Lucas Blalock’s Low Comedy
The photographer on Cubism, Brecht, and the magnifying force of Photoshop
Lucas Blalock has emerged as one of the faces of a new generation of photographers, a group largely concerned with issues of image scale, speed, and physicality in a time when the medium’s relationship to these conditions is becoming increasingly complicated. Using his characteristic clunky editing style, Blalock brings the behind-the-scenes labor of the picture to the forefront and invites us to question aspects of image production that we otherwise take for granted. And he does so with a great deal of humor, allowing for many entries into his work.
His new show, Low Comedy, is currently on view at Ramiken Crucible’s new space in an unfinished basement below a bank on Grand Street. I visited Blalock’s studio on a rainy day in April to discuss the show and some of the larger themes of his work, including his interest in painting, pictorial space, and the perversity of claiming photography as one’s art form.
Taylor Dafoe: What’s the role of humor here? With almost all your pictures, there’s an element of humor, be it through juxtaposition, or a kind of body joke, or something else.
Lucas Blalock: I feel my work has, for a long time now, been trying to relate to these virtual spaces that feel foreign to us. Humor is an amazing tool to get people to warm up to things that are not necessarily available in other ways. When I first started making pictures using Photoshop, they felt really synthetic; they felt sort of wrong. The idea of leaving that kind of a trace in a picture felt ugly or cheap. And so humor started as a way to encourage an engagement with that kind of space, and I think it has remained that way for me. But my humor also just comes from my relationship to objects. I’ve got a goofy streak in me that is always there in the work, and I figured out early on that this goofiness allows for an entrance that wouldn’t otherwise be there. For me, what I’m doing with making pictures is trying to relate to the world, and in turn sharing that relationship, or those relationships, with the viewer. Picture making is a mechanism of relating. I can relate through this mechanism, then make a print and put it on the wall, so you can maybe relate through the decisions that I made.
TD: You’ve talked about entrances and exits before — providing a way into the picture. It’s also a way to make people stop and look, something that’s becoming increasingly difficult. These entrances in your pictures, there’s something sort of friendly about them. Your more direct Photoshop intrusions are telling someone how to read the photo. Not in a reductive way, but in a way that’s actually kind to a viewer — it invites them in. There’s an older picture of yours, it’s a bag, and it looks like a torso…Big Boobs, or something?
LB: Boob Bag.
TD: Boob Bag, sure. (laughter) It’s not hard to look at an image of that bag and say, “Oh yeah, it kind of looks like a torso. It has this leathery sort of body.” But you go so far as to draw boobs on it, which makes the work of the viewer easier in a certain way. But at the same time, it also draws attention elsewhere.
LB: I came to the way I think about Photoshop through Brecht’s writing on theater, which was a lot about addressing the social aspect in the audience. So there is an openness that has been very important to keep there as an invitation to enter. Photography itself really helps with this, because we all understand what a photograph is. If I do something to a photograph, the viewer has an impulse to naturalize what happened, to correct the mistake. The extreme legibility offered by working in a medium we all use gives me a lot of latitude that I wouldn’t have, say, if I was a painter with the same concerns.
TD: There’s something about your photos that particularly speaks to this newest kind of democratization of photography. The gestures in your work, specifically the utilization of the clone stamp and other Photoshop tools, presuppose the kind of photo editing that’s happening in digital culture. Especially app culture. The rudimentary photo editing that happens now, with filters and finger swiping, kind of echoes the playful editing in your images. I’m wondering if this changes the conversation for you?
LB: The software had a lot of rules when I learned it. It was something you were trying to be good at. It was only later that I started to get interested in how to productively break those rules. I quit thinking of it as a post-production tool for “grooming” — to use David Campany’s term — the image and started thinking about it as a production tool that could help me render the picture I was making. I became interested in using it as a tool in the old-fashioned sense, as a magnifier of force and as an extension of the hand. There is a lot of pleasure there! And I think that these apps are tapping into the same pleasure. It’s sort of like using the phone company to write poetry.
TD: Is that why it’s important for you to print and frame, because of this relationship to the physical? How do you think your work translates, if at all, to the digital?
LB: On one hand, the tools I’m using are native to digital space, so there’s something compelling to me about drawing them out of that space and addressing them to the body. Part of this comes from thinking about what of us is being addressed by the screen and feeling like there is a huge reduction of the viewer there, which neglects some things that are extremely important to me. I’m interested in the picture print because it can address you physically, and it privileges this kind of slow, contemplative viewership. This is all sort of common sense, but that activity of encounter, of having to stand in front of — which has got all this Enlightenment baggage — is at the center of my activity. In the classical construction, the picture’s interior is seen to mirror our own and provide the viewer with a sort of external materialized consideration of the world. Our viewership of a screen is more like a cipher.
TD: I do, actually, think your work happens to translate well digitally.
LB: I mean, they’re literally made in that space. I have to fall for them first on the screen. It’s not that I’m denying that relationship, it’s just not the relationship I feel like I’m cultivating.
One of the things that was really important to me a few years back was thinking about this fiction within photography: that the photograph is the product of only one decision, that it’s made by pushing one button, “the decisive moment” and all of that. It’s not to deny the power of the shutter. Incredible things can happen in that moment! But the notion that it happened all at once became a shorthand for photography itself in the 20th century, and I wanted to put pressure on that. Whether making photographs the way I do now, in the studio, using the computer, etc., or making landscape photographs driving across the country 15 years ago, that was never my experience. There was always a ton of labor, or pre-digital craftsmanship maybe, that was being tucked away offstage.
TD: In the Brechtian sense.
LB: Yeah! If you think about the many decisions that make a picture, there’s the sense that photographs have all these siblings, that there are all these other possibilities within any given architecture of photography. When I am making a print it can be a very laborious process, and I have a very clear idea in my head of what I want a picture to look like, but, at the same time, I’m equal parts frustrated and intrigued by the kind of drift that happens as you go through that process. Every now and again, a whole new work will emerge from a problem.
TD: You mentioned the Cartier-Bresson moment of shutter-pressing — the “decisive moment,” which implies lack of control, contingency. In a way, you dispel that brand of thinking by showing us so overtly the “post-production.” However, the way you edit seems kind of quick or capricious, like it’s relationship to the moment isn’t so dissimilar to that idea of the shutter. I don’t know if the images are edited in one sitting. They seem like they probably are.
LB: They usually are. If they’re not done in one sitting, oftentimes it’s because I put them down for a while and start over. I’ll keep addressing the picture.
TD: But not addressing the edits.
LB: Right. As with everything in my process it’s definitely on a case-by-case basis, but I don’t find myself perfecting my edits very often, if that is what you mean. I would say that one of the things that makes photography so amazing is this accidental quality it has. I’m interested in retaining that character and trying not to compromise that feeling. Being in the studio, and in the computer, gives you so much control that I find myself trying to undermine that sense of being possessed. I want there to be an antic-ness where the outside world can find a way of showing up in the margins.
TD: Immediately, it has a lot of energy to it. There’s a tension, as if it’s not quite finished.
LB: But there’s also this thing where, if there is some speed in picture making, there’s more of a tendency to see it as a picture of its subject, to relate through the picture, as opposed to seeing the objects as making up the composition. Or, as often is the case with me, I think it helps the interventions feel more like opacities or obstacles in that attempt at relating, instead of leaving you thinking about the decisions that are taking place on the picture plane. This gets stretched.
TD: Do consider yourself a photographer, first and foremost?
LB: Yes, but there is also an impishness in saying so.
TD: What do you mean?
LB: I feel very invested in photography’s history and the specific possibilities of the medium. I see my work as in conversation with the state of the medium. I’m in love with photography in a very sincere way. But there’s also an energy in claiming this space that has a certain amount of perversity to it.
TD: That’s how I feel about it as well. There’s a chip-on-a-shoulder quality to photography that I like a lot.
LB: There’s so much power in it. A photograph is this totally unique thing that can transition between digital and real space without losing any of its most important qualities.
TD: That’s a good point — no other medium has a foot so equally in both spaces.
LB: Almost nothing has. I love that the photograph can travel in the new economy and the old economy at the same time, and do so at a double-scale. It can be moving both at 1000 miles an hour and 12 miles an hour.
TD: Let’s get back to the scale of your prints. What determines it? It seems like your newer works are more varied in size than before.
LB: When I first started thinking about the still-life and making studio pictures I was photographing all these objects that were the size of a loaf of bread, so I started out thinking that I would make a picture that had a relationship to that scale. This felt like a kind of natural relationship. I worked at that scale for a long time, but after awhile I started to get curious about other possibilities. I began to ask if I could I make an object really large but not lose the sense of its presence. Photography is the only medium in the world where you choose scale last.
TD: I’ve never thought about it like that.
LB: I started to pull on pictures and see if I could get them to take on some weight. Thinking about breaking this natural scale, I started looking into painting and got really into Philip Guston, and his super weighty line and his incredibly bodied, huge objects. Photography denies that body. A photograph is not made with touch, and we in turn don’t inherently view it thinking about touch. It’s a different relationship. But looking at Guston and others, I started to understand a way to bring them up in scale without turning them into billboards.
TD: There are a lot of art-historical nods in your work, especially to painting. It reminds me of Jeff Wall. I’ve heard him say many times that he’s irked by the fact that people tend to focus so much only on his references to art history, and to painting in particular. It’s an important thing in his pictures, but he always seems frustrated by how reductive that notion can be. Do you think your engagement with art history has the potential to be limiting in this way?
LB: Everything can be reductive. As a maker, I’m interested in a lot of things all at once always. I’m smuggling all sorts of things in and the web of all those relationships is, hopefully, something that can be opened up, but it isn’t necessary.
One of the things that I’ve been thinking about over the last couple years is the problem of scale in photography, something that means several things at the same time. First there is the oceanic — like the MoMA show [Ocean of Images] — that speaks to a culture drowning in images. There is a second scale question about the relationship of an individual picture to the body. But for the first, the oceanic, there is a profound problem of how we possess image making as a meaningful tool and reassert relationality when it is images themselves that constitute a kind of digital sublime? To me, this is a huge problem within digital culture. But, before this sounds too much like the apocalypse, it was the problem of modernism too, right? There, greatly with the help of photography, the scale was moving from an individual level to a social level. Art was very much involved with addressing this loss.
TD: And people were hyperconscious of it, too.
LB: Surely! This is a question I’m poking at all the time. Thinking about humor, about what the choices I make in the work are about — they are often driven by an attempt to realize a certain sense of scale to both me as maker and as viewer.
TD: I’ve read people relate your work to Cubism. Is that something you think about?
LB: Well, yeah. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Picasso, which has been an unbelievable pleasure. Part of the way I got into the work was through Brecht, but there was also an element of rediscovering the early history of photography and becoming interested in the 19th century, in the kinds of social and cultural and economic crises that created the modern world — and in turn, modern picture making. I don’t think about Cubism stylistically that much, though I certainly have borrowed its tropes and actively played with its language. Photography and early modernism do have a deep and interesting relationship, but thinking about new photography through pastiche or the revival of styles is not something I’m super interested in.
One way I have gotten into this is an essay by Pepe Karmel called “Spaces,” which is about Early Renaissance painting in Cubism, both of which are styles of painting that start from a back wall and create a volume that moves forward toward the plane. There’s a real analogous relationship between Karmel’s description and the way that I build pictures.
TD: Can you elaborate?
LB: It’s like thinking about the picture as having pictorial volume, as opposed to seeing it as a window onto long single-point perspective Italian Renaissance space. It’s not flat, but it’s not deep, and the interim space is something that has analogues both in the studio and in Photoshop.
TD: There is a sense that you’re almost photographing the clone stamp tool, as opposed to clone stamping the photograph, if that makes sense.
LB: Thank you! This is something I am chasing. When I think about photography now it seems that behind the surface of the picture there are two realities sharing this space — the worldly space that has always been the space of the photograph and this very plastic virtual space. People want to treat photographs as flat, as images, and I’m much more interested in pictorial space, in the kinds of space the photograph can contain.
It took me a long time to understand a way to do this kind of work that wouldn’t just sit on the surface. It’s a constant game for me: how to embrace complex pictorial space and at the same time get to play with these tools. There are two refusals at work here that have become really interesting constraints: the photo surface refuses our touch, and the sculptural space of the digital refuses our entry.
TD: But there’s a lot of activity in between those two.
LB: There’s something great about the consummation of these relationships being denied. I started a book project last year that’s still in the works — the working title is Rubbers. It’s about thinking of photography as a kind of condom, a membrane that we’re attempting to have an intimate relationship through. I think it’s just this refusal that gives the photograph its power, its tension.
TD: And I think whether or not they can articulate it, most people are aware of that tension. Or they can feel it.
LB: I think so. Culturally, there is a strong sense of what a photograph is and how it acts. If we really spend some time describing what it is, one of the things that it would be is homogenous. My interest in making a more heterogeneous photograph has, over and over again, come up against this. I feel I’m working in a shared language, so I can speak badly, but there is definitely a limit where you break the language or where things stop making sense.
TD: Let’s look at the new works. So the show is called Low Comedy?
LB: Low Comedy, and it’s in a basement.
TD: What is that name in reference to?
LB: Physical comedy or dirty jokes — the most base form of comedy, in a way. But the show’s title is sort of a misnomer. It’s pointed more out to the state of things than in at the works.
This show has a couple of concerns. There’s a sort of funny line running through it, of somewhat out-of-date technologies playing the foil for the digital. I’m thinking about speed, about the speeds at which we go. Speeds of photography, speeds of bodies.
TD: But not speeds of technology or reproduction?
LB: Not exactly. More like the speed technology is asking of us, or how intuitive these things are to use. Think about the newspaper. The newspaper is made for the hand. And the switchboard is a thing that has a very literal logic of connection.
TD: A to B.
LB: Yes, exactly. I’m thinking about those things and at the same time playing with this digital space, which is not really so intuitive. I could say I am trying to learn these tools by using them. These technologies are playing other parts as well though. The piano in this show is functioning as a corpse or body under a sheet. The toilet and phone are both lines to other places.
Grounding the digital in available metaphors around photography has been important for me in figuring out this work. “To make a copy” has been one of the most intelligible of these ideas since the beginning. A lot of the gestures that have come out of my work have been achieved through a kind of mirroring. This image here of the two shadows has something to do with the way the mirror contains possibility and doesn’t. I find myself drawing out similar relationships in virtual space.
TD: The way your image in a mirror is both more and less than you?
LB: Yeah. There were a lot of actual, physical mirrors in my pictures early on, and I think the mirror remains an important predecessor, antecedent, precedent, for me going forward. But there are a whole litany of things that Photoshop can do that have nothing to do with our understanding of photography, and, in general, those things aren’t available to me in the same way. As things keep evolving, I’m trying to understand how to fold some of that in, to make some more of these unavailable things available.
TD: Were all these photographs done recently?
LB: Yeah, though some are more recent than others. I tend to make a lot, and as a show approaches it becomes about articulating a structure, or a vein, out of that mass. I don’t work serially. I just make things and try to understand the points of gravity that a group of pictures might be circling. For this show, I was interested in exploring something less within the pop register, something that had a little more weight.
TD: They’re a little heavier. The presence of Financial Times [in Unker Pus], the evocation of a casket [in Covered Piano], the destruction of a space [in Cop].
LB: One of the things I think about is outmaneuvering my own expectations, keep finding the periphery. Think weird thoughts. How do you continue to upend the expectations within a structure? In Wilhelm Flusser’s book, Toward a Philosophy of Photography, he described photography as a system in which the photographer is trying to make pictures from within the camera’s program, so the photographer is in there looking for free space.
TD: A great metaphor for what you’re doing, I think.
LB: I’m trying to ask it new questions, different questions. If something is happening in a picture, I try to literally name it, then see if there might be a different way to approach it. There’s a lot of sidestepping, circling back, and trying to find new ways in.
TD: You’ve created your own framework for yourself — and a distinct style that people recognize as yours. Do you find that a difficult place to be when making new work?
LB: I feel the box is pretty expansive most of the time, like there is plenty of room inside to keep moving around. I think this is true so long as I keep at it. With this work, there is more of a sense of the photographic subject being a little more present, more central. They are more individuated and less involved in the reflexive conversation within my own making. I am trying to use this tool to draw things from the outside. Maybe this is something that happened with the app revolution you mentioned before. I went from thinking of the program’s possibilities as constricted to a burlesque of commercial practice to — as everyone started using them — thinking that the camera was really our drawing tool in a very primary sense. And as this literacy with editing software grew, this drawing tool was growing and changing along with it.
There’s a Michael Taussig book I love called Mimesis & Alterity where he talks about this act of copying as an enactment of a sort of sympathetic magic. We’re trying to take things that are beyond us and literally draw them into our influence by rendering them. I like this idea as a narrative of the history of photography, but also as an activity of photography. I’m trying to understand things by getting a picture of them, to figure them out.
TD: We take more pictures than we ever have before, and people communicate with them over the phone, in Snapchat, and Instagram, etc. The ease with which this happens is unprecedented. There have been studies that show that the more we photograph something, the less likely we are to remember it.
LB: I’m working on a new project right now for Offprint in London called Making Memeries. It’s too much to get into right now, but the title is about this conflict between a photograph as an immediate sharable unit and as a vessel for the future. That study doesn’t surprise me at all, but I think one of the things I am pointing to is that we are trying to pull into our influence, trying to draw, our own shape within a flow that is moving far faster than we can really take in. In my work, I’m dealing with the distribution speed of the framed photograph, which is really taking place at a very slow speed.
TD: Your work seems invested in both camps. On the one hand, it’s so much about the pictorial space. On the other, there’s this didactic element. Do you think this dilutes the so-called power or purity of the picture?
LB: I am not a man for purity. I’m all about what things can drag with them. There was a real sense of taboo when I started to work this way, which I feel a little sheepish about now. It’s funny how attendant to the rules you can become when you are learning something.
Taylor Dafoe is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn.
Lucas Blalock’s new show, Low Comedy, is up now at Ramiken Crucible through May 22nd.