an artist, helping to bring people to at least a point of accepting through visual evidence, of accepting that we can’t help but be having a collective impact on the natural resources of the planet. It’s undeniable that 90% of the large predatory fish have now been fished out of the ocean—the tunas and the sharks. This isn’t hypothetical, this is real. It’s not hypothetical that, like clockwork, we’re adding more carbon dioxide every year. It makes sense. Look at how much fossil fuel we’re burning every year. It can’t not have an effect.
At this point, with the amount of information that’s now in front of us, the whole notion of this issue being a debate is almost laughable. As artists, we can help visually, and intellectually make people understand that, at some point, we have to accept that it is our collective impact that is putting the whole planet in jeopardy. If you have children, how you feel about that problem is really a good place to start. Do you feel robbing your children of a future is something that is ethically and morally acceptable in present day society, with what we know?
JB: I couldn’t agree more. But I was just back in the suburbs of New Jersey, where I was raised, and I had a disturbing conversation with a family member, whom I love very much, but who’s pretty conservative. He admitted that there was no amount of information I could provide, there was no Harvard-backed study, there was no way I would change his mind about Climate Change. There was no information that anyone could present that would counterbalance the information that he gets from Fox News. He admitted that it didn’t matter what I said, it didn’t matter how many scientists believe X or Y or Z. So I love what you said, because I’m coming to believe that myself. That as artists, we have a facility with visual communication.
We have an understanding of metaphor and symbolic language. If we use our skill sets, and we try to present what we believe, and then we try to expand our audience beyond the black-clad gallery-goers in every major urban area… it’s almost incumbent upon us to try.
That was what I came away from Reno with. The consensus in the presentations and the visual evidence of destruction were there. So the next question that I had, and I didn’t hear a lot about this was, what do we do with this knowledge? We, the next generation of artists. So to be able to print your answer to my previous question is really powerful. It’s a question I have, and I hope other artists do as well. Clearly the line between art and propaganda…people have discussed it to death and we don’t want to cross that line. But I think that putting our beliefs and our passions and our knowledge into a visual structure is the very least that we can do. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but we’re presenting this interview for others to read. I’m kind of hoping perhaps to inspire some people to take some risks, and make work that has a higher reach for it’s potential impact.
OK, enough of my blather. This whole time we were speaking, I was addressing you as if you were an American, which you’re not. You’re Canadian. I feel like sometimes Americans, myself included, have a trouble seeing the distinction, other than knowing that every one of you guys lives North of us. I would imagine that someone at your level of success could be based wherever you choose, and you still live in Toronto. So I thought maybe you could talk a bit about the Toronto art scene, and why you’re based there?
EB: I was born in Canada, in St. Catharines, an hour away from here. I think 85% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the American border. We all cluster because it’s warmer. Most of Canada, if you think about it, we have more of a North-South relationship than an East-West trading relationship. We’re the largest trading partners on the planet. Generally speaking, we give you guys a lot of raw natural resources, and you process them, finish them, and sell them back to us at a markup.
JB: Gotta love it. Profit margin makes the world go around.
EB: (laughing) So that’s been our relationship in terms of Economics. But also culturally, American culture seeps over. Another commonwealth country is Australia, but it’s been able to keep a larger self-identity intact, because it’s way out there in the Pacific. But we’re kind of joined at the hip, so we’re always America-watching because as someone once pointed out, when you guys catch a cold, we get pneumonia. In today’s economy, it’s just the reverse. You guys got pneumonia and we just got a cold in terms of our banking systems and the collapse of the real estate market. Our real estate market is actually fine. But as to Toronto, it’s a great staging place. I have family here, and it’s an hour to New York, it’s an hour and twenty minutes to Chicago. I’m into the States at least once a month, sometimes twice. In October, I spent three weeks in the states and one week in Toronto. We know a lot more about the United States than the United States cares to know about us.
JB: I think we all assume that. So tell us what it’s really like? Do you guys have a hopping art scene? Should we encourage all those Northeast Americans to come check out Toronto? For me, it’s an abstraction.
I assume it’s a super-cool city, but I’ve never set foot there.
EB: Oh, I think Toronto has a killer art scene. We have the largest photo festival in the world, called CONTACT. It happens in the month of May. We just put together a Canadian photo prize with Scotiabank, one of the five big banks in Canada. It is for Canadian artists working with photography, and they win $50,000 cash, and they get a Steidl book, and an exhibition produced and shown during the CONTACT festival, and possibly travel as well. It’s a major award that we’ve now developed, and we’re into our second year involved with the bank.
There’s the Toronto International Film Festival, North America’s most popular, and second largest in the world. We also have a sizeable annual International Art Fair in Toronto, which has been a huge success. We’ve got galleries from 15 countries showing there. In terms of selling my photography, Toronto is by far my largest art market in the country, and always has been, for 25-30 years. Whatever I sell here is usually equivalent to all global sales of my work. So there’s a really enthusiastic collector market, and a very enthusiastic art market. And we just rebuilt the Art Gallery of Ontario. Frank Gehry did a whole new renovation on it. I’d say we’ve got a thriving scene here.
JB: I’m glad I asked. And as far as that prize goes, if I start saying “Eh” all the time and profess a love for hockey, can I qualify? Or do I need to show paperwork?
EB: You’re gonna have to show some paperwork.
JB: Damn. Well listen, I had one question that I forgot to ask, so I’ll just say it, but in the NY Times Sunday Magazine a week or so ago, they had an interview with the world’s foremost private submersible designer. These high-end, private, multi-million dollar submarines that are designed like airplanes. As the world’s resources run out, as a submarine designer, he was predicting a mad rush into the seas. Into that 70% of the Earth, for minerals and resources. In the future, everyone’s going to start hacking away at the seabed. So I had visions of you kind of working like that. It would be a natural extension for you to get underwater and start using these fancy toys.
EB: (smiling) I’m familiar with that, and the guys who are innovating all of that. It’s on my radar.