My Time in Wassaic
I am an artist working primarily in photography, and I tend to start my work by going out into the world to make photographs. It's an important way for me to move through space — the landscape, my environment — and maybe most importantly it allows me to discover material manifestations of the ideas that are floating around my brain. I think a lot about the more traditional art forms like drawing, sculpture, and performance, so I'm often looking for the presence of these forms out in the world. When I find traces of these forms I try to filter them, relatively objectively, through a photographic lens. I've always been interested in the way narrative meaning builds out of context and contrast, so a great deal of my finished work is realized as highly considered installation and sequence throughout the space(s) where a viewer will encounter the work — usually a book or a gallery.
For the past two years I have been spending much of my time in a small area: what I've come to call the "monastic triangle" of several blocks separating my apartment, my studio, and the printing lab where I am employed as a traditional darkroom photography printer. I see this time and place as what jazz musicians call "woodshedding," embedded with a similar idealism that you could find in the training montages of an 80s kung-fu film. This job requires single-minded effort — I will often spend an entire day printing one picture. The focus and patience that I have cultivated brings me to a place where I think it'd be nice to translate my ideas in one single photograph.
Of course the pictures continue to pile up in my studio. Prints of many shapes, sizes, and surfaces; I put one up on the wall and think about it, then put it next to other pictures and think about them both in some new and compelling way. So now I've got to thinking about making pictures in the studio, of the studio, of the studio walls — where I project the pleasure of photographic findings.
In coming to Wassaic, I've transplanted my studio in Brooklyn to the Luther Barn, studio #12 — an airy space filled with gorgeous light. I brought about 80 pounds of books and they are sitting in these little cubby shelves on one side of my studio. All the old masters and contemporary inspirations are up there — all day and night — and they are happy just looking over that space. They look over the table where I sift through pictures and out onto the big white walls where I hang prints for further commingling. There is a big camera in there too, so sometimes when I'm happy with the way things are looking, I'll take the time to frame and expose a big 8x10" negative. Later I'll print them at life-size, and it'll be a real copycat kind of thing, an extracted facsimile of the way things came together in there. I'll remember that there was a time when I got to spend time having fruitful conversations with like and unlike minded artists on issues as broad as trains, aliens, and ice cream socials. It was everything I needed.
with Joe Brommel, May 2019
You have quite a few books in your studio — what have you been reading while here?
Let's see. I got here in a little bit of a reading hype and threw so, so many books in my car. But it's really nice to have all these shelves to let them sit up there. I've tried to make tiny little poems or stories about what books are next to each other. That nook right there has Vija Celmins’ book To Fix the Image in Memory. Over her whole 30-year career, 20 years of it have been drawing the same several pictures of the ocean and stars, with no horizon. Really minimal. And then the book next to that is Unburdened by Meaning [by Adam Tullie and Devendra Banhart]. So that square is, for me, about not trying to impose a lot of meaning, but just admiring something and following what you really love to do.
It's a creative cataloging system; it’s not library sciences, but it’s aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating for me.
What is the role of narrative in your work as a photographer, then?
I think that a photograph on its own is a bit more like a poem: it's a tiny, matter-of-fact glimpse of something. But as soon as you start to put multiple pictures together, it becomes something more like a storyboard for a film — whether that’s a chronological feature film, or other forms of film that play with our traditional understanding of narrative forms.
So in my phoetry — I just said “phoetry.”
[Laughs] I love that as a hybrid word. What a wonderful Freudian slip there.
In my photography, I find so pleasing the way that I can impose meaning on one image just by placing it next to another image.
Here's maybe a better way to explain that: the beauty I find in narrative is that if you take a novel and open it up to a random page, you might find tidbits of prose that are really appealing to you, but you're not going to be hit with this, “Oh, my gosh, I have to cry.” You have to read from the beginning, and do all of this contextualizing until the words start to become heavier and heavier.
I just recently had this show where I installed one piece made of 26 photographs. One part is a sequence of five images of a sculpture, and with every new frame there are more elements added onto the sculpture — so that you see the sculpture build if you walk from left to right. That's our normal Western way of understanding imagery, or reading a text, or discovering a narrative. But there's also another set of images that unfold from the right to the left, and then there are several images in there that don't have any relation to a temporal shift. Almost like a composer would compose with different instruments, I’ve got these different kinds of photos that I’ve placed together — but the interesting part is that the viewer becomes the active narrative agent.
But what I'm doing here [in Wassaic] is creating one picture. It’s a studio composition of multiple pictures, layered in the way that one would slowly accrue layers in a painting or a print. I'm using this very traditional camera that only uses the fundamentals of photography. There's a lens, there's a plane where the film is, and everything else is completely up to me knowing how the science of photography works.
To do one picture really well is a beautiful opposition to what technology has provided for everyone: the ability to take pictures. I’m from the Silicon Valley, and have really conflicted feelings about technology, and notions of progress. Photography is complicated in that conversation, of course, because even at the very beginning it was used as a way for anyone to reproduce nature without having to be a master painter. But I feel like I left that long ago and have just been wandering further and further back into the past.
You talked about how the experience of viewing one image is different from viewing several images in sequence, but how do you think about the narrative of one composite image made of many images? That feels like an interestingly different case.
While I enjoy bending the genre of photography and how we receive it, part of me still wants to grapple with the true nature of photography, which is one frame. Excluding everything else, if a stranger can't walk up to the picture and see it, then I as the artist am just projecting and assuming that people are going to see things that aren’t there.
So the viewer is no longer quite so active in their completion of the work, but I’m still dealing with the materiality of imagery. I'm shooting on the biggest film I can get my hands on is because I don't want to see any grain. I want it to be as photorealistic as possible; I want there to be an actual illusion, where when the viewer walks up to it they think that they're going to be able to touch it, and instead it's just a flat picture. It's a facsimile of life.
Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby