Interview #2. Spring 2006
Questions 1-7 by Joel Hanson
Questions 8-11 by Sanz Lashley
QUESTION #1: You said recently that with photography, we end up with memories of memories–second generation recordings of our experiences. Are photographs always a degenerative representation of an experience, or do they also contain an element of surprise (i.e. the ability to notice something we missed during the actual experience)?
I think most photographs have an ability to exhibit surprise. It’s solely dependent upon how the photographer compresses his/her action and experience into the decisive moment. The same philosophy holds true for musicians. There are specific times when the decisions they make create a kind of force which is concentrated, barely existing in a distinguishable portion of time and space. That phantom area is known as a great performance, which can often happen well outside the boundaries of the artist’s conscious memory. Ask them what they did later and they really can’t explain it.
Photography is like this, too. Although in composing a photograph we make specific mental notes with regard to an intended outcome, we are often very surprised by the end result. Because a photo is still, it can only say so much, and yet – it can tell us much more than we ever intended or expected. It lives outside of its own boundaries. That’s why I love this doppelganger relationship with the medium. It plays tricks on us, seduces our sensibilities, repulses us until we have to feel it physically. So, getting back to what you said about whether photography could be a degenerative experience, well, I think a successful photograph is always alive and generative, and the more questions it asks, the more compelling it can be for us to try and answer them.
QUESTION #2: During my travels over the past five years I’ve noticed an increasing number of people who appear to be more interested in recording their experiences (via digital photography and video) than actually experiencing them. What do you think are some of the reasons for this change, and why are people so obsessed with recording/cataloging these experiences?
That’s quite an intense question, one which would demand several hours to properly answer, but in short, this obsession can be attributed to the ways in which all of us have more or less been conned into living in virtual real time. We now have so many choices with regard to how we perform one task, whatever it may be, that we’ve found countless ways in which to adorn the process.
Technology is now running itself, speeding things up to a point where the majority of developed countries (i.e. those with modern amenities that can be operated or owned by the general public) contain a framework that presents an oversurplus of choices – in material goods, spiritual practices, personal relationships, etc. With this overinflux of too much choice comes a fear of not having enough of what’s possible or available. So, we fill up our moments with more moments - to prove to ourselves that those experiences were real. The irony, of course, is that we genuinely didn’t enjoy them with the same acute sense as we might have if we weren’t multitasking ourselves into oblivion.
Cellular phones and e-mail–these two methods of rapid communication–have both desensitized us to such a degree that recalibrating our attention spans to run on a lower frequency or at a lower rate of speed is next to impossible. We’ve been Pavlovian-conditioned to react when the little bell sounds. It’s very difficult to reverse this process, and we all know how equally difficult it is to thwart convenience. Really, recording anything falls into accordance with the type of technology available. If it’s become affordable and available, we’ll use it, usually without regard to quality or comfort.
In the speed-chase of life we feel not only compelled, but expected to jump on the bandwagon, to stylishly not make waves. Today’s cultural manifesto seems to decree “Don’t ask why. Ask when.” Essentially, this is what most of us fall prey to. A sizeable amount of time goes to learning how to use what’s new with absolutely no concern for processes mastered previously. Structurally speaking, we’re quickly forgetting what solid ground even feels like, or how to build safely upon it. More webs mean twice the spiders.
QUESTION #3 : You also said recently that your photography is an attempt to preserve a chivalrous exchange of intelligent discourse. Can you elaborate on this? More specifically, what conversation would you ideally like to see take place between your work and an anonymous viewer?
I still believe real photography is about surrendering to the image, letting it literally crash over you. The only photographs I can adequately recall are the ones whose humanity reached me somehow, even if their subject matter disturbed me. The terrifying thing about analog photography is that for better or worse, its subject matter is clarifying a moment that actually happened. There’s no running away from that initial fact, and we already know the truth’s a touchy subject, especially for those who have something to hide, or something in themselves that needs to be confronted.
No medium before photography spoke with as much candid wrath or veiled insinuation. No medium shows beauty or ugliness with such a startling sense of truth, or makes us writhe uncontrollably in our own desirous fantasies or sobering losses. Photographs that speak to us deeply are like candles which cannot be extinguished in any weather or fit of careless anger. They are there, in front of us, talking.
Returning now to your question, I’d like my work to resonate with the viewer on indiscreet terms. I want them to be overtaken with feelings they themselves may have difficulty explaining rationally and, above all, I want them to be haunted like a story they can’t stop reading. If they allow for total surrender so that the images can crash over their heads, or allow to be led by some unexplained blind intuition, then my work will have some reason to go on existing.
QUESTION #4: Why is on no one purchasing photography currently? Does it have something to do with its proliferation (via digital technology) or because some people don’t respect it as a true art form?
Mostly the former. We are imaged out, assaulted daily by every sort of photographic technique in every kind of context. Our true desires hardly belong to us anymore. They belong to corporations, and we’re the complacent runts of the litter weaning on their sows. Commercial images and the fine arts have so tightly merged that they have become inseparable. There are so many art books available in the mass marketplace now that whenever I peruse a bookshop that sells them, I almost become physically incapacitated. I can’t move in any direction, nearly forgetting why I’m there.
There are too many choices floating defiantly in a sea of too much successful talent, icons and sharp household names whose mere utterances conjure some form of inexpressible awe. Envy also, especially for today’s lost artist, a generationally displaced astronaut who seems to be running out of oxygen. The fact is we can get anything we want in less than five business days. All images have become commodified entities whose initial titillating jolts have been softened by time and familiarity. Truth be told, there’s nothing much new to see, which then begs the question “Why bother continuing to make photographs?”
A simple answer seems to be that we all see differently, and the evolution of any personal relationship rests on the ability to balance those differences with the things we hold in common. Due to the ease with which people have embraced digital photography, an activity virtually without process, it’s understandable that it’s caught on so quickly. Still, because it’s so easy, involving very little active study (as fine arts photography had in the past), it seems that overnight everyone’s become a photographer. Quality has indeed been sacrificed for speed and efficiency - and the next 15 minutes of photo fame, should one become lucky enough to enjoy it.
QUESTION #5: How do you feel about KODAK no longer producing B&W papers? Why are people less interested in analog photography?
KODAK’s decision to end their production of B&W paper clearly has made a statement about the photo market itself, which is that with innovation comes format change. Just as music moved from analog to digital, so did photography and electronic communication–related fields with related CEOs.
KODAK probably made an honest line-drive financial decision based on where it viewed its place as an old-name competitor. High-tech rarely moves backwards. It may flex its retro muscles a bit, but in the end, total mass earnings are what place a company in front. Old principles rarely win out against what can make the most money right now.
In response to the second part of your question, people who are less educated about a particular subject also become less interested. Most educational institutions have their eye on how to attract future students (i.e. revenue), veering capriciously away from the fine arts and into digital/new media formats. I think it’s safe to say at this stage that many of the romantic elements associated with artmaking practices have not only been plucked from universities’ curriculum, but from daily life in general. That tactile sense of nostalgia and majesterial wonder which went into so much of the past 150 years’ great visual works–it’s disappearing fast. We now live in what I like to term the “New Age of Unaccountability,” ushered in with the Bush Administration and 9/11.
QUESTION #6: What are the principal ways you believe “technology has driven a wedge between what we think we want and what we know we need?” What are some steps we can take as people (collectively or individually) to reverse this process?
The most important thing we can do without fail is to ask good questions about what is happening right now and why: identify the present so as to intelligently move towards the future. Politically, and in living our commercial supply-and-demand lives, we’ve largely missed the point to the far reaches of fiction.
To put it in simple terms, ads and societal peer pressure usually dictate what the majority of us spend our money on, and most of the time, these things are totally unnecessary – but they cleverly enter the region of what we are supposed to want. Meanwhile, all around us but somehow not quite penetrating the tranquil eyes or our hurricanes, lies the bedlam that we’re detached witness to: environmental disasters and political travesties only hinted at decades earlier, to name only two.
What we need is action, some collective power to change these conditions and thus continue to survive. But something stops us–our own amiable and affable technology—systems that mostly provide us with empty addictions and added stress, self-consciousness, and superficiality. We want more and more while somehow dropping our standards so that in the end—real intimacy, conclusive truths, national safety, environmental soundness and abundance–this has all somehow been strangely compromised. These are the things we need. Too many mirrors in the room and we see only ourselves, our needs – not collective needs that should be shared by all. Too much convenience is dangerous.
Tokyo life has told me this story over and over again. In order to reverse the process, as you hinted at earlier, I believe we may just have to annihilate ourselves. We’re certainly spending enough yearly on the possibility. You see, if there are no laws which need to be abided by the lawmakers, if political and corporate corruption is universally accepted as typical protocol in a Democratic state, if selling one’s body becomes the fastest, most no-nonsense means in which to acquire a designer handbag so as to redefine one’s reason for existing, then it’s hard to strike the set and just rebuild again. It’s incredible how much this interview has strayed from the subject of photography, but I guess it was inevitable.
QUESTION #7: What do you feel is your greatest weakness as a photographer ? What steps are you taking to overcome it?
I have not had the privilege of being well-connected, and lack private/independent sources of income necessary to complete many of my thematic projects. Also, I do not enjoy schmoozing in attempts to sell myself, and I don’t like using computers much. I’ve been applying for funding to a host of international arts organizations for years in order to support my photography, but have received very little fanfare in this undertaking.
Given the endless changes which have placed the world of fine arts in collective jeopardy, I find it useless and absurd to take the situation personally. There are countless others dealing with similar challenges and economic limitations. I just try and remain as optimistic as possible.
QUESTION #8: How has living in Japan influenced your photography?
Japan from day one had proven to be another planet, with its own solar system, laws of gravity and mysteries that will never be deciphered. This alone has placed me quite far off shore from the visual work I’d been making in America. An entire book would need to be written in order to thoroughly answer your question since, in essence, Tokyo is an unsolvable riddle whose similarities and differences seem often to be eight or ten sided.
One thing does remain certain, however: truth has no solid place here. No one really wants it or has time for it. Day by day, the truth is changeable, and my work has had to adapt in accordance with this realization. I am societally probing the farthest zone from the center of the onion–wherever that is. The language barrier alone keeps most foreigners miles off the trail of what is actually happening, and even if I spoke Japanese fluently I’d still be sitting in the nosebleed seats with regard to synthesizing this culture into some clear shred of understanding. The surface is where most people dwell in their public personas, but their core, their souls, are elsewhere–nearly irretrievable to those outside their family bloodline.
Secrets are a part of daily life and everything is a paradox, a negative image of the initial positive illusion. This never ceases to fascinate me, and I guess my work has evolved in similar fashion. There is much more storytelling, more mystery in my current photographs. Since this website only features a tiny fraction of the work I make monthly, you are only getting an intro, a preamble to what Tokyo’s influence has had on me as an artist and as a human being. I’m being quite vague here, but I feel it’s necessary in answering the question, to not try and explain the importance of having lived in such a place. To put it in the mildest tone possible, without my experience of Japan I probably would have left photography.
Now would appear to be an excellent time to receive a bit of visual arts funding so I will be able to speak more deeply with my images, which are usually required to remain silently anonymous.
QUESTION #9: How would you explain your interest in female nudes to someone who believes they objectify the female form?
Well, they do. So do fashion, and soap commercials on television. I was recently having a conversation with one of my best friends in Tokyo, a French woman my age, about the dangers of categorization. Odd, isn’t it, when in trying to place things into categories we seem only to be left with ghosts of what they really are? Their definition can become blurry, their genuineness questionable.
I think intelligent discretion should be taken when viewing any photograph, especially if it’s a nude. All too often peoples’ discomfort with either themselves or the subject matter negates the artist’s true intention. What happens in a room between artist and subject is usually an amicable exchange of creative energy, always very specific to that moment – and no two exchanges bring about the same result. I feel that the word “objectification” has become quite meaningless. We are all voyeurs and it’s about time we admitted it. We want to look at other people. This is a natural and biological response to our social environment. Every last fragment of the human body has been cross-analyzed, scrutinized, photographed and then used in advertisements. There are those who believe a woman’s shoe is more arousing than the woman who wears it. Who is being objectified then?
Everything can be pooled under the same lens for investigation and presented later in all gradations of public taste. A billboard advertisement can usually make me feel much more uncomfortable than a photograph in an art book. Objectification revolves around intention. If I create a nude photograph that I think is representative of the pinnacle of female beauty and I want to exhibit it somewhere in the public sector, I’m automatically at risk of offending someone. However, if I photograph a bloody slab of meat in a slaughterhouse with intent to sell a particular product, I’m more than welcome to do so. A company name or logo placed over any photographic image seems to be universally celebrated, and at the very least, tolerated.
The parameters for what we decide to objectify are usually governed by three entities: politics, religion and commerce. How we choose to move within these confines is where disagreements regarding categorization can come into play. I think it’s crucial as an audience to be as open as possible to the message in a work of art and be less concerned with whom it may be offending. Fashion itself could not exist without objectification. I like the way Helmut Newton explained his position on making nudes: “It’s a glorification.”
QUESTION #10: Where do you draw the line between eroticism and pornography?
Erotica strives to strike a balance between fantasy and reality, bringing these two elements towards a state of visual rapture or crescendo. Pornography appears to be more about presenting extraneous details in repetition, therefore imbalance, without regard for aesthetic considerations – a cheap release-mechanism lacking mystery or originality which does not set it apart from other images.
I think eroticism and pornography are also nebulous categories housing no great truths other then the fact that they may sometimes differ or appear exactly the same. In the end, it’s all a matter of personal taste and/or the current rules of fashion that surround it.
QUESTION #11: What is it about the female body that appeals to you as a photographer?
For this question I’ll be very brief. Everything about it appeals to me.