Ben Alper is an artist based in North Carolina. He received his BFA in photography from the Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Alper’s work has been shown widely, including recent exhibitions at the NADA Art Fair in Miami, the Luminary Center for the Arts in St. Louis, Le Dictateur Gallery in Milan, Italy, Meulensteen and Michael Matthews galleries in New York and at Johalla Projects and Schneider Gallery in Chicago. Additionally, his work has been published in The Collector’s Guide to New Art Photography Vol. 2, Album Magazine, and the catalog for Young Curators, New Ideas IV. Alper also curates The Archival Impulse, an project dedicated to his personal collection of vernacular photography.
from Terrain Vague, 2012
© Ben Alper
Zach Nader: How did you decide that pursuing an MFA was the choice for you? How has your experience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill been so far?
Ben Alper: Even before taking the Registrar/Preparator job at Julie Saul Gallery, I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school. At that point, though, I had just recently gotten to New York and wasn’t prepared to uproot myself again right away. I wanted to spend some time working, enjoying the city and my friends and making new work. I made a two-year commitment to the gallery and planned to begin my graduate studies after I had fulfilled that promise. Throughout my time in New York I did an enormous amount of research about grad programs all across the country. The first challenge was determining what exactly it was that I wanted in a grad program. As time went on, I decided that an interdisciplinary program was going to suit me best. I spent my undergraduate studies in a strictly photographic program and, for as elucidating as that experience was, I felt that further growth would be fostered more readily in an expanded dialogue – one that encompassed painting, sculpture, video, printmaking, performance and photography.
Fortuitously, when I was at the gallery I worked closely with Jeff Whetstone, who is the Director of Graduate Studies of the Studio Art program at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was really through him that I discovered UNC’s program. It met all the criteria that I was looking for, so I applied, was accepted, and chose to head south.
My first year has been challenging, rigorous, but quite formative. I’ve made more work in 5 months than I did in 3 years in New York. And although much of it has never seen the light of day, it has been incredibly liberating to create without censoring my impulses or over-thinking an idea into non-existence. What I’ve really learned is that it is often through the failures, shortcomings, and flawed ideas that something truly interesting emerges. I have come to embrace these as fully as I can and try to find the value in that which initially seems misguided.
from Background Noise, 2011
© Ben Alper
ZN: Much of your work employs imagery that looks quite dated – faded, torn pictures of people and places that recall decades past. You approach those images in a rather destabilizing way. Why is it important for you to begin with images that have a direct linkage to a time when photography was considered more physical?
BA: Like countless people before me, I spent a great deal of time throughout my childhood looking through my family’s photo albums. Sifting through the quiet, often unremarkable images became a sort of obsession for me. At the time, I never particularly gave the process much thought. I simply enjoyed the ritual; turning the pages, examining the yellowing prints slowly fading from view, reading captions that corresponded to particular photographs and, perhaps most of all, thoroughly enjoying the distinctive smell that old photo albums emit – that musty, thick smell of aging paper and photo chemicals. Looking back at it now, I realize that I connected deeply to the physicality of this experience. It was tactile, visual and olfactory all at once.
Beyond the mere sensory experience though, I think I was also looking for some kind of clarity about my familial history. I’m not entirely sure what I was looking for at first, but I sensed that I may be able to glean something valuable from scrutinizing all of the old, decaying photographs that had been preserved with such care. And I did. It may not have been an especially linear narrative, but pieces of a much larger domestic puzzle began to fall into place. What the process really enabled me to do was place myself within the context that was my family’s generational history.
Growing up in the midst of the digital revolution and the rapid expansion of the internet afforded me (along with the rest of my generation) a dichotomy of experiences in image viewing and consumption. The tactile experience of the photograph as a physical object was suddenly being replaced by a decidedly more virtual one. I have utilized photographs from a more physical time in an attempt to examine the impact that digitization has had on the cultural, personal and historical function of the photographic image. Losing the ability to physically engage with photographs has dramatically altered how we experience and internalize the images we see everyday. This has been aided by the seemingly endless proliferation of images available for consumption online. In an interview with William Eggleston, Alec Soth quotes Robert Frank:
There are too many images, too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art any more. Maybe it never was.
While I don’t fully subscribe to this sentiment, I do believe that photographs have lost some of their power and ability to act as memory objects. There are simply too many images to contend with. We are not capable of processing the amount of visual information that we encounter everyday. We may look at thousands of images in a given day, but how many do we actually see? A great deal of my work from the past 4 or 5 years has underscored this anxiety. Ultimately though, the optimist in me has been trying to push against this. And while I do struggle with a certain anxiety surrounding the state of photography, I do still believe that images can have meaning. This dichotomy can be confusing, but it can also be quite rich. And it is precisely within these two poles that I have attempted to situate my work.
from Pluralities, 2011
© Ben Alper
ZN: I think of photographs as having no specific power, but as objects that are experienced and have meanings affixed. You freely move between found and personal images for source material, heightening the potential of narrative in a picture-based practice. Specifically, the possibilities of memory (perhaps in a Blade Runner fashion) seem to be emphasized throughout your recent projects. What are your questions and concerns around the use of photographic images as mnemonic devices?
BA: I see many of my recent projects as being fundamentally inquisitive, rather than declarative, in regard to memory. There is no articulated claim being made. Instead, I hope the work raises questions about how we order, archive and recall photographs in service of creating personal or historical narratives for ourselves. The vast majority of us, to some degree, rely on photographic evidence to help construct a feeling of continuity with the past. This process, particularly when looking at one’s own family photographs, can also have a great impact in the present; it can affect how we identify ourselves and our place in the world. In this way, photographs can be powerful persuaders, or mnemonic devices, but I tend to agree with you that whatever meaning does exist is annexed by the specific viewer and is thus entirely idiosyncratic. We project who and what we are onto photographic images. We see what we want to regardless of what’s there. There is no essential significance embedded in an image itself – this is applied later and with admitted subjectivity. Now, don’t get me wrong, certain images hold a greater historical or cultural value because they depict events or moments we shouldn’t forget; however, even these images are tinged with a certain amount of fiction. I have attempted to underscore that memory is an ever-vacillating and impermanent function; and that photographic images collude with memory to reinforce, rather than undermine, invented fictions.
ZN: Your recent work (re)generation depicts the destruction and inverse of a photographic print simultaneously. What is the significance of the image used and does this project relate to your views on image abundance?
BA: The image used in (re)generation is the last photograph taken of my grandfather before he died of terminal cancer in 2008. I sensed that he didn’t have much time left and I wanted an image to remember him by – one that I took, one that reflected an exchange between the two of us. Shortly after I made it, he passed away. In the months that followed, I became disconcerted by how quickly my memories of him were overwhelmed by indistinction, inconsistency and distance. When someone dies, you primarily have four things with which to remember them by – your memories, stories relayed by family members, photographs and whatever corporeal artifacts they’ve left behind. In spite of all of these possible triggers though, I was left feeling that these forms of remembrance, photographs in particular, did little to reconstruct a lucid picture of my grandfather. Like a puzzle, each fragment, memory or anecdote contributes to a larger whole, but the intact image always remains illusive.
With this in mind, I view (re)generation as a metaphor for the cognitive process and the reconstitutive nature of memory itself. This particular piece is not a commentary on image saturation, but rather a meditation on the oscillating, ever-malleable manner in which we recall the things embedded in our minds. Sometimes they appear with great clarity; other times they possess an intense ambiguity; and other times still, they are shrouded almost entirely in obscurity. Sometimes a singular memory shifts, transforming into or out of lucidity. The two images in (re)generation that perpetually construct and deconstruct my grandfather’s likeness constitute a visual analog for this process. The video is presented as an endless loop, so this metamorphosis occurs ad infinitum.
from Background Noise, 2011
© Ben Alper
ZN: How do you see your role as an image producer in this image saturated moment?
BA: This is something that I’ve thought about quite a lot over the years. It’s hard though to know where or how to contextualize my own photographic practice in relation to the trends of image making globally. It’s akin to trying to describe a single grain of sand in the context of an entire beach – it is simply a particle of a much larger organism. What I can say is that the pure volume of photographic images existent in the world today has been a source of great overwhelm for me.
I think for some image makers (myself included at times) it is easy to be fatalistic about the state of contemporary photography today. The feeling that everything has been photographed, and photographed ad nauseum, has the power to awaken a sense of futility in contributing more images to an already over-populated image culture. This line of thought though is ultimately defeatist and unproductive. I make images because I truly love the process – because it’s a way of challenging my own assumptions and perceptions of the world around me. As a result, much of my interest lies in the vernacular, the commonplace and the banal. I am far more interested in seeing (or making) something familiar appear strange than I am in seeing something that is wholly unfamiliar to me. It is this transformation that I find exciting, surprising and often off-putting. In the end, I hope that my role as an image maker is one that facilitates this feeling in other people and foregrounds the slighted things in life that so many of us take for granted.
from Terrain Vague, 2012
© Ben Alper
ZN: A thread throughout much of your work seems to be the gathering of the unwanted or overlooked (images, objects, places) and reimaging/reimagining them. What are the links for you between your ongoing Terrain Vague project and your more image focused projects?
BA: I see Terrain Vague as both a continuation and a departure from my previous bodies of work. On the one hand, it signals a new way of working, or accumulating images. Returning to the physical world to make my own photographs, rather than appropriating existing material from archival sources, has been liberating. The subject matter, at least on the surface, is also quite disparate from what I was working with in projects like Erasure and Background Noise. The move away from the personal, domestic and familial histories that were being addressed in those projects has given way to a more social and spatial examination of public space. Where the archival projects are, at least in part, rooted in a specificity that often evades knowability, the sites and materials photographed in Terrain Vague are general, ubiquitous and familiar. I was interested in going almost completely the other way in this regard – to work with a landscape that wasn’t as idiosyncratic as those found in vernacular photographs.
However, where I think the projects overlap is in their exploration of transformation, liminality, and impermanence. The majority of my work has addressed these concepts. And I cannot seem to let them go, so I continue to try and find new manifestations to continue exploring them. The sites depicted in Terrain Vague foreground the process of construction and deconstruction and underscore the liminal period of ambiguous transition from one state of “being” to another. As a result, they evoke a strong sense of being in between histories, function and time. This also activates them to explore a number of seemingly diametric relationships – those between presence and absence, inscription and erasure, preservation and ruination, and appearance and disappearance.
These ideas are also at play in previous bodies of work, but the tenor of the transformation, or liminal state, is different. In the archive-based projects, this is manifested as a mediation between memory and fantasy, the physical and the virtual, or between shifting and uncertain cultural practices. It’s the precipice between two things (histories, function, cultural practice or cognition) that allows for unexpected readings. This space of “in betweenness” is one that is ultimately destabilizing and slightly uncanny. In the end, I’m drawn to this period of precarious transition because it nurtures a particularly temporal experience – one that acknowledges the past and points toward the future, all from a fleeting moment between the two.
from Terrain Vague, 2012
© Ben Alper
ZN: What’s next for you?
BA: I am about to start my second and final year of graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I will be working toward my thesis exhibition in the spring. On top of that, I will be having a two-person exhibition in Brussels in April and a solo show in London in either May or June.
Additionally, I have also resurrected The Archival Impulse – a web-based archive dedicated to my ever-growing collection of vernacular photography. Concurrent with my studies, I plan to continue contributing new content to the site, while also looking to expand the scope of the project by growing the collection and possibly collaborating with other enthusiasts, collectors and archivists in the online photo community.