As the second discussion of a two-part roundtable, this panel examines the state of contemporary conceptual photography. Revisiting the theoretical and aesthetic concerns raised by the history of conceptual art, participants engage in a discussion on their practices and consider how artists contend with and challenge this legacy through photographic practice today. This event is held in conjunction with the Terra Foundation for American Art’s Chicago Art & Design Initiative (2018), and is a precursor to an exhibition on artist Kenneth Josephson’s impact on the development of conceptual photography–on view at the museum Spring 2018.
Guest speakers include Kenneth Josephson, Chicago-based photographer; Jessica Labatte, assistant professor of photography in the School of Art & Design at Northern Illinois University; Adam Schreiber, assistant professor in the department of Art, Media, and Design at DePaul University; Xaviera Simmons, Brooklyn-based artist; and Blake Stimson, professor of art history in the School of Art & Art History at University of Illinois at Chicago. Moderating the discussion is James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling.
Lauren Fulton: Welcome to Photoconceptualism, the final talk of a two-part roundtable series here at the MCA, generously supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
My name is Lauren Fulton and I'm a curatorial research fellow here at the museum. For the past seven months, I've been organizing an exhibition about the development of contemporary conceptual photography and core to this show is the work of Chicago-based photographer Kenneth Josephson, who we're very happy to have here with us tonight.
An artist who I'm sure many of you are familiar with, Josephson has, for over five decades, scrutinized photography's inherent reproducibility and circulation, made use of a mass cultural archive of images, and mastered self-reflective, often humorous, devices. He has also, arguably, had an aesthetic impact extending well beyond Chicago, as this forthcoming show will demonstrate.
In preparation for the exhibition, which will take place at the MCA as part of the Terra Foundation's citywide 2018 Chicago Art and Design Initiative, we approach tonight's panelists thinking that they, together, could contribute to an engaging discussion about the evolution of conceptual photography. Much of their work, likewise, addresses concerns shared by Josephson, though conceptually and formally, their work occupies a wide spectrum.
For this conversation, moderated by MCA James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling, we will look at images of panelists' work, and consider some of the larger trends, developments, and issues in conceptual photography, and how these artists and historians contend with and challenge legacies of conceptual art and photography.
After the discussion, we'll open up the floor for questions from the audience, and following tonight's conversation, there will also be a reception in Kanter Meeting Center just to the right of the theater. So, please do stick around and continue the conversation over some wine and food.
And now, for some brief introductions.
With us tonight we have Jessica Labatte, assistant professor of photography in the School of Art & Design at Northern Illinois University. Labatte's work has been exhibited locally at Hyde Park Art Center, Adds Donna, and Golden Gallery, and was featured in the 2013 MCA exhibition Think First, Shoot Later. Her work is also shown at the Museum of Fine Arts Saint Petersburg, Elmhurst Art Museum, Higher Pictures and Humble Arts Foundation in New York, and Plug Projects in Kansas City. In 2014, she was an artist in residence at Light Work in Syracuse, and last year was a resident at Latitude here in Chicago. Labatte is locally represented by Western Exhibitions.
Also, joining us is Adam Schreiber, assistant professor in the department of Art, Media, and Design at DePaul University. Schreiber is a founding member of the Austin-based collective Lakes Were Rivers, which has exhibited at the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center, and most recently at the Contemporary Austin. Independently, his work has been included in exhibitions at the Contemporary, at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Higher Pictures in New York, and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. He has had solo shows at Sasha Wolf Gallery in New York and San Antonio's Linda Pace Foundation and Artpace. Schreiber is a former artist in residence at Artpace, and the recipient of a 2014 Graham Foundation Grant.
As I mentioned, Ken Josephson is also with us this evening. Josephson began teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1960, where he was an instructor in the photo department for over 35 years. In 1963, he was a founding member of the Society for Photographic Education and the following year was included in the groundbreaking exhibition The Photographer's Eye, organized by the Museum of Modern Art. His work is in collections worldwide, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the MCA Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art San Francisco, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. He has been the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He currently has a solo exhibition on view at the Denver Art Museum titled Encounters with the Universe. Josephson is locally represented by Stephen Daiter Gallery.
We're also excited to have with us Xaviera Simmons, here from Brooklyn. Simmons is an artist equally committed to exploring a variety of media with her practice, including photography, video, performance, sound, and installation art. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, with exhibitions and performances at the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1, Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, to name just a few. Her works are in major museums and private collections, and she is the recipient of numerous awards, including a 2015 Foundation for Contemporary Art Grants to Artists award and a 2016 Louis Comfort Tiffany Memorial Foundation award. Simmons has many upcoming projects in New York, which include exhibitions and performances at the Museum of Modern Art, a curatorial project at the headquarters of Deutsche Bank, and a building-wide performance and installation at the Kitchen. She's represented by David Castillo Gallery in Miami Beach.
We also have with us Blake Stimson, professor of art history in the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Stimson is the author of The Pivot of the World: Photography and its Nation, Citizen Warhol, and he is coeditor of five volumes that focus on various junctures of art and political subjectivity. Significant to the discussion tonight, one of these coedited texts is an important anthology on conceptual art. He is currently working on two books—one to be titled Guilt as Form that argues for a counter-genealogy of contemporary art arising from the turmoil of 1968, and Photography and God, which focuses on the lost political aesthetic of photographer Paul Strand. Stimson has contributed to numerous publications including Art Journal, October, Oxford Art Journal, Tape Papers, and Philosophy and Photography, as well as other journals focusing on photography.
So, now, without further ado, please join me in welcoming our panelists.
Michael Darling: Thank you, Lauren. I just want to give a big thank-you to Lauren for pulling this together and helping to put together such an illustrious group of speakers up here tonight. And Lauren's really been doing a fantastic job of shaping this show that she mentioned, which, as she said, was inspired by Ken Josephson's work.
And I think we're just so lucky to have Ken who's still living and working in Chicago, and for me as well as a lot of other curators on our team, looking through his work over the years—and you'll see images of all the artists on the panel sort of scrolling behind us—but Ken's work just looks so incredibly fresh and relevant to so much of what's being made today, and we just thought he'd be a great lynchpin to look at where photographic practices are today.
And Ken, I think maybe it's only proper to start with you, although I'd love for all the panelists to, of course, feel free to ask each other questions and keep this ping-ponging around. But one thing that seems really striking about your work, Ken, through the years, even back to the fifties—and there's some images, I think, up on the screen that go back that far—is how your work seemed to, very early on, question ideas about photographic truth, which is something that seems very common in any artist working with photography today. Can you talk a little bit about that and how, if that's a proper characterization of what you were doing then, and if you, indeed, maybe even felt alone in the field in kind of pulling back the curtain and showing that photography is quite subjective and isn't quite as truthful as it might have seemed?
Kenneth Josephson: Yes. Whoop. Sorry about that.
I think I got most of my thinking about that sort of thing from studying history with Beaumont Newhall when I was at RIT. And he—one of the people he would speak about and show images of was [Eugéne] Atget, the Paris documentary photographer.
And I was, at first, drawn to documentary ideas and work related to that, and while I was in Rochester at RIT, I did work dealing with a street that was half skid row and half business—food products and things like that. And I did a documentary study of that street, which was very rewarding, and then I went to the Institute of Design from there, after a year and a half or so. And there, things were very much more open to anything you wanted to do, as long as it "worked," in other words, if it was somewhat successful visually and idea-wise. And one thing Aaron Siskind, who was one of my teachers there, he talked about the photograph as an object, and not just an illusionistic thing of reality—so that it bent, you know? You could crumple it, or you could do all kinds of things with it. It wasn't just this illusion of photography. And that set me thinking about—oh, for instance, using photographs within another photograph.
So, I don't know if that answers your question well enough, but prompt me if you need something else.
MD: Well, it seems like even the photographers you mentioned, there was still this window that the viewer was peering through, and you seem to zoom back. So, you made us very aware that we're looking at a photograph that is an object in the world, and I think that's why we have Adam, Xaviera, and—
KJ: Maybe part of that was reading about filmmaking and seeing sets and that you had this—whatever the acting was going on, was being recorded, and that was the illusion of reality through film, but just outside of where these actors were, were all kinds of crew members, with sound equipment and everything. And so, I kind of thought, well, I would like to show how something is produced by inserting myself in the picture in some way or whatever.
Blake Stimson: Could I ask follow-up question to that? I was wondering as a—first of all, as a college student, my first foray into art was as a photographer and among other people that I looked very closely at was your work. And it had lots of influences on me as a young working photographer, but I also, at one point, I took a sculpture class with a kind of conventional abstract sculptor and I produced this sculpture that had a—a conventional abstract sculpture and then there was a photograph of the sculpture that was part of it. And I sort of thought of this in relationship to your work in terms of that self-reflexivity that goes on with your work. And the response that I received from the instructor was he was just really pissed. He really hated it, you know? It really kind of violated his principles. And the way that I understood it is because it was so removed, so self-reflexive. So, I guess my question is, as you moved from sort of, say, under the influence of things like The Family of Man and then Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind and so on and through the sixties, and as your work became a little bit more and more conceptual, did you run into any resistance? Was there a way in which you were testing people with the way in which your work was developing?
KJ: Fortunately, I didn't experience any of those things. I could have, I suppose, but I was just compelled to do the work and have it seen as much as possible. But I didn't get any bad responses.
BS: So, you did it much more gracefully than I did.
MD: I guess that Blake was kind of going on the similar line of reasoning or questioning I was trying to come up with, too—just wondering if—are there people that were doing that kind of work at the time that felt like peers to you, that you felt a kinship with, or did this feel like something where you were kind of hoeing this row all by yourself?
KJ: Well, I was intrigued a lot by [Lee] Friedlander, and our work kind of paralleled one another. So, I was interested in him.
I was also very interested in the work of Robert Cumming and Ed Ruscha. I think one of the most interesting conceptual ideas that Ruscha did was the Royal Road Test. I don't know how many people are familiar with it, but it's like a pseudo-product test. It's about that. And it's Ed Ruscha going 90 miles an hour and someone photographing and someone throwing this Royal typewriter out of the window, and then they documented the whole—all the damage and parts scattered all over and everything. So, it was this—it reminded me of like … It was interesting visually, but it was more interesting thinking about it. Like Warhol's films, like Empire and Sleep, that go on for hours. The idea is more interesting than the experience, and I think a lot of conceptual photography's about that.
MD: We have that Royal Road Test book on view upstairs on the fourth floor right now, too, so if people are interested in seeing it, it's there, although only one spread is open to it right now. But that kind of brings up—you touched on the idea of fabricating in the making of a scene or a photo, or you talked about a movie set, and I was wondering if, maybe for instance Jessica, maybe you can talk—that's a big factor in your work. And maybe you can talk a little bit about that and how you feel that that feels necessary and relevant to how we look at photos today.
Jessica Labatte: Sure. Well, I feel like, you know, coming out of all the stage photography from Jeff Wall and people like that, now we're in a moment where photography has so many options for you in terms of how you're going to produce it, from the camera to the print, and all those decisions are very important for the photographer.
So, part of that, for me, has been staging as a way to kind of direct what it is that I'm trying to direct you to look at as the viewer, and using the studio as a place where I can construct things very intentionally from things that I'm observing in the world. It's just a way that I can kind of isolate phenomena that I'm noticing.
Yeah. I don't know if that …
MD: Xaviera, I know you have a different approach to that and a similar way of showing the very—a very objective way of what we're looking at in your pictures.
Xaviera Simmons: I tend to agree with both of you in that it's—well, at least at this point for me, photography is definitely—it's an opportunity to have a performance or a theatrical moment.
I feel like the objects in my particular body of work—the objects that I make—the sculptures, the photographs, the performances—they kind of all use each of the languages of the other to help them along, but that's sort of very similar to having a film set. It's like a little mini film set in your studio where you're—the director is helping the actors bring out the emotions. It's just using the language of directing to help the actors move.
And I feel sort of similar in terms of using the language of photography to help the sculptures move and help the sculptures think about film so that then I can have more information to go back into performance. And that's the way that I come at image making, actually, and I actually—there's—for my work, there's two words that—or two or three words that hold the stability of the studio together or the practice.
One is "the theatrical"; another is "the sculptural"; and another is "the cinematic." And I use those—and "landscape." I can't forget landscape, which is like, a major foundation for me. I can't let go of those pillars of the studio, and I use the language of those practices to make all of the works come alive.
MD: Adam, those same kind of words seem very applicable to you in the work that I know you've made, too, where you almost work like a film director more than a straight photographer. Is that accurate?
Adam Schreiber: I think I could think of it that way. I don't typically, but it's really interesting. I'm just processing what everyone's saying.
I think, for me, I think about photography pretty basically as like a way of experiencing something, first and foremost, because you always have to sort of do that on some level, whether or not you have an idea beforehand.
So, for me, in terms of directing, I think it's been a way to insinuate a constructive element to archives that are at work within the archives. Like, for instance, at the Ransom Center, spending time in there with a view camera, it's not enough to simply look at an object and photograph it. It's not enough to have a prescribed idea. So, if something else needs to happen, and I think what that something else is is time passing and realizing what has happened in a photograph—you've captured different frameworks, different historical frameworks. It's an aesthetic experience. It's also a level of fact. It's also a sort of concept. And that all comes back to the experience of looking, for me.
It's like—I was thinking about [Werner] Herzog's notion of ecstatic truth in relation to the document. He's really interested in the presence of the person making the document, having an effect on the outcome of what's happening. And that's, I think, really sublimated in the photograph in an interesting way.
MD: I think all four of you that are photo practitioners—I don't know, Blake, if you're still making art these days, but—deal with, I think, this idea of fact. It seems like all of you seem to like to point to things with your camera and say, "This is a thing that's in the world" and you take a picture of it, and then—but still sort of setting up questions about how it got there and what that thing means. And, in many cases, like with Ken's work or in Xaviera's, that's actually a photo that's in the picture, too.
So, I wonder, in the age—I mean, I did a studio visit over the weekend with an artist that was looking back at the very first image that the guy that invented Photoshop used to demonstrate what Photoshop could do. And that—of course, that's a technology that emerged in the eighties, so Ken was doing this kind of work way before then, but I wonder if—how much that kind of idea of facticity or the factualness do you all engage with in your work, especially when there is so much doctoring that's going on in the photographs that we all look at and consume on a daily basis?
Ken, do you want to jump—try that one first?
JL: I'll jump in on that one. I mean, I—part of the reason I am spending so much time constructing things in the studio is because I want to create a very accurate document of them. I tend to do very little Photoshop after the fact. And part of that is—but the images can be very tricky.
They may look like they're collaged or Photoshopped, so you kind of have that questioning of what you're looking at and wondering if it's accurate, an accurate representation. But I think that's where we are now in terms of understanding photography. Because Photoshop has given us so many options for re-touching images you can't look at images and just assume that they're straightforward. But, knowing that I spend time doing that, creates an interesting tension for them because you don't realize it at first.
You have to kind of understand the practice and know that there was all this labor behind the image to make it look like it was Photoshopped. So, it's kind of an analog Photoshop tension for my work.
XS: Yeah. And I spend a lot—I like to sculpt things. So, for instance, with my series The Index Series, it's—I build the—those works are for photographic purposes—the objects and the sculptures inside of the photographs. A lot of the times, these—this work here—a lot of the times, people will ask me, "Well, do they exist on their own?" And no, they're not meant to exist on their own. They're actually partially a conversation not only with sculpture, but about photography and the different textures of photographs and how photographs age over time and how different inks in magazines and newspapers over time change the way we—the way our brain, like the back of our brain—the way our brain takes in color and texture.
And so, for me, I love the labor of making. I'm an analog. I do digital things, but I do also enjoy touching and feeling and sculpting and labor. I think it's a part of my practice. And even with making a work like this, I enjoy—I work with a four-by-five large-format camera—that's not mine, obviously. That's like, one of the most iconic photographic images we have. But I enjoy working with film and I enjoy the process, also, of working digitally.
Like, tonight, after this lecture, I'm going to go—I have to go to Kinko's 'cause I'm going to Mexico to make a work, but I need to go to Staples or Kinko's or someplace to print out about 60 JPEGs that I found online that are going to go into a photograph that I'm gonna make that's a film-based photograph that then is gonna be scanned and worked on digitally. But it goes through all these different processes.
So, I enjoy that feeling—the feeling of working with objects and paper and film and wood and other things.
BS: I can follow-up just a little bit on that and just ask another question for Ken.
If—I was thinking about your Bread Book and I was wondering if you were thinking of sculpture in the context of making that, because it becomes kind of like a loaf of bread, right? That was part of the original idea, that the book itself would be something like a loaf of bread, which takes on a sculptural quality? Was that part of how you were thinking of it?
KJ: I really enjoyed photographing the ends, actually. They, I felt, were extremely sculptural. And actually, it would be nice to maybe make a more three-dimensional covers back and forth that deal with that sculptural quality of the bread.
MD: Photo books, like Ken's Bread Book, which I think there's an image that circulates up there, and then you mentioned Ed Ruscha and people like Sol LeWitt and others were making photo books as objects and things, and I was wondering if the other artists on the panel have played with the book as a form for delivering photographs and creating dialogues about photography?
AS: I can start with that. I work with this collective and we just published a book in relation to an exhibition at the Contemporary, and it was an interesting process, 'cause there were like 10 of us trying to edit a book. And how we communicate is often via G-chat, and maybe every four months, we'll be in the same place and we'll have hundreds of Xeroxes of images and lay them out on the floor and literally just walk around and create groupings. That went on for like a year, and then we came up with that book that was just up there called Swan Cycle in relation to a film we made for the Contemporary. But I think the book is, in some sense, always a collaborative endeavor, or at least that's what I got out of it. You have to sort of let go of your intentions when you set out to make a book, I think, to a large degree.
I also just—I printed a book—thinking about printed matter—on some Enron paper that I've had for like 15 years. When they went out of business, a bunch of their copy paper ended up in these office supply resale shops in Texas and I bought a whole bunch of it and printed all these images that didn't really look very interesting on screen, but they look great on the Enron paper, and just hand-bound them and realized that it's something simple like a substrate can transform. Even though it doesn't say Enron, it's like, somehow, that's significant. It carried over into the content of the book.
XS: I love—books are like chairs to me. There's—I'm obsessed with chairs, and it's the same way I'm obsessed with books. I love the structure of a chair and the different sort of variations that a chair can be and books …
The most beautiful book I've ever—one of the most beautiful books I've ever seen is Sheila Hicks's Weaving as Metaphor. It's literally this—it totally complements the project, her project. It complements her weaving project. The depth of the book, it's pretty—and also Tauba Auerbach's color book, but that's another one. So, Sheila Hicks's Weaving as a Metaphor, it's this huge tome, but it's all soft and sensual and the images are really well-produced.
So, if I were ever to make a book of my images or someone else's images, I feel like I would be so intimidated by the fact of the choices that I had to make. I think it would be a lot more difficult, 'cause it feels so concrete.
I guess a book, for me, feels like once you have it, you know that it's probably—especially if it's a monograph or an art book—it's something that's going to influence so many people, so I'm afraid of the structure of influence, if that makes sense. Like, the weight of the book is really intimidating to me. Like the fixedness of it. That it can't—things can't move around and migrate anymore. They're locked in this order that then is saying something. And it's also especially—it's also how people take in part of your visual language, and it's very concrete, a book. So, I'm afraid of these books.
MD: Ken, was the Bread Book the only real photographic artist book like that that you did that was a standalone concept?
KJ: Unfortunately, I should be doing more of those, but yeah, that was the single one. But, I really enjoyed doing that a great deal, because you can—well, it has kind of a traditional story: a beginning, middle, climax, end. You can read it forward, which makes the most sense, but then you could read it from the other side, because it's symmetrical. But the story is a little jumpy then.
MD: I think we've kind of touched on this a little bit already, but maybe I want to try it from another angle.
It seems like in all of your work, you really privilege the idea of serious looking and really making people kind of scrutinize what it is that's in front of them and trying to understand it, almost as if you're urging us towards a certain kind of more sophisticated, visual literacy even. And I wonder if maybe—and all of you could answer that question—but also, how you see that as an important element today, again, when we're in such a photographic culture and photographic moment and where maybe things aren't being looked at as carefully and thoughtfully as they could be or should be.
JL: Well, you saying "visual literacy" makes me think of this quote that Moholy-Nagy said about "the illiterate of the future will be people who don't know how to read photographs." And information literacy and visual literacy's really important to me because of this fact; because we are in such a visual culture. And photographs are everywhere and everyone's making them, so I think it's even more important—and important for me and my students—to understand how you kind of take images apart and really question what it is we're seeing.
And so, that, for me, that's why it works into my work in terms of illusion and questioning what it is that we're looking at it is because I think that's something that we need to be doing more everywhere is questioning what we're seeing and how it was made and why and the kind of politics behind that.
KJ: In my work, I try to describe clearly what the object and the related things are to the main object that I may be photographing. It's like—I've always been interested in forensic photography and the goal of that is, of course, to describe information very clearly so it can be read easily and accurately.
And I try to produce a visually interesting image using whatever means, light and focus and whatever, to clearly present what I'm interested in people looking at. Then the idea has to become one with the technique. And if it's a conceptual idea, I think that's kind of paramount. I think that's the strongest part of the image.
BS: I have a kind of related question, which is one response to the proliferation of images that's come out in the art world—and I think of this as being associated most strongly with Hito Steyerl—is the idea that is to embrace the degraded resolution of the JPEG or of sort of cheap images. And so, I was wondering what you all think about not only close looking, but the question of resolution. How important is it? How valuable is it as an art concept to sort of embrace the idea of higher resolution than an internet image as part of what you're doing?
AS: I think the idea of the poor image in her sort of constellation is really interesting as an idea. And she's such a good writer, that the idea kind of stays alive for as long as you read her writing. But whether or not I know what that image is is different. That's different than looking at a photograph, right?
So, I guess my relationship—you know, I feel—when I read her, I feel somewhat indicted as being obsessed with the cult of the gauge—you know, as what she calls it—somebody who's really interested in large format and the sort of blind spot of looking and having an object that comes out of this process that you can, in some way, really love on some level. I don't know. I think the poor image is the image we all look at and it's the one we're talking about, but it may not be like the one I'm pursuing as an image maker.
JL: I shoot everything large format and make large, big, beautiful prints where the resolution is very crisp in them. But the way I think about resolution did change once I started scanning those negatives and had a different experience of the detail of those negatives on the computer. 'Cause I could see things that you couldn't see when you just had the negative in the dark room. So, I do think the resolution's important to me, but I do love whenever a JPEG is blown up really big and the resolution's kind of blown out of proportion.
There's something about that that's really satisfying, even though I don't know how to work that into my work. I'm still like, large format.
XS: Yeah, I think—when I'm talking to my students—who, some of them are here, I hope—I wish that they—I wish for them that they would—they could or they would enjoy working analog, only because it slows you down so that you can look. And maybe I'm very traditional in that way.
I studied with An-My Lê, Stephen Shore—these are people who spend time looking—so, I try to make works that make you spend time—make you have to spend the time to look, because there's so much information. I like, jam you with information.
Yes, it's information that I choose and that I make sense of. I try to provide a map in most of my works. But digital images, I use those as well. I make work with digital cameras, but I know the joy and the … It's so luxurious to see a really well, beautifully produced image that someone's considered. It just—I don't know. I feel so old-school cheesy, but it really does start to have another kind of play with your—another aura. It does. It has more human handling, you know? So, that's something that I really enjoy.
But I also, in my work, I also work with low-res—the piece Superunknown, which is all the migrants in mid-migration. That's all low-res JPEGs that I found online because I was tired of working with a big large four-by-five, carting it around the country. I wanted to work in a studio, and so I started collecting images—other people's images—to make another piece. But in that, I spent time having a conditioning process, which was very similar to the process of making analog photographs. And I don't think that my practice would have the pauses that it does if I didn't know how to work with analog photography.
AS: Now just, when you were talking, I was thinking about how great analog is because of things you can't control. And those periodically happen unpredictably and they sometimes can be the thing that makes it work. And similarly, with like, Hito Steyerl's notion of the poor image, one thing she talks about is those images bear the mark of everybody who's handled them. Everybody's who's tweaked them or downsized them or changed the color space or re-uploaded them. And in that way, they—I don't know, they have the same—I don't want to call—I'm trying to avoid the word aura but they're carriers of significance with a really embedded language. I don't know. That's an interesting connection between the analog and the over-processed image, I think.
KJ: What I have learned to appreciate is no matter what the quality of the image is in terms of what you're looking at, if it has a very strong, say, emotional appeal or whatever, I think no matter what it looks like quality-wise or technically wise, as long as it's a strong idea, you don't even think about those things.
MD: One thing I'd love to hear all of your thoughts on as it relates to a question that stumped me when I was giving a lecture on photography recently—and especially talking about photography in this very digital age now—and I love big, beautiful, juicy prints that are physically in front of me and I can fall into them and things like that, but I got this question one time of like, "Well, why do these things need to be printed? Why do they need to exist physically in the world?"
Are we moving towards a moment where all these amazing images that all of you craft and create might only exist on a screen? Can you help me come up with a good argument as to why these things still need to be in the world?
JL: Well, we still have bodies that we're in and I think that's a big part of it for me. My relation of my body to the things in the world is important, and the images are objects, even when they're on a screen. I don't know.
The physicality of us.
AS: Yeah, and as physical objects, you can put them away, you know?
MD: When you're done looking at them … ?
AS: Like, Fred Sommer, too—I don't know why he's here, but he is. He said this thing once about if you make a really good picture, you should put it away and not look at it. Put it in the drawer and shut the drawer.
JL: Well, also, too—totally.
Well, we—I brought all my students to the city today and we've been going to all the museums and looking at images, and a lot of the images are things that they've all seen online a million times. And then we're standing in front of these prints and the prints have dust spots and weird contrast and a different scale than they ever knew, and that really got me thinking about all of the material choices that go into making the photographs from the camera into the print. And that's not every—every image doesn't become a print, but that still carries with it a different kind of physicality on the screen and on the laptop or wherever it is. And I think those things you can't get away from or ignore, because they're part of how the image was made.
XS: Yeah. And I think there's something about electricity and living with electricity. So, I tend to think of the feeling of walking into a room that's quiet or the feeling of walking into a room with a television playing of like, a football game, of a television from like 1975 or eighty or ninety. They each have different feelings when you walk in.
So, if you want to have a continuous feeling of electrical—I hate energy, vibration, I don't know what you want to call it—electrical pull, then you're fine with living with images on a screen. But if you want to have pause and quiet and reflection, I think you have to let go of the electrical sometimes. And that's something, for me, that I think a lot about is letting go of the electrical. And that's where these images with paper comes into play, right?
Paper is a lot quieter and doesn't emit as much "vibrationally" is the word, but it does emit these images. You know, these images help you have another kind of experience and I think that that's something—I can't see that ever really going away.
MD: Is that a question—and now, all of you teach—is that a question that you get from students or a tendency that you think this current generation maybe wanting to move away from the object-hood of an image or tempted by that? No?
AS:I find that students are really interested in printing and also different forms of printing. Like, you know, prints from Walgreens versus prints you make especially for an ink-jet printer.
I don't know. I think—I haven't experienced the sort of prediction of everything's going onto the screen in reality in teaching. I don't know. Do you guys?
JL: Initially, I think my students are turned off by the economics of printing, but then, when you start to see the different kinds of paper and the ways the paper affects the image they see how beautiful a print can look in physical form or how a Walgreen's print would contribute to the content and meaning of what they're trying to say.
So, I don't know, I'm trying to encourage them to think about all the different ways that the print technology affects the way that we understand what they're communicating to us.
BS: I can say something about my own personal experience; not so much about my students.
One of the reasons that I got out of making art sometimes—I was telling Jessica before—I sometimes refer to myself as a recovering artist. I was very actively involved in it for a number of years and then switched to writing about art. But one of the reasons I got out of it was in part just feeling overwhelmed by the stuff, by all the things—and part of it was, at that point, I had moved from photography into installation sculpture. And so, just dealing with a lot of things physically and so on, was overwhelming. But storage and thinking about sales and everything else—just the stuff was overwhelming. So, that's one response.
But then the other response I have—and I do talk about this a lot with students in the classroom—is that what I really want from a photograph or an artwork is a kind of permanence, a kind of enduring quality. I want a photograph or an artwork to be something that I come back to again and again and again and again and again and again and again. Maybe the opposite of putting it away. I don't know.
But in order to—and I want to feel that desire to come back to it again and again. That ends up being the kind of make or break point for me when I'm somehow evaluating the value of this work in the context of my scholarship, but also, in the context of thinking about my own personal response. And so, that very much requires the physical form, not the fleeting screen form.
KJ: Yeah. I agree very much with you. What I value about photographs, especially if they depict a—like you're aware of it—a rather short moment in time and that maybe has some age to it.
It's so interesting to have something like that that isn't moving around and that you can study it and you can respond to it anyway you want to and no one's rushing you. You have all the time you want to spend, you know, to do this. So, I value that photograph's giving me that opportunity.
AS: You can also give photographs to people, you know? Prints, which …
KJ: That's a good point. Yeah.
AS: I was thinking about how they age and how they have a life and how a print from the eighties has a very distinct look and that the image on screen looks the same, right? Or it looks like maybe whoever scanned it that day at the archive …
There's a book in the library here about the Becker's printed works I just saw on the way here and it's a history of all their catalogues and show announcements. And they're beautiful. They're just amazing-looking objects.
MD: I've got one more question before we maybe open up to questions from the audience, which is—I think in all of your work, there is a real sense of emotion. Sometimes it's a real deadpan kind of quality; other times it's more obviously humorous, I think. And I wonder if you all, in your various ways, might address that and kind of how you think about emotional content in the work, but even how it might elicit emotions in the viewers of your pictures.
KJ: Well, what I strive for is, in many of my works, kind of a dry humor that I want to convey. And it's very difficult, but I think if you get someone's attention directed to you because of the humor, then the other qualities that might be interesting visually for thought can come through because you've engaged the person already through the humor.
MD: Adam, how about you?
AS: I don't …
MD: You're the king of deadpan.
AS: Yeah. I didn't know that.
I love the idea of humor being the way in. That seems like the best way into just about anything. I don't know. I don't know how I think about the viewers' emotions.
I know that when I'm looking at pictures or in a space, I'm thinking about the people I'm close to and not just my friends, but the influences I have, whether I want them or not. And they exert pressures either to do something or not do something, and that's like, a constant dialogue that's happening, and it's emotional. You don't always recognize it, but you can see it later on in the decisions you've made.
But honestly, like, most pictures, when people respond to them, it has almost nothing to do with what I intended, you know? And that's perfectly fine with me.
XS: I think—I'm thinking a lot about overwhelm and pause and also sensuality. Right now. I'm really—even when I'm going into studio visits, I'm always thinking like, "Well, what's turning you most on?" I don't know if I'm supposed to talk to students that way, but I do wonder, not necessarily in a sexual way, but in a sensual, like, how is this resonating on your body, in your body? How is this landing? That's something that I'm—I want to know how things play in the body.
So, when you're making a work, how does it feel for you? And so, I think that's something that I'm continuously working on, but I do—I don't watch a lot of dramas. I do love comedy though, so I'm sure that comes into my work somewhere a lot.
JL: I don't know. I haven't really thought about emotions in my work because I think a lot of the emotions that I'm trying to elicit are things that aren't totally verbal or things that you could name as specific emotions. They're more like effectual experiences.
But I do think humor's a great tactic that I am drawn to in Kenneth's work and that I've used to kind of disarm you so that maybe you could think deeper. But I don't know. That's a hard one for me to answer, I think.
MD: Surprising, 'cause your work is so funny sometimes.
JL: I know. I guess. Yeah, it is. Yeah. It is. And I think that's good. I think it is good to be funny. Maybe I just didn't think of that as an emotion, which is a weird thing, that humor wouldn't be an emotion. But yeah, humor's something that can lure someone in to think deeper, I think. And I do use it like that.
MD: Well, I think we wanted to make sure we had some time to have people ask questions, especially 'cause we've got such amazing people up here on the stage.
Audience member: Thank you. Wonderful presentation and thank you very much.
I am—I've got a question about the Stockholm photograph that I think was shot in 1967. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the image was created on the street. I guess it's a shadow or a snow pattern of some kind.
KJ: You're talking about two photographs, right? The Drottningholm one or the Stockholm with the automobile?
Yeah. It was just a weather condition where it had snowed lightly and enough to cover the objects in the street. And then the sun would break through the clouds from time to time and melt the snow where the heat of the sun would land. And there was a shadow … The light was coming from behind the subject and so the shape of the car was in shadow. And that's the area that didn't melt. So it looks very magical like you're looking at a negative and positive image at the same time.
It looks like it may have been produced with flour or something or whatever, but when you think about snow, heat, sun, this kind of vicarious thing happens, I think, with the sense of touch. Because if you think about that … Anyhow.
JL: That's one of my favorite images, and the first time I saw it, it had a big effect on me and how I understood photography and things you'd notice in the world and also, what it says about light and time and space.
AS: It's interesting, likewise. And whenever I show your work in class, when that image comes up, somebody asks that question. And then we spend a few minutes looking very carefully at it and deducing. And I'm happy to say that we're right most of the time based on what you just said.
KJ: Well, I have friends in California who have never experienced snow and they think I put down some kind of white material. They say, "That's a really good idea." Or a good story.
XS: I think it's so amazing, Kenneth, that you have influenced so many people. I just want to say—because I remember being in school at Bard and I remember when my art history professor showed your work. It was definitely a moment that I was like, "Oh my god. That's amazing. Oh my god." And you're just—here you are, one person, human being in this, and having this profound effect on so many image makers right now and for a long period of time. I just have a quick question, how does that feel? What does that feel like?
KJ: It feels wonderful.
KJ: And I think you oughta be my agent.
MD: Any other questions out there? Now's your chance. Here we go.
Audience member: With the advancement of technology, of taking photos with drones and underwater cameras and 360-degree photos and stuff with the—now, it's so immediate. Everything's so immediate. It's easier for people—for anybody—to get into photography. How do you think that changes how people value photography or what people look for in an image?
MD: I think that's for one of the artists to answer. Does anybody want to take up that question?
AS: That seems like a theoretical question, Blake.
BS: Well, I think, in a way, we talked a little bit about that before, just the idea—I mean, maybe if we just think about it not only in terms of these clever technologies and so on, but also just the number of photographs that are in the world.
So, one of the things I talk to students about—I do a little exercise with beginning students sometimes and ask them, "Well, you know, how many times do you think your picture was taken today?" And usually, they start off with, "Three or four" something like that, thinking of their friends shooting them or them doing selfies or something. But then, we start talking about every intersection you went through and every building you walked into and so on. And then when you start thinking about, well, what happens to those photographs? And, of course, they all go up there into the cloud, right? And they're all up their circulating, all these millions and millions and millions of pictures of you. And then, when you start to think about facial recognition technology, the capacity to search through images, suddenly, this kind of technological wonder starts to take on something that has at least a little bit of a creepy overtone to it, right? And then, when you start to think about that and then start to think about what artists like our panelists here are doing as a form of, I don't know, an alternative relationship to the image, in part through the high-density image, the high-resolution image that we were talking about before, and part through the care that goes into making each image and so on, that that almost, I don't want to call it "political," but it starts to move in that direction. It starts to be a kind of principled position in relationship to the world that we exist in.
And so, if we think of artists, generally photographers, generally who are working in this vein as occupying that position, I think that's one way that we can really value art. Often times, of course, we're asked to devalue art, to think that art really isn't so important, because there's so many—everybody's got a cell phone. Everybody's taking pictures. There's so many images out there. What's art, right?
But if you think about it in this context, this kind of care, kind of person behind this that's putting a voice out into the world as compared to that inundation of images, then suddenly it seems super important, super valuable.
XS: Yeah. And I have to agree with that. And just like a little anecdote: my partner, he basically—he brands luxury goods, so he decides the commercials or he decides the shape of the bottle or he decides the color of the commercials or where it's gonna be shot. I mean, I'm talking like, the highest luxury goods that we have; the brands that we all know as the status symbol brands.
And so, our household is—we're divided in a certain way. Yes, we both work with visual language and color theory, but he is—he'll make something for X corporation, and then it's gone and it's over. Yes, he brings along some of the knowledge that he learned from the past about branding a certain product, but he's moving on and it's about—he's helping people to consume things with his images, and I'm working to help people to open up different parts of their brain and fire different synapses inside of themselves. And so, we have that understanding. I'm working slowly with care and tenderness, and he's working very quickly, and those are the images that are coming into your stratosphere—images on televisions and on advertisements that are here today gone tomorrow.
And I'm trying to—I think all of us are trying to make images that have an imprint. Like, the image New York that Kenneth has made, that was produced in 1970, and I can see that image in my head far more than I can ever remember any Gucci ad or Valentino commercial. Images have a certain way of staying with you if you spend time with them, and if the artist spends time with them, then you probably will spend time with them and they'll have an imprint in your brain.
KJ: They'll become your friends.
Audience member: Ken, I had a question for you about your postcard works. You have described the works where you collage elements from postcards onto a picture that you took as having a conversation with vernacular photography, but I'm wondering if you ever actually tracked down any of those postcard photographers to have an actual conversation with them.
KJ: No, I didn't. No, I haven't. But that would be a very interesting thing to do. I just haven't done that. I have collected some commercial photographers' work that I value a great deal. They're kind of like postcards to me. No, I've never met any of them—and they've never sued me.
Audience member: I had a question for Xaviera—?
Audience member: —Xaviera, about your image on sculpture where you're holding the image of the ship and how displacing it or re-envisioning an image that harkens back to the New York State with the ontology of being black. I would like to know, or be inside your head, of your process of how you came to that image and what that process was.
XS: Again, when you spend time with certain people's works, they stay in your mind. And I'm an artist who—I'm very influenced by other artists. I need other—and my studio practice is in conversation with other artists. I'm talking to other artists in my mind as I'm making work. And so, that's—it's in line with Ken's work. It's in conversation. And it's also in conversation with another work that I produced, Superunknown.
So, it's thinking about his image and then also my own personal journeys. 'Cause I spent two years walking, so I have a relationship with land and sea that's very much about pause. And it allows me to look at other people's images and really let them land on me. And then, I have to respond. And so, that's like a conversation that, whether or not we've met, this is the first time we've met before, but I know him in terms of the practice that he's produced.
Audience member: And can you speak to that then? Because you're re-envisioning of Ken was just one little nub, but it was so powerful on how it like, totally brought in another world.
XS: You're asking me again?
I don't know if this is gonna answer your question, but I do think—and I'll ask Ken this question—how important is a journey in your work? And I say that because the image that I produced that is in conversation with your image is—you wouldn't know where it is produced, but what I mean by "journey" is that I actually was physically somewhere else. Like, I wasn't in my normal New York home. I was in another place and I was also looking at other images, and I found this image and I ripped it out of a magazine and it just made sense. But it was also because I was on a journey. Like, I was having another experience—a sort of freer experience than my normal conditions. And so, for me, journey is really important to my work. Like, travel, actually, and experiencing different cultures in order to return back to some of the languages that I already know. And so, I guess that my question is, how important is journey in your work?
KJ: Yes, it's very important and a good percentage of the photographs I feel have some success to them have been photographed in other countries. I find travel, you're just—because you're in a new space, you're much more aware because you—it's unfamiliar and you have to pay attention to everything much more closely than when you're in your usual environment. So, I think that heightened awareness of things and what's happening in front of you is very important and stimulating and it produces, I think, interesting work because of that.
MD: Probably have time for one more question. Yes. Ann, right there, up in the middle.
Audience member: How would you feel if I took one of your pictures from the internet, or many of them, and chopped them up and used them in my work without giving you credit at all?
AS: Go for it.
KJ: I'd like to see a copy of it.
Audience member: It's out there, I bet, a lot of times.
KJ: Yeah. Well, if someone wants to do that, I'd be interested in seeing the result.
JL: Flattered that you Googled me.
MD: Great. Well, thanks everybody, up here especially, for lending your time, and for all of you for being here tonight.
- MCA Talk:
Photoconceptualism–TalksFree With Admission
- Short Two sculptures, a bright pink rectangle and a turquoise circle, sit atop a reflective surface covered in geometric light and shadows.