I recently spoke with Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena, who’s based in the battle-torn city of Monterrey. His work has been awarded and honored like crazy the last few years. “Suburbia Mexicana” was exhibited this Summer at Kopeikin Gallery in LA, and his current project, “Car Poolers,” was published in the NY Times Lens Blog and Lens Culture.
Jonathan Blaustein: Are you well? I know you’re busy.
Alejandro Cartagena: Yeah, I’m doing great. I’m doing a lot more commercial work than I expected. Commissions too. All the publicity. I don’t know how you say it in English?
JB: The hype. The buzz.
AC: Right. The hype, the buzz, it helped because people you wouldn’t expect to hire me for jobs are hiring me for stuff. Not just documentary stuff. Right now, I’m shooting chairs for a chic design firm.
It’s been really cool to be able to expand my job like that. I’m not a particularly good product or advertising photographer, but pushing those limits seems interesting. It makes you understand a little more how an image works. I think I’m starting to like it. I don’t want to do too much, but it’s good right now.
JB: So your career has shifted because of the success you’ve had as an artist? People have approached you and asked you to do stuff you’ve never done before, and you’re learning on the job?
AC: Definitely. Three weeks ago I got a commission to go to El Salvador, to shoot a coffee farm. That was a 3 day shoot. The farm, the processing plant, the owner, the people working there.
What I tell the clients is that I don’t know how to do work that’s used as advertising, but I do know how to do portfolios for your products. You want to show off how nice the design is on something, I can take that out of your product to make it look really nice. Not to sell the product, but how you produce your product. That’s where I’m trying to push my commercial work.
I don’t know how you put that. Documentary Commercial Photography?
JB: Have you had to change your equipment to make the switch? What are you shooting with?
AC: Last year, I bought my first big digital camera. The 5d Mark II. And now I have a 3 piece lighting setup. This has pushed me to have an assistant, who knows about lighting, who helps me to produce the shoots. It’s something I’d never done before. I’d just go out with the medium and large format camera and shoot whatever I wanted.
I’m still shooting my projects. One here in Monterrey, and one in Guadalajara. I have the flexibility to still do that, and also do the commercial jobs that bring in some money.
JB: We kind of launched into this, because my first question was “How are you?,” and here we are. So let’s back it up a bit. Given your name, and your accent, and the fact that you live in Monterrey, 99% of people will assume you’re Mexican, but your bio says you were born in the Dominican Republic. How did you end up in Mexico?
AC: My Dad came to Monterrey to study in the 60′s. There was this big thing in the Dominican Republic in education where the government was giving money out to people to go study abroad. But they were obligated to come back to work in the sugar cane factories or any specialized engineering job.
When he was here, he married my Mom. They went back, and me and my other three brothers were born there. They left Mexico in ’69, and they stayed in the Dominican Republic until 1990. That’s when I came to Monterrey.
JB: Can you do the math for me. How old were you?
AC: I was 13 when I left.
JB: Do you feel Mexican?
AC: At this point of my life, I’m definitely Mexican. I feel Mexican, I love Mexican food, I love my city, I love my country.
There is a strange thing going on between me and my wife right now. It’s this going back to our roots. We don’t know if it’s the baby that’s coming? My wife’s Dad is Canadian, her Mom is American, and she was born here in Mexico. So she’s this weird NAFTA kid, you know? American/Canadian/Mexican. And she’s been listening to all this country music and american oldies songs.
Weirdly, I’ve been going back to listening to a lot of Merengue music, which is Dominican. So I don’t know. This thing about having a child, wanting to be in touch again with my roots, it’s bubbling out a lot lately.
JB: Congrats. When are you going to have a baby?
AC: First of October.
JB: So you’re coming up. I can’t bitch too much about my stress because you’re sitting right there too.
Let’s talk a bit about Mexico, though. I just learned that Monterrey is the wealthiest city in Mexico, which caught me off guard. I would have assumed it was the DF. But I was wrong.
So you’re based in the wealthiest city in Mexico, which is up there in the Northern desert, in the middle of the Drug War shitstorm.
JB: The World wants to hear about this stuff, and you’re right there. You got a new President elected, and the PRI is coming back. The guys who ran the country for, what, 100 years or so?
AC: 70 years.
JB: 70 years? I was close.
AC: It’s almost the same.
JB: Right. That’s a big deal, and geo-politically, you’re sitting on the front lines. And I know that you make work in and about Monterrey, but thusfar, it’s touched only tangentially on the Chaos, unless I’m mistaken.
What’s it like?
AC: I think precisely because it’s the richest, that’s why it’s the most fucked up at the moment. There’s so much money, there are so many people wanting to have more money, there’s so much ambition. The downside is there’s not enough jobs to have that money, so there’s a lot of poor people at the same time.
An ex-girlfriend used to work in a government agency, it’s like what used to be the FSA in the US. It’s an institution that goes around and finds poor communities, and they try to find them jobs, they bring them food, they document them. And Monterrey has more than 60 below poverty communities.
So that speaks to the disparity. There’s so much wealth, but also so much poverty.
JB: It’s kind of a popular topic here in the States. Our statistics on income inequality are rising. The problems that come from that grand a chasm tend to cause a host of problems.
JB: But as far as violence, is your quality of life impacted in the rising gang wars of the last couple of years in Monterrey?
AC: Yeah. Starting in that difference of income, that creates a sense of anger towards all the people who have so much money. And they’re so separated. The people who have money live in this part of town, and the people that don’t live in that part of town. I mean, this is nothing new in the world, but when the shit hits the fan like its happening here it feels like its never happened before.
Then with the building of all these suburbs, for the rich people it’s perfect. Just send them as far as you can. Only the rich get to stay in these prime lands.
That has created the perfect scenarios for the gang situation. I don’t know, when we talked before, if I told you how the drug war has moved into these suburbs I used to photograph. Those are the perfect spots for them to live, right now, because there is no police. And if there is police, they’re corrupt, or they’re actually part of the gangs.
My Mom’s from a place, it used to be a little town, it’s called Juarez. It’s not the crazy Juarez from Chihuahua, and it used to be 30,000 people in 1993/94/95, and now it’s more than 300,000 people, with the same amount of police and transit police. So that tells you how the growth of that city, and that suburb, has made it so easy for the drug people to move into those areas and just be Kings.
There’s nobody watching them, and if they are watching them, they’re part of the deal. That has made it very difficult to live in Monterrey. You don’t know who’s who. You want to be looking at people who look kind of sketchy, but at the same time, it’s the police also who’s sketchy.
That definitely impacted our way of life. We used to live right downtown, and six months ago, we decided to leave because its become unbearable. There are shootings in downtown. After 8pm, there’s no one on the streets. It was getting kind of dangerous.
We decided to move to just outside of downtown. It’s a bit safer. We’re close to a couple of embassies, so there’s police patrolling once in a while. It makes you feel a little safer, but definitely we changed our lifestyle.
You don’t go out at night that much. Or if you go out, you try not to go to a restaurant. Because that’s become a mess here. They go into restaurants, and they steal people. They take their cars. There’s been some cases where they rape women in the restaurants. So those kind of things just get you paranoid and scared.
You try to live your life around those things that you can’t do anything about it. You try to be in at night. You try to go out when you can. There was a point last week where me and my wife got a little paranoid about even going to parties.
The bad guys started going to parties. If they would hear music outside the house, it was a perfect place to come in and steal and make trouble.
JB: Wow. (pause.) I’m rarely speechless. I spent a lot of time in Mexico in the last 10 years, including going places 10 years ago that I would never go now. As an American, it almost looked like the whole Calderon Presidency was to see if the government was powerful enough to take down the cartels, and now that it’s over, it looks like the answer has been given, and the answer is No.
JB: Is there a sense of fatalism in Mexico now that the cartels are so rich and powerful? Do people feel like Mexico is doomed? Or do people talk about Columbia, and how fast things turned around there? What’s the mood?
AC: Let me think what I’m going to say. I definitely feel scared of what happened in these past six years. I vaguely remember, maybe it was in January of 2007 or 2008, when Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers, to Michoacan, or another region where there was a lot of trouble with the drug cartels. I remember feeling, “This is so awesome. They’re finally gonna get rid of all of this shit.” (Laughs.) At least, from my perspective, I was really excited that a President had taken such a big decision to attack the cartels.
But then it all just went to shit. It all went downhill from there. Everything started to get worse. Before 2010, in 2007, you would hear of the killings, but it was always out of the city. In the suburbs. There was no violence in the city, or downtown, where there was more police.
And then, in 2007, it all turned around here in Monterrey. You started to hear about people being killed downtown. Bodies being dropped in the middle of the street in downtown. It just started to rise and rise and rise and just get worse and worse.
It almost seemed like the cartels were in a campaign of terror, for us as civilians. They started to hang people on highways. They started to line up people on the street and just shoot them and leave them there. I can’t speak for the other people of Monterrey, but for me, that got really, really scary.
Of course, you become paranoid. You’re always trying to watch out not to get in the crossfire. I’ve had friends who were close to the balaceras, how they call them here.
In 2010, that’s when I really got scared. That’s when the shootings really started in downtown, just blocks from our house. I remember there was one shooting that was really crazy. It went on for like 30 minutes, and I never heard something like that. It was like a war zone.
It started with a couple of gunshots, pop pop, and we were in bed. I remember looking at my wife, and thinking, were those firecrackers? And then, suddenly, Boom Boom, and all different sounds of machine guns and grenades. That’s definitely not fireworks.
We dropped to the floor, and went to the middle of the house, and we were lying on the ground. It was so scary. I’m sure, for war photographers, that’s something that you experience. But for a city boy, in your city, at 12 at night, when you’re getting ready to sleep?
JB: I can’t imagine. I just can’t. You use the word terror, and it looks like the cartels have been robbing the playbook from the Taliban, and straight up terror groups. They understand that if you create that degree of bone-shaking fear in a general populace, then you can control that populace. It sounds like the rule of law is not really there with you guys right now, and it’s tragic.
I don’t want to make light of it just for an interview. I love Mexico, and I go, because my parents live in Playa del Carmen in the Winters. I’ve seen the growth there. I’ve got massive curiousity as to how the Italian and Mexican Mafias co-exist so well down there. But that’s another story. I want to be a fly on the wall in that sit down to hear how they divide up the town, because the money laundering is off the charts.
JB: But for “Suburbia Mexicana,” you were a guy walking around some sketchy rural and mountainous neighborhoods with some very expensive camera equipment, by yourself. Fairly recently.
So you’re telling the global photo community that now, even two or three years later, you could not do that work anymore?
AC: Now that I think of that, I feel so lucky that I was so naive to go into those places. At that moment, I didn’t know that those were the places that the drug people lived. From 2011 to now, it’s become really unbearable. Everything has become exposed, and you know that they live in these small suburbs in the outskirts of Monterrey.
I finished shooting in late 2009, early 2010. I would take my car and park outside of wherever I was shooting. I would carry my 4×5 and my tripod, and just walk. I felt that made people a little bit less scared of me, and made me not so vulnerable, even though I was vulnerable.
They wouldn’t be scared of me. I wasn’t in a car, and I had a huge camera. It’s not like I was going to run away or be trying to gather data on them. So people were very accepting of me an my presence. I don’t know. At this moment, I would not even think of doing something like that. I was lucky nothing happened. It’s getting scarier and scarier and scarier.
Most of the portraits in that book were done in Juarez, where my Mom’s from. My parents have a restaurant there, or they had a restaurant there. They actually had to close down the restaurant in February because of the Mafia-Cartels. They started to ask for money.
JB: Shakedowns. Protection. My god. We see photo essays about this. Maybe read an article in the New York Times. But I think it’s difficult for most people to straight up empathize, and to think about what it means to be living without governmental protection.
I know Mexico well, and I live in a border state. The fact that the US, this global superpower, has spent trillions of dollars, and essentially all of our political capital, fighting two wars on the other side of the planet…
JB: And in that exact time, our most important neighbor, (No offense to Canada,) is living with borderline Chaos in some places. It’s an underreported story, how the US squandered so much, and left our neighbor to eat the shit.
AC: Yeah. As you were saying, I think it’s very difficult to be empathetic to the situation here, because I think, even we as citizens of Mexico don’t understand what’s going on, at some point. There’s so much rhetoric by our government saying everything is so well and fine, and nothing’s happening. A lot of people believe it. I don’t think there’s anyone in government, any politician saying, “You know what, Mexico’s crap right now. We need to do something about it.” There’s nobody saying that!
At least the elected ones. They’re just saying, “Oh that was a minor incident. They killed 52 civilians in a Casino. Oh, that’s nothing. That’s just between the drug people.” Man!
JB: Are they afraid of assassination?
AC: I don’t know what the fuck are they afraid of?
JB: Maybe it’s that they don’t have the juice. We started this with me asking, did the government lose the war? And the results on the ground seem to say they did. They don’t have the money or the power or the clout to stop the cartels right now. That doesn’t mean it’s over. Colombia’s got to be a good example for you guys, that things can turn around.
AC: Yes, but its different in many ways and things aren’t complete cured in Colombia yet.
JB: But look, one of the things I love about your work is that you’re a humanist. You’re able to look into complex stories. “Suburbia Mexicana,” in anyone else’s hands, would have been a snarky, ironic look at how mass consumption leads to environmental degradation.
JB: And I reviewed the book twice, so I’m not going to repeat what I said, but you didn’t do that.
JB: You’re able to understand the human element. What you’re living through is proof that human beings are insanely resilient animals. You’re living through things that people who live in Afghanistan, or Syria, or Iran, or Sicily have been living through for decades or more. God willing, that’s not going to be Mexico’s fate. But people like me, people here in the United States, we can’t help but take our governmental protection for granted. It’s crazy. You’re only a few hundred miles away from me right now.
Enough of my rant. Let’s segue for a second. I know “Suburbia Mexicana” is being exhibited right now, at Kopeikin Gallery, in LA. And concurrent with that, you curated a show called “Looking at Mexico.” So now we can call you artist and curator.
AC: No, no.
JB: OK, then we can call you a pretend curator like I’m a pretend journalist. Well, congrats. I don’t want to recite the list of honors you’ve racked up in the last few years. I know that you’re traveling a lot, you’re exhibiting across the world. You’re getting collected. All the things that people want.
On the surface level, you’re as successful as any of the colleagues I know. On a personal level, you’ve already shared that you’re living through an insanely difficult situation.
AC: Its a complicated thing.
JB: My heart goes out to you. But you were just in London, and in Amsterdam. When you’re in these safe European countries, with their decadent beautiful art cultures, is it difficult to reconcile? How are you dealing with that? Do you have to bifurcate your personality?
AC: That’s pretty cool that you brought that up. That’s definitely a sensation, not only when I go to Europe or the States, even to other cities here in Mexico. I understand how paraniod I’ve become. When I go to Mexico City, or Guadalajara, it’s like I can’t believe I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see if someone’s following me.
There’s this huge sensation of relief that I can be myself. And I don’t have to be looking out for myself. So definitely, I think I’ve become two different people. One outside, which is the normal me, and when I’m home, I’m me the paranoid Alejandro.
Jonathan Blaustein: Why did you decide to move from Denmark to New York?
Asger Carlsen: I was working as a commercial photographer, and signed up with an agent here. They gave me a work permit, so I decided to try it out for a year. It seemed like a good idea at the time. This is five years ago.
JB: Is it the same agent you’re working with now?
AC: Yes, Casey in New York City. I signed up with them 7 years ago and that’s how I came to move to the states. The jobs we did in the beginning where more straight up assignments, but now it’s more based on my artwork ideas with a very strong post production concept to it. I even had one client in in london asking me if they had to provide the image material or if I did the photography part, so in away i’m more “material director” then a photographer. The challenge is to communicate that to the market.
Do You do commercial jobs?
JB: No, I don’t do that anymore. But everything I did was local, out here in the boonies. My skills were never such that I could have done commercial work in a major market.
AC: There is obviously great income potential to be made from the commercial industry- but ultimately I feel more related to the Art Scene and the sensitive forms of art.
JB: Yes, we all need to pay the bills.
AC: Yeah, but even maybe I’ll find something else. Teaching could be an idea, or something that could keep my creative side happy.
JB: Listen, I’ve been teaching for seven years, and the grass is always greener.
AC: Let’s say I want to spend 50% of my time doing Art, (if I could do art full-time I would do it) I could pretty much do anything. Teaching would be interesting, although the money is probably not as good.
JB: No. But it’s deep work, depending on who you’re working with. I want to start with a big question. I don’t know how much time you spend surfing the web, but I feel like there’s an idea that we hear a lot, so much so that it’s almost accepted: Every picture has already been made. Every photograph has already been shot. Every idea has already been done.
I think a lot of people believe that. I don’t. I strive to innovate, myself, but I think that anyone who looks at your book “Wrong” can’t believe that anymore.
How do you feel about innovation, and finding an original vision, as opposed to doing what everyone else is doing?
AC: It’s definitely the challenge. Like you, I’ve heard it many times before. Every picture has been taken.
When I started the project, the first couple of images, they were so different from my aesthetic, the direction that I was heading, so I didn’t show anyone the images for a whole year.
I don’t want to say that this is the newest work, and it’s so different from any other artwork you have seen. But that was the most important thing for me. The reason why I did continue that style, although I found it was not my aesthetic. It was important to me because it was new, compared to any other direction I had headed before.
So in away the innovation won over whatever problems I had with my new discovery. I also found out by working this new approach
The core of my work comes out of arrival materials or props I build in my studio. For my latest project all the materials is very short photo sessions with models done mostly in my studio.
All these photos becomes a pile of materials that I can work with in my studio. That new approach allowed me to be a hundred percent creative in my studio. Because I didn’t have to run out and find that one special picture to capture. Because I’m now mostly driven by ideas around that martial and in away it become my everyday knowledge.
JB: You say it was very different from your aesthetic, but you made it. What aesthetic of your own were you contradicting?
AC: You know, the way that you work as a photographer is that you pick a style, and then you continue down that road, and you try to stay consistent, because that’s the way you become known for a style, or get work, or become a good photographer. You can copy that style over and over.
I had a very straight style, more inspired by what they do in Germany. The Gursky, kind-of-landscapey photography.
JB: Does that loom over the Danish scene?
AC: You know, ten years ago, that was the photography that people were looking at.
AC: You know, large-scale formats, landscapes, Thomas Struth & Thomas Ruff, all those people. I’m sure you were inspired by those too.
JB: Sure. You were doing that work, showing it to the world, and then, in your little computer room, you were hiding away, working on your mad projects.
AC: I was almost embarrassed by the first two images. I didn’t show them to anyone. In the end, I thought it was more important to create these new things. Maybe they were not pretty images.
JB: No. They’re not pretty.
AC: They’re not photographic beauties, which was the aesthetic for that time. You were supposed to do really detailed landscapes. You would find this perfect viewpoint where you put up your tripod, and took these images.
JB: And I read in another interview that you were a crime scene photographer?
AC: People sometimes get that confused. I was a crime scene photographer, but that was when I was out of high school. So I was 17, and then did that for ten years.
JB: Who did you work for? A police department?
AC: Newspapers. I was a full-on newspaper photographer. I started out as an intern, and saw how it was done. Then I bought a police scanner, and would respond to the calls. Car accidents and stuff. Eventually, I did photograph a bit for the police.
JB: You’ll have to forgive me a bit here. My wife is a therapist, and my mother-in-law is a therapist, and now, being an interviewer, I’ve kind of morphed into this guy who tries to read the tea leaves. It sounds to me like there was a lot of darkness going on in your job, and in your head, and all of a sudden, it popped up out of the shadows, into this style that became “Wrong.”
AC: Certainly, there is an understanding of how those crime scene scenarios could look like. The work certainly represents my time as a newspaper photographer.
You can dig into that. You can see how I was standing in front of a car accident, photographing it. It’s just different objects.
JB: Did you photograph in Black and White for the newspapers?
AC: Yeah, it was all in Black and White. It sounds so long ago. This was the early 90s, and there was no scanners or anything, so everything was Black and White. The newspaper that I was working for, when I first started out, could only print color on the weekends.
JB: When I first saw “Wrong,” which I reviewed for photo-eye, I went to the whole sci-fi thing. They’re so techno-futuristic. William Gibson. Paul Verhoeven. I think I dropped “Total Recall” in the book review I did about it.
JB: At the same time, it’s almost like Weegee meets William Gibson. Old school, Black and White man on the scene aesthetic meets techno-futurism. A pretty original mashup.
While you’re not saying it outright, it becomes easier to see what the steps were that led you to an innovative breakthrough.
AC: For me back and white is very sculptural and that helps then become more like objects, which is part of my ambition about the work…. I have a lot of interns here, and when you talk about Black and White images, and the way they were printed, and the way you technically shot them, because you could only do certain things in a darkroom. They just don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Do you know what I mean? The work is done that way because I understand that sense, and that quality.
JB: I have some students, and we were looking at some work last week that was really super-digi. Over-saturated, hyper-real, hopped up, textured and degraded. I talked about that, and these are younger students, and they couldn’t see it. That archive that we have in our head, of the cinematic and celluloid look, they don’t have that baseline. Their baseline is digital reality.
They can’t tell the difference between the super-saturated color look on the screen, and what you see when you walk out your door. Their brains are just different now.
AC: They are different. Do you think they understand my work differently than you understand it?
JB: Sure. I would think they have to. I showed “Wrong” to students last year, and they ate it up. Ate it up. I’m curious to see what happens when this generation of students, who has only grown up in the digi-verse, when they’re mature enough as artists to make shit that we can’t even imagine.
AC: I’m sure in ten or twenty years, the files being produced by these random Canon cameras, that’s going to be a style that people will try to copy again.
JB: The sci-fi reference in “Wrong” are so strong, and I don’t even consider myself a sci-fi geek. What did you read or see that ended up percolating into your work.
AC: I was inspired by painters, different art movements and all these obvious classical references. There’s a certain awkwardness in the work, and maybe that’s my attempt to try to fit into a photography style. Part of the reason why I became a photographer is that there was a certain loneliness in it, a searching for something. I think the work is a bit about that as well.
Trying to find my spot. Maybe I am a dark person? (Thinks about it.) I am a dark person.
JB: You certainly have it in there.
AC: I felt like an outsider when I grew up, for sure. There are certain things I’m good at, and photography is one of them. But I was not a success in school, not a success in many things, but there was this one thing I could do.
JB: So you were an artsy kid?
AC: Yeah. Maybe I said in an interview that it was my attempt to try to belong somewhere. I would say that there is some subconscious influence to the work as. That could refer to who i am and what live i lived.
JB: That sounds like something someone would say in an interview.
AC: (laughing) I’m still saying that.
JB: It’s funny, but the question was about sci-fi culture, and you didn’t really address that…
AC: Of course, I find Star Wars and stuff like that, Total Recall and Blade Runner, I find that stuff amazing, aesthetically. They’re not totally 100% perfect, but they have something else. Of course, I’m inspired by this Universe that can lead you somewhere, but is not an entirely precise realty.
JB: They do say that Science Fiction, historically, was like an Allegorical playing field. By stepping out of reality, it allowed certain authors and filmmakers to comment on a cultural moment in a way that was abstract enough to give cover to talk about real things. If we were going to say that about you, then the work casts a scathing eye on genetic modification, and the slippery slope towards cloning. The photos make it seem so real.
And yet, using the wooden legs, and bringing in the low-tech, was just badass. Do you talk about contemporary culture, when you talk about the work, or do you try to let the pictures speak for themselves. What’s your take on that?
AC: In general, I try to let them speak for themselves. People often have different interpretations of the same images. But I’m trying to be cultural commentator. If anything I’m trying to remove it from looking like contemporary. But there is a certain openness in the stories and maybe should be to explain.
JB: Ambiguity is crucial. We want to have enough information in our pictures that people really get where we’re coming from, but not so much that everything is tied up with a bow on it.
Do you have an artist statement for “Wrong?” Do you find yourself having to talk about it and write about it? That’s another buzz-worthy topic. A lot of photographers are caught in between this desire people have for us to be able to write and explain everything, as opposed to being simply visual communicators.
AC: Yes I don’t have to talk a lot about the work informs of interviews etc. I think a lot of creativity comes from a place there is hard to realize. I personally don’t always have the need to over read about why an artist made the choice of work that he did. Do you know this application Instagram?
JB: I do.
AC: Do you use it?
JB: I don’t.
AC: I use it a lot, and I think it’s an amazing application, because it’s just images. People can leave small comments, but it’s just pure images. Pure visual observations. I find that really interesting. I don’t want to hear the information about how the picture was captured, or the ideas behind it. That’s just how I am.
JB: I don’t use it, because I don’t have an Iphone. Instagram seems a little superfluous with my janky little LG phone. I’m glad you made that leap. Unexpected. But if we’re going to leap, why don’t we leap to the new work.
You have a new book coming out with Mörel Books called “Hester.”
AC: That is correct.
JB: This is your second book with them. Was it always your goal to have your work presented in book form?
AC: I have no plans, for better or worse. It just happened. This “Wrong” project, I just did if for myself. I didn’t have any hopes that it would be a book, or an exhibition, or anything else. I just did it without thinking that I could have a reaction to anything or anyone.
Then Aron Mörel of Mörel Books emailed me and asked me if I wanted to do a book with him. It took off from there. Kind of unexpected. I think Kanye West blogged about it, and I had massive emails and hits on my website.
JB: So are you down with the champagne lifestyle now? Are you partying with Kanye and Jay-Z?
AC: No. I live a pretty normal life.
JB: How will “Hester” fit alongside “Wrong?” Are they companion publications? How did you go about planning the second book?
AC: They’re definitely linked. The new work is more sculptural. In my artist statement, I say it could be a photograph of a sculpture, more than real photographs.
JB: Are you carving foam in all these images? Certainly in “Wrong,” there are all these creations. Are you making things with your hands, in your studio, and then over-laying it? Or is everything coming out of the computer?
AC: All the weird shit is coming out of the computer. Except for “Wrong.” Where I built all the props myself.
JB: You did.
AC: Wood, foam, meat, metal. They’re hanging here in my studio. I built them in my kitchen in my Chinatown apartment.
JB: What happened when people came over?
AC: My apartment was crazy at that time. All the walls were covered with references, and props that I built.
JB: It sounds like it was a pretty organic extension of who you are and what you care about.
AC: Yes. It was a turning point where I left my old routines as a photographer and started something I was not quit sure of at the time. like I couldn’t hold it up against anything. It just felt important for me.
JB: That’s a part of the philosophy. It has to be personal, and it has to be important, and it has to be authentic to us. One place where people do get caught up in being derivative is they’re making their work based upon what they’re seeing in the outside world. People they want to be like. They’re more reacting than creating.
AC: Yeah, I hear that all the time from my interns. They’re talking about this photographer, and that photographer. Two days later, they show me an image that they almost copied.
I just did this work because it felt right for me. It was the ultimate way of expressing myself, telling the world who I was, and what I found interesting or funny. I wanted to use photography in a way that it wasn’t used before or at least make the attempt.
I didn’t want to become Ryan McGinley, or someone.
JB: But both he and you have both photographed Tim Barber, so you do have that connection.
AC: Yeah, and we both live In Chinatown
JB: I had no idea.
AC: But the point I’m trying to make is that I wasn’t trying to be someone, or care about that stuff. It was just a piece of work that I wanted to do, and I had a lot of fun doing it.
JB: It comes through. Experimentation and risk-taking are ultimately what lead people to innovate. You can’t know what it’s going to look like before it’s done, in the beginning. You have to feel your way towards things that you don’t know how to do.
But I want to shift gears for a second. There’s something I want to give you a hard time about. You live in New York. You’re used to it.
AC: Give it to me.
JB: Some of the most striking images in “Wrong” depict nude women. Naked people. Your publisher, Aron, even told me, when I pointed it out, that one of the nudes is the best selling image.
In “Hester,” it’s all naked women, fused together with you. Is that right?
AC: Yes a pile of images of different models collected (photographed) over time. Including images of my own body like muscles, and my bone structure. For me its just process of gathering martial.
JB: It’s Frankenstein Art. But I also saw something on your agent’s website where you did another series for “S” Magazine where you did a whole set of manipulated nudes. Boobs on butts. That sort of thing.
JB: So here’s what I want to know. I saw on Twitter last week, where the Guggenheim was doing some Twitter promotion about the John Chamberlin exhibition. One tweet said something like “Chamberlin said his work was not about America’s car culture.” And my response was “Bullshit.” An artist can say whatever they want, but ultimately, if they’re good at what they do, the communication comes from the work itself.
AC: Sure. I also think that abstract expressions doesn’t need a concert reference. Other then maybe subtle gestures.
JB: So, you’ve been photographing a lot of naked women. But in one of the interviews I read with you, I have a quote where you said, “I have no desire to photograph naked girls.”
AC: I have no desire. That’s true.
JB: And yet you do it?
AC: And yet I do it. I can defend it.
JB: Cool. I was hoping to get you defend the statement. Especially as some of the women, at least before they were genetically modified, seemed to be young and attractive.
AC: Some of them were very young and attractive. I have no desire to photograph pornography, or naked women. No desire at all. Except for project I did called homemade that gives very strong associations to porn. But in fact most of the props I used was totally unrelated to a sexual realty. Like an empty illusion.
AC: my intentions was to create something timeless that wasn’t interrupted by contemporary culture. So, the choice of not having any clotting seamed necessary. Like more as seamless and sculptural statement.
JB: But you’re also keeping it within the continuum of Art History. People have been drawing, painting sculpting the nude body forever. Is that a part of it for you, to make it a Post-Post-Modern, Post-Punk version of Classicism?
AC: Yes it could be be post post modern, hester has strong sculptors ideas and i guess I’m trying to prove that there is no difference from a sculptor working in clay and shaping his sculpture from me working on my digitizer. I think if you work with photography in a way where you build forms and shapes in the traditions of art history I could be perceived as sculptural art. I know a print is still a flat surface, but my hope is that it will gain a value as an object.
JB: I have to think about that.
AC: It’s just different materials. It’s just because photography belongs to a certain idea, and there are certain people doing it. I think that doesn’t have to be true anymore.
JB: In every interview I’ve done, give or take, we always end up coming back to this idea of the words we use to describe what we do, whether it’s journalism vs art, or documentary vs art, or sculpture vs photography. It’s almost like people get so caught up in the language used to describe the objects that it detracts from people looking at an object and just taking what’s there.
AC: But isn’t that the problem with photography, still. Do you think? If you take it into the Art World, photography is still considered something on the low end, compared to someone who is doing drawing or painting.
JB: The biases do persist.
AC: Maybe people are getting over it. But then, I have been talking to a few high end photo galleries, and they all seemed very interested, and in the end, they all come back to me and said they don’t think they can sell their work to their photo clients because it’s too far away from photography history. The idea is not consistent with what you would expect photography to be like.
JB: This Spring, I was in Houston for this big photo festival, FotoFest, and I had at least five people ask me whether I thought my work should be in an art gallery instead of a photo gallery.
But this idea that photo dealers can only sell work if it’s attractive and conservative, and the further out it gets, the more it has to be consigned to into the Art World. It doesn’t seem very representative of today.
AC: Well, I know a huge gallery in London, which I won’t name. They represent big, famous, established photographers. I think it has to do with money. A lot of what they do, where they make money, is vintage photography.
They’re afraid if they bring in something like this, they’ll scare away their clients. That is the feedback I’m getting.
JB: Do you take that as a compliment?
AC: Yes, but it’s also a little sad.