You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred: Zabludowicz Collection.
A roundtable discussion hosted by Chris Wiley, with Lucas Blalock, Sara Cwynar, and Erin Shirreff.
Chris Wiley: My theory about the turn to studio photography, post the cinematic Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson moment, is that the studio is a space for artists to project their own subjectivities and bring photography back to a more intimate, personal scale. Is that something you relate to?
Erin Shirreff: I have shied away from big-production stuff because I’m rarely sure where I’m trying to go when making a work. There is a lot of uncertainty. To have company during that process would be distracting. Having a studio practice for me means having the space to discover my work as it’s being made.
Lucas Blalock: I agree with that. I like starting in a foggy place and trying to get to a clear one. As soon as you upscale production, the process turns industrial, and it’s just not the same story.
Sara Cwynar: I think control is important. But to work in the studio feels impersonal to me, actually. It’s about not letting other people in or not, but the things I focus my attention on.
ES: A sense of intimacy or my own subjectivity is pretty buried in my work; it’s not overt or explicit. But even though there’s nothing about me in it, I still sometimes think my work is so embarrassingly biographical, in terms of its affect: maybe it comes across as aloof, or it has particular physical or emotional qualities.
CW: If you’re not relating to a traditional form of photographic subjectivity like Emmet Gowin photographing his wife, or Nan Goldin photographing her friends in New York, what do you position yourself in relation to? Is it art history, the history of image making?
LB: For me there’s a big family. I don’t exclude the history of photography at all. I think about people like Lee Friedlander and Josef Sudek often. I disagree that there should be a hard line between the old photography and the new photography. I am not photographing my family, but I learn things from pictures by artists who did and draw them into my own work.
ES: What’s new now is how the art photograph exists within a larger terrain of image culture.
SC: The context of everyone being able to make images now is something I have never managed to figure out in any real way. What I do think about a lot is how an image lives on way past the thing it was supposed to be, and assumes a life of its own. The Hito Steyerl essay “In Defense of the Poor Image” (2009) says it better than I ever could, about a picture moving through the world and degrading, but gaining in one value versus another. In my plastic cup pieces that are in this show [Islamic Dome (Plastic Cups) and Corinthian Column (Plastic Cups) (both 2014)], I was thinking about how historical images of architecture that I was finding in encyclopedias, of classical forms and ruins, had the same qualities as stacked plastic party cups: a new manifestation of something of great value that has been viewed a million times, but was now watered down to this random object.
CW: This idea of the appropriated images culled from the archives obviously dates back at least to the 1970s Pictures Generation, but it’s something different with our generation. Erin, you use appropriated images, but in a cinematic fashion.
ES: It’s funny because people ask me about appropriation a lot, and I don’t think of my work in those terms at all. Appropriation has an important and clearly defined legacy in recent art history, of course, but I have never felt compelled by, say, questions of authorship. How I come across the images I end up using can be very random.Although looking back, a lot of the objects in the images I’ve used over the years share a quality, something being made and unmade at the same time.
CW: They have time inscribed within them?
ES: Yeah. But they also somehow exist apart from time. It’s that quality you talked about, Sara, something that is taken in a moment but then is carried forward and accrues all these other sort of associations. Images always have a sort of duality embedded in them.
CW: David Campany has suggested that a slowness has entered into contemporary photography. Lucas, you’ve talked about how time is stacked in your work.
LB: Recently someone brought up after a talk this idea that in my pictures there’s the time of the exposure, but also an awareness that something happened after that. There are multiple temporal problems or states. I thought it was a nice way of talking about my pictures. All of us somehow have that activity going on: the before and after the shutter. Multiple stacked states of time.
CW: Perhaps stacking and archaeological layering creates images that have greater depth than the images we’re used to seeing on screens?
ES: You would hope that a complexity gets embedded in that stacking, and contributes to a slowness of looking that runs counter to the speed at which we typically take in images. That’s perhaps a cliché.
CW: But I think these clichés are really important to understanding how contemporary photographic practice has changed over the past decade.
LB: Slowness feels central to me. A photograph is an object that’s particularly easy to take in at a glance, and so it collapses the world into something homogeneous. So when you’re working with photography it is always about stretching that and putting some pressure on that situation. Although the pace of looking is ultimately not something you get to enforce.
ES: I’m becoming a lot more demanding in my work in that respect. I just made a video that is seventy minutes long and has very, very minimal activity. But my intention is never for the viewer to sit for the full seventy minutes—my dream viewer doesn’t exist! Also, everybody talks about slowness, tension, and non-fragmentation, but it’s important to articulate why those things are values. Why do we want people to slow down, to pay attention? For me it comes from this belief that an encounter needs time to unfold. It can be unsettling to be confronted by art, and the easiest thing to do, the path of least resistance, is pick up your phone and move on to the next thing. To stay with your uncertainty and not-knowingness, and find your way through to a half-formed thought that then perhaps turns into something else—that takes time.
LB: I think this anxiety you’re talking about is real. And we don’t have great muscles for it. I like Marcel Duchamp’s idea of delay. How do you get a work to be an obstacle in the flow?
ES: I’ve always been interested in the strategy of being aggressively plain. I think that’s why I respond to your work, Lucas and Sara. There is no mystery; it’s not a case of “what are they showing me?” It’s like, “oh, it’s the bottom of a sneaker” or “it’s some hands on a Picasso.” So then you have to stay and ask yourself, okay, now what? Everything is stretched out in that moment after. I think that the ordinary things are the most mysterious.
SC: Erin’s video in the show [Roden Crater (2009)] and my video in the show [Soft Film (2016)] feel like they take opposite strategies. I’m packing things in as quickly as possible, intentionally, thinking, “oh no, I’m going to lose the viewer.” It never occurred to me until now that when you were making your very slow video, Erin, you would be thinking about the exact same thing.
CW: The fight against the synthetic and the sheen of Photoshop feels important to a lot of the work you all make. Touch seems important. Your piece Women (2015), Sara, with your hands touching the image of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. And Lucas, you’ve written about drawing as a form of touching. Erin, I feel like the way you deal with photographs is that you touch them with light.
SC: In Women I was interested in touching, but also covering, and how a subtle shift in hand gesture can convey totally different things. To go back to the potentially clichéd contemporary photography conversation, everything in advertising feels really synthetic and of another world that’s never been close to the real, that came from somewhere in the air and never had a relationship to an actual body. To put hands or body parts in things shoves it back to the real world.
LB: I’m interested in the fact that now the picture space is enterable. When I’m using Photoshop I’m not thinking about manipulating an image as much as working in the sculptural space that the photograph proposes. There’s a work in the show called xxxxxxx (2011), a gingham backdrop that had a plastic thing in front of it, which then gets totally marked out. For me that operation is happening in the space of that picture, not on the surface. It’s not “manipulating the image,” but rather that inside a contemporary photograph there are now these two spaces. There’s worldly space, and there’s also this plastic virtual space, and I can access and manipulate the latter through tools.
ES: In photography the missing part of the conversation—and it’s always surprising to me—is scale. How these pictures actually live in the world after all these manipulations. Students will show me JPGs and ask, “What do you think?” and I’m like, what do I think? What do you think, what does anybody think about a JPG? I think so much about the viewer’s body in relation to what they’re seeing, and the relationship of what is in the image to how it exists in reality. When I’m making a photograph I’ll print it out five or six times, varying by an inch or a half an inch, just to feel how the objects in the image function at whichever scale.
SC: I’ve started making things thinking, “I’m going to make this as big as I possibly can,” only being limited by the printer size. Seeing a hand that’s bigger than yourself remains a really amazing thing that photography can do. We’re at a moment where you can produce those things better. Eight-by-ten-inch film and an Epson printer—that particular combination is amazing.
ES: Image scale, in pop culture anyhow, is a nonissue. We see ads on our phones, and the same imagery on billboards, and it doesn’t mean anything different. You kind of see through it. Our relationship to it has become a lot more elastic.
LB: Part of the problem of scale for me is trying to make that elasticity crystallize into something specific: to get the object to insist upon itself as an object.
CW: This discussion about touch and then scale means we’re talking about how painting and sculpture have been leaching their way into photography in a potentially unprecedented way in the last ten years. Is that something that you all recognize?
ES: How do you mean?
CW: I mean perhaps there has been less of a concern with documenting the world, because it seems like the whole world has already been documented. I could go on Google right now and find a view of pretty much anything. I think it’s given photographers a lot more leeway to engage with questions that were traditionally questions of sculpture or painting, like gesture, touch, scale.
LB: The native space of photographs is today disembodied. Not so long ago, if you wanted to make a picture and share it with people, you had to make an object. Now that’s no longer the case. The problem of making a photograph into an object has thus become a different problem.
CW: Sara, you were talking earlier about pulling things back from that luminous space of advertising, space that exists without touch. Every photograph that you consume on Instagram is an advertisement of sorts, either for an actual product or for what is horribly called a “personal brand.”
SC: Perhaps the intentions and strategies of advertising were clear in the past, whereas you forget today that it’s happening all around you. We’re participating in it even in our leisure time now: we think we’re doing something for ourselves but we’re really doing something for a corporation. There’s something in my work about that. Something you could touch on, or think about, or grasp in the past that you can’t in the present. My work is definitely critical of advertising, but I do love that stuff also. A mix of love and hate. That’s probably true for most of us.
CW: In contemporary photography there is a push and pull a between love of advertising and refusal of advertising. Roe Ethridge, who isn’t in the show, and Wolfgang Tillmans, who is—their work straddles that line intensely; a critical moment in the transition out of the cinematographic photography of, say, Crewdson or Wall, into the moment we have now. Perhaps it is about the image becoming a promiscuous thing.
LB: When I started making pictures in the studio a lot, many of the things that I looked back at and learned from had at least one foot in advertising. When I first started using Photoshop, the only people using it were commercial photographers and artists. I was making a sort of burlesque of studio practice, which inevitably had a foot in commercial picture making. But as I went on, I felt more flexibility and started thinking about relationships to objects that might have been cancelled out or overwhelmed by commodification. The advertising image is a reductive situation, which produces a certain kind of desire. So I started thinking about how I could produce pictures that might have relationships outside that.
CW: Sara, you came to some of your fine-art practice through making advertising, right?
SC: Yes, I used to art direct. Like “move that steak a little to the left.” I still work a bit like an art director or graphic designer, arranging things in space. I feel that a lot of former graphic designers-turned-artists go through this thing where they become increasingly disillusioned until they can’t do it anymore. I started off as a wide-eyed, excited graphic designer, and then over a period of time it wasn’t a sustainable thing to spend my life on anymore. I still think constantly about why that is, and what part of that could be useful to talk about in terms of making art.
CW: What are the provisional conclusions that you draw?
SC: On commercial jobs we’d have all these conversations about how people were going to understand pictures, and you eventually realize that you can’t control that in any way. Every image can circle back, and is going to have a total life of its own. That was so interesting to witness from the inside.
CW: One of the things in your photographs that doesn’t get addressed, Lucas, particularly because there’s so much digital manipulation, is the objects.
LB: People do talk about how the pictures get made more than anything else. Which is partially my fault. It was the story that I felt needed to be told early on, and now it’s the story.
CW: Well, let’s redress that, because I think it’s the objects that separate your work from a lot of other work out there that uses similar sort of ham-fisted digital techniques—mostly influenced by you. They are the things that make the photographs stick. Why?
LB: I care about them in a way. For me, making a photograph is primarily about trying to relate to the thing I’m photographing. I think that the objects started off as replacements, stand-ins for other things, and the joke was kind of that the wrong thing was there. Intuition is always important. I walk around and find things I’m starting to relate to, and I bring them into the studio and continue to try to develop that relationship. That’s true of people, too—all the people in my photographs are very close to me. But there’s not a set class of objects. I could theoretically play the game with a lot of things.
CW: How do we get beyond this generalization of “it’s all about image culture” and some of the platitudes about contemporary photography, and down to the content of your work?
ES: I have, for a long time now, been obsessed with the conditions and constraints of the photograph itself—that you’re never, obviously, given access to the full dimensionality of what you’re looking at. It’s a basic, inherent quality of photography, and it is often the content of my work.
LB: I like that. The objects in my work are often underdogs. They’re having a hard time. Something in that is part empathy and part other stuff. I make a lot of pictures that don’t work, so these relationships are not always successful. It’s about trial and error, and through this, about developing the nuances of my own relationship to the material world, outside the way that it is pictured otherwise.
SC: I photograph almost entirely things that were made with great idealism or fashion or style, and have faded out of that. That can be an encyclopedia reproduction of a Picasso, or a plastic cup that’s yellowed. I am interested in an anthropological approach to objects, and why objects are meaningful.
CW: One of the things we’ve danced around a little bit is capitalism. In your work, Sara, there is the idea that objects have a life, then a death when they fall out of fashion. Lucas, your objects, they’re ridiculous and pathetic in a way that has something to say about capitalism. And your work, Erin, has a quality of attention and a physical presence that seems anathema to the speed and crassness of capitalism. A lot of contemporary photography has been attacked as solipsistic navel gazing, being only about itself, and not about the world in the way traditional “serious” photography was. Do you think that’s the case, and if not, how has photography shifted? What does photography do to address the fact that the world has become a vastly more unstable place?
LB: Twentieth-century photography did a really good job of accounting for public space. Public space is now as likely to be digital and virtual, and I think photography is struggling to deal with that. In the twentieth century there was a way in which photography’s level of abstraction of the self from the world was a good analogue for the way people were actually feeling. The photographic picture was a good picture of life, and the photojournalist was outside looking in. Now the photograph has lost this analogous relationship, and that relationship just seems in real trouble.
CW: Traditional photojournalism was, at least tentatively, related to the truth, and the Oxford English Dictionary has proposed proposed 2016 as the year of post-truth. We’ve been talking about the erosion of truth in photography for a long time, but now it’s bled into everything.
ES: Yes, it’s less about the truth of a photo, and more now about how information is reconciled by the viewer. This recent election has shown that there’s a broad spectrum of what people will take seriously.
CW: It’s also about the proliferation of platforms on which information can be consumed. Sara, you were talking earlier about the (possibly illusory) halcyon age when we could get a handle on all the images that exist in the world, and all the information, because there were only a limited number of platforms. But now, if you’re a neo-Nazi or a climate-change denier or a radical left-wing anarchist, you have a news source that is specifically tailored to you, and that will confirm every bias you have and pat you on the back and send you along your merry ideological way. In some ways this is the deleterious quality of propagandistic political art.
ES: It’s toothless, ultimately. I think your question to us as makers is: How will the political climate actually impact what goes on in the studio? It’s something I presume, for myself anyhow, will be alive and changing. I feel obsessed by all of it right now.
SC: I’ve been thinking about how to get outside the bubble, and not just speak to a group of people who already know. After a period of thinking, “I’m retiring from art, this feels ridiculous,” I’m starting to think about a way of making something digestible, or presenting information in a different way, and what that could mean. I think that’s why I’ve been making video art, because there’s more of an opportunity to say something. But the question of what art does that isn’t better said feels impossible to parse right now.
LB: I think about it all the time. The question is how to be a citizen in this situation, and then how to be an artist, and they are bound to be somewhat mixed. It’s hard to directly address political questions, because you have little control over what people take away from your work. So it’s hard to say what you can do with an artwork, but the relationships that I want to develop in my work—and I imagine that we would all be somewhat on the same page about this—are things that carry a different feel, and address a different subject than any of this other crap is addressing, you know? Imagining our connectivity differently than whatever the current political moment is imagining it as. What else do you do? You’ve got to keep going.
at Zabludowicz Collection
Until July 9, 2017