Qiana Mestrich: Can you talk to me a little bit about the title and its reference to NYC bodegas (neighborhood convenience stores)?
Marco Scozzaro: That was the starting point. The work is an exploration of the current visual vernacular and I wanted to take different elements from the visual landscape and digest and work with them to create multilayered photographs and sculptures. As you can see the work is very diverse and in a way I like this idea of the deli as a place where you can find everything and anything… opposite elements that by being in the same space kind of make sense together. I’m playing a lot with natural vs. artificial/synthetic and opposite elements that seem unrelated but in the way I work with them they become organic.
This piece BETA 909 is where the project started from, the backdrop is a vinyl tablecloth that I found in a 99cents store in my neighborhood in Williamsburg, BK. In this still life I use obsolete technology like a Beta VHS player and a drum machine that I use to make music. I like the idea of the cheapness of the background that references nature against these electronic objects that were futuristic when they came out but are now obsolete and almost organic in this constructed image. So these elements don’t seem related but to me they make sense. From this point on I started playing with images and opposites, incorporating visual tropes or cultural artifacts like a Calvin Klein advertisement or referencing commercial photography, even appropriating my own work. In a way this work is a comment on the identity of photography and the inherent paradox of representation.
Is this a departure from the way you usually work or is more of you having a conversation with contemporary trend(s) in photography?
I wouldn’t say it’s a departure but I’m definitely exploring new possibilities and being open to new layers of interpretation. This image titled DAMASO LUNARE is what my previous work looked like. I guess the subject matter is very related. I’ve always been interested in exploring the relationship between society and personal identity. The previous work was more existential and with this new project I’m talking about the same things but using humor and adopting different strategies to deliver the same message. I’m also trying to make the work more accessible. I realize that the first layer of my images seems funny but if you dig deeper they’re not as accessible.
There’s definitely a lot to unpack in all of these images. They look simple on the surface and they’re very attractive and shiny but there’s lots of symbolism. I feel like there some larger social statement you’re trying to convey.
There is, I’m glad you noticed that. It’s not just a collection of nice pictures. I’ve always been interested in not glamorizing an image and non-conventional beauty but sometimes that intention has been misunderstood. I like playing with different languages in photography. I’m using still life, landscape… I’m rephotographing my pictures.
Yet there’s also decay and death and playing with the idea of the vanitas, not literally but in that same still life tradition.
Sure! In this picture 516N0RJ1N4 D16174L3, for example I’m making a comment on stereotypical images of the female body in mass media. This is an appropriated ASCII alphanumeric code. I found it interesting that this silhouette of a woman was totally unrelated to the content of the document where I found the image. And then I pasted the silhouette on a photograph of a landscape, that I made using film. Actually most of this work was shot on film, so I became very interested in this idea of using hybrid technology as a consequence of what the work is dealing with.
There’s also a sculptural quality in your work. The largest piece in the show is a blanket. Is that an image you’ve taken as well?
Yes, all of these images are mine. If there’s any appropriation it’s an image that has been rephotographed or inserted into my composition, like the Calvin Klein advertisement or the Giant Single record sleeve. That image titled DIGITAL CLOUDS on the blanket was a photograph I exhibited at Aperture last summer (Aperture Summer Open: Photography is Magic, curated by Charlotte Cotton). I’ve been thinking and playing around the idea of different materials and how they work with photographs. So at some point I found these digitally woven blankets – you have a jacquard loom that you can hook up to a computer to weave an image. The machine deconstructs the image in six threads to recreate all the colors. I like that this image was shot on film, then scanned and now it has a new life as a woven blanket instead of a print. And it’s also interesting as a “meta photographic concept” because the blanket references the blanket in the image.
It looks very painterly as well, so you’re tying multiple mediums together: the art of weaving, painting, photography…
Exactly. Also like this piece PALMS ON PALMS over BLANKETTO, which is one of the newest pieces… as you notice I’m trying to expand the two-dimensionality of photography in the space. The pictures themselves become objects. This particular fluorescent plexiglass that the photographs are back mounted on cast a glow on the white walls.
In this sculptural piece titled TUBBI, 2016 I wanted again to use opposites, images coming from fields that seem unrelated like rocks or a glitch from my computer or tiles or a pool or clouds and a carpet. The cylinder shape references the way you roll the paper when you make a large print that you just put on the floor and it stays in that shape. So I found a technical solution to let the prints stay in shape there a little longer… I like the idea of having these elements linked together, they become just texture. In a democratic way they are in the same space like when you are viewing multiple images on the monitor of your computer.
I would say SVIAGGIONI is the mood board for the project. I started taking visual notes with my iPhone and then at some point I realized there was something going on. The photos were re-posted to my Instagram and tumblr, so I had a template and I would see the pictures on my monitor in random order and in slightly different sizes. I printed all those pictures and played around with them and then I made a book. I photographed the book for a magazine feature (OSMOS) and I thought the picture itself was more interesting than the whole book. Then I rephotographed the image of my book in the magazine using different nail polish on the same hands holding the book open.
I thought it was interesting to have this double meaning that reflects the paradox of representation. This mood board combined organic with non-organic elements, associated by the color or shape, creating something visually pleasing but at the same time creating a starting point for new relations. From that book I realized I was working on something but I wasn’t 100% happy with the small prints so I used them as the starting point to make new images – either sculptures in the studio or created in post-production.
What about the word “Please” in this wallpaper?
Please was a way to explore the “bodega vernacular” like Thank you for your business or Have a nice day graphics on plastic bags… So I photographed those 80s/90s fonts, isolated the word “please” and started making this repeated pattern similar to the red carpet backgrounds with the sponsors on them that celebrities are photographed in front of. This piece is making a comment on how sometimes we’re over apologetic and over thankful and this gesture doesn’t even mean anything.
Yeah it’s not genuine, it’s just our own programming.
This way of working allowed me to play with text. Like this piece SMILE! I photographed this hot dog stand in midtown. I was on the street and I saw this grumpy hot dog guy and someone just passed and said “You’re never gonna sell a hotdog if you don’t smile!” And I thought that phrase was a metaphorical way of describing our society.
Do you think this work is a statement on American culture or is there a more of a world view here?
It definitely starts from an American point of view. I’m not American but I’ve been living here for seven years assimilating into the culture of course. Also I realize that I grew up with Western influence through television. I don’t want to talk about American imperialism but there is a cultural hegemony that in a way is coming back. Now as an adult being here and experiencing everyday American life a lot of it seems like déjà vu and I’m starting to understand the messages that I couldn’t understand as a kid.
The work definitely talks about mass media and how our perception is influenced by them. Like this image of the Hawaiian shirt and the VISA credit card, which is also a reference to my own situation as an immigrant… These are not literal but hidden or unconscious links, thoughts that come to mind when I look at the images after the fact.
It’s nice because the aesthetic is not overtly political but as you dig deeper you do get some undertones.
I didn’t want to make political work but I realize that…
Everything is political.
Exactly. Especially looking at what is going on now in America, I see this work as very political. For example, in Italy we had Prime Minister Berlusconi who as a media tycoon became a politician because of his fortune and influence. So in a way with Trump we are kind of seeing the same thing happening. I didn’t want to mention Trump because he’s not relevant here but I think the work is observing what mass media can do, good or bad. So I wanted to create images that look good but also give a starting point for a conversation that is not about being frivolous.
Marco Scozzaro’s solo show, Digital Deli, is on view at Baxter St now through March 25, 2017.
Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures.
Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog:
Five Visual Motifs in the Photographs of Ren Hang
Photography and the Black Panther Party
The Black Female Self in Landscape
In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes
Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers
New Image Library Specializes in Race and Cultural Diversity
Threads can be long and winding, in fact it can be an effort to keep them straight. They tie things together and they also get into perplexing entanglements. Conversations are threads sometimes, where surprising connections are possible. Instead of writing about art, I feel the more urgent question is how to live an examined life as an artist? It’s an old question but hopefully not a redundant one. In the course of two months, I will invite artists to talk about what nurtures them as people. What sort of communities do they seek? How do they support art making? What are their current concerns and challenges? If you’d like to engage in a conversation and wrestle with these questions, please do write to me email@example.com.
Thread 1: Qiana Mestrich
Qiana Mestrich is a photo-based visual artist and writer from Brooklyn, NY. Founder of the blog Dodge & Burn: Diversity in Photography History, her Namesake Series is on view at the RUSH Arts/Corridor Gallery through May 17, 2014. She graduated from the ICP-Bard’s MFA program in 2013.
Group of Five Mugshots from The Namesake Series (2013)
“Untitled” from The Mist in Mystic series (2012)
“Tear” from the Trust Your Struggle series (2010)
History of the World (2012), Altered book
I first came across Eliot Dudik’s incredible self-published photo book Road Ends in Water at Carte Blanche Gallery in San Francisco where both our books were featured in a show curated by Larissa Leclair of the Indie Photobook Library and Darius Himes of Radius Books. And thanks to a suggestion by Jennifer Schwartz of Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, Crusade for Art, and Flash Powder Projects fame, we were recently reconnected to discuss our adventures in the world of first-time book publishing.
Having grown up on the outskirts of suburban Texas where the strip malls meet the farmlands and having spent my entire adult life living in New York City and Brooklyn, I tend to gravitate towards work dealing with the American landscape. In this body of work, Eliot Dudik chronicles the spirit of the South Carolina Lowcountry: its swamps and dirt roads, its weathered porches and ramshackle churches, and the people that are as much a part of this landscape as the giant oak trees that tower over it all. There is an ebb and flow to the sequence of images that rolls along like currents in the deep waters it portrays. This book feels like a baptism. I spoke with Eliot about the two years he spent working on this project while traveling from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia where he was a graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design and his experiences turning this project into a beautiful book.
SM: First of all, it was such a pleasure sitting alone in our apartment today for about an hour slowly going through the book and then re-reading and re-looking a couple times. It’s a really great meditation on a certain place and time and on large format photography as a medium. Large format photography is a long tradition that is becoming increasingly difficult for photographers of our generation to afford or even have access to processing. To that end, I’m going to kind of get ahead of myself and ask: how much does the slow, somewhat antiquated nature of large format photography factor into your process documenting a place steeped in its own deep traditions and slower pace? Was that something you thought about during the making of the work?
ED: The use of a view camera factors into my work quite extensively. It is the effects of the view camera on the land, my subjects, and myself that dictates my using this type of camera. Above all else, I enjoy the slow, contemplative and methodical steps associated with camera. It helps me to remain within the landscape. I see it as penetrating into a bubble, whereas I sometimes have difficulty piercing the surface tension with other formats. When making portraits, I enjoy the interaction between the subject and the view camera. They often have a look of pride and confidence in their expression and the way they carry themselves that is sometimes lost when looking down the barrel of an SLR.
SM: Road Ends in Water is such a great title. I know it comes from the road sign you photographed that appears in the beginning of the book. Did you take that photo knowing it would become the title or was that a decision you made once you were in the editing process?
ED: I took the photo for its symbolism and because I thought the sign was funny. It didn’t become the title of the series until the final editing stages. A professor and mentor, Jenny Kulah, suggested it as a title, and it made perfect sense.
SM: What I love about the title is the symbolism of “road” and “water” that appear throughout the book. Both are metaphors for the cyclical nature of life and death. All of the titles of the images refer to their location as being either a river or a road. There’s a definite sense of a journey or being in between things. It feels to me that this body of work operates on many levels: it is a documentary of a little seen pocket of America that is disappearing in the wake of government projects and economics, it is a metaphor for your life being in a somewhat transitional stage being a grad student during the project’s making and this new focus of your life in photography, and it has far broader themes of death and lost traditions. That’s where my head is at, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
ED: You pretty much hit upon everything. The landscape in this region of the country is renewed, flushed, and emptied by a multitude of rivers and tributaries heading toward the ocean. The rivers bring folks together here as much as the roads do. Generations of families have persevered here, living off of the land and rivers.
SM: Your portraits have a lived-in quality. Yet, having grown up in rural Pennsylvania, you are an outsider to this community. How did you approach the subjects of your photographs? “Tom & Tommy, Prices Bridge Road” and “Rob & Ricky, Near Martins Landing” in particular feel like people you know or were mid-conversation with when you set up your camera.
ED: I had lived in the Lowcountry for about six years at the point that I made these images. The landscape and the way of life had initially drawn me to the South. I felt very comfortable with it, yet at the same time, in a constant state of awe. Focusing on this series, I allowed myself the time and solitary peace to traverse the roads and waterways throughout this region for hours on end. I often met folks by happenstance and we would often converse for long periods of time. In the example of Tom and Tommy, I had passed Tom’s house three or four times very slowly, taking in the landscape, and eventually he stopped me and asked if he could help. I explained who I was and what I was doing, and he invited me in to see his framed photo within a newspaper clipping about a local barbeque chicken cook-off. We talked for a while with a couple of his friends, including Tommy, and they asked me to take a photo of them with their barbeque cooker and confederate flags, which I did. We later made the image down on the dock that is in the book.
Rob and Ricky came flying into a river landing in their pick-up truck, spitting gravel everywhere, and came to a halt about 15 yards from where I was set up to make a photograph. They jumped out of the truck and proceeded directly into the swamp near by. I continued about my business, and soon looked up to see Ricky calling to me to let me know that they were going to fire off some guns. I waved to him, packed up my things, and headed into the swamp. They were shooting at tree stumps. We talked for a little while, and they agreed to make the photo that’s in the book.
I sometimes had longer relationships with some of the folks I photographed, seeing them on different occasions as I drove through the area.
SM: The book contains 3 poems, one of which was written by your father. What is your relation to the other 2 authors and why did you decide to include these throughout the book?
ED: Brianna Stello is a friend of mine from Charleston, South Carolina, who is also a photographer. I had read some of her poetry years prior to making the book, and when the time came, I sent her some of my images and asked her if she would be interested in writing something to pair with them.
Dr. E. Moore Quinn wrote an essay that is included in the book. She was one of my Anthropology professors when I was an undergraduate, and continues to be a great friend. She had shared my work with her friend, poet Jerri Chaplin, and Jerri wrote a piece to accompany my photographs as well.
I found the writings to help expand the reading of the photographs.
SM: I definitely see the Alec Soth and Joel Sternfeld influences in your work. They are big influences of mine as well. What other artists were you looking at in relation to this specific body of work? The South is so steeped in incredible writers and musicians- did that offer inspiration?
ED: William Christenberry, Richard Misrach, and Stephen Shore were a few other photographers I was interested in at the time, and still am. I would have to say photobooks were my biggest inspiration during the time I was making this work. All sorts of photobooks, I just gobble them up. I am a big music fan as well, and my taste in music is much like my taste in photobooks, it runs the gamut. Although it would have been a great time to draw inspiration from music while in the car, traveling through the landscape, but I chose to instead mostly listen to NPR and chew sunflower seeds.
SM: Let’s talk about photo book publishing. Roads Ends in Water is self-published, right? And what influenced the decision to make a book? Did you always envision this project as a book?
ED: Yes, it is self-published. I find photobooks to provide a viewing experience much different from a gallery setting. Often a photobook is enjoyed in a quiet, private, and comfortable space, giving the reader the capacity to fully engage with the work. It also lends to the narrative nicely, which can help endow the work with new meaning. I did always envision this work as a book, even before I knew how the work was going to turn out. The self-publishing process was something I was researching during the entire time I was photographing the area. Not only does the photobook provide a more intimate viewing experience, but it also helps me to get the work out to a larger audience than I can solely through exhibition.
SM: Is Saga Publishing your own brand, like Alec Soth’s Little Brown Mushroom?
ED: Yes, Saga Publishing is my own brand. I came up with it at about two in the morning when I was trying to finish a mock-up in time to take to a photo conference. It seemed fitting at the time.
SM: How did you raise the funds to publish 1000 copies?
ED: My Grandmother helped me to fund the printing of the book. This is only one of many reasons the book is dedicated to her. She is a great woman.
SM: In our past conversations, we talked a bit about the inevitable mishaps that seem to occur with every printing experience. The advice is always to be on-press, but for me it was so expensive to make the book at all that the additional cost to travel to press wasn’t affordable. What was your experience with printing with a press in Iceland?
ED: I wanted to travel to Iceland to see the book coming off the press more than anything. I tried to come up with a way I could make it over there, but alas, I was in my last quarter of graduate school, and had several things to pull together in addition to the book. Oddi, the Icelandic printing company I worked with, was terrific. They sent me a physical proof to study, and after that was signed off on, they then sent me a digital proof just to make sure everything was laid out and ordered the way it was supposed to be. Typically, they would send two physical proofs, but because of my time restraints, they sent one physical, and one digital. They sent me some advanced copies in time for my book release and thesis exhibition, and the rest showed up on a pallet a few weeks later. They have a representative here in the States that helps to translate the job to the printing house in Iceland. Everything went smoothly.
SM: We’re both adjunct photo professors. I remember being an undergrad photo students and always wishing there was more real-world advice for how to get your foot in the door in any area of the photo world. It’s the same thing I hear from my students now, which I make a point of devoting at least a whole class to answering those kinds of questions. What is the best advice you give your students?
ED: I treat all of my students as artists, and hold them to the same expectations they will encounter after graduating. I discuss marketing strategies with them in every class. I encourage, and sometimes require submissions to publications, calls for entry, juried and solo exhibitions, internships and apprenticeships. Most importantly, in my opinion, I encourage them to, and mentor them through attending events and conferences like the Society for Photographic Education. I find these kinds of events to be invaluable for emerging artists for a number of reasons, but especially for the networking possibilities. I think we had 12 students or so attend the SPE conference in Chicago last year, and I think they would agree that the experience was remarkable.
SM: What are you working on now and do you see it as a continuation of or departure from the themes or methods of working that you established for yourself in Road Ends in Water?
ED: I recently began working on a new project that explores the American Civil War, especially as it exists in our consciousness today. Fortunately, this work is coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. There are a few different components to this project so far. I am creating landscapes of battlefields, both well known and obscure, with an 8×20 inch view camera. However, instead of using black and white film within this camera, I am using two sheets of color 8×10 inch film. This creates a separation in the image, which I am quite fond of, and lends to all sorts of symbolism. I am also traveling to reenactments to capture the essence of war among some of these battlefields. Additionally, I have begun the portrait component of this project this past weekend at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. I am very excited about these. They are quite unique in their construction, and I think they will lend nicely toward my interests in the cyclical nature of repeatedly reproducing such a bloody war. I am also collecting sounds as I move through these landscapes and episodes that will permeate the photographs.
I would think this new project is somewhat of a departure from Road Ends in Water in technique and construction, but in many ways its also a continuation. I think it retains the sense of a journey, an investigation into life, death, conflict, and varying perspectives on an important subject. Although the equipment I am currently using to interact with the landscape is different, I am still working by the same principals: see, feel, think, create.
SM: And lastly, what’s your ideal summer day?
ED: Ideally: Air conditioning, coffee, images, music, ham and cheese on rye, loved one/s, cards or darts.
To purchase a copy of “Road Ends in Water” please visit http://eliotdudik.com/ and click on “Book.”
My training is in architecture and product design. As per my training, my professors encouraged my unique language of observations and motivated me to think beyond the parameters of any dialogue. Understanding the materials one chooses to work with is the most important thing but not just their potentiality but their ability to fail. I was challenged by my tutors to solve riddles, to come up with design answers to almost impossible statements (enunciados), to materialize ideas like The House of the South Wind, to be open to interpretation without representation. During my years in architecture school, I discovered that my hands became more useful tools for expressing ideas than words had previously been. Anything I could perform with them was a magical transformation of ideas into objects… free or mechanical drawing, model making, ceramics, watercolor and later painting and illustration.
What role does photography play in your artistic practice?
Photography is the most magical aspect of my work, the convergence point where ideas begin to develop. Taking a picture of something in the world that corresponds to a feeling or notion that is still embryonic is the best way for me to move forward with that idea. It is the first step in what might be a long series of steps of process leading to a finished artwork. The camera was my first creative tool of choice to see the world differently. I established my first creative dialogue with this medium while studying architecture. It became a pivotal way to create new interpretations and points of view and at the same time it helped me to keep records and tell my stories, for the safekeeping of my history and memory as many others had done before me. Photography, by its very nature is an invitation to explore the world beyond the common and make fluid our perceptions. Digital has also made it possible for me to indulge even more with its instantaneity. I freeze time, virtually as time is/was, and yet I continue the exercise of observation and as images accumulate the storytelling begins, a destiny I seem to have chosen, I relate it, I take it, I retrieve it … later I transform those conversations mediated by the camera into objects, another translation.
My preferred medium is objects, so long as they are palpable with my eyes or my skin, perhaps heard or smelled in connection to their visual presentations. To me, they exist to be placed, misplaced, read … or ignored. Taken in account or not, objects simultaneously offer a proposal of possibility and the challenge of three-dimensionalizing them. This challenge has to do with meaning, with reference. Their purpose is changeable, transmutable. There is an unexpected beauty in each of them and in its relationship with its environment, its context. There are an infinite number of possibilities for the untold significance and impressiveness of each of them. We choose one of their possibilities to transform them into storytellers, messengers of some sort … to provoke a reaction, identify a purpose… a catalyst… a trigger, short or long-lived, who knows. At this point, each object has its own destiny. Objects of desire, I call them. 2D, 3D, B & W, color, palpable by one, two or all of your senses; objects in any sense of the word … as per in the goal to be achieved too … where the object, besides of being what it is, has a purpose … In doing so, something that has no movement of its own, no mind, obtains an intention, it has an objective, a mission. It acquires an imperceptible movement to the eyes and transcendence in other levels. It becomes philosophical in some way. In my eyes it separates itself from interpretation, individual feelings and imaginings; it becomes a proposer. I call that OBJECTIVITY and it all begins with ideas nascent in the process of image capture.
Do you mean at the actual moment? Time behaves oddly in my studio. Well, besides designing a living space for some friends, there are a few projects I play with constantly and intermittently. Their scale and the time I can dedicate to them are determined by their gravitational pull, my choice, and the emotions seeking for a place in which to be invested. The smaller projects are currently the most visited. They are smaller in scale, but not vastness (cloud project, cows, bodies and constellations, mas allá, after dark, joy and despair, I had it, every thing talks to me, twos & ones). The larger projects, the ones that require more of my full attention, efforts and dedication include: architecture of dreams, canvases, Explorations, grafted graffiti, quilts of guilt, ugly is beautiful, filtered visions, seven, güevonadas and the philosophical component of I had it. Most of my series intersect with one another, or overlap at least, or branches out of each other and back together. I can say all my work is part of a web, a fabric, invisible strings in the middle of which I reside.
What is your relationship to the materials you use?
I will say extreme. There is no one thing I use that I am not in a deep relationship with. I get immersed into perceptual and verbal conversations with each material I use. We become extensions of each other, and in so doing, we both become storytellers, simultaneously both being the witnesses and that which is witnessed. We become timeless and time makers, meaning that we fuse past, present and future in one existence were the first two components have more and stronger identifiable characteristics than its unpredictable companion. No material that I encounter is exempt from being a candidate for use in art. And I mean anything. I have many collections of things: rubber bands of every shape, color and size, used tea bags, tangerine peels carved into figural shapes, all kind of metallic wrappers rolled into balls, the list is endless… I rescue, recycle and reuse a lot in my practice.
How does your home as your studio influence your practice?
My home as my studio… I certainly can say that when I make art I feel at home. Whereas I like austerity, cleanliness and the elegance of minimalism – which currently shows more in my designs and photography, I also love abundance and the generosity of the infinite possibilities of interpretation. I could easily live with both, but the city imposes on me one condition: limited space. I could say, I live within the complexity of my thought process and ideas. Of course, they coexist in harmony and with a structural order inherited from my architectural and design practices and processes … I have my own galaxy, perhaps a complete universe of my own to coexist with.
I asked my friend Aeli Park, a photo agent at theCollectiveShift, to fill out a Q&A about the photo industry. Her agency represents prestigious photographers such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Inez and Vinoodh, and Clang.
1. Your Name: Aeli Park
2. Your occupation: Agent
3. How did you get you into the biz? I first started out interning at W Magazine when I was 19. During that summer I also was curious about going to a real fashion show and figured the only way I could go was to work at one. I called up Calvin Klein/KCD to see if they needed an intern and serendipitously they hired me for the 1st season and from then on I worked on all the Calvin shows for the next 2 years.
4. What do you love most about what you do? Watching ideas come to life and then realizing what works better in our heads versus in real time/life.
5. What do you hate? That money and politics can get in the way of creative endeavors.
6. What would you tell aspiring photographers who want to be the next Annie, Steven, etc.? Good luck!
7. The biggest misconception of the photo industry…It’s a generic answer but always so true. The glamour is such a false idea that many people have. Anything can seem glamourous – you just need a good video editor, throw in a few smiley people in the background, add a hyped up soundtrack and get it aired somewhere.
8. What’s the most outrageous experience you had on a photo shoot – at least that you could tell us. A legendary photographer sitting on a toilet seat – holding my hand – crying and apologizing to me and then asking for my forgiveness.
9. Fave non-working photogs? Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdain, David Hamilton.
10. Are you finding that photogs are getting more into video? Yes absolutely. More content please.
11. Your best decision Letting go of my producer position to become an agent. Going to theCollective Shift. My best decisions have always been the ones that require risks. Knocking on wood now that this formula keeps working for me. 😉
12. Your worst decision N/A
13. How do you deal with crazy ego-driven artists? I’m sure you’ve had some – can you give example. I don’t. Truth be told I have not dealt with crazy ego maniac artists. We all have egos to a certain degree – its healthy and normal. Maybe its my vibe but the artists I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with have all been absolutely genuine and down to earth – real people with real problems with just enough superficiality to at least entertain you.
14. Difference between fine art photographers vs commercial photographers? That difference is blurry every day.
15. Can you tell us something about working with PL? PL is the most quick witted person I have ever met. Every time I talk to him I learn something whether its about life, people or art. And unlike most ‘artists’ he sees himself quite clearly. His intentions are very pure and honest. I admire that.
16. You have a great rep as a producer – do you ever miss it? Haha!
I do? ha! I don’t miss it at all. Having anxiety about catering is the last thing I want waking me up in the middle of the night. As an agent though – there is still a level of production that I still need to be involved in – you can never really get away from it. But I am happy the entire weight of the production (cube trucks and all aren’t on my shoulders anymore).
17. What I love about working in this industry is that it’s not like a typical 9 to 5, corporate America, kinda industry, and also being able to bring my dogs to work is a plus as you know. But, it is also is pretty intense and stressful – how do you create balance in your life?
Having a personal life is important. For me – being bicoastal helps me get balance. Being with my family is a reality check as it really makes me see my priorities in life and reminds me of what is most important to me. You won’t be able to find balance without knowing the foundation of who you are and family provides that in many ways.
All images © Samantha Box.
Samantha Box is a Brooklyn-based photographer and has been photographing the LGBT community for the past six years. Every time she photographs someone, she falls in love with them a little bit.
Michael Foley owns a gallery in the Lower East Side. He is an instructor at the International Center of Photography and the School of Visual Arts, where he lectures on issues in contemporary photography.
Hosted and Produced by Azhar Chougle.
Generously supported by the Camera Club of New York.
Portrait of Fryd Frydendahl by Galina Fecher
We dedicate this interview to our dear friend Galina Fecher, who inspired us with her creative depth, zany wit, compassion and generosity. We will remember you always, with love and great affection.
– Allen Frame & Fryd Frydendahl
I-Hsuen Chen is a recent graduate of the MFA Photography program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I sat down with I-Hsuen over lunch for this conversation about his recent body of work, Nowhere in Taiwan. A photograph from this series was recently purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Austin Nelson: Your work became really strong really quickly with your Nowhere in Taiwan series. You went home for the summer and came back with this huge body of work that was very strong. Do you feel like something changed inside you that allowed that to happen? What do you attribute the success of that series to?
I-Hsuen Chen: Of course, some training of aesthetics – the way of looking at photography or images – I learned a lot at Pratt. That’s one part. Say if I don’t study photography and I go back to my country, I don’t think that project would have happened in that way. And also, another point is this was kind of the first time I went abroad to study, the first time I’m actually leaving my country to live for a while, so it makes a really big difference that the culture shock hit me a little bit differently. At first I came here and the culture shock was like a language issue, or this thing is different, or this is something I have to get used to, so I maybe over time am getting used to the western culture. Like if someone says “your work is good”, in Taiwan you always say something like “oh, it’s not good enough” or “I’m still working on it” or we just nod, showing appreciation, where here I just say “Thank you” to show my appreciation, where in Taiwan that would be considered a little bit arrogant, so things like that are different. That’s just a little example. So when I go back to my native country, Taiwan, everything changes. When I go abroad, I become others. I am no longer myself. So, I go back to my original environment that shaped me and the bigger part of my personality, but now I am others and I can see through everything in my country. It’s kind of like when you go traveling and then you go back to where you live, you suddenly see everything that you haven’t seen before. On top of that, it’s also that when I go back it’s like a reverse culture shock when I go back to my country. I feel like I don’t fully belong to either place and I’m floating in between. American culture leads me to road trips, because I like a lot of road trip photography, like Alec Soth and others like that, so that’s why I went on a road trip in Taiwan. It really fits my state of mind and all of that and my training in aesthetics shaped this body of work. It’s not only taking documentary photographs in a certain area. I’m not interested in an issue in a certain area and I went to do a documentary on it. It’s not that. That can be really kind of exotic and superficial in a way, because you don’t belong to them. So my case is that I belong to my country, but I also belong to others.
Nelson: So now you feel like an outsider in your own country.
Chen: Yes. And of course, a lot of the photographs we take as photographers, we are all outsiders. We are really withdrawn, even detached from the environment. I think that’s why this series became a little bit special. It has the Western point of view and aesthetics and form, but also has a really Eastern spirit, which is my roots.
Nelson: I think that is what is remarkable about this series. It’s very familiar – the way that things are composed – but also, it’s very poetic.
Chen: Thank you. I guess that’s my aesthetic. I really don’t like photographs to be answers. I like for them to be questions, so I don’t like when one image has only one layer – whether it’s a cultural layer or whatever – I think that a good photograph should be asking questions and that creates an imaginary poetic space and you can extend it from that image. So if we are only taking photographs of the answers, it would be like “That’s it. There is no other stuff.” Also, I’m a little bit aware of the limitations of photographs to tell a story, so a documentary photographer might edit their series to do some visual storytelling, but actually movies can do a better job at that. So, for telling a story, movies are better for that and for me photographs should be more like poems. In that sense, for me, I try not to put a lot of really clear things in my photographs. Of course, I’m not thinking that when I take photographs, it’s just my personality, but thank you for that.
Nelson: I also really appreciate how you speak about photography. You’ve said to me that you don’t speak about it academically, but you do speak about it very intelligently and passionately. You do speak more to the poetics and I’ve rarely heard you say anything about the technical aspects of the field.
Chen: I’m also not too good at that.
Nelson: I don’t believe that. I think it’s really just part of your personality that you’re attracted to the poetry of it.
Chen: Maybe it’s because I have different backgrounds. I was doing marketing and I learned how to communicate with people in that way, but I am also an opera singer and a lot of times I’m an outsider in a lot of ways and so maybe since I’ve been into a lot of different things and nothing for many years, I am more free to be detached a little in each of those forms. When we are only doing one medium, maybe it restricts us in a way.
Nelson: You mentioned storytelling. What do you think of your photographs in that regard? This body of work is a series, but do you want the viewer to see it as a whole as a story or do you want them to see each individual image as a story in itself or some combination of both?
Chen: I still think that one image is not strong enough to say everything or to leap to a larger sense. That’s why we’re still using serial photographs. I remember I read an article that said all the major photographers of the last twenty years shoot for something that will lead to a book, because that will lead to a larger issue, so that’s why I’m using serial photography, but I don’t think it has to be a story. I mean, I think if you listen to a sonata, they have a sense of storytelling, but that is not a story. It’s more like a sentence. For me, showing the images together is not about telling a story. It’s more about having a rhythm. There’s not always a story. There’s not always a conflict and a conclusion.
Nelson: So the series for you is about a flow more than a narrative or other dramatic mechanism.
Chen: All the images don’t even have to be the same size. We don’t even know why we’re shooting in series. I don’t know why. I think it’s influenced too much by how photographs are shown in galleries. Why can’t we just show one photograph? When people ask me “So, this is your final edit?” I say, “I don’t know. It depends on where I’m putting it.” For my there are no final edits.
Nelson: It’s interesting not only how you speak about your photography, but also about other people’s work. Do you ever not know where to start in addressing others’ work?
Chen: Before I came to Pratt, I can honestly say I knew nothing about photography. When I looked at some photos, I didn’t know why they worked or didn’t work. So, for me, it’s that I’m trying to analyze my feelings about the work. That is always my way of thinking about things. When I started, I had feelings about works, but I didn’t know why and didn’t know how to interpret those feelings. I’d say I learned how to be myself. At first you sort of imitate, and then you start to realize that your feelings are correct. It doesn’t mean that I have a really good or special point of view, but your feelings are always true for you. What might be good about my critiques might be that I try to deconstruct my feelings about other people’s work and that might be good.
Nelson: If you were going to critique your own work, specifically the Nowhere in Taiwan series, what would you say is the strongest aspect of the work and what do recognize as something that you need to work on?
Chen: It’s really hard to do that. I will say it’s too large. I still say trying to put everything in one group – it’s a little too stiff. And also, maybe because of my taste, I don’t like the images that seem like one-liners. Maybe they are connected, but there’s something problematic about that, too. My dream of course is that everyone will like my work, and that’s really hard. Maybe some photography insiders will like some of it, but other people might not get it, so I don’t want to make photographs that only other photographers will like. I don’t know. I’m still too attached to my work, but I’m not wholly satisfied with it yet. And the strongest point? I like the work that really grabs your heart. I think some of the images make people feel something and question something about themselves. I like the images that are complex. There are some photographs that are funny and sad and questioning and unsettling and debating themselves. I don’t know how other people look at my work, but that’s what I’d like for them to see. I can be really quiet, I can be really talkative, sometimes I’m funny and I’m sensitive all the time, so that’s just my personality and maybe that’s why I like those images – they are a weird combination of my personality.
Nelson: Are you going to continue to work on this series or are you going to start on another project?
Chen: I’m going to work on something else first. Once I start thinking ‘ok, this is good’, all of the surprises and specialness sort of disappears, like “you are repeating yourself”.
Please visit I-Hsuen’s website www.ihsuenchen.com