Article by Alexander Norton & Skylar Blum
A conversation between Alexander Norton & Skylar Blum.
SB: There’s a quote I recently came across from the photographer Jeffrey Ladd which really resonated with my process of making pictures as I started to realize much of my work revolves around transcendence and transformation.
“A photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness.” – Jeffrey Ladd
I think this idea parallels some of what you were getting at in terms of mysteries, which brings to mind the artist Martin Kollar who I think has a wonderful way of instilling a sense of unknown in his images.
AN: I agree with that quote. Its strange to think but the photograph should be more exciting than the real thing. Otherwise our sacrifice of sharing the moment with a camera and not ourselves wouldn’t be worth it. Its like, if you just look at it and say, ‘that’s amazing’ and walk off, that memory will fade fast. If you take a picture, even if its shit, you remember the events leading up to that moment. How it smelt or felt like, who you were with, what you were thinking. If its your favorite picture you never forget it. I think when its a photograph of someone you love, more of your time goes into feeling the moment and the picture is something you do and move on. My memories of photographing my first love at 20 are very mushed. They are hard not to smile at though.
My fondest memory of my twenties, taken by a friend of mine
One night in the kitchen
The morning we first held hands, but I had to run off to university to hand in some forms
SB: I find that when I’m making photographs I’m rarely thinking about the events leading up to it. I try to remind myself that I’m making an image versus taking one. With this in mind these images are an attempt at transforming what I see by removing the context of whats going on outside the frame. So when I’m shooting, I’m not necessarily looking to tell a story of what happened, I’m looking to tell a new story by transforming that moment into something else. A lot of times I feel like I’m writing a story when I’m making images. I’m more aware of the fact that the story I’m trying to tell is different than whatever is actually going on at that moment. Usually the story I’m trying to tell emerges from the work after spending some time with my archives. Of course, there are exceptions and sometimes I end up working on multiple stories or ideas at once with varying approaches.
Skylar Blum, From the project Sole, 2012 to 2014
Skylar Blum, From the project Sole, 2012 to 2014
AN: I have always had trouble defining the differences between making or taking images. I always found the notion to ‘make’ a picture to be really pretentious. But thinking about the concept of making an image does relate to some photographs. It is more to do with the craft but the approach as well. I would say a tourist would take pictures but an art photographer would make an image. Maybe its the way were saying it that aggravates me. The part before or after the image only happens once the image is made and is reflected upon.
Context is such an important element to the framing. I remember looking through William Eggleston documentaries where he would speak of the art of framing, nothing is accidental. For me framing is everything and it is. If its slightly left or is not convincing as a photograph why on earth would we appreciate it. Aesthetics are unfortunately really important.
The stories and narratives are an interesting. Especially the notion of writing a story with pictures and narrative structure. I enjoy the feeling of the work because stories unravel and naturally form.
SB: Haha, you’re right it does sound pretentious. It’s not really a conscious thought anymore but I do remember a distinct change in the way I thought about making pictures. It was around the time that I started working with 4×5 that I became more aware of the decisions that go into making a photograph. That really transformed my ideas of what I could do with the medium.
I guess what I’m getting at is that I see photography itself as such an abstract medium that the product of such a thing could be called a drawing, an illustration, a photo, it doesn’t really matter. I just don’t see it as the great vessel of truth that a tourist might or most people for that matter. I don’t mean this to dismiss documentary or photo journalistic work in any way either, actually I think it was Walker Evans who claimed that he was not a documentary photographer but used the documentary aesthetic in his work. Or take the New Topographic artists for example, a majority of their work is stark “objective” photography that at first glance looks to be documentary but I don’t think they would necessarily consider themselves to be that solely. Lewis Baltz had even said that he didn’t like to think of himself as a photographer, I share that same feeling. I always feel like the general idea of a photographer is this tech guy who loves cameras and caries around bags of equipment to be able to capture that moment of truth, and that’s fine! There are obviously some really great photographers who do just that, and again its nothing against that way of working, but I just don’t work that way. For me the camera is just a means to an end, I rather dislike fumbling with cameras and equipment. I just think it’s the most direct way to capture my ideas or feelings. Regardless of if I’m using a camera, a pen, or any other medium, I often feel a sense of urgency, like this needs to be done quickly to capture the essence of what I’m experiencing.
Skylar Blum, From the projects Emerald City and Pleasure Valley, 2011 to 2012
Lately I find myself getting more excited about the simplicity of using my cell phone to make pictures rather than pulling out a DSLR or field camera. Something about the pixelated quality I really enjoy, I think its relatable to the film grain so many people love and cherish. It’s like I have a new love for technically bad photographs, images that are less about truth and more about a feeling, where there is less to make sense of.
AN: I think there is a lot of pretension in photography as an art and that goes down to cultural and current trends I think. If you think of successful photographers they generally are a bit weird, obsessive and most likely a bit odd but that is what makes them great. I think the new generation does have an element of looking good before they’re producing something decent. I think their work also shares a sense of this. It is surface. I have found myself fighting the work that just looks good, but just like a pretty girl walking down the street you cannot help but look. I think because it shines we generally act like magpies when we see it on the walls or on online related outlets. I’m not sure this is a bad thing, as long as we have decent work with context and excitement there is no real issue.
Shooting 5×4 is a whole different thing. For me, I tried it once and I didn’t do anything with the camera because it was so complicated. I just chose the subject and my friends sorted out the rest. It slows you down to a complete stop which I think is crucial in your aesthetic. It is slow but has a sense of movement. I get the feeling you are slowly doing things quite quickly. Also, its such a good observation about drawing a photography. I think more than ever we are closest to drawing and illustration with photographs. I use photography to draw from, and I have tried drawing from my own photographs. I think the thing that is taken away from that is the fact we are creating imagery instead of just taking photographs. If we think about the idea of bearing witness its not enough anymore, if we are to engage in discussion. Photography is not the accompaniment to the issue, photography should be the main discussion point. We should be discussing what the photographs are doing for the argument, not use them as talking points or illustrations to a main article. I think though, this signifies where we are now within the medium. It is wide open and generally anything goes. Sculpture, archives, it is almost becoming a bit like fine art. This is fantastic!
I certainly think the vessel of truth is a myth in photographs. Its the biggest lie there is, I think its how you use the lie to make something interesting. I definitely agree that the documentary aesthetic is something we are working with and there are less and less interesting ‘documentary’ photographers now. When studying documentary at Newport I felt disillusioned by the idea that a photograph can actually have any impact in big issues. So I focused on the small, important ones for me. It was a huge turning point actually. It made me more comfortable with what I was doing. As where I initially wanted to change the world, I realised photographs may have changed the world before, but we are not shocked anymore by photographs. Nothing phases us anymore. News does not really hit us, people die everyday and we get on with eating our breakfast. A photograph is just like dropping a tiny stone into the pacific. But the biggest downfall of the photograph is why I love the medium today. We know the photograph has lost its significance. So we work it with other things and its so much more interesting. Can you imagine how dull the subject would be if we all shot in black and white or only were objective? I would quit photography right now if that was the case. The beauty is in the lie.
Alexander Norton, from the series Understanding
Its interesting to consider Baltz never really felt like a photographer, I think the most interesting people that do photography are the ones with different backgrounds because they have something to discover, another interest. It is something that is probably the biggest downfall of my work. The tech guy, the knob head, shall we call them. I talk with them everyday at work on the phones, they are the customers of the mark I and Mark II. The people with surplus money who spunk it on the latest model so they can take disappointing landscapes and awful HDR photographs. Its amazing how the more kit you have, unless your a working professional, the less you know what photography is. Its like the equivalent of starting photography, but never understanding it. Its like being in first gear when your trying to drive on the motorway. Its mad. But we all can’t be art photographers and that’s the point. Photography has so many sub-categories its almost there is like 4 or 5 definitions of it. I don’t think its always a bad thing.
Its funny you mention the camera as a means to an end. It is a tool essentially. Would a painter talk for hours about his paint brush? Or would they talk about what they feel, do and why the feel they should do it? Everyone can technically be a photographer and everyone is to a certain extent, but I think it ties to your idea of what you see and what you want to communicate.
Alexander Norton, from the series Mum, 2014
I have a question, what is your favorite part of the process? Is it taking the pictures, spotting it, scanning or editing? It is such an interesting thing to consider as I really dislike the moment of taking a picture, but I love spotting it and I love the feeling after its taken. There is a moment where for like 5 seconds I really don’t enjoy framing or focusing. Its probably why I shoot so fast. Otherwise I’d dwell too much and then hate the result. Like my hero, William Eggleston, I only really take 1 picture of one thing nowadays. I find if there is 5 to choose from its going to be a waste of time. Maybe I take two for backup if its a picture I like.
I get that sense of urgency in your pictures. I think a photograph is just an extension from your lived experience. What you are doing at the time seems to be important and without the experience there is nothing to photograph. Its no use having all the gear with nothing to record. The process seems redundant.
I know exactly what you mean regarding the phone’s use in photography and it ties to your sense of urgency and dislike for clambering camera equipment. The phone is always there because you need it for a different reason and that is why it has that instant nature. The device’s purpose was not to take a picture. But I think there is a way you approach a phone picture, most things go out the window. Its a completely honest reaction. There is no technical decision what so ever. I would love to put together a show of photographers who have an archive of mobile photography. I know one girl who is doing fantastic things with it, someone called Sorytoc Residence on Tumblr. There are a handful of people that are giving it a go as their main practice and that’s a brilliant thing to do. I know you have your mobile dyptitch each day and I think that lack of pressure allows for the truth to come out a bit. Its a bit like an unedited roll of footage, not much hiding behind fantastic lenses – just standard photographs that have a really magic reaction with the world. I agree completely.
Skylar Blum, From the project My Phone and I, 2014
I love technically bad photographs. I would always pick out mistakes in edits as they were so much more interesting than what I was trying to do. I have an idea with my new work that I will make a publication on really rough newspaper and leave the publications by the window so the sun can perish the colours in the photograph. It ties to those flyers they hand out or you can get from boxes on the side of the road. The ones that have lots of girls phone numbers on, dusty from the Las Vegas wind. I’m very excited about that.
SB: I’ve been aware of this shallow quality of a lot of recent popular images for a while now. I think it spawns from the increasingly popular use of blogging platforms like Tumblr where young artists may be measuring their daily success by how many new followers or likes an image gets that day. I’ve been using Tumblr for the past few years basically as a sketchbook to showcase recent ideas and I’ve watched as the aesthetic has moved more towards a kind of manipulated technical “perfection” (if you want to call it that). It seems that the artists making this kind of work are more concerned with making eye candy click bait that will attract the most viewers. Artists are becoming business savvy self advertisers, and their work reflects this. I can’t help but think that this is connected to the exponential growth of us being force fed hyper-sexual advertising and pop-culture media throughout our lives. In the virtual world of blogging these trends spread like wildfires to a point where the work with a little more depth gets buried beneath this erotic patterned wallpaper of clone tools, pineapples, and studio lighting. It’s pretty amusing really, and it actually makes it a bit more rewarding when you do come across an artists work who you really connect with and feel a need to dig below that surface.
Skylar Blum, Illustration of “Contemporary Art”, 2015
Alexander Norton, Untitled sculpture, Berlin, 2015 #contemporary#art
I think trends are necessary for the progression of photography as an art form and I do appreciate the artists pushing those trends for continuing to make work regardless of others opinions. The frame of the photograph is becoming blurred. We’re coming to a point where painting, sculpture, photography, and all other mixed media are colliding with such force that they’re becoming one. I think this is wonderful, probably the best thing for the world of art in the long run and I’m super excited to see what comes out of it. I’m especially excited to see how photography’s beautiful affair with the truth pans out with all of this.
Skylar Blum, Compositions, 2014
Without a doubt I can say that shooting and sequencing/editing are my favorite part of the process. When I’m shooting I almost always think of a book as the final product of my efforts. The shooting can be extremely exciting to me almost like a spiritual experience at times where I am entirely conscious and I am just seeing without much thought, just seeing and reacting. When I get to sequencing is when the real fun starts and I can really start to see this shapeless idea starting to take form.
I used to shoot only one image at a time also, but as I started making digital work I had the freedom to take more if it felt necessary. Sometimes I’ll shoot something 5 or 10 times but now I really do see a difference even if its just a leaf in the corner of the frame, that leaf can make all the difference. It’s all purely instinctual, whatever feels right at the moment. If I’m not feeling it I keep shooting until it’s right.
Your idea for a sun bleached newsprint publication and a cell phone photo show are exactly the kinds of things that I’m excited about for the future of photography and all art in general. I love how artists are taking control of ever aspect of their practice. We no longer wait for a publisher or gallery to share our work, we do it ourselves!
AN: I’m with you on that excitement about the future of photography. These trends I think will wash away like the ideas and I think we will begin to see some greats come from educational institutions from now on. Not all, of course. I think two in twenty five students probably make something outstanding and that seems pretty standard now. Out of those one project seems to stand much taller. Self publishing is both great and bad but I think on the whole it is really important and seems to be the only way now.
I’ll end on a dream of mine. Which was part of my new years resolution. I would like to make one book. Of my new work, the photographs of loneliness and the pursuit for company and make it incredibly well. Put £100 or £200 into making one immaculate book that gets exhibited in different places and has a life. A bit like someone looking for love. Presenting their personality to a room of strangers and letting them react. Something like this is financial too, but its more around the idea that the book doesn’t need to make money. Nor does it need to be sold. It is an object without commodity and value. It has the personal value which is worth more than mass consumption. Its doable and the next few years will dictate my progress with it.
This article was brought to you by Alexander Norton & Skylar Blum
La Piña is run by Alexander Norton and has focused on photographic discussion for over three years. The main focus is to discuss points of interest within the photographic community varying from photography’s use of social media platforms to current trends within the medium. As well as articles in depth in conversations are had with selected artists to spark further debate around their practice.
Alexander Norton is a photographer from the UK and works on projects about the world around us through personal experiences. His practice goes to answer questions that crop up in his own life and photographing and writing are antidotes to the questions raised.
Skylar Blum is an American artist who is interested in creating an experience of consciousness through his work. He received a BFA from Purchase College in 2012 and recently founded Front Yard; an independent publishing house and exhibition platform focused on creating exposure and lasting support for emerging artists.