so this is an interview between karen irvine, curator at the museum of contemporary photography, and myself for the exhibition catalogue that will come out a couple weeks after the opening. karen and the museum are such a great institution in chicago that very keenly follow the work of young as well as established photographers. their programming seems to anticipate movements in contemporary photography without exception. the piece above is referenced in the conversation:
KI: In this exhibition, This is gonna take one more night, you include four projects that at first seem very disparate. What is the relationship between the projects on view?
JL: Well, for the last two years I have been making an incredible amount of work, including the start of three new projects. In whole, the four projects relate to each other in really interesting ways. At the risk of overwhelming the viewer, I am trying to mount an exhibition that reveals a photographic practice that is not only the traditional one of making pictures with a camera, as I do in the Self Portrait as an Artist series and Living with a Portrait series, but appropriating and curating vernacular photography as it's done in the Nirvana series and The Last Rose of Summer on my Nightstand artist book. The three new projects inform Self Portrait as an Artist, and the show is a curated selection that leads, hopefully, to the examination of an artistic voice.
KI: The Self Portrait as an Artist series is a very open and versatile project that includes so many different things – literal self-portraits, some of which are funny, portraits of other people, such as Wolfgang Tillmans, and more open-ended, or ambiguous pictures, that seem to simply suggest your own politics and identity, such as the picture of the moon that's entitled Standing Under the Same Moon as Barack Obama. What I am wondering is: couldn't the three new projects, since they are all part of your experience as an artist, be included in Self Portrait as an Artist series? In other words, how do you decide that an image or idea doesn't belong in that series and instead belongs in a new, discrete project?
JL: The Self Portrait as an Artist project is about the notion of an examined life—in this series in particular, it’s mine. When I take a picture of a portrait that someone else owns, like I do in the Living with a Portrait series, and not one of my own, I'm trying to pry open a sacred little gap, infiltrate someone else's world, and create, in spirit, a self-portrait for them. That parallel way of working is a nod to the Self Portrait as an Artist series but relies primarily on the unseen owner of the portrait, the portrait itself, and a relationship with the portrait that we can vicariously step into with each image in the series.
In the Nirvana Project, I invite the participants to recall the memory of who introduced them to Nirvana, submit a snapshot, and spill a story out to me. It’s a bit like curating, which I am fond of doing. The interesting thing about this project is the private memories that the common denominator of Nirvana bring about, which leads to other discussions about adolescence, pop culture, and identity. I want the viewer, along with myself, to feel like we're almost walking into a room where we shouldn't be, and our voices are low because we don't want to disturb the happenings or the emotional content.
Same thing with Last Rose of Summer, which started from me swooning as I read the back of a photograph that was inscribed with the words “The last rose of summer on my nightstand” and was dated 10/29/61. The beautiful part of it is that her audience was herself. When I happened upon her images it was as if someone said, "You don't have to lower your voice anymore. You can just walk around because this person's never coming back." And because they're found photographs it really starts being sentimental and romantic, like, I get to walk around in this woman's heart, more than her mind or thoughts. That's what really floored me, and what gives the project its own critical mass to become its own series.
KI: It's interesting that you talk a lot about sentimentality and nostalgia when you speak about the Last Rose project. For the woman, the images were, presumably, very important, and for you as an artist they are important, but for her children or her grandchildren, if she had any, or somebody else who stumbled upon them, they would perhaps seem silly or expendable. That's one of the ironies of vernacular photography, that people's photo albums are usually the most important things in the world to them, but one or two generations later they usually mean very little to their heirs as they contain pictures of a lot of unrecognizable people or situations.
Most of the pictures in the book are of flowers that the woman grew in her garden. Her intentions were very documentary, it seems, but the pictures are not very compelling as documents; rather they are compelling in the story they tell about one woman's life. In the book you remain very committed to the idea of veracity and remaining faithful to her vision and story. But you could easily put false images in the book and write some of your own text, to heighten the emotional and sentimental content. You don't do this, but in the editing process, and as an artist who radically shifts the context of the original photographs, don't you change their meaning anyway?….and how does the meaning and impact of the pictures change through your practice?
JL: I try to retain what I feel are the most amazing parts of her story. The changes that I made in editing the Last Rose archive from 150 images down to 30 images, and including the writing on the back of the snapshots, parallels my artistic strategy in Self-Portrait as an Artist. I realized much later that the Last Rose editing was very intuitive because it followed a way of working that I have been developing for a while. I eliminated the photographer’s self portraits because I don't want people to see her likeness, because if it's there the viewer tends not to wonder about what's beyond the edge of the frame. And without it, they are allowed to imagine all these wonderful things.
In my artist statement I had the phrase, "What I want to do is, share the ritual of looking with the viewer." And when you read that you said, "I think there are a lot of younger, more emerging photographers who would exactly fall under that rubric." I think you mentioned Jason Fulford's work or Tim Barber’s Tiny Vices project. In any event, we were discussing work that is very experiential…about the pleasure of looking. I think romanticism is a big part of what people like Fulford or Barber are doing, and Last Rose is the found-vernacular version of that strategy.
KI: I also think it's not only about the pleasure of looking and the romanticism, but also about finding a different way to engage the viewer, to activate the viewing process. And this usually means not making a direct societal critique or an observation of politics and history. It's about ambiguity, really. I always think of that kind of work as a type of visual poetry, if you will, where it's really up to the viewer to make his or her own connections. That approach, or sensibility, is exactly what I admire in your work, particularly in the Self-Portrait as an Artist series. That open-endedness is intriguing and you make it very apparent that there are a lot of complexities in the seemingly simple idea of making a portrait, or a series of photographs for that matter.
JL: I will say one thing, I am still very interested in making a societal critique in the Self Portrait as an Artist series. There are references to Obama, Somalia, Michael Vicks, and Chicago public housing, as well as Independence Day last year. I am always trying to decide: How do I put varied themes together in the same project? I have to make new "rules" for myself that allow me to simultaneously make a picture that feels documentary such as Cabrini Green, Before Razing and an image that is a very interior picture of myself, such as the still life of the plant on my ex-lover’s windowsill.
KI: There are so many artists out there who are doing what is called "political work," but they're afraid to be too opinionated or to direct in their message –
KI: Yes, you know, the artists who position their work by saying, "I'm not making statements, I'm asking questions…" You seem somewhat more willing to take risks. But by expressing, even subtly, a political opinion or position in your work, like mentioning Somalia or Barack Obama, couldn't that could be construed as being a bit too self-promoting?
JL: The devil's advocate would say, from an art world perspective, it's easier to be like a Burtynsky and hang out in that zone where you're like, "I'm just making pictures." Critics, collectors and audiences are already primed and accustomed to that kind of work. I'm not criticizing Byrtynsky; I think it's a totally valid strategy. But his strategy is saying, "I'm making pictures that the viewer has to navigate, and that could propel him or her to care more or to do research or to try to change the world – or not." That’s a legitimate strategy, but that's one that doesn't interest me much. I feel like, from a market perspective, what I'm doing is risky because it's a different way of looking that's not comfortable or familiar. It’s work that explicitly investigates the subject and the photographer in the same series.
KI: So do you agree that you are making direct political statements? Are you trying to tell people that they should vote for Obama, or care about Somalia?
JL: The pictures that are political are about an encounter, as the Emmett Till image was about encountering an exhumed grave. The Beautiful Mogadishu image is a performative piece that is about encountering the story from afar of one man in Somalia who writes “Beautiful Mogadishu” on t-shirts every day--not to be ironic, but to remind citizens that before 1991 Mogadishu was beautiful and they are constantly distancing themselves from that moment. Standing Under the Same Moon as Barack Obama is an encounter with this notion of a political icon cum celebrity. By tracing these encounters within the Self Portrait as an Artist series, I pull the viewer through times, places, and thoughts that have connected me with the political world around me, and thus redefined me. I am keeping an archive of the times when I have cared.
KI: What complicates the question of intention, I think is you’re your title, Self-Portrait as an Artist, because the viewer is not sure if you're creating an honest self-portrait of who Jason Lazarus really is, or if you're portraying who you are when you adopt the persona of an artist.
JL: The notion of striking up a persona is less interesting to me than a series that is, as I intend the Self-Portrait as an Artist series to be, an epic project—one that goes until my death. I want it to be ambitious in scope, steady in its commitment, and a sincere investigation of myself and the world around me which doesn’t preclude the tools of humor and play. I think that the idea of being an artist is integral to a self aware society because the art that is left behind is an insightful account of ideas and feelings connected to a particular era. Hopefully each project is a kind of new and interesting thing to leave the world.
KI: A lot of the time you shift the meaning, and the context, of your photographs through text. Is this a kind of a critical strategy -- I mean, is it meant to illustrate that there is no such thing as veracity in photography? Or is it a commentary on the inability of photography to tell a certain kind of story?
JL: I'm not interested in taking any sides on the idea of photography as truth because that's not exciting or interesting to me. I think that the text component is oftentimes the thing that fixes the images' trajectory. I usually don't physically connect the title to the image, in order to allow people more room for them to insert themselves in the work. To see a moon in the night sky and not think of Obama immediately is nice– I can simply use aesthetic, feeling and mood to ' warm the viewer up.’ The Wolfgang Tillmans piece is a newer strategy of working within the Self-Portrait as an Artist series where I do physically connect the title and the image…I write, Jim Goldberg style, below the print. To me, that picture is so much about Tillmans, and a lot of people won't even know who Tillmans is unless you're a photography person. Even a photography person probably won’t recognize what Tillmans looks like. For me, because it's so critical in that piece that the viewer know who it is, I write it. Text is so visually expressive and imperfect, just like his eyes being closed. I'm ok with fixing the meaning of the image right on the print immediately, because holding back on that image doesn't make as much sense.
KI: I like that Tillmans picture because it's like a paparazzi photo. I was at that opening, too, and a lot of people had snapshot cameras and were trying take his picture. He, not surprisingly, was very elusive in how he navigated the crowd, because he's a celebrity in the art world. When you say that the image is about Tillmans, is it about Tillmans as an individual or Tillmans as a famous artist? You seem to hint at both the allure and downside of being a famous artist in this picture, to say that the role of the artist is both glamorous but sometimes ridiculous, too….
JL: I think it’s about Tillmans the famous artist and me the error-prone sycophant. The picture is truly a snapshot that fails the universal test for success—his eyes are closed. Months later, I realized what a great piece this snapshot could be. It implicates me as the photographer who missed the moment in the aura of a celebrity photographer. I’m definitely not the landscape photographer standing triumphantly on the precipice creating vista views of lands not yet seen.
KI: Living with a Portrait is a nice bridge between Self Portrait as an Artist and the Nirvana and The Last Rose projects because your presence as an artist is really felt there, whereas in Nirvana and Last Rose you use found photographs. In Nirvana you include a statement about your process that explains that you ask people to send in pictures and tell their stories. So you’re acting as an editor….
JL Yes, Living with a Portrait involves making photographic images in a traditional way, very slowly, very controlled. The formalism in those images is meant to clear away the clutter so the viewer can see only a small number of signifiers of the portrait-owner, and actually have somewhat of a psychological relationship with the portrait. This ultimately puts the viewer in the place of the portrait-owner. When you are standing in front of those prints at full size, this intimacy creeps in and you remember the power of portraits...their physicality, their steadiness, the gaze of the subject...and how these things multiply through time.
KI: I normally wouldn't ask an artist how his or her work reflects who he or she is as a person, because I'm generally less interested in the artist's personal history than I am in their work's appeal on a more universal level. But in your case it's totally appropriate because who you are as a person is your conceptual foundation. You embrace that romantic notion of “this is all about me,” but you're twisting it and making it new and fresh and ironic and at the same time it’s sincere and ambiguous and all of the things we talked about. At its most successful your work becomes all about us, too. You said that you were a Nirvana fan in high school. And The Last Rose, is there something personal that you could share that would explain how that touched you?
JL: It was just so honest, that the photographer took pictures so earnestly and truthfully, and without an audience. I'm interested in other people who do those things that are kind of parallel to what I feel like I'm doing, and I feel like it's as valid as what I'm doing. And so if I can create a portal for other people to be seduced or invigorated or empowered, or to cry from these stories, I think they become paramount in their importance to mine. So I look at that book as important as any self-portrait I make, because at the end of the day we're both just people trying to enjoy our days, making the world our muse. And it says something about me because I get such a poetic kick out of watching people digest the things around them, especially visually...
KI: And it's appealing to people because it concerns memory, and death – and it illustrates what photography has always been used for – to try to hold onto the past, to go back to the past, to memory. And I think she's probably always looking at those flowers in her garden and she's so proud of them and she wants to hold onto them -- there's something just so fundamentally beautiful there. She doesn't want them to fade away, but knows they ultimately will.
JL: Yes! And the most devastating part is that the ability to go to a resale shop and find great troves of vernacular photographs will, probably end in my lifetime. It brings up great questions about how our private archives will pass on to future generations, or if they will. The durability of a vernacular snapshot with no “home,” sitting in a box in a resale shop or thrift store is great, because it affords us time to find a new owner for it, and consequently new meaning and new life.