Lucas Blalock talks with David Campany

Lucas Blalock, Mirrors Windows Tabletops, Morel Books, 2013

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Publisher’s blurb: ‘Lucas Blalock plays with the conventions of photography by exploring its limits and inherent contradictions. He examines not only the photograph’s subject but also the internal information of its making. Transposing Bertholt Brecht’s theory of alienation into photography by making the mechanics of the tools of production an evident part of the picture, Blalock then forces the viewer to question the conflicting realities set before them and, in turn, the contemporary condition of photography itself.’

The book includes this conversation between Lucas Blalock and David Campany:

David: Lucas, I’d like to dive in and ask you something about surfaces. It seems to me that photography became modern in the 1920s when it accepted its industrial smoothness. In doing so it made itself available to the expanding inventory of surfaces that proliferate in the modern world – plastics, metals, glass, new fabrics. In denying its own surface it became the supreme recorder of the surfaces of the world (I think of Edward Weston declaring: “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.”) Meanwhile modernist painting largely gave up depiction to concentrate on its own surface.  Since then of course things have got more complicated both in photography and painting, as artists move back and forth between the surface of their medium and the surfaces they depict. Does this ring true to you?

Lucas: It does, and it makes me think of the slippage, when describing photographs, between a description of the image content, and one of the physical object. This creates a sort of location problem when talking about photography. I am sympathetic to Weston’s insistence on ‘looking’ but my faith in the camera isn’t his. For me photography is more an act of drawing than one of index or transparency.

In my own work I think this question of surface has been most shaped thinking about collage, and at what point a photograph moves beyond its threshold into another form. I think another way of saying this might be that part of what is at stake in photography’s denial of its surface is a footing in homogeneity and naturalism. I am interested in making pictures that betray these qualities, making heterogeneous or stilted photographs, while at the same time using a consideration of the medium as a boundary.

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David: To that end the title of your book is intriguing. Mirrors and Windows: photography since 1960 was of course the title of a MoMA show and book put together by John Szarkowski (in 1984). There Szarkowski seemed to wrong-foot his critics by including all manner of heterogeneous or ‘stilted’ photographs. Robert Cumming’s sculpture/performance photos. John Divola’s theatrical/forensic photos. You’ve added ‘Tabletops’. It makes me think that the tabletop is the classic location for the still-life (plucking and placing) and for collage (cutting and pasting). Then there’s ‘the desktop’ of the computer screen, the location of digital post-production.

Lucas: The title does refer to Szarkowski’s exhibition as well as the table proper in the ways you mentioned. Leo Steinberg’s “flatbed picture plane” (which comes from an essay about Rauschenberg’s collage techniques) was in the air. WINDOWS MIRRORS TABLETOPS is also the neon that emblazons a Silverlake glass shop which I drove by nearly everyday when I was living in California. I kept, rather absently, thinking about the Szarkowski and what this third term might be.  Over the months it started to take on more and more possibilities.

David: What do you plan and what is improvised?

Lucas: Almost everything is improvised, though obviously I often set up the initial terms of that improvisation. For me, being in control of the details doesn’t seem to me to make very good pictures. I am reading Philip Guston’s collected writings and he quotes Paul Valery as saying that bad poetry “vanishes into meaning”. I think some analogue of this is true in photography. To be a bit more specific, when I am working I let the momentum carry my decision making. I set objects on the table but the pictures get made trying to figure out how to look at these things rather than composing them. Shooting in the studio is not so different for me from shooting something outside.

David: Guston had a knack for holding onto remarks that made sense. In an interview from 1960 he recalls something John Cage said to him:

“When you start working everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”

One can’t leave while holding on to every last detail. It’s interesting that historically the street was regarded as the space in which control escaped the photographer while the studio was where it could be regained. That distinction has slowly vanished but what remains is the enigmatic ratio of art, chance and document.

Lucas: I don’t intend to make the claim that the kinds of contingencies at play in the studio are the same as Winogrand’s or Friedlander’s. I shoot with a large format camera and in the end I think that condition informs the pictures as much as where they are made.

David: Of course. There’s a widespread assumption still that the larger the camera format the less contingency there is. Winogrand the speculative hunter-gatherer embracing all chance on 35mm; the large format studio photographer banishing everything unintended (I notice Jeff Wall gets annoyed when people say there’s no chance in his work). Very often I feel the plate camera sitting there stoically on its tripod, is somehow asking to be entertained, daring you to surprise it.

Lucas: It just involves a different attitude. I like this thing Godard said about all films being documentaries because the camera was documenting the performance of the actors (Jeff Wall somewhat echoes this with his idea of the “phantom studio”). Maybe with the large camera it becomes a question of limit instead of encounter – or at least limited encounter or cumbersome encounter. I think about the 4×5 less as stoic than slow and clumsy – even though it can be used in very precise ways.

To return to something else you said, I think that the studio is a site of control. Maybe you could say that Winogrand’s project was about capturing momentary harmony in a situation of seemingly endless contingency; where the studio is more like a laboratory where contingency can be introduced and made variable.  Art historian Svetlana Alpers’ book, The Vexations of Art: Velasquez and Others, deals with the way that the painter’s studio functioned as a site for looking out, or a place for rehearsing how we approach and picture the world. I think that this kind of consideration and picture making invites another set of contingencies, which for me have expanded into the processing capacities of the computer.

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David: I think Godard was quite right. Even the modes, methods and materials of artifice are – or become – documents. It makes me wonder whether the criterion by which all art (but particularly photographic art) survives is primarily documentary. A documentary not just of what was before the camera, but of an attitude towards it. This might be as true of a still life photographer as a street photographer. I look at Winogrand’s pictures and I see documents of his world but also documents / examples of particular formal challenges – the stretching of compositional ‘harmony’ until it almost snaps, of becoming ‘stilted’ as you put it. Records of his own undoing, to paraphrase a Scritti Politti lyric. I have that feeling looking through this book too.

Lucas: I hope so, and this “becoming document” is really close to my own thinking about making photographs. One of the things I have thought a lot about in the last few years is what we as viewers bring to looking at photographs now – how Photoshop, digital, the internet, etc. have altered the terms of that looking.

I have put this idea out there before that early jazz audiences not only had familiarity with the standards, but, having come up in a culture where it was expected you could play an instrument or carry a tune, that the technical variations were also widely legible. If you played a tune in 5/4 your audience could hear it, and I think photography is in a similar cultural situation now. Not only do a broad range of people understand the camera, but also, increasingly, the tools of the picture’s digital processing. Imagining and attempting to re-articulate this ground, putting pressure on these expectations (especially your own), is a big part of what it means to make pictures.

David: Improvising with materials before the camera is a kind of photographic jazz people understand. That’s nice. But improvising with Photoshop seems to be a different matter. Photoshop hasn’t reached the ‘jazz phase’ for most people. They use it to standardize, to perfect. A kind of grooming of the image. You don’t take that path at all. You take the same attitude to Photoshop as you take to what you do in front of the camera. It’s experimental.

Lucas: It is. Grooming is a great way to describe its more conventional use! And though, from a practitioner’s standpoint, I totally agree that the software’s possibilities haven’t really been explored until recently, I think that apps like Instagram, celebrity-before-and-after-photos, the Iranian missile picture, and others have really primed us in the software’s potentialities, and it is this literacy I am (possibly optimistically) assuming.

To respond to another part of what you said, there is definitely a through line from how I begin a picture (with the camera) to the way that the digital file is handled. When I first started making pictures that had been fucked with it took me a long time to understand what constituted their limits. The computer is such a powerful tool and in the beginning it felt like there were too many possibilities to make these interventions feel specific or necessary. I found a way forward in Cezanne, Courbet, and Manet and also in Brecht’s writings on theater. This opened to thinking about bringing the offstage of photographic production onstage by parroted procedural corrections gone awry. I was interested in the way that I could make these technologies – designed to have a high degree of transparency (the studio, the camera, and Photoshop) – more opaque. An awareness of the computer’s invisible hand in its “grooming” capacity had already become part of what it meant to look at photographs, and using these tools in a more forward, evident way felt available. All of this was buttressed by seeing work by other young photographers, particularly Florian Maier-Aichen who was using the computer in really inventive ways.

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DC: Beneath all this I do see a grounding in realism in your work. Maybe it’s to do with your lighting, which tends to be even, avoiding chiaroscuro or anything expressionistic. From this baseline you are able to foreground the handling of materials and the manipulation of surfaces. It’s a bit like close-up magic: one has to allude to transparency if one is then going to subvert it.

Lucas: Yes, absolutely! A lot of the choices are very direct. I am trying to make a picture “of” something – the thing or situation in front of the camera – and fulfilling this promise of photographs.

It is great that you brought this around to close-up magic. I have been really excited for years about this Adam Gopnik piece from a 2008 New Yorker about just that. I read it as I was just beginning to figure out this work and it really clarified something for me. I still give it to students and friends. It is called The Real Work.

David: It’s a wonderful essay. When I read it I imagined Gopnik thinking: “I know I can write in a way that could really convey something about close-up magic,” maybe because his sentences are so simple and perfect and thus a little mesmerizing. He describes the way one guy works as being “like a man handling cards rather than like a magician handling props.” Now, which of those are you, Lucas?

Lucas: The man with the cards I hope.

David: Because looking like a man handling cards makes for a better magician handling props?

Lucas: I answered that one sort of instinctively… but yes, because it makes for a better magician – or just one of a certain stripe. There is the transcendental strangeness of illusion that is beguiling, but then there is this other strangeness that is much closer at hand. In this latter kind there is a tension between the performance and the work of performing or the prop and its other life off the stage. For me this is where so much takes place.

David: This is a big book. You made the work and lots more over an eighteen-month period. You’ve been going pretty fast. Markets prefer artists to develop slowly and incrementally but photography does allow for rapid work. Huge artistic ground can be covered quickly. I guess most of your thinking is in the doing.

Lucas: It is really a book about just that. Having a studio practice has allowed for thinking in pictures, or by picturing, where problems get worked out through putting them in play. The book is a kind of primary text from that practice. It doesn’t have the distance of a monograph or a collection – it is more like a notebook. And this kind of accumulation has been very important within the work. I am always looping back to pick up underdeveloped ideas.

David: That’s refreshing to hear, and not so common these days. Perhaps there has been something in photo-art education that has tended to nudge young image-makers into pre-rationalization or post-rationalization, and slightly away from ‘thinking as making’.

Lucas: That is totally possible but I think it also rubs up against the desires of the market you mentioned. There is a lot of anxiety. I think ambition is a really complicated thing in this kind of atmosphere. It’s a shame it’s discouraged (even if just implicitly or internally). For some reason it is really easy to talk yourself out of making a picture… But for me this working method is totally indispensable.

David Campany and Lucas Blalock