My job is not to produce answers. My job is to produce good questions.
This is my final post
It’s a conversation with myself and two artists: Dalia Amara, a friend, and Randy West, my first crit prof at SVA. What really stuck with me about their work is that there is a kind of truth in it. But it’s illegible. There’s no way to read it objectively. Anyone looking at their images can tell that there’s something there, but neither of them are invested in spelling it out. Below is a conversation I had with the two of them. It’s a combination of an in person interview, and a series of emails.
I came to this conversation thinking, what’s better about this than actually saying what you feel?
Daniel Johnson – I walked out of the department one day, and saw your book Randy. And it struck me how similar you and Dalia work.
Randy West – I thought that was weird. I don’t know if we do.
Dalia Amara – Yeah, I didn’t know until you wanted to pair us together. I thought Interesting, I had never thought of that.
DJ – Randy, tell us about your latest book, I Never Promised You Anything.
RW – Well, what can I say about this book?
DJ – You can start with the title.
RW – Well, the title pulled it all together. I’ve been scanning things for, oh I don’t know, 10 or 15 years. I Never Promised You Anything was ultimately this series of rose petals that were scanned on the computer.
Most photographers, I think maybe even most artists, you just like to look at something. So I was scanning rose petals. Before that I was scanning birds’ nests or objects just to see what it looked like.
I think I say this in the book, I don’t know how many years ago this was, but this was my midlife era and I planted a rose garden upstate. It seemed very cliché and wonderful to do that. I wanted to plant roses. How romantic. And how beautiful. Making them black seemed kind of natural for me because everything that I do, I typically go to the very romantic, the very formal, the very emotional. My work usually has those qualities, and the other thing I tend to do with a lot of my work is that I’ll do something repetitively. Whatever it is that I’m photographing I’ll repeat it again and again and again and again. And then it all comes together cumulatively.
So I scanned the rose petals, and I thought I’d start building them in the computer. I just started pulling them together and layering them. I’d go with the most delicate, white background with the fewest petals falling and then it would just mound into an almost filled up page or an almost filled up image. It’s all coming from a this notion of—How much more cliché can I get? Or how much more romantic can I get? And yet, changing them black makes it a bit more funereal, and the page, it becomes more and more and more black and it just keeps progressing and filling up. A good friend of mine, when she was looking at the work, she wanted the last image to be all black. You know, we show each other our work and kind of critique each other and give each other suggestions, and I remember her saying that to me, and I really respect her opinion. And it made sense, perfect sense, but I remember feeling this little tiny pain inside. I can’t make it all black because then it would be over. Then it would be dead. And there’d be absolutely no hope whatsoever. So the last image has just a little white where there’s just a few more petals to come and I think that had I made the whole entire image solid, it would have been death. Or it would have been over.
The title is funny because my husband—Alan—he and I are always joking and finding really stupid titles for artwork. And we’ll say, “Oh that’ll be a great title for a piece of art.” I have lists and lists of really bad titles or stupid titles. I can’t remember. I think he came up with the title. In the 70s, there was a popular song, a country western song, and it was “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” and this work came out of genuine love for building a rose garden. I just thought it would be great to have a rose garden. It’d be pretty. It’d be fragrant. And one of the things I think I’ve talked and written about is that planting rose bushes is not easy. I went out and got a book. I tried to learn how to do it. And I’m kind of hasty. You know, I’ll do things really fast. So I just dug a hole and put the roses in there and watered it and just hoped it would grow. And what I learned is that roses just aren’t that easy. They take a lot of care. Some plants, I guess you can plant. Just make sure it has water and sunlight, and it’ll be fine. But roses can be difficult. So the roses I kept buying, and Alan kept telling me, I was buying them for the wrong climate. I kept making bad choices about the roses. They just kept dying. So we laughed about it. And I thought if it lasts the summer, well that’d be good. At least they lasted a summer. Then we started joking and I can’t remember how it came up. But the song, “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” the lyrics of that song, it’s about love relationships. You know, I never promised you anything. Even the lyrics say it, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden,” and at that point, Alan and I had been together for 25 years or so.
DJ – I was waiting for this—this is why I wanted you guys to talk. When I saw the book, I thought Randy…this is not about roses.
RW – It’s not! It’s not about roses.
DA – They actually look like ashes.
DJ – Roses are fine, but this is not about roses. I’m trying to see if you gave this a dedication. I can’t find it. But when I saw it, I read it. I read a dedication.
RW – Well, I think what it’s really about. It’s about life. It’s about relationships and maybe when that last page, if it ever did become fully blackened with ink. Then that would be the end of it. Does that mean life is over? Does that mean the relationship is over?
I think what I learned, it look me a long time, and Alan and I learned this together, is that you can’t promise anyone anything.
Dalia, you said you just got married recently. You can’t promise anything, you can only do your best. Your marriage can be as good as you make it. But you can’t really promise. I mean we do. But you can’t really promise anything. We make mistakes. Things change. How can you promise someone something like that? You just can’t. You go into it with the best of intentions, otherwise you wouldn’t, but I think love and life and friendships and all of that—it’s all about doing the best you can. Knowing that you’re going to hurt each other along the way. Knowing that you’re in it for as long as you can stand each other. Or like each other or want to be together. So it’s not about roses, but the roses for me were about love. And I made twelve images, which is like the cliché—a bouquet of roses. And then Paola, who wrote an essay for the book, she brought it into this discussion that twelve, is a calendar year. Twelve months is a calendar year. Every year we go through the same thing again. You hope that your roses come back and bloom again next summer. They go dormant in the winter—hopefully they bloom again. But they don’t always bloom again.
DJ – Maybe they bloom differently?
RW – They bloom differently. And then sometimes they just don’t come back. As a young person, I lost an awful lot of friends to AIDS. There are a lot of promises that you make to friends. It’s not just about love, marriage, or sexual relationships. It’s about friendships too. I think people, I would hope, that we try our best to be good. But we’re not always good. I’ve got some really bad days in me.
And I regret lots of behaviors that I have. But you do your best, and sometimes your best isn’t very good. Paola said one thing that really hit me.
Do you want to look? Great, I offer myself to your sight. You let your eye deposit its look on me; look at what I have to offer. Take heed however: I do not promise you anything, I never promised you anything.
What I offer, so that you may gaze at it, is not necessarily what you seek to see. There is no coincidence between eye and gaze, there is deceit, as Lacan reminds us: “Jamais tu ne me regarde là où je te vois”, you never gaze at me there where I see you. But there is expectation. And if, as in a love discourse, you accept the challenge of this encounter, then perhaps you might be able to find something other than what you expected without even knowing it. Something that shifts us away from repetition and turns me into an opportunity. Something that opens up a new horizon unfolding from the transformation we both share in the act of seeing.
We do want to be looked at. And hopefully, oh gosh, I hope I’m making sense. And not just rambling.
DA – It’s interesting to hear Randy talk about as long as you can stand each other, and how it doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. I feel most of my past is more intense friendships than relationships. I knew Matt and I were meant to be because I could spend the most time with him out of anyone I ever met, and still feel I didn’t have enough of him. With most people, as much as I can like them, I can only stand being around them so long before I want to be alone. With my husband, Matt, I can spend every second with him for days, weeks, months, years, and I don’t tire of him. There was a point in our relationship where I almost felt like we were an extension of each other; we hardly seemed like separate people. And yet, we are different in ways. There are definitely differences between us but at the same time I don’t think I met anyone I feel as similar to.
DJ – No, no, you’re making sense. You’re touching on all the notes I had prepared for myself about why I wanted to talk to both of you.
When I first came to grad school, I remember looking at Dalia’s work and it was challenging. My idea of what photography is was so young. I thought photographs were about life, things that were true. And Dalia’s work was so perfect that it was not about what was in front of the camera. I feel like neither of you are interested in truth as something that can be photographed. I think that both of you use a camera (or scanner) to record things that are not easily perceived, not “true”, but in some sense are extremely true. They’re more true than what’s actually in front of you. I was just really struck by the title of this work, I Never Promised You Anything. Like, how much more vulnerable can you be?
RW – When you go into marriage counseling, if you ever do, you kind of go in hoping that you can work something out, but basically you go into it wanting to know if there’s something to work out. Otherwise, you might decide let’s just go our separate ways. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are either married or in relationships, and there’s this point that you go to counseling for whatever reason, you think you’re going to fix it but fixing it might be separating from each other. That realization of that what you fantasized about getting may not be the reality.
I think that photography for me—I really am interested in what’s in front of the camera because we believe it was there. Even if it’s abstract, it existed. But what you end up getting in two dimensions, whether it’s on paper or on the screen, it won’t be the same. It’s not the same. You kind of have to step back and look at it again, and say, “Well now what do I have?” I don’t know if that’s similar to relationships but there’s a fantasy about what you think it’s going to be and the reality. Sometimes my pictures look better than the real thing. And sometimes, many times, they’re a huge disappointment.
DA – They’re much better in your head.
RW – Much better in my head. That plant is much better than if I would photograph it. That translation that the camera makes can make it better or be a huge disappointment.
DA – Even understanding how cameras work, there are still times when I have an idea that when I go to do it, I realize it isn’t physically possible. Like the angle of the lens. Or that I’m thinking of something that can’t exist. And then I have to change it. Sometimes I think of something that’s just as good or I give it up.
DJ – With your newer work though, I feel like you’re moving further away from that because you’re using Photoshop to do things that can’t actually happen.
RW – Are you creating things in the computer?
DA – Yeah, sometimes it’s more obvious than other times. The image of the statue where I put some white space in it. There was stuff in the frame that I didn’t want there, but I didn’t have control over it because I shot it outside. There were trees and I wanted it to be white space so I just added it in myself. Or there’s one I did recently––sometimes I’ll rearrange my room or my apartment because there’s something that I don’t feel is relevant in the frame. Sometimes it’s more of a hassle for me to move it, so I just put white space there.
DJ – So you’ve got two projects that you’re working on?
DA – Right now I’m working on Doubles Doubled. The idea was that the objects would be a stand-in for myself and my husband or something desirable. I was really inspired after I got married. We put our registry together and I was looking at all these objects to add to my apartment. Looking at catalogs and websites, and things were so perfect. When you get married, especially when you’re a woman, there’s all this pressure to look perfect and people will go to extreme lengths, the money they’ll spend, and the time and the energy.
DJ – But you did look pretty good at your wedding.
DA – I tried, but I was terrified—I did my own hair and makeup. I was afraid that I was doing everything wrong, and that I really wasn’t putting enough effort into it. But I was thinking of all of this. And how Photoshop is used to make things perfect. Here, I made the vase more shapely, like an hourglass. In one image, I used the waist cincher that I wore under my wedding dress on a balloon. I’m thinking about the humor in how photography is used to make us desire things. And kind of like being the anti-desire almost. I don’t know if that makes sense.
RW – But they are still very sexy and beautiful and sensual. I guess I use photographic technique and then I go in and manipulate something. I work with it, whether it’s layering the files on top of each other or adding something. I don’t have any ethical reason to stay true to the original—I just want to play with whatever I am recording.
I like that I can play. Manipulate things. It’s like if that vase needed to be more sensual and sculpted, then why not do it? It does look like that figure of the corset. Or at least it makes me think of that kind of form.
DA – I also don’t try to make it look perfect. I purposefully had the background squeezed in so that people would know that I manipulated it. It’s like an in-joke. I was thinking of Instagram and how a lot of celebrities or everyday people will Photoshop their photos. Sometimes there are little things like that, and then they become tabloid or blog posts, “Oh, check it out! You can see where she squeezed in her thigh!”
DJ – What role does the body have in your work? Your work is so influenced, or maybe inspired by the presence and absence of bodies. Could you talk about how you ended up using them in your work?
DA – In Death As If, I wanted to allude to the body’s presence while never showing it in order to talk about loss and absence. With the image “Disconnect” I wanted the clay to resemble a tumor—some kind of entity growing on the wood. “Relative Space” I was thinking about surgery, and the violence of cancer treatments, which can often appear more violent to the body than the cancer itself.
“Lipstick Remnants” came about from my own personal experience with my mother’s objects. I’m the oldest of five, and together with my one sister who is close to me in age, we were tasked with going through our mother’s things, in addition to trying to run the household and looking after the rest of our younger siblings. My dad was mostly working and living overseas, so the burden was on us. I was just shy of turning 21, and she was 20. We donated most of our mother’s things. It was mostly just stuff and the charitable route seemed the best way to honor her. But her makeup was too personal, and it couldn’t be donated in any case. It was way too painful to throw away. I felt the strongest connection to it. The shades and colors that didn’t suit me, remained in her bathroom drawers but she had a lipstick that I could pull off. I took it and wore it as a way of preserving its use. Eventually I wore it down and I threw it out, but by that point it was my own, and it was less painful to throw out. I used my own lipstick is in the photo, but the project is about my own death anxiety and body anxiety. It’s more fitting that my own was ultimately used.
In Home Fitness, I started using fragments of the body: my hair, the arm and body of the man, who is now my husband. I wanted to go in the opposite direction of death, and speak of sex and desire. I wanted to reference forms of art that came about before photography like classical sculpture or painting. So much of photography determines our bodily ideals, the Ancient Greeks used statues, and somewhere in the middle there were illustration ads. I wanted the body to be objectified, mysterious, and sexy. I also wanted to speak about the act of wanting to immortalize someone you love in something as concrete as a bronze or marble sculpture.
And in my current work, Doubles Doubled, I wanted to continue exploring the concept of ideals with not just the desire of the body but also the desire of things themselves. I am interested in how the objects can be used in place of the body, and speak about the manipulation used to build these ideals but I am also interested in the appeal in owning things. There is also an added humor that can be evoked in combining the two, such as the absurdity of putting a waist cincher over a balloon and calling it “Hugging a Balloon.”
I find bodies fascinating for our want to control them, and how they can also function beyond our control. We can control them consciously and unconsciously but when we can’t, we feel betrayed. So much of our time is spent trying to master the body, how we think, look or act. They’re also a reflection of our interior, our mental state and our inner biological health. We see the body as a home to our psyche. In this way, domestic spaces and the body are both perfect metaphors.
DJ – This idea that there is a truth behind photographs—like people who actually get angry. That’s just absurd to me. At the beginning of the day, photographs start off as a lie. You’re taking something 3 dimensional and you’re reducing it to 2 dimensions. That translation is destroying all kinds of information. You can’t actually represent an object the way it should be represented. You know, models that are good models they only look good because of the way they photograph, not because they look like that in person. Being in NY, I think we’ve all seen someone famous in the street and it’s like who is that unfortunate looking person, and then you realize who it was later.
RW – They just photograph really well.
DJ – The way you stand, the way you shift your weight, the type of lens, where the camera is, how you place your hand, there’s just all these little tricks that most people are unaware of. Nobody actually looks like what they look like when they’re photographed.
RW – I hate pictures of me.
Like, “Do I actually look like that?” Yeah I guess I do.
DA – I think that’s also why I’m usually interested in mirrors too. Because the way you see yourself and the way you’re in photos can be so different.
DJ – Yeah.
DA – Like they do different things.
DJ – I think I’ve noticed that seeing myself in video… seeing myself in a mirror, it’s always from the same perspective. The mirror is always right in front of me. It’s always in the same position. And I’m always just straight on, that’s all that I see. But if I see myself in video or in photographs, I can see myself in ways that I’ve never seen before. There’s that Sontag quote that I mentioned in another post. She talks about photography as being violent because you’re seeing someone in a way that they’ve never seen themselves.
DA – One of my more traumatic experiences of puberty involved mirrors. When I was born and for most of my childhood, I did not have a “bump” on my nose. With puberty, I inherited my mom’s very German nose. I was so used to seeing myself in mirrors straight on, and then one day we were in a department store trying on clothes, and I was surrounded by mirrors on all sides. I was horrified, I couldn’t recognize myself. All along, I was not aware of what I now looked like in profile. All the previous photographs of me in profile had a very different nose. I felt betrayed that people had this awareness of what I looked like much sooner than I did. Eventually, when it happened to 3 of my 4 siblings, as the older sister, I could point it out and laugh with them. We made sure to tease our youngest sister that never got it, we told her she was adopted.
DJ – I think both of you are interested in domestic life. Could you talk about that a bit? Would you admit that? Do you think of your work that way?
DA – I admit it. But it’s one of those things where if I say it, I know they might start to get ideas about the work that I may not like—just being a woman, it’s so loaded. I try to use domestic life and objects but not be overly political or cliché about it.
DJ – How do you even negotiate that space? It’s interesting that your work looks nothing alike, the themes, yes, but I don’t think anyone would say “Dalia and Randy, they are similar photographers” but the themes are there.
RW – I never really saw myself as being interested in domestic life though.
DJ – So when you think of the bird’s nest, that’s a home, the rose garden…
RW – I can see where you pull some of that together. It’s just not something I think about. If anything, for me it’s about whatever the thing is that I’m recording. I’m getting more and more interested in removing or concealing information. Like, whether it’s making, you know, twelve pictures of rose petals that eventually go from a very empty palette to one that’s very full of ink. You know, like very full—fill the page up with black ink—or if it’s, um, uh with the bird’s nests it’s the same thing. It’s, like, the first view of the fibers are really kind of readable and, uh, sparse and they get denser and denser and denser until the top totally fills in the center area of the image where it becomes very dense, black ink with newer work right now it’s trying. I think that in my mind, I have too much stimulus and in order for me to calm down, it takes a process of removing or concealing. Just quieting the picture. I can get really carried away with all of these little formal qualities, but the one that ends up being the most successful is the one that’s the quietest.
DJ – See, I think what you just said reminds me of Dalia. For Randy to say that he’s interested in taking things away, like, physically I guess I’ve always recognized that as one of the foundations of Dalia’s work—she always wants to say things but doesn’t want to actually say it.
DA – Well, with my earlier project, I think people had a hard time with it because they didn’t feel it was personal enough or that it was too cold in comparison to the subject matter, but I think that the work was really about my anxiety towards death because my mom passed away at forty-five years old from cancer and we didn’t expect it. We thought she’d outlive our father. She was a lot more physically healthy in her lifestyle—we just didn’t see it coming. Even when she was diagnosed there was a period where we thought she was in the clear and suddenly it just came back and it was everywhere and metastasized and it was too late to do anything. I could barely process what was happening. I think people expected images of my family. When other people would do projects about cancer, they’d take actual photos of the person or their objects, but mine was about this fear of confronting that and about feeling this loneliness and this anxiety and it was really more about me than my mom.
At the time, I didn’t really have a whole lot in my apartment. I didn’t make it a home, I was just in school. I have roommates and we just kind of lived in this bare but interesting place. When Hurricane Sandy happened, we spent a lot of time inside, it was like kind of being trapped. A lot of trains weren’t running, a lot of things were closed. I was just sitting in my room and staring at things. Like you do when you’re depressed. You’re not reading or watching a movie, you’re just sitting there and starting at your place. So I started to draw inspiration from that, and I wanted to incorporate some cliché elements of death, like the candles or like the draped velvet but also do it in an unexpected way.
My mom passed away in our house. The presence of her, slowly dying was not something we could escape, so I wanted to reference that too. When the domestic place stops being something comfortable and relaxing or inviting, and it just becomes violent and uncomfortable. I do feel like there is that anger, violence in the images. Maybe in that way they’re successful.
DJ – It’s there, but it’s it’s understated. You know, it’s kind of like you’re whispering, and the wind is blowing, and the moon is out, and it’s just kind of bleak. Not the work is “dark,” but it kind of is.
DA – I still feel vulnerable when I show my work. And sometimes scared of how much it may say about me without me realizing it. In some cases, maybe the viewer can only see what they see because they can relate in some way. Then we’re both vulnerable, and it seems less terrifying.
I’ve also experienced instances where viewers don’t see or read me at all in my own work because they can’t see past themselves. I did a studio visit with an artist who hated Death As If because the only thing it reminded her of was her father’s violent murder. She read my work as someone being kidnapped, tortured and killed. She could only read her own trauma.
DJ – What does it mean to be vulnerable?
I sent someone this quote from Toni Morrison the other day. I think it’s applicable to your work. Or maybe why you make work. Replace love with art.
Let me tell you about love, that silly word you believe is about whether you like somebody or whether somebody likes you or whether you can put up with somebody in order to get something or someplace you want or you believe it has to do with how your body responds to another body like robins or bison or maybe you believe love is how forces or nature or luck is benign to you in particular not maiming or killing you but if so doing it for your own good. Love is none of that. There is nothing in nature like it. Not in robins or bison or in the banging tails of your hunting dogs and not in blossoms or suckling foal. Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God. You do not deserve love regardless of the suffering you have endured. You do not deserve love because somebody did you wrong. You do not deserve love just because you want it. You can only earn – by practice and careful contemplations – the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it. Which is to say you have to earn God. You have to practice God. You have to think God–carefully. And if you are a good and diligent student you may secure the right to show love. Love is not a gift. It is a diploma. A diploma conferring certain privileges: the privilege of expressing love and the privilege of receiving it. How do you know you have graduated? You don’t. What you do know is that you are human and therefore educable, and therefore capable of learning how to learn, and therefore interesting to God, who is interested only in Himself which is to say He is interested only in love. Do you understand me? God is not interested in you. He is interested in love and the bliss it brings to those who understand and share the interest. Couples that enter the sacrament of marriage and are not prepared to go the distance or are not willing to get right with the real love of God cannot thrive. They may cleave together like robins or gulls or anything else that mates for life. But if they eschew this mighty course, at the moment when all are judged for the disposition of their eternal lives, their cleaving won’t mean a thing. God bless the pure and holy. Amen
DA – When I’m working on an image, the first thing that’s important is if I have an emotional reaction to it or if it comes from my own feelings. I place equal value on intuitive, irrational emotions and rationalized intellect. By putting my work out there, I’m then asking for an emotional response from the viewer. I hope for a strong response, negative or positive—I would be more bothered by a neutral uninterested response.
I use a series to layer emotions, the images build and add upon one another. I find my work is viewed best sequentially within a given series. The images are often weaker when divorced from each other. Maybe 4 from the same series can work together but definitely not less.
I agree, you can replace love with art in that quote, and it would still ring true. Art is a lot of work, it’s hard, it’s an emotional rollercoaster, and it’s an unattainable ideal.
To be vulnerable is to place yourself in an intimate position where you are sharing who you are, and are open to acceptance or rejection from others. I think most importantly you’re not attempting to control those reactions. I know I highlighted more negative reactions to my work in the interview so far but there are positive ones too. It’s not all bad, and when it is bad, you just have to keep making the work anyway.
After I worked on Death As If, Matt (my now Husband) and I moved in together. Before that neither of us felt domestically inclined but together we’re suddenly interested in buying a couch, rugs, and making a home. I wanted to move away from death, and focus on domesticity in relation to sex and desire. My work is tied to my emotions so changes in my life prompt me to move in different directions.
RW – I love hearing this. Hearing how you reacted to death within your family, and especially your mother. And then thinking of how I did it when I was in my twenties. Just out of graduate school, I was losing a lot of friends, a lot of lovers. A lot of people I knew were dying from AIDS, and I would go out to the beach because I grew up in the middle of the country in Indiana and the ocean was this, like, wonderful, amazing thing that I had not really experienced as a kid. I mean, I’d been to the ocean so it wasn’t totally foreign, but it was just a new landscape for me or a new seascape. So as I was losing friends, I started photographing these surfers and people out in the water. You know, these little tiny figures. And then when I would print them, I would print them very gray and then I would rub charcoal over the print. More and more and more almost unreadable so that you could maybe even not see the ocean and the figures swimming in the ocean. I took a different approach—I was trying to conceal information and to remove it. Maybe you won’t see it, and if you don’t see it, that’s okay. We don’t have to talk about it. We can ignore that this is happening.
One of the things that worked out to my advantage when I showed that work in the late ’80s early ’90s, was that it was shown in Los Angeles where you would maybe be outside in the bright sunlight and you would walk into a bright gallery, and sunlight and everything is so bright and white. And the white walls—that was the traditional kind of space for a gallery—you would come in and you would see these little gray rectangles on the wall. And a lot of people, because your eyes didn’t register, you really didn’t see anything. You saw a gray slab. And a lot of people would just walk away. They’d walk away and just be like, “Oh great, rectangles on the wall.” And think, “Oh this is minimalism.” But if you gave it a minute or two, you’d start to see little tiny figures in the seascape.
For me it was about slowing down. I’m not sure what you’d say you felt when your mother was dying. I think maybe we all deal with emotions differently. You know, whether it’s with the rose book and roses or love or being in love or out of love or the loss of people. I think my true self is an incredibly emotional person, but there’s this surface that I’ve learned to put on which is to be unemotional because the emotions are way too heavy. They’re way too cliché. Like, no one actually wants to hear your problems—no one can really feel it. My mother is still alive, so I don’t know what it’s like to lose a mother. But I can hear you talk about what it’s like losing a parent, and I can imagine maybe what that might have been like. I can empathize but I don’t know what that feels like. We’re all probably dealing with emotions differently. My emotions have always gotten me in trouble when I’ve let them be way too obvious. I don’t know if it was from childhood, but I’ve always felt better when I could pull the emotion way down—like making rose petals into one black sheet of paper, or making seascapes into really gray slabs of almost nothingness. The emotion is a real quiet emotion. There could be sadness underneath it all, like when I look at this work. I haven’t seen it since you graduated.
I love these photographs because there’s a lot of humor in them. I remember thinking they’re funny, but then when I hear the story and I look more at them it’s like, “No, there’s a lot of sadness and anger in them.” I mean, just the rope on the window, that’s—I’m laughing but I’m not—I’m in a state of confusion, which I guess is a good state. It’s being interested enough to be confused. What’s going on in here?
DJ – What I’ve always liked about your work, is that it doesn’t give you an answer. It would have been easy for her to be like, “Hey guys, my mom died. I’m sad.” Take a bunch of selfies. But Dalia didn’t do that. She worked really hard to produce these images and to learn how to talk about death and anxiety.
I’ve kind of been here for the entire ride, so I’ve had the inside scoop. But when you first started making this work, you didn’t really talk about your mom dying.
DA – My first critique with Penelope I did, but it made it difficult for people to read the work. It forced me to be more personal, and that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. So then I thought…
DJ – Wait, wait, I want to talk about personal because what does that even mean? You’re making work about your mom dying. How could you not make it personal?
RW – I don’t know that this is about her mom dying, and I don’t know that my book is about me and Alan. That’s where it comes from.This is the time that it was made. If you were to look at my seascapes from the late ’80s you would not think AIDS. AIDS wouldn’t enter your mind at all. They would just be dark, gray seascapes. But it’s what made me make the work.
I think what Dalia’s pictures are for me, they’re very poetic pieces that give off an emotion or a feeling and I can either find humor in them or I can find quietness or I can find some romantic, graceful qualities in them.
The thing is if I can feel something. If I can feel the candles. If I can feel the candles on the radiators and have some kind of reaction to that—it’s a much more successful image than if you had made something that was about the death of a parent. Unless you wanted to document death. But that would be a different artist.
DJ – That’s what I like about you guys. The work isn’t just one thing. It’s like you make work to communicate these things you actually can’t articulate. Which is what’s so incredibly difficult but also elegant about it. How can you say how you feel when your mom dies? And how can you say what it feels like to plant a rose garden upstate? Like, what do those things feel like? You can’t just say it.
RW – And actually if I had made a body of work about planting a rose garden it would probably be pretty bad or pretty boring.
I think that what you and I would like to do, or myself, I’d like the viewer to get to the place where they can feel something that’s––one of the things you did say in your email was that the thing that you can’t really articulate, the minute you describe something you kind of kill it because it’s been described too much with words and you’d rather just look at something and have an emotional reaction to it.
DA – I didn’t want my pictures to make sense necessarily, completely. I think confusion is fine. You know, people have said “What does duct tape have to do with your mom passing?” or “You know I find this humorous, isn’t that like troubling to you?” Part of it was trying to feel like I was in control but also realizing that, you know, to feel like we’re in control is kind of silly. We’re not in control so in that case they can be funny because sometimes they were just failed attempts or made to look like that. Someone said, “It looks like someone wanted to hang themselves but there’s no way you can hang yourself with the rope like that.” I was like “well, you know sometimes I might feel like killing myself but I don’t want to actually kill myself.”
A few weeks ago, I posted about an event featuring Juan Betancurth and Benjamin Frederickson in conversation with Allen Frame. This ended up being a really profound experience for me (it’s going near the top of my list of great art stories next to the one where, during a Clifford Owens talk—he was riffing on his score for Photographs with an Audience by asking members of the crowd to stand if things that he said applied to them—I looked at the woman I was dating and living with, and watched her look back at me blank and emotionless while other people stood, clapped, and even shouted to proudly admit that they have, in their lives, loved a black man #awkward). My mom was in NY the day of the talk, and my best friend jokingly suggested that I invite my mom. I thought for a second, and sent my mom a text that we were going to hang out for the whole day. I don’t have the best relationship with my parents. I’ve always struggled with how to share my world with them (what is my world?). In my head, it seemed like a good exercise. “Hey mom, this is what my life is like. This is what I do for fun.” I figured she’d passively experience it and we’d both leave the event knowing that there is still some space between us. Buuuuut it didn’t really happen that way. For those of you unfamiliar with Juan’s work, it’s got a serious core of psychoanalytic tension.
I interviewed a friend, and one of my instructors from grad school recently. Oddly enough, we started off by talking about this experience.
Daniel Johnson – I went to this talk with Juan Betancurth. It was kind of amazing. He was in conversation with Allen Frame and I took my mom which was pretty wild. She actually liked it. I mean, not surprising, I guess it was different because his work is—he basically makes a bunch of S&M fetish shit. Lots of leather. Sex toys.
Dalia Amara – Are you concerned that your mom liked it?
DJ – I’m not.
DA – I feel like I know something about you now.
DJ – I thought it was going to be worse. I don’t know. Having a kind of frank discussion about sex in front of your parents is a little odd. I wasn’t that afraid of it though. My mom is pretty cool. She buys me condoms for Christmas sometimes.
Randy West – That’s sweet. She cares.
DJ – I know she’s not too caught up in being all rigid about sex stuff, but it was still an unsettling experience.
He hadn’t been back to his home country, Colombia, in like 8 years or something. And he hadn’t seen his family. So he goes to his family and says, “Hey, I actually want to make some new work and I’d like for you to be involved. Mom, I want you to participate.” He gets her to say yes, then he sends this white dude, Benjamin Frederickson, down there with all these objects that he’s made. And the dude’s job was to photograph his mother with these objects. A lot of them are basically sex toys. And he has the dude stay down there with his family for a week. The dude doesn’t speak any Spanish, and Betancurth’s family doesn’t speak any English. So these objects—gag stuff, leather cuffs, really intense. He talked about some of the punishments that his mom enacted on him and his siblings as children. Like, the dude had it pretty rough. One story, he told reluctantly, was about a day when him and his siblings were acting kindy rowdy, you know, like kids. And his mom was like, “You guys are acting like a bunch of animals, so I’m going to treat you like animals.” So she treated them like animals for an entire day. She put their food on the floor. She didn’t speak to them. This is some heavy shit. Like not just physical abuse. He worked through it though, and was able to talk about it, and even in a way admire her for what she was able to do—her creativity. To respect it. So it was really interesting to listen to an artist talk about all of this so candidly. He’s making work about his past and exploring his relationship to his family. And here I am trying to figure out how salvage my own relationship with my mother.
RW – In the same lecture, while she’s sitting right there.
DJ – Yeah, she’s sitting there in the front row shaking her head, like yes to all of this stuff. And I’m like this is so weird [and awesome]. I was expecting that this would be a normal, boring talk, and he’s going deep, just scratching at all of this shit between me and my mom while explaining this body of work that he made with his. I don’t have the best relationship with my family. Typical stuff, “Mom, you don’t understand me.” Artist bullshit. Cultural capital. Class questions. And I’m like this is a lot more than I bargained for. But she was totally into it. She even asked a question at the end. They have the video of it. I think I’ll write about it and post the video in another week.
Back to the story at hand though, Betancurth’s work is phenomenal. Explicit. Maybe stuff you wouldn’t want to take your mom to see. But who cares, I did. And it was great.
[The talk is linked below, so be sure to watch it.]
What was really great about the talk was Betancurth’s frankness and his willingness to be vulnerable. His work is heavy. There’s an urgency—a really deep sense of deference—in the work. But he didn’t muck around trying to sophisticate himself or the language that he used to described it (I don’t think Allen would have let him if he tried). There were times when Betancurth seemed a little hesitant, which I think actually just drew us deeper into the conversation. It was like it affirmed to us that he was right there in the room, and we were all participating in the conversation. My therapist always tells me that art is about communication. And I don’t think she’s too far off.
What drew me to the art world was a yearning for something else. I don’t know what I would have called it back then, probably something like creativity or authenticity. But I think what I wanted was vulnerability—an invitation to be exactly who I am. I wanted to find my community. People who I could know and love that are different than me (And people who could help me damn every person that owns one of those fucking North Face Performance Polar Fleeces). I wanted to get away from a life that was stale—a life where movement was orchestrated.
All this homogenization of the art world, much like New York itself, is killing me. Things change, I get that. But this kind of sameness clashes with everything that makes art worth doing. I’ve noticed that more and more artist talks are these super stiff and rehearsed lectures where some really talented and otherwise super interesting person just talks at you for 45 minutes while reading off a piece of paper. Or robotically repeating the same talking points that we heard the last time they dusted off their lecture notes to receive a speaking fee.
If you’re going to speak or be a part of a conversation, then actually do it. Show up. It’s insulting to read a paper to your audience. And an even bigger crime to mindlessly push your way through slides while reading your artist statement. You don’t have to have all of the answers. You don’t have to always be prepared. Just be honest, and to try as hard as you can to talk about the shit that you can’t always say.
There are a lot of art students in NY. And a lot of MFA grads too. One of the issues that’s come up quite a lot, is how to prepare art students for the real world. “Real World.” What’s the value of an art education? I think these are great questions to ask, but they’re not the only questions that we should be asking. What I think I’m coming to grips with is that there is absolutely no way to teach someone how to be an artist. Students will be either over prepared or underprepared, both kind of suck and it’s what’s led us to where we are today. I’m calling it, the #alityism of the artist. And I’m blaming everyone except me.
Before I started my formal education as an artist—lectures, talks, and conversations were my introduction to the art world. They gave access to a world that I knew nothing about. I wouldn’t say that it was entirely easy, but when I could get past my anxiety of crossing class boundaries and feeling out of place, I got a front row seat to hearing how artists think. And sometimes on a pretty intimate level. These brief conversations laid the groundwork for my looking, thinking, and talking about art. It was exciting and fascinating to hear how other people—sometimes artists, sometimes not—viewed or explained a work. The questions that they were interested in. The questions that they weren’t interested in. What drove their practice. Even the use of the word, “practice.” Part of what was so great was that it was all new to me. And these people were my guides. And for a while, I always felt like I was learning something new.
Now, I went to grad school in New York, and I’ve been a pretty active lurker in the art and education community. I’ve noticed that most of the students that I come across, what they want is value. And it’s really easy to fall into the logic of believing that you deserve things. That if you put in enough [money], you should get a neatly wrapped and preserved career as an artist. I completely understand wanting all of the money that you’re spending on education, projects, residencies, and submissions to mean something. But the art world isn’t a zero-sum game—it’s not a balanced equation that you can solve.
We have this nasty habit of thinking of everything like a business. How to Save the World? Treat It Like a Business. How to Make Marriage Work: Treat It Like a Business. Art and Business 1,490,000,000 results. Even you are a business. It forces everything into a system that isn’t actually meant for It ruins economies that don’t prioritize wealth.
The irony, of course, is that “business” logic can kill its own host, like any parasite. When taken as an end in itself, it destroys everything — and then there’s nowhere else to invest, no more areas producing real values that can be siphoned off into the giant pool of money. The imaginary values that finance has racked up then become the object of a game of hot potato, furiously churning through the system until the point when they simply disappear (i.e., lose all their value). That’s what running everything “like a business” does — it trades real value for imaginary value that is then destroyed.
Adam Kotsko (from Like a business)
The only real viable option for an art educator is to just be an artist and let other people see you. Whatever this experience is of being an artist, it’s a process of becoming. And you’ve got to figure out yourself.
One of the dangerous things that’s happening is that schools are beginning to cater to students’ and parents’ worries (I know of one school that has a photography course titled, “Free Money.” Make of that what you will). Urged on by political pressures to prove the value of what they’re teaching, art programs everywhere are doubling down on practices that have nothing to do with providing a solid education. Every school has one of those really popular classes with a hip youngish faculty member that low-key doesn’t know what normcore is but totally keeps up with the memes and irony of Brooklyn even if they’re over it. And those courses are always sexy rebranded versions of professional development courses. The kind of course that tells you about the necessity of an elevator pitch, a bio, and a cv and business cards always at the ready. Because opportunity knocks lightly, and its attention is fleeting! And sure, for the most part, fine I’ll agree with that. But what I don’t like is that it breeds a kind of desperateness. It turns students into aggressive networky proselytizing sycophants that are way too eager to tell you about their work because everything is riding on being prepared (think about how seriously most of us take doomsday preppers).
I saw this video the other day on Facebook. It’s the former president of Uruguay, José Mujica.
We invented a mountain of superfluous needs. You have to keep buying, throwing away … It’s our lives we are squandering. When I buy something, or when you buy it. We’re not paying with money. We’re paying with the time from our lives we had to spend to earn that money. The difference is that you can’t buy life. Life just goes by. And it’s terrible to waste your life losing your freedom.
I got into art because I didn’t like the structure, the rules that said you must do it this way, and only this way because, Tradition. There was freedom here. And yet, the way we’re beginning to talk about art as a kind of career, as a business, it’s completely at odds with, what to me is the most exciting aspect of art-making. Wayne Koestenbaum talks about writing as being like exposing yourself to an audience and asking what they think. I think the same is true for art. Anything worth saying is going to be difficult. And if you already know the answer, what’s the point of asking the question?
Charles Traub said something at my MFA orientation that I still think about today. He said, “I’m not a rich man, but I live a rich life.” You can’t buy this kind of experience.
In the field of photography, I hear image makers complaining about the loss of the individuality in their work to the new simulation technology, that their (romanticized) role is demeaned. Battles over copyright laws, resale of work, alterations of originals, model releases, and authenticity are growing in frequency and may possibly even impede the application of the technology. But, the root of all this anxiety may be, again as McLuhan put it, “in great part the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools—with yesterday’s concepts.”
–Charles Traub from The Imaging Revolution, a lecture at Ohio University Athens, 1986
I first met Charles in 2010 or 2009 when I decided that I wanted to go to grad school for photography at SVA. I had never taken a photography class, and I had only taken one art history course when I was in high school. He saw something in my work, and encouraged me to apply. I’m not quite sure what he saw, I’ve looked back at that work that I applied with a few times since graduating, and it’s laughable. Maybe sincere, but mostly laughable. This week I decided to talk to Charlie about education because I wanted to touch on some issues that I’ve discussed with students and other educators.
DJ – So I just wanted to talk to you about education because you guys have one of the oldest graduate photo programs, right?
CT – We are certainly one of the most continuous and stable graduate programs. You know, there’s the Institute of Design, New Mexico, and Visual Studies Workshop. I don’t know about the New School or those places. I guess UCLA goes back to the 70s. We’re certainly one of the oldest I guess. One of the most continuous and coherent in a way.
DJ – You guys were around since 88, right? Started in 88 and the first class graduated in 90. So when did you guys decide to abandon film?
CT – We never abandoned film. But the darkrooms in this department were phased out in the late 90s. They were upstairs and they were individual darkrooms, color and black and white and so forth. And they weren’t being used. And slowly throughout the late 90s, we gave them to the undergraduate department, which did use them. A couple of the editing suites upstairs were former darkrooms. I don’t think we’ve had darkrooms, specifically germane to this department since 98 or so. Maybe earlier than that.
DJ – I guess I’m wondering, since you say that they weren’t being used, was this because of your instruction? Like, you’ve always talked about technology being really important to this field, and how if you want to be an artist, then you need to learn to use the tools of your time.
CT – No question. I started this program with that premise.
DJ – Do you think that the students just innately understood that and just sort of rejected film?
CT – Well it’s complicated. Some did, and some didn’t. Some held onto film saying, “Oh, it has to be done with film on a big camera or whatever.” For way too long.
DJ – But you still get students like that don’t you?
CT – Right, we still get some like that. But they seem to move away from it very quickly. I think they realize that there’s so much to learn in the technology that they don’t have time to learn all of it. They don’t have time to learn all of that and the new technology. There was a time when we were running three labs: the digital lab, an analog lab, and video editing labs, as well as other things with computers. So that was very complicated. Students realized that becoming a good digital printer or managing these digital files is just as difficult as managing film. And in the last 5 or 6 years we were quite aware that digital capture and digital imagery is every bit as flexible and sharp and more resolute than film. I mean, if I go through Facebook right now, I get friended by all of these people in front of their big 8×10 cameras. I mean, it’s absurd. You know, it’s a trope of, “Oh, you’re not a photographer unless you have an 8×10.” I mean, most of the people that are using them are making all stuff that was made 50 years ago. And then there was a period where certain street photographers and documentary photographers always had to have a Leica. They didn’t even know how to use the damned things. Kids coming into school with Leica’s around their necks. Most of them, what they were doing, had no relevance whatsoever to why we once used a Leica.
DJ – Yeah, totally. There was this thing you said at a lecture at Ohio University…
CT – They’ve had a graduate program for many years by the way. They go way back to the 60s I think. Where’d you find that lecture actually?
DJ – It’s on your website.
CT – That’s where I met Bob Bowen actually. What was that 88?
DJ – 86
CT – Yeah, boy. Woo.
DJ – So you wrote,
Nevertheless, I suspect I am like most photographers of my generation: I am caught in some sort of cultural lag or gap between knowledge and application, not sure of how to apply the new imagery imaginatively.
I’m interested in hearing you talk more about that. Recognizing that you’re caught in between these two worlds, right. And it’s interesting that you said this back in 1986 when, since now it’s 2016 and it sounds like it could have been written yesterday. We have all of these students who are still so invested in film as an integral part of the photographic process. I taught my first photo history class in 2014, and I had a bunch of 18 year olds who were really into film. Like they were lecturing me about how important film is. And how they have to shoot black and white film. You know, there’s this allegiance to film that just doesn’t make any sense to me.
CT – Well, you know, I was caught in that lag because I knew everything that was potentially conceivable with where the technology was going. We hadn’t gotten there yet. In other words, the cameras were really awful. The printers were awful. But there was no question that it was going there very fast and that you could manipulate imagery in a way that was agile and sometimes too facile, but which allowed you new ways to combine things that we never even dreamed of or, that would have taken forever, even in 86. So I knew where it was going. I had good informants, people who were developing this equipment.
I was caught there because of the same reason that I’m caught there right now, I’m just a bad learner. I’m a shooter as they say, doing real world witness picture-making, and one had to invest some real time into learning how to do those things. Having whatever little time I had to go out and shoot, I had to work with the way that I was familiar with. That said, it was pretty clear that I was going to be able to digitize everything that I was shooting with film. Even though it hadn’t happened yet. And then there were all the debates about what kinds of mechanisms, what kind of platforms to use, you know that we were still talking about. We weren’t even talking about Apple then. I remember, one of my informants said, “Oh, you know Apple will never go anywhere.” Yeah, well I bet you wish you bought some stock. But you know, and people on the other side, even people here at SVA that were saying, “If you’re going to be an image-maker, you gotta learn Apple.” This is probably 88 or 89.
So those lags existed because there were a lot of people—and students couldn’t see that potential—that couldn’t understand. Look this is going to change exponentially in your time. And while it’s not there now, if you don’t start here, you’re never going to get there. And some of them never got there. Maybe that’s wisdom or maybe that’s just age. I had been around long enough to see things happen. Today, there are students like that too, and the nostalgia comes out of that because the people that make the imagery that they get educated on—it’s like the Robert Frank syndrome. You know, you would think that Robert Frank was the only photographer who ever looked at the social landscape of life in America with a notion of… You know the amount of Robert Frank’s sycophantic stuff out there right now is just absurd relevant to the many other great photographers. Not that he wasn’t a great photographer.
DJ – Yeah, I mean there were a lot of photographers who were making similar, maybe even better photographs.
CT – Of course there were! And comparable things, we’ll just put it that way. The heroes that these students learn about—the canon—gets welded into these young people’s minds. “Oh well if you’re going to be a photographer, you have to work this way.” When I was coming of age, there was this romantic notion of the photographer as a kind of idiosyncratic free person who could look at the world in his or her own terms and be expressive that way. And maybe you could make a living doing some annual reports or working for Life Magazine or whatever. But basically, it was “I have camera, will travel.” What a romantic life. Even though we know it’s fraught with all kinds of difficulties. And you know, this generation looks at those people as heroes and thinks, “Oh you gotta do film because if you don’t do film, then you’re not a really a photographer. You’re not really legitimate.” And then there’s a whole group that says you gotta do it 8×10 because you frame things differently, and everything’s quiet dadadada. And the digital is too fast. dadada. But that’s all discipline.
DJ – Those are all symptoms of a problem. You can work slowly with a digital camera or even a cell phone.
CT – Of course you can! And you can actually deal with more because you’ve got much more to edit and more to deal with. Time, expenses, and all kinds of other things. And there’s a bunch of Luddites out there who still want to protect their world by saying, “You have to do it this way.” That darkroom upstairs is ridiculous. It’s an anachronism. What’s the point of it? It doesn’t teach anybody anything. And most of them don’t even do it right. I’ve watched them agitate their film. They shake the can, and they throw it upside down. They don’t even know how to get good grain out of it. So what’s the point? What’s it teaching them? When they could use that time for content. For just learning an algorithm or learning how to program. It’s just dumb. It’s stupid.
DJ – I feel like that’s the thing. You know, I always get in these conversations with people because they treat the darkroom like it’s some kind of hero—
CT – Like it’s a temple.
DJ – The darkroom can be something that changes your life. And I guess, I’ve always thought that it’s the art itself, it’s photography which has always been about technology. For some reason people have become attached to these older methods of working and completely ignore how to work intuitively with the technology of today. To be a part of the world right now. The forefront of photography has always been about technology.
CT – It’s nostalgia for something that you’ve never had. And you know, you’re never really gonna have. “It was better in the old days.” Well, you know, maybe it really wasn’t better. You know, certain kinds of automobiles really were wonderful in the 60s, but they were also dangerous. They were also gas guzzlers, and ecologically unsound. And in fact, they didn’t last as long. They only lasted about three years most of them. And they weren’t as versatile. And they weren’t as comfortable really. They’re beautiful in some ways, but not very functional relative to today. Photography was different.
DJ – There was another part of the lecture where you referenced McLuhan, saying that technology is a democratizing force. Could you talk more about that?
I hear the photographers’ fears of losing the primacy of their images as they become manipulated by the Sytex machine and random foreign users into something distorted from and other than their originals. I counter that technology is democratizing the process, that the photographer can just as easily alter the images back again, change them even further, separate their parts, reassemble them with other messages and disseminate them once more through their own electronic publishing systems. Information need not be in exclusive hands. We must not resist technology. We can evolve with it, accepting the revolution and the power it offers us as creative people. “Reproduction emancipates photography,” as Walter Benjamin wrote, “from a parasitical dependence on ritual.” There is no longer a one-way flow of information in this tech-age of simulation.
CT – Well, it’s pretty obvious. Anybody and everybody can make pictures.
DJ – And do you think that’s a good thing?
CT – Sure it’s a good thing. Why shouldn’t you be able to write? Anybody can write. It doesn’t mean that everybody is a great writer, but the fact that you can express or record your life or your child’s birth. I get a picture from my grandchild every day. What a fantastic thing. I get it even though I’m not there. That’s an important part of photographic history. That’s an important part of our communication of our language of literacy. We have this visual record of everything that can be done extremely economically. It’s much more accessible than if I had to go out and buy an expensive camera and buy film. You know, I can do this with my cell phone, and probably make a better picture than I could with my little Brownie! And I get back instantly. And I can send it anywhere in the world to whoever I want.
DJ – I guess that’s what I’ve always found—there is some magic in making something without seeing it, but as far as education goes, when you can make a photograph and get immediate feedback…
CT – It’s an incredible tool. You get a chance to see exactly what it is that you did, and as a street photographer, I use that all the time. I look at what I’ve shot immediately, and I erase what I’m not interested in. I make very quick decisions because I know how to look. I mean, it could be weeks before I got film back sometimes. Now, I can act quickly. And this is really important as a real world witness photographer. This is an incredible opportunity. It takes editing; it takes intelligence. You have to pay attention. Maybe this is what they’re not learning, is that you have to look, and you have to make decisions. Quantitative and qualitative decisions.
The democracy issue, that’s just as obvious as the sky being blue. What revolutionized photography? The Kodak Brownie at the turn of the century. You know, not everybody could use cameras before that. Photography was left to an elite.
DJ – Right, you had to have money. You had to have time. You had to have access to these very complicated processes.
CT – Or you had to hire a professional.
DJ – That’s the thing that I’ve always enjoyed. Knowing that this is something that anyone can do.
CT – It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a great image maker. But you could be.
DJ – Just using the camera to communicate. I think everyone should be able to communicate.
CT – We do it all the time now. I can send you a picture on Instagram, and if you’re close to me, you’ll know that that picture has meanings other than what’s initially legible in the image. It’s about a dialog that you and I are having. There’s a structure to it. And we know that. There are many people dialoguing that way. Now that doesn’t mean that you don’t need words. Or that you don’t need to speak or learn how to write. But I would put it the other way too, that just because you know how to write and you know how to speak, I think you also need to learn about the literacy of the image. And I don’t think we’re teaching enough of that at the primary level. What does an image mean? How is it structured? How do you communicate with it? How does it relate to other images and dialogs and to the word?
DJ – I feel like that’s the kind of education that we need. A kind of education that doesn’t reinforce class distinctions. There’s a lot of do-gooding in education that really is just another form of segregation. A lot of them, yes, have noble intentions, but like ICP at the point. They teach a bunch of kids in the Bronx how to use darkrooms. On the surface, great. Nothing wrong with that, but what’s really happening? Why are they doing this? It’s this really damaging belief that by exposing these kids to bourgeois aesthetic resources, that they’ll be better for it. By giving them a taste of what it’s like to be someone that has access to a different social circle, that they’ll be changed, right. Major transformation. But when they get out of the class, what happens?
CT – It’s not functional for them.
DJ – How many darkrooms are there in the Bronx welcoming these kids? Why isn’t anyone actually trying to destroy these hierarchies?
CT – You know Kathy and others, we know that teaching digital photography—whether it’s the elderly, people coming out of prison, or in school and out of school programs—teaching them really how to make a narrative. How to deal with images that they’re taking and how to manage them in a computer. How to make a book. That’s teaching them literacy. That is teaching them how to make something. How to realize that they have a creative—the word I want to use is voice, but that isn’t the right word. That they have a creative way to make something that is expressive and about them.
DJ – Well, it gives them agency, right.
CT – Agency, that’s the right word.
DJ – I can do this, and I can say something and it matters.
CT – We did this project called Visual Life, about, what must have been almost 10 years ago. Do you know about that? We had foster kids coming in from the Children’s Aid society. I think, ages 13-19. They met here at SVA in the old lab with graduate students during the summer. They met three nights a week, and they learned the computer. They learned image making, they learned Photoshop. And they made a book. We have a few in the library. It was immensely successful and a couple of those kids even went on to college. This is why arts education, whether it’s theater, dance, painting or whatever, is important. Really important. We know that if a young person learns that they can make something. That they can say something irrespective of the medium. It isn’t about training people to be artists. It’s about training people to communicate, and to have pride in what it is that they’ve made and to understand the structure of it. That’s why it’s so important to be teaching digitally and not the darkroom. I mean, many institutions teach inner city kids the old fashioned way—ICP at the Point has wonderful intentions, but the darkroom is just irrelevant to these kids. They need that kind of mentorship and nurturing with computers. Their time in the darkroom is not structured towards that. They should still be making images. They should still be making the same kind of documentary or self-inspired work. To make work about themselves or their place, their lives. their families. We’ve known this about photography as a learning tool for years. I think it was Jonathan Kozol, who said. Do you know who he is?
DJ – No.
CT – I think he’s still alive. He’s a famous 60s activist and educator. Who basically said that inner city kids that can manage Pacman, if you can teach them to do that, then you can teach them to do an awful lot of other things too. If you use that as a basis. You don’t necessarily have to teach them the old fashioned, ABCDEFG. If you can think creatively about how to teach, they’ll learn. And he was right.
DJ – As educators, I think we have all these ideas about what an education should be, and we stop thinking about what our job is. Teaching kids the darkroom enforces structures that aren’t conducive a modern education. We get stuck believing that we have to impart our beliefs, and we’re not actually looking or thinking about what our students need.
CT – That’s exactly right.
DJ – We’re trying to force them into our world instead of trying to meet them where they are.
CT – I wholeheartedly agree. 10, 15 years ago, it might have had some relevance in terms of craft or teaching them how to handle the medium. But now that same craft has to be handled in how to make an effective digital print. Or how to Photoshop an image. Or how to write an algorithm or make an app. You know, it just doesn’t make sense. We just don’t have time for it. It’s like teaching someone to make daguerreotypes. One of our students did make them, and he did very well. There’s this person with surfboards. She’s all over Facebook. I see one every day. I mean, who cares about people holding surfboards made as tintypes. It’s so irrelevant. Yeah, it’s pretty. I’m sure if I did surfing, I’d like to have one. But it’s not anything that adds to the dialog of our informed life. It certainly has no meaning to a kid struggling to figure out how he or she can communicate.
DJ – I’ve got one more question, how do you differentiate between this idea of…Well, what’s the difference between making art and communicating to you?
CT – Oh, that’s a very loaded question. That’s a difficult one. I don’t give a shit about art. I think context, history, and intention may determine whether it’s art. But just because an artist says it’s art, doesn’t make it art. Turning on Duchamp. What we have to learn is to be creative to try to say something. And to try to say it meaningfully and with some intention to, and I’m using inform in a very global way, to enlighten someone about something. And that may be out of taking something from my own personal experience, “This is what I saw. Maybe you can see something from what I saw.” If it becomes art, and my intention is to create art, fine, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be art. I have to find out what I can say with this medium. My intentions are to be original, expressive, and meaningful. History, context, other things will determine whether it’s art. That which is made as art, may well be just totally discarded because we know that it’s so self-conscious. A lot of art is made for commodity. Nothing wrong with it. But don’t kid yourself that it’s necessarily important and lasting. And we don’t know. We can’t know. There’s so much being made. So much possibility. The possibilities for everybody to be expressive and great. It doesn’t mean that they’re making art. What’s so important about making art at this point? We’ve got an awful lot of it out there. What’s important is being able to become more human and responsible. And if making images teaches us how to do it, then that’s a great thing.
I try to make art which celebrates doubt and uncertainty. Which provokes answers but doesn’t give them. Which withholds absolute meaning by incorporating parasite meanings. Which suspends meaning while perpetually dispatching you toward interpretation, urging you beyond dogmatism, beyond doctrine, beyond ideology, beyond authority.
One of the previous assignments was met with a bit more resistance than I expected. While a lot of you readily sent me selfies, which made me more than happy, most of the people I asked to send me video of themselves saying something nice about Richard Prince just didn’t follow through. So this week, I’d like to dig myself into a hole and maybe clarify or contextualize my reason for giving out the say-something-nice-about-Richard-Prince assignment. This is a conversation that I had with a friend, Carrie Shanafelt, who is an assistant professor of British Literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She’s a badass with rhetoric and aesthetics and is always down to see anything.
CS – This is like analysis, you sit in the chair, and I’ll lay on the couch, and you can just ask me things, and I’ll talk.
DJ – Except, you don’t have to pay me, unless you really want to. I’ve got one of those Square readers in the corner. But the reason I wanted to talk to you about Prince was because you’ve always had interesting, daring things to say about aesthetic judgements and taste. And I’ve always really appreciated that. There’s a kindness in the way that you look–looking without needing to damn. It’s easy to take a critical stance and to just stop thinking. I’d like to believe that things are more grey and confusing. You can be critical of something and still love it, but also hate it.
CS – Part of what’s going on is that people assume that aesthetics is about value judgements, binary value judgements, and feeling superior to the work by criticizing it. It’s one way that people sort when there’s just an abundance of objects. So of course when people come to art, or even human beings, if you have too many objects in your life then you sort as many of them as possible into the category of unacceptable. The problem is that when you have work that is difficult, or that is challenging or even unpleasant, it’s going to be very tempting to dismiss. I mean, I think that we saw this in people’s responses to The Hateful Eight. It’s very tempting to say, “This movie does a lot of things politically that I find offensive. It’s gimmicky; it does a few things that are unappealing to me on the surface.” And instead of considering that as an actual challenge to their ideological assumptions, people assume that it’s a bad movie because then they don’t have to think about it.
DJ – Yeah, I mean one of the things I liked about The Hateful Eight was that it didn’t start off, this is about beauty.
It starts off asking you to think about something that could not be beautiful while totally indulging in the physicality and lushness of cinema at its prime. What if this experience is as graphic and disturbing as the content? What do you do with that? I think a lot of people weren’t willing to accept that the film was ugly and disturbing for a reason. They just went off and started quoting the last bit that they can remember from the single gender studies course that they took in undergrad. “Well it’s not feminist.”
CS – “It’s racist!”
DJ – “It’s not funny anymore.”
CS – …without thinking about the ways that it was consciously playing with a lot of racist and misogynistic tropes that are taken for granted in other films.
DJ – I told you I read that Ebert review.
CS – Yeah, of Spike Lee.
DJ – He ended it with this really great line that I just didn’t expect to read from someone as boring as him. He wrote, “To an extent, I think some viewers have trouble seeing the film; it is blurred by their deep-seated ideas and emotions about race in America, which they project onto Lee, assuming he is angry or bitter. On the basis of this film it would be more accurate to call him sad, observant, realistic—or empathetic.”
CS – Right.
DJ – You could say the same thing about The Hateful Eight. We’re projecting all of this shit onto Tarantino when really it’s all just us. When we see one of his films on the screen, we’re not looking at Tarantino.
CS – Right, and perhaps the response to The Hateful Eight is that it expresses a kind of exhaustion and cynicism even more than it expresses stupidity or laziness. People are exhausted from attempting to invest themselves aesthetically in objects that have not paid them back. When I think about the reaction to Richard Prince, I also think about what happened to Jeff Koons after he did Made in Heaven; of course it’s narcissistic and self-absorbed to do pornographic work about your own relationship…
CS – …but he was treated like a fool by critics for a long time. But then later, Koons won people back over and they said, “Maybe we were too hasty.”
DJ – Did you see the shoot he did with Vanity Fair where he’s like butt naked working out. He’s still the same dude!
CS – Right, it’s always Jeff Koons. It’s not like there was a Koons who did Puppy, and there was a Koons who did Made in Heaven and those were different Koonses. His narcissism is part of his art, right? So is [Matthew] Barney’s. There are so many narcissistic artists. There are so many people who have nothing to say and just want to be paid attention to that I think it’s created a kind of exhaustion around people who might be trying to say something about artistic narcissism or do something interesting with it.
DJ – So, do you think Prince is a narcissist?
CS – No, I mean, to do so little with an image created by someone else, make it large and sell it–that is the art itself, as far as I understand it. The work is the process by which somebody had the guts to take someone else’s work wholesale and make it large and then take a lot of money for it.
DJ – I understand why people are angry. I mean, not really, but I can make sense of it. It’s just that I feel like we so quickly forget the history of photography which at its core has always been this cold sort of barbaric medium that is, at its best, mildly violent.
To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.
The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed (that we can sometimes call it mild does not contradict its violence: many say that sugar is mild, but to me sugar is violent, and I call it so).
Before Richard Prince was Richard Prince the “Instagram Thief” he was “stealing” images from other photographers–this is something that he’s been doing for a long time. Rephotographing the cowboys from the cigarette ads. Painting on the rasta guy, which like he added a little circle on the dude’s face and said it was his. And let’s not forget Spiritual America from 1983 [the year I was born]. He’s been stealing shit for more than 32 years, and people are still upset about it!
There’s this graffiti artist, Kidult. He tags storefronts with these macguyveresque fire extinguisher shits. He’s the one who tagged the front of a SoHo Marc Jacobs store with the word, “Art.” Marc Jacobs responded by selling a t-shirt with a photograph of the tag on the storefront for $686. It’s like capitalism is so powerful, that you can try to subvert this image by vandalizing the facade, but graffiti is “cool.” And people will buy anything. And people did.
I think about Kidult a lot because this is someone that appeals to my inner fuck-the-man, but also because it’s someone that kind of just doesn’t get it. Sure, Kidult is, more than most, very successful at disrupting the hegemonic capitalist principles. But subversion of systems so powerful is pretty much futile. Marc Jacobs knows that. I also think Richard Prince knows it too–whether he has the same marxist rhetoric is another thing. It’s easy to assume that Kidult’s disruption is the only way to go. Loud. In your face. Destructive. Prince knows he’s a part of this system, and he’s working inside of it in the most interesting way that he can.
CS – No one is free from ideology. Satan’s obsession with “freedom” just means he knows what power is (God) but disobeys it, playing right into God’s hands
DJ – Prince is in a sense more free, and his position, I’d argue, is more important in the subversion of this ideology. Because Prince, as he’s done in the past, can use the same system that he’s fighting against to fight for him. There’s money at stake when Prince goes to court. He has very wealthy people who are invested in the legality, validity of the work. Prince’s position is more complex. And you know, I think it shows more of an obsession with photography than an obsession with himself. That’s where this all starts to get interesting because if we’re talking about narcissism, if we’re talking about images. Prince has focused in on a platform of images. You have a bunch of women who are creating an image of themselves, you know, models. They’re dealing with image as commodity. And not just women, it was some dudes too.
CS – Suicide Girls.
DJ – Instagram is this place where you can present an image of yourself, using images. There’s a bunch of layering. This is a space for curated content. You build an image slowly. This is something that’s been talked about whether it’s the Hipster Barbie, that live authentic bullshit, or Amalia Ulman. For Prince to take an image, which is already an image of an image and to add these quaint, almost nonsense comments or emojis, xoxo. It’s interesting. Does it need to be sold for $100,000? I don’t know. Do any of the other works from Chelsea or Midtown that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars deserve to be sold for that much? Who cares. I’m not a gallerist. It deserves to sell for however much it sells for. This business is all speculation. There’s no actual value here. It’s an unregulated market. He doesn’t decide how much the shit sells for.
CS – Isn’t part of the feeling of outrage that it’s not a small-time person taking advantage of a big-time person; it’s somebody with quite a lot of institutional power making money as art. In the case of the Suicide Girls, these are women whose only livelihood is selling pictures of themselves looking hot.
DJ – Well I think that’s misguided though because Prince is not the one with the power.
CS – Right, it’s the gallery owners.
DJ – There’s someone behind him signing his checks. That person is the collector, the gallery owner. Those are the people with the real power. Prince knows that. So to be angry at Prince is a waste of energy. It’s like being angry at the water for being wet. He is what he is.
CS – Prince does expose some of the mechanisms of how power and money work. I think that this goes full circle to the beginning of this conversation. The problem with challenging the dominant ideology is like the problem of satire–in the old school sense, a text that deflates ideology to make it less important; satire really doesn’t ever work. In some sense, all you might ever accomplish is making the dominant ideology seem cool or funny or capable of criticizing itself and nothing changes. I’m playing devil’s advocate here.
DJ – If that was the conversation that we were having about Richard Prince, I’d be totally fine with that, but that’s not the one that we usually have. It’s about him “stealing people’s hard work.” It feels weird because I feel like I’m pretty old as far as art school goes, but even some of my students they just don’t understand that you can appropriate things. I’ve had classmates who wouldn’t post their work online because they were afraid of someone stealing it. And I’ve always thought, who cares? Like, you can’t steal an idea. If someone takes one of my images and puts it on the side of a bus in a different country, who gives a shit? It’s not like I was ever going to market myself there. I’m not a part of that economic system. I would have never been able to do that myself. If they want to do that, whatever. It happens all the time anyway. It goes back to futility, I do not believe that I can retain complete control over anything that I create. And I’m 100% OK with that.
CS – In the early 17th century, Ben Jonson claimed that the reason that he was publishing his poetry was because he knew too many plagiarists that were appropriating his work. In the poetic coteries of the early 17th century, men would get together and copy one another’s poems, and then try to take credit for them in the next group that they were in. Instead of going to the law about it, which would get him nothing, Jonson felt like making his poems visible was one way of defending himself against appropriation. I went to a lot of conferences when I was young because I wanted my ideas to be associated with me, even if they weren’t in journals yet because otherwise they were susceptible to being imitated.
DJ – You know, when the two major photographic processes were announced, the daguerreotype and the calotype or talbotype, whatever the fuck you want to call it. Daguerre gave his away. He went to the French government, they gave him a stipend, and the process belonged to the world. It was free for anyone to use, tweak, play with. Talbot, on the other hand, patented his, and said that anyone who wanted to use his process had to pay him. Technologically speaking, Talbot’s process was better. However, around the world, especially in the US, people adopted the daguerreotype because they didn’t have to pay to use it. They were trying it out, they were making it better. The technology advanced in a way that was more free. There was permission to play. Even though daguerreotypes were unique objects, they were hard to see, they were metal. Talbot’s process used a paper negative. You could make copies, the exposure time wasn’t as long, it was cheaper because paper is less expensive than metal. But Talbot went around threatening to sue everyone that used his process without paying. He wasted a lot of energy trying to protect his ideas. His idea of owning that technology really prevented it from being used, and it stopped him from being more prominent during his lifetime.
If you feel that strongly about owning something, you’re way too tied up in controlling the life of the object and you’re preventing a ton of interesting conversations from happening. Instead of us actually talking about what’s happening when Richard Prince appropriates these images, we get stuck in this really destructive loops about hurt feelings and fairness: “Is it lawful? Is it not lawful? How much money is he making that I’m not making?” A bunch of shit that just isn’t productive. The economics of this isn’t a zero-sum game. Richard Prince isn’t taking money out of the Suicide Girls’ pockets. Can we be honest and just say that, these people, however popular they think they are, were likely not on the path to selling images through Larry Gagosian on Madison Avenue [exception given to Laurie Simmons and Kate Moss].
CS – What it makes me think about is something that you brought up earlier today. The owner of the horse that photobombed a selfie that somebody is making money on–the owner demanded a share of that money. We start to get into this territory where–and perhaps this is unique to photography and recorded reality–art always belongs to the real thing in the image. If I take a picture of a person and make money off of that picture, do I owe that person? Does that person somehow, does their being become worth something economically.
DJ – In France, the answer is yes.
CS – Really?
DJ – In America, the law says that you can have no expectation of privacy on public property. So if I’m walking down the street, I’m in a public space, you can take a picture of me. I can say no, but I have no right to say no. There’s no legal consequence to someone refusing my request to not be photographed. In France, however, their laws are much more strict. A person has the right to control their image. A person’s right to privacy trumps another person’s right to create.
CS – There is no Diane Arbus of France?
DJ – I mean, there probably is, but they got sued and lost.
CS – The idea of copyright, or of intellectual property, has been on its way out for a long time but we’re watching the last hysterical death throes of intellectual property rights. Things are insane. Patent laws are insane.
[something falls in the background]
DJ – That was Earl.
CS – You know about the patent situation right?
DJ – I do not, my mom’s friend used to be a patent officer for a little bit, but I’m not familiar with it.
CS – So people are patenting things that they have no intention of making or doing.
DJ – Oh!
CS – …so that if anything even similar is ever produced, and they don’t even have to be that similar, they can sue. I could say that I’m patenting a drug that makes people happy when they are sad, and anytime someone creates anything like that I sue, even if I don’t know anything about making drugs. I don’t have a business, I just have a bunch of lawyers that go around threatening a people until they just pay me off to get me off their case.
DJ – I think I heard about that related to Apple. Some kind of swipe gesture that someone had a patent for. I worked for Amazon for a little bit, and they actually patented their lighting set up. Which is kind of bizarre. But you know, they are a big corporation; they have lawyers. And they thought they were the only ones that knew how to do ecom. So they patented their lighting set up.
CS – Yeah, I think that what we see now is just the last gasp of copyright law that emerged in the 19th century. It isn’t that old. It’s not defined by robust principles. And we see all these deformations of legal discourse in the service of trying to do right by the actors involved and yet still using this language that’s completely outdated, that has nothing to do with the technological and social innovations that have happened since then. Or that even existed before then.
DJ – I guess I need to clarify why I wanted people to say something nice about Richard Prince. I was thinking about how to be more positive. We’re in a weird place right now. We have all these expectations about what’s right and what’s wrong. And people are conflating morality, law, and ethics. This is what Trump has tapped into. I think that we’re all complicated. The right and wrong, the black and white, that shit is just boring. We’re depleting resources that are not renewable. We participate in systems that fuck over other human beings constantly, but we’re all ready to have a shit fit because some dude “stole” an image, an idea.
CS – We’re treating finite resources as if they’re limitless, but when it comes to ideas, which are to an extent limitless, we treat them like these precious objects that must be hoarded and protected–precious resources.
DJ – These precious resources that we will run out! When like, they won’t. I just wanted to know what it would be like, to ask people to think about what’s actually going on in these images, for a second, stop thinking about why you’re angry and try to see Prince in a different light. I’ve changing the way I approach art. I’m not interested in establishing right and wrong for art. What things should be done or shouldn’t be done in the name of morality or law. Those standards change and vary all around world. Like today, right now in New York city, it’s completely normal for a grown man to put a newborn’s penis in his mouth. Even though it’s illegal, there are families that request these old men to suck their baby’s dick. You know, if we’re talking about law, it wasn’t that long ago that interracial couples were illegal. It really wasn’t that long ago that same-sex marriage was illegal. And there are still a ton of places around the world where sodomy can get you killed. I think in art, I don’t want to participate in an art world where we become so obsessed with what’s right or wrong that we actually start policing what can and cannot be made. Imagine if scientists obeyed morality more than their own curiosity?
I don’t know, I just want someone to surprise me. Tell me that there’s another way to appreciate this work. It’s easy to have a conversation about him being a powerful white man stealing the images of young white women but really, especially for me, that’s already boring. White people steal shit. I understand that. This is a conversation that is not new to me. How else can we talk about this?
CS – Your request for people to say something nice, wasn’t to affirm the work or even say it’s good work. But it was to find something that was not quite so vehement or damning. That the impulse is to damn. This is why I started thinking at the beginning of the conversation about the way total disgust, ideological purity, and all these things become ways for us to sort out and say, “I don’t have to care about any of these things because it doesn’t fit my ideological purity on some topic.”
DJ – We both love hating things. I’m not against hating things.
CS – Yeah, we’re good haters.
DJ – What if you don’t hate it? I try to challenge myself, especially with art, to figure out why I don’t like it. I think I owe it, not to the artist, but to myself to figure out what’s actually going on behind the initial reactions to an object before I dismiss it.
CS – And is it a kind of aesthetic choice, to say that this is bad? Like, I’ve heard you say, “These are bad photographs; they are poorly taken.” In which case, you’re likely not that inspired to spend more time considering the object. But when you walk away from a work of art and you say, “This makes me mad; it troubles me,” maybe it’s worth doing something other than relegating it to the dustbin of bad work.
if you’re in nyc, check out what will undoubtably be an amazing conversation with some really interesting work from the artists Juan Betancurth and Benjamin Fredrickson. they’ll be in conversation with Allen Frame at Daniel Cooney Fine Art at 3pm. Hope to see some of you there!
thanks for all the selfies. new post coming in a bit. still time to do the homework!
images. photographs. art.
lyke, why don yoooz guys do some r3al AART thuur. N stahp postin pics on the GRam. BACK in my DAyss. We hAD wut uuuuu callllllll standARDS. BECAUSE there were HRAD CRITIQUES and REAAL ART && fotografs and fiiilm and shit.
Technology has emerged and changed everything that is anything in the world today. We are all using complex lens-based apparatuses to capture photographic images with digital technology in the 21st century. And yet, still the resolution of film trumps the silicon chips of today. The real always comes through in Lacan’s mirror which beget Barthes. As Freud would say, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, butt stuff.
So, obviously, this is my first post. I hope to use this space as a way to ask some interesting questions. I think photography is a really exciting and compelling medium. And you, dear reader, I imagine, feel the same. In the following weeks, I plan to post content that will be playful, maybe enraging, and at the least entertaining. I want to remind you about the things that make what we do magic. And I want to challenge everyone to think about photography like it’s still fun. Like this game isn’t over.
Throughout my blogging residency, I’ve got a few projects, some interviews, and ideas that I’d like to write about. But it’d be super cool if you all participated and I wasn’t just throwing keystrokes out into the oblivion. One of the things I’m really interested in is using this space to create a dialogue. For me, the exchange of ideas is really what’s so great about art. So, friend me on Facebook, add me on Instagram, or shoot me an email if you have any ideas or interesting projects that you’d like to share. I’m going to assign homework each week. Will you be graded? No, obviously. But you should do it. I am hoping to have enough responses to post a small archive at the end of my time here at the Baxter Street blog.
Homework One: Choose One
Record a video of yourself saying something positive about Richard Prince.
Take 5 selfies.