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.
Jonathan Blaustein: You used to be a stand up comedian?
Susan Burnstine: I worked in the entertainment business for many years, in many aspects. I started playing with stand-up comedy after. I was out there 8 years or so. Can’t say I was that great.
JB: (laughing) You weren’t funny?
SB: I was funny. I just wasn’t funny enough.
JB: (laughing) OK. I like that.
SB: Because you have to be contained in this 30 minute slot. I’m not very contained. I did stand-up comedy in college, and then I started working for Castle Rock, and a lot of different entertainment companies.
I happened to fall on to these sitcoms with a lot of famous comics, and one of them put me up on stage at the Comedy Store, and it went that way for a little while.
JB: So in what capacity were you working for the studios?
SB: Everything. Mostly development. I was behind the scenes, and didn’t do much that was exciting. I did write for years, but I never had any notable successes. So it’s nothing to talk about. I honestly hate talking about my entertainment past, so apologies.
JB: Why do you hate talking about it?
SB: It’s a past that I buried, and I truly don’t relate to it anymore.
JB: I feel that way. Don’t you think a lot of creative-types have phases in their lives? Or snake-skin-shedding periods where we were different people and then we change? I think that’s very common, and not embarrassing.
SB: Certainly. It also brought me to where I am now, because the cinematography and my writing are both a big part of how I create my images. I see very cinematically.
Learning to write screenplays, and having that background, really did give me the fundamentals.
JB: Let’s back up just a hair. You’ve been making and exhibiting your photography for quite some time. Can we put a rough figure on that? How long have you been engaging in the world of galleries, exhibitions, and publications?
SB: I’ve been making my own cameras since 2005, and by 2007 I ended up in my first gallery, thanks to Dave Anderson.
JB: Shout out.
SB: Shout out. Absolutely. He’s the best. I was in Photo LA just walking around. I was a nobody, enamored by everything that was on the walls.
I had been communicating with Dave via email, because I was such a fan of “Rough Beauty.” He’s such a nice guy. I saw him walk by with Alec Soth. Now, I live in Hollywood, and am around famous people all the time. It doesn’t affect me whatsoever.
But I saw Dave Anderson walk by, and I said, “OH MY GOD.” I was totally star-struck, and started screaming, “You’re my favorite photographer.” I made a total ass of myself.
JB: In front of Alec Soth.
SB: Yes, this is the funny part. I’m sorry to Alec Soth, because I have a great respect for him, but I was screaming, “Oh my God, Dave Anderson.” He was so excited that someone recognized him, much less next to Alec Soth he said, “Wait, I want to look at your work.”
So I brought him back to my car, he looked at my portfolio…
JB: In your car?
SB: In the trunk of my car.
JB: You had a portfolio review, impromptu, in the trunk of your car? That is the origin story to your art career?
SB: It is.
JB: Oh my God. I’m not even saying OMG. That’s a straight up Oh my God.
Listen up people. There’s the lesson right there. You gotta hustle. We don’t say this stuff for our own edification. You gotta shake and bake.
SB: It’s true. But I wasn’t planning it. I’m not a hustler. Something told me, “Put your portfolio in the car today.” So I did. And Dave went crazy, and snuck it back into Photo LA, which you’re not supposed to do. He brought it to one of his galleries, she looked at it, and in 2 seconds, I was signed.
End of story.
JB: OK, I’m really glad we’re having this conversation. Because I’ve never heard that before. There are a lot of people out there waiting for something like that to happen to them, and I tend to think those things don’t happen, ever. And that pinning one’s hopes on random discovery is not a particularly viable strategy.
You’re now telling us, “You never know.”
SB: You never know. You never know. That’s how I got discovered. That gallery sold me like crazy for a few years, and more galleries came, and that was it.
JB: Let’s talk about the work itself. You made mention that you build your own cameras. But the cameras you build are not super-hi-tech machines. They’re made out of plastic and tape?
SB: Yes. They’re total pieces of crap. They fall apart. I have to carry tape and Ducco cement with me whenever I go out.
JB: What is the allure of such a process?
SB: The allure is tied to the conceptual reason of why I began this. I didn’t just say, “Oh, I want to make my own camera.” That would have been insane. There had to be a fundamental reason why.
The why is because I was looking for a way to re-create my unconscious world. I suffer from night terrors. Do you know what that is?
JB: Not really.
SB: Mine started at 4 years old, after a severe trauma. What they are, basically, are severe nightmares that you cannot wake up from. You just can’t. And they’re detrimental to your waking and unconscious life.
My Mom was very smart. She was artistic, and a musician, and she decided to help me try to work out these night terrors by drawing and painting the dreams I had from the night before.
The process really worked, so she used that through-out my childhood. They came back in my 30’s, when she was tragically killed.
JB: I’m sorry to hear that.
SB: I decided to work out the effects of the night terrors by photographing my dreams and nightmares, because photography was my main source of creativity at that point. I tried every single camera known to man-kind. You name it, I tried it.
Nothing looked like what I was trying to communicate. My Dad was an engineer and inventor early in his lifetime. He would always build things in the house that were absolutely crazy. When I took my problem to him, he said, “Why don’t you just make your own cameras?”
I’d been working with toy cameras, and realized how they were fundamentally made. Very simplistic creations. So I decided, why don’t I take some time to take them apart and rebuild them. Teach myself how to create a camera.
That’s what I did. Then, I created my own lens, and it all came together in 2005. I did this one test shot of my dog’s nose entitled “Blue’s Nose”, and realized, “That’s what I’m going for. That really looks like my unconscious world.”
That’s how it all began.
JB: That’s amazing. I don’t profess to have begun this process of becoming a journalist with any intent, or any skill. I still bristle at using the word to describe myself. But if I were any good at the job, I would not have missed the two opportunities you brought up to discuss some heavy stuff.
You just told me you had a major tragedy at 4, and then your Mother was tragically killed. There’s a part of me that likes to pretend I don’t hear these things, but then I feel like I’m not really doing my job if I ignore openings for serious discussion.
Let me put that to you in the form of a question. Are you interested or comfortable discussing either of those things
that you mentioned? Or would you rather we just keep going?
SB: (long pause.) I can kind of talk about it. (pause.) I don’t like to talk publicly about what began these dreams. Because it’s pretty shocking. It’s probably not for public consumption.
JB: Like I said, we can move on.
SB: But my Mom… it happens whenever anyone dies. That’s when my night terrors are created again. There’s no telling when they’ll stop. I’m in a real bad phase right now, where they’re coming almost every night. It’s crazy.
JB: I’m very sorry to hear that. On behalf of the readers, we offer you our empathy. Given that I already busted your chops before I turned on the recorder about the very dark and serious look on your face when we began…I think I have my answer about where that was coming from.
My apologies for any insensitivity to your plight. With my obnoxious jokery.
SB: Don’t be silly.
JB: I’ll consider that apology accepted. Listen, the pictures are dreamy. I can’t imagine looking at them, and not using that word. They’re blurry and soft-focus. But they’re also very, very beautiful. Skylines, skyscrapers, the Santa Monica pier. Dynamic and epic subject matter, rendered beautifully. Exquisitely attractive.
SB: Thank you.
JB: But we’re talking about a root cause that is the opposite of beautiful.
SB: You’re touching on an interesting subject that I had a conversation about last week. How come they end up beautiful, and not ugly?
JB: Maybe not ugly. But they don’t feel conflicted. I teach at-risk youth, and I always talk about the idea of using the artistic process to take negative psychic energy and channel it into something positive.
The channeling itself is positive, but oftentimes, the end product might not be. How does that work for you? Is it intentional, to have the pictures be lovely? I’m not saying you need to be Joel-Peter Witkin, but to me as a viewer, they’re 180 degrees from dark and scary.
SB: There’s a reason for that. When my Mom started this process, when I was 4 years old, she actually told me to re-interpret them in a positive way, so that I’m actually re-writing my unconscious existence. And it worked.
It somehow patterns my brain to think more positive than negative. Ultimately, this kind of process helps me stop the night terrors. I’m re-creating my world in a more positive way.
JB: Is it important to you that the viewer of your photographs is privy to your process? If so, how do you go about communicating that additional information?
SB: It does not matter to me, because I honestly didn’t get into this for any other reason. I started creating these images for myself. It’s my own psychological process to purge what’s going on inside of me and create art.
I didn’t plan to be in the fine art world. I didn’t even know what fine art was, until it sort of fell in my lap. So it’s not that important until people start asking me questions, and that always happens.
“Why do you create cameras? Why are you creating this image?” You have to be honest with your viewers. It comes from a serious spot. I could say, “Oh, I like to make blurry pictures.” But then I’m not honoring what I’m really doing.
Once the conversation starts, I have to be frank about where it’s coming from. But it doesn’t matter to me if you just buy it because you think it’s pretty. I don’t care.
If it means something to you, and you want to put it on the wall, if it brings something to your life, that’s great.
JB: Understood. Wow. I rarely get uncomfortable in these interviews. I like making people uncomfortable.
SB: I’m honored. I made you uncomfortable.
JB: I get the video experience via Skype, but the readers don’t. Your turmoil is flashing across your eyes on a semi-regular basis. I’m responding to what I’m seeing, as well as what I’m hearing. And other people don’t have that luxury.
Thank you for sharing this with our audience. I’m always on a soap box. My readers know this. I practically live on my high horse, telling everybody else what to do.
The reason why I do this is because I was a very unlikely candidate to become an artist myself. This process, over the last 17 years, has enriched my life in every way I can think of. And helped me grapple with my own demons, such as they are. Thankfully, and admittedly, they don’t derive from any hard-core trauma.
Even though I try to enliven the writing with humor, I’m very serious about why art helps a lot of people. We build a super-structure over the process: buying and selling, talking and promoting.
Oftentimes, we confuse the value of the super-structure with the value of the process. I feel like you have very cleanly explained to people the way it’s supposed to work. And then dangled this carrot out there, that even random people can be discovered. Which is a myth I try to quash, but there you go.
We’re telling it like it is today. Are we not?
SB: We’re trying.
JB: Fast-forward again, and you’re doing very well. You’re represented in a slew of galleries, show a lot, and just took home an award last week from the Palm Springs Photo Festival. Best in the reviews, is that right?
SB: Yup. That was a shocker.
JB: Well, you also had that happen once at PhotoNOLA, so I’m not sure if it was an actual shocker.
SB: Wow. You do your research.
JB: No, I just have a really good memory. Where are we headed here? We’re headed to teaching.
We’ve talked about why and how you do what you do. And what the pictures look like. But teaching is an entirely different beast. One need not be a great artist to be a great teacher, because the skill sets don’t always overlap.
You’re going to be teaching a workshop this summer at the Santa Fe Workshops, and they’re sponsoring this interview series. Your workshop is called “Visual Narratives.” What does that mean, in your words?
SB: “Visual Narratives” is about communicating your own personal narrative, visually. Digging deep inside of yourself, and being able to identify a consistent thread that is within all your images. And be able to create a body of work.
I have a unique way of teaching that’s very psychological. Most of my students think they went to the shrink’s. They call me “The Psychiatrist.”
It’s a very interesting class. I love it. It digs deep into each person’s personal world, and teaches them how to bring back their unique qualities: what they’ve experienced, what they’re passionate about, and put it into a visual element.
JB: Does that presuppose that everyone is interesting?
SB: I think everyone IS interesting. I suppose there’s someone really boring out there, but I haven’t met them yet.
JB: You’re talking about a framework through which you approach strangers, basically. And a set of assumptions you bring to the table to then teach those strangers. What types of questions do you ask people to get them to share private, secret, interior information?
SB: I have a way of working where I ask stream-of-consciousness questions, and you have just a few seconds to write down the answers. By looking at all the answers together, in a group context, we’re able to put a map together of what makes that person tick. And what they’re really trying to say, whether they know it or not.
Questions that seem vague and unimportant, but they’re very specific, once you put the map together.
JB: What happens if someone comes to your workshop with perfectly anodyne and average pictures of flowers and birds? The most typical and uninteresting set of pictures you might imagine.
SB: (pause) You have to ask them about what is really inspiring them, and why is it flowers, or bees, or whatever it is they’re taking pictures of. And what is it that they want to do with that? I always look at the person’s aspirations for the image, and where they want to get to, compared to where they are with their image making today. Because if I succeed, tomorrow they will start the process of making images they aspire to create. And as a teacher, there’s nothing more rewarding to witness than growth in your students.
For instance, I was always inspired by Impressionists, my entire childhood. Somehow, that informed where I went. My work is Pictorialist based, but I didn’t know what a “Pictorialist” photograph was until maybe 10-15 years ago. But I did know what Impressionism was, and was inspired by the images.
The Impressionists informed my work, and what I was trying to say, so I ask people, “What type of art form are you inspired by, and what really gets you going?” To me, that’s a vital clue about where a photographer aspires to achieve with their work. Does that make sense?
JB: Of course. It was a slightly rude question, but you answered it positively. It’s not easy to get people to open up, and then you have to build trust within the group. Group dynamics, and making sure your pupils respect and trust each other, is important as well. The environment they’re in, and whether they feel secure or insecure in the group, will also determine how far people get in a short span of time. Would you agree?
SB: Yes. I think this is where the stand-up comedy comes into play. (laughing.) I just love people, and I love making them laugh. I love having a true conversation with someone, and digging in to what’s important.
That’s what my classes are about. I don’t accept a vague answer. I really keep digging at people.
I’m from the Mid-West. I talk to everybody.
JB: Well, according to that philosophy, I let you off the hook earlier in the interview. I didn’t keep digging until you broke.
SB: That’s different. I’m not paying $1200 to get to the next level.
JB: (laughing) Touché. We’re talking about inspiration. Outside of the New Yorkers, you Angelenos probably have access to the best art in the US. Or maybe the Chicago girl in you would quibble? (pause) Oh my goodness. I read it in your eyes. Honestly, people, she did not say anything. I did not edit this part at all. I read it in her eyes. She may live in LA, but she was like, “Aw, hell no.”
JB: There it is. Chicago. Hot dogs, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Never leaves your blood.
JB: Pizza. Let’s not go there. You guys use more cheese, the New Yorkers have crispier crust. Truce.
Where I was headed was, where do you like to go look at work in LA? How do you keep yourself juiced up, with all that great art at your fingertips?
SB: It’s funny, but it’s mostly when I’m traveling. I hate to say it. That’s when I have time to go to the museums. I always hit up MoMA and the Met and everything, when I’m in New York.
Who has time when you’re actually here? It’s sad to say, but I’ll go to the Getty and LACMA, when I can. I get a lot of juice going to gallery shows. Artists that I wouldn’t have a chance to see.
I recently saw a great show over at Kopeikin Gallery that was really inspiring. Kevin Cooley. Do you know him?
JB: I saw his videos at MOPA in San Diego. Dynamite.
SB: Unbelievably inspiring show. There’s always a great show going on in the galleries here in LA.
JB: You use the galleries more than the museums?
SB: I think so. When I go to a museum, I get lost. It’s a commitment. I only allow myself that time when I’m out of town, not when I’m here.
The rainfall was relentless, like a Kenyan endurance runner. The windshield wipers were working hard, and I hoped my friend’s brakes were new. (I also hoped he wasn’t impaired by the two huge whiskeys I watched him down at the Irish bar we just left.)
Only in New York City can it take so much bloody time to go from one village to the next. (In this case, West to East.) I was late, so I was a bit anxious. The whole plan was my idea, and now I was the one mucking it up.
We were en route to Cooper Union, where I was to meet up with my photo buddies Richard and Jaime. Two more intelligent, menschy guys, you’d never expect to meet. As soon as we arrived, I skidded out of the Honda Pilot and dashed across the street. (Only to realize I was in the right spot a moment earlier. Look before you leap into traffic, I always say.)
Our destination was a lecture by the super-duper Art Star Francis Alÿs, who’s from Belgium but based in Mexico City. (Just because someone is super-famous in the Art World doesn’t mean you’ve heard of him.) As I’ve said before, your lowest-IQ Reality TV Star would likely have a larger Twitter following.
But I had heard of him, and had seen a few of his videos online. The Lord only knows how much he charges for his limited edition pieces, repped by David Zwirner and shown at MoMA, but it’s all online for free.
Think about that. In an Art World replete with private vaults, this dude puts it out there for all of us. I’d seen a video where he’s accosted by neighborhood dogs in rural Mexico, one where he set a fox loose in a Museum at night, and the renown piece where he dragged a block of ice behind him until it melted to nothing. He also dashed into a dust-storm/mini-tornado in the name of art.
As I mentioned previously, though, I mucked up the plan. I told Richard it started 30 minutes after it did, so he waited in the lobby for me while it all got started. Jaime, not privy to that round of texting, got a good seat right in center.
Richard and I? We had to sit on the cold concrete floor, with obstructed views, dripping our rain-soak all over ourselves. It was murder on our posteriors, so time was never going to be unlimited. 20 minutes max. Fortunately, we got lucky.
The talk was so casual, the searching for digital video files on his laptop so comical, I couldn’t believe this guy was as important as he is. Very distracted-professor sort of vibe. But he did exude a niceness, it should be said.
He mostly just played videos one at at time on his computer. Two of them were so good, I had to deviate from writing about photobooks to show them to you. (And to re-iterate, the rest of his work is free to view on his website.)
Both pieces were made in Afghanistan. Much is being made these days of European artists making “art” about war zones. (i.e. Richard Mosse in the Congo.) Personally, I think it’s great when artists try to make content out of genuinely important subjects. Or in dangerous places.
But Art, at it’s core, is about transformation. And news is about documentation. No one has written more about the 21st Century blurred lines than I have, but I’ve begun to contemplate the differences between the now-morphed traditions.
This video, from his Children’s games series, shows a phenomenon Mr. Alÿs observed when he was doing his research. Kids rolling tires with a stick. A practically ancient way to amuse oneself. (Richard mentioned seeing it in this painting by Bruegel.)
The video is cheeky and fun. Thoughtful for sure. But it’s a document of something that was already happening. It’s first level reproduction. I see something. I capture it. It is depicted.
From that, Mr. Alÿs said, he imagined “Reel-Unreel.” It is longer, and I saw only an excerpt. But I practically stopped breathing. You’re in Kabul. It feels like you’re there with the camerawork. Some screen text says that when the Taliban took over, they tried to eradicate the films in the National Archive. Burn them.
Some people fooled them into thinking they got the master sets, but those had been moved. (That text is at the end of the video we’re showing.) So the boys in the “created” video roll a cinema reel through the dirt streets. You can almost smell the truck exhaust. Eventually, one of the reels falls over a cliff.
I forgot about my soggy pants, and uncomfortable ass. I was transported somewhere else. It was a captivating couple of minutes. And that’s why I’m writing about it a month later.
Great art distills. It catalyzes one idea into another through symbolism and craftsmanship. It’s not direct, like documentation. That’s a strength, I think, when it’s done right. Our subconscious speaks in symbols through our dreams. Art, therefore, can circumvent the intellect.
It’s why I love it so much, especially the best of it.
To be clear, it’s not impossible for documentary work to do that. Just much harder. Literality is for lawyers, after all.
In the sixth grade, we did a project on the cultural traditions of a foreign country. We had to write reports in our chicken-scratch-children’s penmanship, and some kids cooked food as well. One Korean student brought in some Bul Go Gi, and it was delicious.
I ended up with Yugoslavia, about which I knew next to nothing. Fortunately, a family friend had started importing Yugos to the US, so at least I could talk about that.
A less-than-educated young person might reasonably ask, “What is Yugoslavia?” Or, rather, “Where is Yugoslavia?” Because it doesn’t exist on the map, I can assure you.
Most of us know, of course, that Yugoslavia was a created 20th Century entity, a post-war land mush that brought together some version of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and probably a few territories I’m neglecting. They’re still around, of course, as are the people who live there. But the country, the geo-political entity, is dead.
Similarly, I just read a piece in the New Yorker that was nominally about the television industry in Turkey. (Yes, I’ve officially become the kind of guy who references the New Yorker all the time.) I say nominally, because the real subject was the manner in which the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is highlighting historical connections to the vast and powerful Ottoman Empire, rather than the small and relatively weak Turkish republic that was built, again post-war, by Ataturk.
Closer to home, I can tell you that here in New Mexico, there are certain people, whose ancestors have been here for generations, who resent the mass culture of the United States. You can occasionally feel tension in the air. Why? I might point to the fact that the US essentially annexed New Mexico. Or stole it, if you will. And that was only shortly after the land was called Mexico, having recently freed itself from the country called Spain.
What I’m trying to say here, if you haven’t caught the gist, is that history is all about the long view. Names change, but dirt doesn’t. (Unless it’s being violated to reach its mineral goodies, but that’s another rant for a different day.)
The big news, in our age, is that we are all hyper-aware of what is going on everywhere, all the time. That is a radical change to the way we live our lives. So big, in fact, that no one has had the chance to really process the results of the shift.
But we see the effects every day. Take Crimea, for instance. A week ago, that word might have been meaningless to you. (I say might, as I’m aware that this audience is highly educated and up-to-date.) Now everyone knows it as a territory in the country called Ukraine that was just invaded by a country called Russia.
Russia? We’ve all heard of that place. Except when I was young, it was called the Soviet Union, and included the country now (and formerly) known as Ukraine. Names change, but greed and aggressive behavior do not. They are, and I’d venture to say will always be, a part of human nature.
When we look at a globe, or a map, it seems so permanent. Built or plotted, the objects refer to information with a sense of certainty. This is here, that is there. If you go too far in one direction, you might fall off the face of the Earth. (Sorry, forgot that one has been debunked already.)
Of course, we know that the information encoded in maps changes all the time. They’re no more accurate than a restaurant menu from 10 years ago. That’s just the way it is.
We live these dramas in real time, and the pain, misery, and tragedy they engender are not to be made light of. I feel for the people who die in wars, or who die from lack of clean water, or who have to watch their family members killed by horrible forces of darkness that will never face retribution. (Until they do, one, two or three generations down the line.)
The point is, (should I actually have one,) that we’re now judging the news on a minute to minute basis, but the root causes of said “news” go back decades, centuries, or millennia. And that is the kind of information least served by Social Media. You couldn’t possibly know about the Taos revolt that killed Governor Charles Bent in 1847, just like I don’t know who ruled Crimea before the Soviets.
Sure, we have access to so much information via Google, but that’s not the same thing as genuine, lived, history. It’s just not.
So while I could easily mock the monster Putin, and put this all on him, it seems too simplistic. He is the unchallenged leader of a country that has long lived with strongmen, and has a history of territorial aggression. Anyone who was surprised by his behavior wasn’t paying attention.
How many non-Americans might point to the US invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent removal of Saddam Hussein? How many people might suggest the situations parallel? I couldn’t say, but I’m sure they’re out there. (And some of them probably work for the Russian propaganda agency.)
I can’t tell you who ruled Crimea in the 19th Century, and I can’t tell you how this latest crisis will play itself out. If I could, I’d be working for Obama by now.
But I can tell you that sometime in 2013, I had a unique experience in which I got to see, first-hand, what a shitstorm looked like in Crimea in the aforementioned 19th Century. How was that possible? (I bet you’ll guess it’s through the wonder of photography…)
In September, I paid a brief visit to the Prints and Photographs division at the Library of Congress. The Library actually functions like one, which is a bit of a shock. It’s free, and anyone can come in and personally request to “check out” work from the collection.
So I did.
I was handed a stack of plastic-protected prints by the famed, and perhaps brilliant photographer Roger Fenton. I’ve written of him previously, as he stole the show at the “War/Photography” exhibition I saw last year in Houston.
It was a rare pleasure to get to look at the pictures, to hold them in my hands, and connect visually and viscerally to a strange place in a time that had passed away into non-existence. Rare only because I live far from Washington, DC. If you live on the East Coast of the US, you could go often, and look at work not on the wall, but in your immediate physical space.
What did I learn about Crimea, or at least about a slice of the Crimean War?
Look at the collection of rebels, rapscallions, roughnecks, and killers. They obviously come from all over the world, as the costumes will attest. There are a lot of dirty faces, scruffy beards, and hardened tough guys. My goodness.
We can see it’s a desolate place, or was. And we can guess that any conflict with that many warring parties must be messy, confusing, and dangerous. Why would they all be there, fighting? My first guess would be that there’s something of value? Natural resources, maybe? Oil?
Or just as likely, it probably has a geographical significance. Control of a major body of water? Access to a port, or a military high ground? Maybe some or all of these things, as you wouldn’t get a global crusade of treasure-loving-war mongers fighting against each other in a god-forsaken land for nothing.
That’s the lesson we can learn, when we engage with history. Our troubles and triumphs are not as unique as we’d like to believe. Occasionally, I admit I’ll get caught up in the moment. The Arab Spring was such a time.
The optimism blinded me to the reality: Men with guns rule the day. They always have, and they always will. The best we can achieve is a society where the rule of law dictates who gets to use the guns, and when. We have that here in America, and I get to live in peace. (For which I am extremely grateful.)
But we too have been an imperial power, and unspeakable evil has been committed in our name. In the name of Freedom.
So let’s all hope that this latest international crisis ends swiftly, and well. Let’s hope the people of Crimea can go back to a more peaceful existence, and that the Russian tanks roll back to Moscow.
But I won’t be holding my breath. That’s for sure.
Jonathan Blaustein: Thanks so much for agreeing to chat. I was hoping you might be able to give our audience the inside scoop on how an exhibition takes shape, from idea to execution.
MOPA just had the big opening for its second triennial, on which you were the lead curator, called “Staking Claim.“
JB: Staking Claim is a California invitational, so you’re only showing work from artists who work in or are based in California?
Chantel Paul: Right. It’s artists who live in or are based in California. The work does not have to be created about the State or in the State.
JB: How did you go about choosing artists in a State filled with, what, 40 million people? Have you hit that number yet? It’s got to be close by now.
CP: I reached out to galleries and institutions I know who have a continued or sole focus on contemporary photography. As far reaching as Jackson Fine Art and Yossi Milo, to the Portland and Seattle Art Museums, and the Getty Center. Also, the galleries at 49 Geary Street in San Francisco, and all the main galleries you’d think of in California for contemporary photography.
I also talked with folks like the Museum of Latin American Art. I was trying to broaden the reach, so that we could get names that we hadn’t heard of. I also spoke to certain individuals and independent dealers who know what’s going on out there.
JB: But you didn’t ask me.
CP: I didn’t.
JB: No. But you probably should have, in retrospect. Right?
CP: I could have. Yes. I also started the process in April of 2012. That’s when I started concepting the list of nominators, and asked people to return it by July of that year.
JB: That was very suave. I love how I said you “should have,” and you replied with “could have.” That was really smooth.
JB: It was practiced. Even now, people can’t see the look on your face, but its saying “Come on, now. Move along. Give me a real question, not a fake question.”
CP: It’s a triennial. You’ll have another chance.
JB: Of course I’m just joking. But I wonder, if you’re dealing with galleries, isn’t there a real element of self-interest? Did most galleries nominate artists whom they represent?
CP: Some of them did, and some did not. There were very specific instructions. They could nominate three people, and the work was meant to be made in the last five years. I also suggested that they do not need to represent the artist, in the accompanying letter.
JB: This is the second triennial, so I have a two part question. How did you end up choosing a triennial schedule, instead of a biennial, which of course everyone else is doing? (Maybe that’s the answer right there.) And how did you come to be in charge of this one?
CP: We really wanted to make it different from the 2010 exhibition. With the invitational process, we were hoping to not duplicate the first one, with a lot of the same names. We wanted to give the medium a chance to shift and change, to give some new names a chance to come to the forefront.
The extra year helps allow for that to happen organically. This time, there were names I’d never heard of, and photographers who are just now becoming very prominent in the art world that were just starting to bud at the time they were nominated. So it proved to be successful in that way.
With respect to the second part of your question, in 2011 I solo-curated my first show for MOPA. As this exhibition was coming onto the calendar, I asked to be the project lead. I thought it would be a great way to grow, and to see what the medium is like right now.
JB: You choose the nominators, they nominate people, and then you end up with a list of one hundred photographers? Or more?
CP: There were actually eighty-seven nominations total. I reached out to fifty-four nominators. Not everyone nominated three people, and there were duplicate and triplicate nominations for particular photographers.
JB: Of course. And that was a pretty good guess. Eight-seven is not that far away from a hundred.
CP: No, it’s not. I was expecting there to be more, but there were a lot of duplicate nominations. Which was interesting.
JB: Probably the names we would expect. I’ve got to imagine Todd Hido was nominated by a heap of people. Not that “heap” is a specific numerical term.
CP: I think he had two nominations. There was one particular individual who had three, which was the most.
JB: Fair enough. I’ll jump ahead in logic and assume you then did studio visits? You got in there, rolled up your sleeves and started looking at work?
CP: When the nominations were coming in, I started compiling a whole visual spreadsheet. So by the time I got all the nominations in by early August, I’d divvied them up into the yes, no and maybe piles.
I made the initial selections and shared them with our Director, Deborah Klochko, and our Director of Exhibitions and Design, Scott B. Davis. Just to make sure I was on the right track. When you’re very close to a project, you sometimes want to get that outside perspective, to make sure you’re seeing everything right.
JB: Sure. No matter what you do. And I have to say, the fact that we’re talking about spreadsheets should dispel any illusions that people have about the glamorous nature of the curatorial career.
People visualize you as hopping onto planes to Istanbul and such. But really you’re working with Microsoft Excel. So I’m glad that came to the forefront.
CP: Well, the travel and studio and gallery visits are definitely the ‘pinch me’ part of the job. But, it was a great way to see everything in one place. I’m really a visual person, so I literally cut out images, lined them up and put them together. I started to see it take shape, where I could see relationships between certain artists or bodies of work. And then I did narrow the 87 down to about 30 photographers, followed by phone calls and studio visits with those individuals.
Then I slowly whittled it down to the final list of 16.
JB: So there are occasions now where you go to openings, and you have to see people who didn’t make the cut, and you have to do that awkward conversation thing?
CP: Well, (long pause,) it’s not that their work wasn’t good, it’s that it didn’t fit with this particular exhibition. So the photographers that didn’t make the show, but I really enjoyed their work, I absolutely want to stay in touch with. Maybe it wasn’t right for this opportunity, but it could be right for something in the future.
JB: I’m coming up with tongue in cheek questions, and you’re answering in a really classy way. Forgive me. We’ve got to keep it real here at A Photo Editor.
CP: It was very interesting with some photographers. In a couple of cases, once they knew they weren’t in the show? That was it. No response to the email.
JB: There we go. Thank you for sharing a little bit of the reality, and not just the classy answer.
But I’ll be serious for a minute. In America, a lot of ideas seem to drift east from California. You took the pulse through art, so what do you see that’s going on right now?
CP: Photographers are going inward, creating work meant for outward display. The work is coming from a very personal place. It’s a meditation on what they do, but it’s also a very tactile process. I don’t know if it reflects what’s happening on a geo-political scale per se. It’s more what’s happening globally with the perception of the medium.
About ten to twelve years ago, there was this whole question around digital, and how it was going to change the medium. Now, some papers and chemicals are no longer being made. Today, these photographers are able to be creative by doing the wrong things with photography to create new work that people haven’t done before.
JB: A lot of the work appears to be very process oriented, and visual. You job was to cull ideas from the ether, through different artists and different works. The curator makes the statement by the choices that he or she makes.
JB: With some of the work, like Susan Burnstine and Klea McKenna, there’s a sense that there are processes going on that aren’t visually represented. Susan builds her cameras from scrap parts and plastic lenses. Klea McKenna was making paper airplanes that reference spotters on the Pacific beaches in WWII. Both make beautiful images.
What’s your take on work that doesn’t necessarily make it’s bones evident to a viewer?
CP: I feel like we’re at a crux. Artists are very much interested in the object of a photograph as much as the image they’re creating. Like Klea’s installation, in which the inverted triangle is important to her work. It’s also an opportunity to create conversation. And there’s also text in the exhibition that explains things, of course.
Another great example is Matthew Brandt. If you just walk up to those pictures, you have no idea what just happened.
Or look at Eric Willam Carrol, who takes images from Flickr and then makes physical installations out of them.
JB: That one looked really fantastic in the book. I can’t wait to see it.
From what I could see, he’s punched a hole in each of these photographs. But then you guys installed these tall, striking poles, on which stacks of hole-punched photographs have then been impaled. I guess that’s the proper word here.
CP: Right. And for his site specific installation at MOPA, Eric came out for a weekend and worked with a team of volunteers to create a mosaic and stack of images, which he culled from the public commons of Flickr of images that were geo-tagged San Diego.
JB: That’s what I was seeing. Does he discuss the whole sexual innuendo?
JB: It’s a most powerful visual reference, but it hard to see what it has to do with his concept.
CP: That is funny. (pause.) I am actually shocked that I never even went there.
CP: I’m shocked.
JB: I’ll verify that. We’re skyping now, and her eyes are wider than the Pacific Ocean. Oh my god. You didn’t see that?
CP: (laughing.) No. I actually didn’t.
JB: OK. Well, you’ll have to ask him next time.
CP: For this installation, it’s only one spike though. It doesn’t look like it, but there are over 7000 images in our installation.
JB: Does he have an assistant punch the holes, or does he do it himself?
CP: He does it. He has a mitre.
JB: Just checking. In 10 years, he’ll hire someone to do it for him.
CP: He does them 100 at a time.
JB: Efficient. I like that. We Gen-X’ers and Millennials love our recycling and efficiency.
CP: This time, he saved all the holes.
JB: Well, I’m sure you’re exhausted and proud of your accomplishments. We’ll wrap this up, so you can get on with your day. Don’t have a heart attack, but what’s coming next?
CP: One of the things I’m working on is that we’re bringing the Prix Pictet “Power” exhibition here to San Diego. It’s opening in February. We’ll be the last venue, at the end of the tour. And we’re the sole American location for the show.
You’re in a museum, in a foreign country. Your brain has been inundated with massive amounts of new information. This is not unusual. Travel makes you smarter, as does art. Still, you’ve been on the road for days, and everything is starting to look the same.
You visit a famous photo museum in Amsterdam. It’s called FOAM. They have a magazine too, which you’ve heard of, but never really seen. It is assumed that you’ll like what is on display, because they ought to be experts at showing people cool photographs.
Let’s remove the hypothetical now. I did visit FOAM this past spring, and was jazzed up to see some great art. I was also more burnt than a chocolate chip cookie in an eight hundred degree oven. I’ve previously admitted to having killed off several million brain cells during this very trip, so you’ll have to imagine that my vision was woozy. (Though not literally. I was not under the influence at the time, as I’m a professional.)
As I wandered through the “Primrose: Russian Color Photography” exhibition, my expectations were not, exactly, met. The work presented spanned most of the Communist era, and was as indistinct as I can possibly recollect. The photos reminded me of magazine pictures from forty years ago covering news stories that no one remembers anymore. (Like a neighborhood fire that destroys five buildings, but leaves no one dead.)
Back and forth I marched, looking for any photo that excited me, or any tidbit of information that I could consider new or fascinating. “Fascinate, me, dammit. Fascinate me,” I screamed. The guard came over and told me that if I didn’t lower my voice, they’d have to escort me to the street. (Never happened. The Dutch guards were actually the nicest I’ve encountered, and they let you take photos of art in all the museums I visited.)
Basically, I found myself parsing photographs made during a totalitarian regime so powerful that it was able to erase even pleasure or meaning from a parade of color photographs. Yes, I was more impressed by the rigor of the Soviet censors than I was of the photographers trying to make anything interesting without saying anything of interest. (The color was pretty, I guess. So that’s something.)
And then, I walked into a small room and heard the familiar hum of a slide projector. A couple of people were seated, and not in an antsy kind of way. They were not moving, which was a good sign.
I leaned against the wall, and began to look. The pictures moved quickly, so each was gone too soon. But they were not boring, not from the outset. I began to see people, some naked, others frolicking, or doing real, actual things. There were plenty of seedy Soviet scenes, which were absent in the main exhibition space. What’s this, then?
I pushed myself off the wall, as my body was covering the wall text. Who made these naughty, beautiful photos? Boris Mikhailov. As if I should have been surprised. (Click here to read my insanely positive review of his 2011 exhibition at MoMA.) The project was called “Suzi et Cetera.”
It’s difficult for me to actually describe an onslaught of photographs, each seen for an instant, that took place almost four months ago. So that makes this a challenging review, I suppose. But I did manage to jot down some notes, so here goes:
A vagina peeing on the ground, a ram’s head, a girl with grass on her face, a Soviet sculpture, a flag, some nude girls, a grandma in a nightgown, a girl screaming, an image of Lenin, a skinned rabbit, a disgusting mottled leg, some rotten tomatoes with a milk bottle, a bruised and swollen penis, a fish like something out of a Hiroshige print, flowers, drying clothes, a guy on a moped talking to a girl, some horn players in a field, women dancing in a square, blood running down a leg…you get the picture.
Why was it so impressive? Why do the remnants of Mr. Mikhailov’s vision linger in my memory, despite the copious amounts of THC that tried to wipe it away? Desperation. Necessity. Toying with the ultimate risk.
At the time, in the 80’s, these pictures were illegal in their taking, making and showing. The underground group of compatriots that would have gathered to watch such a show, back in the day, were willing to face death and torture to experience these photographs. And that energy was palpable. It was kind of like watching Michael Jordan play pickup basketball in a North Carolina schoolyard, circa 1979. (The talent and need were dripping with sweat.)
I don’t know if the folks at FOAM knew that most of the Primrose exhibition was less-than-memorable. There is a business relationship between Holland and Russia at this point, as evidenced by the Van Gogh Museum collection’s long stint at the Amsterdam branch of the Hermitage Museum. Was this just another case of politics and money driving a museum’s exhibition program? I don’t know.
I’d like to think, though, that the curators were very conscious in their exhibition construction. A heap of PC, Soviet-acceptable photographs were the pomegranate husk, and Mr. Mikhailov’s flickering images were the juicy bits hidden within. It was the perfect structural metaphor for what life must have been like behind the Iron Curtain. The public face, with it’s inscrutable inoffensiveness, and the living, bloody heart at the core of it all, left to exist behind closed, locked, doors. (With the curtains drawn, of course.)
Growing up, there was a lot of talk about the Holocaust. In the 70’s and 80’s, we were not yet so removed from the atrocities. People knew people who’d been in concentration camps, and, somehow, survived.
Back then, we Jews seemed to feel as if our particular horror defined us as a race. I can just imagine the perverse fun people must have had in certain Post-Modern-Theory classes, on certain college campuses in the 80’s. (African Slavery was the worst, obviously. It’s pointless to even discuss it, Jeffrey. Don’t be ridiculous, Stephanie, the genocide of Native Americans was worse than that. You know, smallpox in the blankets, killing all those bison to starve the people. Really, guys, come on. You’re both totally off base. Everyone knows the Holocaust trumps them all. Poison gas showers, OK? Screw me? Screw you.)
It’s safe to say that people have done lots of nasty, unspeakable things to other people down through the eons. There’s not much new under the sun, as far as human cruelty goes. For millennia, though, there was no photographic evidence. Nowadays, we can see pixelated packets of bloody misery any time we want. (Whether it’s Quadaffi getting violated by a justifiably furious horde, or that poor British soldier after he got chopped to pieces on a London sidewalk.)
It’s far too easy to become inured to it all. I even skipped the Oklahoma City tornado news coverage last week, as I was so tired of empathizing with the tragedy of the moment. Not to suggest those people didn’t suffer enough. Just the opposite. The constant barrage of other people’s misery can be a bit much to bear, sometimes.
So I was truly surprised at the power of my reaction to “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,” a recent exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York. I saw the show in April, shortly before it closed. To be honest, it was kind-of an accident. A friend was having a book signing there on a Friday night, so admission was pay as you wish. (I coughed up a buck.) Had that not been on my agenda, I would have missed the show entirely.
In the museum’s basement, there was a large selection of photographs of the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe on the cusp of the Nazi rise to power. The black and white pictures were absolutely superb. Cobblers and merchants, fathers and sons, farmers and city folk. Big brown eyes expressed emotions, people went about their business.
Essentially, it was a documentary project that focused on a culture on the verge of annihilation. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m not sure if anything else like it even exists.
Yes, I’m Jewish, as I’ve said many times, but I identify as an American more than anything. (I’m fourth generation, and none of my close relatives remained in Europe through WWII.) My years of miserable Hebrew School irrelevance squashed much of my Jewish identity away. (Despite the fact that I mention it here often.) My point is that I’m not sure my reaction was specific to members of my tribe.
I almost cried so many times. (Five or six.) I felt like screaming out at the people in the rectangles: Run for your lives. Get the f-ck out of there. Hitler aims to drink your blood. (Futile, I know.) Even if they hadn’t been killed, they’d be dead by now anyway. One of the ironic and beautiful subtleties of our medium.
There was also a film projection, showing a group of sturdy Jewish farmers in the Carpathian Mountains. But for the attire, they looked like they could have been my neighbors in 21st Century Northern New Mexico. It would have been fascinating if it weren’t so terribly sad.
I’d never heard of Roman Vishniac before I visited his show. Maybe you’re familiar with his work, maybe you’re not. Either way, I highly encourage you to look it up here. No, it won’t be the same as walking through a physical space. (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to write this before the exhibition closed last month.) But there is an old saying about those who are unfamiliar with history being condemned to something or other. You know what I mean?
It’s a magical process, creation. One minute, something doesn’t exist, and then, click, it does. Embedded chemically or digitally, light from the world codifies into an illusion, packed with information. Occasionally, that information is meant to challenge and provoke. Some photographs are hard to look at, intentionally. They capture the essence of brutality or hypocrisy. Think Richard Misrach.
Other times, though, pictures strive to contemplate the sublime: the alluring beauty that reflects our incomprehensible insignificance. Flowers are pretty, but mountains and oceans are sublime. Think Hiroshi Sugimoto. Or William Clift.
I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Clift’s work, though he did beat me out for the Eliot Porter Prize in 2011. (Asshole. Just kidding.) I recently saw his black and white photography exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art, and came away extremely impressed. Much as I’m often harping on here about work that pushes towards the political, or the grotesque, these pictures were about nothing more than harnessing the pure power of history and beauty. (Not the sort of thing I normally champion.)
The exhibition, “Shiprock and Mont St. Michel,” was organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, where it was originally shown. It will be on the wall in Santa Fe through September 8th, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who lives in NM, or is passing through town this summer. Why?
The gelatin silver prints are the photographic equivalent of the perfect soufflé; far easier to consume than to make. (It’s often difficult to appreciate the power of simplicity, masterfully-executed.) Layers of tonality and silky textures. Exquisite shades of gray and upward-jutting land forms. That sort of thing.
Though the two locales seem a bit arbitrary, they exist together simply because that is where Mr. Clift chose to focus his attention over a forty year time horizon. His creativity, his choice. There is a nice Old World, New World balance to the whole endeavor.
While we’ve all seen majestic landscape photos over the years, the images here, made near Shiprock, New Mexico, in the Navajo Nation, indicate a definite point of view. Energy radiates through the rectangle. We feel the essence of a multi-million year time horizon, and the spiritual thoughts that such a landscape engenders over time. Deep beauty, for sure. (And a bit of irony, as Shiprock is a pretty hardcore place. It currently has the 3rd highest poverty rate among the Native American population in the US. Which is saying something.)
The other set of pictures, made on an island off the coast of France, focuses more on man’s mark within the historical continuum. The shock of a Gothic spire spears its way into shadow, multiple times. Architecture and light commingle. The sense of community, of a group of people making descendants over time, comes to the forefront. Again, the prints are extraordinary.
I wanted to highlight this exhibit, because it’s important to remember that there are countless reasons why we make pictures. Despite my freakout six weeks ago, I do believe that no one reason is inherently better than the next. It’s the quality of the vision, and the resulting photographic objects, that keep us engaged, and ready to look. Again. And again.
There’s always someone better than you. Unless you’re Lebron James or Warren Buffett, you wake up each morning knowing you’re not the best at what you do. For most of us, that’s not a tragedy. It’s just the way things are.
I’ve always believed I had what it takes to get to the top of my profession. Deep down, I felt I could be among the very best artists in the world. While I was still in my 20’s, an influential curator at the Brooklyn Museum told me she thought I had the talent and intelligence to be as good as Andy Warhol, if I played my cards right. In hindsight, that was really bad advice.
With my innate drive, I took her advice to heart. Work hard enough, or push the right buttons in my head, and I could be an Art Star. For years, though, one mistake or another would hold me back. I’ve made some good work over the last fifteen years, and thankfully received some nice accolades, but no one would confuse me with Jeff Wall, or Robert Adams, or (insert your favorite photographer here.)
My failure to make it to the top of the mountain by the time I was (almost) 40 burned deep in my psyche, creating a sense of insecurity that I strove to overcome. I’ll get there, I’ll get there, the voice said. (Sometimes.) Other times, it said I was a pile of sh-t for not getting there already. Never, though, did the voice question whether the goal itself was the problem.
Back in March, I confronted the limits of my abilities. I came face to face with genius, and found myself wanting. At first, the psychic pain was immense. Slowly, though, it got better, and then the liberation was grand. Where, you ask? Who reduced me to mental rubble? Good question.
The Mike Kelley retrospective at the newly re-opened Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was an ode to genius and misery. It was among the most impressive art exhibitions I’ve ever seen; certainly the one that most impacted me, in the moment. I saw it twice, on consecutive afternoons. The first time, I came straight from hanging out with the Rembrandts, Frans Hals, and Vermeers in the not-yet-then-totally-re-opened Rijksmuseum. (No wonder my self-esteem took a hit.)
It’s hard to explain what the Kelley exhibition was like, simply because the scope, scale and breadth of his work created such an overwhelming experience. The artist made objects in every medium imaginable: paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, tapestries, posters, photographs, videos, animation, appropriations, sound pieces and music. There was, seemingly, nothing he couldn’t do.
That I had heard almost nothing about him before entering the show probably had something to do with the power of its impact. (And is also something I’m embarrassed to admit.) One minute, I didn’t know who this guy was, and the next, I was put firmly in my place. I’ve written here that I like to see photography contextualized alongside other media, but never did I imagine one artist could do it so well, by himself. (Of course, by the end of his career, he had an army of assistants, so I’m not sure if one person really could.)
On my first visit, my friend Hugo and I arrived at the museum shortly before it closed. By the time we sprinted through the permanent collection, we arrived at the special exhibition space minutes before it shut. The guards tried to shoo us away before we even made it down the escalator, but Hugo has the type of confidence that knows how to breeze past objections.
My head spun in every direction, trying to take it in, as I didn’t know at the time I’d be able to return the next day. Manic, I thought. This guy was manic. And crazy. The amount of output was intimidating, like a bad haircut from a barber with sharp razors, but so was the content. Think R. Crumb tossed with Baldessari, mashed up with Quentin Tarantino, with a touch of Francis Bacon thrown in. Then add some steroids, and a lot of fecal matter. Got it?
We sprinted around the space, just trying to put our eyes over everything. There was no possibility to absorb information, other than the overall subtext. This was a tortured guy, with voices in his head I’d wish on no one. When we left, fifteen minutes later, Hugo pulled out his Blackberry for a little research. Mr. Kelley had committed suicide last year; slashed his wrists in the bathtub as his major career retrospective approached.
I was not surprised.
The museum was kind enough to let me back in to see the show the next day, as I was now dying to revisit the work, knowing how the story ended. Initially, I could only think, “I’ll never be this good. It would have happened by now. Face it. I suck.” As a photographer, my basic attempts to play with sculpture and drawing over the last couple of years felt revolutionary to me. But seeing this exhibition, I went to a dark place, lashing myself for foolishly thinking I matched up.
Day two, though, allowed me to read deeper into the work. Among the photographic projects was a series of portraits of stuffed animal sculptures that were cute and fluffy. Mixed in was a self-portrait of the artist, with slicked back hair and some very bad acne. He looked as though he wanted to look tough, but was really just a sensitive, Mid-Western guy that didn’t stand a chance in cutthroat LA. He was raised in Motown, among the makers of proud, massive cars and funky, earnest music. Hollywood didn’t seem like the best of landing spots.
Another photo project that jumped out was a diptych of black and white gelatin silver prints. A man, naked, had poop running out of his butt, and a stuffed animal was below him, eating it. Next to him, a naked woman straddled another stuffed animal, who was busy pleasuring her nether regions. Gross, trippy, absurd, offensive, you name it. Other telling works: a tapestry that claimed the artist to be a proud pants sh-tter, or the self-portrait drawings with his face melting off.
Strangely, a third photo project was just really damn good, and surprisingly straight. It was called “Photo Show Portrays the Familiar,” from 2001. Twenty-six gelatin silver prints were matted and framed, conservatively. The pictures, well-executed, could have been on the wall of any traditional gallery, and none would question it. An abandoned house, a ship wake in a river, a cul-de-sac with winter trees, a brick tower smokestack, Detroit sky scrapers, and lots of sculptures in museums. Here, amongst the chaos, it was downright shocking, in its quiet simplicity.
Up a separate escalator, there was a large gallery filled with video installations. (One had to pass the swastika art and shrieking digital-cartoon-pieces just to gain entry.) The noise was head-ache-inducing; the visual stimuli overwhelming. Devils and angels were everywhere, screens flickered, and anyone with any sense would want out of that room as soon as possible. The work was recent, and seemed like a massive cry for help. (Though the symbology was a bit simplistic.)
Walking through to the next room, it was clear the end was near. The artist’s last bit of work was massively slick and commercial. It was more in the “I have 50 assistants and someone else is making the work for me now” style. All the objects were extremely compelling, but the DIY, dark desperation was missing. An “Odalisque,” from 2010, showed a giant, black, styrofoam chess piece, lying in state, like a corpse with a wig on an autopsy table. One could feel his psyche about to break.
As you’ll know by now, if you read my articles on a regular basis, I love to read directly into objects and images, and see what they have to say. The end of the Mike Kelley exhibition was not ambiguous, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to get the message.
The artist was both blue-collar in his work ethic, and troubled by the visions inside his head. Coming from a working-class background, and city known for fashioning steel, one could see how the valiant effort to draw, sculpt, paint and photograph the ideas out of his head worked well, for a while. Once global capitalism got a hold of him, though, the prices went up, the ass-kissing got more time-consuming, the process of making things was removed from his hands, and the pressure to produce more and more was greater than ever, it was all too much for Mr. Kelley.
That’s what the show said to me, anyway.
Which is why its impact was so tremendous. Before I got to Amsterdam, I would have given anything to be that good. To be that famous, and wealthy. To be the best. I thought myself the tortured genius too. Wrongly, it turns out.
I’m a guy with an amazing family, who gets to live in one of the coolest places on Earth. I have a lot of good friends, and take pleasure out of, and am (mostly) respected for my work. There are many, many artists out there better than I am. For once, I’m OK with that. If the alternative is lonely suicide, or the relentless and humiliating hustle of the urban, moneyed world, I’ll pass.
Maybe in thirty years, if I keep growing, I’ll have a body of work worth talking about. Maybe not. But I try to no longer judge myself by other people’s success, nor do I measure my own by how many people tell me I’m special. As long as my wife and kids think I’m great, I’m doing all right.
I wish Mr. Kelley could have found some middle ground, some peace, to enjoy the fruits of his labor. But then he wouldn’t have been him. That wasn’t his path, obviously. He was a titan of the art world, a chronicler of the murky-yet-almost-beautiful misery of the human condition, and the Stedelijk retrospective was proof of that.
The exhibition has closed by now, so I can’t send you storming the doors to see for yourself. Fortunately, it’s meant to travel to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, MoMA PS1 in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. I could not recommend more highly that you go, if you have the chance. It might not change your life, as it has mine, but it will inevitably give you something to think about. I promise.
I met Kevin Kunishi a couple of years ago, and was impressed with his book, “Los Restos de la Revolucion,” published in 2012 by Daylight. The book was included on several year-end best book lists, and the project was also exhibited at Rayko in San Francisco last Fall. Kevin was kind enough to chat with me this past Winter about the entire publishing process, start to finish.
Jonathan Blaustein: When we first met in 2011, you were working on a project in Nicaragua. You were also sporting this badass, bushy mustache that made you look like a campesino. Why did you choose to work in Nicaragua?
Kevin Kunishi: I got my undergraduate degree in UCSB, down in Santa Barbara. I was a history major and rented a room from an International Studies professor. We ended up having some great discussions, and it pushed me in a certain direction. I became really interested in US foreign policy in Central and South America.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m in grad school, I made a commitment that I was going to use my MFA experience to delve deeper, to get past the broader rhetoric that I learned in my undergraduate studies. I wanted to meet people who were affected by those policies, and lived through those times.
JB: But it could have been anywhere that was affected by the US manipulations, no?
KK: I suppose, but I chose to focus specifically on Nicaragua. I was drawn to it. There is a lot to dig into there. U.S. involvement goes back a very, very long time.
I also had a strong visual reference. At that time, in college, there was a lot of imagery that specifically deepened my interest in Nicaragua. The photographers who covering the region in the 1970’s and 80’s, Susan Meiselas, Lou Dematteis, and others, who were down there. They did incredible work. It got under my skin.
JB: I think we can assume that most people will know what you’re referring to, but just in case, let’s do a quick recap. For many years, and during the 80’s in particular, the US government played an active role in either overthrowing or undermining governments in Central America, like Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and others. They used the CIA, but also supplied weapons, and training at places like the School of the Americas.
So you decided you wanted to see for yourself what the impact of these policies was in Nicaragua, years later, and talk to people on the ground.
JB: You saw yourself doing this as an artist, not as a journalist? Or was the nomenclature irrelevant to you?
KK: That was irrelevant to me.
JB: And you self-funded your travels?
KK: Yes, I did.
JB: So which came first, the mustache or the project? Did you actually grow it at home, knowing that you wanted to fit in, looking like a badass? Or did you get down there with a shiny face, and somebody pulled you aside and said, “Listen, hombre, you need to work it?”
KK: (laughing.) I wish my wife could hear you talking about how much you liked the mustache, because she dreaded that thing. But seriously, I didn’t have a lot of money, so I was taking the bus or hitchhiking the entire time. In Nicaragua, the bus system is made up of those old Blue Bird school buses we used to ride as kids.
They’re packed really thick. And some of the places I was going up near the Honduran border were pretty remote, like 8 hours from Managua. When I first went down there, I was all geared up with camping sh-t. Stuff with North Face labels on it, and you stick out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t until I got rid of all that stuff…I picked up some old blue jeans and t-shirts, grew a mustache, and blended in.
JB: I’m sure a lot of photographers have picked up that concept, and then adapted wherever they’re roaming. How long were you working down there before you started visualizing the end product of the project? What were your goals, beyond exploring your own creativity?
KK: You mean, how did I approach the project, going down there?
JB: Well, I want to tie it into the book as soon as we can, but I wanted to give you time to discuss what you were learning down there. Did you always know, before you started shooting, that you wanted to make a book?
KK: Yeah. I always looked at a book as a vehicle to get the work out there, and have people engage with it outside of the gallery context. Images go up on a wall in a gallery for a month, and then they’re gone. A book is something you can have with you for a while, and you can keep going through it, growing and becoming something else. I love that idea.
JB: It was in your head from the beginning?
KK: No, it wasn’t in my head from the beginning. I did not want to go into it thinking, “How is this going to be a book?” I was just focusing on getting the images, first, and seeing where they led me.
JB: Well, once you decided you wanted this to be a book, how did the process evolve? What was the starting point on getting it together?
KK: Production wise? Editing?
JB: Did you start by making a maquette, so you’d have an object to show off, and then pitch it to people? Did you meet with publishers and show them some edited prints? I want to give our readers a sense of how somebody can go through the process and end up with a really well-constructed book like “Los Restos de la Revolucion.”
KK: Got it. Sorry. I’m so congested.
JB: It’s OK. Let’s just go ahead and say it. Ladies and Gentlemen, right now, Kevin has the flu. The nasty flu that everyone’s got, but he has it for the second time in two months.
But rather than cancel the interview, like a pro, he’s gutting it out. So if he’s not perfectly lucid, we have to give him that.
KK: Thanks for explaining. Getting back to the question, I amassed a lot of images. Like an obscene amount. Boxes and boxes of stuff.
JB: Work prints?
KK: Negatives, work prints. I started sequencing. Sequencing and sequencing. Then, I started doing portfolio reviews. I did one here in San Francisco put on by Photo Alliance, a non-profit here in the city. They hold it over at SFAI.
I was lucky enough to meet Taj Forer from Daylight, and we hit it off from the beginning. He really loved the work.
After Photo Alliance, we started spec-ing it out a little. What did we want to do? How many pages did we want?
JB: How did you pitch the project? Were you thinking of narrative? Were you trying to tell a story? How did you want to connect everything together? Or did that not come until after you started working with your publisher?
KK: It was there before the publisher, but what was fantastic about working with Taj and Mike (Michael Itkoff) was they pull from so much in their own backgrounds. It was very collaborative. We met several times. We would basically work through ideas constantly and they would be vetted. We could either discard it, or build upon it.
Especially with the edit. Things started getting crafted down, better and better. Honestly, the image editing process was extremely stressful, because I had emotional ties to a lot of images and individuals within the photos.
KK: Yes. They told me right off that they wanted to do it. So from there, you spec it out, and then the funding issues come into play. You’ve got to start working on that. It was about a year-long process.
JB: Everyone wants to know about funding, and of course, I want to go there. You can be as honest and open about it as you choose to be. How did it work? Did you have to put up or raise significant funds to get the book to market?
KK: Yes. Whether it’s Kickstarter, Indiegogo, working with collectors. In my case I was able to make it happen. It was good that I had the benefit of time, because it took time to find the funds.
JB: How much money did you have to come up with?
KK: I’d rather not talk about that.
JB: OK. That’s understandable.
KK: I will say this, it can be a significant amount and can vary depending on the publisher.
JB: I’m trying to give people a reality check about what it costs to get a book made, but I understand that you don’t feel comfortable discussing the numbers. Money, in general, evokes stress in people across all spectrums.
JB: It just does. I knew once I asked you that, there was a chance you weren’t going to want to answer. But I asked not for my own edification, but to try to educate people.
Once you were confident you could raise whatever was required of you, how do you move from editing into design?
KK: A lot of printing houses will have an in-house design staff. We were lucky enough to work with Ursula Damm, who’s out in Red Hook. She’s a part of a great design firm called Damm Savage. You go to her with a bullet point list of what you want, the ideas that you’re working with, and she would come back with numerous design choices.
JB: What was the vision you presented to her?
KK: It stemmed from a very profound experience I had when I first got to Nicaragua. In the area I was visiting, there is this beautiful, ethereal mist that hangs in the mountains, and drifts down into the cobblestone streets at night. I met this older man on a bus. He pointed out the window and told me that those mists hide many horrible things, but also many wonderful things. “The more time you spend there,” he said, “the more they will be revealed to you.”
That really stuck with me. I shot everything down there in that soft light. I was interested in that idea of things lurking in the haze of the past, that fog of war. Embracing it and applying it. In the vision for the book, and the sequencing, I wanted the book to be almost dream-like, going from image to image.
JB: I hate to be obvious here, but you were conversing with people in Spanish?
KK: Yes. I took Spanish in high school, and lived in San Diego working on the piers for a while. But in those situations down there, it’s sink or swim. Especially out in the campo, I had to pick it up again fast. I got some books, and practiced every morning and night by candle light. I was able to get it going again.
With most of the interviews, I was lucky to piggy back on some of the NGO’s and non-profits down there. They were present with me when I would conduct a lot of the interviews. I would record everything, and if I had an issue with the translation, they would step in and help.
KK: Absolutely. There are a lot of non-profits and Peace Corps volunteers doing great things in these communities. They were really helpful. I was able to tap into their various community networks to spread the word that I was interested in talking about their experiences during the war.
JB: Let’s jump back to the book. Your vision of the book was related to your vision of the project, which was related to your vision of the place. Mist and fog and dreaminess.
KK: Yes. So the question was, “How do I encompass that in an experience?” The cover of the book has a man with his eyes closed, and I wanted to suggest everything was within his head. Like a dream, a memory, a reflection of that experience, to use the book as a vehicle to create that. That’s where it was coming from. Does that make sense?
JB: Of course. But it also answers another big question I had. How do you choose what goes on the cover?
The book opens with a short poem. Did you write that?
JB: The book opens like that, and then we see all the photographic plates. There’s no mention of Nicaragua explicitly, but the back cover, in black on black, has a picture of the map of the country. That was your way of suggesting place?
KK: Absolutely. I have photobooks that front-load text in some way or another tell you “This is what you’re about to look at,” those are the books that I rarely open again. You know what I mean?
JB: That’s what I’m trying to find out. I want to know what your thought process was. I just reviewed a book from Sweden, and I loved that you got a sense of Scandinavia, and of a bleak sort of factory life, but you don’t know exactly where it is. I think anybody who picks up your book, even if they don’t know it’s Nicaragua, they would get that it’s Central America.
And I’ve been enamored, lately, of books that open with poetry, instead of didactic essays. So many essays are encoded in “intellectual speak.” Which is fine, but in my job, which involves looking at books all the time, I find that often the essays don’t engage.
In the end of the book, you give a lot of additional information. You provide the titles, under a thumbnail image, and then you give background information on the people and places. Things that no viewer would ever know: a tight crawl space is a prison cell, a tulip coming out of the ground is really a grave. A tree that looks like a pretty nature shot was used for torture and hanging people.
You’re giving the viewer all the necessary political information at the end. You wrote all that?
KK: Yes, there are some interview excerpts as well. I don’t really like books that have image, text, image, text. By having all that information at the back, I like the idea that if a viewer went through the first time, they could maybe sniff out what some of these images are about. With the text at the end, it could either validate or eliminate what their assumptions were.
JB: When I look at a book, I believe that if an artist needs me to know something, if there is information that is necessary to unlock the secrets of the book, I expect the artist to give that to me. Books that rely on hearsay, or they expect you to Google something…
JB: Seriously, some of them do. I remember, one of my favorite books that I’ve reviewed was Donald Weber’s “Interrogations.” I looked at it thoroughly, and read every word, and there was no mention that it was a real scenario. I went ahead and assumed that it was staged, as art. Then people in the comment section let me know I was wrong.
Anyway, I liked that you allowed the narrative to be suggestive and mysterious, but then provided a lot of serious context.
I wanted to talk about the writing a bit more as well, because you did a great job with it. Almost all the books I look at involve the use of external writers. Often it’s essays written by intellectuals, curators, or famous people. You hear through the grapevine that there can be pressure on photographers to bring in a writer who can provide additional credibility.
How did it develop in the publishing process that you decided to handle the writing yourself?
KK: I have books and books of journals, from when I was in Nicaragua. I write constantly, when I’m on the road. To be honest, we brainstormed some ideas of having other people contribute, but I wanted the work to stand on it’s own. I wanted my own voice in it.
It was something we went back and forth on, in the beginning. And then, Susan Meiselas told us, “This needs to stand alone.”
JB: How did you get her involved?
KK: I believe Michael started a conversation with her. We sent her some of the work, a maquette with a small sequence of images, and she wrote back a really nice email about it. I agreed with her. It was a gut feeling I had from the beginning, and that’s how it played out.
JB: So you work on a collaborative design process, you raise funds, then you send it off to the printer. I noticed it was printed in China. Did you make a trip over there?
KK: No, I didn’t go to China. They would Fedex proofs back to me. I went down to Rayko, and put them up under the color-balanced lights, and would mark up things to be changed.
JB: How long did that part of the process take?
KK: Maybe two months, from the time I got the proof prints together, and sent them over to China as a reference.
JB: Start to finish. Production wise?
JB: Then the books come back. What happens next? Given that you provided the investment, did you have a contract that stipulated that you’d receive a certain amount of copies?
KK: Yeah, I got a certain amount. One day a palette was delivered. There are like fifty steps from the street down to my apartment, so it was a bit much.
JB: What about marketing and book signings? Was it your intention to try to recoup your investment? I’ve heard that most people don’t ever expect to make a profit. It’s more a promotional vehicle for their careers. What was your strategy with Daylight to get the books into people’s hands?
KK: Well it might be important to look at it for the long haul, if you sell all your books over the next decade you will be well on your way to making your money back. Couple that with press attention/commissions/print sales etc and you have the formula to move your career forward. What’s so great about Daylight is that they have a fantastic distribution network, with D.A.P., so that really helped get it out there. With regards to making money? No way. Making money on photobooks? (laughing.)
JB: That’s the word on the street.
JB: Hopefully, you can understand, that’s why I’m asking these questions. We’re trying to use your experience to give people an inside look into the process.
Your book was successful. It was listed on several year-end-best book lists. People like the book, so it’s a great opportunity for our readers to get a sense of how it really works. They’ll understand what is required, if they’re going to embark on the publishing process.
KK: I think it’s also important to define what “success” means.
JB: Sure. What was your vision of success?
KK: For this body of work, I’d have to answer that on two fronts. First, it involves creating a discussion around the work. And I’ve been really happy with how that’s played out. Second, it’s generated print sales, so that I can get money back to people who are in the book.
JB: You’d mentioned to me previously that it was your intention to give your share of print sales to the subjects of the photos? Is that right?
KK: Yes, I’m sending a significant cut of my proceeds down to Nicaragua. To put this in perspective, in some areas in the campo, $200 is an annual salary. The sale of a print can really make a difference in some bad situations that are going on down there. You know what I mean?
JB: Sure. It’s impressive.
KK: It goes into micro-finance projects, alleviates some of the debt load of these fertilizer loans that people are inundated with, I can go on and on.
JB: You’re happy with the way everything turned out?
KK: For the most part.
JB: What would you do differently if you could do it over again?
KK: I don’t know if there’s anything I’d do differently, specifically. I always think I can do better. I don’t know about you, but I’m never satisfied.
A closely watched copyright case involving photographer Patrick Cariou and appropriation artist Richard Prince has taken an unexpected turn in favor of Prince on appeals. To recap: In December of 2008 photographer Patrick Cariou filed suit against Ricard Prince, Gagosian Gallery, Lawrence Gagosian and Rizzoli International Publications in federal district court (here). The suit came about after Prince appropriated 28 images from Patrick’s Yes Rasta book for his Canal Zone exhibit at the Gagosian gallery. In March of 2011 US District Judge Deborah A. Batts ruled on the cross-motions for summary judgment and found that the use by Prince was not Fair Use and Patrick’s issue of liability for copyright infringement was granted in its entirety. In other words, Patrick won.
According to many of the sites covering the case this caused quite a stir in the art world, because of the way the judge interpreted fair use. I liked the interpretation, because it offered guidance to artists wishing to appropriate work and claim fair use for transforming it. Essentially you had to comment on the original work to qualify. Simply using it as source material, as Prince admitted to doing, does not transform the work. Or as the judge put it at the time: “If an infringement of copyrightable expression could be justified as fair use solely on the basis of the infringer’s claim to a higher or different artistic use . . . there would be no practicable boundary to the fair use defense.”
The appeals court heard the case last May and wrote that a majority of Mr. Prince’s work manifested “an entirely different aesthetic” from Mr. Cariou’s pictures. “Where Cariou’s serene and deliberately composed portraits and landscape photographs depict the natural beauty of the Rastafarians and their surrounding environs,” the decision stated, “Prince’s crude and jarring works, on the other hand, are hectic and provocative.” The court found that most of the works by Mr. Prince under consideration were permissible under fair use because they “have a different character” from Mr. Cariou’s work, give it a “new expression” and employ “new aesthetics with creative and communicative results distinct” from the work that Mr. Prince borrowed. (source NYTimes.com)
The court is essentially saying that someone must look at the new work and determine that it has a different character than the original to know if the work is transformed by the artist. And, if that weren’t bad enough they sent 5 of the works back to the lower court (one can be seen below) because they were so minimally altered they may not be considered fair use by a reasonable observer. Using the new appeals court standard the lower court will determine if they are in fact a “new expression”. What a mess.
Not sure what options Patrick has left but it seems that the courts have no interest in clarifying fair use so that people can make reasonable decisions without resorting to lawsuits to sort it all out. Given the variety of opinions on what constitutes art, relying on reasonable observers to determine if alterations to copyrighted photography constitute a “new expression” with “distinct creative and communicative results” seems absurd.
Syria is a wreckage, its people bombarded by a psychotic former ophthalmologist. Egypt’s economy is in free-fall. The Arab Spring’s optimism has faded faster than a photograph bathed in the sunshine of a portrait studio’s front window.
Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Middle East live with the constant threat of violence and terror. When stories flood media outlets, dead bodies boost ratings. (I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.) Given that language barriers exist, even in an age of Google Translate, it’s not so easy to just throw out a couple of friend requests to get the real story from Tehran. Or Tel Aviv.
Fortunately, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has come to our collective rescue. “Light from the Middle East: New Photography” displayed photographs from North Africa through Central Asia, until it closed on April 7. It was the most dynamic photo exhibition I saw on my recent visit to Europe.
The show was broken down into three component parts: Recording, Reframing, and Resisting. The first referred to documentary work, the second to images that attempted to subvert existing photo traditions, and the latter section dealt with more original or innovative art practice. Surprisingly, given my predilections, I mostly preferred the initial grouping. But there were strong projects throughout; a fantastic exhibition, really.
Walking through the entryway, I was confronted with a group of photos by Abbas, from the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79. He managed to capture anger and passion pulsing through the frame, as in the grouping of women in abayas, toting machine guns. Another image featured a heap of dead old men on morgue beds, slid out of the cooler. (While some revolutionaries looked on, gloating.) The message from the curators was clear: We mean business.
Just down the way, Tal Shochat, an Israeli, exhibited a triptych of contemporary images that seemed to emanate from a different planet, as well as century, than those of Abbas. Three trees: persimmon, pomegranate, and grapefruit. Each had been meticulously cleaned and buffed, then shot in the landscape with strobes, against a black backdrop. They looked artificial, like corporatized nature. Smart and odd-looking, they referenced the intersection of agriculture and genetic engineering in the 21st C.
Cruising the room, I saw pictures from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kurdistan.
“Bodiless 1,” by Mehraneh Atashi, another Iranian, was an absolute favorite. A burly wrestler, in a mens’ only gym, throws around a chain of weights. (Old school equipment, for sure.) He had a serious head of hair, resembled Erik Estrada, and rocked a sexy-time mustache as well. The text tells us women are always excluded from such establishments, but the artist was, in fact, female. She received special permission, and included her own image as a little subversive shout to rule-breaking, reflected within a mirror.
A Mitra Tabrizian photo, again from Iran, was also amazing. (I’m just now realizing I like Iranian photography.) A long, horizontal panel depicted an obviously-staged scene filled with a host of “regular” people. Old and young, men and women, all stood, moved, talked, gesticulated, in a field outside of a generic apartment building. Up above, a pair of grumpy-looking clerics stared down, disapprovingly, from a billboard. (I wonder what they would approve of? Disemboweling Barack Obama?) Though I assumed it to be a digital composite, given how much was going on, the wall text assured that it was actually one exposure. Righteous people-wrangling.
In general, the Reframing section, which featured artists who appropriate or imitate images from the past, was the least successful. Most of the artists’ symbol choices were heavy-handed, so things were just off. (Close, but not quite right.)
Shadi Ghadirian’s project, yet again from Iran, typified this. Her series, “Qujar,” from 1998, featured women in portraits, shot in the historical style from the Qajar period, 1786-1925. The verisimilitude was spot on, but then the women held modern symbols, like a Pepsi can, a boom box, or a mountain bike. I wanted to love them, but kept getting stuck in the clunky juxtaposition. The one exception was the image of shrouded women holding a mirror that reflected blankly back to the photographer, and by extension, the viewer.
Youssef Nabil, an Egyptian, exhibited work from his project “The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields,” a series of hand-colored black and white portraits. The style aped mid-20th Century Egyptian studio portraits, and focused on the large ex-pat population in North England. I loved the hand-colored effect, and the guys were funny, but also poignant, like Gene Hackman’s sidekick in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” (Yes, I’m aware Pagoda was Indian.)
One last project here deserves a mention, but not in a good way. Taysir Batniji, a Palestinian, had pictures included from his “Watch Towers: West Bank/Palestine” project. The structures were blatantly shot in the insanely-famous Becher style. Basically, they were knock-offs, meant to create controversy. When the first sentence in the wall text admits that the work is derivative, I wonder if it actually belongs in the show?
Moving on, my brain slowly wearing down, I entered the last room: Resisting. The collected photos were meant to examine the manipulation of truth in photography. The quality ranged, here, but there were some memorable projects.
Atiq Rahimi’s work, from Afghanistan, featured plastic box camera pictures, called “The Imaginary Return,” from 2001. The artist played with scale and temporal dislocation, so my eye wondered if the pictures were from the 19th Century. A tree branch looked like it was about to topple a building, little men at the base of a wall look like toy soldiers, and a lonely clothesline suspended above the chaos seems like it might be holding up the world.
Amirali Ghasemi’s series “Tehran Remixed: Party Series” was also terrific. We’ve all heard stories of what goes on behind the closed, locked doors of Tehran’s youth. (I’m guessing they love Ecstasy, but what do I know?) Here, we see the good times rolling, but big white sections have been cut out of the subjects, censoring their identities. It was a perfect use of digital technique, and reminded me why I was less enthralled with the exhibition’s mid-section, which placed less emphasis on stylistic innovation.
There was a bit more hand-coloring in the last room, but nothing that really impressed. Nermine Hammam, an Egyptian, had a project where she photographed soldiers who were ubiquitous during the aforementioned Arab Spring. Rather than keep them in their natural surroundings, however, she digitally removed them, and dropped them against the technicolor backdrops of the Swiss Alps. (I’m guessing the soldiers would have preferred to frolic in the mountains, rather than tote guns around Tahrir Square.)
As I said at the outset, this was a really stellar exhibition. We often struggle, here in the West, to remind ourselves why art matters. A few rooms such as these, packed with photographs that attempt to codify uncertainty, document upheaval, and share stories with the World outside, are an excellent reminder.
Am I ever brief? Seriously. Whether these articles ramble on for a thousand or two thousand words, they always go long. I know some people enjoy that, and others look at blocks of text and just tune the damn thing out.
Occasionally, I try to break the cycle, but rarely succeed. It’s almost as if verbose were my middle name. (Instead of Benjamin. My name has eight syllables. How’s that for symbolically appropriate?) Ironically, my wife just suggested that the metaphorical meaning of my horrendous, insanely painful, glass-shards-through-my-goiter sore throat might be that I should talk less. (Ought that translate to write less?)
Let’s try it, though. Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting the recently redesigned Photographers’ Gallery in London. It’s a beautiful building, with glass windows cut out in sexy places, like bits of fabric shorn from a flowing jersey dress. And all those floors dedicated to photography? (Or tea, in the café.) All good in my book.
There were several exhibitions on display when I visited, but the highlight was a show of new work by Laura Letinsky. Occupying an entire gallery, the large, minimalist prints were quiet, as was the room. (Silent, really.) Ms. Letinsky has moved away from her straightforward, food-based still lives, bathed in gorgeous light. Here, we see mashed-up, studio experimental still lives, on white tables against white walls.
The images contain some actual items, but also two-dimensional cut-outs of photos taken from magazines. I loved the picture of the crushed white paper cup, against the white on white, and the desiccated grapes were great as well. The experience was like looking at the classiest collages you’ve ever seen.
The light is of course beautiful in the extreme, and the photos appear to be digitally created, thereby compressing the sense of space. By now, we all know that digital images flatten out the picture plane, as opposed to the celluloid aesthetic, which renders three-dimensionality so well. Here, it did engender a double-take or two, as my eyes tried to read exactly what was going on.
I wasn’t blown away by the work, or seduced into a Zen, drooling-on-myself-kind-of-bliss, but I liked it. It’s certainly well-executed, and beautiful. Mostly, the show seemed like a record of a talented artist who was experimenting; pushing her own process in ways that kept her engaged, while staying within a general stylistic preference.
We used to have a film festival here in Taos. It took place in early April each year. Everybody in town would get excited, as there were opportunities to see films to which residents would otherwise not have access. (Pre-Netflix, obviously.) The locals loved it, and the film-makers did too. I got to meet James Coburn, so that was cool.
I worked for the festival in 1997, as an overly confident twenty-two year old. All bluster and little experience, I was hired as the Volunteer Co-ordinator, meant to boss around dozens of older folks who were working for free. I was hired last minute, as the original VC was poorly-equipped for the position, and subsequently fired.
I was told to do whatever I saw fit with the volunteers, so my first act was to handpick an assistant. Why not make my job easier, I thought. I went through the list, and chose a middle-aged female attorney who’d recently moved to Taos. She seemed sharp, and ended up helping immeasurably.
Within a year, she’d been elevated to Executive Director of the organization. A few years later, the festival was defunct. (Not that I’m blaming her, mind you.) There was some debt accrued at the beginning that could never be dealt with properly, and the best of intentions are not always enough. Competence, across a broad swath of areas, is required to run a successful event over time.
So I was displeased, if not completely surprised, at my experience with the Format Festival in England over the last six months. It gives me no pleasure to write this article, and I’ve certainly given some consideration to why there used to be boundaries between artists and journalists. Ethically, the tale that follows seem important to share, as I know our readers look to us for helpful information about what goes on inside the industry. But I’ve spent many a moment wondering whether this will damage the “artist” portion of my career.
Here’s the breakdown.
I met the Artistic Director of the festival at FotoFest last year. She seemed nice, and I was glad when she wrote a few months later to say the submission process to Format ’13 was about to open. Cool, I thought. If she took the time to reach out, I assumed they must be interested in my work.
Like the many competitions that exist around the world, there was a fee involved in submitting work for consideration. Nothing huge, but still, it cost something. When I didn’t hear back a month beyond the original deadline for replies, I knew things were not efficient as one might hope. Still, I wanted it to work out, and was thrilled when my work was accepted. Having an international exhibition on my resumé seemed like a great career move, and I’m enamoured of the British photo community.
Foolishly, I chose to overlook the fact that the exhibition to which I was applying, “EXPOSURE,” required me to pay all the production costs for my work, as well as shipping fees in each direction. (I don’t believe that’s the case with every exhibition they put on.) The forms also claimed there would be a stipend offered, but that was the last I heard of it until I arrived in England. My inquiries into how much funding I might receive were not answered. (Nor were most of the emails I sent looking for information.)
As the festival approached, I was asked to submit a proposal for my exhibition design. I worked on it for weeks, scratching sketches and fiddling in Photoshop. Surely, I thought, someone will be impressed. They will wonder at the power of my creativity and the brilliance of my art. (They didn’t. I shipped the box off and hoped for the best.)
So by the time I headed to Derby last month, I was pretty put out by the whole thing. I’d spent almost $600, and was beginning to regret it. (Not including travel costs, or return shipping, which I also need to arrange on my own. They won’t schedule the DHL pickup, apparently.) I’m sure they’re all nice people, with so much to organize. I get that there is a lot of responsibility. I do.
At last, though, on a Saturday in early March, I caught the train North from London with my friend Hin Chua. He told me he’d participated in the 2011 version of Format, and had encountered some problems too. He chalked it up to biting off more work than they could chew, rather than malicious intent, and said that most of the people he’d spoken to had some issues as well.
Before I got to Derby, I’d been warned several times that it was a less-than-enthralling place. Basically, people laughed when I said I was showing work there, and confidently described the place grim. I assumed it was just the famous British wit, pushing my buttons and dampening my expectations. Surely, they’re exaggerating, I thought. (Alas…)
The city was bleak and gray; the air freezing cold and moist, sucking the joy from my soul. (What little was left, that is.) I’m not trying to denigrate this Post-Industrial city, which has obviously fallen on hard times, but it is what it is. Folks were surly and suspicious, and the ramifications of decline were rampant. (I saw two businesses closing down on High Street.) As we got off the train, the first two people we saw outside the station were muscle-head teenagers in rolled up T-shirts. Genius.
After that, we stopped in at the Quad theater to see the Erik Kessels exhibition. I know he’s trendy at the moment, and I loved and reviewed one of his books recently, but this exhibit was surprisingly limp. Appropriated family album photographs were everywhere, though most were not-very-interesting. They were blown up into graphics that covered the walls, and were also presented on foam core, in racks, meant to be flipped through like items at a poster shop. (Points for trying to break out of the box, I guess.) I queried some fellow visitors who were equally disappointed, and one described the show as “graphic design” and “cotton candy.”
Next was a brief visit to the “Photo Market,” a few photo related stalls mingled amongst the cheesemongers of the local indoor market. The air was stale, the mood depressing. I got to see a few cool photo books, as there were several major publishers in attendance. It was pretty quiet, though, and one participating photographer told me there was a public opening the night before, and ten people came.
From there, we headed into an industrial neighborhood to the “Chocolate Factory,” to see the exhibition in which my work was included. It was the hub of the festival, in that portfolio reviews were being held there that day. I knew of several friends who’d be in attendance, and was excited to finally have some fun. We walked in, and noticed the entryway was open to the elements. No doors at all.
Immediately, I bumped into a colleague, who asked if I’d seen my work yet. His voice trailed off at the end of the sentence, so I knew something was awry. “No,” I said, “I’ve just arrived. Is there a problem?” He paused. “Well, the pictures are in the back. Better you see for yourself.”
We headed in that direction, and I quickly stuffed my hands in my pockets. It was even colder in the Chocolate Factory that it was outside: barely above freezing. The place had been abandoned, and reclaimed by Format as an exhibition space. It was filthy, and reminded me of something out of a former Soviet republic. Given that the festival theme was “Factory,” I should add that the choice wasn’t pointless. It makes sense in theory, but was poorly executed. (If the festival took place in Summer, it would have been an entirely different story.)
My pictures were at the very far end of the venue, by the toilets. While the location would normally be considered unappealing, on that day, at least, I knew my work would be seen. People kept heading to the loo to use the electric hand dryer to warm up, because the entire venue had no heat whatsoever.
Photographers were shivering, jumping up and down to stay warm. (Except for one of the festival sponsors, who was dressed in a burly Swedish mackinaw and fur hat. He was toasty, and suggested I not take my treatment personally. They didn’t reply to his emails either, he said, because they’re always so busy.)
I was told that the reviewers were provided with hot water bottles, those rubber things that evoke the 19th Century, and hot coffee as well. The photographers, on the other side of the table, were not. One American photographer told me she hadn’t even bothered to go see her exhibition, elsewhere in town, because she was too worn down by the travel, the elements, and the expensive cab fares.
Another photographer, a friend who was also attending the reviews, ranted about it perfectly: “I’m a f-cking chump. I just spent £200 to sit in a f-cking warehouse freezing my ass off all day. Even people who work in warehouses get minimum wage.” He wrote to me thereafter to stress that he did have some very good experiences in the review meetings, so it balanced out.
Just as I was about to lose my mind and head back to the station to grab the next train South, I saw a friend from Italy, Michele Palazzi. Michele and I, along with his wingman Raphaele, started to crack each other up almost immediately. (Telling jokes about Berlusconi, arguing about who made a better spaghetti carbonara.)Then, Barry Hughes, the publisher of the excellent online magazine Super Massive Black Hole, turned the corner. We’d corresponded on social media, but had not yet met in person. Format brought us all together.
We stood there, the four of us, laughing, beginning to see the humor in the situation. The seratonin flooded back into my brain. This, I thought, is why I really came here. Nothing beats the camaraderie of hanging out with cool people from around the world. Sometimes, a little temporary suffering brings everyone closer together.
From there, too cold to go searching for more exhibitions to see, we headed up the street to the pub. My mood improved, and the strong dark beer helped me get back to myself. For hours, we laughed, talked about photography, and shared stories about our respective communities. If not for the festival, our motley crew would have been spread back around the planet.
To be clear, I’m sure the Format does good things for Derby, providing opportunities for locals to see art and and expand their understanding of the world. Its residents must benefit greatly. In a parallel universe, I had a great day in Derby, visiting the many exhibitions spread all over the city, and came away impressed by what I saw. Just the other day, a colleague wrote on Facebook that he saw lots of great work at Format, and called the city “cool.”
There are many festivals around the world, and countless opportunities to show one’s work. Frankly, I submitted to Format without having done any research, and relied upon some specious assumptions. That’s on me. If you’re reading this in the US, though, I’d probably recommend you start somewhere else on your quest for world domination.
Disposable income. Has there ever been a more ridiculous term? It’s been five years now since the Global Economic Meltdown, and I laugh with derision every time I think of those two words mashed together. Most folks these days are happy just to pay all the bills on time. The idea that there would ever be money to burn? Blasphemous.
I bring this up, as I’m just beginning to get my head together after returning from Europe the week before last. Like many an American, I’m a verified Eurpohile. The ancient architecture, narrow streets, museums on every corner, functioning public transportation, smell of history in the air…it’s intoxicating. Stop me now, or I’ll go off on a rant like Rick Steves, and someone will put me on a PBS pledge drive. (Operators are standing by now.)
I’m lucky-and-old enough to have been able to afford the now-anachronistic American post-college-Eurail-backpacking adventure. While I certainly had fun, I imagine I’d have appreciated it more if I realized the subsequent alphabetical generation (Y to my X) would be more likely to live in their parents’ basement than to galavant around the Continent.
Nowadays, when we get a chance to travel somewhere special, I’m sure we all suck the last bit of juice from the experience. I certainly do. I’d love to punch my younger self in the face, and insist I show more respect for my privileges, but that’s not possible, as far as I know. Instead, I just try to live by the words I spout off in this forum each week.
My most recent bit of proselytizing involved trying new things, exploring new territory, and breaking away from established patterns. Right? Right.
So when I found myself in front of the Man Ray exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London recently, (brain fried and exhausted, having slept on the plane,) I decided it was time to shake things up. There is an entrance fee of $22 for the show, in an otherwise free museum. I was fairly certain my friend had a pass to let me in gratis the next day, and I’d already visited one photography exhibition to review earlier that afternoon. (About which I’ll write in the coming weeks.)
In other words, I just wasn’t feeling it. Sure, I knew the show would be interesting. (And it was, but that will have to wait as well.) But in the moment, the desire to experience new things, and not do the expected, was foremost in my mind. So I pivoted on the spot, spinning like a plastic foosball man, and headed in the other direction.
We photographers love to wander, and have honed our instincts for what might be ’round the next bend. But it’s so often in service of the next cool photograph. We search to click the shutter. I’ll advocate here that you keep the process, but flip the desired outcome. Put the camera down, and see what else is there.
In this case, I headed upstairs to the Tudor gallery, to see the centuries old portraits of English royals. The gallery opens with a painting of the recently re-discovered King Richard III, who sits next to Henry VII, who deposed him. They’re followed by Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. (Reunited at last.) The 16th Century portraits were flat and stylized, not far from their Renaissance forebears. And while the Europeans out there might say, “so what,” to those of us in the New World, seeing history in its proper environment is mesmerizing.
The following room had a few killer paintings of Queen Elizabeth I, and many of the royal courtiers, hustlers, and power players that were all the rage in her day. Intrigue, insurrection, spying, and all manner of bad behavior in service of Queen and country were discussed in the wall text. The men, rendered on canvas, looked dignified and serious, like they wouldn’t know how to laugh if they were tickled by Chris Farley himself. Fascinating, and totally worth the time.
I left the NPG shortly thereafter, and took ten steps towards the tube to return to my friend Hugo’s flat. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a beautiful Church across the street, in the opposite direction. Normally, I would have kept going towards a warm bed and a glass of wine. I’d been on the move for more than a day. The easy route was in front of me.
But I learned a valuable lesson in my more lazy, hedonistic days, and that is one never knows what is behind the door in an old European Church. So I mustered the energy to turn around, dodged a few black cabs as they whizzed by, and crossed to the street to see what was up. Thankfully.
I pushed open the heavy door, and found myself in a typical alcove. Having come that far, I pushed through the next door as well, hoping I wouldn’t interfere with anything important. If the Pope’s security force lay ahead, ready to intercept wandering Jews, that would have been no more surprising than what I found.
As soon as the door cracked a few inches, glorious music washed over my senses. The ceiling rose before me, supported by solid columns. Ahead, a string orchestra played for a piddling audience, wedged in the back, like me. They were rehearsing, so the music would stop every few minutes. I wanted to scream out, “More, more,” but it seemed uncouth.
It’s hard to describe how liberated and exhilarated I felt. As you know, I live in a horse pasture, and my local music is restricted to raven squawks and barking dogs. This, however, was a bit of magic. My emotions started to ping around my body like a five year old hopped up on too much birthday cake. I sat down on the stone floor to contemplate, in bliss.
Where was I? It’s called St Martin in the Fields, and it’s just off of Trafalgar Square. The catacombs below house a cafe and a gallery, tucked beneath a brick vaulted ceiling. There are a number of musical programs, from what I could gather, and the next night there was a candle-light concert scheduled. This place is a must visit for all of you Brits, and anyone planning a trip to London as well.
I left after a while, feeling like I could hop over a red double-decker bus without too much trouble. (Fortunately, I wasn’t so delirious as to try.) From there, I’d surely earned the right to descend into the underground. One can only handle so much exhilaration. As I walked towards the Covent Garden station, I couldn’t believe all the boutiques that lined the way.
Seriously, wherever I went in Central London, someone was trying to sell designer goods to Russian tourists. Everyone’s on the hustle these days, and when you know who’s got the cash, it’s your job to try to get it. Or something like that.
I tried to tune it all out and drift into a daydream, when up ahead, I noticed a grand, imposing and beautiful building, towering above the surrounding architecture. It was just so intense and powerful. What could it be? It was less than half a mile beyond the tube stop, and my curiosity would not leave me alone. To whom did it belong? What went on behind those thick stone walls? I had to find out.
As I approached, I felt as if I were a marlin being reeled in by a hungry fisherman. I couldn’t stop the process, and struggle seemed futile. When finally it stood before me, I noticed a small sign advertising a public museum inside the Freemasons’ Hall. Ah, the Freemasons. The famed secret society.
I opened some stained glass doors, marked with a Star of David, and was quickly met by a surprised looking security guard. Clearly, those doors were not often utilized. He directed me to another, more suitable entrance, and told me I’d need to ask for a pass to enter. So I did.
I’m not sure about you, but when I hear the term Freemasons, I think of Homer Simpson and Fred Flintstone, bumbling along in meetings with funny hats. Or maybe the Skull and Bones type stuff they have at Yale. (Any secret society that allows George W. Bush to enter is probably not as exclusive as it seems.) But this building reeked of money and power, and I was curious to see what lay inside.
The Library and Museum of Freemasonry sits at the back of the building, up some stairs and down a long set of halls. I felt not the slightest urge to deviate from the path, as I was sure there were secret security cameras everywhere. At least that’s what my imagination told me. So I did as I was told.
The place is free and open to the public, and you have to go check it out for yourself. There was an exhibit called “Encounters- Artists and Freemasonry over 300 years,” which is up until Sept 20th, 2013. I endeavored to figure out what the organization was all about, but unfortunately, I can’t say I was able to get very far.
It might be because I was tired, but really, all the text seemed to be written in a foreign language. The best I could surmise, it’s a guild or club-type-organization that supports networking among wealthy and powerful people. But as there are branches all over the world, I would imagine there is a range of membership, so really, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
There were sculptures on display, and silver chalices, porcelain plates, odd costumes, paintings, murals and textiles. Strange symbols popped up here and there, but not in patterns I could recognize. I tried to make sense of it, and failed. Fortunately, there was a fantastic photograph on display, thereby making this a photography review after all.
Sitting in an innocuous display case near the entrance, I looked down into the confident eyes of Theodore Roosevelt, the former President of these United States. He had a confidence born of wealth and breeding, and a mustache that screamed math professor. (Or as they say in England, maths.) I looked into his eyes, and heard him speak into my head: “Yeah, bitches, I’m a tough motherf-cker. I eat bears for breakfast. With my spectacles, I can see through your wimpy, plebeian soul.” (The portrait was shot by a fellow Freemason, Alvin Langon Coburn.)
I’m guessing these Freemasons roll at a level I can’t really fathom. But they were very nice to me, and how cool is it that you can visit another world like that, for free? Just make sure not to mess with anything, or you’ll probably end up in the dungeons below, never to be heard from again.
I said my thanks and retrieved my man bag at the front desk, and headed back out into the misty London streets. What a day. Henceforth, the subsequent articles will deal with photography to a greater extent than what you’ve just read. As it should be. But let the lesson here be explicit: when you put the camera down, occasionally, and explore just for the sake of it, wondrous things might be waiting just out of view.
Roger Ballen is among the most talented and successful photographic artists in the world today. He was kind enough to agree to an extensive interview last month, and is also allowing us to publish images from two forthcoming books.
JB: Why did you choose to move to South Africa from the United States?
RB: When I was a young man in my early twenties, in 1973, it was a time of cultural revolution. I guess I was swept up with that. I graduated from University of California, Berkeley, and was quite restless. Previous to traveling from Cairo to Capetown in 1974, two important things happened. One is I got interested in painting for about six months, and the second thing my mother died in early ’73.
My mother had worked in Magnum photos, and also started one of the first photo galleries in the United States, with people like Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz. I’d gotten a real introduction to photography, and had a passion towards the field by the time I was 23. Although at that time, I had a degree in psychology.
Then my mother died in January of ’73, and I began this trip that would take me four and half years, an overland trip from Cairo to Capetown. I got to South Africa, and spent some time here. Then I made an overland trip from Istanbul to New Guinea, and that was about a two and half year trip. During that time, I did
my first photo book, which was called “Boyhood.”
I got to South Africa that way, and then when I got back to America, in ’77 or so, I did a PhD in Mineral Economics at the Colorado School of Mines. Then, I came back to South Africa in ’82. This is an ideal place to practice the business of mining exploration, and anything related to the mineral business. South Africa and the surrounding countries are well-endowed with minerals.
Despite the political problems, I’d liked being here for the first time, and then married a South African lady and stayed here. I’ve been here permanently since 1982.
JB: I imagined it might have something to do with the natural resources. I was raised in New Jersey, in the shadows of New York City, and ended up living in a horse pasture, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in an old Spanish village, because I married a local. So I can relate.
But as far as South Africa goes, co-incidental to this impending interview, I recently came across some information about the place, and thought we could continue to talk about it for a few minutes. Some of the statistics are kind of crazy. According to The Economist, South Africa has the highest rate of income equality in the world, even all these years past Apartheid. I wondered if you might share what that’s like, on the ground level?
RB: South Africa, as you mentioned, is a First World and Third World country. You’re living in this schizoid environment. Where I am right now, speaking to you, could be suburban St. Louis, or Des Moines, or Chicago. With suburbs, shopping centers, and reasonable, suburban houses.
A mile away could be Zimbabwe, or Mozambique. People there are living in poverty and crowded urban conditions. Lots of immigrants from Nigeria and other African countries, mixed up. You hardly would ever see a white person in those places. You have this divided culture, which has been inherent here for two or three hundred years. It’s nothing new. I guess the only difference is, over the last fifteen years, you have a greater amount of very wealthy black people, as well as more middle class black people. But the population is increasing, so there’s still no substantial difference in the unemployment rates, which are still at 40 or 50%.
The gap is not something that’s closed because the government changed. It just hasn’t happened. It was the same before. Or worse before. Or maybe it was even better before? I don’t know.
JB: Do communities build up gates and walls and guard towers? Are places physically cut off from one another, then? Because the violence is pretty horrific, I’ve read.
RB: I guess so. I think most of the violence occurs in these areas that people like myself don’t go into on a regular basis. It’s the violence of people living in poverty, under stressful conditions. You know, you have this in America. You go to urban America and you find the same problems.
It’s really no different. These things are always exaggerated by the media. It’s not a War zone here by any means. You can live your life. There are walls around your house, and you deal with the problem of security. Johannesburg and the other cities have the same problems that any other Third World country might have. A lot of poverty, and a lot of people desperate to survive in one way or another.
I would say, the problems here, they certainly exist, but if you look at the rest of the continent, there are a lot of things that are more positive and dynamic than most of the places in Africa. I am in Africa, not in Europe. It’s relative. What happens here shouldn’t necessarily be seen in relationship to Europe or America. It should be seen in relation to the rest of the continent, which also has significant challenges.
JB: I was curious, because I’ve never been to Africa before. One of the things that I’d read that I thought was hard to fathom, and starts to tie into your work, is that there’s a murder rate of 99 people per 100,000 in the farming communities, in the rural areas, numbers that were off the charts.
I was thinking about the work you’d done in the “Platteland” series, where you were meeting people in the rural communities. I know it was a while ago. I wondered if anything had filtered back to you about people that you knew, of if these communities were now less accessible? If the people that you’d photographed had become victims to crime?
RB: Not really. The countryside is like America. You go down to the South, in the countryside, and things seem relaxed in their own way. The real violence occurs mostly in the urban environments. There are farm murders, but it’s nothing like what goes on in the cities.
Most of the violence here is in the townships, where people are living in difficult conditions. Probably eight out of ten of these murders here occur in these township environments, and most of it is probably related to drinking, and squabbles over women, and money and tribal issues. I’m no expert, but a lot of them have to do with tribal issues.
JB: Why don’t we move along…
RB: I think so, because the media has its own reasons for concentrating on certain places in the world. Somebody’s pushed down the stairs in Tel Aviv, and it will be on the headlines on CNN and the BBC. And if twenty five people are killed in the Congo, it won’t be on TV. It’s where the media is, and how they fabricate the world and create their own political dynamics based on their own ideology, which is based on maximizing their viewer network.
JB: Absolutely. But let’s move, and talk more about art.
I studied Economics in college, before becoming an artist. It’s easy to see the influences in your work, but I didn’t know until I did some research that you had been trained in geology, and worked in the resource extraction industry. I wondered, as you transitioned from that industry to your art career, if you had ever thought about the comparison between the market for precious metals, the way value is constructed for things like platinum and gold and diamonds, relative to the way the market has evolved for contemporary art?
RB: The value is like night and day, trying to compare those two. The value for commodities is very much derived from physical demand, and physical supply. It’s very much a proper market based on actual usage and material consumption. There’s not a huge aspect of subjectivity involved, like there is in contemporary art.
Really, the business of mining, and selling minerals is a much more clearly defined business, a much easier business in nearly every way than being involved in the art market.
JB: At what point in your career did you segue from having a day job to being able to focus exclusively on your art career?
RB: I never really sold any pictures, or offered any pictures in any real way until about 2000, 2001, when my “Outland” book came out. There wasn’t much of a photo market up until the early 90’s anyway. The thing that got the photo market to boil was the technology of large color prints.
The black and white business plodded on. There were some specific collectors who would buy vintage work, historical work, but the average person who wanted to put money into art really wasn’t so interested in photography. And then, somewhere in the mid-90’s, the technology developed to enable people to make larger scale color prints on a fairly regular basis.
Artists could find labs, and get them to produce this type of larger sized work with ease. This equipment started to proliferate, to the point where you can now buy printers, and learn how to print digital photographs in a short period of time.
As a result of this technological shift, large scale color prints then became available to the art market.
I did this purely as a hobby until about 2000. When my “Platteland” book came out in ’94, it caused a lot of controversy, and became a famous book. That gave me the initiative to continue, and from ’94 to 2000, I put a lot more time into photography, but it was still sort of a hobby; a half-profession. When “Outland” was published, it also became a renown book, and I started to sell a lot of photographs. I began to put a lot more of my time into photography, and to see it as a profession rather than a hobby.
JB: Before you were focused on selling prints, books were the final output of your photographic narrative?
RB: Yes, and they still are to this day. I’m much more focused on books. That’s really what interests me. Selling pictures is OK, it’s part of the business, but it’s not a goal in itself. The real goal in my career has always been geared towards making books. Most of these projects take about five or six years to do. I work on them that long, and try to define the aesthetic that comes to mind.
Now, I’m just about finished with a book called “Asylum,” that’s going to be produced by Thames & Hudson early next year. It deals with birds in a Roger Ballen world.
JB: What is it about the book form that is so fascinating to you?
RB: It’s a permanent thing. It’s like getting to the top of a mountain. You’ve actually taken the process through from beginning to end. You’ve made a statement that has a sense of permanency to it. An exhibition comes and goes. Living down here, I don’t spend much time at the shows, if any at all. I get a few newspaper clippings back, but I can’t read half of the newspaper clippings anyway.
And that’s all I get. You think you make a lot of friends during the show, and nine times out of ten, you never see the people again. A book, in a way, is part of you, like your own children.
JB: Of course. That makes plenty of sense. Last week, I was in Texas, and driving home from the airport, which is three hours away, I happened to listen to a Public Radio program called “Afro-pop.” They were focusing on Punk music in South Africa in the 70’s, during the Apartheid era. I didn’t know much about the disappearances, the murders, and the censorship.
The show talked about how Punk came along, and the musicians themselves would challenge the conventional notions, break the laws, and inspire change. Then I also saw that you have a foundation, promoting photography in South Africa, if that’s correct.
RB: Yes, that’s correct.
JB: I was wondering what you thought about the role of art in the 21st Century, and the place of art within culture? I’m not necessarily talking about political or social change, but certainly here in the US, visual art is marginalized compared to cinema and music, and other types of expression.
RB: It’s a good point. I think about it quite often, because I’m quite shocked what I see in the contemporary art market, whether it’s art fairs, or exhibitions. I really scratch my head in disillusionment at people’s choices. Most of the art that I see merely re-enforces what people already know.
I do the art only for myself. I’m not doing it for an audience. I’m doing it to learn more about my own interior. That’s the only purpose. If it weren’t that purpose, then I wouldn’t do it. I’d rather stick to mining, because then it’s just another business.
It’s my own journey into my own life. But if we take that as one point, and then look at the other point: what is the purpose of art for the third party? What do I want my art to do for the other person? To me, art should be making people delve inside. It should be a mirror for their own interiors, as I mentioned for myself. It should open them up from one part of their mind to the other part of their mind. It should be something that maybe even scares them, or gives them a jolt or shock.
Unfortunately, most contemporary art doesn’t do this in any way. The purpose of art is to expand the consciousness of oneself. It’s only through expanding the consciousness of the self that art can have any ultimate effect on a person’s condition.
If we look at art as a political tool, what should art be doing? Art should be liberating the self from the self. It should be helping the person break through his or her repression. I’m a Freudian in some sense. It’s only through liberating our repression do we have any chance of improvement in the world. I’m certainly not optimistic about that happening.
It’s a Freudian interpretation in so many ways. There’s so little art that deals with this. And 99% of the art I see is stuff I’ve seen endlessly before. I might as well go watch a Mickey Mouse film.
JB: I was just about to accuse you of being a Jungian, frankly.
RB: Jungian also. It’s the same sort of stuff. A psycho-analytic interpretation of the mind. It could be like Joseph Campbell. It’s an attitude; a way of life.
JB: It seems like that’s the root of a lot of the symbolic resonance in your work. I read some of Jung’s writings in graduate school, and of course at the time was very impacted by this idea that the Shadow, the dark side, obviously exists within the human condition. Cain killed Abel. Saturn ate his kids.
Jung theorized that when you deny the Shadow, when you repress it, that’s when it comes out in negative and destructive ways, like violence. I suppose others have put this forth to you, but it does seem like your work is a visual manifestation of that idea. Would you agree?
RB: I’m trying to delve into my interior, to mirror the dynamics of that, visually, in some way or another, through a photograph. It’s a process of going down to one’s own shadow zone with a camera and a flash, and once in that place, taking pictures.
I always tell students, on their first assignment, to close their eyes, turn their eyeballs around, and go out and take pictures that reflect what they’ve seen. That’s the sort of thing I’m interested in. These relationships are very complex; very hard to define in words. We’re so obsessed with words, but the better the picture, the harder it is to put a word to it.
RB: To go back into contemporary art again, most of the stuff you can put some silly word to it. I think with my most recent photographs, it’s almost impossible to put a word to it. There are contradictory meanings, there are meanings that there is no word for in the dictionary. The work stands on its own, and has its own essence that is unlike any other essence.
JB: Do you ever censor yourself? Are there things that pop into your mind, and you think, no that’s too hardcore. That’s too dark.
RB: No. My conclusion is the dark is the light. So to me, the darker it is, the more light shines. It means I got down further.
JB: You’ve been able to create the visions you have because, if it’s a part of your psyche, it’s OK?
RB: It doesn’t matter whether it’s a part of my psyche, or a part of anything else. What you see is what’s there. If it’s there, it’s there. If you walk across a dead person in the street, if it’s there, it’s there. If it’s dead, it’s dead. That’s the reality that I come across. It’s not good or bad. It’s reality as you deal with it, like death.
What is death? Is it good or bad? Is it dark? You die. That’s life. It’s not good, bad or anything. It just exists. I just come across things and take them for what they are. I don’t try make value judgements. I just deal with things in front of me, in my own emotional way. Sometimes it has a big impact, sometimes it doesn’t.
But I’m not trying to make political judgements. I feel I need to go further. There’s more to life than having to try to deal with the issue of morality. Life’s a little short for that. I’m not going to solve what’s right or wrong in this world, I can tell you that.
JB: Thank you for sharing. I’ve been wondering these things myself in my growth as an artist. Most readers would probably agree with you about the dearth of quality visions within the world of contemporary art. But whose work, what type of work, which media do you look to, beyond your own experience, for inspiration? Do you have any favorites?
RB: I don’t really work with inspiration. I’ve been working for fifty years, nonstop. I just keep working. It’s like brushing my teeth. If I had to say anything, the thing that inspires me most, by far, is the natural world. Whether it’s looking at the sky right in front of me, watching the sun go down, or looking at a rock in the distance, watching flowers and animals.
That’s why I love geology, because I experience the mystery of the planet and the Universe. To me, that has always been a tremendous inspiration; something that is beyond my own ability to comprehend. It always challenges me. I’d say what inspires me has always been nature.
To go back to art itself, I’m inspired by anything from cave art to the traditional art in New Guinea. And traditional African art is tremendously inspiring to me. But I like artists like Picasso, and some of the Abstract Expressionists. I have a full range of things that I like, and that have had some influence on me. I just take it one by one. If I like it, that’s fine, and it goes in my head somewhere. Maybe it stays there, maybe it falls out. Then I go on to the next thing.
But you know, when I try to make a picture, the key to making the picture can come from a memory I had when I was six years old, or something that happened today. My photographs are made up of thousands of little points. It doesn’t matter, really, that I’m inspired by this or that. I still have to go back to the camera and say, yeah, this picture’s about to come together.
JB: I know inspiration can be a bit of a cliché term, but mostly, I’m asking questions that I want to know. I was curious to see what, within the realm of Art History, resonated with you. I can make assumptions, based upon your work, but the benefit to this conversation is that I get to ask.
For instance, I was at the Menil Collection in Houston last week, and they have a room filled with artifacts from African and Native American art traditions that directly inspired the Surrealists. It was this dark room, all compressed. I was thrilled, as that type of work has had a big influence on me as well. Right outside that room was this incredible exhibition of Surrealist Art, with Max Ernst and others. It was fascinating to get to see the connection between one influence and the other.
RB: You get the jolt, which is what I’m talking about. The things that jolt you are what’s important. You can be inspired, like you said, but then you’re back to square one when it comes to creation. You have to filter what you see, and build on what you’ve done, and something else comes out of it. It’s really hard to know where all this stuff connects. Every time one creates a photograph, one starts from the beginning, like a painter with a barren canvas.
JB: You recently directed a music video for the band Die Antwood. What was it like for you, as an artist, shifting media like that, and collaborating with other artists? What did you learn from the experience?
RB: It was another challenge. It was interesting, I made these installations like I normally do every day. And then I integrated their music within the realm of the installations that I created. So it was a different experience. What I do in a lot of my exhibitions, I just had one in Durban yesterday, I try to make an installation as well as a photo show. I’m expressing my vision in other ways. When people go to my shows, there are not just photos on the wall, there’s an installation that mirrors the place of the photographs.
I think the music video, more than anything else, opened my mind to the size of that market, compared to the size of the photo market. We got 25 million hits on Youtube on this thing. Can you imagine 25 million people seeing a video? Compared to an exhibition, where in a month or two or three, you might have 25 or 30 thousand. But it’s nothing like 25 million.
It was an amazing thing to see the power of music. If you can integrate your work with other fields like that, it’s great, because it propelled what I did into 25 million people’s heads, most of whom would have never seen my work.
JB: That’s why I asked that earlier question. Speaking as a younger photographic artist, I often wonder what we can do to expand the potential audience for our work. I have a belief, as I’m sure you do, that when people experience art objects, that they have the same ability to create a powerful impression in the way that music or cinema does. But our audience has thus far been restricted.
You mentioned your practice earlier, and the rigorous manner in which you work. I was always struck by a quote from Andy Warhol that I once heard in a documentary film. To paraphrase, he said make as much art as you can, as often as you can, as many ways as you can.
I’m attracted to that idea that practice and execution, game-time, if you will, is how you grow. Is that how you came to work as often as you do? To keep the skills sharp and the mind open?
RB: It’s a good question. The first thing is a practical thing. I was fortunate I had another profession, because I never would have survived in this without another profession. That’s the first issue. In fifty years I hardly sold one picture. I had another profession, so I was able to support what I was doing.
If I talk to young people, they have to find the right balance. Because you can’t be expecting to become another Andy Warhol overnight. Your chances of success in this business are much less than almost any other profession as far as making any money. There’s not much of a middle in this business. That’s the first point.
The second point is that, like anything else, practice makes perfect. If you’re an athlete, or a lawyer or a dentist, the more you do it, the better you become at it. I gave a lecture yesterday, and said “What’s the best way of learning about photography? It’s just to do photography. You learn through doing. Furthermore, one needs to rigorously look at your own work and find the holes in it, and close the gaps.”
I don’t think this is any different than any other field. Unfortunately, probably more to do with the economics, a lot of artists can’t do it all the time, because they can’t survive in the business. They have to do other work. It’s not like being a dentist, and being able to get jobs all the time. This is the problem.
Also, it requires a focus on what you’re doing to find new areas to develop into. It’s really difficult. You’re really trying to extend who you are, and find new ways of expressing it. It’s not easy to get on the road and find the path…and stay on the path and disappear into the forest.
JB: Wow. I hate to shift from the metaphorical to the prosaic, but as I know we need to wrap this up, do you have any upcoming projects we can tell the audience about?
RB: The first thing is I’m giving a Master Class at the Palm Springs Photo Festival at the end of April. So maybe some people might be interested in that. And the second thing is I have a show at the Smithsonian Museum that opens on June 19th. It deals with the evolution of drawing and painting in my photography for the last fifty years. It will be up in Washington DC until February of 2014.
Prestel will be publishing a new book of mine in the Summer of 2013, titled “Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky,” and in early 2014, Thames and Hudson will be publishing my latest body of images, titled “Asylum,” that I have worked on for the past six years.