Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Doing the Dishes. A Chat With Laura Letinsky

Laura Letinsky, Untitled, #92 (from the I Did not Remember I Had Forgotten series), 2004

ME: Was there one photograph or photographer who was instrumental in exciting/inciting you to start to make pictures?

LAURA: "When I was about 18 I fell in love with Diane Arbus' work. I was first wowed by the subjects, their vulnerability and tentativeness that at first I understood as so very ordinary, but her "picturing" made extraordinary. Later, I realized what she did was not only having to do with a selection of subject, but intrinsically, how she made the pictures. That is, she was sophisticated in not only her choice of subject but moreover, her use of form."

Diane Arbus

ME: Could you talk a little bit about how you started your 'Morning, and Melancholia' series and the process of doing this body of work.

LAURA: "The still life work grew out of a conglomeration of conceptual, artistic, and everyday stuff. I had long been fascinated by the 17th century Dutch and Flemish still life painters, curious about their relationship to the more southern Italian tradition in which still life does not figure large. I was also intrigued by the historical and social conditions of still life such that it becomes important during particular periods, then seems to go underground, becoming irrelevant to concerns of the day. So, for example, still life is an exceptionally popular genre in 17th century northern Europe, then not really again until the modernists use it's "content-less-ness" as the basis to experiment with form. Of course the still life is never without content, rather, it's very matter of factness belies its important to issues of (as Norman Bryson writes in Looking at the Overlooked) creaturality, domesticity, intimacy, gender, and so on. It was around 1997, with Bryson's strong influence, that I transitioned from the photographs of couples in intimate interiors to the still life. Along with Svetlana Alpers, and others, he gave me an understanding of the still-life's social and historical context, and most importantly, why this mode of representation has currency in these particular moments. I began to see a corollary between the early global mercantile capitalism of that place and our own post-global, post-capitalist world in which objects, things, are signs of need and want, and their depiction through visual media is vital to communicate, sheesh, generate this desire. Their need for an image making technology that showed everything transparently, i.e. sort of like how we see, as well as the need to widely disseminate images, this called for realistic depictions that demanded photography's invention (here I have to credit Walter Benjamin and Joel Snyder). Photography is less an invention and more a realization about a set of ideas and ideas of how to picture and therefor understand, the world."

Laura Letinsky

Wolfgang Heimbach, Woman Looking at a Table, 1660-70

"For me, I wanted to use the photograph to talk about this "post" moment, a moment that of course doesn't feel that way as we live it, but yet by using the photograph, a medium that is, as Barthes describes, always about "that is dead, and that is going to die", I felt I couldn't help but engage this idea of the aftermath - of capitalism, culture, need, want.... and then perhaps it's just as easy to say that this melancholic attitude is just my nature. It also felt really important to use photography, rather than painting to make this work so as to address how we know our world, that is, the pedagogy of photographic media from billboards to music videos to Wolfgang Tillmans and so on. I use photography though to upset or at least slow down how we know what we are looking at; by utilzing the shifting focal plane of the large format camera, as well as through the formal construction of my pictures, I want to mess with the viewer's sense of gravity, of certainty when they see a domestic scene. For me this has to do with the fragility and work of domesticity.

As the work has progressed, I've become more of a control freak and the pictures more obviously put together/artificial. When I first began I wanted a degree of naturalness but that has become less interesting to me and instead I'm pushing the formal construction of the pictures as well as the ickiness of the subject matter, working at home and in my studio to make 2 parallel but different sets of photographs, one in which the light blows out the space and becomes synonymous with the plane of the paper, and the other is darker, with limited light and color (sad sad sad but oh so beautiful, hopefully in a Nick Cave/ Will Oldam kind of way)."

Laura Letinsky

ME: What's your favorite place to see photographs? Why?

LAURA: "Depends on the photographs. So much work now is made especially for the gallery and museum context with a significant shift happening in the 90's as galleries moved into larger, more institutional like spaces, as well as (for photography especially) the technological ease of making large images. Photographs have currency in so many different realms, from beloved pictures of my kids that exist on my iphone to the seduction of print media on the sides of buses to those in museums and galleries i.e the art world. My favorite place to see pictures depends on the pictures. I like all of these venues, depending, and including !!!! books. This last, one of my favorite because of the intimacy of the interaction (okay, if I could, I'd prefer original prints but that's obviously an impediment for every/any one to varying degrees)"

ME: What contemporary photographers are you most interested in these days?

LAURA: "I've become more hermetic over the past few years, the product of having kids, a professorship at the University of Chicago, but also I get sustenance from places, activities, interests, things other than pictures. I read fair amount, as much as I can, mostly contemporary fiction, but also historical works, essays, New Yorker, poetry, and so on, as well as drawing from music, paintings, sculpture, fim, etc. I try to see as much as I can but time is limited and life is rich. Some artists who interest me include Marlene Dumas, Vija Clemins, David Schutter, Karen Reimer, Judy Legerwood, Tino Sehgal, Jalal Toufic, Jessica Stockholder, Rudolf Stingel, Gordan Matta Clark, Vitto Acconci,... an eclectic bunch to be sure."

Marlene Dumas, Babe

Karen Reimer

Rudolf Stingel

ME: Who do you think is one of the most under examined or underrated photographers? Someone whose work should be seen more often and in more places?

LAURA: "There's so much that I'm sure I'm missing but two photographers who I think about a lot these days include E.J. Bellocq and Roger Ballen. Bellocq worked at the turn of the the last century in New Orleans photographing prostitutes. It's reputed that he also made a decent living documenting ship's cargo. I've long been taken with his work, not that I'm even sure that what we are looking at is his in the sense that the images were discovered by Lee Friedlander in the 50's then printed and distributed as art as heralded by Szarkowski, Sontag and others. We see the full frame, likely not what Bellocq had intended, and the poigency of the subject and form, not to mention the wreaking of time on the negatives, all contribute to an abiding intensity for me.

I saw Roger Ballen's show in New York a few years ago and was really engged by their craziness. Some of the weirdness comes across as just that but in most of them, he manages to marry the peculiarity of the subjects to his description. His best photographs take my breath away. "

Roger Ballen, Mimicry, 2005

Roger Ballen, Shadow Chamber 4

ME: What over exhibited and over discussed photographer's work do you not care for or "get" ?

LAURA: "I'm not going to dish on artist's work I don't like but I will say that the longer I make pictures the less I get excited about. I'm interested in artist's work that changes the way I think about the world, that presents something to me such that I no longer see the world the same way. Artists who confirm what is already known, whose work shows something that I might see if I were standing in the camera's place, indifferent to formal and material presentation and choices, this work is not compelling to me. I recall an experience looking at one of my friend's work, Tanya Marcuse, who had photographed Greek and Roman statuary. I can't go to a museum and look at these objects anymore without seeing them as she showed to me. The same experience is had with so many others, from Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, William Eggleston, Cindy Sherman, Helen Levitt, and so on."

Thomas Struth

William Eggleston

Cindy Sherman

ME: If you could possess one, or a few, photographs from the history of the medium which one would it be and why?

LAURA: "Anything from Bellocq's "Storyville" portraits or Gary Winogrand."

E.J. Bellocq

Gary Winogrand

ME: If photography seized to exist and you had to choose another medium in which to express your self which medium would you choose?

LAURA: "Cooking."

ME: Photography, in all it's genres, is more popular than ever. For decades it fought to be valued as highly as all the other creative mediums. More schools are offering it as a subject of study. More galleries and museums are exhibiting photographs and more individuals are pursuing photography as a vocation. Do you have any concern that photography is perhaps becoming a victim of its own success? That the stunning volume of pictures being produced and consumed in all contexts has somehow demeaned the value of the medium and individual images?

LAURA: "I Don't think I ever thought there was anything intrisically worthwhile to photography per se. Rather, I understand it as one of an array of image making possibilities that carries with it specific and shifting meanings. True, to make a picture is relatively easy these days but to make anything that carries complicated and rich meaning, no matter what the medium, is always a challenge.

To say that there are a lot of images in the world is an understatement; to say that there are a few images that mean something (to me) is quite another. I don't care about the vast majority of photographic information that crosses my path because most of it isn't inteneded to have me care (more than making me want to have french fries or Balenciaga). Photography doesn't inherently mean anyting other than its photographic-ness. To use an analogy about food, there's a lot of food in our world but not a lot of it means more than caloric intake and momentary pleasure. For an experience that is lasting, there's got to be more, an engagement with the medium in the world in a way that resonates beyond the initial encounter. So no, I don't think photography's ubiquity has changed the way we think about the world. Photography shapes how we understand and know the world."

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