Marco Bohr: In September 2012 you published a photobook titled ‘Hesitating Beauty’ which I reviewed in a previous blog post. The book is a haunting collection of photographs, text and family snapshots that, in sum, deals with your complex family history. More specifically, the book explores your mother’s battle with psychological illness. It is a deeply personal body of work that by extension also explores your own sanity in relation to those who raised you. When did you first think about producing this project? Can you elaborate on the title of this work?
Joshua Lutz: The title comes from a Woody Guthrie song. I had been working on a project on woody Guthrie, using his songs and poems as kicking off points for making images. After reading his biography it became clear that here was someone thinking about so many of the problems that our country was currently facing-only half a century prior. There was a enormous contradiction between the urgency of what I was feeling about the state of the country and the realization that these problems have been hunting us for so long. It seemed like time was no loner linear and we were stuck in this rollercoaster unable to learn from history. Towards the end of the biography we learn that woody Guthrie had been in a mental hospital. As it turns out it was the same one my mom was in at the time. It was also around that time that my mom’s mental state started to shift from psychotic to delusion. I had spent a lot of time with her in these psychotic states but never in delusion, actually it never even occurred that there was even a difference. She was no longer seeing things that were not there but actually taking experiences from her past and making them present. Time collapsed on itself creating enormous confusion. In that same way the two projects collided into one.
MB: To what extent is the role of photography ‘therapeutic’ in this specific context?
JL: As far as it being therapeutic, I don’t really know. I get asked that a lot. I think I used to say that it is therapeutic but I am less sure about that these days. I do think that there is something about sitting with and leaning into the things that scares you. Somehow it just becomes less scary.
MB: In your book ‘Meadowlands’ from 2008 you photograph seemingly banal spaces on the edge of the city. As a result of focusing on spaces that are essentially traversable (parking lots, motels, gas stations and so forth), some of the people you photograph appear transient and out-of-sync with their environment: a priest standing in knee-high grass, a blind woman walking next to a river, and what appears to be a dead man face down in a creek. Combined with impressions of American industries in perpetual decline, I wonder how all these images are connected?
JL: The transient nature of the portraits was very much on the forefront of my mind when I was making Meadowlands. I was interested in how we pass by things on the way to someplace else and what happens when we look at the thing we pass by. In the end, I don’t think anything happens, we look at it and we move on. That is not to belittle the work it is just to say that I don’t think photographs do the thing we think they do. Say that ten times fast.
MB: What is the impetus for this body of work? What attracts you to this no man’s land?
JL: The thing that brought me there was really just the open space and the water. It is so close to New York City and in a few minutes you can be navigating this wilderness that feels completely unexplored. Even though it took me ten years to finish there was something in the original idea about being able to take on a project that was accessible. I often get students (In NYC) that tell me that are interested in things like The American West or some cultural Diaspora far away. I wasn’t looking to make my life more difficult.
MB: Looking at your other photographic projects, it seems that you are habitually drawn to in-between-spaces. Your project ‘Borders’ investigates the fractured social landscape along the US-Mexican border. ‘Tent City’ depicts how homeless men and women created temporary housing in Fresno, California. Your work produced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina represents a landscape that is equally vulnerable, scarred and constantly shifting. Are you consciously drawing a link between these projects? In this context, is the primary role of photography to document places that are influx? Are photographs temporary pausing the transformation of a quickly shifting social landscape?
JL: I am thinking a lot about in between spaces these days. Not necessarily physical spaces but the idea of the space between spaces. The space between projects, the space between photographs, the space between thoughts.
MB: It seems that one strand of your work represents the physical scars of late-capitalist America, while the other strand depicts the psychological wounds of the marginalized, the disenfranchised or those withdrawn from society. When it comes to the latter, how do you approach your subjects? I mean this quite literally, how do you photograph what appear to be complete strangers?
JL: I don’t have a system that I apply to all given situations but I do think you need to decide that what you are trying to do is more important than anything that may be resisting you. A curator was once going through my work telling me how nice the images were and how nice I was. She went on to say that nice people don’t make great photographs that make nice photographs. While I agree with her about that idea I disagree fundamentally with how images function.
MB: Are you working on any other projects at the moment? Is there any specific geographic location or subject matter that you are drawn to?
JL: My next book is about the idea of conceptual overlays.
MB: Thank you for this interview.
This interview is part of a series of quarterly interviews exclusively available to supporters of the blog three months before becoming available to all readers. If you want to become a supporter of the blog and receive quarterly interviews in advance then please follow this link. Email me if you have any suggestions for artists or photographers that could be interviewed.
A woman in a red dress sprayed with what appears to be pepper spray in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The image vividly illustrates the popular uprising in Turkey: a young and vibrant youth movement suppressed by the state. The power of the image partially relates to three distinct elements within the frame. The first element in the very centre of the image depicts a policeman who is, backed by his colleagues in the background, spraying the chemical on the woman. The gas masks protects him, the dark colours of his clothing signifies the security apparatus of the state, while a row of helmet-clad colleagues secures the border into supposed lawlessness. The second element underlines the danger of the chemical and indeed this very confrontation as members of the press and onlookers seeks to escape from the spraying policemen. One woman can be seen covering her mouth and nose as she already feels the sting of the chemical.
Yet the most important element depicts the young woman in the red dress. Unlike the policemen, she is not protected by the usual apparel: she wears no goggles, no face mask, no helmet. Most remarkably however, her vulnerability in this tense context is further underlined by her body language: she simply just stands there as she is being sprayed with chemicals. Her arms are not raised, she does not cover her face. In a sense, her dress and body language make her look completely out of context. Her shoes, her necklace and the tote bag further signify a casualness that actually stands in complete contrast to the image as a whole. Her out-of-context appearance is finally emphasized by a small yet also distinct parameter of space around her.
The photograph bears an obvious resemblance with the infamous pepper spray incident at the University of California, Davis. A group of peaceful protesters refused to clear the way to the entrance of the university and the local police force took the dramatic decision to spray them at close range. The police officer in the centre of the image lost his job over the incident which also became an extremely Internet meme. Marc Riboud’s iconic photograph of the first major Anti-Vietnam War protest relates to Istanbul’s woman in the red dress in the way that it sets up a visual binary between agression vs. peacefulness, the state vs. the individual, and in this particular context, male vs. female.
Yet the woman of Gezi park most vividly stands out because of her red dress. The colour red could signify a whole number of things: the colour of the Turkish flag, the purity and beauty of a secular state propagated by Turkey’s first President Atatürk, or even an allegiance with socialism in an age of austerity. The colour red as a visual contrast against an oblique background can also be observed in Albert Lamorisse’s classic short-film ‘The Red Balloon’ (which was arguably used as a visual source for the the red dress scene in Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic ‘Schindler’s List’). Understanding that it could easily burst or fly away, the viewer increasingly empathizes with the red balloon hovering over a little boy. Similar to this, the woman in the red dress catches the viewer’s gaze. She stands innocently without defending herself in a chaotic and repressive environment. Her dream for a free, democratic and secular country shall not burst.
Darkened Days, a series of black and white photographs by the Swiss artist Simone Kappeler, is currently being shown at the Douglas Hyde Gallery – a phenomenal space physically located within, though still independent of, Trinity College in Dublin. Gallery visitors dramatically descend into the vast cube-shaped space via a staircase. The concrete ceiling is perhaps more reminiscent of Soviet-era brutalism than it alludes to the academic weight of Ireland’s oldest and most-renowned university above ground.
Kappeler’s photographs are displayed in Gallery 2, a room further back behind the main space. Darkened Days is a series of black and white photographs, perhaps located within the genre of ‘street photography’, taken in Dublin with a square format Diana camera during a four-day period, as the captions matter-of-factly reveal. Kappeler mostly concentrated on photographing people: girls dressed up for a night out, a couple of brave swimmers half-submerged in the water of the Irish Sea at Sandycove, or a child running on the lawn of the Botanical Garden. Apart from being photographed in the same city (Dublin) over the same period of time (four days in October 2011), it is very hard to discern what these images actually have in common. Neither is it clear how they relate to the title of the series Darkened Days. The viewer shall be forgiven for feeling confused about the intended meaning of these photographs.
Similar to the Lomo camera, the Diana is essentially a toy camera which creates images with out-of-focus borders and an overall nostalgic appearance. Indeed, it is the same type of effect that the extremely popular Instagram application creates on smartphones. Yet these are technical details that do not necessarily help in understanding the photographs and their relationship to each other. What do the photographs mean? What do they seek to communicate? What is the artist’s agenda? For the time being, the viewer needs to be satisfied with the banal knowledge that the artist photographed a place in time.
Perhaps the images are meant to be confusing. One could argue that the psychological state of confusion and lack of direction in the photographs relates to the sudden downfall of the Celtic Tiger. The title Darkened Days could be a representation of the gloomy outlook of the Irish economy. The soft focus of the Diana camera could allude to the slightly skewed perspective of an outsider observing Ireland’s social landscape. The black and white images could reference a city steeped in history. Even the square format could be an ironic reference to the increased disequilibrium between the have and the have-nots. Yet any of these interpretations would not be an accurate representation of a series of photographs that appear to be conceptually ungrounded.
Born in 1952, and with a photographic archive that dates back to 1964, Kappeler is best-known for her eclectic and experimental approach to photography: alpine landscapes photographed with an infrared film, washed out Polaroids of nudes, or portraits displayed as colour negatives. In her work Kappeler tests the boundaries of photography. The relationship between child and adulthood, as well as the clash between nature and culture appear to be reoccurring motifs in her previous works. Yet in the absence of a clear motif in Darkened Days, an appreciation of the photographs on display is obscured by an arduous search for meaning.