23 11 2014
“If you could fill each square on a calendar with a picture instead of a number, and if each picture could show clearly some event or landscape or recollection or dream that made each day memorable, then after a long time and from a great distance the hundreds of pictures might rearrange themselves to form surprising patterns.”
– Tamarisk Row by Gerald Murnane (1974)
Australian author Gerald Murnane’s first book Tamarisk Row begins with this short author’s note. It is common for Murnane, in his books, to put the events and landscapes of the external world on an equal footing with recollections and dreams, neither having precedence over the other in the creative process. This idea of playing with or ‘rearranging’ the everyday, be it imagined or real, to ‘form surprising patterns’ is a constant of your work. Could you tell us about how these two ways of experiencing the world inform your process?
JF: I’ve never read Murnane, but two American authors come to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald and William James. Both have influenced the way I use and think about my own archive of pictures.
After Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, Edmund Wilson edited and compiled his unpublished notebooks and letters into a collection called The Crack Up. In the notebooks, Fitzgerald would write down ideas, sketches and things he overheard in public. Some of the entries were eventually incorporated into his stories and novels, but most of them remained unpublished in the notebooks. Reading them, you get a sense of how he observed the world, what would prick his ears, and how he negotiated his own life experience with creative writing.
The philosopher William James defends all sorts of experiences as valid and equal on some level—dreams, hallucinations, memory, real life—in his lectures on Pragmatism and his book The Varieties of Religious Experience.
In my experience, shooting and editing are equally as surprising. Both use a mix of intuition and intention, or intention and reaction. The photographs are straight, and the presentation is true but it is not a documentary.
At what point do you feel that your work becomes something other than just straight documentary? How closely is your work aligned with that tradition?
JF: It happens as soon as I sequence two pictures out of context. For example, the three pictures above were taken in separate countries, years apart, for different reasons. But when you see them here together, without knowing the original context, they make a new story. In a sense, I’m combining pieces of the world as it is, to conjure an image of the world as I would like it to be.
In his essay ‘Appearances’ John Berger attempts to describe how a photograph differs from the more traditional forms of representation, drawing, painting, sculpture etc. One of Berger’s conclusions is that they differ in the process of creation. A drawing is a type of translation made up of a system of marks, which not only relate to the thing being represented but also to all other marks already laid down and even the space of the surface on which the drawing is being made. Thus every drawing or painting is the result of ‘countless judgments’. And it is these countless intrusions of consciousness during the making of a drawing which allow it to obtain meaning and, Berger argues, a type of language. Whereas photographs, which are received without mediation and are not made, remain messages without a code.
However Berger was talking about the straight, isolated photograph and not the intertwined and contingent series of photographs that make up your books, in which ‘countless judgments’ are apparent. Would you say that the systems of interconnected photographs, which constitute your books, are a way of experimenting with a type of photographic language?
JF: One of my favorite quotes is from Novalis, and goes, “Everywhere there is a grammatical mysticism. Grammar. It is not only the human being that speaks—the universe also speaks—everything speaks—unending languages.” I think that photographers can be authors. Half the work is in the editing, and that’s where you can use the subtleties of your particular photographic language to make yourself understood.
The reference you made to Fitzgerald and The Crack Up reminded us of the way your wife, Tamara Shopsin, compiled photographs of yours from your unpublished archive to accompany her memoir, Mumbai New York Scranton. How involved where you in the selection process and how do you feel the “intention” changes when someone else is heavily a part of or solely responsible for the selection and edit of your images?
JF: I gave Tamara all of my contact sheets from India, and she made the selections. If she chose a picture I really didn’t like, we would talk about it, and she would usually pick a different one. But she was in charge. It was fun to see what she responded to in the pictures, and how she related them to her writing. For example in the spread above she used this picture of a broken elephant sculpture as foreshadowing.
In September of this year you and Tamara released a new book for children (and adults) called This Equals That, aimed at teaching associative thinking and visual language. With the proliferation of images, visual literacy has become increasingly important for younger generations, to the extent that it has become a focus of primary and secondary (elementary/ high-school) school curriculum and classroom literacy programs. Is this something you were thinking about when creating the book? And have you noticed that younger generations experience images differently?
JF: Yes, the book focuses on the idea that images are ambiguous—that their meaning can change based on how they’re presented. It is relevant to the present, but artists have been thinking about this for a long time. Filmmaker Lev Kuleshov demonstrated the idea in the 1920s. In the modern art world, Hans Peter Feldmann has been making work around this idea since the 1960s with his Bilder books, the Voyeur books, Profil without Words, Sunday Pictures, etc. John Baldessari, Jack Goldstein, Barbara Bloom, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and others were playing with similar ideas in the 1970s.
Our book has a simple structure: each spread has one image on the left and one on the right, and the pair has an apparent relationship. The image on the right is then repeated on the next left page, with a new image on its right, and this new pair has a different relationship. One image leads to the next until finally the last image relates to the first, forming a circle.
I’ve watched some kids go through the book, and you can see light bulbs going off in their heads. That’s exciting. Aperture Foundation is the publisher, and their education department has been testing it out on New York City students, ages five to twelve. They’ve also received a grant to donate copies of the book to underprivileged students this year.
The Photographers Playbook, which you co-edited with fellow photographer Gregory Halpern, was released in July of this year and is already in its 3rd printing. The book is an extensive collection of assignments, inspirational fragments and projects from over 300 contributors, including big names such as Stephen Shore, John Baldessari and Alec Soth along with lesser known photographers and photography professionals. What was the process like trying to select whom to include and how important was the collaboration between yourself and Halpern?
JF: Greg and I started by asking our friends and heroes. Then our editor at Aperture, Denise Wolff, started asking photographers she knew. Then, together, we made a big wish list of contributors. It was important to put together a large and diverse group. There are so many people using the medium now, and each for their own reasons. We wanted the book to reflect that. One of the things I love most about this book is the kinship I now feel with all of the contributors—even those whose work I’m not a fan of. When you hear the voices, you understand that we all make pictures out of some kind of love.
All through the process, and even now, we keep thinking of people we missed. Maybe there will be a Volume 2 one day.
We can imagine it would be a very difficult task to decide where to draw the line with a project like that; a second edition would be amazing! Have you thought about doing a project with some of the contributing artists where they attempt to execute their own project ideas?
JF: Yes, Aperture has commissioned some of the contributors to make work based on pieces from the book. Chris McCall curated the selection and gave out the assignments. It’s scheduled to go up in the Aperture gallery in New York in November, 2014. http://www.aperture.org/exhibition/photographers-playspace/
The majority of the project ideas, or prompts if you will, in The Photographers Playbook are quite playful and experimental. This is great as there can be a tendency for students or beginners to be overly earnest, which can lead to contrived work. How important do you think a sense of playfulness is to a developing art practice?
JF: Many of my heroes have play as a central part of their process. That doesn’t mean that the work is not serious, or not about serious things. Bruno Munari, Raymond Queneau, Martin Kippenberger, The Pixies, Georges Perec, Harpo Marx, Daniil Kharms. Play is not only fun, but it relaxes your brain, and in my experience good ideas come out of that situation.
You travel a lot for your work, both personal and commercial, is there anywhere you would like to photograph but are yet to visit? Have you ever been to Australia?
JF: I’ve traveled far in the Northern Hemisphere, but have yet to cross the Equator. That’s next. I’d love to go to Australia
Interview with Jason Fulford by Benjamin Chadbond and Patrick Mason.