Interview with Jason Lazarus
by Abraham Ritchie
CHICAGO-- The deadpan images of photographer Jason Lazarus belie their seeming simplicity with investigations into the complexities of American life, frequently with a distinct Chicago accent. Lazarus received his MFA in Photography from Columbia College in 2003 and started exhibiting work immediately. He is represented by Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago and Kaune-Sudendorf in Cologne, Germany. Currently, his work is included in the acclaimed exhibition "Black is, Black ain't" on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, through the end of April.
We met at a restaurant near his house in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood.
Abraham Ritchie: I ride the Brown "El" Line to the Loop everyday when I go to work and right off the train tracks are the Cabrini Green Housing Projects. Over last summer several of the buildings were knocked down, so now I ride past a big green field and the one building that is still standing. The destruction of the housing projects is significant to Chicago and it was interesting to see your photograph of Cabrini Green [Inside Cabrini Green housing projects (before razing), 2007] from the Self Portrait [sic] series. What is the significance of housing projects and the destruction of these places, in particular Cabrini, to you? Especially as a Chicagoan?
Jason Lazarus: I should be clear, I only made one photograph in relation to Cabrini, in all fairness to the people who have put a lot of work into developing a more thorough examination. The way the work from the Self Portrait series has been going is that there are these intersections of things that I'm interested in and have a lot of potential value in imagery. Specifically, I'm sure a lot of people were intrigued by the buildings when they were up, but empty. The windows were blown out, and you could see bright colored walls, remnants of life. That really intrigued me, and I really wanted to go in and see it in person. I have lived here for fifteen years so I felt like, in a way, I had lived with them and they with me for a long time at this point, so the fact that they were going to be taken down was significant.
I think that seeing them slowly disappear is interesting, to see that failure of ideas resonate and actualize in the destruction of failed architecture. That whole program, the idea of housing projects, their density, their segregation, is all part of why they failed as an idea. So it was interesting to see that kind of political band-aid, or whatever you call it, just really self-destruct.
I went with a friend and we kind of broke into one of the buildings one morning. There was a lot of stuff that I saw that was unsurprising, graffiti and stuff lying everywhere. But alongside the graffiti, there were a lot of phone numbers that people left up on the walls so, from what I could perceive, they could be found. Others could contact them later if they wanted. So the building became a yearbook of sorts, kind of the adult version of signing off for the summer because you were signing off on the community itself.
The artwork ended up focusing on that. Someone had gone through the trouble of scrawling this prose on the ceiling. From my photo you can't tell that it's ceiling.
AR: Yes, it looks like it's on a wall.
JL: Exactly. It is on a ceiling and that's the reason that it has so much negative space around it, because someone took the time and effort to get up there and write. That's why the piece has a lot of photographic presence, because of the negative space, because whoever wrote that went through extraordinary lengths to get up there and write and ensure its legibility and maybe its durability too. I was struck by that, as well as what it says; it's a kind of poetic testament of being attached to that place for many years and taking the experiences of that place to the new place, with a bittersweet aspect in doing so.
It was basically a poem that someone had inscribed into the architecture and it was really wonderful to walk into a room and see that. For my practice, the subjectivity of a single moment out of an experience really resonates, rather than trying to create authorship and impose a view over a community that I don't know very well and haven't ever lived with. It's really the idea of an encounter, and it was only one morning, but that was the apex of the encounter and the one that I wanted to share with the viewer.
AR: So then did you have other images that you produced but didn't publish or show?
JL: I did have some other images, but I didn't want to use those images. There was no profundity.
AR: In other words, that was the strongest image?
JL: Yes. It was just stuff that I wasn't interested in memorializing in the way I did. Strangely, when I saw some of those building come down since I shot, it's not exciting but it's satisfying to know that, although photographs aren't necessarily truthful, I did get to preserve something from that building.
Once that ceiling was gone, it was just gone. [The photograph] is a cropped version of one way of looking at that room, putting a frame over that entire architecture and all the ideas behind it. For me, it was really satisfying to have been able to personally experience that building, but also experience something inside myself, to meditate on later, about when I did have that encounter.
AR: You bring up truth in photography, which by now is a pretty outdated notion, but your style is very straight. You can tell there has not been much manipulation in your photos, sometimes they're almost documentary. So do you expect people to take these images at face value? How do you create a complexity behind your deadpan images?
JL: The version of truth that I'm trying to capture is a kind of visual resonance with how I feel and what I get from an experience. Like I mentioned, a lot of what I saw that day at Cabrini was neither here nor there. What I chose to create a platform for isn't indicative of a whole experience. But it was indicative of the fact that someone was self-aware, reflective and wanted to communicate their thoughts to the wider world about the place they had lived and so was compelled to write on the ceiling. In that, the complexity was in removing everything else from the image.
For me, it is most important to remain true to my own interests and not feign that a photograph can accomplish more than it can. A photograph doesn't necessarily save anyone or help anyone, there are a lot more active things that I could do if I wanted to serve the community in that way. But I think that I am acting as a conduit between a community like that and a larger public. Seeing the photograph in the "Made in Chicago" exhibition [at the Chicago Cultural Center, October 2008- January 2009] felt satisfying because it's this idea of inviting people into places where they wouldn't go if they were in an office all day. Part of my responsibility to myself and the viewer is to go out and discover these things, for my own examination and so that others can too. That's part of the responsibility of the artist, to play in the sandbox and make things happen.
Jason Lazarus. Standing at the grave of Emmet Till, day of exhumation, June 1st, 2005, (Alsip, IL). 2005. Archival inkjet print. 43" x 56". Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery.
AR: Is that responsibility to take someone to that place that you are investigating extend over into a work like Standing at the grave of Emmet Till, day of exhumation, June 1st, 2005 (Alsip, IL)? I think I saw that piece without the title, but once you know that element it draws you in and gives the scene new historical weight and significance. Do you see yourself as an artist having a moral or social responsibility?
JL: Not fully, maybe as I have gotten older. My work from four years ago was more about the idea of art institutions and deconstructing those institutions and questioning some values.
I'm interested in making political work because these are things I think about a lot. The camera will often pull me to something I don't understand and I am curious about. The Emmet Till photo and experience was so instinctive and under informed. When I think about all the things I have thought about and wrestled with since making that photo, all the conversations, the research on the history. . . I think, at this time of my life, political and social complexities and problems are really interesting to me. But only to the extent that there's also humor, and other moments that draw you in. In the Self Portrait series, I wanted to create a body of work that, in some ways, mirrors the complexities of living.
Living is as hilarious, confusing and varied as fixing the drain in a bathtub, to being at a significant, historic event. Our experiences range from the banal to the profound constantly. I love imaging those moments and the ones in between. The Emmet Till photograph makes other less political photographs work better and vice versa, for me. I like trying to figure out the place where the artwork coalesces, the idea of having a journey as confusing and sad as people's lives are day-to-day. That's what I like to structurally mirror in my images, in the subject matter, the way that all these things bounce off of each other.