Jon Feinstein is an artist, curator, and co-founder of Humble Arts Foundation. He is a board member of ArtBridge and has juried exhibitions and competitions for Flash Forward, Critical Mass, Powerhouse Books, and the New York Photo Festival. Feinstein is the Marketing and Partnerships Manager at Shutterstock and writes a weekly column for Whitewall Magazine called New Art Photography. Feinstein recently relocated from Brooklyn, NY to Seattle, WA.
Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to talk.
from the series Pure Aesthetics
© Jon Feinstein
Zach Nader: Before we dive into everything you’re doing now, where did all of this begin? What was your early, initial interest in all things photographic?
Jon Feinstein: When I was around nine, I went on vacation with my parents – I can’t remember exactly where, but it was somewhere foggy, and my dad took some pictures of trees in the fog and then printed them, framed them, and hung them in our apartment. For some reason that moment is pivotal for me thinking about photography as more than something you share with family members or have in albums. It was a way of elevating them to a level beyond snapshots.
ZN: Discuss the origins of Group Show, which would become Humble Arts Foundation. I am especially interested in the decision to move from purely digital showcasing of work to a mix between online and physical exhibitions.
JF: Amani Olu and I were both working together at Shutterstock (where I still work, managing marketing and partnership initiatives) in 2005 or 2006. I had been there for a few months and Amani had just moved from Philadelphia where he ran a magazine called B. Informed – a lifestyle, culture, and arts magazine. Our CEO, Jon Oringer introduced us because of our similar backgrounds in photography and magazine publishing (I was photo editing for HEEB magazine on the side). So, we sat down, bounced some ideas back and forth, and came up with a really simple idea: group-show.com. The idea was taking what we saw in standard gallery shows and putting it online. This hadn’t been done much at the time. Tiny Vices was a great online venue, and there were a number of really significant blogs—from Alec Soth’s to Jörg Colberg’s, but there wasn’t anything mirroring the way physical shows were done.
The first show was 24 Photographers, one photo per photographer. We contacted people we went to school with, photographers we were friends with that were making interesting work, and more household names, famous photographers. I wrote to Alec Soth and asked him if he would let us use one of his photos in the context of these emerging photographers. He wrote me a really wonderful e-mail back saying that he would help us in any way. This was great because it allowed many unknown photographers to have their work in the same context as someone becoming very widely known. At that time, he had already been in the Whitney Biennial, he had a number of solo shows, and Sleeping by the Mississippi had come out a couple of years before.
As far as the shift from purely digital shows to a mix – on the digital side, it creates a wider access to see and experience work. However, we felt that showing work in the flesh was still a necessary part of experiencing it, so after about four months of running group shows online, we did our first physical show at 3rd Ward in Brooklyn titled “group show: pinned up.”
Raphi and Danielle, 2002, from the series Portraits
© Jon Feinstein
ZN: You review submissions to Humble, have done portfolio reviews at FotoFest, and have been a juror for Flash Forward, Critical Mass and other events. What have you learned from seeing so many artists submit work?
JF: I’ve learned how impactful the online photo community is in influencing and accelerating trends in photography. When I was in school, I saw a lot of work influenced by more ‘canon’ figures like the New Topographics, Nan Goldin, Gregory Crewdson, 70’s color photography, etc. While that’s still a big influence to a lot of the work I see, I’m also seeing work that is peer-influenced, young/emerging photographers taking cues from their peers, from work they’ve seen online… it’s interesting to see how quickly this develops and spawns new ideas and trends. In some ways this is great and really helps to keep photographers thinking on their feet, but I also see a lot of young photographers rushing their ideas and getting their work out there too quickly, which results in a lot of projects that feel unresolved, and incomplete.
ZN: Photographic work is incredibly varied and pervasive. When you’re doing portfolio reviews, jurying a show, picking an artist to feature in your Whitewall Magazine column, or acting as a curator, what are your criteria? What especially interests you?
JF: At the forefront, it is sincerity in the work. I want to see that the photographer’s heart is behind it. I want to feel like the photographer is making it because they have to – that they could not live without making it.
Aside from that, it has to be a well-rounded mix of aesthetically moving and conceptually challenging work. So much conceptual work relies entirely on an idea alone, but it is important to have a mix of both.
In the same way, if it is entirely beautiful or technically perfect, without the conceptual level, it doesn’t work. To simplify it: smart and pretty. Maybe “pretty” is the wrong word.
from the series Small Signs
© Jon Feinstein
ZN: You have put together three 31 Women in Art Photography shows. Would you tell me about how that project came into being and why it is significant to you?
JF: Humble’s mission has always been to get exposure for photographers that weren’t connected, that struggled to get their work out there. We came up with the idea for the 31 Women in Art Photography show after seeing some research a group called The Brainstormers did, that showed that the percentage of female MFA graduates vs. the percentage of women that were being represented by major galleries and shown at major institutions was significantly off. We felt like it tied directly in to our mission to do a show that focused entirely on women that were making strong and challenging work.
As Curatorial Director of Humble, it was important for me to be one of the curators, but we also wanted to include a female powerhouse curator that we respected and had a vision aligned with what we were doing. For the first exhibition, which was at 3rd Ward, we asked Lumi Tan, who was gallery director at Zach Feuer Gallery, to participate and she was very enthusiastic about it. The idea was that we would work with a different curator every two years. So, the second time we approached Charlotte Cotton who we thought was doing amazing work as well. And the third time around, this past summer, we worked with Natalia Sacasa from Luhring Augustine Gallery. Those three curators had very different curatorial practices, but all somewhat in line with what we wanted to do with the exhibition and the organization.
from the series From Russia with Love
© Jon Feinstein
ZN: Tell me about your personal artistic practice. I’m especially interested in any link between From Russia With Love and your stock photo work.
JF: There is an ambiguity about the source of the From Russia With Love photos in that some could be stock images and probably are. This mystery was fascinating to me, but also quite terrifying – the question about what these images are used for – the potential reality of who these women might actually be and the horrible sex trafficking issue connected to this. I was interested in the ambiguity of the photographers and subjects in these photographs – who these women actually are, who is actually taking the photographs, and who is behind sending them out in spam e-mails.
As far as my artistic practice in general, it has fluctuated and gone in different directions. I studied photography at Bard, which influenced me in a very ‘straight’ way – large format, landscape, and portraiture. As I started looking at more work online and working at Shutterstock, I became interested in stock and appropriated images. You can see that in the From Russia series and another project called The Serpent and the Rainbow, which are stills from intro slides to 80’s horror and sci-fi movies. Those were taken from VHS tapes where there is a slide that flies into the corporate logo with terrifying music. What I was interested in was using image and sound to recreate the terror of the movie with these graphic design elements. With this project, and a lot of other work I’ve been making, I was most interested in how images, stock or otherwise, influence perception or buying behavior.
ZN: What’s next?
JF: I’ve been working on a few new projects over the past couple years that will be on my site when I relaunch it in a couple months. One of these is my first collaboration with a friend/colleague who is a wizard of a graphic designer at Shutterstock. Stay tuned.
installation view, Boys, 2013
© Aneta Bartos
ZN: One of your most recent projects is the Aneta Bartos show at the Carlton Arms Hotel. How did that come about?
JF: Aneta was in the most recent 31 Women in Art Photography show we did this past summer. I was taken with her work and found it very fresh and different from other work that I was seeing. In the early fall she approached me for a studio visit and showed me the Boys project. It’s a series of 12 images that were shot in the Carlton Arms hotel in low light conditions with expired Polaroid film of men masturbating while she photographed them. They are subtly composed, beautiful images that have a deep connection to early pictorial photographers.
The idea was to do the show in the hotel where the images were shot. It made the show into a full installation. Aneta painted the walls, we rearranged furniture – it was the most art directed exhibition I’ve ever had involvement in.
ZN: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can talk about?
JF: I’m jurying the Flash Forward awards this year. I’m actually in the process of doing those right now, which is really exciting.
I’m also moving to Seattle in early March for at least a year. I’ll still be working for Shutterstock and doing Humble remotely. I’m actually excited to get out of New York, art world wise, and develop new relationships with photographers and curators. I’m excited to see how other communities work.
Humble will still continue doing grants twice a year, there is potential to do another Collector’s Guide, and we have a year off of the 31 Women in Art Photography show, but we likely will be continuing that in 2014. We have also had some early discussions about what is next for Humble. Those are too early to talk about, but we have some fascinating projects coming out.
My weekly column for Whitewall Magazine called New Art Photography focuses on a different photographer every week, and I am also writing a monthly column for GOOD magazine. I’m totally open to photographer solicitations, so any artists reading this should feel free to Google me for my email address and shoot me a note!
from the series The Serpent and the Rainbow
© Jon Feinstein