Eavesdropping on the Conceptualists: Jason Lazarus & Mishka Henner in Conversation

Editor’s note: We were fortunate to encounter Mishka Henner at the SPE Southwest/West Chapter Conference in Tucson, AZ last fall. He graciously agreed to participate in a conversation on the subject of “influence,” and we decided to pair the not-so-easily-pigeonholed artist with a similarly situated sympatico: Florida-based experimental and expanded photographer Jason Lazarus. Jason and Mishka conducted a series of impromptu conversations that went so swimmingly (and for so many hours!) that we are splitting the publication of the interview into two parts. This is part I of II.

Mishka Henner (main) and Jason Lazarus (thumbnail on lower right) in conversation.

M: We just had a boy three months ago and were thinking of calling him Lazarus.

J: Wait, you just had a boy? And you were thinking of calling him Lazarus? (laughs) Well, it’s a lot of responsibility!

M: Actually, I wanted to call him JPEG. We had a girl 5 years ago and I tried naming her JPEG but was told by my partner there was no way that was going to happen. I tried it again with him and again was told “No way.”

J: Well, we’re going to focus this chapter on just getting to know each other. We started already to get to know each other, and it was getting too good, so we decided to start over and start recording.

M: Why did you start talking about conceptual theater?

J: I did not go to college for art. I went to business school at DePaul University in Chicago. So, I grew up in Kansas City Missouri, moved to Chicago, went to business school, and then for two years of business school I worked at a nonprofit conceptual theater. The theater did contemporary adaptations of classic theater texts. Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Ibsen.

M: What was the conceptual part?

J: The conceptual part was that there was information that informed the design that was research-based. I had thought of art as a kind of magic dust and I was sitting in on these meetings where there were these very articulate professional, esteemed visitors from out of town who would come to Chicago for three months to work on a production and when I saw them I was very impressed by the rigor in their research in their design. I left those meetings blown away, and I think simultaneously underwhelmed at having a life and a role which was simply to trumpet these amazing people. I thought that I was skipping the part where I try to find my own voice.

M: How old were you?

J: In my early twenties. I feel like I had a pretty normal, sheltered Midwestern upbringing. So around this same time I started to take photo classes at night, on a whim, just for fun. And this is the point in the conversation where you had interjected that when you were at school you studied physical theater?

M: No not at all, I studied sociology. But my first job out of university was working for a brand design agency. It was a think-tank in London coming up with ideas for huge corporations on new services they could create for consumers. After working there for two years I thought, “I’ve got no chance.” I just hated it. So I quit and did lots of different things; I tried writing and moved to Paris to become a writer, that’s how bad it was, I was just so pretentious. I came back from Paris and ended up working in theater for the first time, in a really specific branch of theater called physical theater which is all about gesture. There are no words really, the performances aren’t based on text, they’re based on movements, gestures, and situations devised by the performers and directors. I ended up working in a very disciplined way with Amit Lahav, a genius in the field. This is where I learned that making art is really hard work and finding that magic dust requires a hell of a lot of time and discipline.

I’ve never met anyone else in photography whose entrance into it was through theater. Which is quite amazing because I think theater is such an undervalued form. It’s not even in the conversation when you talk about serious art. It's considered to be a kind of relic. I see such extraordinary stuff and think, "why is this on the margins?" It deserves so much better. And yet it’s clearly had such a big influence on the both of us.

I was looking at the work you’re doing and it really struck me how rare it is. I don’t see much work done by people who made a name for themselves in photography being so bold as to branch out in lots of other directions that have nothing to do with photography necessarily. And I see that with your work. Does that initial spark created by your exposure to theater continue to play a role in the work you make and the ideas you have?

J: A flood of things come to mind. There’s a less visible part of my back story, which is that I have a physical condition that’s the exact same condition Donald Trump made fun of a New York Times reporter for having. In short it means I walk with a limp and I have a limited range of motion. As a kid I was always having to problem-solve how to get through the day physically. As I got older, I got stronger and I could blend in more.

I think the whole first part of my life was as a witness: I was a wallflower trying to figure out how I could participate or how to problem-solve obstacles. I think that altered perspective built up and then when I got into art I actually found a good use for it aside from surviving.

I think theater was the place where I started to understand that I didn’t care that much about money with a capital M, and that having a regular paycheck was not super interesting. Or at least at that age! And the biggest litmus test for me was: how happy can I be all day? And that’s it! I think not coming from an art background is very helpful to an artist. And I think that photography can be parasitic on itself, or it can white-knuckle its own history.

M: What do you mean by that?

J: I find that photography is a medium that benefits the most with people coming to it from other experiences. I think photography is always in need of radicality. As a teacher I also see students coming in from left field into photo classes or just art classes in general, and having a lot to say and not being asked to think certain ways, and then also students being confused about how to achieve, when achievement is usually linear. And that’s exciting, right? Part of your grade or assessment is really hard to teach. The part that’s easiest to teach and speaks to something you said is the work ethic.

M: Yeah. And the other, I think, is a point of view. Sociology was really good at helping you come up with a point of view or at least understand how one develops a point of view on society as an observer; how to find patterns and what’s happening in front of you or in society and culture. And cultural studies is even more precise, where you deconstruct a pop song and try to figure out the genetic code of the culture in that three-minute pop song. The idea that every single cultural artifact has the cultural DNA of the culture that produced it. When you come at it from that angle it’s like you’re taught to have a point of view. The problem is when you’re studying photography and the emphasis is on the technical aspects, that search for a point of view just isn’t there. You’re expecting very young people to be able to have and articulate a perspective when they haven’t been equipped with the tools to do that.

I’m Not the Only One, Single channel video, 4:34 mins, Mishka Henner, 2015

I’ve done some teaching in art departments and in photography courses and have always found that to be really unfair; they’re kind of expected to just have that somehow. And critical theory, as it’s taught, is so unfathomable to so many of them because they’re just thrown in at the deep end and told, “Go read Barthes.” And this stuff is heavy, it’s not easy. It took me three years of reading Barthes, Sartre and Baudrillard before I had the slightest clue what they were talking about.

I’ve always found it really strange that art schools don’t teach you how to have a perspective or how to sharpen your viewpoint. You’re just expected to either have it or not.

J: How do you create a point of view and second, how do you sharpen a point of view? When I was in business school all my best friends were in the humanities. I was witnessing them discuss and argue with each other about education and education theory, or sociology or anthropology. I think the contemporary zeitgeist in seeing patterns is simultaneously more important than ever and also… potentially fruitless? I think this point of view question is really spot-on. It reminds me of seeing Werner Herzog talk once. He has this sort of great epic and brutal sense of education: if you want an education you walk the length of a country or you work in a prison. That’s the spirit of Herzog. I like Werner because when he talks about education you learn a lot about his filmmaking; even if you haven’t seen his movies you start to understand that there’s a sense that he doesn’t do a lot of technical film treating. Photography is a medium where it’s easy to keep your hands busy, and we can get seduced into lenses without distortion, or lighting tricks or light room efficiencies and really you’re right: this point of view is what gets sacrificed sometimes in the mechanization and professionalization of the medium.

M: Yeah, I remember coming across conceptual art and thinking, “Holy shit, look at these guys!” The technical aspect of their work doesn’t really matter to many of them. Like Ed Ruscha’s 26 Gas Stations: The photos are just purely incidental and their technical quality is pretty much irrelevant. Some of Chris Burden’s pieces are visually catastrophic. They’re barely even visible. Like Shoot. Have you seen it? It’s only about 10 seconds long. I don’t know who shot that or what it was shot on but it’s so bad you can barely see it. But the gesture, the gesture is razor-sharp. It’s not about the aesthetic; the aesthetic is low-res crap. But the gesture is high-definition and razor-sharp. The aesthetic is almost irrelevant. I remember coming across that and it blew my mind. It made me think: the more you practice, the more you realize that if you can hit the sweet spot of having a razor sharp idea and an enthralling image, then maybe you get close to what Herzog calls the “ecstatic truth.”

J: Tell me.

M: He walks that fine line between fact and fiction. You never really know with a Werner Herzog film if the situation has been engineered or whether it’s authentic. When he’s asked about it he kind of refuses to disclose it because for him the result of the process of making the film should be this projection of an ecstatic truth; something so pointed and unbelievable that at the same time it speaks to something very true. It’s a bit like our emotions.

I did a piece about feedlots in America and there’s one image in particular that hit a lightning rod or something. And well, the picture is true but I enhanced it. I always think about that as my example of an ecstatic truth. The document itself wasn’t enough, I had to sprinkle a little magic dust on it and that’s what really got to people on a deep level. But if I had just presented it as fact, on that banal level, it wouldn’t have had that charge.

Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas, Mishka Henner, 2013.

J: The thing that you had on it was a point of you about what you were experiencing. Right? Being embedded in the project?

M: The other thing is, you said earlier about not being motivated by money.

What I’m motivated by and what I’m trying to find, and it gets harder as you get older and more established, is to go back to that very first instinct when things really hit you. Those holy shit! moments. I remember when I first came across that feedlot I laughed. I just looked at it and thought, “It’s a gift.” You spend months and years looking for this stuff. You’re scratching around and searching, wasting your time for months. I spend a large portion of my life looking for stuff that I never find and then suddenly it’s like the heavens open up and it’s there.

I’m 40 now. I spent 19 years of my life looking and digging around for this stuff and can count on both hands the number of times I found that very thing I’m describing.

J: There’s a whole history of looking at all of those moments that are non-productive, and it just reminds me of all of the work that allows one to have conviction about simple acts, whether they’re appropriation or the simplest of gestures; and that you have very intense convictions about certain gestures, and they are these heavens-opening-up moments, that’s what I live for.

When I was younger I would get excited about the opening and seeing people, but now I live for the studio moments. The openings and the social aspects of it is way lower on the list. It’s actually about finding meaning for yourself, like: why do I live? So when you have those heavens-opening-up moments, it’s like: I have a point of view, and an instinct — and all of my studio work and all of my heart break, all of my political anxiety, all of that feeds into X. So I think in getting back to this question of influence, it’s like we’ve been inspired by people who have seemingly developed or have an interesting or singular point of view, and then the lesson is that a lot of those aren’t always found in the canon.

When educating, for example, one of the chances that you get to try to figure out how to teach how to make art how to make photographic projects, and I think teaching the canon and teaching the camera are the easiest and most unimaginative parts. Maybe you and I just had the benefit of sliding laterally into the art world.

M: The idea of the authentic voice — when I was talking earlier about finding that moment, that really authentic moment where the work and the spirit are fused together and you think yes this is totally right, everything’s come together for this piece. That doesn’t always happen.

I spent a few days in the Center for Creative Photography archive in Tucson a few months ago and was in heaven going through Robert Heineken’s personal files. It was a bit like sifting through his garbage. I saw that you did a piece on him. The reason I love Heineken’s work is that it seems so simple but it’s not really. I remember the first time I saw his work, I just got the spirit, you know what I mean? He’s not a masterful technician, he just cuts holes out in magazines and stuff. It’s so pure, naive almost. But the spirit is just brilliant.

Heinecken Studies, Jason Lazarus, 2010

J: One moment I thought of is that I started to find good music way later in life, you know? I was not a cool kid, and now I just feel like I can appreciate cool when I see it. I always feel like an outsider.

M: Yeah, I always feel like I’m playing catch-up, like by decades. And the interesting thing is that the people who were there, were cool and in on it, a lot of them now are in really dull jobs. And I sometimes wonder if that inability to see anything cool, or get anything cool, or get anything really, was actually a real advantage early on in life. Because now you’re discovering this stuff for the first time and it’s so exciting. It’s like you’re a kid trapped in an adult’s body. And now you can find a way to articulate it.

J: Joy Division was something I came up to a bit late in life. I was watching a couple years ago a movie about them and one of the band members said something to the effect of music before Joy Division or Punk, was “Fuck you,” and “Fuck that,” and Joy Division turned that around to say “We are fucked.” And to me that was a very profound and pointed thing to observe, and to think the same thing can hold true for photo projects: like pointing to things and saying you’re wrong, this is wrong, as opposed to other modes where we implicate ourselves.

M: I don’t know what you mean.

J: Let’s say as opposed to doing a cultural critique, where someone is telling us what we should should think or what we should believe — photography is almost overly good at pointing at things and lecturing at us. So that Joy Division reference — which is nice because it’s so outside of photography — instead of saying “fuck you” and instead saying “we are fucked” — it’s so much more of a sophisticated rhetorical starting point.

M: Is that nihilism?

J: Well, that’s a good question.

M: I’m from Manchester, so nihilism comes naturally.

J: I don’t know, I’m a very optimistic person but not naive, so I’m sort of a humanist/nihilist. To me there’s a profundity in humanism. I think nihilism is too easy. I mean of course, right?

M: I’d say I have an acute awareness of man’s weaknesses, especially in the pursuit of salvation. Shit, did I just say that? I have an inherent distrust of saviors and preachers.

J: I think the answer isn’t rooted in anything. The answers are not always in the packages that promote themselves as such.

M: Let me ask you about this in a different way: what are we doing? What is the point of what we’re doing ? Who are we speaking to? Is it of any benefit to anyone? Does that matter? Is the ambiguity of what we do something really precious in an age where it’s almost criminal to be ambiguous?

J: Oh man, I’m going to light a cigarette for this question! Yeah I’ve been thinking a lot about that too, I have some thoughts [does actually light a cigarette]. First of all I think that all of those questions are poignant and ruthless. They’re good, right, because you might agree that the general climate in the world is toward a sort of fear-based nationalism?

M: I grew up under Thatcher, and you under Reagan presumably? I feel like we’ve had this before.

J: But I didn’t understand it the first time.

M: No, that’s right. I didn’t know how extreme it was.

Bliss Bucket + Personengruppe, 1965, Richtered, Mishka Henner, 2010.

J: Yeah, I was just a happy kid. I didn’t have an existential crisis. And now I understand. Have you seen Hypernormalisation?

M: Hell yes, about four times.

J: That’s a great movie to watch right now for young artists. It’s unfair to ask these questions to a student when you’re just trying to get a foothold on your own identity. Like what makes me unique? And, why am I here? What do I have to contribute? It’s Adam Curtis, right? So he’s saying that the disaffection or nihilism of the artist is actually part of the problem.

M: Which I think is brilliant. That was a direct challenge. To me, it was basically him saying, “You think what you’re doing is clever but actually you’re part of the problem.”

J: I was watching this on my laptop in bed. On my back, laptop sitting on my stomach where, inevitably depending on the light you can see yourself, which is probably good. Probably in that movie where that moment was happening I caught a glimpse of the laptop on my face, and it was like Jason: what would you do? And the camera somehow goes on my face. To me or to us, right?

Maybe parts of this infiltrated my practice since 2008 or 2009 because the work I was making up until then was I would say sort of heterogeneous photographs. They were all sort of conceptual self portraits as a starting point. I started Too Hard To Keep around 2009. That was important to me because I wanted to listen. I feel like there’s a need and I wanted to create a vessel. I feel like there are kindred spirits and orphaned or shadow images that don’t know where to live. I think I said I had the instinct as a collector to be curious.

Images from the Too Hard to Keep archives, Jason Lazarus, 2009 — present.

There had been some sort of romantic heartbreak that I had experienced up until that project that put me in a position that made me like: ‘Oh yeah. I understand.’ There were these images that I didn’t know what to do with them, and having a cliche fire burning ceremony was not interesting to me. Anyway, there were photos that had hit an impasse in terms of meaning for me. My work in general since then is increasingly parallel: where I’m making work for me but I’m also more interested in connecting or listening or creating streams of images with conceptual and emotive purposes…a sense of poetics about what a collection might mean.

That’s not a good answer for this question you asked me, but I do feel there was a certain point where I felt like I only have so many interesting things to say, or moments where I want to keep committing to materials, and I think that had to do with getting older and developing an assertive healthy unconfidence?

Like I can imagine you when you said that you were pretentious and full of confidence — I think we all have that age in our early twenties where we’re just kind of on fire, and it’s just kind of exciting. And some really great work can come out of that because you’re just sort of burning and you don’t question the burning and that’s a beautiful part of life. I feel some people burn bright their whole lives, but on average there’s a particular kind of burning that happens at that age, maybe for some people, that’s in their teens or others in their late twenties or early thirties. It doesn’t matter then; you don’t care about what you don’t know. You’re not awed by what you don’t know, right?

I think we’re both past that stage of our lives. I’ve been trying to embrace some of that insecurity. I want to hear what other people have to say given a particular prompt that feels interesting to me, but also feels like it has collective implications. I think this connects to what you were talking about earlier when you were talking about theater and how the audiences are getting thinned out and that there’s an under valuing of theater?

There was a resident artistic director at the theater I was working at that said something about theater as an act of communal imagining. It hit me when he said communal imagining happening in person and together, that it’s a very particular and ancient process or activity. I had never thought of theater as being important in those terms. I feel like that’s in the back of my head as a way of thinking about how I consume the world, how other artists consume the world, and how my peers do and how audiences do. One thing for me has been to think about projects that have different modes of collaboration or public offering; they have to at least address some of that for me and feel in proximity to other people. Too Hard to Keep is a good example of a solicitation project and that connected me to people outside of the art world and the photo world, a fact for which I am really thankful for.

Too Hard to Keep, installation in Cologne, Germany, Jason Lazarus, 2016.

There’s another project that I started that’s kind of strange called PDF Objects. When I moved from Chicago to Tampa there was a part of me that assumed that I was going to be really isolated down here. That project asked for other artists to contribute a significant reading, something that’s kind of impacted their practice or the way that they think about living or participating in the world as a human and as an artist. Then I asked them for an object under $20 and *then* I asked them for instructions on how to pair the object and the reading together. That project is actually collaboration with an artist in New York that I met a few years ago. And he was inspired by a library project that he had done earlier.

M: And who’s that?

J: His name is Sean Ward. A few years before he had a project where he made a PDF Library. He had invited me to submit significant PDFs to him and he created a Library where he had furniture where you could sit and peruse all of these articles. And these were submitted by artists who were all friends of friends at the time. When I came back to him, I was looking for a way for the PDFs to have additional implications or layers, or how might they become a sort of sculptural field that you actually walk into and that they speak to you through a sort of idiosyncratic object that frames your entry into a text. In essence it becomes a point of view on the text.

Installation view of PDF Objects, Mana Contemporary Chicago, Jason Lazarus, 2016.

As a teacher, I always fear losing my opportunities to be a student. In a way, this project connected me to other artists that I’m interested in, who I know well or that I don’t, and it’s an excuse to reach out to them. And then to have access to something that’s significant to them. So when I’m feeling particularly vacuous, or curious, I have this shared library.

Too Hard to Keep is non art, that’s one sort of audience; our collaboration and PDF Objects is another. I want to be in dialogue with artists, like you right now, as opposed to how figuring out whether I can make my objects more perfect to become more successful in a contemporary gallery environment or in a museum context or for a critical review. Those things still interest me to some regard, sometimes I want to make an object that has meaning and I find that harder to do.

Maybe that’s how I’ve dealt with the same question. Patti Smith is who Adam Curtis took down, and that example which I think was really powerful. I never thought: what would it mean if we think of Patti Smith as the enemy for a second? And I thought that was a great and brave question to ask.

M: It made me think of the New Topographics and the Düsseldorf School.

J: So do you see the Düsseldorf School as sort of the beat poets of photography — observing the word in a sort of detached way?

M: Totally. I think it’s the photographer as the detached observer. It’s not Nan Goldin. It’s not deep intense personal psychological whatever. Having said all that, I think that what the New Topographics did for me then is what Adam Curtis’s work is doing for me now. Which is to show you something that was always there but that you didn’t see before, on a really basic level. The other thing is that what’s so mesmerizing about Curtis is that he makes his music with incredibly accessible ideas and theories. This probably isn’t so different to how we work. He’s a brilliant storyteller, thinking about a lot of the stuff that we’re thinking about and finding a compelling way to articulate it. Like you do. They’re just different methods I guess.

And Hypernormalisation: it’s that moment at 10:00am in the morning on the 2nd of April 1972 where for the first time the bankers don’t turn up to bail out the New York City’s debt. And the rest of the film unfolds from that key, single moment. Cut to Patti Smith walking the streets of New York in this detached, bohemian cloud.

The collaborative aspect of what you’re doing interests me because the reaching out to others for content is something to learn from. I’ve done some of that but without the conscious, active participation of those whose material I’ve sourced. The internet is like a living archive generating the most profound and most pointless utterances every second of every day.

I don’t really know many artists really apart from a couple of great friends in Berlin and New Jersey and the artists in the ABC Artists’ Books Cooperative. We had an extraordinarily fruitful period of four or five years with incredibly active and vital conversations like this. We’d get together at book fairs and have a blast. Your Too Hard to Keep project reminds me of Joachim Schmid’s Pictures from the Street. For ten or fifteen years he collected pictures on the street that he’d found — he’d be walking around and picking up these fragments of photographs. I’ve been out with him in Paris, walking the streets with him, and sure enough when you go looking for this stuff it comes to you. So he’d be walking along the street and suddenly — we’d walk over a picture and I didn’t notice it, and he noticed that it’s a portrait that’s been ripped into shreds and he’ll excavate those images and present them beautifully and very simply on card. That’s a similar project dealing with discarded images that asks the same question of why these pictures have been thrown out. Some of them have actually been physically assaulted and that communicates something. But again, his collaborators aren’t willing participants, it was just somebody throwing pictures out.

I don’t really feel like I’m in the art world at all really. I’ve got a gallery, the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, and I love him, he’s brilliant. He’ll call me up and ask, “Can you be in this fair; have you got anything?” But I’m not really in that world, I’m doing my own thing in this world and showing my friends what I’m doing. Most of them don’t know anything about contemporary art, they just react instinctively to what I show them. I get feedback from them as well as from the ABC artists. They teach me a lot about the economy of making work, and how to take stuff out, whereas my instinct is always just to put more and more and more in. My exchanges come from people who are not really involved in art, but at the same time it’s so interesting talking to you because you’re going through…you ask yourself the same questions, and the outcome is different and that’s interesting to me because I’m thinking shit, why am I not exploring that?

San Andres Oil Field, Hockley County, Texas, Fields, Mishka Henner, 2013.

J: I kind of want to ask you about your work in Chapter Two, more specifically. Maybe in another call next week. But to come full circle, one of your audiences isn’t really the art world or the photo world, it’s these people who don’t really know art or what you’re talking about?

M: Yeah, I want my work to speak to — I want my dad to be able to get it. He doesn’t know anything about art.

J: That’s a good lesson: Coming into art from the places that we came from, and this theme of observing patterns and Adam Curtis is for both of us a profound pattern observer.

M: And Herzog as well. It’s the subjects and the symbols that they choose to work with. They’re pointed and they’re meaningful.

J: With photography there’s just this expansive set of questions for young artists: how can you treat your everyday life as profound? And practice making observations? There are two artist friends of mine who I really like hanging out with because in the process of hanging out with them, they’ve become my analogous moment to your Joachim Schmid moment and picking things off the ground, and the way that they consumed the world walking down the street, I find just totally powerful, right? I find when I’m around certain people, for whatever reason their point of view and just the way they interact with walking down the street — I feel like I’m watching them make art. And it’s almost like the rest of it is superfluous.

M: It becomes almost more extreme with age, doesn’t it? You become that person more and more, you know what I mean? Because you’re constantly sharpening it.

J: Although, one of my favorite things about teaching is that my intro to photography students always see really simple things in photographs that I don’t. And I’m constantly embarrassed, and it’s the most profound humiliation.

I always push this idea that we have to describe what we see. It seems like the most redundant activity, much like communal imagining, the viewing or describing of images is something that is profound and imperative in this day and age. Let’s just describe what we’re seeing: what are the patterns that we’re seeing? Be real about what are the points of view that create collective consciousness about certain things and then the idiosyncratic we-can’t-go-there with each other?

M: It’s so true, it’s very powerful, isn’t it? Because it doesn’t usually get articulated. It gets thrown out into the world and it’s just absorbed. It doesn’t get thrown back out. Let’s just figure out what we just said or what we just saw and then describe it. When you describe it you just realize how ridiculous it is.

J: This question of what are you doing in an Adam Curtis age — one of the things that I’m thankful for…

M: What do you do in a Jason Lazarus age?

J: Well I teach art in Florida in the United States in 2017. In a way that doesn’t take me off the hook of being a global citizen. My weird idiosyncratic path does allow me to get to a place where I can be… like I have heroes and I’ve had people who’ve blown my mind, and I’m aware of their profundity and my shortcomings. That I have strengths and weaknesses, and that if I share my heroes and describe my weaknesses and come at the class with a sense of collective viewing and observing — as a highly substantive process that seems it’s the easiest to take for granted, but that’s maybe the starting point.

Try Harder, Jason Lazarus, 2008-Present

On a good day of teaching, I’m a really diluted version of Adam Curtis.

If I can just give them enough of this meta structure to get started, they’re going to start hiccuping moments that floor me. It re-ups my commitment for what level I need to be at. I want to see most of what students can see from a collective conscious point of view. I want to respect that no matter how good I get, I have a low glass ceiling.

It’s about being humble about my life experience; just because I’m 41 and you are 21.

So often times I like to ask students what their jobs are and what their commutes are like because those are the parts of their life that seem unproductive and disrupting. Say you’re working at a McDonald’s type chain, which is where tons of economic, political, cultural vectors are all crashing into each other. If you did a typology on individual french fries out of the bin during an 8-hour shift, that actually is kind of a wormhole of meaning to me.

I might say, I know this seems ridiculous, but let’s try to start at ground zero of what are we seeing? Walking in together on the most basic level, and trying to build up to the fact that all of these things have really big implications.

M: I think the hardest thing to see, the hardest work to make is what’s there in front of you. You’re so invested in your idols and in certain styles or in nostalgias for what art should be. And how you think things should look or things that you think are beautiful or profound, and yet what’s in front of you looks nothing like that and doesn’t go on to that world because it is its own thing. To take a french fry and look at it for what it, is as it is, that’s not easy, actually. That’s 10,000 decisions you need to make in order to capture that french fry in a way that would result in it being the way that it is. Even that’s a philosophical wormhole isn’t it, because what is it?

Do you know what happens when a star dies? Do you know what’s left when a star dies? What’s left is like the size of my fist. That’s how black holes form. You’ve got something this size that’s so powerful it implodes on itself. All time and space collapses in on itself and it’s only a little bit bigger than a french fry.

J: Maybe the problem is that in this age of selfies we should be aiming our cameras at the french fries.

M: It would be interesting to find all the failed selfies when they thought they were taking a picture of themselves but hadn’t flipped the camera.

J: That’s a ready-made plank right into what we’re talking about.

M: I’ve had a pretty intense few weeks traveling, but I’m going to New York in April. You’re not going to be around are you?

J: No but I’m going to be in residence in New York for two months this summer.

M: Oh really, where?

J: The Hunter East Harlem Gallery. I did something like this in Chicago where I asked any self-identifying artist to sit in for a huge group portrait. And they want me to do the same thing in Harlem, but it’s also evolved into a residency for 2 months, and the group portrait becomes the culminating event. So I’m really nervous about going there as a Jewish, white artist from Florida.

M: Why?

J: Because I think that there are a lot of questions of agency, and insider-outsider, I’m just overly sensitive to all of that. So I’m asking myself a lot of hard questions right now, and thinking about collaboration and generosity and end political symbolism versus action, and my career as bearing witness in different forms, and what have I learned and what can I bring there? Because to do a terrible job there would be…it’s just not allowed in my mind.

M: Well you’re already thinking about it, so it’s not going to be a terrible job.

J: I just keep getting sucked into everyday stuff, when I have this huge pile of books to read and things to watch. But this is good; I always get really insecure and nervous when I’m embarking on a new project, it’s kind of how I get stuff done.

M: Where did your family come from?

J: I grew up in Kansas City and they emigrated from Russia and Germany.

M: Whereabouts?

J: Dortmund Germany.

M: Wow, they got out. Do you know what year?

J: Well, not all of them. Some of them got out on my mom’s side — they got out early, and on my dad’s side they didn’t. On my mom’s side they became farmers in Kansas, and on my dad’s side they all ended up in New York City.

M: And they lost a lot of family in Germany?

J: Yeah, yeah. I guess all of that is part of my biography and point of view.

M: That’s really interesting to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about what my ancestors were doing in a small town on the border of Poland in the Ukraine. And why some of them fled when they did and the others didn’t. And what that means today.

J: Yeah, yeah, right?! And the connection to the contemporary political situation, it’s like all of these things are coming full circle.

M: It’s fucked. It’s dreadful. You realize how real it was. How real it is, actually. It’s not just a story, it’s not just a history book. And anybody who knows that any of that stuff happened should probably realize now, right now that this is how it starts.

J: It all comes back to that question of observing patterns. That there is storytelling and then there’s intellectually understanding something and then there’s emotionally understanding something. I feel like we have short memories and that’s why we have economic crashes, because…

M: Boom and bust.

J: Boom and bust and if we haven’t lived through a depression, we don’t understand savings the same way. We can understand it as words on paper, but that’s being a bit obsessive or resourceful. We just don’t hear things for a long time. It’s hard. Anyways, great sharing this with you Mishka.

M: Yeah, likewise. Fascinating stuff! Surprised in a way, pleasantly, that we share so many connections. It’s amazing really.

J: I’ll touch base with you next week about our next contact.

M: Yeah, sweet dreams!

The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.

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