Jesus, a young Jewish preacher, a rebel and an upstart, challenging the status quo in Israel, which was then a vassal of the Roman Empire.
He kicked up shit for the Jews the Romans put in charge, and also for the Romans themselves, and was killed for it in an awful way.
I did a bunch of reading on the subject this morning, readying for the piece, and was not surprised to learn the sad ending of the story, (for the man Jesus, anyway,) was all about money and power.
The Rabbis were charging people to get “clean” enough to pray, making bank, and Jesus called them out for it. (All this I learned from an archived BBC website.)
Later, a massive religion grew up in his name, with billions of people believing he rose from the dead, after being crucified to death, and that he was actually a combination of man, God, and the Son of God.
Judaism, the religion Jesus was born, lived and died believing, claims that no Messiah, no divine being, has yet come back to Earth, but billions of Christians disagree.
Honestly, as Jews, we must see some missed opportunities, with Islam and Christianity sprouting from our religion, becoming the two biggest faith systems on Earth, while we’re a few measly million people in this world.
Why am I on about this today?
Where can this possibly be going?
I know you must be asking yourself that.
Part 2. Leaving comfort zones
The truth is that 2020 has felt different than #2019, and I’m shaking things up accordingly. (For example, no early-morning email check, to keep the cortisol down for a few hours.)
So last Friday, my wife and I decided to do something we never, ever do.
On Friday late-afternoon, after our son has his Hebrew practice, the four of us piled into the car to leave Taos, driving the hour and forty-five minutes to Santa Fe, just beating the dark, so we could attend a public opening at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
I’d been overdue to see an exhibit there, curated by Christian Waguespack, which focuses on the Penitente culture in Northern New Mexico.
It was a 17th through 20th Century local, Spanish Colonial Catholic tradition in which men would pray together, whipping and flagellating themselves, in a small building in each community called a Morada.
They also staged fake crucifixions, and other seemingly extreme Catholic traditions imported from Spain.
By the time we rolled into Santa Fe, the sky was rapidly blackening, and our collective hunger was rising.
The parent in me thought: we’ve got to avoid a collective food crash.
The art critic in me thought, let’s get to the museum first, since it’s on the way, and we’ll get more time there.
(Quick snack at Trader Joe’s it was.)
We arrived at the New Mexico Museum of Art shortly thereafter, after a short walk across the plaza, which featured large trees extravagantly lit in non-harmonious colors.
There were nice snacks in the lobby, and free admission, so my kids each ate a cheese chunk or two, though I was waiting for good restaurant food.
(The Santa Fe food scene is much better than ours in Taos, IMO.)
We headed through a lovely tent, covering the open courtyard of the early 20th Century building, and then into the special exhibition section in the Museum.
Here’s where I tell the truth, because the same curator was responsible for both exhibitions.
The paintings, drawings and photos in the smaller Penitente show, while local and younger, had a creepy, scary, powerful, religious juju that blew me away.
I kept saying, “I need to come back. I need to come back.”
(Rather than, “I’d like to come back.”)
Because each object was so tight, and in the smaller rooms, with the lower ceilings, in which the Northern New Mexican architecture so clearly matched the subject matter in the work, everything felt just perfect.
For all the talk of Meow Wolf, (which in fairness I have yet to visit,) and the Instagramification of the world, with backdrops mattering more than reality, I thought this show was a breath of fresh air.
(Of creepy air, I mean.)
I didn’t have enough time to process each piece, with my stomach rumbling, but the self-flagellations were there and the crucifixes.
There was one standout, black and white documentary photo by Miguel Gandert, of some 20th Century Northern New Mexican Penitentes, in street clothes, outside the Morada.
You know, week ago, I hadn’t given Jesus much thought.
(Though with American politicians like Mike Pompeo actively awaiting the Rapture, maybe we should all think about Jesus more often?)
But then I saw those two art shows, and the imagery bore down into my consciousness like a dental drill.
Part 3. Kick it up a notch
After a weekend spent moving washing machines, learning stick fighting, and hanging pictures, we kicked it up a notch on Tuesday, when my wife had the day off from work.
She suggested we cross the border to San Luis, Colorado to visit the Stations of the Cross Shrine that looms above town. (Among other reasons.)
Jessie had always wanted to do it, and again, in 2020 we’re gunning for new things, so I said yes.
I swear, I made no connection to the intense, Catholic work I saw in Santa Fe, nor did I plan to write this column.
We parked the car next to the humble town hall, and were instantly met by a huge old dog, who leaned into me for pets.
He was sweet, and a chunky collar said his name was Bam Bam, the Mayor.
It had snowed the night before, and Bam Bam accompanied us across the street, and a little foot-bridge, where we soon blazed our own trail in the 5 inch snow, as no one had yet gone all the way up the hill.
Bam Bam seemed an apparition, or a spirit guide, there was no way around it, and when he chose to turn back, we waved, and kept on alone.
We broke trail in fresh snow against a perfectly blue sky.
There were no people around.
It was all ours.
Up we went, stopping occasionally to check out the sculptures honoring Jesus’ last ascent, with his cross, to be crucified.
I believe there were 14 bronze sculptures in all, by local artist Huberto Maestas.
(You knew I’d come back around to it, right?)
Jessie and I remembered the Carmel Mission, and how it was similar in its intense combination of beauty and spirituality.
But the setting here, on a mesa-top called the Hill of Piety and Mercy, surrounded by snow-covered, jagged Rocky Mountain peaks in the Wild West, was unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
I stopped at the Pieta sculpture, Jesus draped across Mary’s lap, (which I now know is a subset of the Lamentations, thanks to the excellent NM Museum of Art Gallery Guide,) and made this video for you.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a more stunning location for a piece of art, nor at a more perfect moment to view it.
I’ve seen better art, in more famous places, but nothing more perfect than this spot.
Finally, we circled around to try to enter the shrine, which is in a Spanish Colonial style, (in honor of the local ancestors,) but it was obviously locked on a snowy morning.
So down we went, occasionally pausing to take in the Sangre de Cristos to the East, and the Conejos Mountains to the West, with the sun burning happiness into our cheeks.
If you’re coming to Taos, or Santa Fe, or Southern Colorado, I can not suggest this place more highly.
(And I didn’t even get into the Shrine.)
The strangest part, if you ask me, the one that ties this tale together, across the Millennia, is that I would have bet anything the chapel, La Capilla de Todos Los Santos, was built in the 19th Century.
Taos families pushed North into the San Luis Valley in the 1840’s, and the town was officially founded by those Spanish Colonial Catholics in 1851.
But it was a town made of dirt back then, at the edge of nowhere.
With no resources.
(I guess I didn’t think it through.)
So my research turned up that it was built, as an offering of peace and love from the San Luis parish, in 1986!
I get lonely, sitting out here by myself in the middle of a pasture.
It’s very quiet.
Right now, as I look outside, heavy clouds are blocking half the mountain, as we’ve had atypical weather since I got back from Chicago.
Cold. Wet. Damp. Gray.
No thank you.
If I wanted to live in Portland, I’d move to Portland.
Even worse, when I left Chicago last week, it was in the mid 80’s each day.
Pure summer weather.
Now, I’m wearing my heavy hoodie everywhere, and sulking because I miss the sun.
Thankfully, they’re not the kind of troubles that require the President of the United States to pretend-foul-shoot paper towel rolls at my head.
Remember, no matter how glum you feel, things can likely get worse. And the man who’s supposed to save us, to inspire us, to console us, is seemingly as deranged as peak-nutter-Muammar Gaddafi.
Hell, when I was in Chicago, I couldn’t even look at his fancy building; the one I admired two years ago. Now, (other than giving it the middle finger on Instagram, like a gringo Ai Weiwei,) I found my Trump denial was pretty consistent.
Nobody wanted to talk about him. Except for a moment, on the subway back to the airport, as I was finishing up a half hour chat with a middle-aged African-American guy on his way to his first day on the job in a mail room somewhere.
We met on the platform, when he asked me if the train I was awaiting was right for him. I always like it, (secretly) when people take me for a local somewhere, so I told him what I knew, and that seemed enough.
We chatted easily, my new friend an I, and I told him about New Mexico, and he caught me up on Chicago. As we approached the end of the line, I told him about the time I filmed a movie in Donald Trump’s apartment on top of Trump Tower, back in 1996, and the walls were plated in gold.
Randomly, another guy, halfway down the subway car, chimed in, “‘The Devil’s Advocate,’ I loved that movie.” And before you know it, several of us, all strangers, were conversing, only minutes before we broke up forever.
(We didn’t bother trading names, much less business cards.)
Last week, I told you about Chicago in the abstract, but this stuff just keeps happening to me, whenever I visit. I attribute it to the local culture, which is of course true, but it might also have something to do with the fact that I’m lonely out here.
Working by myself.
Tapping away at the keyboard, like a white-collar jackhammer operator.
Tap tap tap.
Festivals like Filter are special because they allow us to confer with our own kind.
It’s so powerful, in fact, that when I suggested one of my Antidote students attend Filter, (which she did,) she had a look on her face like she’d found her long-lost birth parents.
That feeling of belonging, of being understood, is powerful. It helps us all, as working in a creative field can be isolating, each of us in his or her own box.
Conversely, it also explains why this country has striated to the degree it has. In a world that is increasingly uncertain, and fraught, people take comfort sticking with their own. (Speaking which, do yourself a favor and read this brilliant Andrew Sullivan long-read on tribalism in American politics. It’s grim, but genius.)
When I’m reviewing at an event like Filter, I love feeling the rush of energy as the photographers all come in the room. The quiet gives way to a loud buzz in the span of one second.
And I get to sit there and look at people’s art, their personal secrets, and learn things about the world I wouldn’t otherwise know.
How great is that?
Over time, I’ve learned how to be critical without being harsh, so these days, all the conversations are positive, and I no longer make people cry. (Yes, it’s happened before, but not anymore.)
The next few weeks, I’m going to share the best work I saw at the 2017 Filter Photo Festival, so you can get as sense of what’s going on out there. As usual, the artists are in no particular order, and I’ll share details of our conversations as well.
I met Sara Silks towards the end of the event, which was fortuitous, as I’d already been to the Art Institute of Chicago, and could tell her about what I’d seen. As it happens, Sara and I are both inspired by Japanese art, and I gave her a suggestion about some Japanese galleries, deep in the bowels of the museum.
I’d only learned about them by happenstance, as I bumped into someone on the street in front of the museum, (a colleague I used to know in Santa Fe,) and as she works at the AIC, she gave me a tip on what the tourists never get to see.
In this case, I viewed some ridiculously gorgeous woodblock prints by Kawase Hasui, from the early 20th Century, that I was then able to recommend to Sara. Turns out, she makes Japanese-inspired, Zen-beautiful inkjet prints on special, Japanese paper.
They’re lovely, and the paper texture conflicts with the images, occasionally, in a way that evokes Wabi Sabi, the concept that roughly symbolizes the balance between perfection and imperfection. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the selection here.
Sarah Pollman made work that I noticed during the portfolio walk, but didn’t have time to check out. She’s based in New England, and suffered a tragedy she wasn’t comfortable talking about. Not surprisingly, she ended up making work that is based in cemeteries, as a way of processing grief.
Her first set, in color, focused on a garden cemetery designed in the suburbs of Boston by Frederick Law Olmstead. Each picture features an anonymous Mother and Father gravestone, like a weird Cotton-Mather-Ghost-story come to life.
Speaking of ghost stories, they’re the literal inspiration behind Bill Vaccaro’s excellent series “The Magic Hedge.” Bill’s a long time Chicago guy who makes Ziatypes, a style of alternative process printing that was invented by New Mexico’s Bostwick and Sullivan.
Though we can’t see it on the jpegs, each print had a patterned brush stroke on the outside of the image, where he painted on the emulsion with a Japanese brush, that was absolutely dynamite.
The pictures are of a spot near Lake Michigan that used to be a US military missile site. There’s an old story about the hedges being haunted, so Bill conjured just the right amount of creepy energy. Great stuff.
Ari Neiditz is trying to walk the line between travel and documentary photography. We discussed the way he could develop thematic series, as he’s interested in Asia, where these pictures originate. I suggested he try to tackle the entire continent, because how insanely ambitious would that be?
But in general, his best images had a cohesive color palette, and a sharp sense of observation.
Vera Miljkovic is Serbian, but moved to the US years ago. Her work stems from a more metaphorical vision, as she discussed her feelings of in-between, as she waited for a visa many years ago, and how she wanted to convey that uncertainty in her work.
One or two images were too derivative of Cindy Sherman, I thought, but most of the rest had a weird, kooky sensibility that I really appreciated. The worst images were kitschy in a way that referenced Eastern-European awkwardness without irony, so we discussed how she could push that further, intentionally, in the future.
Finally, for today, we have the duo of Paal Williams and Marissa Dembkowski. (Known as PWMD) I saw their work at the portfolio walk, and immediately fell in love. All the more so when they assured me the images were straight, unmanipulated photographs.
Turns out, the prints are real pictures of elements of photoshop, and digital reality, that they summon from the computer world into 3 dimensions. Rather than give away their technical secrets, I’ll ask that you view them as what they are: images of artifacts from the ghostly machine, rather than digital creations themselves.
What am I doing here on a random Wednesday in February?
Well, that’s a great question.
So glad you asked.
This is the first installment of a new feature we’re trying out here at APE. For nearly seven years, I’ve been reporting on art exhibitions and festivals, interviewing artists and photography professionals, and reviewing photobooks every week.
As my writing career has evolved, I’ve found myself on the receiving end of countless PR emails, and stumbled through endless websites and social media postings. I see a lot of photography, it’s fair to say.
Prior to today, though, I had no outlet to just show incredible portfolios or projects here. Images that I saw only as jpegs, which we’ll publish here as jpegs, as this is meant to be an entirely online affair.
It’s ironic, then, that the first work we’ll show is as old school as it gets. We’re kicking off our 21st Century endeavor by examining a beautiful set of photographs from India in the 19th Century, made by the Indian master Raja Deen Dayal between 1885-87. (He was born Lala Deen Dayal. Raja was a title bestowed later in life.)
I first saw a couple of these images in one of those aforementioned PR emails from the Cleveland Museum of Art, as they’d recently acquired an album of albumen prints by Mr. Dayal.
The photographs caught my attention, and the Museum was kind enough to provide us with more information, and the entire portfolio for your viewing pleasure. Better yet, the CMA’s Curator of Photography, Barbara Tannenbaum, spoke with me about the entire acquisition process, from how pictures are first spotted to how they end up in an exhibition on the wall.
Apparently, she’d been interested in bringing Raja Deen Dayal’s work into the museum’s collection for several years, and her colleagues were aware of her desire. The Museum’s Chief Curator and Director were together in London, and saw a few of these Deen Dayal prints at a gallery.
After expressing interest, the museum asked for the prints to be sent to Cleveland for viewing. What came out of the box was thrilling for Ms. Tannenbaum.
“It’s a really unique album in a number of ways. First of all, it’s early work by Dayal, which is fairly rare,” she said.
“He’s is really most famous, and the majority of photos that you’ll see in museums and around on the market are images of buildings. They’re architectural shots.
“This is almost entirely portraits, with a few scenes of military exercises thrown in.”
Indeed, these pictures are comprised of several subsets, one more fascinating than the next. We see formal and casual portraits of British Aristocracy summering in the Himalayas to avoid Delhi’s heat in the late 1880’s.
“Hello there, Alistair. Would you care for a game of Badminton?”
“I say, Old Chap. That is simply a brilliant idea. Brilliant! And, Nigel, do look over there. I believe I can spot an inch of shoe beneath Ms. Lyall’s dress. Simply scandalous!”
Sorry. Where was I?
The pictures. Surely, it was exciting to discover photos by a major, historically important artist that were totally under the radar. But why did Ms. Tannenbaum think they’re worthy of bringing into her institution’s collection?
“In this case,” she said, “we look at both the British and the princely Indian societies through the eyes of an Indian. And one of the first to really master the forms of expression, and get the opportunity to put his images out.”
“These have a particularly reverent feel to them. Great care has been taken in how they were made. He was just masterful at evoking the mood and the feel of the scene. You get the contrast of these two cultures here, and that same intensity for both of them, which I think is amazing.”
There are formal group portraits of native Indians, and a tighter group of young Maharajas; boys thrust into a grown-up world. (Immature leaders, imagine that?)
One of those images is among her favorites, Ms. Tannenbaum admitted. “Especially the boy king of Rewa,” she said.
“He just happens to be an incredibly poignant subject for photography. I love the one where he’s sitting there on this chair, with his crown and his gold jewelry. You look at the way his toes are curled under, because his feet don’t quite reach the ground.”
There are battle exercises from Jhansi, further to the South, and a suite of photographs of actors in a performance of some sort as well.
But we haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. This group of pictures originated as a photo album, though it’s since been deconstructed. Many of its subjects are named in the captions.
Basically, it existed as a collection of memories. Someone bought it directly from Raja Deen Dayal’s studio.
That’s where things get interesting.
“Of course there’s the intriguing question of who he is, and we’ll try to pursue that and maybe find an answer,” Ms. Tannenbaum said.
The current theory is that it might be the man featured in the solo portrait. The dude in three quarter profile. The one with the thick beard, clutching gloves in his hands and rocking the flower in his lapel.
It’s the only photograph that wasn’t captioned. One wouldn’t caption a photo of oneself, goes the thinking. So what about it?
We have a global audience.
I have to ask?
Do you know this man?
He was an Englishman, so you people in the UK, might this guy be your Great-Great Grandpa George? Did anyone in your family spend time in India in the late 1880’s?
Ms. Tannenbaum is dying to know, and plans to do research on her own in the future, so I suggested we could do our little bit, perhaps, and crowdsource it. She’s looking for a certain type of expert, preferably with time on his or her hands.
“The answer probably lies in archives in London about Colonial India,” she said. “My dream would be to hire someone who really knows who was there when. A historian of Colonial India, maybe, to track this down.
“It’s a riddle that will eat at me until I find it, or decide that I’m not going to be able to find the answer.”
So what do you say, cyberverse? Does anyone know anyone who wants to figure this out? Whose memories are these? Who commissioned this album?
Beyond the mystery, though, Raja Deen Dayal’s work fits in well with the Cleveland Museum of Art’s mission, as they’ve long had a strong Indian and South Asian Collection. (No surprise, once I learned that Sherman Lee was a Director there in the 60’s and 70’s. He wrote my textbook for Intro to Asian Art History in college.)
When the transaction was done, and the prints were (sort of) hers, Ms. Tannenbaum was elated. She’s hoping to exhibit the work later this decade, likely with other artworks from the collection in a larger context. She was also on the lookout for some of Raja Deen Dayal’s architecture shots, to enlarge her newfound holdings.
“You know, curators always want more,” she laughed. “If we’re not acquisitive, we shouldn’t be in this job.”
Brian Clamp is the founder and director of the NYC Photo gallery ClampArt. Last summer, he was kind enough to take some time to share thoughts on the state of the gallery industry. Since we spoke, his new gallery space has opened at 247 West 29th Street in Manhattan.
Jonathan Blaustein: How’s the summer treating you in New York City?
Brian Clamp: It’s been weirdly hot. I’ve been in New York for, god, I don’t even know, 23 years? This was one of the hottest summers I ever remember, so it’s been interesting.
JB: Is the baking garbage smell on every corner in Manhattan?
BC: I haven’t noticed that so much, but we have been moving the gallery, so we’ve actually been out in the heat quite a bit. It’s just been brutal.
JB: Right. It’s hard because nobody likes to see you sweat, but in that weather with that humidity, most people really don’t have a say in the matter.
JB: You and I spoke in Houston and you told me you were moving the gallery. You were in Chelsea which had been the pure epicenter of the New York City gallery industry. You were there for a long time, right?
BC: We’ve been in Chelsea since 2000, but we were in the same building from 2003 to 2016. We were one of the first galleries in the building, so we really got to see the neighborhood grow and develop over that time.
The building that we were in had four different owners while we were there, so it just kept changing hands. We had to sit back and adapt to each new owner and the new ideas they had. In the beginning, it was really a wonderful time, but it’s amazing how different the neighborhood is now than it was 14 years ago.
JB: I saw you in Santa Fe last year, and at that time you told me that Target had moved into your gallery’s building on 25th Street?
BC: That was one of the main problems we had. Target took over the entire second floor of the building for their design offices, but they demanded a private entrance, so the landlord completely threw us under the bus and closed our entrance to the street. It made it much harder to find your way into the back part of the building, where we were located.
Obviously, Target was paying a lot more rent than we were paying, so the landlord was willing to do whatever they asked. That made life much more difficult.
But in addition to Target above us, we had Tesla on one side of us and then a baby clothing company down the hall.
A building that once had been all galleries was not-so-slowly transforming into one for corporate tenants. So we were just seeing a repeat of what happened in SoHo in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
JB: Right. Well, that makes more sense because for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how they had a retail Target in a gallery building, but now you’re telling me it was offices. Ever since then, I thought, “How the hell do they have a Target, with all those shopping carts?” But they didn’t.
BC: Well, the second floor were all design offices, but then they took over the biggest ground floor space, which used to the Cue Arts Foundation. They use that enormous ground floor storefront space for events and parties that they host maybe once or twice a month, and the rest of the time it just sits there empty.
So they do have a ground floor presence, but it’s just not really used all that often.
The other thing is that when we moved out, our rent was nearly being doubled, and in my mind I was saying, well good luck finding anyone who’s ever going to pay that kind of price for this back hall space with no direct access to the street.
But, then it seemed as though Target was going to take over our old space and turn it into a conference room. (Last I heard they backed out, and the space is still sitting empty.)
JB: I think our readers probably know this, but outside of a handful of mega-art dealers who are corporations in and of themselves, galleries like yours, like ClampArt, are small businesses. You were a small business…
JB: …competing for retail space with Target. That’s essentially what you’re telling me.
BC: Yeah. Exactly.
JB: You can’t sell enough prints to do that. You can’t possibly sell enough pieces of photo paper to compete with Target.
BC: Well, yes—so what’s happening is probably within five years’ time, we’re not going to really see many mid-size and small galleries left in Chelsea. It mainly will be just the mega-galleries who own their real estate – they’ll be the only people left standing.
JB: It seems like that’s just the parallel with what we’re seeing in a lot of the economy: the rich getting richer. It sounds like your industry is in a bit of a crisis. Is that a fair way to put it? Or is that too dramatic?
BC: Yeah, I think you kind of hit the nail on the head. It’s like we’ve been witnessing this ever-increasing income divide in this country. In the art world, people who are that top one percent have more money than ever, and they’re willing to pay whatever price they need to get the top of the top.
So the very high end of the market was doing exceedingly well for a good while there, whereas anything underneath that was much more difficult. And even people who are wealthy and well off, but maybe not the one percent, are probably being much more conservative with spending since the recession than they had been prior to that time.
So generally things haven’t really bounced back as the economy has continued to improve.
JB: You’ve been a gallery owner in New York since 2000. But you’re from Colorado, if I recall.
JB: So you’ve been fighting the fight there in New York for a long time, and really, people know your place. You’re respected in the industry, from what I can tell. But you’re telling us straight up that the train is off the tracks a little bit?
BC: Yeah. Or just still radically changing.
In making this decision to move out of that building where we had been for 14 years, there were a lot of things to think about: the viability, the feasibility of the brick-and-mortar space, versus a lot of galleries who have decided just to go online and shop their wares around at art fairs as much as they can.
Ultimately, we decided actually to expand in a new neighborhood with faith that here in New York City, at least, there are still enough devoted art collectors to be able to support the gallery and our artists. But it is a risky speculation, especially as compared to 15 years ago.
JB: So this idea that a gallery might not have a physical space – and I guess you partially explained it by saying that they’re still showing at art fairs, but it seems like, for as long as there have been gallery/artist relationships, the implicit deal was that a gallery offered a space for public exhibition.
The dealer offers the artist the opportunity to engage with the public, which puts a lot of pressure on the gallery to have that space. So now you’re saying some people are walking away from that core tenet?
BC: Yeah. The ability of an artist to mount a full solo show in a gallery setting, to communicate their ideas to an art audience, is still extremely important. But that’s really, in this day and age, being sacrificed quite a bit.
Artists have to be satisfied with just showing maybe one or two or three pieces in the context of an art fair booth with several other artists. Sometimes galleries do show work by just one artist, however, at fairs like Volta.
But more often than not, it’s just a smattering of work by many people in one booth, which will never be the ideal way for an artist to present their work and try to communicate their ideas.
That’s the direction the market has taken, so if artists want their work to be seen at all, and certainly if they want their works to be sold, then they’re agreeing to those realities as the market changes.
JB: And even in this changing market, where we’re talking about essentially less opportunities, not more, is it fair to say that there are as many people desperate for your attention and trying to get your interest as there have ever been? Or are there more people chasing you down? Anecdotally, how do you feel about that?
BC: I would say that that just continues to increase. The number of graduates from BFA and MFA programs feels like it continues to rise, so there are still more and more artists who are looking for gallery representation.
This has always been the case, but maybe more so now than ever. There are just many more artists than there are buyers to support them. And so it does put a lot of pressure on the galleries in the middle.
JB: I’ve been telling this to people for years, frankly. A lot of the people that we canonize, that we lionize in the history as great as they might have been, at the time that they were out there clicking the shutter, there were so few people doing this.
And now we’re talking about tens of thousands of trained fine art photographers, all trying to compete for a handful of spaces that might open up in the big galleries in New York in a given year.
The odds are awful. It doesn’t, to me, seem like a safe way to expect to make any money. And yet, more and more kids are going into huge debt just to play this game. It seems very unsustainable to me, but like I said, I’m sitting a horse pasture in New Mexico, so my opinion is probably less valid than yours.
BC: Not true.
JB: Well, thank you.
BC: You’re 100 percent correct. Like when you look at it in a historical context, the art world was a much smaller place back then than it is now. And that’s changed radically over the past 20 years, for sure.
JB: So what do you do when you talk to students? I know you’ve given lectures. How do you disabuse people of these ideas without trying to sound like a buzz-kill?
BC: Discouraging – yeah. I mean, one thing to stress is the fact that even artists that do have gallery representation – most of them have some sort of second means of income, whether they’re teaching or working at a lab or doing commercial work.
So, to be realistic is important. The idea that you can support yourself solely from the sale of your fine artwork is pretty idealistic, until you’re pretty well into your career. It takes a lot of time to get to that point, so be prepared for that fact when you graduate so it doesn’t take you by surprise.
JB: Let’s use what you just said as an example. The people who are maybe 25 years in and showing a few different places. I know you’re probably not exclusive with your artists. What do you think it takes to actually succeed in a very difficult marketplace, both on your end as the gallery and on the artist’s end? What does it take to actually bust through and persevere?
BC: That’s probably one of the most important things: perseverance. You do have to be aggressive, and you have to persevere in order to make it happen.
But, honestly, you also have to be smart and have good ideas. The artwork itself is what initially speaks for you, and so if the quality of the work is not there in the first place, then you’re not going to get anywhere else.
Then, like we were just saying, there are a lot of probably wonderful artists who are producing strong, relevant, interesting work who maybe haven’t gotten anywhere. That’s where the other things come in like perseverance, aggressiveness.
JB: What attracts you?
JB: We’ve already established that everybody wants your attention, so what gets your attention? What kind of work, either stylistically or conceptually, tends to impress you?
BC: I meet with younger artists all the time, and we show a lot of emerging work in our gallery. I’m seeing what’s coming out of the BFA and MFA programs, particularly on the East coast.
It’s got to be a breath of fresh air, something that’s not just rehashing work by a well-known artist. Something original and new.
I’m interested in all kinds of photography and multi-media work, from figurative and portraiture to abstract work, from still imagery to video, and our gallery shows a wide variety of those things, too. We’re kind of heavy on figurative and portraiture, and that reflects my own personal taste. But for a well-balanced roster, you need to have a little smattering of everything.
JB: Do you spend a lot of time, when you look at work, thinking about the particular collectors who support you who might like something? Do you feel compelled to bring on work just because you think your buyers will like it? Or is that not a strong consideration, and you just go with your own gut?
BC: The initial consideration, first and foremost, is entirely personal. Is it something that I relate to? Is it something that interests me?
Then, if it passes that hurdle, yeah. You start to consider other things. Do I think that I have a clientele that would appreciate this work? Or could I build a clientele that would appreciate it?
How does this relate to the other artists who are already on my roster? You have to be sure that it’s perhaps not too similar to something you’re already showing. Maybe it fills in a hole that hasn’t yet been covered. So those considerations come later…
Then you look at a person’s CV and check out where they studied, who they studied under, if they have shown their work much to this point? What sort of exhibitions were they included in—were they group shows or solo shows? And then you start to think deeper.
JB: Typically, when we go to these portfolio reviews, they often describe them as speed dating. And yet, anecdotally at least, I think most photographers want a handshake at the end of 20 minutes, a kiss on the cheek, and a contract, which of course, isn’t going to happen.
But do you find that there is typically a slow-build with the things that you’re interested in, like you’ll meet somebody and then a year or two will go by and you’ll see them again or you’ll get an e-mail blast? Would you confirm that it’s a slow process? Or do you think sometimes you just know right away and then things move quickly?
BC: Much more often than not, a meeting at a portfolio review is the very beginning of a more long-term process, sort of like planting the seeds for what will grow and bloom much further down the road. There might be exceptions to that, but typically, it is a slow burn and a long process.
You might realize that, yeah, I like this person’s work. I like this person’s personality. And you continue to stay in touch and keep an eye on what they’re doing, what shows their work gets into, if they’re winning any residencies or grants, and just continue to touch base until maybe you have ideas for what to do with their work, or you have clientele you think would be interested.
And then you go from there. Sometimes, from the point of meeting someone at a portfolio review until the time that they get a solo show at my gallery, it’s been as long as five or six years.
JB: Right. Speaking of all these same issues, we talked about rising rents in New York and, again, you made the comparison to SoHo.
I just saw a headline in the paper the other day or on Twitter. I didn’t bother reading the article, which was about some neighborhood kicking out a pair of social practice artists because they didn’t want to start gentrification.
There are a lot of complicated issues surrounding gentrification, and how that can change a neighborhood. (The high-line and all that.) But setting that aside, what about the internet? How drastically has the internet changed your ability to do your job?
BC: It’s changed it 100 percent. In many ways, it’s fantastic. The reach that a medium-sized gallery in New York has is far better than it’s ever been. However, then it changed the market, like I said, for a lot of galleries who may not have brick-and-mortar spaces, who are working just completely online, which has its own ramifications.
JB: But why?
BC: It also kind of changes the relationship between artists and their collectors.
JB: That’s where I was going.
BC: There are a lot more collectors who really just want to deal with artists directly. If they start changing the structure of the business, are our art galleries really serving the same role? Are they as needed and necessary as they used to be?
Certainly there are a lot of artists that want to concentrate on producing work, and they don’t want to be dealing with marketing and sales and shipping and insurance and all of those things. But there are other artists who get a charge out of having direct contact with their collectors, and so it’s something complicated for everybody to work out.
JB: Obviously, you’re not somebody who feels that way because you’re making a bigger space and you’re growing and doing well, though we’re not asking about numbers.
I’m starting to get the sense that, as much as every photographer wants a gallery, if the galleries don’t have physical spaces and the collectors can e-mail you and ask to buy a picture – that’s kind of why I used the word “crisis” earlier on. I’m wondering if the entire model isn’t bound to change? I thought you’d be very well positioned to speculate on that.
JB: Is it all going to change?
BC: I think it has been changing. An artist has to question how much of that responsibility they would be willing to take on. And then perhaps if they have just an online gallery representing their work, is the standard 50/50 cut still appropriate in that situation?
That’s something I encourage a lot of artists to think about—especially if they’re already selling well directly from their studio. Do they really need to enter a relationship like that?
Artists need to weigh the pros and cons. I would hope that the artists we represent realize what a gallery brings to the table, but for other kinds of artists and other kinds of work, then it may be perfectly appropriate to sell directly from the studio.
JB: Can you tell us a little bit about the new space, since we’ve mentioned that you’re expanding and moving? Where are you going to be exactly? And what’s it going to look like?
BC: We’re going to be on 29th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, which is still technically part of Chelsea, but that area of Manhattan has a lot of different names. It’s the flower district, the fur district, and also the garment district.
JB: Near Penn Station.
BC: And it’s close to what used to be called Tin Pan Alley, which is just a little farther east. It’s only two avenues from where we had been located for 14 years, but two avenues in Manhattan can make a world of difference.
It’s a neighborhood with a totally different feel, but still, right now, it really is under transition, too, like a lot of other places. There’s a lot of construction around where we’re going to be, with a trendy gastro pub right across the street, but still certainly a lot of furriers left, too.
There’s also a high-end lighting store on the block, and an art supply store. So it’s still a big mix of things. It’s interesting to see what direction that’s going to take.
JB: Yeah, we all know at the rate NYC changes, you don’t know what a neighborhood will be like in five years.
BC: The exciting thing is those two avenues made a world of difference in terms of price. So for around the same amount of money, we’re getting a storefront with three floors and 19-foot ceilings. There’ll be a mezzanine that overlooks the main gallery with a private office and viewing room.
We’re going to be able to spread out a bit, and it’s going to change the way we’re able to show the work by the artists we represent, which will be a lot more fun.
When you’re in the same space for a long time, you sometimes wonder if things start to become formulaic because you know what works and what doesn’t. So it’s going to be exciting experimenting with a totally different layout and seeing how things shake out.
JB: What’s the opening show? Do you have that planned? (Ed note: again, this interview was conducted last summer, so the opening exhibition has already transpired.)
BC: The opening show will be the fifth exhibition at our gallery by an artist named Marc Yankus. We’ve shown his work for a long time, but he’s got a new series that he’s ready to unveil.
He’s one of our most popular artists, and I’m excited about the direction his photography has taken recently.
JB: Mid-October – gotcha. Sometimes when we do these interviews, I warm up very slowly and talk about people’s backgrounds. You and I have known each other for a long time, so I kind of skipped that, but it is fun sometimes to just hear where the bug came from.
How did you fall in love with photography? And what brought you to the place that you’re at now?
BC: I didn’t have any sort of background in art or art history until the second semester of my senior year of high school. For some reason, and I’m still not even sure why, I decided to take a photography course.
I had one extra elective, so on a whim, I took a photography class. The instructor was a younger teacher. She was really enthusiastic and energetic, and did a great job of getting her students excited about the subject matter.
It was mostly a darkroom class. At the beginning of every session, however, there would be 15 minutes of slide lecture, which was basically going through the history of the medium. And I was excited by both – creating photographs in the darkroom and the art history part of class.
I was so excited that when I went off to college the next year as a math major, I found a way to take as many darkroom classes and art history classes as I could.
But it really was that one semester in high school that lit the spark. I remember going to the public library to the section of photography monographs and just randomly pulling things off the shelf and leafing through them and seeing what excited me. And they were probably the same as a lot of other people, but there were a couple of books in particular that really blew the top of my head off.
JB: Like what?
BC: Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.”
JB: Of course.
BC: And Diane Arbus’s Aperture monograph. Those two in particular, I remember as being extremely excited about.
JB: You grew up in Colorado Springs, right?
BC: No. I grew up in the suburbs of Denver.
JB: Okay. That makes more sense. I had it mis-remembered. I was imagining you out there in that conservative – I don’t want to say wasteland, as I’ll get in trouble. I had a hard time seeing you there. The Denver area makes way more sense.
BC: Well, you know what, though? Back when I was in school, so we’re talking 1988 was when I graduated from high school, Colorado wasn’t the sort of purple state it is now. It was much more redneck, and there was a lot less culture in Denver at that time than there is now.
It’s fun for me to go back now, because people have flooded in from the East and West coasts so much that things have really changed. And now Denver’s kind of a fun place to be. But, I remember back when I was in high school and college, I couldn’t wait to get out.
JB: I bet. And was it always “I can’t wait to go to New York”? Was that a plan?
BC: It was, actually. I came to New York for the first time when I was in 9th grade for a debate tournament, and that was when I fell in love with the city. It’s weird how even when you’re a kid, you know something. It was like I knew I would end up in New York City. Lo and behold! Less than a week after I graduated from CU, Boulder, I had my bags packed and was on my way to New York City. I’ve been here ever since.
JB: Do you think New York is going to stay the center of it all? At least as far as America goes? Is its relative position weakening as other cities grow? What do you think?
BC: It’s interesting. The internet puts everybody at a more level playing field, for sure.
But, a lot of the creative people who helped build this city and make it interesting in the first place are being forced to go to other places. We’ve seen a mass exodus of the creative class in New York, for sure, which will negatively impact things. But, all that being said, there is still a certain cache being in New York City.
I continue to notice it. There are collectors all over the country, but people really do enjoy the experience of coming to New York City and exploring galleries and museums, and buying work here.
So even if they can get the same thing in Los Angeles or Chicago, there’s still a certain thrill of collecting work in New York. Everything will change, and is already changing, but I don’t foresee another city surpassing New York City as the art capital of this country, anyway.
Los Angeles is an interesting city, and there are probably even more artists there at this point than there are in New York. But, even with its world-class museums and impressive galleries, I would still say there’s no competition between Los Angeles and New York in terms of the volume of artwork sold per year.
JB: And you can take a subway in New York. I was just in LA, and it’s like you really get the sense that people on the West side and the East side, they’re living parallel lives. People plan their whole day around not having to get stuck in the kind of traffic that makes you want to hurt somebody, especially when the sun is beating down.
The last time I was in New York, I couldn’t believe that, because of the rising rents, all the pizzerias were going out of business. Can you still get a decent slice of pizza in your neighborhood? Is that a thing of the past?
BC: That’s a really good question. Gosh. Maybe one place by our gallery still has a decent slice. The pizzerias are fewer and farther apart than they ever were. (Laughter)
When I moved to New York, I lived on St. Mark’s Place, and there was a pizza place across the street that had dollar slices. I probably subsisted on that, and dollar falafels, for the first year I was here. I think you would not be able to do that in 2016.
JB: I really, really miss pizza.
BC: One thing we haven’t really talked about is that a lot of the defection of small and medium-sized galleries from Chelsea has been to the Lower East Side. And the notable fact is that they’re probably the same number of galleries in New York right now as there were prior to the recession in 2008, but because of the architecture on the Lower East Side the galleries tend to be in smaller spaces with lower ceilings.
They’re much more compact. The warehouse spaces in West Chelsea lent themselves better to contemporary art. That was another big deal in our transition – finding a space large enough to show a wide range of art.
JB: Was Brooklyn a consideration? Or not really?
BC: Briefly a consideration. Brooklyn at this point is culturally more interesting than Manhattan for emerging work, and certainly almost all of my friends live there now.
But as far as art galleries are concerned, there are all these wonderful places, especially in Bushwick, but for a lot of my collectors, there’s still this psychological hurdle. Perhaps it speaks to my age, or my experience or what have you, but I just felt much more comfortable staying within Manhattan.
JB: Gotcha. There were a ton of galleries in Williamsburg when I lived in Greenpoint, and then I came back to town five years ago and they were all gone. Or most of them were gone and replaced by retail, and it sounds like that is more or less what’s happening in Chelsea – this idea that high-end things that maybe sell more frequently or where they have lower dollar amounts but you sell more volume.
Is that a trend, do you think? Is that part of gentrification? Galleries giving way to boutiques?
BC: Yeah, that’s exactly what’s happening. The amount of handbag stores in New York City is just mindboggling. (Laughter)
But with regard to Williamsburg, some of the hottest young galleries were in Williamsburg prior to the recession. Most of the more interesting ones ended up moving to Chelsea.
But then the others just closed and nothing ever came back once the economy started to improve. Part of that has to do with the fact that Williamsburg just exploded in terms of real estate. It became so expensive that it wasn’t much cheaper than being in Manhattan.
But, as I said, there are some wonderfully exciting places in Bushwick. Artists are subverting the gallery system altogether, and establishing pop-ups and project spaces in apartments and other unexpected locales throughout Brooklyn and Queens.
JB: I did it. I had a gallery called BQE33. I ran a space out of my apartment, because it looked so much like a gallery, just for my Pratt buddies.
But now all those suckers are screwed, right? They’re shutting the “L” train for a year and a half. How are people there going to get to Manhattan?
JB: All that pricey real estate doesn’t do much if you can’t get across the water, right?
BC: I know. That’s going to have such a huge effect on real estate values, on the ability for all these businesses to make money. It’s going to be a nightmare, honestly.
JB: Right. I’m glad it’s not your problem and it’s not my problem. (Laughter)
Let’s just pivot for a second to creative stuff, then. Part of your job is to look, and I would imagine you’ve got to have your guard up almost all the time, because people want something from you. That’s just human nature.
I know you’re going to museums. I know you’re going to see things, just out of joy and out of learning. Have you seen anything in New York or on your travels, any museum shows, anything that was just unbelievably good and reinvigorated you or anything like that?
BC: Yes, right now the Whitney Museum has this portraiture show that’s all drawn from their permanent collection. It’s actually a really nice way not only to reinterpret, but also represent their permanent collection.
A lot of museums will always have the same artworks on display. Even in the old Whitney space, when you went up to the fifth floor, you would always know what pieces you would see. But this exhibition was exciting and fresh, especially in terms of the inclusion of all media, including photography. They had some wonderful stuff there.
JB: I hate putting people on the spot like that, but I kind of have to. It’s part of the job.
BC: Well, yeah. I can think of a lot of things I saw that I didn’t like, but that was one exhibition I really admired.
Another exciting thing was The School, which is Jack Shainman’s gallery that he opened up in Kinderhook, which is about two hours north of the city.
He bought an old schoolhouse that he’s turned into a place to present contemporary art. I think it opened last year, but I just now made it this summer. And I was blown away.
And speaking to some of this migration, Shainman still certainly has a presence in West Chelsea, but now he’s got this other major operation going on outside of the city, which is really exciting.
JB: Cool. A lot of the first half the interview was kind of bleak, because things are not easy out there, and you’re very kind to share this kind of inside information with us.
But if we were going to pivot to something slightly more optimistic for the younger artists out there, or just the people who really, really want in on the industry and haven’t made it yet, is there any advice you might give to help people stay positive?
Obviously, perseverance is a great one, but are there things that you tend to encourage people on to help them understand why making art is important, beyond just trying to sell it? Or anything like that?
BC: Well, first of all, I think one encouraging thing is something that I touched on before. While everything is changing, there probably are still more galleries in New York right now than there ever have been. And a lot of those galleries are smaller, scrappier spaces that have an investment in emerging art.
We talked about a lot of artists who are being forced out of New York City by the rising real estate prices and cost of living, but the good news is, with the internet and FedEx, etc., artists don’t have to live in New York City to have New York City gallery representation.
An artist can set up shop in Pittsburgh or Detroit and still have a chance of making it in other markets and building an audience. There’s more flexibility in those terms which is fantastic.
A lot of what we talked about was sort of bleak, but I still have the energy and the positivity to try to expand and continue to have a space for younger voices. Despite all of these observations, I feel personally optimistic enough that owning a gallery is still viable and something worthwhile.
JB: No doubt. It’s kind of you to share your thoughts with us.
I’ve always try to remind people that the reasons why we started making art, the things it does for our psyche and our sense of self-esteem, the ability to become healthier if you use your art in the right way, these things don’t really have anything to do with getting famous or selling prints for five grand a pop.
Part of how I remain optimistic is to just remind people that there are deep reasons to do this stuff that don’t involve getting 250 likes on your Facebook post about your next show.
BC: You’re completely right. And you need to be able to keep a healthy perspective about fulfillment and achievement. This relates to anything, not just the art industry, but it goes back to looking at yourself and not comparing yourself to others, etc.
JB: Etc, indeed. So we’ll end on a positive note. I wish you nothing but the best in this new venture. On behalf of all our readers, thanks so much for your time.
My annual, final column that never really caught on. That most rebellious of ironic year end lists. (It’s not even a list, per se, because it only mentions one thing.)
Like an ironic mustache, I get to have it both ways. I nod to the end-of-the-year thing, while simultaneously skewering the tradition by giving my version such a ridiculous title.
It’s no 10 best books list, that’s for sure. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But 2016 was a witch of a bear of a blizzard of a skin rash of a melting iceberg of a year.
We know this.
The rise of Trump. The fall of Aleppo. Endless streams of millions, fleeing for their lives.
A divided US. A resurgent Russia. China flexing her military muscles. Talk of a new nuclear arms race.
And, of course, grab them by the pussy.
(Yes, that really happened.)
It seems like something you’d make up in your sleep, your subconscious big upping the nasty allure of real life into a seemingly impossible, soap opera narrative.
But it actually happened.
I know we’re all SO ready for 2017.
I had people scream in my face in 2016.
Aggress on my person. Multiple times.
I felt myself growing stronger in the face of adversity. Now, I’ll be the first to admit the problems I had were nothing compared to the real life and death stuff. The aforementioned Syria.
But as we’ve discussed in columns past, the things that make us grow are always the hardest. Staying comfortable is not how you become better.
And I had some truly amazing moments in 2016 as well.
I saw fantastic art exhibitions, and wrote about them, in Ft. Worth, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and Chicago.
Even on vacation, in Big Sur this July, I asked my wife’s Uncle Dan what was the coolest thing he’d seen on his recent travels. He’s a booking agent for major rock bands, so he globe-trots on a regular basis.
He walked into his bedroom, and emerged with a museum catalog from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago: “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” published by Rizzoli.
Uncle Dan said this show in Chicago was the best thing he’d seen anywhere, and if I could get to it when I was in Chicago in September, I’d be glad I did.
Duly noted, I thought.
Admittedly, I mentioned the show in one or two sentences in one article this Fall, but I think it still counts as the best thing I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet. (Don’t hate me on a technicality.)
Especially as the exhibition is now on view at the Met Bruer in New York until January 29th, I wanted to share some year-end thoughts, and show off the book.
The exhibition featured an endless series of large scale, unframed canvases, done with acrylic paint. The bolt holes suggest unfinished work, but the dozens of masterpieces were nothing of the sort. The technique becomes a structural metaphor from the outset, bringing low materials to high places.
The coal-black faces speak to a history of centuries of racism, in piece after piece. (While referencing the caste system of shades of brown.) They’re defiantly dark, like Kara Walker’s silhouettes. The compositions are classical, and reference art history at every turn. (De Stijl, Rococo, Giorgione, Gericault.)
The color schemes are contrasty and exciting too, so the image structures hold up against the heavy history many of the pieces evoke.
And the subject matter feels like a hashtag of the African-American experience in contemporary America.
Watts. The barbershop. The death of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys.
There are lynchings.
And liquor stores.
and golden nets.
Glittering jails and subverted expectations. Like “Our House,” from 1995, which features black children inhabiting seemingly-white roles, in the suburbs, but slave shacks sit in the back of the painting as well.
Or “Past Times,” from 1997, in which a black family relaxes by the lake, Puff Daddy style, dressed in all white, waterskiing, and playing croquet.
We see pretty sunsets and plenty of paintings within paintings. He demystifies the art-making process, showing scrims, and painting by numbers, while mystifying us with how good he is at his job.
The show features private parts and private moments. Day-Glo abstractions and keen observations.
The work, taken together, distills decades if not centuries of pain and suffering, yet flips it. (Jujitsu style.) These are not dour, or in most cases, mournful works.
They’re too bright for that. They’re meticulous, too, in a way that screams joy.
Kerry James Marshall clearly loves what he does, even if what he does is critique an American society that likes to occupy the moral high ground, even though its wealth is built upon a history of slavery. (And the genocide of Native Americans.)
As for the rest of us, I’d say the lesson for 2017 is pretty clear.
Mine your experience. Share what you think. Push yourself to your limits, in a world that might not feel comfortable. Ever.
Put it into your art.
And I hope 2017 is a better and easier year for you and yours.
It implies this country of ours used be great, but it’s not anymore. We’ve gone to seed, like Ron Jeremy, and only a strong man with ridiculous hair can bring us back.
Restore our luster.
Polish the family silver to a gleaming sheen. A massive shiny cock, like the Trump Tower in Chicago. (Bad example. I actually like that building.)
It’s hard not to think about Donald J Trump when you consider America. A man this delusional is still within spitting distance of the power to conduct nuclear war. That scares me more than knowing we had a President who couldn’t even pronounce the word. (Nook-u-lur. #GodblessGeorgeWBush)
Donald Trump speaks for a segment of America that has not fared well in the new Millennium. You could argue our national economy recovered from 9/11 only by absorbing crooked money into a bubble system that crashed so badly, it took down the Entire.Global.Economy.
For all of Barack Obama’s excellence, his skills were spent just getting America about back to where we were before the Twin Towers came down.
Make no mistake. America is a flawed place with a history of causing misery elsewhere. Places like Guatemala or Nicaragua. Iraq and Libya.
But despite our black marks, I still think this country is the best in the world. I really do.
Our freedoms, of speech, thought and movement, are profoundly important. Our system of regulated Capitalism, while imperfect, creates wealth and allows for entrepreneurial opportunity.
Our people, in certain cities, represent a true mix of the all cultures and races on Earth. Everyone mashed together, living parallel lives. Striving toward parallel dreams.
A nice place to live. A safe place for your family. A new 2017 Ford mustang GT, all black, tinted down.
The American Dream.
I visited Chicago, New York and LA in the last month, the three biggest cities we have, and came away thinking the US of A was in pretty good shape.
I’ll admit from the outset I did not see the neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago where so many people are being killed. Nor did I check in on homeless encampments near the train tracks in LA.
I visited each place for five days or less, and mostly stuck to the city centers and art destinations. So make of that what you will, whether I had a representative enough sample to make informed judgements.
But you know I’m never short on opinions, so here we go.
Chicago has the nicest skyline of the 3 cities. Which means it has the nicest skyline in America. Hands down, the best architecture.
It’s also much cleaner than New York. That perpetual layer of grime that covers the ex-New Amsterdam is a part of its character. A gritty charm, I suppose.
But at 42, I was attracted to a beautiful American urbanscape, filled with phallic buildings, that looked so very good without the dirt.
Nice people there, too. Good Midwestern values. And you know what I think of the Lake.
I walked along the Brooklyn waterfront with my friends and our children at night. It was safe and developed, in 2016. There is a magic in the air, in New York, that you just don’t get elsewhere. I’ve felt it before, and so have you.
That feeling like your life could be in a movie at any minute. New York is soooooooo cinematic.
We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, on foot, for the first time. My daughter was on my shoulders. It was late. We dodged bikers in the narrow walker’s lane.
And I think of all three cities, that experience was the one that sticks with me now. New York is iconic on a level that’s hard to match.
But LA can do iconic too. There, the mega-architecture is less about how tall, and more about how cool. I’ve seen Frank Gehry’s Disney Center before, and didn’t get to check out the new Broad Museum. But I spent hours at the Richard Meier-designed Getty Center, and that is something that you just can’t get in New York or Chicago.
Standing in the baking sunshine, looking out over the Pacific Ocean, the city at your feet. Light glinting off travertine tile. Curved building overhangs cutting up the blue sky. World class art, for free, at your disposal for as long as you’d like to be there. (I hung out for 4.5 hours. Parking costs $15, but the museum does not charge admission.)
Speaking of museums, the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at MCA Chicago was among the best I’ve ever seen. I thought I’d have to taunt you with tales of its awesomeness, but I just read on Twitter that it’s opening this week at The Met Breuer, so you need to go see it, if you can.
I didn’t get to The Met Bruer, unfortunately. Nor have I seen the new Whitney. Instead, I went to the Morgan Library, which is underrated, and the Brooklyn Museum to see the Sports photography show. I’d heard through the grapevine, (via Bill Hunt,) that it was excellent. It seemed an odd topic for an art show, but as I love sports, I had an open mind.
It’s a killer, killer exhibition, and I fell in love with a profound portrait of Lou Gehrig in the opening room. (They don’t have the jpeg available, I’m afraid.) I saw the show with my friends Richard Bram, who used to live in London and just moved back there from NYC, and Matjaz Tancic, a Slovenian who used to live in London but is based in Beijing. (Confused?)
Anyway, the two of them were arguing, playfully, in front of a London Olympics photograph with perfect light. They were discussing the intricacies of where the photographer might have stood to get the shot. They gesticulated like a couple of Brooklyn locals bickering about where to get the best pizza.
Nearby, we saw a photograph of Olympians at the first Olympic Games in Greece in 1896. Of course I know that photography existed back then, but somehow, things like that seem more like memories or myths than simple organized activities. I was surprised at myself that something like that would seem so surprising, if that makes sense.
New Jersey had the best pizza, if I’m being honest. (And I’ll ask you to trust me.) I don’t feel much like a Jersey boy lately, but Luigi’s in Lincroft was totally brilliant. Big ups, guys.
I covered thousands of miles in the last month, and came away totally inspired. Chicago, New York and LA were fun as hell. Great art, great weather, great food. So many super-cool, interesting people.
Now that I’m home, and the road is behind me, I’d like to thank everyone I met who showed me a good time, and reminded me that we need no Orange King to make us great again.
Opinions typically flow from my mind to my keyboard faster than OJ Simpson running through an airport to catch a plane.
It’s rarely hard for me to write, and by the time I’ve finished an article, I don’t even know how long it’s taken me. I live and die by the flow, and normally it’s all about the living.
But not today.
Today, I’m struggling to gather my thoughts, like a chef who just can’t figure out the final ingredient to give his soup the proper complexity. (Thyme? Red Chile? Oregano? Paprika? Help!)
I guess it was bound to happen, as the end of my crazy academic year dove-tailed perfectly with my recent trip to San Francisco, and an over-abundance of writing projects.
Basically, I’m burned out, yet finally staring at a summer schedule that will give me a chance to recharge, and summon new ideas with which to bombard you every Friday. I’m only human, and muscling through a column every now and again is not the worst thing in the world.
The problem is that, like last week, I’m trying to figure out a way to write about a small, brilliant part of a larger, still- interesting exhibition. I get the feeling that SFMOMA did not exactly appreciate my efforts last week, as the PR folks there have suspiciously ignored my emails since.
Those guys gave me swag, which was a first, but likely didn’t realize that I speak my mind, and am not afraid to offend. Similarly, Pier 24, the free photo exhibition space on the Bay in San Francisco, also welcomed me graciously.
They arranged for me to visit in-between slots, (there are 3 per day,) and then Associate Director Allie Haeusslein met me for an impromptu interview as well. I felt special, which is one way that organizations encourage journalists to dull the blades of their metaphorical rapiers.
So let me state the obvious here: Pier 24 is pretty amazing. It is a 20,000 square foot exhibition space that is free, open to the public by reservation, and devoted to crafting an unparalleled viewer experience. They only let in 30 people at a time, (excluding the rare journalistic privilege,) so you never have to worry about tripping over your neighbors.
Their current show, “Collected,” is devoted to the collectors who support the Bay Area scene, as is the new “California and the West” show at SFMOMA. It is hard for me to write that, and still tame my sarcasm, but it is simply the reality in America 2016.
We all know about the 1%, and the 1% of the 1%. We know that America is literally, TRILLIONS of dollars in debt, and that China has overtaken us as the most dynamic, if not largest, economy in the world.
Oil-rich kingdoms may drip black gold, but everyone in the US is busy trying to cleave off a slice of some billionaire’s cake. And as art has not been deemed particularly necessary in a STEM-obsessed world, museums and artists alike are now extremely beholden to the contemporary patrons. (Everything old is new again, right?)
The stark truth is that the degree of wealth concentration has only increased the power of those with mega-resources. And the Bay Area art scene was proof positive: pride of place goes to the capitalists, right now, not the content creators.
There was no gallery guide at Pier 24, when I visited, as it had yet to be printed. But there was a little catalogue devoted to the collectors, each of whom had a room displaying their treasures. And we’re talking about “World Class” work here, including luminaries like Robert Frank, (who gets his own gallery,) Gerhard Richter, and Cindy Sherman.
There was an excellent room filled with the F.64 female artists: Alma Lavenson, Connie Kanaga, and Dorothea Lange. Irving Penn popped up, unannounced, with a wicked portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, and contemporary work sat beside mug shots of anonymous 1950’s women, whose sorrow will never be properly revealed.
Pier 24 rocks, and we should all be thankful that the Pilara Foundation chose to turn its necessary storage space into a cutting-edge exhibition facility. (Gleaned that little tidbit from my interview with Allie.)
Basically, the first 1.5 hours of my visit there were spent looking, thinking, and occasionally trying to guess who made the work. (Unless it was blindingly obvious, like the Frank room.) Allie also said they were intentionally challenging viewers by denying them wall text, so that the pictures could drive conversation, rather than the artist’s name.
But at the end of my visit, I bumped right up against the kind of “Spectacular Artistic Vision” that reminds you why you got into this business to begin with. (Courtesy of William Eggleston, the god of color photography.)
This show, “Collected,” features two rooms filled with nothing but images from the artist’s seminal “Los Alamos” series. If color photography had an ur-text, this would likely be it.
All around me, I saw snazzy old cars, burger stands, Coca Colas, and saturated skies. I saw a naive America, one packed with racial tension, as we are today, but with a chest puffed up with its sense of destiny.
I saw an America that was united in its favorite color: Coca Cola red. Again and again, Eggleston utilizes it, often distinct from Coke itself. Matthew Weiner, another great artist, chose to close his seminal “Mad Men” with a Coke and a smile, and we all know that Coke is a powerful, wealthy, publicly traded corporation, selling toxic sugar-water.
But back in the 60s, I think it represented more than that. It was American entrepreneurship, sugar and caffeine married together, bubbles of effervescence, and a depth of color that we now associate with Target.
Coke was America, as it saw itself. Energetic, world-beating, sweet, earthy, and endlessly satisfying. It was America’s mega-export, before McDonalds.
I always tell my students that light creates color, and color creates mood. These pictures, stacked with deep Red, White and Blue, are as romantic as it gets, in particular because they make sure to balance with loneliness and ennui, rather than veering towards boosterism and propaganda.
(I asked last week when exactly Donald Trump thinks America was great, and I suspect this is what he has in mind.)
I’d bet anything that Mr. Eggleston never thought of this work as a paean to America at the height of its power, with undercurrents of controversy and violence. But a country built on violence and controversy can not begrudge, if it remains deeply embedded in its national character.
He’d probably just say he was out taking pictures, because that’s what you do when you’re a photographer.
Part of why I do get burned out sometimes, in the dual role of artist and critic, is that I yearn to see work this good more often. When Eggleston was out there shooting all the time, (because he apparently didn’t need a day job,) there were dozens of photographers chasing the same desire.
Now, there are tens of thousands of us. And greatness does not go around in that type of supply.
If you want to get better, I’m always telling you, go look at the best stuff. If you’re lucky, you don’t even have to get on an airplane to do it. (I do.)
But if you live anywhere near the Bay Area, hit up the Pier 24 website and book a place to see this show. You might well be seduced by the beautiful-if-veneerish Richard Learoyd room, or the dazzling music-industry gallery featuring the collection of Nion McEvoy.
There are millions of dollars worth of work on the wall, and even rooms that challenge what you think you know about photo history. (In particular two galleries teeming with lesser-known, feminist photographs from the 70s. Yes, there were a lot of boobs.)
For me, spending twenty uninterrupted minutes with Eggleston’s genius was a blessing. It reminded me that finding your own voice is necessary for true cultural impact, and that we’re living in a time when our culture is so striated that almost no one can touch all of America at once. (Good luck, Beyoncé. Have fun, Disney.)
But when we get the chance to steep ourselves in the vestiges of innovation, and the color palette of a once-dominant Empire, it normally costs more than what Pier 24 is charging.
I promised I wouldn’t talk about him anymore, yet here I am. The man is simply inescapable.
With all the fear about Trump being the Republican Presidential nominee, I’m sure you’ve looked at an electoral map in the last day/week/month, right?
Of course you have.
The map, with its massive blocks of red and blue, tells a story that we all-too-conveniently forget. This nation of ours, the United States of America, has not always been United.
Back in the 1860’s, all hell broke loose. America was cleaved in two, and bodies piled up higher than Dr. Dre during an all-night recording session. (Yes, that’s pretty high.)
But you know that as well, because you learned about it in history class. We all did. Civil War. Slavery. Abe Lincoln good, Jefferson Davis bad.
That’s the narrative we’ve all been told, again and again. But I suppose I ought to clarify who the “we” is here. I grew up in New Jersey, in the heart of Yankee country. (Though parts of NJ did have slavery, unfortunately.)
There was never any question as to who the “us” was, as opposed to the “them.” Southerners. Rednecks. Racists. KKK lovers.
They deserved what they got. Right?
While you’ll never catch me questioning the validity of the Civil War, it’s easy to side with blue, 150 years later. And wouldn’t you know it, but that “blue” team’s map lines up pretty neatly with the current “blue” crew as well.
The South is united in its support for Donald J Trump, and most artsy/liberal/creative types, (meaning you and me,) have a very hard time understanding the mass appeal. The man is an orange, braggadocious prevaricator, and I’m being kind.
So why would so many people, across so much terrain, see this lunatic as a potential savior? Why would they trust him to “make America great again,” and when exactly was America great?
I’m glad you asked.
I had the chance to visit the new SFMOMA when I was in San Francisco, as I mentioned in last week’s column. The museum has more than doubled in size, after a 3 year, $305 million renovation. As San Francisco has arrived, so has its most prominent art institution. (Though the deYoung Museum might quibble with me on that.)
I had the good fortune to spend almost 3 hours in the museum, looking looking looking. Paintings, sculptures, photos: the new museum has it all. You might have even heard they now have 15,000 square feet of exhibition space in the Pritzker Center of Photography. (It made the rounds on social media a few weeks ago.)
To say that I saw a lot of art in my time there is a simple understatement. I saw hundreds of images and objects, as I flitted from one wall to another.
Look, think, step to the side.
I wanted to see the “California and the West” show, as I’m writing about it. But there are two major photo shows occupying all that choice real estate, and the other was just as good: “About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change,” curated by Corey Keller. (through September 25th)
No matter how good the art is, there’s only so much our brains can absorb, in a marathon session. So I like to give myself a little test, and just focus on the things that really grab me. It’s fun to have excellence radar, or in my case, a “things I’ve never seen before” gauge.
The more you see, the harder it is to send that meter into the red, but it does happen.
The first time was essentially by accident, as I was standing in front of some images by the LA artist Phil Chang, and the lady behind me made a loud, unhappy snort, like a horse that hates its supper.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but did I step into your viewing path? If so, I apologize.”
“No, she replied. Her voice became inaudible, as she was clearly distressed, and she finished with “Emperor’s new clothes.”
“If it wasn’t me, is it the art?”
“Yes. I don’t get it. It’s making me angry.”
Before you knew it, I was right back in art professor territory, and tried to explain to the woman what there was to “get.” Apparently, Mr. Chang makes gelatin silver prints, like many photographers, but he chooses not to fix the images.
He invites people, like the curator, Ms. Keller, to watch the images as they slowly fade to black. It’s meant to be performative, I suppose, and it’s possible no one has ever thought to do that on purpose, or to turn it into a concept.
That’s what I told this grumpy stranger, who nodded, accepting that there was more to the work than met the eye. (Simple, all black images, the photo equivalent of Ad Reinhardt.) She walked away, determined to find something of which she approved. (And I Googled Phil Chang when I got home. He’s a part of the super-trendy “Photography is Magic” clique, so I understood things in that context.)
Will I remember his work now? Absolutely. Am I surprised that a concept as simple as not fixing your work has gotten this dude famous? Not really.
I understand the way the world works. I might be obnoxious, but they don’t call me stupid.
That work stuck out because of its concept, as it was meant to. Paul Graham had a diptych in the show that was hung just above the floor. Again, you could call it a gimmick, or you could say it’s challenging orthodoxy, and both would be right.
(But I don’t remember the images as clearly as where they were hung.)
So many pictures, so little brain space. It’s an excellent show, that much is clear, and you should go see it if you can. But nothing really shook me inside and out until I got to the very last room in the exhibition.
There I stood face to face with a suite of images by George N. Barnard, a photographer of whom I hadn’t heard before. Not surprising, given he’s been dead for more than a century. (There was no Facebook to promote yourself in the 19th Century, unfortunately.)
His images were a part of a series, “Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign,” that looked at the South, during and after the Civil War. It focused on locations that had been wrecked, destroyed, annihilated, by the famed march of William Tecumseh Sherman. And I had never, ever seen pictures quite like this before.
Sure, we’ve all seen a Matthew Brady or two, and if you read regularly, you know I have a soft spot for Roger Fenton. But this was something different, for me at least.
The prints just felt so real. So lived. So ancient. And there were so many of them.
The photographs were obviously well-made, with terrific compositions and excellent tonal range. You can almost see this man, living in an unrecognizable world, standing among smoldering ruins with a big camera.
You don’t have to imagine what defensive Earthworks look like, if you don’t want to. These pictures show you quite well. Bulwarks, bastions, who the hell knows what these are called, but the spiked wooden fences were pretty hardcore, if you ask me.
There’s an image of a soldier in a stove-pipe hat, sitting on top of some ramparts outside Atlanta. (Are they ramparts?) I stared at that picture for a few minutes, my brain trying desperately to comprehend it was real.
That’s one of the true curses of our digital age: we are all so ready to accept the digital world is “real” that it can make us question reality as it actually transpired. If everything can be faked, how are our eyes to recognize lived history?
Sure, I know who won the Civil War. And yes, we’ll always condemn slavery wholeheartedly, even when the Donald equivocates. (I need more info before I disavow the KKK, OK? I want to have an informed opinion, you losers.)
But these pictures, more than any I’ve ever seen, helped me understand that aforementioned electoral map. Half of our country was conquered by the other half. Its landscape was altered, its soul diminished, but its pride remains in tact.
Perhaps we ought not blame the Southerners who feel ruled by outsiders, and wittingly join leaders who promise a return to prominence. But empathy is hard, especially with a bloc of people known for a dark, exploitative history.
I get it.
But I went into an art show, and came out with a different perspective. That’s about as much as I ask of any museum, or any photographer for that matter.
SFMOMA was kind enough to provide an entire set of Mr. Barnard’s images, as jpegs, of course, so you can view them on your screen of choice. (Phone, tablet, computer, TV…)
That’s right. Some albumen prints, made before any human being alive today, have been digitized, for our pleasure. (Bringing the Civil War into the 21st C.)
So next time you make a crack about the hicks in South Carolina who just don’t know any better, just remember that they’re likely carrying grievances we really can’t understand. And the best photographs help us see the world from someone else’s perspective, even if that person has returned to dust.
I’m sitting in a black vinyl seat in the Oakland Airport, staring out at the San Francisco Bay. Puffy white cumulus clouds hang in the air, like loiterers in the pale blue sky. All around me, people stare at screens, or shove their faces with over-priced food.
(Stay classy, Oaktown.)
The last time I was here, they sold hand-made sweet potato pies at a stand run by Black Muslim gangsters, and you had to take a grungy shuttle bus to get to the BART station at Oakland Colosseum.
Now, there are expensive wine bars, trendy sunglass stores, endless Warriors T-shirt shops, and a gleaming new, space-age, elevated monorail to get you to the train.
If you hadn’t heard, the Bay Area is booming these days. It’s the Gold Rush all over again, only this time they’re mining data, and selling your personal information instead of picks and shovels.
Times have changed indeed.
It’s Thursday afternoon, and this column is due tonight. (Hence my last-minute airport musings.) But while I normally wait a while to download my details for your amusement, this time, I thought I’d try something different, and share stories while they’re fresh.
It’s hard to concentrate, I admit, as directly to my right, a grouchy-looking, middle-aged woman stabs some grilled-chicken salad out of a tupperware, while playing “Words with Friends” on her Ipad. (But I’ll do my best, because that’s how I roll.)
We last gave you a scoop on the San Francisco scene back in 2012, when the city was just emerging from the Great Recession. Now it’s 2016, and this place is in the news constantly, as there is more money flowing into the metropolitan area than I can rationally comprehend. News stories are rampant about “regular” people getting displaced, smash and grab burglaries being de rigeur, and shiny new buildings popping up like my back-yard gophers checking whether the coast is clear.
(Damn gophers. I’ll get you yet!)
I was invited out to SF by the Academy of Art University to review portfolios on Monday, so I did my duty for a day, and was then free to pack my brain with art, and my stomach with food.
As for the art, I have to say, all the resources here seem to have elevated this place to the “World Class Level.” SFMOMA just underwent a huge and expensive renovation, in which they grafted an entire new structure onto the host, and the sleek white halls shine like my daughter’s rosy cheeks.
The museum is pretty fantastic, but suffers a bit from the obvious temptation to put lots of big pictures on the big walls. Because big pictures represent big ambition. Right? (Think ginormous early-century Gursky and Struth, which were exhibited alongside a magnificent room of Becher grids.)
I visited Pier 24 again, the amazing, free museum/gallery/exhibition space that juts into the Bay, and saw some genuinely brilliant photography there. (I promise a specific article on that show, because it really was worth it.)
Bruce Davidson at the deYoung Museum, Ken Josephson at Robert Koch, Christian Marclay at Fraenkel, Ai Weiwei at Haines. Heavy hitters all. (And men, if you haven’t noticed. Though Pier 24 did have 2 galleries dedicated to feminist art from the 70’s.)
Just this morning, I saw 6 Google buses and a $150,000 Mercedes driving through the Mission District, which was incongruous with the city I once knew. The homelessness issue is heartbreaking and tragic, as vulnerable, mentally ill people are sleeping on the streets EVERYWHERE.
Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.
I had drinks at a photo-world Ladies night on Tuesday, while the Warriors were getting dismantled by the Thunder, and someone compared modern-day-SF to Calcutta. Last night, I saw a similar comment on Twitter as well.
Though I haven’t been to India, I get the point, as the wealth disparity here has reached 3rd World Proportions. Just yesterday, when I got off BART at Civic Center, the entire station smelled so pungently of piss that I had to cover my nostrils with my hand.
Welcome to San Francisco in the 21st Century.
If you can’t tell, I’m genuinely conflicted about my time here. I enjoyed myself immensely, living like a glutton, and then walking it all off. (20 miles in 4 days. Not bad.)
There is still diversity everywhere, thankfully, but it seems as if San Francisco’s famous liberalism won’t be able to hold out for another decade of rampant growth. This amazing city is on the Manhattan trajectory, and I only hope something short of another economic crash is able to arrest the situation.
The photography community, and the institutions supporting it, are clearly thriving. (Though a handful of galleries were forced out of the famed 49 Geary St building, due to rising rents.) Guggenheim fellowships are being handed out like candy corn on Halloween, and there are tens of thousands of square feet of exhibition space where the best pictures can hang.
From what I gather, the local collector scene has also never been broader or deeper, with pockets as big as my current headache. (The lady next to me finished her salad, but just took out a bag of apple chunks. Each time she crunches, a small part of my soul descends to Hell.)
Anyway, I’ve got to board my plane in a few minutes, so I best wrap this up.
I don’t think I’ve witnessed a more fascinating photo scene in years. (Maybe ever.) My mega-Texas road trip this Spring was rad, sure, but I didn’t encounter much that really made me think.
This time, almost every conversation I had centered around photography, politics, social issues, and the seeming impossibility of curing some of the Great Ills of our Time. The photo people here are special: creative, liberal, nice, thoughtful, smart, and in many cases, funny.
I was constantly reminded how much I loved San Francisco when I lived here, back in my 20’s, which made its confusing present that much harder to process.
Case in point: back when I was a local, just off 24th St. in the Mission, my beautiful Edwardian building was populated with artists. Now my friends, (and former landlords,) told me everyone living there commutes to Palo Alto.
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.
When I came home and announced I like Texas, my father looked as if I’d declared myself Nazi. The shock was real, even if the anger was feigned.
Negative impressions of Texas run deep here in New Mexico, as we encounter the flashier, private-tour-bus-driving Texan tourists each summer. Like any bias, my own personal prejudices were hard to maintain, once I started visiting the state a few years ago.
This time I wanted to check out Dallas, since even Texans like to mock the place. I figured if Houston, Marfa and Austin were cool, maybe Dallas was too, in an under-the-radar kind of way.
Can’t exactly report I found the city charming; all concrete and highway onramps. But I was shown some pretty fantastic hospitality, by photographer Debora Hunter, and met friendly and smart members of the local art community as well. (Which made the detour worth it.)
And big shout out to the Austin Photo Crew, ably led by Sol Neelman. A heap of photographers came out on a Sunday night to drink beer, eat pizza, and catch up. They assured me it was nothing special, as their group, rolling 50 deep, meets up each month to drink, talk shop, and play skeeball in town.
I’ve already extolled the virtues of Ft. Worth, with the Kimbell and Amon Carter Museums being free all the time. (And the Modern on Sundays.) But why were they so great?
As you know, I love to be surprised. To be blown away by things I’ve never seen before. The Kimbell, with its top-shelf collection of global masterpieces, let me revisit many artists I love dearly. (Cezanne, Mondrian, Picasso.)
But there’s one art piece I’m still thinking about today. Can’t stop talking about it, really, because I’ve never seen anything like it, and doubt I will again.
“Christ the Redeemer,” by Tullio Lombardo, a Venetian, was dated between 1500-20. It’s a stunning, white-marble, profile sculpture of Jesus, in half-relief. A genuine Renaissance masterpiece, one of only two of his sculptures in the United States.
The object’s orbit drew me in with haste, like the smell of fresh baked pizza. The detail work! Incising stone like that! Into hair! Creating those types of repetitive patterns?
The technique, the mastery of the process, allows the piece to take on energy. The vibrations from the patterning, the solidity of the stone, and beauty of the color, it all comes together to create a calm, visceral energy in the immediate vicinity.
I must have stayed there 5 minutes, but it could have been an hour. I simply lost myself in wonder.
That’s why tens of millions of people continue to go back to art museums every year. It’s easy to lose yourself in a movie. The sound, the scale, the visuals, they combine to build an immersive experience. Video games too.
But a sculpture sits still in space.
People bump into you.
The security guard asks you to please step back. Reality is all around, in 3 dimensions.
The best paintings, sculptures, photographs, they work so well that they allow us to jump the mundane turnstiles of regular life. It’s a big ask, I know, but that’s why I think we should always take the opportunity to visit with genius, when we can.
There was a Martin Puryear sculpture at the Modern that was equally brilliant, in its own way. I first found it from above, as it occupies multiple stories, and couldn’t believe the way it fit the gallery. Slowly receding up into space, diverging with its multiple shadows.
No wall card meant I had to ask around, and was told the artist info was down below, on the first floor. So I sprinted through the museum, (or at least power-walked, elbows pumping,) until I found its point of origin.
Someone told me, later in my trip, that the piece had been designed for the space.
I believe it.
Days later, I’d find the same phenomenon at the Menil Collection in Houston. (My second favorite art space in the US.) It was an insanely excellent, 60 foot long painting by Cy Twombly, in the mini-museum they have of his work. When I asked the security guard how it could fit so snugly, she said the building had been designed around the painting.
Why is that relevant?
Maybe it’s not, but it seems like a part of the Texas Zeitgeist. Exorbitant amounts of money, an important if fairly recent history, and a culture that’s trying to catch up with global mega-cities that have hundreds of years of head starts. (There were cranes everywhere in Dallas. Always a sign of growth and ambition.)
By the time I got to FotoFest, half-way into my trip, I was pretty worn out. This was not going to be one of those events where I got to drink, party, and chat all night long.
I stayed off-site from the event, in a little Airbnb studio that smelled like wet dog. (But thankfully came with an electric air freshener.) I made sure to get a good night’s sleep each evening, which I recommend, and took walks each day, to counteract the effects of all that recycled, conference-room air.
Normally, I’d have a slate of articles about the best work I saw. But as I was showing my own work, I didn’t have the same time to look at other people’s portfolios. Nor did a lot of projects jump out at me during my brief tour of the portfolio walk.
There are always a few people that have the “it” vibe at an event like this. Always happens. This time, Mahtab Hussain, from England, had the work people raved about, with his series “You Get Me?” I saw his pictures on the wall of one of the attendant FotoFest exhibitions, and was sucked in immediately.
He photographs young members of the disaffected Muslim community in England, where he grew up. These are the type of razor-sharp, incisive, taut, personal portraits that give photography a good name. Beyond that, of course, they’re as topical as Molenbeek, so Mahtab has that going for him as well.
Meghann Riepenhoff, another exhibiting artist, also had the buzz. She works with cyanotypes, which are having a moment, and makes pictures in the hand-made, of-the-Earth style embraced by her fellow West Coast photographers Matthew Brandt, John Chiara, and Chris McCaw.
Her installation, which I also saw on the wall, was pretty excellent. Furthermore, it didn’t look like other peoples’ pictures.
What’s the lesson here?
If you can get your photographs to a place where they are technically excellent, aesthetically pleasing, speaking to ideas that are important to you, relatively original, and relevant to contemporary issues: you might blow up at FotoFest.
I was also pretty impressed by Peter DiCampo’s new work, which he showed me one day. Peter runs an Instagram feed called Everyday Africa, of which you might have heard. The way he spoke about his project, built on the back of his own experience in the Peace Corps in Africa, reflected a fatalistic but humorous cynicism. He’s genuinely conflicted about the role of Western Aid in Africa, and it gave the pictures, as well as the narrative, a more nuanced take on do-gooding than I’m used to hearing.
Priya Kambli, of whom I’ve written before, also showed me some pictures that stuck in my brain. She’s always worked with historical, family imagery in her practice, but this time, she had images in which she had clearly “destroyed” or altered the source material, which then became her work. (Mostly by stippling little pin holes through old photos)
She admitted to me, and a couple of people who were looking, that she hadn’t scanned the originals before she attacked them. The others were mortified.
How could she not scan them first?
You can’t do that!
I disagreed. There was a real tension to the pictures, and I thought part of that was due to the way Priya was out there without training wheels. She committed to the work, risked destroying important parts of her history, in order to make something better.
Which is why I left for this big Texas road-trip in the first place. To see new things. To meet new people. To bring some fresh energy into my little Taos bubble.
On my last night in Texas, I stayed with an old friend, outside Austin. Jeff, who’s my age, is one of the few people I’ve known my whole life. (Beyond family, of course.)
We hadn’t seen each other in 12 years, and things have been difficult for him since then. But he handed me a jalapeño margarita soon after I walked in the door, and then we drank some beer, ate wicked Mexican food, watched the NCAA tournament, played video games, and laughed for 6 hours straight.
Jeff had a major heart attack the next day. (Hours after I drove off towards the endless horizon.)
Sometimes, change moves quickly, like a tornado, even though its causes have been building for years.
Think about the way we treat our planet. Some recent sci-fi films, like “Wall-E” and “Interstellar,” suggest we can all pack up and leave one day. Just shoot humanity up into space, and the rest will take care of itself.
But it seems like a bad bet, from where I’m sitting. (Yes, at my white kitchen table.)
That sense of fait accompli, that it’s all just a matter of time- I felt it strongly, the longer I stood in Anthony Hernandez’s photography exhibition “Discarded,” at the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas.
We’re done here, I kept thinking.
C’est la vie.
In fairness, he might not have been speaking about all of us.
Just the Californians.
Mr. Hernandez is known in art circles, I’ve gathered, though I hadn’t heard of him until I saw his show. I’d been drawn to the Amon Carter Museum, as I was meant to meet one of their curators at FotoFest, and I wanted to be prepared. (As I’ve written countless times, from the perspective of the reviewer, do your homework. In this case, I visited a city just to check out this person’s curatorial practice.)
The show, however, was more than worth the trip. And it wasn’t even the best art I saw that day. The Kimbell Museum, recommended by my friend Ed, was unbelievably dynamite, and I can’t stress that enough. Both the Kimbell and the Amon Carter Museums are free, as is the adjacent Ft. Worth Modern on Sundays.
As I happened to visit on a Sunday, I got to see terrific art in 3 museums, over 3 hours, without paying a dollar. If you live in DFW, or are visiting that part of Texas, get your ass to Ft. Worth and see what they have going on.
You’ll thank me.
That said, this is meant to be an exhibition review, so let me pivot back to our putative point.
The prints in Anthony Hernandez’s exhibition, made between 2012-15, are all very large, and share a clean, clear California light that I described in my notes as “pitiless.” Cruel might be appropriate as well.
Apparently, Mr. Hernandez is known for his pictures of socialites and street people in LA. He’s an LA guy, it would seem. But for this show, he took his talents to the less glamorous parts of CA. The Inland Empire, the Central Valley, Mojave and the Salton Sea.
I’ve driven through many of those places, and can attest that they lend themselves to an end-of-the-world-type vibe. And I did wonder if there wasn’t a bit of city-snobbery in the way these places are depicted.
But really, it’s hard to lay it on too thick in spots this bleak. (Before you ask, the work does evoke John Divola and Richard Misrach, but I didn’t find it derivative.)
Just last year, everyone was talking about California running out of water. It was in the news cycle for months, this idea that its time was up. One El Niño later, and it’s no longer an issue, if the media is to be trusted.
But things don’t work like that.
The heart attack might strike like a ninja, but its antecedents move slowly, like tectonic plates. (We made our bed, and now we have to lie in it, even though it’s a rank, urine-soaked mattress on the floor of a vacant starter-home.)
There were almost no people in the pictures, but their imprint was everywhere. Abandoned homes with broken doors shoved over gaping window orifices. Purple-ish concrete-block fences that looked like minimalist bracelets. Scattered oranges on a dirt road, reminiscent of Roger Fenton’s cannonballs.
And always, that blazing, unforgiving light.
I made notes like, “When you’re done here, make sure to turn out the lights.” Or, “Has California just given up?”
Defunct, half-built housing projects defeated by the Great Recession connect economics gracefully to environmentalism. A pristine new curb, separating gravel from dirt, in a place where no homes will ever be built. A valley, called Lucerne, which probably gets as much water in a Millennium as its Swiss counterpart gets in a week in Winter.
The end of the world. That’s what this show makes you think about.
It puts me in mind of a conversation that Jeff and I had, in his suburban apartment off a Texas highway. Though I’ve admitted there’s nothing funny about Donald Trump, we did laugh about the fact Ted Cruz has to be PRETTY FUCKING CRAZY to be the biggest lunatic in the Republican race.
We may fear Trump more, but Ted Cruz, as a true Evangelical believer, is anxiously awaiting Armageddon. He’s so excited for Jesus to come back and kill everyone who’s not on his team. ISIS wants the end times, sure, but so do many of our fellow Americans.
So while The Donald is odious, I don’t think he shares Ted Cruz’s desire for the End Days to come sooner, rather than later.
After seeing Anthony Hernandez’s exhibition, I can’t help but wonder if we’re running out of time.
Trevor Paglen is among the most innovative and successful artists working in the world today. In his ongoing investigation of the US Government’s massive and secret surveillance industry, he seamlessly moves between photography, film, video, sculpture and installation, and received an Oscar in 2015 for his contributions to the film “Citizenfour.” His major Fall Season exhibition at Metro Pictures, in New York, closed late last month.
Jonathan Blaustein: You’re in Berlin right now because of the museum exhibition with the massive autonomy cube? Is that what’s going on?
Trevor Paglen: I’m here in general, because I moved a bunch of my studio here in February or March.
TP: I’ve been working out of here a lot this year, back and forth between here and New York.
JB: There are a million things one would like to ask someone like you, who’s on the genuine cutting edge of how people make and think about art in the 21st Century.
TP: Thank you.
JB: You’re welcome. I would hope it’s not a surprise for you to hear that. You’ve been lauded in many circles.
You think about art in a way that is mind-expanding to others. What is the role of the artist in society today?
TP: I think the main thing it can contribute to society is that you don’t have to define what it is. Having said that, the kind of art that excites me most is art that helps us see the historical moment that we live in.
I guess that’s what I want out of it, for the most part. I mean that literally. I want things that teach me how to see.
That’s still pretty general.
JB: You use your practice as a way of understanding the world around you?
JB: And other artists are free to make work as they choose.
TP: Absolutely. And I think that’s what ultimately is powerful about it. You and me and everybody and their sister can have a different definition of art, and that’s great.
JB: Right. It’s certainly what separates art from math. There’s not one answer.
You make your work for your own reasons, but the political and socially critical aims are so evident. For you, art offers enough opportunity to enact social change? Are you trying to change opinions and battle governmental structures, or are you just making your work?
TP: I don’t think art, in and of itself, can change anything at all. I think it can do a couple of things.
The first thing it can help you do is underline some things that may or may not be going on in the world, that you think are worth looking at.
The second is that it can give you permission to look at that. So through that kind of thing, you start to create the basis for a language with which to think about the way the world works. And again, literally see how the world works.
Art doesn’t make linear arguments. Art is not an op-ed. It doesn’t work that way. Even if I wanted to make an argument about- secrecy is bad- art is really not a great vehicle with which to do that, because you can’t make a thesis statement. You can’t defend it with evidence. It’s much more impressionistic, and I think that the moment we get too confident in the meaning of art, it will often run away from you in the opposite direction.
JB: So why art? Why did you end up with this non-literal way of expressing yourself?
TP: I have always been an artist. That’s the simple answer. I’ve always made stuff, since I was a kid. And I’ve always thought visually. That’s the baseline I’m coming from.
But I think the other part of it goes back to what we were talking about before, where the discipline of art is not narrowly defined. There’s a lot of exploration, and both methodological and formal promiscuity, that you can take part in as an artist.
JB: (laughing.) That’s awesome. Because that’s the way people normally drop promiscuity into casual conversation. I love it.
TP: (laughing.) Right.
JB: That was awesome. I’ve done a lot of these interviews, and terminology always seems to come up. We’re living in this perma-freelance culture, which I call the 21st Century Hustle. It’s a mashup environment.
JB: It’s a networked environment. We know this. And yet, a lot of times, people still get stuck on nomenclature. On distinction.
JB: Maybe in a way that’s a bit 20th Century. You’ve been quoted as saying you’re an artist, not an activist. You have colleagues who would fall in the latter category, and then of course there’s always the hybrid.
In your mind, if you’re going to say “I’m not an activist,” how do you make the distinction? And does it even matter anymore?
TP: (pause) I guess, for me there’s nothing metaphysical at stake. The longer I’ve been around this stuff, the more confusing that question gets to me, to be honest.
I’m friends with people who work at the ACLU, for example, and work alongside them quite a lot. We can be looking at similar kinds of things. What they do is pretty different from what I do, and at the same time there is a lot of overlap.
But I think there would be a lot of overlap between them and journalists in some cases. And then, obviously between them and traditional lawyers. And in other cases from policy-makers.
I guess I don’t see the world, and don’t see the ways in which people do things in the world, as falling in to very rigid categories.
There are really no lines, if you like. I don’t feel like there are any disciplinary boundaries I need to respect.
JB: That’s what I’m getting at. It almost seems outmoded, this idea of drawing lines around words. I am this, I am not that.
TP: Generally, when you hear people doing that, it’s a pretty conservative position. If you’re sitting around having a conversation about what’s art, and what’s not art, you’re probably defending a very conservative position.
JB: One of the elements that finds its way into your work is spying on the spies. Actually enacting the behaviors that you’re critiquing in order both to draw attention to them, and to create an innovative process. While investigating the things you want to investigate.
Through your work, you found yourself tracking down a CIA black site in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006. What was it like to be there then?
TP: First of all, I want to jump in on the way you set up that question. I might take a little bit of an issue with it. I think a lot of people look at what I do and say, “He uses the same techniques that the government uses, to look at the government.” But I actually think that the kind of practice, or viewing the things that I look at, have basically nothing to do with the way that state surveillance works.
In the sense that there is a very fundamental difference between a citizen of the state looking at how the operations of a purportedly democratic state are working? Versus a state working in secret to surveil its citizens, or gather intelligence about them.
I think they’re fundamentally different things. Although there are some rough outlines that on the surface appear similar.
JB: Of course. I’ll stipulate that you can’t possibly ape the multi-trillion dollar machine that you’re critiquing…
TP: And I’m not doing it in secret.
TP: But anyway…I just want to mess that up a little bit.
JB: Please. Feel free. We’re talking about your work. But when you spoke in Santa Fe, with Rebecca Solnit, I remember you talking about keeping tabs on certain mailboxes, and tracking down people who were in the CIA. Following them home.
TP: Oh sure.
JB: I don’t have trouble using the term spying. It’s clearly not the same thing as what the NSA is doing. It’s a structural metaphor. I think a lot of the best work uses relevant elements within its process as a way of commenting on process.
Having said that, I will not be the person to tell you how you’re working, or what you’re doing.
JB: We’ll let somebody else be that guy.
TP: In terms of being in Afghanistan in 2006, I was there with an investigative journalist who’s a long-time friend and sometimes collaborator on different projects. There were about a dozen people around the world who were trying to understand what the global footprint of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program was.
In other words, the CIA had a program of kidnapping people around the world, and holding them in secret prisons and torturing them, basically.
TP: And one of the things we were trying to figure out was where these prisons were. It wasn’t just us, we were talking with people at Human Rights Watch, for example…but we strongly suspected there was one outside of Kabul. And that’s been subsequently confirmed, that the place we’d found was indeed one.
We spent a couple of weeks in Afghanistan in 2006, interviewing everyone from former prisoners to local journalists to human rights workers. Aid workers. Basically as many people as we could find who’d come across evidence of this.
At that time in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq was going full on.
TP: People had basically forgotten there was this other war going on in Afghanistan. I think that’s something the CIA was leveraging, quite a lot. They had this place they controlled relatively well, and the world’s eyes were simply not on it at that moment. People were looking at Iraq.
In Afghanistan at that time, and I’m sure it’s true now, it’s crawling with mercenaries and spies. There’s a whole class of people in the world who show up at wars, and get involved somehow.
JB: I was hoping to hear about the on-the-ground reality. The adrenaline pumping. Did you feel like you were any more at risk than anyone else in that city at the time? Did you feel like you were in any more danger than anyone else would be in a dangerous city? Were there people aware of what you were doing?
TP: There were definitely people aware of what we were doing. On the other hand, I didn’t feel in much more danger than other places. At that time, when we left, I was living in Oakland, California. When we were researching and talking about going to Kabul, my first impression was “No way. It’s a war zone. I don’t want to go anywhere near it.”
Then I tried to be a little more rational about it, and I looked up what are the kidnapping and murder statistics in Kabul? It turned out that Oakland was 10 times more dangerous, or something like that.
JB: Yeah, man. I had a former colleague whose journalistic mentor was shot in the face in broad daylight, because of a scandal about the…
TP: Chauncey Bailey. Is that what you mean?
TP: Wow. The black muslims.
JB: Yeah, the guys who run the bakery, but are also the Oakland Mafia?
JB: Anyway, moving on from Oaktown. Let’s talk about the idea that in the 21st Century, people now know that they’re under almost perfect digital surveillance, thanks to the work by you and your colleagues.
These stories pop up in the global media cycles for a day, or a week, and then there’s always the next way of commodifying the news. Do you think now, a couple of years after Edward Snowden’s revelations that led to “Citizenfour,” that people are too apathetic and tuned out?
Do you think there is a complacency, for the average American, in the face of this information?
TP: I’d break that up a little bit.
TP: In terms of popular culture and everyday life, we have no physical experience of mass surveillance. It seems kind of abstract to the normal person.
TP: In addition to that, it is abstract because in order to understand it, and its implications, you need a pretty developed technical knowledge about how infrastructures work. How data works. How processing and protocols work. That sort of thing.
On one hand, I think that it’s difficult for people to become outraged about something that you don’t have a visceral feeling of in everyday life.
At the same time, for people who work with these infrastructures, and are a part of these industries, this has been a huge and ongoing thing. The Snowden stuff is still a HUGE deal in the world of information technology and network security. Everybody talks about it non-stop.
JB: I don’t doubt it.
TP: The Snowden documents showed the degree to which global telecommunications infrastructures had been totally, not only compromised, but weaponized. For everybody outside of the NSA, who works in that industry, this was a real punch in the gut. When you talk to people on the technical side, people are doing a lot of work to re-think what these infrastructures might look like in light of what the NSA is capable of doing.
Not just the NSA, but state actors in general, on one hand, and there’s been less concern on the corporate side, which I think is actually just as big a deal, if not a bigger deal than the state side. But I definitely think that a lot of these questions are on the cultural agenda in a way that they really weren’t at all, pre-Snowden.
JB: Unquestionably. So part one was, your average citizen may well be complacent, but that’s understandable, given that it’s an abstract concept, the degree to which their digital security has been compromised. It’s hard to get pitchfork angry about it.
But for the experts, powers like this are very hard to undo. It’s almost like the nuclear revolution. Once those bombs existed, they existed. So at the highest level, there’s a re-organization of the landscape, in a world in which these powers are out there, and are not likely to be constrained.
TP: I mean something very simple, which is that everybody from Google on one hand, to anarchist computer clubs in Berlin, on the other hand, are trying to figure out how to build much more secure systems. Obviously, they have different end games with them. Google wants to create a system that they can surveil, but that other people can’t break into.
Wheres someone like the Tor project is trying to build infrastructures that are, by design, very very difficult to conduct mass surveillance on. Both of those actors, at different ends of the spectrum, are nonetheless united by the revelations about the degree to which telecommunications infrastructures have been compromised by state actors such as the NSA.
JB: Right. The nefarious “they.” I had to get the local video store to hold a copy of “Citizenfour” for me, and I watched it the other day in anticipation of this interview.
I had my little notebook next to me, and it seemed like every tenth word in this film was “they.” The simple pronoun “they” came to stand in, obviously, for the NSA, but also the powers that be. The other guys. The bad guys.
Of course, it’s not that binary, good guys/bad buys, but how could I not ask. To you and your colleagues, who are “they?”
TP: I don’t generally use that language, “us” and “them.” It’s pretty blunt.
JB: It came up at least 50 times in “Citizenfour.” It was like a drinking game.
TP: (laughing.) I think you could create the “Citizenfour” drinking game around that.
JB: I think we just did.
TP: It’s generally a binary term that I don’t use, but I think in the context of “Citizenfour,” he probably meant “they,” the NSA. Right?
TP: You can say that the NSA is not an internally consistent or unified actor in the world, but at the same time, it’s pretty close to being one. It is an organization with a tremendous footprint on the world, that does have some fairly specific goals that it’s trying to achieve. And it’s an organization that operates, in large part, in absolute secrecy, and with very little oversight.
JB: For me, and probably for many viewers, it was extremely disturbing to see the scenes where those guys openly lied to Congress. That’s evidence right there. “They,” or elements of the National Security Agency, do not believe they are beholden to the legislative branch of the US Government.
TP: The Directors. The people at the highest levels.
JB: People need to see the film.
TP: And they aren’t, by the way.
JB: Well, there’s another question I’d like to circle back to, about grass-roots versus grass-tops activism, so maybe we can lead into that.
I watched the film trying to find your imprint. There were several beautiful, aestheticized establishment shots, one of the big oversized satellite dishes. External moments. Brief interludes. I guessed those were yours. Is that right?
TP: Yeah. In general, a lot of the landscapes, I shot for that film.
JB: Did you do the gorgeous shots of Rio de Janeiro?
TP: No, I did not. Laura shot that, and she also shot the Utah data center stuff.
TP: We both shot it. There were other things in Germany that I shot, and in the UK. I shot about 90 hours of footage for the film, in about 12 or 15 different places in the world.
It wasn’t just shooting for “Citizenfour,” it was also doing research. Looking at infrastructures, and trying to understand how do mass surveillance infrastructures work, and how does that lead us to places in the world that we should pay attention to, and make images of, even if those images don’t have any obvious evidence of mass surveillance in them.
That was the process. The deal that I’d made with Laura was that whatever they didn’t use towards “Citizenfour,” I could use for my own work. There’s a video installation that was just shown in New York, (at Metro Pictures,) and is about to go up in Vienna that’s made out of tons of landscapes that were shot for “Citizenfour.”
JB: Fantastic. Was it in the investigatory research for the film that you started discovering the locations of these undersea cables?
TP: Yeah. Exactly. When I started researching the film, that’s one of the things I started thinking about a lot. This is something that Snowden, and also Bill Binney, who is another NSA whistleblower, kept underlining: the importance of cable stations and cable landing sites.
I had never even heard of that. I had no idea what it even was. So that’s one of the things that we ended up looking at.
JB: And now you’re going to be leading a scuba tour to show people these cables?
TP: (laughing.) Yes. I learned how to scuba dive earlier, in January or February. I’d been traveling around, trying to find different cables on the bottom of the ocean, around these different landing sites. Then photographing them underwater.
I know where a bunch of them are around Miami, so I was going to the art fair, (Art Basel Miami,) and I thought, “Well, let’s just put together a little expedition.”
JB: Let’s pivot a second to what may be a more difficult question. We agree that a lot of people ought to see “Citizenfour.” But as I was watching, and breaking it down, it felt like as important as this information is, and given that your average citizen is not terribly connected to that import, the film did feel to me somewhat inaccessible.
Maybe it was even constructed as such. Very little camera movement. The use of music is muted. There are long sections of lengthy, super-high level discourse.
And with your work, the people in the Art World, who pay attention to art a the highest level, the people who support it are a part of the 1%, not the 99%. I know you’ve worked with some of the Occupy folks, and I’m just sitting here as a critic, but it seems like we’re up against the grass-roots versus grass-tops conversation.
Does one try to influence mass culture directly, or does one try to influence the influencers? It felt to me like “Citizenfour,” and some of your work, falls into the latter category. How would you respond to that?
TP: I’m interested in being as ecumenical as possible in the work that I do. I try to make it as accessible as I possibly can, and try not to be an artist who is really pretentious, and says, “I’m not going to talk about what it is.” Because I think what it is is interesting, and important.
But I think we all speak to different audiences. As an artist, there is an art infrastructure that has specific kind of venues that people go and experience it within. You always have a self-selected audience, whether you’re writing for VICE magazine, or doing an independent film, or making art in museums. I think that’s OK.
Not everybody has to be all things to all people, all the time. For me, anyway, I just try to make the work as accessible as I possibly can, and to create as many different avenues into it as I possibly can. That’s really all I think you can expect of one person. That’s my approach towards it.
JB: You’re an artist, you make art, and as such, you engage in the world that supports it. OK.
It’s mind-boggling how many ways you’ve been making art in the last 6 or 7 years. I doubt you have much time for sleep. “The Last Pictures” is a project in which you launched a highly specialized piece of information-storage-technology into space, on a satellite that was at least intended to speak to Deep Time. To a future that nobody can possibly imagine. Is that about right?
TP: It was a project that was trying to underline the existence of Deep Time, and the fact that humans are making interventions into Deep Time. We wanted to inhabit that contradiction.
The provocation of the project was to say, “Humans are capable of altering the planet on cosmological time scales, and we can’t even imagine what a cosmological time scale is.”
JB: Awesome. One person could take his or her entire life to edit down a selection of photographs to represent humans.
TP: It’s an impossible project.
JB: Right. But you did it as one of many things. So what was your criteria? What goes through your head when you have a responsibility that nobody really could or should have, but you have it. How do you react? What do you do?
TP: For that project, we narrowed down the question a little bit. It wasn’t “How do we represent humans to some beings in the distant future,” the question we had was a little bit more specific. It was, “What are all the ways in which human progress has backfired?”
TP: What are the ways in which we have terraformed the Earth’s surface in our own image, which has paradoxically created the conditions for our own potential extinction? That was a little bit of a narrower question.
How do you represent this moment in which human activities have affected every grain of sand on every beach?
And the way I approached it was to create a research group at Creative Time, who commissioned the project. I had a group of mostly graduate students, but also other artists, and we spent the better part of a year having weekly seminars. Bringing in images, and talking about the project. Trying to think through these questions.
We also brought in different guest speakers who were in town. It really was a kind of seminar that we ran. In addition to that, I interviewed between 40 and 50 different people around the world who are involved in fields where these kinds of contradictions between progress and self-destruction were becoming very evident. From people studying bio-technology to people who were pure mathematicians, in some cases.
A huge range of sciences and social sciences and arts. By collecting these conversations, certain types of images would distill from them.
I didn’t actually pick that many of the images. I brought them all together, but it was a pretty collective effort.
JB: I assumed you had collaborators. But it’s very evident from our conversation that you don’t get to make the kind of work you’re making right now, you don’t get to have the kind of cultural imprint you have, without reams and reams of collaborators.
TP: Oh yeah.
JB: You’re building teams everywhere.
TP: For everything. Yes.
JB: For everything.
TP: Yeah, I have different teams for everything.
JB: But you have to.
TP: You have to.
JB: It’s fascinating.
TP: I don’t go into a studio at the beginning of the day, and then emerge at the end of the day with anything. (laughing.) Mostly, I email people and talk to people. On any given day, that’s mostly what I’m doing.
JB: Right. And you’re learning. You get to work with global experts in their own individual fields. That’s what an artist means in 2015.
We talked about the term. You get to do these things under the mantle of “artist,” and co-ordinate with other experts.
Speaking of which, you did a piece in the Fukushima exclusionary zone that I’d like to talk about. We have a program here at UNM-Taos, where I teach, and we bring in High School students from the rural communities around Northern New Mexico, and they get two free college classes each Friday.
One of the communities outside Taos is called Questa, and Chevron had a Molybdenum mine there that they recently closed, and it’s become a Superfund site. This town has to deal with the aftermath of losing all the jobs, and having their mountains ruined.
So one of my Questa students, Anna Marie Sanchez, wanted to ask a question about the Trinity Cube that you made in Fukushima.
JB: How was the radiation cube made? And if people aren’t allowed to view it for between 3 and 30,000 years, because it’s in the exclusion zone, how did you handle the radiation to build it?
TP: The exclusion zone is radioactive, but it’s not radioactive in the way that a nuclear submarine is radioactive, if it melts down.
TP: The radiation in the exclusion zone, in particular in the place where we were working, is basically the same level of radiation you would have if you took an inter-continental flight to Europe. If you got above the atmosphere and were bombarded with cosmic rays.
You can go into the zone for any number of hours at a time. I think it’s up to 6 hours.
JB: Suited up?
TP: Yeah. Sure. Absolutely. And it’s not considered harmful, basically. The idea is that you can go in and out of there, especially if you’re a resident, but you can’t live there.
And in terms of handling the material, it’s radioactive, but a very low level of radioactivity. Weirdly enough, it will become more radioactive the longer it stays there. That’s a part of the piece.
JB: Because it absorbs radioactivity from its surroundings? The outside is glass, and the inside is Trinitite, which comes from here. From New Mexico.
JB: From the Trinity site. Did you have to come here to harvest it? Can you buy Trinitite on Ebay? How does one come by the materials themselves?
TP: The first rule of Trinitite is that you don’t talk about where you got the Trinitite. (laughing.)
JB: Is that a David Fincher reference? I think that was.
JB: Right on. I love it.
TP: Trinitite has been illegal to collect since 1974, but Trinitite collected before 1974 is out there. You can get it from different collectors.
JB: I was just curious. I didn’t know it was illegal.
So this is predominantly a photography blog, but we like to talk about art when we can. We now have a picture of you, the modern, hyper-successful artist who’s working in photography, research, video, sculpture, film, space. All sorts of things.
You’ve lived on the West Coast, the East Coast, now in Germany. But at some point, you were in Chicago. I was just there for the first time, pretty much, and had almost no free time, as I was at the Filter Photo Festival.
I carved out an hour, and visited the Charles Ray show that’s currently up at the Art Institute of Chicago. Did you have a chance to see that?
TP: No. I haven’t seen it. I haven’t been to Chicago for a long time. I went to graduate school there, but I have not seen that show.
JB: OK. I was asking because he’s making these sculptures that have these very obvious classical references, and he’s working with teams, but the sculptures are made out of machine-tooled stainless steel, and will last forever. They’re referencing the past, but speaking to the future.
It made me think, in particular of “The Last Pictures,” but of the way you’re working. You’re making an imprint that will outlast us, and then trying to figure out what to say with that imprint.
I was wondering if you were familiar with the work, or had thought about it all, and it sounds like the answer is “No.”
That’s a quick answer.
TP: The quick answer is “No,” the longer answer is I think when you’re making art, you’re always in a dialogue with your ancestors, and your descendants. The way that I think about it, anyway, is that you’re part of a conversation that is on a horizontal axis, in the sense that you’re talking to the other humans now.
But it’s also on a vertical axis, in the sense that you’re talking to the artists that were alive before you, and you’re talking to the artists who will be alive in the future as well.
JB: Can I hit you with one more question?
TP: Yeah, one more, and then I’ve got to go. I’ve got a conference with a space company.
JB: Exactly. How perfect.
I’m sure you’re familiar with Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash,” and how so much of it has come true. Lately, I’ve been trying to put some of my interview subjects on the future prognostication seat.
I read where you were discussing the degree to which drones would become ubiquitous in the future, and people know about Amazon, and their plans for a drone delivery fleet. We didn’t even get to talk about your photographs of drones.
How will people’s lives be different when drones are everywhere?
TP: I think about drones as one very small part of a much larger landscape of automation in general. Automation of labor, on one hand, and automation of analytical work, on the other.
In terms of automation of labor, drones would be a part of a landscape that includes self-driving cars, which will have a huge, huge economic impact on the country. Especially if you look at something like the trucking industry.
Being a truck driver is one of the few jobs that a modestly educated person can have right now, and make a living at all. Particularly, if you look at different economies of the South, the income generated by truck driving is just massive.
So when those jobs start to go away, it’s going to create a huge amount of economic distress, and even further exacerbate the tendencies that we’ve seen in terms of a bifurcation between the 1% and everybody else.
TP: In terms of the automation of analysis, we’re already there, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. You’re going to see a world in which much of your activities will be quantified.
It’s very easy to imagine a world in which, for example, the insurance rates on your automobile will fluctuate every month, based on what kind of material you’re posting on social media. What kinds of books you might be buying. What kind of activities you might be engaged with.
Your health insurance rates might fluctuate based on how much time you spend at the gym, and what kind of data your Fitbit sends off to Microsoft, or whomever. These kinds of things, which already exist, will be much more pervasive.
It will add up to a society that, in general, is much less free.
Jonathan Blaustein: We could talk forever, as there are so many things I want to ask. But I want to hit some of the cogent points of your experience, and then work our way to NOMA.
You alluded to the fact that you did four years at Yale, and it was seminal, and you must have been good at your job because they gave you more and more responsibility the longer you were there. So then, I see that you were the Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I will put my nerd credentials on the table and say that museum is my favorite public space on god’s earth. The first time I heard that about you, I got googly eyes, for sure. “Oh My God, he worked at the Met!”
Russell Lord: (laughing.)
JB: What does it mean to be a fellow? Does that mean your job had a limited scope, or time horizon? What was that phase like for you, in addition to those specific logistical questions?
RL: The fellows program at the Met has two categories: pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellows. You apply when you are working on a dissertation, and ostensibly the Met pays you a lump sum of money to continue doing research, using their resources to do that research.
In order to be awarded a fellowship, it behooves you to be working on a topic that their collections are rich in, or have some effect on.
RL: They have a lot of really early photography material that I was interested in looking at. But perhaps even more importantly, they have this incredible History of Photography library. They have a copy of Daguerre’s manual, for example. I think they might even have an early copy of Talbot’s treatise, the one that I just described.
That’s why I was awarded the fellowship. It is a fixed duration position, for one year, and I got renewed for a second. Partly because I found, when I got there, that there was even more to learn from than I had ever anticipated. So I applied for the renewal, and received an extension.
JB: They brought you there as a scholar, basically?
RL: Yes. You were assigned to a home department, but I think if you say, “I want to work with the photography department,” they will bring someone from the photography department to evaluate your application. I had done research at the Met on other occasions, and I knew there was a lot there, so I made sure I listed specific things that I was interested in looking at.
Ultimately, when you get there, you might help out in the department from time to time, but you are there to work on your project. True to the rest of my career, I took on a lot more than that. I did get some amazing research done on my dissertation, and some writing too. I presented two chapters from my dissertation, one each year, in their fellow’s colloquium, that they put together.
There are about 50 fellows, spread throughout the Museum, on average, during any given year.
RL: But then, I also had the chance to work as the assistant curator on the “Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand” exhibition with Malcolm Daniel, who was the head of the department at the time.
JB: And he’s now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
RL: Right. He was a wonderful mentor. He had this project on the books when I arrived, but I came fresh from working with Hans Kraus, where I had helped present a re-creation of Alfred Stieglitz’s “Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession,” from 1905 and ’06, at the Winter Antiques Fair.
With Hans, for the gallery, we had the chance to produce as accurate a reproduction of the space as we could come up with. Down to having light fixtures fabricated, to replicate the ones that Edward Steichen had ordered, back in the day, for the gallery. So I was very familiar with that period of time, I had always been interested in Stieglitz and Steichen’s work, and when I arrived and Malcolm had this show, he thought I’d be the perfect person able to help out on the project.
So I did, and we had a great time working with a selection of some of the greatest masterpieces, from the Early 20th Century, that exist anywhere. In some cases, with Steichen’s and Strand’s work, they are one of two or three known prints of those images.
They’re incredibly rare things, so to have the opportunity to work with those is excellent.
JB: You were there, you were already getting paid, by a different department, and you made yourself available. Is that a part of how you’ve made the career that you have, by looking for additional opportunities? And maybe taking on more than your average bear, to build up your strengths, and see what you can create for yourself?
Or am I reaching here?
RL: No, I think that’s certainly true. I have to credit the people I’ve worked with for being incredibly generous with great things, and placing a lot of faith in my abilities to not screw them up, and to keep them great.
But I definitely have always jumped at chances to work with either great artists, or great mentors, or great individuals. I feel like I’ve been given a very high number of those opportunities, and have eagerly accepted them when possible.
JB: Well, it helps explain the glorious resume. But before we jump away, I just had one more quick question on this topic, as far as the fellowship goes, with respect to research and scholarship.
Do you think I may be able to sell anybody there on a fellowship about the impacts of marijuana on human consciousness, while hanging out in the Temple of Dendur?
RL: (laughing.) I think that it would be probably one of the most exciting proposals that they’ve read in a long time. Even if you achieve nothing more than to entertain the selection committee, it might be worth the proposal.
JB: Well, I’ll have to hit you up later for the specific PO Box.
RL: I’ll send you a link.
JB: It’s a city block, that building, so I’ll need to get it to the right office. Just to be clear, I’m not claiming to have ever done that, but I love the Temple of Dendur. And. obviously, you can only study it there…
RL: We can only imagine the wonderful advances that would come out of such an experiment.
JB: So much of what you’re trying to do in your scholarship is imagine the state of mind of somebody who lived almost 200 years ago.
It’s like you’re having conversations with the past. In my own mind, I imagine that you’ve created little personalities for these people, and have your own sense of who they were.
RL: Absolutely. One of the stories I like to tell is about Larry Schaaff, who is the great Talbot historian and scholar. He’s written many books and articles of infinite number, about Talbot and his work.
After years of devoting his life to Talbot, he has said, on more than one occasion something like, “I so respect what Talbot did, but I don’t think I would have liked him very much as a person.” Sir John Herschel, he thinks, would have been one of the most amazing people to sit down with.
And it’s true. Once you do get to know these figures and their work, and you read their writing, you learn things as personal as who they sued. Who tried to infringe upon their patent? How they responded publicly?
You do get a sense of whether they were mean, litigious, gracious, generous. And those things do start to form real people. And I think when you can get to that level, that’s really exciting.
I will hasten to add that it is all still a matter of conjecture, and opinion, in many ways. And we try to make that as informed as it can be. That’s the challenge. How close to that can you get?
JB: We’re building towards how you get tapped to lead a program into the 21st Century, at a major art museum in a major American city, at the age of, I’m guessing, 35? I know it was close to that.
RL: I think I was actually 34 when I started here.
JB: 34. There we go. I’m a journalist in this guise, so we’ll say, for the record, it was 34.
You worked at some world-class institutions, you studied at a super-high level, you got to understand the consciousness of the historical figures who built the medium in the 19th Century, and then at Yale, you got to work personally with Lions of the 20th Century: Emmet Gowin, Lewis Baltz, and Robert Adams.
Yet you seem grounded. You didn’t have a massive ego in your job interview down there in New Orleans? You managed to keep it in check?
RL: You know, there’s something interesting to being in an interview process when it is a matter of necessity, that you get a job. That was the case for me.
I had spent my time at the Met, and it was a fixed duration position, as we’d discussed. It was time for me to get something more permanent.
I couldn’t take out more student loans. I didn’t want to. It wasn’t a good idea. I needed to support myself, and my wife and I cast a pretty wide net. Strangely, there were a fair number of curatorial positions available that year, and I was particularly excited about this one because of the depth of the permanent collection, and because of where it was.
This is a very interesting, interesting place, and I was excited about the possibility of being here. I don’t remember much of the interview, because I remember just knowing that I needed to get this job.
I remember describing how one of the things that I really liked about potentially working here was that a lot of the issues that I think are in tight focus in New Orleans, and are locally specific, are globally significant.
Race. Religion. Our relationship with the natural world. All of those things are played out in a very prominent way, on a daily basis, here in New Orleans.
RL: I was thinking about how the local could be the global.
JB: There aren’t many cities, almost anywhere, of that size,
that punch above their weight, to that degree. Both in cultural prowess, and global recognition, I would say.
RL: I think you’re right. A lot of people around the world know this place, for good and bad reasons. But it’s a place that people pay attention to, and root for, in many ways.
It has an amazing history, which has been driven in large part by culture. It is the city’s export. So many wonderful photographers have come through here in the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries, and a lot of those photographers have ended up in our permanent collection.
Every day I’m surprised at what I find. It’s really a world-class collection, and I’m very lucky to be here to work with it.
JB: You mentioned the collection, and of course a big part of your job is caring for it, in addition to enlarging it. I read on NOMA’s website that the collection was started in 1970, which is apparently before many other institutions began collecting photography.
A statement like that reads dry on the screen, but as we both know, it’s always about people and agendas and money. I was curious, who got the idea? Who was the person who said, “As of now, I want to start buying photographic prints and donating them to the museum.” Or was the genesis inside the institution?
RL: It was John Bullard, the former Director, who retired about five years ago. He made the decision, in the early 1970’s, to begin collecting photography in a serious way. He did so because he recognized, very presciently, that it was an area in which they could compete with other museums, at the highest level.
The things were available, and they were largely affordable. He knew a lot of the people to contact to make sure he was looking at the best of what was around. Between 1970 and 1985, the museum acquired, almost entirely by purchase, about 5000 works that became the core of the collection.
JB: That’s quick work. How did he get it done?
RL: They were purchasing these things with a whole host of different kinds of funds, but there were two that have really stood out to me: the National Endowment for the Arts Acquisition Grants, which don’t exist in the same way now, and purchases from funds provided by the Women’s Volunteer Committee here at NOMA.
This was a group of women who supported the institution, gave funds, and I think that’s significant, because in some cases, that might be the gift of $100 here or there. But with $100 at that time, and this is an actual example, you could buy things like a great Andre Kertesz photo postcard-backed print, from the 1920’s in Paris.
John Bullard went out in ’73 and bought 19 of those little Andre Kertesz prints, and it was $1900. That was the total amount of the purchase. Today, they’re all treasures. They’re incredible things. I’ve already shown four or five of them in the 19 shows I’ve done here at the Museum.
It was a very smart decision on his part to do these things, and to think about photography in a very comprehensive way.
JB: It was practical.
JB: I was curious, because those things don’t start from nowhere. There has to be a reason.
JB: And now it is 2015, and you’ve had your three years. You’ve proven you’re a hard worker, and you’re writing catalogues until 2 in the morning, and then still finding time for scholarly articles as well. Which you mentioned to me in person, over a Sazerac in New Orleans.
RL: That’s right.
JB: So we talked about part of your job, which is absorbing dense information that is normally reserved for a specific group of academics. The other half of the equation is trying to get more people interested in elements of those concepts that can appeal to the masses. To art consumers, as opposed to academics.
JB: Now that you’re getting your first chance to look forward, how do you plan on doing that? What’s your strategy?
RL: We’ve established a three-tiered exhibition program for photography here. At the top are these big thematic, or monographic exhibitions, like the Edward Burtynsky show. Or even the Gordon Parks exhibition that we did here. Those are things that are, in large part, works that we don’t have here in the collection; that we’re bringing in as a loan show, or producing here and sending out elsewhere.
That’s an opportunity for us to present to the public things that we can’t show them from the permanent collection. We’re trying to select people or themes that we think are incredibly relevant or important to this community, and bring them in and give people a chance to see that material. And to learn about something that doesn’t exist here.
The second tier are what I’m calling my “Little Histories of Photography,” which take as their starting point one theme, and are based almost exclusively in the permanent collection. We start somewhere in the 1840’s, and we go up into the 21st Century. It’s a run through the History of Photography in about 70 or 80 works.
It usually looks at a very specific aspect of photography, and how it has been pervasive, from its origins to the present. The first show I did was called “What is a Photograph?” that looked at photographic media, and posed the question that you and I discussed at the very beginning.
How do we define photography? How can we wrap our head around this thing that seems so amorphous?
JB: So the show that I saw in December, “Photo Unrealism,” which looks at the Surrealist bent within photography, that would fit within that program?
RL: Yes, that’s the third one I’ve done in the “Little Histories of Photography” group. I want to keep doing that, and exploring our collection, because it gives me an opportunity to look at our collection in a new way. And to consider things that I think are important issues.
“Photo Unrealism,” for example, I’m hoping people will see it as a fun, quirky, kooky exhibition of very weird things. But on a slightly more serious note, I hope that people will also see that it directly confronts an assumption about photography that we all make: that it is a record-making medium. That it is a medium that takes things that are there, and presents them as rote information.
Because that is in many ways how we still see it. Of course, most artists don’t see it that way. But I want to show that throughout history, even from the earliest moments, that photography has always been a distortion, in some way. It’s a discussion that I wanted to have on the walls of the Museum.
The third tier is a series of small, very focused exhibitions, that happen in our smallest gallery space, which was recently created, and then newly endowed, for the presentation of works on paper. It’s the A. Charlotte Mann and Joshua Mann Pailet Gallery. It holds about 10-15 works, and it gives us the chance to do things like show Emmet Gowin’s undergraduate thesis project, “Concerning Alfred Stieglitz, and America, and Myself,” which I think you saw when you were here.
RL: In that gallery, we have these rotating exhibitions, mostly from the permanent collection, but not always, that either focus on someone specific, or explore a theme that I think is relevant. It’s also a space that is very easy to change quickly, so it gives us the chance, in the future I hope, to address topical issues in a very interesting way.
JB: As we said, you don’t have the traditional problems that people have elsewhere, as far as drawing people both to your city and to your institution. New Orleans has that inherent advantage.
So you don’t have to focus so much on building the numbers. You’re focusing more on having a very cohesive, specific vision that involves an element of teaching. Teaching the history, on one hand, and then extrapolating into global issues that you want to present to your community, and to the tourists who come through?
You translate for your viewers through the real meat of the job: mounting exhibitions, putting pictures on the wall, and letting people physically stand there, and think for themselves.
RL: Yeah. In my interest in communicating with the public, I always want to question whether we’re doing that in the right way. On a very fundamental level, I think one of the keys to that is just posing questions, and not trying to tell an audience what you think.
I usually try to create exhibitions that ask a question, even with “What is a Photograph?” the question is the title. And then I try explicitly not to answer them, but to give them as many examples as possible of something, so they can draw their own conclusions.
I think giving people the chance to explore themselves is perhaps one of the most meaningful Museum experiences that we can provide. To start thinking about why we should look at pictures, and how we look at pictures. Those are things that we try to inspire here.
It’s true, we don’t have the usual problem of attracting people to the city, however, I should say we are a Museum in City Park, which is a short drive from the French Quarter. It’s far enough that we are not on the classic tourist path, so one of our goals is to make sure we are creating programs that are exciting enough for people to leave the French Quarter, and come up here and spend some time in the park, and come to the Museum and Sculpture Garden. To make it a real destination for people that come visit the city.
JB: You just need to promise them beads, right?
RL: I think you’re right. We do have a big glass bead sculpture in the Sculpture Garden.
JB: I’m practicing for my role as a guest scholar on the NOMA think tank, circa 2019.
JB: I’m laying the groundwork. But let’s go there, with respect to building. You’re a young guy, you’ve taken on a big job, and are doing well at it.
Every institution has a board, and funders. We could talk about how much of your time is spent soliciting money. But I’m more curious on what your goal is for building. You’ve got a collection of a certain amount of photographs. You have an exhibition program.
Where do you see things going beyond where they currently are?
RL: We do have some significant holes in the collection. It is my goal to continue building the collection, and to try to strengthen the weaknesses. I’m largely focusing on the 19th Century, and post-1970.
Photography is much more expensive now, so that happens in a much slower way, but in my time here, we have had a number of really generous patrons who have given us money to buy things, in a big way, or incredible collectors give us fairly large collections of individual artist’s work.
The collection was about 9000 works when I arrived, and we’ve added almost 3000 works since then. An example of one of the big groups that we received was a set of prints by Debbie Fleming Caffery, who’s an important Louisiana-based photographer.
RL: She has gallery representation here, and in New York, and is in most major museum collections. We worked with one funder who gave us the money to purchase 100 of her prints, so that we would have the largest collection of her work in the country, which we thought was fitting.
In the end, when I made the selection with Debbie, we went and looked at every single print of every single image, and she helped me select the best prints that she still had. But we couldn’t get our selection down to less than 181, so she ended up essentially gifting the remaining prints, above the purchase price that we had agreed upon so that ended up being the final number.
We’re very happy to be able to have that kind of depth for an artist like Debbie Caffery, who’s been so important to this area, but is known internationally.
JB: You have your mission to inform the public, and you have your caretaker role, and those two intertwine on a daily basis.
RL: Absolutely. You’re dead on. Another thing I said in my job interview here is that another thing I think we need to accomplish, in the History of Photography, can only be accomplished with a three-pronged approach. The first is teaching, and I mean that very broadly, from lecturing in the Museum, to going out to Universities, to bringing classes in.
The second is writing: publishing books about our collection, and about photography. And finally Exhibitions: showing works, and making them available to people. I plan to continue building this department in all three of those directions.
We’d like to continue to publish things, hopefully at an even greater level. And to continue to produce exhibitions that are not only shown here, but allow me to work with colleagues at other institutions to put together exhibitions that can travel.
And then education. I think we have very strong ties, as an institution, to Tulane, Loyola, and UNO. But I’d like those to be even stronger, and perhaps even work on hosting more classes here at the Museum so that students can learn from the works in the collection directly.
JB: There are major institutions that do have schools built in, right?
RL: Yes. The Met has an implicit relationship with NYU, and the Art Institute of Chicago is also an art school. We are in a small enough city where it’s very easy for us to get back and forth between all these places, and I’m very interested in sharing our resources with the other educational institutions in the city.
JB: OK, you mentioned traveling exhibitions, and working with educational institutions. So I am going to put you on the spot here in about 30 seconds. There’s your warning.
Your Gordon Parks exhibition traveled to the University of Virginia, and may or may not still be on the wall. Is that right?
RL: It has come down, and just opened at Grinnell College in Iowa.
JB: You were interviewed by the school newspaper at the University of Virginia, which I found on Google. I couldn’t tell if it was a written Q&A, or an actual conversation like this, but the last line of the piece was the kind of thing that a student journalist would allow you to say at the end, and then follow with, “OK. Thanks so much for your time, Mr. Lord, I really appreciate it.”
But I’m not that guy, and that wasn’t my interview. And the last thing you said was, (and here’s where you’re going to get a little nervous,) as grandiose and philosophical a statement about photography as I’ve read in quite some time.
JB: So for the record, the question here is, please discuss. Here’s the quote: “Examining photography can tell us a lot about the motives, aspirations, and dreams of humanity.”
RL: (pause.) Is that the end of it.
JB: Yeah. That’s it.
RL: (laughing.) That is pretty bold.
RL: I think that may have been pulled from part of my essay in the Gordon Parks catalogue, in which I say we need to always critically examine projects, be they books, exhibitions, articles, or magazine portfolios. Because everything that we see is somebody’s selection, so we should always consider who’s doing the selecting for those things.
By that, I’m being self-critical. When I put up an exhibition, I really invite people to tell me what they think about it. Have I missed anything? What did I leave out? Those are important questions to me, because I’m sure that a lot of my opinions creep in. It’s not my job to show you what I think is great only, it’s my job to show you things that I think illustrate a complete history, in many ways.
We always need to consider that somebody is doing the selecting. These things are not just thrown up on the wall, in any kind of objective way. And I think we can learn a lot about ourselves, and about each other, if we critically examine the choices and selections of pictures and photographs.
That kind of a statement is driven very strongly by the Gordon Parks project, in which “Life” editors chose work from Gordon Parks’ selection in a controversial way. He made 1000 negatives, they chose 21. They distorted them, and embellished them, and darkened them in many cases. The story they told was very different from a story that could have been told.
In the exhibition, I tried to tell that other story. But I think this is a unique problem with photography, because it is perhaps the only medium in which a photograph can come into being long after it has come into being.
What I mean by that is, there is the moment of the creation of the negative, and then the print might not happen for another 20 or 30 years. So what does the distance between those two things mean, and how does it distort things, historically, to have that kind of disconnect?
Could you say that quote again one more time? Because I don’t know if I directly addressed it.
JB: Of course. It’s bold, and it’s thoughtful, which is why I’m only tongue-in-cheek making fun of you.
RL: Right. Right.
JB: I think it’s pretty idealistic, and that’s why I wanted to hear your thoughts further, while we’re nearing the end of the interview. Here you go: “Examining photography can tell us a lot about the motives, aspirations, and dreams of humanity.”
RL: Hmm. Hmm. Yeah. I think the other implied statement there is that I’ve become very interested in the ways in which photographs are increasingly replacing text as the predominant mode of communication and language. It’s certainly happening with people our age, and people younger than us.
I know in your blog posts, you include images and write about them, but not everyone does anymore. Sometimes you see these floating photo-streams, in which the images are the language. They are the text.
We need to think about that very seriously, because yes, people on Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, they are communicating. They are expressing their own ambitions, their own desires, in photographic form. We need to be very careful about how we do that, and it needs to become a very important component of general education, as we go forward.
Because there are limitations to what a photograph can communicate. In fact, it’s much more likely to communicate a lot more than we ever intended. And in a much more ambiguous way. I think that critically examining photographs is going to become an incredibly important component of education. Or it should. But it’s not, right now.
I’ll go back to a statement that one of my mentor’s made, which I’ve always held with me. He said, and I think it’s true, that the moment we are taught how to read, how to recognize letters and put them into words, that’s really the last moment in the US formal education system that we are taught how to look at something.
There is no component that says, “OK. You can read text. Now let’s learn how to read pictures.” Unless you take an Art History program, and I think that’s going to become crucial. We are falling behind in this idea of visual literacy, and I think it’s something that we should think about very strongly.
JB: I couldn’t agree more. It got me thinking, we all talk about photography, constantly. And it encompasses so much, but I sometimes feel that where the love, the passion, and the magic comes from, gets the short shrift. I think that’s implicit, that there’s a reason why people care so much about it.
But we often don’t dig into that question. That’s why I brought back that statement that you said.
RL: Ah. Interesting.
JB: It made me think a little bit. It’s almost like photography, the word, is a stand-in for reality. For life. Our obsession with this medium is almost like one collective metaphorical selfie.
The camera reproduces back for us what we’re experiencing, on this spinning ball out in Space-Time. And we can’t make sense of it, because nobody can make sense of it. It’s too big. It’s too grand, as a mammal with a limited lifespan, to understand everything.
So an easier way is to reflect it back, through the lens, and hold on to it. Photographs are talismen of this inexplicable experience we’re all going through, together, as humanity. And maybe we don’t appreciate it enough.
Someone like Emmet Gowin is out there on an island, talking about the magic, and I think that’s something that maybe we could all use a bit more of. In my mind, that’s where your quote took me.
And I wanted to see what it meant to you, upon further reflection.
RL: That’s an interesting way to take it, and something that, as usual, brings me back to the origins of photography. When it was much less clearly defined as a kind of information and record. When it was magic.
The inventors of photography were occasionally accused of dabbling in the dark arts. Or there was a lot of association with alchemy, because they put some chemicals together, and suddenly the world appears on a surface. It’s amazing.
Photographs are so common now that we’ve lost some of our wonder and amazement at their production. It’s also just so easy. We have them in our pockets. Thousands of them, on our phones or devices.
I do think it’s a magical thing. Photographic images can profoundly affect us. They can make us emotional. We have responses to them in ways that we don’t always have to text. And I think it’s important not to lose sight of that.
That’s definitely up there with reasons I became interested in this field. You see things that are profoundly affecting, and you want to understand that.
Jonathan Blaustein: So what’s going on down there in New Orleans?
Russell Lord: We are trying to get all of our schedules organized for the next three years. I’ve been here for about three and a half years, and as soon as I got here, we put a bunch of stuff on the books. I’ve spent most of my time working on those things, and we’re finally caught up and planning for the future.
JB: You hit the ground running, and you’re catching your breath now, three plus years later?
RL: Pretty much. The first show that I did here, which we were already committed to doing, opened less than two months after I arrived. And the first show that I did in its entirety opened less than six months after I got here.
So it was a very quick pace. It’s nice to have a moment to catch your breath.
JB: Basically, you’re saying that at your first opening, the security guards didn’t want to let you past the velvet rope?
RL: (laughing) They were like, “Who’s this guy?”
JB: Who’s this guy?
RL: It’s true.
JB: They don’t say that anymore, I’m sure.
RL: No. I’m no stranger to being here late in the evening, especially with a young child, as you know. Sometimes, the most productive hours are right after their bedtime, and into the wee hours of the morning.
Since I live so close to the Museum, I often come back around 7:30, and work until Midnight. I get a lot of writing done, in the quiet hours.
JB: Well, you’ve already given us one of your secrets, and we’ve barely begun. To be honest, I don’t do that. At 7:30, when the kids go to bed, I turn on the TV and put my feet up. That’s my only break in the day.
RL: I do too, now. But for the past couple of years, that has not been my schedule. I’m grateful to have those moments, alone with my wife, where we’re just able to relax. Preferably with a little bit of bourbon.
For a while there, when I was writing the Gordon Parks book, and when I was writing the forthcoming “Photography at NOMA” catalogue, and the Burtynsky catalogue, those were all things that were written largely on weeknights, between 7pm and 2 o’clock in the morning.
JB: That means if we were to parse your texts carefully, we would probably see a hint of loopiness. The 1am loopies?
RL: I think so. Yeah. Though I did try to temper those with the 9am-the-next-day-check-and-balance.
JB: All right.
RL: Around 1:30 or 2 o’clock in the morning, you do feel pretty confident about everything you’ve just written.
RL: And then the next morning, you come in and wonder who was in your office the night before.
JB: That’s your friend Mr. Bourbon.
RL: (laughing.) Exactly.
JB: There’s a lot of stuff I want to talk about with you. I think you are almost perfectly primed to give our audience answers to a lot of questions that people have.
We hit the ground running, today, but I’d love to cycle back to some questions about how you got started, and perhaps jump around a bit as well.
RL: That sounds great to me.
JB: I’m sure I won’t get everything right, but your lineage looks something like this: James Madison University, then you worked at the Yale Art Gallery, you went to graduate school at the City University of New York, for your PhD, you worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then you jumped to the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Am I at least mostly correct here?
RL: That’s all correct. The only thing that I will be precise about… you said it precisely correct, but I didn’t finish the PhD. I am, technically, A.B.D.
JB: I D.O.N.T. K.N.O.W. what A.B.D means.
RL: (laughing.) A.B.D is the status that means “All But Dissertation.” It seems to have achieved this pseudo-official status. It means that if you start a PhD program, and you don’t finish the PhD, you may have had an extra six or seven years of schooling that other people don’t, but there was nothing to add to the name.
The A.B.D. status defines someone who has gone through all the course-work in a graduate program, and then usually passed some sort of critical exam, which in our case is an Orals exam. It’s a crazy process where we develop three bibliographies.
One is in your focus area, which for me was 19th Century French and British photography. Another bibliography in your major area, which was the long 19th Century. And another in your related minor, which for me was late 18th and early 19th Century American art.
JB: And by bibliography, do you mean that you have to present a reading list of everything that you’ve read?
RL: Basically, you come up with a list of things, about a year and a half in advance, of what you are supposed to read. And you come up with these bibliographies in consultation with your thesis advisor, and a council of two other professors. At the Graduate Center, this is the way it works.
So I had three professors basically approving the lists that I came up with. And in the concentration area, I believe it was a 10 page bibliography. So we can calculate what that turns out to be in terms of numbers of books, or articles.
But it was substantial.
In the major area, it was about a 5 page bibliography. In the related minor, it was a list of artists that we were expected to be familiar with. You are then responsible to read as much of that as possible.
At a certain date, you show up at the Graduate Center, and go into a conference room with the professors, and they start showing you slides. You have to talk about them, and they ask you questions, in a very directed way, so you can pull in some of what you learned from doing the reading.
What is particularly challenging about this test, is that it is designed to test the depths of your knowledge. So they basically ask you questions about each pair of slides that they’re showing you, until you can’t answer a question. You leave each pair of slides having just incorrectly answered, or been unable to answer, the last question.
You go into the next pair feeling really bad about yourself.
JB: I was quiet for a really long time, and there are so many things I want to say here that my brain hurts.
JB: I don’t know what to say to that. It sounds like a kind of torture. As opposed to a productive and positive plan of exploration.
RL: It’s a very interesting thing, because I think a lot of people certainly don’t like it. And a lot of people are more adept at other parts of the PhD process. For me, I actually saw a lot of value in it.
It’s a rigorous test, but I really got into this field because I had a great desire to be able to communicate things about art and culture to to a fairly broad audience of people. And I’m always very excited at the most academic things out there.
I’m interested in what people are saying in small, focused, academic circles. I like absorbing that information. But I like even more trying to translate that information for people who would never come into contact with those circles otherwise.
So for me, reading things like all of TJ Clark’s books, or some of the more philosophical writings. Derrida’s work on Art History, for example. And thinking about how to translate that information, and spit it back out and relate it to work. Trying to focus in on those kernels of truth for great ideas, and then bring them back out.
That, to me, is a challenge, but it’s exciting, and I think it’s a responsibility that we all bear. Especially when we decide to go into the curatorial world, because you’re even more a public figure in this world.
JB: I didn’t mean to impugn the acquisition of knowledge…
RL: No, no. I totally knew where you were coming from.
JB: Good. Because we live in the world of the hyperlink, and establishing two years ahead of time, every single book, and only those books, that you will read… it would be like getting a PhD in Jazz and never getting the chance to improvise.
RL: Right. Right.
JB: It sounds a little hollow. But you made so many good points, beyond the little stuff I want to make fun of. Other people who go through that process do it to end up in Academia, and never really stray from a very tight knit community of hyper-experts.
JB: You knew all along that it was important to you to be able to take this knowledge down from the tower, and start talking to as many people as you could about what you love, and why you love it?
RL: Absolutely. I was aware that in academia, just to get through a PhD program, you are being taught by people who have chosen the academic route. So it’s always interesting negotiating or navigating how much you should make apparent what your goals really are.
However, I worked with several professors at the Graduate Center who were very excited at the fact that I was so committed and enthusiastic about working in the “object” world, and the Museum world.
What was exciting for me was that I got to become a nexus point for them as to where the two worlds might meet. I was just talking to Geoffrey Batchen recently, who was my advisor. He taught a class on 19th Century British photography, and at the time, I was working with Hans Kraus, and Hans let me bring a couple of really early Henneman and Talbot salt prints to class one day.
I remember Geoff saying recently that being in New York was a dream, as he’s since moved to New Zealand. He said, “It was a dream. I had great students, and how many places could you ever teach a class and have one of your students bring in Talbots and Hennemans.”
He was right. There was something really exciting to being in New York, and being surrounded by all these beautiful collections, but for me, there was something also very exciting about having people like Geoff Batchen training me, and being wholly supportive and understanding of what a museum can do, and what actual “object” study can do.
In addition to the book and the theoretical work.
JB: So even when you were immersed in that rigorous environment, you were already thinking about a connection point with a public audience.
I’m guessing it’s because you worked in a gallery environment at Yale. Does everything build upon itself? Or was there a seminal experience at some point in your career where you decided that was the direction you wanted to take?
RL: It was a lot of building upon the previous step, in most of the cases. But there were some defining moments.
When I got to Yale, I had a chance to work very closely with “objects.” I was hired as the Administrative Assistant in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, and my responsibilities, on paper, were to be the department assistant. I would answer phones, do purchase orders, things like that. And also to take care of the collection.
JB: You were a desk jockey.
RL: Yes, but I would also pull works for study, and put them back. I ultimately ended up organizing classes. But then it moved far beyond that, to turn into a really wonderful opportunity where I got the chance to work with the Director, Jock Reynolds on a couple of exhibitions, and I co-ordinated the publication of Emmet Gowin’s “Aerial Photography” book.
Throughout that four year process, I realized what you can learn from looking at the “object,” and how much the physical qualities of the “object” can have a huge impact on even our theoretical understanding of it. Whatever we might think, or want to say in a general way, can often be upended by the physical properties of something itself.
JB: A print, for example.
RL: Right. So that quickly became a hallmark of my research: what the original “object” can tell us that a reproduction can’t. Ultimately, when I did decide to go to the PhD program, and I was thinking about what I wanted to write about, it started because I was interested in these weird physical objects, early photogravures, which it seemed like not much work had been done on.
And that proved to be true. No one had really explored why people were interested in photo-mechanical reproduction, from the very outset of photography. Nobody had really considered how pervasive
those attempts were. What my research tries to demonstrate is that photography has been written as a history of great images by great artists.
In the marketplace, we fetishize the unique version of each of those things. This is the best print because it looks, in this way, different from all the others. We play down its reproductive qualities, in favor of the uniqueness of the individual object. So the way the History of Photography has been written, to my mind, as I did my research, seemed to be at odds with its origins. Which were largely based in an interest in reproduction.
JB: How so?
RL: At least from Talbot’s perspective. And, even, perhaps, early on in Daguerre’s career, he was interested in the idea of reproducibility. And also the idea of hybridity. We tend to separate photography out as something different from anything else. In its earliest days, it was described as being hybrid. All the words people came up with to define it were themselves usually two roots from different fields, smashed together, like photo and graph.
I could list all the other kinds of names, like the heliograph, the heliogravure, the physototypephysautotype. But I’ll stop there. Niecephore Niepce himself has a page in his notebook where he describes a bunch of different combinations to describe what he’s trying to do. They all have these different roots, and it’s a wonderful exploration in lexicon.
JB: That would be fascinating to see.
RL: Beyond those kind of rhetorical devices, they were creating things that were, themselves, physically hybrid. Meaning, there was certainly a light-sensitive component to what they were doing, but it often resulted in an ink on paper print. Since I had this interest in looking at and showing “objects” to people, I started thinking,
“OK. If you are a person in France or England in the early 1840’s, and you keep hearing about photography, what are you actually seeing? How many people would have had the chance to see a Daguerreotype on display in a shop window, for example? How many people would have seen an actual salt print?”
One of my arguments in my thesis is that more people encountered photography in the photogravure, or photomechanical form, than they did in what wme call its pure form: The Daguerreotype or salt print. They saw prints in ink, produced after those other things, so for them, at a very early moment, there was a confusion as to what, exactly, photography was.
The word came to encompass all of these kinds of practices, and now of course it encompasses even more. It’s things on paper, or printed with ink, or on glass, or on metal. Now, photographs might have no physical, permanent form whatsoever. Things that might exist digitally, and affect and be seen by millions of people, but might never permanently exist.
JB: I couldn’t help but go to the digital world in my head.
It struck me almost immediately, when you were talking about what people encountered, versus what was fetishized… that is today. I think it’s a real problem that a lot of people scratch their heads at.
People’s obsession with the medium, has never been greater. In the last decade, we’ve minted a couple BILLION, or more, new photographers. Without exaggeration. But it seems like the interest, at least in the US, in well-crafted prints in a white frame, on a wall, the boutique aspect of unique objects, is fairly limited.
As you live in New Orleans, we can talk about how certain cultural meccas, at least, are outliers in that trend. I doubt you’ll disagree with me, and I’ll give you a chance.
It just seems like what you were fascinated by, at the onset of the medium, has never been truer than it is today. What’s your take on that?
RL: It’s absolutely true, and accurate, and I agree with that completely. It was, in many ways, an inspiration for my look into the origins. I was really curious about the debates we were having now, but much more succinctly than I just described it to you.
There were all these interesting symposia with titles like “Is Photography Over?” or “Is Photography Dead?”
JB: Right. Of course.
RL: In all of those cases, people usually failed to come up with what “It” is. What they were describing, and what it was that had died. Maybe there are some differences in the physicality of it.
It made me think about the same kind of debates that people were having at the origins of photography, and if you are going to define what it is that is different, let’s say you settle on a material explanation.
Photography was “this,” and now it is “this,” physically. But if you look back through the History of Photography, there’s never been only one kind of photography. There were Daguerreotypes at the same time as salt prints, and albumen prints. Photogravures. Platinum prints.
It’s always been a whole host of different kinds of material things. So why should we try to define photography in any kind of pure, material sense? It’s almost as if the only constant in its history has been change and transformation.
Perhaps, rather than declare things “dead,” or “over,” we should see the digital revolution, which is PROFOUND, as just another step in a constantly evolving field of image-making.
JB: Right. And maybe it’s always been constant that photography has been shunted to the side, or considered distinct from other expressions of art, and other forms of media?
RL: Yes. Absolutely. Again, I think that’s a function of its origins. People said it was “kind of” a form of drawing, but it was drawing that performed itself. There was no human needed. It was auto-genetic, or…
JB: It was science, really.
RL: Yeah. There’s a great thing about the way people describe the process of photography. I mean, Talbot himself published a wonderful book illustrated with actual photographs, called “The Pencil of Nature.” Here we have Nature with a capital “N,” drawing her own pictures. There’s no person needed.
That was certainly one of the key components of photography. People settled on the fact that there was no human intervention, and I think that ultimately gave rise to mistaken beliefs about its truth or accuracy.
But Talbot publishes a treatise, and the title is something like “On the art of photogenic drawing, or the process by which objects may be made to delineate themselves.”
JB: And right now, of course, you’re proving the inherent value of the 10 page bibliography. Because you did read your books, and you have assimilated your information.
JB: (laughing) If your teachers are reading this…
RL: I think that’s what’s interesting about it is that you need to absorb all this stuff, but your jazz analogy is a really interesting one. It’s almost as if you are a jazz musician who is asked to just internalize the whole history of music, and, in three hours, give an improvisation in which little references to these things come out. You know?
That’s ultimately what it is. They just want to hear how you speak about these things, and how you can package theory or critical statements in a way that relates it to what you’re looking at.
For me, I saw a lot of value in it, and I was really glad that I read a lot of those things. At the heart of it, I’m really just a total nerd. As you can tell.
JB: Everybody can tell now.
RL: (laughing.) And there were so many books that I never would have read that now are some of my favorite books in Art History. And I wouldn’t recommend them for everybody, but for me they were incredibly influential, and I loved the ideas. Thinking about re-staging those ideas, or engaging with them in a new way is something that I’ll probably be doing forever.
JB: People will only read this. We don’t do podcasts yet. But your passion is definitely jumping through the speaker. The readers will have to trust me that you’re fired up and ready to do.
Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, who testified on Ms. Crile’s behalf, said Monday that the ability to deduct art-related expenses — in art careers that might generate little money — was “one of the last remaining areas where the federal government cuts artists any slack to allow them to do what they do,” and that its protection was crucial.
Mishka Henner is an artist based in Manchester, England. He’s been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet and Deutsche Borse Prizes, and was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Art in 2013. His work is currently being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a solo show recently closed at Carroll/Fletcher in London.
Jonathan Blaustein: There’s a project on your site called “Less Americains,” in which you erased most of the information from Robert Frank’s seminal work. There does seem to be a strong American inspiration in your practice.
I get it. I’m a bit in love with what you guys do in England. I try to work with absurdity. I see it as positive, and a healthy reaction to the state of the world. It’s the flip side to outrage; they go hand in hand. When you don’t want to swallow your outrage, you can look at it sideways and have a giggle. That seems very British to me.
Mishka Henner: I love Bill Hicks and I’d like to think there’s some Bill Hicks in some of this work. With “No Man’s Land,” and the feed lots. Absolutely.
JB: Well, there was a line of inquiry I was headed towards, which is, you piss people off.
JB: I just saw a photo blog that described your “Less Americains” project as a “waste of time.” Is that necessarily a bad thing? Do you see yourself as a provocateur? Do you think great art ought to ruffle a few feathers, and not just tell people what they want to hear?
MH: I think I stopped being earnest about six years ago. I was making what I think of as very earnest, documentary work. More straight documentary.
Then I came across mostly American artists working with photography who were funny. People like Chris Burden. They were daring, amoral. There was real ambiguity in there. And they weren’t subscribing to this idea that documentary photography has to be earnest. What’s Chris Burden saying when he fires a gun at a Boeing 747 taking off from LAX? Who cares? It’s a brilliant gesture.
So documentary could be dangerous, confrontational. And it could also tell jokes. All things that I never thought photography could be, right?
MH: That’s why I did “No Man’s Land.” When I first started doing it, I was thinking, “Fuck. I can’t do this. You cannot do this. You can’t go around photographing prostitutes with a Google Street View camera. That’s just fucking outrageous. It’s just a complete moral and ethical No No.”
And then, the more time I spent on it, the more I was thinking, “Hang on a second. What is this? Who are these women? Fuck, maybe I’m like one of them.”
You know what I mean, as an artist? Standing by the roadside, displaying your wares, waiting in the middle of nowhere for someone to come along and fuck you over. Metaphorically speaking of course. My point is that I could recognize myself in the subject. And the fact it was all done remotely was even more powerful to me.
JB: I do have that on my question list. I was going to ask you if you have ever tried to pick up an African hooker in Calabria?
MH: (laughing) No. No, I haven’t. Virtually, maybe. But not physically.
You know, the longer I spent working on “No Man’s Land”, the more I was thinking, “If you’re going to photograph street prostitutes in the middle of nowhere in Europe, this is the way you do it. You don’t go there, pretending to be doing an earnest project. You do it sitting at home, alone, in front of your own computer terminal looking out at these shards of reality.”
There’s a thing called the Prison Photography blog…
JB: Yeah, Pete Brook. We know Pete.
MH: He’s cool. I like him. But he and some others went on this crusade talking about how what I had done was somehow inferior to the photographers who went there and photographed the women. That in those works, there was much more beauty, subtlety, and empathy in their work. That those images were literally imbued with an ethical and moral sympathy that was absent in mine.
And I just thought, “What a load of bullshit that is.” To be honest with you Jonathan, I’ve found that quite a few of my projects have revealed a lot of the assumptions and judgements that a section of the photo community continues to take for granted about documentary. It really doesn’t have to be like that. There’s so much more scope for pushing the boundaries of what documentary can be.
It has a lot to do with this earnestness that I’m talking about. It’s the pitiful image. Documentary’s no good unless you’re made to feel sorry for the people in your photographs. Which is outrageous really. And quite demeaning and condescending to the people who are the subjects of those pictures.
At least the sex workers in my pictures have their faces blurred. They’re at a distance, a long way away from the lens. It means the work isn’t just about them, it’s also about us looking at them. Which I don’t think enough documentary does.
I made “Less Americains” for a number of reasons but a major one was because I was getting sick and tired of this monumentalizing of Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” It was as if the book had become a biblical text that couldn’t be questioned. It was beyond reproach. I was thinking, “Hang on a minute. The discussion around that work is turning it into some sort of mythology. They’re just creating myths. And I really don’t like that. I react very strongly to that.
It’s like dogma. Do you know what I mean?
JB: I do. I’ve railed against many of these same things, so I do feel you. But it’s interesting, as artists, to watch how perceptions change, as things age. I’m sure that’s where your sociology background can inform your thinking.
Frank’s work, in 1958, was transgressive. It was shocking.
MH: Of course, I know that! My problem isn’t with the work, it’s with the spectacle that surrounds it.
JB: How could something maintain that read, 60 years later? It can’t. I was able to see the show a few years ago, when they brought it back together, and sit with the objects, within the context of his Guggenheim application, and his earlier work. It was a joy to see the pictures on the wall, but in a way, we as younger artists have to fight through that.
You know, the Baby Boomers aren’t leaving the stage in any industry. It’s not just ours.
JB: So there’s a natural desire to rebel against the canon when the canon doesn’t have the same juice it did 60 years ago. Right?
MH: Absolutely. I can totally imagine the impact it must have had. It must have been revolutionary, certainly.
JB: In culture in general. It’s a little dorky that I’m an Anglophile, and you love the Americans, but in the late 50’s, mainstream culture here was very white, monotonous, buttoned down, hierarchical culture. Everything was hidden under the rug.
It was all veneer. So this guy comes over, rips off the skin, and shows disaffected people.
JB: And in a way, he does what we’re talking about. We’ve all had conversations about what it must have been like, in the 50’s, to look at LIFE magazine, see a picture of a starving poor person in a Third World country, and have that picture punch you in the stomach.
As opposed to now, where your eyes glaze, and you can’t possibly relate, viscerally, to suffering in the same way.
MH: I don’t know. You see, I do look around and think we are in a very conservative time, in which there are horrific things going on which are being pushed under the rug. I do think that.
I only have to look aroud me or turn the TV on to see things that I’m sure someone like Robert Frank would have seen in 1950s America. I do think that.
JB: Sure, but we’re talking about the fact that the visual language, the way art is made and the way in which it is received, has changed, and needs to change to keep up with the times.
You’re using technology that wasn’t even imaginable then.
MH: That’s right.
JB: Your process is 21st Century, and the problems are 21st Century.
MH: And the visual language isn’t entrenched yet. These images can’t be pigeon-holed so easily and I think that as a result, they can stimulate parts of the brain that other images we’re so used to seeing can’t. If you went out today and tried to photograph the culture like Robert Frank did – which a lot of people do – it would be pointless and almost disingenious. I know because I was doing it before. And I realized that what I was doing was trying to emulate the idols.
A big change for me was to think, “Fuck that. Fuck the idols.” They lived then, I’m living now. I have to try to see and represent things as they are now.
JB: Yeah, fuck those guys.
MH: It’s not just because I want to be center stage, it’s more that I’m trying to get a grip about what the hell is going on. One of the reasons I wanted to work with satellite images is because the people who are running the show, that’s the stuff they’re working with.
When they’re working out logistics, where combat troops have to go, where pipelines have to go, they’re not working with ground-based imagery. They’re working with this network of cameras that surround the globe.
I wanted to get into their heads and try to see the world from their perspective, which is why I did “51 US Military Outposts.” It was the first project I did working like that and was a deliberate attempt to try to see things from that perspective.
After the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and then our intervention in Libya, I had to find out for myself why we were going to these places. That’s why I started working with satellite images, to try and see things from that perspective. Which is a completely non-emotive perspective. It’s pure logistics. Pure strategy.
And of course, when you start to look at the world in that way, you see things entirely differently. Things become clearer.
JB: I saw Trevor Paglen speak last month, and he was talking about how he’s interested in this huge mass of imagery that’s being made by machines, for machines. The pictures are designed to be read by algorithms. They’re not even meant for human consumption, at this point.
MH: I’ve heard that.
JB: We’re living in a crazy time. We can think about what’s going on with those Nigerian girls, who were just kidnapped. It’s a global sense of powerlessness. The idea that we can be aware of things, minute to minute, and feel their impact, but also be completely devoid of any kind of control, or ability to impact these situations.
That’s a unique phenomenon, given how long it used to take information to travel. Now it’s instantaneous, and what do you really get? You get a feeling of dread and fear that Vladimir Putin’s coming to take over your country. Or some Islamic assholes are going to steal your daughter.
MH: Sure, but like Bill Hicks says, you turn your TV off, you look out the window and think, “Where’s all this shit happening?” I think there’s a big difference between the media landscape, and the landscape outside my window. Do you know what I mean?
JB: I see horses, ravens and eagles out my window. I live in a horse pasture at the base of the Rocky Mountains in the hinterlands of the American West. So I do, in fact, know what you’re talking about.
MH: Well, there you go. I see a motorway.
JB: That’s why I think these ideas are powerful. Because we are living bifurcated existences. We have our online existence and our real world existence, and there are more and more enticements, these days, to pull people out of meat-space and into ones and zeroes.
You alluded earlier to wanting to figure out what the hell is going on. That’s what drives contemporary art, at its best, is the desire to figure out what the fuck is going on out there. With a concomitant desire to find a form for that content that makes sense in the now, and is relevant, as opposed to a form that feels antiquated.
MH: I agree. Having said that, I think, in some ways, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. When I compare myself to net artists, they’re like Spacemen, and I’m still trying to get a plane off the ground.
Some of these guys, I don’t even understand what they’re talking about. They’re doing all sorts of crazy shit.
When I question myself, which, obviously, I do a lot, I wonder what I’m doing printing pictures out and putting them on a wall. That’s kind of a nostalgic project.
But at the same time, you’ve got all these museums and institutions that have walls that need to be filled, and people do go and see them, so you think, “Maybe that way of doing things still has legs.” It’s still an effective way to show pictures.
JB: Listen, we’ve definitely got to wrap this up. But just before we began our chat, I saw something on Twitter, and I thought it would be fun to get your reaction to it.
MH: Go ahead.
JB: Somebody submitted a potential app to the Apple app store, that was an anthropomorphic vagina that taught women how to masturbate. Someone made a cartoon, almost anime-style app, to teach women how to understand their own private parts. Apple rejected it, and said, “No thank you.”
MH: (reading) Female masturbation, there’s an app for that. Happy Playtime.
JB: There it is.
MH: Well, I’ve got a two-year-old daughter, not that it’s going to be related to this …
JB: Hey now.
MH: But whenever she sees my partner and I on our iPhones or iPads – which is often – it breaks my heart. It feels like she’s caught me with a needle in my arm. I find myself carrying my phone, and it’s more a part of me now than a phone or an object has ever been. These things are so addictive, they’re designed so that you’ll be absolutely be glued to them. You have to go to rehab just to rid them from your life.
They remind me of Pringles. Do you know Pringles?
JB: I do.
MH: I’m pretty sure they lace Pringles with powdered smack. Once you pop you’re fucked.
JB: I have a friend who worked for one of the chemical flavor companies for a couple of decades, so I have no doubt they jimmy-rig that shit. For sure.
MH: So you’re asking me what I make of this app? I’m surprised it’s only coming out now.
Mishka Henner is an artist based in Manchester, England. He’s been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet and Deutsche Borse Prizes, and was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Art in 2013. His work is currently being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a solo show recently closed at Carroll/Fletcher in London.
Jonathan Blaustein: You probably don’t know this, but we were both nominated this round of the Prix Pictet prize. For “Consumption.”
Mishka Henner: Okay, right.
JB: I’m going to have a picture in the book. But you were chosen for the short-list. And you will be exhibiting your work at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, yes?
JB: I’ve been thinking about it a bit, and since you were short-listed and I wasn’t, I’ve come to believe that it makes you a superior human being to me.
MH: (laughing.) Clearly. Yeah. Although you’ve probably got a better paid job. But go on.
JB: You agree? We can go there?
MH: That I’m superior?
JB: Yeah. To me.
MH: It’s obvious. If I made the short list then you’re a loser. Although come next Wednesday, I may well be the loser. The question is, will I be the bigger loser because it will be on a bigger stage, or a smaller loser?
JB: Nobody even knew that I had been nominated and failed, until now.
JB: Here’s the way I look at it. I’m prepared to stipulate that you are superior to me, as a human being, and an artist, but your humiliation will likely be larger than mine. Which was heretofore in private. What do you say?
MH: (laughing.) Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right.
JB: Good. I thought we could establish that right away, so that you could realize “Holy Shit. He’s telling the truth. This isn’t a regular interview.”
MH: Yeah, okay. That’s fine.
JB: Good. We’re there now. Well, first of all, good luck. When I saw that Boris Mikhailov and Rineke Dijkstra were on that list, I felt OK about not making it. That’s the big leagues, bro.
MH: I know, I’m well aware of that.
JB: Your ascent seems to have been somewhat rapid, in that you were short listed for the Deutsche Borse prize, and got the ICP Infinity Award. Now the Prix Pictet. How did you get on this many radar screens this quickly?
MH: Fuck, I don’t know. The Internet?
JB: There it is.
MH: I’ve gone viral, I’ve given everyone a virus.
JB: (laughing.) Did you? Go viral?
MH: Well, yeah. I’ve never had a publisher, and I only started working with galleries in the last six months.
JB: Get out. Six months?
MH: Yeah, up to that point, all I’d been doing is print-on-demand books. Books that have maybe sold ten or twenty copies. Those books had a greater life online than as physical books, that’s for sure and a few of them went viral. I did a project called “No Man’s Land,” where I photographed sex workers across Southern Europe using Google Street View.
MH: That was a print-on-demand book, and I made a just single copy of the book. The pdf was available online and it drew some controversy. A sex worker on the West Coast wrote about it and she was quite positive, but then a load of feminist sex workers on the West Coast basically went ape shit, trying to get the book banned, writing letters to the print-on-demand company.
I had to defend myself to the company’s lawyers and I guess I succeeded because they let me get on with it. After that I sold about 60 books and decided to bring out a second volume.
When the dust had settled I’d sold a few hundred books and “No Man’s Land” was short listed for the Deutsche Borse prize. It’s also the project that was nominated for this Prix Pictet but I didn’t submit it because I was tired of it. I’d been working on the “Beef and Oil” series and thought it would be more interesting to enter that. Nobody had really seen that work properly so I thought it would be interesting to launch it through a prize like that.
JB: You took a risk?
MH: I’d been nominated with “No Man’s Land” for the Prix Pictet for the Power theme two years ago, and didn’t get anywhere with it then. So the risk was that nobody would ever hear about it. Which was fine.
JB: I know how that feels.
JB: Hey, I made the book. You’ll see it. I’m not a total loser, just mostly a loser.
MH: A mere footnote.
JB: (laughing.) I’ll take that. But just tucking back, when you said the West Coast, you meant the West Coast of the United States?
MH: Yes. But most of the exposure I’ve had has been in the US anyway. In Europe, I’ve had some exposure, and the work has done well, but really, my work’s flying in America. That’s where people are taking notice of the work most and are buying it. The picture editors at the New York Times were my earliest supporters.
I’ve hardly sold any work in Europe.
JB: You guys are bankrupt as a Continent, essentially?
MH: Yeah. But people just don’t buy art here the way they do in the US. Maybe it’s to do with tax breaks, or something else. I don’t know.
There always seems to be something going on in the US about buying art, as opposed to Europe.
JB: You probably could have just stopped that sentence at buying. Right? We’re talking about “Consumption,” and my peeps have sort of perfected the idiosyncrasies of Capitalism. We Americans are proud of it.
MH: Yeah. You’ve done pretty well at it.
JB: And you guys don’t have a lot of disposable income. Even your football clubs are bought by other people. Come on. You’re in fucking Manchester.
Some Americans and some oil sheiks own your shit. You have to know this.
MH: I’m with the oil sheiks.
JB: Of course you are.
MH: That’s right.
JB: Two titles out of three. You’re with the winners. (ed note: Manchester City.)
MH: Look, the biggest photo museum in England has an acquisition budget of £12,000 a year, which is about $20,000. That might just about pay for a cleaner in a US museum. No disrespect to cleaners but that’s doesn’t offer much hope to artists.
JB: It would pay for one square inch of a Gursky.
MH: Exactly. I think that tells you something about the market here.
JB: We went right to the market. But “Consumption,” is the theme for this year’s prize. But we went right to the commodification aspect of Consumption. I’ve spent a bit of time in England in the last couple of years, and went to quite a few museums, which are free. The consumption of art that I saw in London was mind-boggling.
Families and kids and babies and grandmas. Anecdotally, I thought the consumption of art, with your eyes, was much more impressive than I have seen in American major cities.
MH: It’s possible. I think there’s a real hunger for it here, absolutely. And the market for that probably isn’t as developed as it is in the US. I think there are different reasons to do with tax laws, as I said. There are incentives for buying art that probably don’t exist in Britain or Europe.
But listen, I haven’t got a clue. We’re talking about things here that are way out of my league.
JB: I mean viewing. Looking. You must go to London a lot. Do you not notice the hordes that are there to absorb ideas?
MH: Yeah, but maybe we’re talking about different things. It’s true online as well. There’s a voracious appetite for new stuff to look at. It’s a bit like the Tumblr culture, where you’re looking at a waterfall of great stuff. Great imagery, great music. And we absorb it quickly.
We consume it super-fast, and spit it out just as quick. That’s as true in the art galleries as it is online. But as an artist, when it comes to the actual material fact of making a living by selling work, that’s quite different, I think.
Which is more what I was talking about before. We can talk about that other aspect of consuming data, or culture, if you like.
JB: I like to talk about all of it. I was just pointing out the natural way we gravitated. Of course, selling objects is a necessity, if you’re trying to make a living that way.
In America, we have so many more people, and so many more artists, that I think a very, very, very small percentage of contemporary artists even attempt to make their living exclusively through sales.
JB: Almost everyone, including the big dogs at Yale, is teaching, or running workshops, or writing. I call it the 21st Century Hustle, because almost everyone has to hustle over here. We don’t have the social service infrastructure that exists in Europe.
I personally live in the Wild West, but I think America is that way. Fend for yourself.
I like to think of the various strands of the process. Why we create? How we create? What we create? And then the market forces are a separate concern. The business and creative concerns rarely come from the same place.
MH: That’s right, and it’s why I’m a bit out of my comfort zone talking about the business side of it. Because I don’t have much experience at that.
In terms of the creation stuff, what was interesting to me about the Oil Fields, especially, is the lineage from John Paul Getty II to Mark Getty. The former was this huge oil baron. He was once asked for the secret to his success and replied, “Rise early. Work hard. Strike oil.”
And Mark Getty, his grandson or great-grandson, is the founder of Getty images. He was once asked why he gravitated towards images as a commodity and said, “Intellectual property will be the oil of the 21st Century.” Or something like that. You should look it up. Anyway, I love that transition from oil to images.
That’s why I became obsessed with oil fields and the idea of even looking for oil fields. In effect, if you think of the world now as a single image that’s been photographed from every angle, from satellites to street view cameras…
JB: Planet Earth is now Picasso’s guitar.
MH: Yeah, it’s an assemblage of images. I like the idea that all this stuff is there, but because there’s so much of it, we can’t see it. Finding the valuable stuff is as difficult as finding oil. When a plane like MH370 goes missing the first place we look is at the satellite imagery because the images of the plane are probably already out there. But just like the ocean is unfathomable, so is the quantity of imagery. We just don’t have the capacity to study it all.
Now, what happened with the feed lots, for me, was fascinating because that’s the work that really went viral in the US. Feed lots are generally remote, in the middle of nowhere and Americans had never really seen them before.
JB: How much time have you spent on the ground in America while you were making this work?
MH: I visited California with friends three months ago for ten days, but that was to see “Spiral Jetty,” Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels”, and Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative.” It was more of a pilgrimage. But apart from that, none.
JB: On I-5, the highway that connects San Francisco and LA, there are strings of these feed lots, right along the highway. You can smell them about ten minutes before you see them, and that stench will carry on for about ten minutes after you’ve left.
So the Californians are familiar with it. It’s not only tucked away in Kansas.
MH: I spent a lot of time looking at California because there are hundreds of feed lots there, but the key ones that struck me were generally in Texas and Kansas because of their size.
Feed lots are pretty much all the same. There are thousands of cattle, you’ve got silos that mix the grain, tracks that allow the trucks to pass up and down dispensing the feed. And then you’ve got these huge lagoons of piss and shit. That’s pretty much a feed lot. I looked at thousands of them. After a while, you start to wonder how big the series should be and I eventually whittled them down to seven key pictures.
The main one is the one with the huge red pool in the middle of it. The one that looks like a cross-section of a brain.
JB: I just want to say lagoons of piss and shit out loud, because it’s such a great phrase. Now I’ve done it.
MH: (laughing) Well, that’s what they are. People ask, “What’s that?” And I don’t know how to say it really, other than to use those words. Piss and shit is what it is. Hundreds of tonnes of it.
JB: Sure. I’m not mocking you. I’m honest. It’s fun to say stuff like that every now and again.
What do you hope the impact will be on your viewer, when they look at these pictures? What do you want people to think, when they see the picture, read the words, and understand what they’re looking at?
MH: I first came across the feed lots when working on the oil fields. I’d come across the structures and didn’t know what they were. When I started to research them, I was amazed these things existed and would ask myself, “How have we gotten to this point?” The feed lots represent an end point of Capitalism to me. You wonder how much further we can go with it before we destroy ourselves.
But I’ve never seen the feed lots as being just about the cattle in the pens. This is literally a system for living and dying, and I think that system exists beyond the feed lot. It’s a system that our societies, Britain and the US, are aspiring to. The feed lot is almost a dream system. It’s not my dream, it’s my nightmare. But it’s this idea that every sinew of a living animal should be drained dry of productive value. You know what I mean?
JB: I do. They’re concentration camps for cows, really.
MH: With a lot of my projects, the more I spend time working on them, if I think it’s good work, my ideas about it change quite dramatically. From the beginning of the feed lot project, it went from a very practical understanding of what these things were to me thinking that these were systems for living and dying that exist all around us. That we’re actually part of and involved in.
JB: What do you mean by that? That’s an abstract statement.
MH: Well, if you think of yourself as a journalist…are you a freelancer?
JB: I’m a writer, a teacher, and a freelancer writer. I write for this publication, A Photo Editor, every week, so it’s very consistent. And I do a little work for the New York Times.
I’m the person I described before. I’m a little bit of everything, out of necessity.
MH: You might disagree with this but being freelancers we’re trying to make the most of the skills that we’ve got, wherever we can apply them. We’re atomized, in a sense. Our identities are reduced to these productive units.
In England, for example, there’s a lot of discussion about the welfare state. People who work, and people who don’t work. It’s very polarized; ideas of who is worth something in society.
The people who are worth something, generally, are those that are working and productive. The rest are basically draining our resources. They’re a waste of time and space.
It’s an extreme idea for me; an extreme view of life. The idea that every one of us has to be absolutely drained dry. Generally serving someone else’s profit, right?
JB: Yes. Of course.
MH: Taking it back to the feed lot, it’s a perfect demonstration of that. Every single animal in the feed lot, it’s entire life is devoted to serving a single purpose.
Being someone else’s dinner and providing maximal return on someone else’s investment. You can see that way of thinking happening in Britain. It’s less extreme than in the US, but in Britain you can see that thinking applied to the health service. Or to education.
I should probably say I didn’t come from an art background. I never studied art, other than informally. My education was Sociology and Cultural Studies.
In Cultural Studies especially, there’s this idea that you can take a 3 minute Pop song, and in deconstructing and analyzing it, you have the code of the culture. There is a structure, and a code and a language within it that informs how culture works.
I think that’s true of images as well, that maybe there is something locked in the idea of the feed lot, and in these images of feed lots, that stand for something much bigger about the society we’re in.
JB: That’s what we hope to do, when we pick our symbols. Visual Art is about creating symbol sets that speak to larger issues. When you’re good and lucky combined, you might hit on a style of language that makes sense to people.
That was why I was asking what you wanted the viewer to get out if it. It’s clearly very powerful. There’s a lot of solid intellectual underpinning to the interconnection of oil and corn and cows. It’s been sifted through quite a bit, over here in the States.
But your pictures, by combining Internet, Satellite, Surveillance, and then these particular symbols, I think they make it easier for people to comprehend what’s actually going on.
I imagine that’s your goal?
MH: I’m not into artists who lecture, who present their work and accompany it with a lecture about what their intentions and motivations were. Or their research. So I’m reluctant to talk about that and try to keep that out of it.
Obviously I’m talking a lot now and probably saying more than I’d like to, but whenever my work’s presented, I try to say as little about it as I can. There’s the work and then there’s everything else. If I want anything it’s for people who come across the work to really examine it, to figure out for themselves what they’re looking at, and to reach their own conclusions about what’s going on.
I didn’t know, for example, that it was illegal to photograph feed lots, in a lot of US States, because of the Ag Gag laws. So I love the idea that someone who’s confronted with these images is seeing something that has been censored from them. Kept away from them. And all I’m doing is exploiting a loophole, which is that the satellites have already photographed it, and the imagery is out there.
I’m not a vegetarian. So it’s not like I have a very clear goal that I want people to become vegetarian.
JB: Did you decrease your consumption of cows, subsequent to the project?
MH: Yeah. When I was in America, I couldn’t eat beef, because of all the stuff I’d read and seen about it. Most of the beef in the US comes from feed lots so having worked on them and meditated on them for so long, I couldn’t eat it. But I ate chicken. And I imagine the production of chicken’s not much better either. But I didn’t see it, whereas this I could see.
Maybe that’s something: this idea that I’m trying to make something visible that is very difficult to visualize, even if it’s just to help me get to my head around it. But once you do, it can really affect you. That was my idea with the “Oil Fields” as well. On the ground, it’s very difficult to get a sense of the scale of them. But when you go 500 miles up, you can see the scale of them. That was quite shocking to me.
It affected me, and I assumed it would affect others who saw the prints as well. But that’s not something I can really control.
Some journalists have called me an “activist,” but I don’t think of myself as that at all. I think it’s almost disrespectful to activists. I’m an artist and there’s a big difference between the two. I’m not out to persuade anyone or to win an argument.
JB: I can relate to a lot of what you’re discussing. My work went viral when the NYT published it, and it deals with many of these issues. I’ve photographed cows from the pasture to the plate, and then ate them raw.
JB: Yeah. I photographed a cow being skinned 10 seconds after it was killed from three feet away, with a 50mm lens.
JB: The project that was nominated for the Prix Pictet I did was called “The Value of a Dollar,” and I bought all these food objects, and measured them out, and presented them as is, so it was a reduction of animals as commodity. Comparing the relative value of a handfull of organic blueberries versus a hunk of beef shank that was just a cow leg that someone slapped on a jigsaw and deconstructed.
MH: Yeah, yeah. I’ll look it up.
JB: It just helps give perspective into why I’m so excited about what you did. Your pictures have a palpable ability to impact peoples’ consciousness.
Many artists don’t want to be called “political.” But if your work doesn’t have any sort of political undertone, then you’re not really saying anything.
I’m very interested in how you think of these things.
MH: Well, if you dig really deep down there’s my outrage. I’m pretty outraged about the stuff I see around me. I have strong reactions to it all. And I try to articulate that in such a way that isn’t a rant. If you look at the other work in the Prix Pictet, this is probably the loudest. I think of the image with the red lagoon, and it’s almost like Munch’s scream. Only it’s my scream.
MH: It’s like a gunshot wound. Or a decapitation. It’s pretty horrific. It’s a pretty strong articulation of my outrage. I really liked what Ed Ruscha said once, that all he wanted to do was photograph the facts. He just wanted to see if it was possible, with his gasoline stations and parking lots and all the rest of it.
JB: Of course.
MH: He wanted to photograph them as facts. I know that’s not fashionable, and there’s been 40 years of photographic critical theory that’s gone against the idea that photographs can in any way be factual, but I like that.
That’s why I love appropriation. It’s using what’s already there. Reframing it changes everything and that can be enough.