The Lunch Party
Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill with Zoë Sheehan Saldaña and Jeff Weiss
No sign anywhere of PHOTOGRAPHY you say, bah, no problem there, photography not dead yet, yes, dead, good, photography dead photograph THAT. 1
IF AND WHERE TO START
Weighty questions - as to the form and fate of photography in 2010-11; whether we are photographers, artists, or media practitioners; whether photography or art itself are deceased -trouble us not at all when we are doing whatever it is we do. Is there a time when it should weigh on us? Not really. However, when someone interrupts and asks if you would, you might just oblige them and yourself. Maybe all of us should take a crack at diagnosing photography's state of affairs.
Organize an enormous study committee, use the Internet and sample the entire globe. But think then of the logistics, the headaches. Alright, a small committee then, a crew, a brew of four seasoned minds, each with some stake in the issues and informed opinions: Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, Jeff Weiss, Suzanne Bloom, and Ed Hill. Where? La Brioche Cafe & Bakery, Montpelier, Vermont.2
When? Election Day, 2010.
An animated conversation with sandwiches, soup, lattes, and later, very rich selections from the bakery. Our new audio Flash recorder set up on a block of foam replacing the salt, pepper, and napkin dispenser against the wall. Next, 3.5 hours of dialogue.
Zoë: Are you two gearheads?
Suzanne: It's a Sony D50 Linear PCM Recorder.
Each of us at the table has her/his backstory in relation to the proposed subject, photography. All four careers launched in distinct ways.3
Zoë: After taking a photography course as part of my art history degree at Oberlin, I never actually made photographs in the grad program at RIT. Instead I created things that were "photographic." Like, I made a very large cube of Jello, first because Jello came from that area - Leroy, NY - and secondly, because of its connection to film emulsion and the photography industry. Or, I did cross-stitch work derived from found photographic images I got off the Internet - where everything comes from! These were both digital and handmade since I physically rendered all the captured information in thread by hand. This was in 1997-8.
Jeff: Once the draft was no longer an issue I decided to drop my career as a science teacher and do what I wanted. I wrote letters to every photographer I found in MoMA's bookstore whose work I liked. I said, "Hey, my name's Jeff and I take pictures too. I like what you do, so I'd like to talk to you about it." The responses from the group, including the Weston kids, Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Harry Callahan, were all positive. After visiting with each of them I decided I wanted to be a photographer. This was in the mid-1960s. Ultimately I wound up working with Minor White, and then taught photography at Goddard College.
Suzanne: In 1972 I was a color field, minimalist painter who had reached some sort of stopping point. My last paintings were like stucco walls in appearance and had become objects rather than images. Also, I'd made large paintings, up to sixteen feet. I felt I had conquered issues of surface, scale, and geometric design - what next? I no longer believed in painting as a universal language and I was very interested in issues of representation. Photography seemed like the right medium to use to explore the specificity and ambiguity of representational imagery.
Ed: Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blow Up, 1967, completely 'blew my mind.' I was so affected by the obsession with and potential of photography depicted in his film that, after seeing it twice in one weekend, I bought a Pentax camera the following Monday morning - just like that. Once I started taking photographs I immersed myself in it totally. I looked at everything I could find on photography and learned darkroom practice from a local photographer. By 1969 I was teaching basic photography and had undertaken an overly ambitious project, The Rural Environment, which ultimately led to an exhibition of 500 photographs held at the Smith College Museum of Art in 1973.
YOU CAN'T PUT YOUR ARMS AROUND IT ANY LONGER
Ed: Photography is very difficult now to isolate as an object of thought. Actually it may be a fool's errand to even try because it's so dispersed throughout the culture. From its beginning, photography has been like a cell dividing and multiplying at a geometric rate to a point where it no longer can be conceptualized as a whole body or named as a single organism.
Suzanne: Maybe we should speak of "photographies." Or admit that such a monolithic term as "photography" is no longer adequate. "Photography" represents a tradition we came from, not necessarily where we are today.
Ed: Photo images are rampant and, don't forget, aren't restricted to a camera in human hands.
Zoë: Imagine how many pictures were captured around the planet in the time it took you to say that.
Jeff: There's a picture of everything now. Since 9-11 you can't walk down the street in New York City without being picked up by a camera, and the time is stamped on the bottom of the screen documenting exactly when you were there. Enough to convict you in a court for jaywalking or stealing someone's pocketbook. The number of live feeds alone is staggering.
Suzanne: If you find yourself saying, "Those things have nothing to do with 'Photography'," then you're guilty of narrowing ever-expanding media down to your own set of assumptions.
Jeff: I still have great affection for photography. I've been a member of the photo community for a very long time, but I really don't know what photography is and I don't think the establishment knows what it is either. In fact, I think I've been having this conversation about photography for decades. At various places where I taught photography the question was, "What shall we name the new department?"
BITES, PIECES, AND BINARY CODE
Suzanne: Advancements in technology have definitely propelled us to take on certain projects. For instance, although the idea of using books as subject matter came first, without the Canon Mark II 5D digital camera we bought specifically forThe Book Project, or the current quality of large-scale inkjet printers and printing papers, we wouldn't be doing this project.
Zoë: Yes, you are gearheads. You also have been adaptable to the next thing that comes along. I mean a lot of artists aren't adaptable, but I've noticed you two seem to have a tendency to say, "OK, well what's this new thing coming along, how is this going to work?" So, you ventured into video, CGI, and haven't been afraid to try the next thing.
Ed: To tell the truth, I don't believe we've ever really been at the bloody "bleeding" edge of technology. Just keeping up.
Suzanne: There is the larger question of what digital has done to photography. Yes, it's increased photography's capabilities, but is it starting to determine the quality of what people make in order to have it distributed over the Internet?
Ed: Can we put the Internet topic aside for the moment and focus on the development of what we quaintly called, always in caps, "Digital Photography"? We made our initial venture into computerland in 1985. Our first two computers were so severely limited in power that if I recited the specs you'd think I was making up a lame joke. I should also point out that the first stage of the photo "digilution" concerned creating or altering images in the computer, i.e., imaging software. We laid hands on a beta copy of Photoshop long before anyone knew it would find a place in everybody's vocabulary. From the start PS was a big leap ahead of any other imaging software.
Suzanne: Digital cameras were another thing entirely. For fifteen years we stayed with film converting from analog to digital via scanners. That meant image quality depended on the resolution of scanners which very slowly got better. Digital cameras weren't anywhere near competitive until the end of the 90s.
Ed: Having been through all of that, what is available today represents the best of all possible worlds. We have very smart, sharp, fast cameras and rich applications that give us more control over the images we capture than we ever anticipated. And, it will only increase in power and quality. How well all of this is put to use is another issue.
Jeff: Something that hasn't come up - think of David Hockney and his physicist friend who demonstrated that "photography" existed for hundreds of years before 1839 and the development of the fixed photographic image. Given all that, the main difference now is we can put control back into the process via computer software.
I want to link that to the fact I make things now that really can't be photographed. I constructed a tower, it's a model of a radio tower in North Dakota that until 2009 was the tallest man made object on earth. It's six feet wide by 2200 feet tall. My model is a half-inch wide by seven feet tall. If I try to photograph it getting back far enough to frame the whole tower there's nothing there, it disappears. I can't photograph this object in any way that is readable. Yet I can draw it in a virtual 3-D environment and make an image from that which shows you what it actually looks like in its totality.
Ed: And you use a virtual camera to render that image.
Jeff: I'd say that claiming a CGI rendering is done with a virtual camera is just borrowing familiar terminology from photography. It's basically bogus, just a metaphor.
Ed: Not exactly. 3-D computer programs very closely simulate all the settings of an actual camera. That's what makes it virtual. Similarly, you use virtual lighting to illuminate your model. You're able to make an image of your tower using the computer because you have complete control over all the "optical" phenomena. A 3-D frame render is a virtual photograph. We are fortunate not to be forced to communicate with computers in their native language.
Zoë: By the way, with your new work [Suzanne/Ed], do you see any irony or other significance in using one dying medium, photography, to reflect on another, the printed book?
Suzanne: Check that half "yes." I don't think photography is dead or dying, but it has become increasingly culturally amorphous. That said, there's an internal irony to these images because they give every appearance of being more totally "photographic" than any of our work in the last twenty-five years. However, every single image received considerable attention in the computer. Most of them are heavily composited. We used advanced techniques like HDR (high dynamic range) and other methods that are unique to digital imaging. There is no more need to capitalize digital photography.
HAS CONTEMPLATIVE THOUGHT GONE THE WAY OF VIRGINITY?
Suzanne: Would you consider the Internet as a causal agent of a major shift in paradigm? Also, has the Internet's role relative to the distribution of photography reciprocally affected photography in a broader sense?
Ed: Absolutely, it's dividing people's attention down into ever smaller fragments. And it's causing a revaluing - I'm tempted to say, a devaluing - of photographs.
Zoë: The Internet has a way of separating the good from the bad pictures in the sense that, if you do a Google search for oil platform images, and you get 500 of them, and everyone is consistently clicking on the same one, well that one is going to rise to the top. So, it's being edited through this other process, this crowd-sorting process.
Ed: The oil platform images might not be the best example because these are appealing primarily to rig workers who usually leave comments like, "My first job was on that rig in 1987." However, the site does have an album of favorites which I assume are the most viewed ones. In any case it's a dubious claim to say the best rise to the top. Isn't that determined more by popularity and isn't popularity the foremost criteria on the Web? Wikipedia's Today's Featured Pictureis slightly different. We don't know how they are chosen and generally who the author is because he or she most often enters a user pseudonym. We can only guess whether it's by a pro or an amateur.
Jeff: I said earlier there's a photograph of everything. Well, all those photos are on the Net. It's there that everyone can have their photos seen because it's the super source and super gallery for, well, everything.
Ed: We need to expand here and not just talk about the Internet but the entire mediasphere. Phonocams are probably the most widely used camera today, and unique because people have them in their hands almost constantly. Without any inconvenience you can take photos of every moment in your day, post them or send them off to whomever as you go along. To what end I'm not sure.
Zoë: Just like text messages the overwhelming majority of these images have an extremely short lifespan. They're throwaways. I could send photos of my cat to my mom all day long and one would just replace the last. She'd love it. The cat that is.
Suzanne: Is there a place any longer for reflective, contemplative art as opposed to instant art, or throw away images? Susie Kalil posed a related question - whether serious or substantial photos can be made with an iPhone?
Jeff: Of course. It has to do with intention and skill not the hardware. There are mucho examples of beautiful images created using homemade pinhole cameras. You could have things on the Internet that are just what you've described. I'm trying to make one right now about my years of cross-country trips. I have a web guy who can put together a coast-to-coast landscape that's made up of visual stories from that period of my life. Whether anyone will look at it, or, more important, look into it, that's up for grabs. You won't get any money from that sort of thing, but it is possible to have a dematerialized item that goes on the Web that's just as contemplative or deep as anything in a museum.
Ed: Ah, "dematerialized item," a perfect segue to the number one bullet point I have to offer. Namely, that the most significant effect digital technology and the Internet have had on photography is to release the image from its material base. Once an image is liberated from a physical surface in the form of binary code, it can be moved about the mediasphere and distributed intact to screens across the planet.4 It can be stored, duplicated perfectly, or altered in numerous ways.
Zoë: Free at last! The larger culture seems to have abandoned the photographic print. So why are you two still making them?
Ed: You should not only ask why we still make prints, but why any of us, in the era of video, continue to make still images? If one of those is obsolete, so is the other. At my age I must embrace obsolescence. But, that's not the answer to your question - it's because both the still photograph and the printed image continue to have purpose in Suzanne's and my creative/professional lives as well as for humanity in toto.
PHOTOGRAPHY NOT PHOTOGRAPHY
Jeff: I used to be a "photographer," but I gave it up at some point. Why? Well... long story. I simply started using whatever I needed to use to do whatever I needed to do. And that's how I make art now.
Zoë: That is a widely held position today even though there are still many individuals who choose to work in one medium and therefore appropriately refer to themselves as photographers, painters, filmmakers, so forth. What you call yourself isn't as important as what you actually do. Your chosen label is just a reference point.
Ed: So what kind of work do you make, Zoë? Tell us about the matches.
Zoë: My match pieces started from word play. At the time I was making things that perfectly matched other things. In this case, a wooden match that really works as a match, as well as a match of a match, matching your conception of the match in your mind's eye. For this project, we cut down a poplar tree and then cut that into little sticks. Next I developed a recipe working with a chemist to get the materials right and not blow things up. From all this I created functional matches in an edition of 250, but they're not absolutely identical to each other because they're made individually. When I exhibit them I show one at a time.
Ed: How do you feel about them being presented as a photograph?
Zoë: It's been important to me how I portray the match. People often see a reproduction in print or on the Internet, so the photo becomes the artwork for them. Therefore, the qualities of the photo image are as important as the object photographed.
Ed: Seems to be about how things are actually made and, at the same time, about making a mass-produced commodity by hand, and finally about the large part photography plays in commodifying the object.
Jeff: How timely the matches were in relation to the collapse of the economy! One of the early Ponzi Scheme figures in history was a Swedish matchmaker.
Suzanne: Photography vs the artworld? Are they now in mutual embrace?
Jeff: I'd say "death grip."
Suzanne: How about the future of organizations like HCP, SPE, etc.?
Zoë: They need to keep working on getting the general culture to understand why we should value all of this stuff.
Suzanne: Including material and visual craft.
Ed: What about the rise of amateurism?
Zoë: Get over it, Ed.
Suzanne: The end of irony and return of beauty?
Jeff: Next time.
1. Paraphrase of Samuel Beckett's opening sentence in his story, Imagination Dead Imagine (Calder and Boyars, London, 1965).
2. Both couples have long held residences in Vermont as well as elsewhere, Bloom/Hill in Houston, TX and Sheehan Saldaña/Weiss in Brooklyn, NY.
3. Note: Because the transcription of the actual conversation amounts to nearly 12000 words, our word count limit will permit only very selective sampling. Bio facts can be found elsewhere in spot.
4. Early attempts at this would include lantern slides and slow-scan television. And later, broadcast television as well. But all of these analog methods had serious shortcomings, specifically in degraded image quality and transmission limitations.
Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom (MANUAL) are artists and professors who have collaborated for thirty-six years, and who live and work in Houston, TX and Vershire, VT.
Zoë Sheehan Saldaña is an artist and professor currently based in Brooklyn, NY.
Jeff Weiss is an artist and teacher who lives and works in Woodbury, VT and Brooklyn, NY.