Exhibition Tour with Kenneth Josephson

Kenneth Josephson leads a fascinating walkthrough of "Picture Fiction: Kenneth Josephson and Contemporary Photography" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, delving into his process and the many inspirations behind his artworks on view.

I was always kind of fascinated by Kodak would have these plaques, often. Not an explanation of the landscape. But how to expose properly, and usually they’d have a little stand where you could put your camera, your Kodak camera. Then they had an example of the finished image, right? And you could get your own duplicate image that way. Kind of an odd thing that there’d be these hundreds of thousands of the same photograph, you know, over and over again. I decided to make an homage to O’Sullivan, who was 1867 I believe. There was a survey of what the West was about. And he was one, he was the photographer. And he had placed a ruler or a yardstick, I think it was, embedded in a rock or something as a tribute to that—or documentation of that survey crew. I wanted to introduce myself. I was able to use shadow to place it in a particular area, representing the mountains. I had used photographs within a scene.

This time I wanted to maybe question whether it was a photograph or you actually seeing through this framing, what was beyond it. I like to make it kind of clear how the image was made. Again, I was introducing a piece of myself. It was a very spontaneous image. I just followed the car with the open matte, and that was the result. It’s like talking about how photography can create a moment, stop a moment in time. This image is Illinois, 1970. It’s of a supermarket parking lot. And it’s a series of images taken over a short period of time. And representing the same space, anchored by the sign in the background. And what intrigued me was that all the rather unconventional representations of time and space resulted in a believable hole. And it was my interest, again in the idea of sequence, to produce a sequence so all the parts are within one final image. The sequence moves from right to left, rather than the usual left to right. So that was OK with me, too.

The other image I wanted to talk about is—was taken in Stockholm in 1967. And I was taking my camera for a walk. Came upon this unusual scene of an automobile with its snow shadow. I thought it was a readymade for the explanation of the negative-positive relationship in photography. It just explained it right there. The other thing was that the possibility of vicariously stimulating the sense of touch, because of the cold, and the heat of the sun. That also has a factor in two other photographs that are on either side of that image. The one from Istanbul, and the other from Indiana. The one in Istanbul has no real sense of scale. And the scratching on the surface of the wall is by the thorns of this rose bush that was being blown, you know, back and forth. The background is very similar to a sky, a cloudy sky. And I just thought about the fantasy of scratching the sky. How do you scratch the sky?

The other one, done in Indiana, was after a snowstorm, with a rather strong wind. So it’s blowing the wind, I mean blowing the snow, from one particular direction. What look like shadows are really just bare spots where the tree was blocking the path of the snow. So it becomes like a sunlit scene, but it was just very overcast. But I like the way photography can create something that really isn’t there. That, it’s really magical to me.

I’ve always loved the Chicago skyline. I wanted to make a documentation of it and include some scale. It’s also like reminiscent of the early daguerreotypes, when they would travel to monuments, places that people would not have traveled to, to show examples of what’s out there in the world. This image was, as you can see, done in Washington, DC. And it was my homage to one of the largest phallic symbols in the world. And I wanted to play with this by using this contour gauge which carpenters use to duplicate, say, wood molding that isn’t available anymore. These are little rods. And you press that against something, and it gives you the outline of whatever you want to reproduce. It comes off as this giant arm and hand or something. I always enjoyed forensic photography. I’ve looked at a lot of police photographs that deal with evidence. Kind of an unnecessary image for evidence. It illustrates the impact of this car, spinning its wheels and creating this effect. I’ve used these, this device, meter sticks, in other situations. And I’ve even made fake ones so that things appear to be much larger than they are because of the evidence of a small meter stick— or opposite, they become very small. Because of the believability of photography, I was counting on that, too. Kind of make a false statement.

I haven’t used color or color photography very much. And when I have a chance to introduce it into my work, I do that. So the clothes allowed for that addition. Plus the texture of the cloth. And that it’s these images are like packing slips of what the contents are. You have all the clothes that are shown are in there. This image of my son, he was two years old, and he was very curious. I photographed him a lot. And one day I was photographing him with a Polaroid camera. And I had another camera with me. It was completely unplanned. He picked up one of the images that he’s holding, and in his mind I think he thought he was making an image because this is translucent. He could see his image through there when he had it out this far, but then he brought it up as if he were using a camera, because he’s mimicking me with my finger on the shutter release. And luckily he held it upside down, which is the way the camera sees the image. It’s inverted. So it speaks about the medium in a very interesting way to me. And I see it as a gift, because I didn’t plan this at all. Just grabbed my other camera, and I saw him, what he was doing. There’s a quote of Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” So having my camera ready and seeing that it was another image that could fit into my, that images within images series. And I live by that quote.

I had this battery-operated. With a long shaft that you could bend and twist. And I thought it would be an interesting use of that to photograph within a pack of paper. And see what the results would be . . . that these spots of light would happen through exposure of this light probe, after drilling holes into the box of prints. But it’s interesting the way the light migrates out from the center. Like if I had exposed it longer, these things, circles would have been greater, I suppose. All 50 sheets could be exhibited, and you’d see different degrees of that light spreading. But I don’t know if that would be so terribly interesting. I think it would get a little boring in a way. I’m always interested in sequential images. And I’ve done them in different ways. What I like is to contain them in one final image rather than spreading them out, da da-da da-da, left to right. The light is constant. So it’s the exposure that gives the variation and the intensity. I had a feeling of how emotion increases, that kind of representation of that. You know, intensifies.

This piece reveals the actual skirt that was used in the photograph. I like that idea of having the subject in the photograph contained within the same piece. And also I was interested in what things going beyond the edges of the frame. And it’s a very intimate image. Like schoolboy’s fantasy of seeing through clothes, x-ray vision, all that sort of thing.

This image is a tribute to Tina Modotti, who was Edward Weston’s mistress in Mexico. She was quite an accomplished photographer. And she also was politically active in Mexico. And the other person represented here is Barnett Newman. It’s a portrait of him by Irving Penn who also did a whole series of cigarette butts and magnified them to great sizes. And I thought I’d put in a pseudo-smoke using the feather there. So it’s an homage to—it’s an Edward Weston photograph of Tina and Irving Penn, of Newman, which I admire both of them as photographers, so it was an homage to them and the people he photographed.

This image has gotten a lot of exposure. And I wonder when people come and they see it in that size, I don’t know what their reaction is. Yeah. I had to conform of course to the postcard size of the colored images. Although I mean I could have copied the postcard and made a larger piece. But I wanted to have the real thing. Something about the real object. I just like the feeling of that actual postcard. And in time it’ll probably fade. That’s probably faded some now. But I could only find three postcards. They were done about ten years prior to my black-and-white photograph. And I started doing these in ‘68, ‘69. And I was interested in finding older postcards than the time I used them. Also I could introduce color into my work. And I like the way the color and the black and white work together. I can make a little drama out of it through the figures. And also deal with the Chicago skyline and the changes in the skyline that had happened. Similar to that supermarket parking lot, what it does to the, to space and time is what I’m very interested in, the final effect of those two factors representing spaces, some that are there, and some that aren’t.

'79, I was interested in making an artist book. And I was thinking about what would be appropriate. What I was interested in was things coming together and touching when the book was closed. So that this loaf of bread became like an eighth of an inch thick when it was all closed. But just the feeling of what, of those things touching, together, touching each other, when the book was closed, interested me. I could have used other things, but it seemed a loaf of bread was the most appropriate. And luckily one of the loaves, when I cut into it, it had a yeast hole, which acts as a climax. It’s kind of like a traditional story: It has a beginning, a middle, a climax, and end. And it’s like a flipbook, too. Doesn’t function as well as tiny flipbooks, but it’s a flipbook, too. And it’s dealing with some basic thing that we use for nutrition. I was interested in what could, what would happen inside the loaf of bread, too. I started cutting them. And that loaf worked. I guess I would have gone out and bought some more loaves if that hadn’t happened.

This book is a book of my first son, Matthew, and he was, as I explained in that other image of him holding the Polaroid, he was very active, and very curious about things. So I photographed him for years. I would be babysitting, or the mother, and vice versa. Had time to follow him around. And just see what he would do. Document his life. It’s very–and this is—first photograph I’ve made of him as an infant. A man never experiences birth or having a baby, a baby growing inside of them. Kind of like I was wanting to kind of visually suggest that. But also that he be contained within my shadow. And it was like a dual portrait. I’m talking about this particular image. Then I just redid it at a later time.

This is like fussing around with nature. I painted these vines so that they would separate from the rest of the scene. And I inserted this tropical scene which is in opposition to what is there. So it’s a painted background that’s used in portrait studios. Set someone in front of that who photographed them. I had started, prior to this, photographing leaves and nature. And when I was, when I first started doing landscape work, I would see the sun picking out certain things, if it was strong sunlight, picking out certain parts of the foliage of the wood, the trees, and bushes. And by the time I would set up my camera, the sun had shifted enough so it was no longer the picture I wanted to make. So I thought I would just paint the leaves to simulate sunlight striking them. And the sun’s not going to move. It’s going to stay there for my photograph. So I started messing with nature that way.

I came upon this when I was out in Colorado. My daughter lives out there. I go to visit her, so I’d go around and photograph while I was visiting. And I came upon this—it had been a campfire. And someone had used this paper to start the fire. And it reminded me of Robert Heinecken’s use of the media. He hardly ever made a photograph of his own. He’d always use images from the media to produce his pieces. So it’s an homage to him. I was taught the history of photography by Beaumont Newhall when I was at the Rochester Institute of Technology. And he was such a great historian and he really made me love the history of photography. And so I produced a series that I still continue dealing with the history of photography.

And this is homage to Edward Weston, who photographed a lot of nude ladies on the sand. I just wonder how uncomfortable that might have been, lying nude on hot sand, but they—he produced some really just very memorable images. So I produce mine in homage to him.

Kodak used to, in their advertising, which it’d show a corner that was curled. So it’s in reference to that ability of photography to very closely duplicate an image of an object. My first attempt at actually using a photograph within another photograph. And it’s a series of Polaroids from a distance, and then fairly close up, and then very close up. It’s my idea of containing a sequence within one final piece. This is only about four by three and a half inches, about that size. So give you an idea.

This is similar to the Washington Monument. I spent a year teaching photography in Sweden, a school of art and design. And we flew over there, but then we took an ocean liner back. And that’s the ocean liner that I came back at. Which isn’t really important, rather. It could be any ship. It just happened to be the one I traveled on. But I want to create this kind of magical thing, lifting something out of the water, this giant hand again, to—I think that’s what it’s about. And my inclusion in the photograph. I’m not very good at titles. So I usually title the work where it was made. So this is was made—that’s Lake Ontario. But it looks like the ocean. -laughs-