Ben Ruggiero with Chris Wiley
Ben Ruggiero and Chris Wiley discuss how a discarded piece of glass led Ben to photographically revisit Frederic Edwin Church and American Romanticism.
CHRIS WILEY: Your series After Icebergs With a Painter consists of a collection of cyanotype photograms and traditional photographs - taken both in the studio and out in the landscape - and take their cue from a found piece of plate glass that bears a strange resemblance to an iceberg. This led you to an investigation of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church's monumental Icebergs (1861), and the contemporary fate of the notion of the sublime. Since this project is both historically and autobiographically dense, I think it would be good to start with a little background. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to Frederic Church and to Icebergs in particular?
BEN RUGGIERO: Having grown up very close to Frederic Church's estate Olana, in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York, I was always aware of his work. In my recent project, I am revisiting his painting aesthetic, motivation and history in order to contend with the imprint his work has had on a contemporary American visual aesthetic, especially in photography and my own practice. I am interested in what American Romanticism fulfills for the viewer, the methods that Church employed in expanding visual naturalism, and his ability to render a lens-based illusion of a receding landscape. I am interested in the assertion that materials inherently inform process - in Church's era as well as now - their ability to render and reveal intention. Icebergsis perhaps the most emblematic image from the Hudson River School from a time period that began the complex relationship between painting and photography's as mediums. I took the opportunity to use that historic moment to address a series of questions that I have as an artist working with photographic processes now.
CW: The shift from photographing in the landscape to making cyanotypes in the studio is a fairly radical one, both in terms of process and representational strategy. How did this shift occur, and how did it change your understanding of photography?
BR: I would say the shift for me was process based and unexpected. Eleanor Jones Harvey's book, with contributions by Gerald L. Carr, Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church's Arctic Masterpiece (2002) wonderfully details the rich history of Church's painting. At around the same time I was reading this text, I came across a discarded piece of glass. I began to photograph the glass on the site where I found it. As I was revisiting the site, and the glass was breaking and being repositioned over time, I began to see qualities in my compositions that were unintentionally akin to Church's. Bringing the glass to my studio to shoot then shifted the context. I began using it for its material properties like the distortion of lenses in photography, as well as its ability to reference an ice peak. It seemed natural to make reproductions in multiple ways. I chose cyanotype, because it is an applied emulsion, but also because it was a technology that was available to Church. In the contact printing, it was my intention to utilize photography's most objective or mechanical potential (contacting on a one-to-one ratio). I wanted to be as apparent about process as possible (as opposed to Church's illusion), yet there were still unexpected results, which were the catalysts for the images that followed.
I followed the wall text from Church's exhibition of the painting in Brooklyn over 150 years ago that instructed audiences in seven different ways to view the mammoth work. I used Church's seven ways of looking as a framework for the project. I tried to resolve a series of questions that are both contemporary and consistent with Church's steps. By working with the glass in photographs, I followed the ideas of making representational images out in the world, subsequent iterations in the studio and ultimately within a studio space. The final image completes a cycle that inverts the situation in which it was found - that is, on the edge of the shared public and consumer environments by displaying the glass against the inside of the front window of my studio, and viewed it from the outside. With the cyanotypes, I confronted the direct representation in multiple ways. In one instance, I placed a one-to-one negative of the glass under the corresponding area of the glass it copied and then contact printed them together. The two misaligned representations reveal their inherent distortions. I also broke the glass of the contact printer to challenge the assumption of the mechanism's supposed neutrality. By using Church's structure, an intuitive logic emerged that allowed me to communicate while realizing more of the potential of photographic processes.
CW: We've also talked a lot about what seemed to be the increasingly narrow possibilities available to artists working with photography in a world in which everything seems to have been photographed - what philosopher Vilem Flusser referred to even in the early 1980s, long before the ubiquity of the Web, as a world of "redundant" images. Do you think that this project represents a way forward to you?
BR: Yes, I think that this does represent a way forward for my work. The digital workflow has brought forth new challenges. For me, this moment happened when I no longer had access to Chomegenic printing for making enlargements from negatives. Many assumptions about my process had disappeared - it was a way to for me to address questions about materials and their inherent effects on the interpretation of imagery. "Photographers" like us are excited about the potential of purely photographic images to extend the new lens-based imagery into a wider art context. I see this as the continuation of a historical pursuit from Henry Fox Talbot onward. There's a great opportunity to utilize precedents from history that have already addressed similar concerns. The grouping or re-contextualizing of imagery, like Oliver Wasow, Cory Archangel, and Penelope Umbrico represent really interesting tactics for utilizing "redundant" imagery. I feel that sequences of straight photographs will continue to have their own unique sensibilities.
CW: One of the most interesting things we've talked about concerning your seriesAfter Icebergs With a Painter is the work's relation to 19th century conceptions of the sublime - how you've attempted to explore, and perhaps update, the idea of the sublime for a present in which our relation to the natural world is radically different from that of Frederic Church and his contemporaries. Can you talk a little about this?
BR: I am infatuated with the desire to recreate the sensation of an experiential awe-inspiring moment that is invoked by one's natural surroundings in imagery. My proximity to the actual paintings and landscapes (that were being depicted) by Church and Thomas Cole make them the most overt examples of this type of endeavor. I was inspired by Ed Ruscha's Course of Empire (2005), and that he exhibited these works alongside Cole's Course of Empire (1833-36). Ruscha acknowledges Cole's cautionary tale but amends Cole's logic with more detail, specificity and nuance of current conditions. They vacillate between Cole's rigidly dictated stages in the progression of mankind's effect on the landscape, until it cannot support those systems. Producing work well after the New Topographics, I find that many sentiments from American Romanticism are still present in our relationship to landscape. There has been a shift from traditional moments of heightened introspection towards looking for the same outlet in the "social landscape" or the increasingly urbanized landscape. Projections made in relation to natural elements in American Romanticism can also be realized in communal man made spaces. The materials that are used to achieve these affects equally intrigue me. In this project, I had the ability to physically utilize materials from the landscape and call attention to those that shape our ability to render with photography.
Ben Ruggiero received his MFA from Bard College. He had a solo show at Testsite entitled After Icebergs with a Painter and is a member of the Austin-based photography collective Lakes Were Rivers. He lives in Austin and teaches at Texas State University.Chris Wiley is an artist, writer, curator and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared in numerous publications and catalogs, most frequently in ArtForum.com, Frieze, and Kaleidoscope, where he also acts as an Associate Editor. He has worked on numerous curatorial projects at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, as well as on the 8th Gwangju Biennial in Gwangju, South Korea. A solo exhibition of his photographs will be mounted this spring at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in New York.