Conversation with John Divola

John Divola: CHROMA, Skinnerboox, 2020

Edition of 800
80 pages
ISBN 978-88-94895-33-9

Designed by Federico Carpani
Interview by David Campany

John Divola speaks with David Campany

DC: John, am I right in thinking the works gathered here were made after you had photographed that abandoned house on Zuma beach?  Some of the Zuma photographs have a similar feel to this work – the intense flashlight combined with delirious sunset light. With these Chroma pictures I guess you were now using colored gels on the flash?

JD: The Zuma photographs were made in 1977 and ‘78.  The works collected in Chroma were from several related projects in the early 1980s.  You’re correct that in the Chroma work the color comes from colored gels on the flash.  Both Zuma and these works have the use of flash in common although otherwise I think they are very different.

DC: How did Chroma begin? Was it just a curiosity about the technique?

JD: Immediately after Zuma I made some rather straightforward photographs of the abandoned MGM Studios New York City back lot, in Culver City, Los Angeles. These were in black and white.  I then decided to try something entirely different and around 1980 I started a body of work about things you can’t photograph: Gravity, Magnetism, which way water drains, and the things I see when I press my eyes with the palms of my hands.  All of these images required the construction of some kind of visual metaphor.  One diptych was about temperature.  There were two images, one with a fan blowing over a block of ice, which should be cool, and another with an electric heater with a block of ice, which would be neutral.  So, for those images I decided to use colored gels.  The fan and ice used a blue gel to represent cool while the electric heater and ice was magenta (which is red and blue) since it was both warm and cold.

At the same time, I was switching from color negative that I was using for Zuma to large format color transparency.  I had become aware that the early C-type color prints faded badly and was trying to use a new, more stable material. This was Cibachrome, which printed from transparencies.  It was very industrial and artificial, with deep color saturation and contrast.  It was a very flawed material for conventional images but with unique properties that I ended up embracing for the Chroma images.

DC: It seems like the use of the diptych format was a big part of the process too. Were you shooting these images as pairs, or making individual images and then finding ways to combine them?

JD: Initially I wasn’t combining them, although that came soon after. But there are several intertwined answers here. On one had I was just interested in the idea of the diptych as a form that invites an initial analytical address:  Why are these two images together, and how are they related?  It occurred to me that the cognitive impulse could be mitigated by the common factor of incongruent color.  That is to say, the gestalt of the image might undermine the cognitive impulse. Also, I was interested in the anthropomorphic impulse to read into the faces of animals and people.  And finally, I have always been interested in the manner in which photographs operate in relation to abstraction and specificity.  When you photograph a goat, especially if it is colored red, it is an emblem of ‘goatness’ – whatever you want that to be, evil, pastoral, a logo for cheese.  However, photographs have a countervailing inertia in relation to the abstract since they are equally specific.  That is just one particular goat at one particular place and time. So these were the range of elements at play in my mind.

DC: They are definitely all there in the work. And for the viewer there are lots of points of departure. Response can go in any number of related directions, falling in and out of specificity, shuttling between the images in a diptych. While Chroma is extremely distinctive visually, it releases a swarm of possible responses.

JD: Of course, those same interests run through subsequent projects included in this book.  There are “generic sculptures” which are simple three-dimensional objects created on site. There are also “silhouettes” which are blank two-dimensional forms. There are the abstract forms which are on poles with the camera tilted to justify the frame to the geometry.

DC: I feel much of your work has a mysterious sense of ritual about it. It’s as if you are moving through very definite procedures or steps, and the images are the enigmatic effects. Is that how you see it?

JD: Generally I am not thinking directly about effects, that a certain image will appear ritualistic or be evocative in this or that manner.  If there is a ritual it is the romantic ritual of the photographer continually venturing into the world with the mechanism.  I am much more inclined to consider process and to see in certain approaches differing types of potential. Most of my work is hybrid in that it is conventionally photographic with the same concerns and emphasis you see in much photography.  At the same time, I am rather promiscuous in bringing in a lot of other references, sources, and procedures.  Often, I will consider cliché and for example, see how reductive I can be with the iconography and still be evocative.  Now, that might be evocative of the ritualistic but for me it is the ritual of the artist and the experimental.

DC: I like what you say about the hybrid, that a photographic artist can be hybrid while also exploring the specifics of the medium. This feels very much the case with Chroma. It has all these wild associations – with cinema, the gothic, and the psychedelic – while it’s also a very purist investigation of different aspects of photography – light, color, framing, timing, point of view, and so on.

JD: It’s complicated.  It has a lot to do with when – the historical moment, and where I was making this work – Los Angeles.  At that time in fine art photography there was a general valorization of Walker Evans and the aspiration to remove ‘excessive subjectivity’, to emphasize direct reference to the world, to content.  Meanwhile color was becoming more broadly embraced, although color was also criticized as being a vulgar frosting on essential content.  John Szarkowski, head of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, was able to justify color in the work of William Eggleston, for example, by claiming in an Eggleston photograph the sky and blue were synonymous, and color was thus a legitimate aspect of content. So, on the one hand I was thinking, if it is a frosting, well let’s frost the hell out of it. All the while, I was looking at a great deal of art, all of it in photographic reproduction.  I was seeing photography as a great collator of a broad range of artistic practice.  So, for me it was natural to conflate these visual discourses that might have been seen previously as fundamentally distinct. All that said, Walker Evans was my favorite photographer at time. The contradictions are abundant.

DC: Maybe you feel as I do, that a lot of these contradictions are inherent in the medium, and it’s a fool’s game to pretend they’re not there. I think if there weren’t contradictions within photography it would have died a long time ago. The contradictions are the source of its artistic possibility. Even when artists try to be pure – let’s say the way Evans did – it produces work that allows for all kinds of different readings and responses, not ‘pure’ responses.

JD:  Yes, I do agree.  It is not exactly like that for me, but there is always one foot on the wobbly rocks of the medium and another on content, while the reality and reception of both are rapidly changing in a dynamic world.  We are all always changing from day to day, week to week, year to year.  With a medium where the operative action generally takes place in a fraction of a second it may not make too much sense to worry about consistency and purity anyway.

DC: So what is it about photography that has kept you exploring it all these years?

JD:  I do have a fundamental delight in photography and photographs.  Can you imagine how magical it seemed when people saw the first photographs?  I am convinced it is an invention only slightly behind the development of language as an event that changed human consciousness.  I could see people being equally enthralled with the digital for similar reasons.  When I see an old photograph I see something that is a historical artefact – a physical impression of the past.  And when it comes to making photographs, you are pulled not only literally into the world but your consciousness is pulled into a mode of observation that is really rewarding, almost addictive. Occasionally, and only occasionally, one can get an existential glimpse that lies somewhere on a continuum between wonder and terror.

DC: Wonder and terror. I can see now that both of those feelings run through so much of your work, and they’re definitely present in Chroma. The fascination, the curiosity and amazement… but also the strangeness, the dread and confusion. The comparison with language is interesting. I often feel you use photography in ways where I definitely feel it’s communicating with me, often very strongly, although I rarely know what it is communicating. But it does often involve wonder and terror.

JD: Thank you David, that is wonderful to hear.  I really do love the process and the making of the work. After that point I am often at a loss, and less confident, about putting the work in a form, books or exhibitions, that communicate the work to others.

DC: This raises interesting questions about the reception of your work. While you’ve been exhibiting consistently throughout your career, it often takes years, sometimes decades before your projects are translated into book form. And this is certainly the case with Chroma. I can see how the series was very much of its time, and came at a logical place in your own artistic development. But here it is in book form in 2019, and it has great resonance with many contemporary concerns in photography (you teach, so I’m sure you’re aware of some of these concerns).  How do you feel about this delayed reception?

JD: Many things affect the cultural reception of work. Had I lived in New York in the 1980’s might it have been different? Or if I had been a more gregarious person?  Even in the 1980’s it would have been much harder to get a book printed than it is now. You mention that I teach and this means I have had a very supportive day job. It allows me to emphasize “research”, the making new work, over art world visibility or sales. For a very long time I never tried to publish. I was always anxious to move onto the next project. I think being an artist does assume an attempt to communicate with others. These others, however, do not need to be synchronous and may exist only in the future.  So, some of the reasons for the delayed reception are perhaps of my own making, and some have to do with it being an idiosyncratic practice that doesn’t fit into an available or popular narrative.  I do, of course, notice that there are a much larger number of people working in a manner similar to my own, and I am grateful that I can get the work out more broadly at this juncture.

DC: All this puts you in an interesting position, continuing to make bold and innovative work, while revisiting past projects. It means you are seen as a contemporary artist and a figure from the past, simultaneously. This often seems to happen with the more advanced photographic artists. It takes a while for the audience to form, or to catch up.

JD:  Yes, revising past projects is an issue.  I really enjoy the process.  With the Chroma work, for example, I long ago made drum scans from the transparencies and I can deal with the images in a manner not possible in the 1980’s.  For every image in this book I have to make the scans, do the corrections, and produce guide prints.  If I do an exhibition I would need to further work on contemporary prints.  At the same time I am excited about, and working on, recent projects.  I have often compared this drag of the past to Napoleon marching in Russia.  Always looking back trying to get the logistics worked out, slowing down the forward progress.  It is a good problem to have, not for Napoleon but for me, as I always have the option to ignore the past.