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Daniel Shea (b. 1985) is a photographer living in Chicago, Illinois and currently enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Illinois. His latest book Blisner, Ill. was recently published in conjunction with a residency through the Digital Lab and Photography Department at Columbia College Chicago.

Many thanks to Daniel for taking the time to answer a few questions for Lay Flat.


Untitled, from Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea

Pauline Magnenat: Can you explain what triggered your interest in Blisner and how you first came to the place?

Daniel Shea: Blisner is a town scattered with the wreckage of a former era. The meaning of that detritus has changed from something with a clear utility to something more horrific and ambiguous. The people of Blisner exist in an equivalent social space. In a blighted place, the history of labor and industry is contained in objects and symbols that have been removed from their original context. This is what originally interested me in this place, it was palpable. Blisner also exists in an existential space of being everywhere, nowhere, and anywhere. It’s specific and anonymous.


Untitled, from Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea

PM: What was your relation to the town and its inhabitants? How did you approach working there and portraying the people?

DS: Its inhabitants worked in the coal and cement industries, built the railway infrastructure of an early midwest, and were victims to the systemic deindustrialization of the American workforce. I spent my time looking for specific archetypes that, through repetition, could be surrogates for a recurring character in a work of fiction. Instead of trying to survey a place (something that I don’t think is possible within the suggestions of a “survey”), I sought out and selected certain types of people that made the most sense in the story I was developing.


Untitled, from Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea

PM: To me, Blisner, Ill. is the logical “sequel” to your coal work, in that they both share contemporary and industrial concerns. Did you approach both projects in the same way or did you feel very differently about Blisner, Ill.?

DS: My previous work attempted something that I don’t think can be reconciled – meaningful ambiguity within the constraints of social documentary form. I’m interested now in the possibility of fiction, both as something that can speak more effectively about reality and as something that opens up a terrifying amount of control for the author. In effect, I’d say it’s more of a frame of working than anything else, but it changed the way I approached looking for photographs in this new work.


Cover of Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea

PM: Your new monograph is published in conjunction with a residency at the Digital Lab and Photography Department at Columbia College. Can you talk about the experience of making a book within such a residency ?

DS: I had an amazing opportunity to be a resident artist in Columbia’s digital photography program. I proposed to make a book – beginning with the fundraising (a series of prints sold online), continuing through with the finishing of the work (traveling to photograph and research, processing everything back at the college) and then finishing the residency with an exhibition and book release. Jennifer Keats and April Wilkins, who run the digital lab at Columbia, provided support throughout the process. It was the first time I worked closely with people who were facilitating a project and it allowed me to focus more on the work. It took some of the burden off of the normal grunt work, to which I feel very grateful to them.


Spread from Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea


Spread from Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea


Spread from Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea

PM: Did you have any influential references of photography books before you started working on yours? Did you experiment a lot or did you have a very clear idea of the way you wanted to make it, in terms of design and editing?

DS: For a long time, books recorded and told history. Multiple books and written documents about the same subject weaved slightly different versions of the same history towards the same conclusion. This work attempts to recreate this drive to mythologize by collapsing multiple histories into a condensed chronology. Because Blisner, Ill. is a book and it is so important that it exists mainly as a book, its points of reference needed to be very specific. Historical documents, archived materials, and content and design pulled from books were used in the creation of this new book. I also wanted the book not to function or read as a monograph strictly, but instead conflate different types of legibility found in both an art monograph and a research document.


Untitled, from Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea

PM: You published a newspaper edition of your Blisner work. For those of us who haven’t seen the actual object, can you please describe its contents? What is in there that is not in your monograph, and how did you approach the making of the newspaper versus the making of the book?

DS: The newspaper edition is a different edit and approach to the same project, designed with the format of newspaper in mind (its size and materiality specifically). Having more space on the page enlarges the people and landscapes to the proportions that their myth might suggest. And the newspaper itself is dirty and impermanent, evoking the coal and cement industries that the town was founded on. It’s much more straight forward, most pages have a single photo on them, and the contributor’s essay is in the back. There is no proper title page, just like the book. It’s much more photographic than the book (which contains more text and historical documents) and presents a slightly different cast of characters. It all serves a very utilitarian function of getting the work physically in people’s hands for very little money.


Untitled, from Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea

PM: I’ve seen images of your installation work pop up on the internet quite a few times. When did you get interested in mixing installation and photography work and how do you feel one media informs the other and vice-versa?

DS: Earlier this summer I presented a series of sculptures, photographs, and an installation at LVL3 Gallery in Chicago as part of an initial investigation to the site specificity contained in the town of Blisner. The book itself is a follow up piece, and is intended as an object that I want to be considered physically and ontologically, even though it contains photographic works. I think of the photographic work that comes from these sites (collapsed into the narrative site, “Blisner, Ill.”) as being visual reference, fulfilling the indexical posit for a broader research approach to understanding the history of industry and affect. The material works and installations are re-presented in a gallery as formal art objects, functioning in a similar way to a photographic index. The inherent surface qualities of the installation materials shifts the focus from inside the gallery to the external, unknown site where the material conditions of the objects were affected by a different set of conditions (time, weather, reuse, etc).


Untitled, from Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea

PM: You are currently enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Illinois. What made you want to go to graduate school and how did that change your photographic practice?

DS: I felt ready to have the time and space to have the grad school experience — which is to have every decision you make relentlessly questioned. It’s a cynical thing really, but I’m hoping to come out of it with more clarity. I also wanted to find strategies to merge what were disparate sculptural and photographic practices. I applied to programs that were small, critically-focused, and interdisciplinary. UIC has been excellent to me.


Untitled, from Blisner, Ill.
© Daniel Shea

PM: In terms of photographic projects, what is next for you?

DS: There’s still work I want to do in Blisner, so I’ll keep working on it for the next year or so. The plan is to have the book published by an independent publishing house, with a new edit. There are a few follow up projects that I’ll publish as smaller books. For example, one attempts to compare early Southern Illinois settlers’ perception of Native people (largely held in contempt) with the oral histories of laid-off factory workers and their original employers. I’m also working on a film script that will examine a South Chicago man’s political struggle with the city as they take away his family’s land.

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