Scott B. Davis Interview

- - Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

Scott B. Davis is a San Diego-based fine art photographer. He recently had solo exhibitions at Hous Projects in NYC, and at the San Diego Museum of Art. His work has been reviewed in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Scott is also the Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Photographic Arts, and the founder and director of the Medium Festival of Photography, which debuted in 2012.

Jonathan Blaustein: It’s a New Year, and I wanted to inaugurate a mini-series interviewing people who represent the new pathways to success in the 21st Century. I can’t speak to what it used to be like, but it seems many of the folks who are getting their work out in the world are creating multi-pronged careers. Multiple talents, multiple income streams.

Of course, I thought of you. We met back in 1998, in a Photo 3 class with Patrick Nagatani. Is that right?

Scott B. Davis: Yeah.

JB: Our audience knows a lot about me, but they don’t know what I was like back then. Do you have any embarrassing stories about me from back in the day? What did you think of me when we first met?

SD: (laughing.) Let’s see. (long pause.) You were a guy who seemed to think he had it all figured out, and wanted to jump right in the deep end with everybody else. I say that with all due love and respect.

JB: Of course. You’re allowed to make fun of me. That’s the point.

SD: What I also love is one of the early memories, where you then turned it on me. You said, “I couldn’t stand you when we first met. You were this guy who just knew it all.”

JB: You knew a lot for a young guy.

SD: I think the bottom line is we both approached the medium from a very different place, personally speaking, but with a lot of passion and drive to make it a career.

JB: Well, you had a free shot at me, and you didn’t exactly take it. Classy. Let’s move along, though.

You are a working artist, and just had a big solo show in New York at Hous Projects. You’re also the Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and you just started your own photography festival, called Medium, from scratch. And you’re doing all three of these different jobs at the same time.

SD: Yeah.

JB: Why?

SD: Why?

JB: Yes. Why?

SD: I guess it goes back to that undergraduate experience. I knew I wanted to be heavily involved with this medium from a very young age. As I’ve grown older, and watched the world diversify around us, I realized there’s no singular experience that’s going to fulfill all the hopes and desires I have as an engaged photographer.

Working at a day job gives me these office skills, for lack of a better word, that allow me to understand the nuts and bolts of the industry. As a fine art photographer, that part goes without saying. It’s expressing personal beliefs, wishes, taking wild
attempts at making statements without language. That drives itself.

For the festival, it’s a culmination of those two things. It’s an opportunity for me to say, “How can I create something in my community that reaches other photographers, that gives other photographers a platform and a voice, and that engages me in a new way with photography itself?”

JB: It’s all really heady and high-minded, but isn’t there more to it? Isn’t it, the day job pays the bills, and the festival is where you party, and the art is where you get your crazy out?

SD: (pause) I guess you could put it that way too. The day job pays the bills. And as you know as well as anybody, it’s a dangerous trap. It can be.

But for the festival, it really is about creating a space and a place for other photographers. If it were just about a party, I’d have a party. It’s a business. Really a mega-business, for one or two people to undertake.

JB: I like to put my finger up in the wind and see what people are thinking about. Now that the worst of the Economic Collapse has passed, it’s good to see people come out of retrenchment mode and try to build things. Try to grow their own capabilities, so I thought you might be able to give us a little insight.

We’ve got readers around the planet, and thankfully photo festivals continue to pop up. But there are a lot of communities out there that could benefit from opportunities to see work, and meet new people, learn and grow, kick back a glass of wine.

You shared your motivation a bit, but I’d like to dig a little deeper. Did you always want to do this? Or was it a random idea, and then you decided to put your nose down? How long had you been planning the Medium festival?

SD: About 18 months. But it’s interesting when you materialize something like this, and then you achieve it. You can look back in hindsight and have a little bit of clarity about where it came from.

When I first moved back to California, there was a part of me that wanted to start a center for photography. A do-it-yourself frame shop, and a place where photographers could come together and mount exhibitions. Host lectures, stuff like that. It was 10 or 12 years ago, though. But I didn’t have the personal need or the experience to do it.

But to cycle back to 10 years of working as an industry professional, you start to learn how things operate. What it takes to organize something like this. That, and watching other art fairs and festivals crop up all over the world, it makes you realize there are micro-communities as well as macro-communities that want to have these experiences.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s a lot of world experience that comes together and makes you realize you can take a nascent idea and start to create something unique for this region.

I’ll give you one example. Photo LA, the established photo fair, has really changed a lot in the past several years. One thing I realized it became, by default, was a place for photographers to meet. Photo LA does their own programming. They had Stephen Shore out last year. They bring in big names.

But as that really changed, and less photographers were attending it, because of personal grievances, or not liking the fair, or it not having the same energy, I realized that that community in Southern California could use a place to come together like photo LA.

I’m not trying to create photoLA, through Medium, but when I realized that there’s nothing like this in Coastal Southern California, I thought we could really use something to get the creative juices flowing.

JB: I couldn’t go this year, unfortunately, because the festival was two weeks after the new baby came. I still feel bad about it, but I’ll be there for 2013. Big ups.

Earlier, though, you mentioned 10 years as an industry professional. I know you started out cutting mats in the bowels of the UNM Art Museum in Albuquerque. You were an exacting dude with a good internship.

Then, you started as a preparator at MOPA, and have worked your way up to the Director of Exhibitions.

SD: Right.

JB: Have you had any experiences over the years where you were taken less seriously as an artist because you were working as an arts professional? Or were there situations where anyone tried to hook you up as an artist to get in with the museum? Over the years, have you noticed any changes in the way people perceive a hybridized career?

SD: If anything, I’d say it’s gotten more difficult. I don’t know that people look at me and say, “Wow, he’s this multi-faceted guy.” They usually look at me as wearing one primary hat. It’s challenging, because, particularly as a museum professional, I don’t want to breach that trust, or cross that line.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that people want to reduce you to one simple thing.

JB: I can relate. When the writing started to take off, there was a time when I was worried that people would know me more for this than for my art-making. But very quickly, I realized that if people know me at all, then I’m fortunate. I prefer they know me and like what I do, rather than wanting to firebomb my house, though.

But getting back to Medium, now that the festival came off successfully, was there anything you learned that really turned your expectations on their head? Was there any part of the process that caught you off guard?

SD: I don’t know if I can give you a good answer to the question.

JB: No? Should we just move on?

SD: Well, the reason being is that it’s anything that anyone would tell you. Anybody who’s done it, or anybody with common sense will know it’s a lot of work. And then people will turn around and ask you, “How did you do that?”

Getting back to which hat you wear, and how people associate you, it’s interesting to me, when I step back and take it all in, I’m not to worried about how people are going to categorize me. I know that doing every single one of these things is not motivated by profit, or fame or any kind of worldly riches.

JB: Speak for yourself, dude.

SD: Come on, now. It’s motivated by a very deep-seated love for what I do. From my perspective, I see it all as part of a rich life. I go to my day job, I come home and work in the darkroom, or shoot photographs. I organize a festival. To me, there are not always clear boundaries between those.

As far as advice goes for someone who’s thinking of starting something, if you’re really passionate, and you have the inclination and the capacity to do it, I think that’s the most important question to ask yourself. Because everything else has
to come from within.

JB: I ended 2012 with a column that suggested to folks that perhaps this would be a good year to try to stretch yourself, take a risk, try something new. Looking at what you went through, having a solo show, buying and renovating a house, putting on a festival and working full time all during one Summer. Wow.

Now that it’s behind you, what did you learn about yourself? Are you actually a more capable human being for pushing yourself to the limits?

SD: Definitely. I achieved what I set out to do, which is to give added dimension to a community that I passionately feel could use it. That’s something I can’t underscore enough for readers, is this idea. If you really believe in what you want to do, whether it’s to start your career as a photographer, or to start a festival, or create a publishing company. If you believe there’s a need for it, that it makes sense…this is just Business 101. Then it’s totally worth it to stretch yourself.

If you’ve done your job right, you’ve added value to the community. Whether it’s your community by zip code, or by theology. You’re adding value.

JB: Thanks for the honesty. Is there any cellphone footage of you berating an intern during Medium, like Christian Bale? Did you ever lose your shit? You might as well admit it right now…

SD: No. I don’t lose my shit. It’s something I work at more and more as I get older.

JB: I get it. I used to be a hothead, and now I’m not. I’m much happier this way.

But I wanted to shift to the museum for a second. I noticed on the website that you guys have a show up now that was crowd curated by your audience?

SD: Yeah.

JB: You guys gave your audience a chance to vote on pictures from a certain grouping, and then you showed the highest rated pictures in the exhibition?

SD: And the lowest rated.

JB: How did it work?

SD: There are forty photographs on exhibit that the crowd curated. The photos with the most and least votes are highlighted in the exhibition. Because it’s not always about winners.

JB: Forgive me if this is an obvious question, but wasn’t anybody afraid that this might prove the irrelevance of the curator as tastemaker, if the crowd can do as good a job? What’s been people’s reaction to the idea and the show?

SD: The reaction has been really positive, all the way around. The idea was born out of crowd-sourcing in general. The museum is really there to serve the community. Our photographs are held in the public trust, even though it’s a private museum. Why not give the community an opportunity to take an active role in things?

It also allows us to learn things about our collection. It’s one thing for an educated person to make decisions about what’s going next to what, and to develop thematic ideas. But it’s also interesting when you let non-experts look at something and discover new things, and in this case, new images.

It allowed us to ask some hard questions. How strong is our collection? Let’s be real. Let’s be honest, and not hide the duds. And, of course, we don’t believe it’s undermining the role of the curator.

JB: I know it’s off topic, but I think we came up with a new drinking game. Every time people read the word community in this interview, they have to do a shot.

Seriously, though, what happened when the crowd picked? Was it just, oh, they love Henri Cartier-Bresson, and nature and cowboys? Could you learn anything broad from their preferences?

SD: Well, the top three pictures were a photo by Kenro Izu of a sacred Tibetan mountain, a photograph by Bradford Washburn of climbers on an icy peak, and the classic photograph of a nuclear explosion on the Bikini Atoll. Think about that for a minute. People are responding to photographs that elicit emotions. Beautiful pictures of mountains elicit primal emotions, or fantasies about what the world should look like.

The lowest ranked images are basically abstract photographs that, when they’re set out there, on their own, without a voice, don’t make sense to people. Clearly, people didn’t respond to them.

JB: So they prefer the epic, and they eschew the abstract. At least in this experiment. That is not particularly surprising. But it sounds like it gave you guys a chance to get your own metrics in an evidence-obsessed society.

As far as your own work goes, you spend a lot of time rambling around empty deserts, at night, with a big camera. I read an interview a couple of years ago with Robert Adams, and he talked about having someone with him to watch his back, when he was shooting at night in Colorado Springs.

Is that something you’ve had to do, or do you just roll the dice?

SD: I roll the dice, and nothing that exciting has ever happened to me. The worst thing is people in Los Angeles, who find me in the middle of the night, and are whacked in the head, and think I’m making a movie.

Out in the desert, it’s a different story. The worst thing that happens is the border patrol comes by in the morning and says there was a lot of activity last night. You guys had neighbors.

JB: For years you’ve been out there working, in the middle of the night, when the rest of us are asleep. What’s the fascination?

SD: The fascination is discovery. I’m a landscape photographer. But as landscapes in the Western US become more and more well known, more and more seen, I’m interested in letting the camera help me discover worlds that I didn’t know existed otherwise. I’m looking at the world and seeing how it’s transformed, the other 50% of the time. In the darkness. Once the magic hour happens, most people head off to the bar to knock back a drink. Not me.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 8 Comments On This Article.

  1. Interesting interview. This is the exact work that have collectors and buyers running like rats from a sinking ship when it comes time to take out their checkbooks for photography. Are you serious with what you’re presenting? I especially like the shot where he pulled to the side of the road and decided to snap a photo of the bush while his headlights were on, probably taking a leak in the process. Stop insulting everyone.

    The whole fine art photography paradigm has completely shifted. It used to be that if you wanted to see the best photography in the world you would go to a gallery or museum but sadly, that just isn’t the case. I went to Photo LA this year and to say it was horrible is an understatement. The cost was exorbitant (2 tickets plus parking was $50) and the quality of work reminded me of a bad student show. My wife, a very busy graphic designer, kept telling me how these shows simply confused her. Who would pay that? Why is that on the wall? Was all she kept saying. I’m not trying to be a hater but I see more creative and progressive work on Flickr. The work online far exceeds anything you see on gallery walls. The public is no longer fooled and now we’re just insulted. The days of some guy who runs a museum putting crap on the walls and calling it art are over. If you don’t think I’m right, look at the numbers. Gallery sales and attendance have dropped by more than 30%. This isn’t because of the economy, it’s because the public has wised up and they no long want to be spoon fed a bunch of crap.

    • Really? I find the opposite. I find a lot of what I saw on Flickr rather banal and boring. So much so that I rarely look at it any more. I’m sure there is good material on there but there is so much that is not that to wade through it is hard work. Don’t even get me started on what seems to be popular on it.

      Conversely, I find Scotts work rather beautiful. I find its restraint refreshing and to me it possesses a rare elegance and wonderful sense of mystery.

      That’s merely from an online viewing. Were I to see platinum prints in a gallery I have absolutely no doubt the gulf between my appreciation of them and your beloved Flickr photos would be even greater.

      I haven’t been to Photo LA so cannot comment at all on what you saw there. To judge all museums and galleries (apparently worldwide) by that one experience seems just a little unjustified, though.

      Not surprisingly, art says different things to different people and perhaps for you Flickr is where you find what you like. It’s not going to be the favourite for everyone else, though. Personally, I’ll continue to enjoy visiting galleries and reading books myself (even while I engage with work online).

      • scott b davis

        sam, thank you for the insightful read of victor’s comments above. it’s refreshing to read words of simple observation and objectivity beside those opinions quipped in the anonymity of the comment sphere.

        i’m glad to know you enjoyed looking at my photographs, and that you thought about the bridge between a small jpeg and a platinum print, thank you. the pictures aren’t for everyone, and because of this i’m always happy to hear from those who don’t get it (victor) as well as those who do. if art didn’t provoke thought we wouldn’t be doing our job.

        victor is, however, right. the photograph was made beside the road, where the majority of my photographs are made. unfortunately, that particular road is 50 miles from pavement, in a restricted aerial bombing range that is heavily trafficed by drug smugglers and border patrol agents. to me it’s a wonderful place to make pictures… and yes, it brings the need to pee (and poop) nearby. i wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. if the result is collectors running with their checkbooks that’s fine too. life isn’t about making cash, it’s about living with heart.

        the museum where i work continues to see attendance numbers increase, if only slightly. i’m sure there are museums and galleries whose numbers have dropped by 30%, but mopa is not one of them. in a world where almost every income number has dropped by 30% in recent years it’s heartening to see the influx of visitors to a photography museum… and the interest in photography remaining steady.

        thanks to all for contributing!

  2. “The lowest ranked images are basically abstract photographs…” Probably ranked that way by the same people who see a Jackson Pollock and declare “my 3 year old could do that” loud enough for others to hear (even though we’ve all heard it before, and have a response, but are too tired to even try anymore).

  3. Really, your first question is, Tell us all a little more about me? Dial back the self-involvement a notch or two.

  4. this is art, yes, but, and I see this on many photof-er (is that what you call a starfucker in the photo world?) it is so basic that it is too basic. Ah, but yes, the artist did it to me. It made me think… how I saw this 20 years ago, and then again 10 years ago….