Rory Mulligan was born in New York in 1984. He received a BA from Fordham University and a MFA from Yale University in 2010 where he was awarded the Ward Cheney Memorial Award. His work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally and is included in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Mulligan’s work has been published by J&L Books and Blind Spot Magazine. He has worked as a fine art printer since 2006 and is currently Visiting Lecturer in Art at Drew University in Madison, NJ.
© Rory Mulligan
Rachel Stern: Your portraits walk an interesting line between the specifically representational and the formally weird. We see people at events and in their daily lives looking somewhere between candid and performed. Do you consider the bodies in your work to be representational indicators of the people that inhabit them or props for formal and emotional conveyance?
Rory Mulligan: I don’t know that it’s one or the other. With all of my work I’m interested in creating some sort of liminal space—neither fully here, nor there. The same could be said of my portraits that are taken out in the world. Maybe when I photograph people on the street in New York, there’s more of a sense of kinship or recognition—it’s where I’m from and go to work everyday. I know the feeling of being that pedestrian, child, date, hourly worker, loner, etc. In LA, where I’ve never lived but only visited, the place is just an idea to me and so the people take on an aspect of mythic figures or ideas of who I want them to be. There’s a projection on my part, but at the same time the body is much more on display in LA than in New York. It is out there in the open and acts as a kind of currency that doesn’t exist as openly in New York.
When I arrange a portrait, it’s a totally different scenario. It’s becomes much more of a collaboration in the sense that I start to feel more responsibility for the formal qualities of the image, rather than simply watching something unfold and capturing it at the right moment. There’s much more self-consciousness on behalf of sitter and photographer. In the end, it was my decision and prodding that led to the arrangement so it really becomes a projection of my own ideas with the subject acting as vessel. They’re never fully props because I can’t control their temperament and how we will interact, so that’s always the ‘human’ element that presents itself during any given shoot. I usually don’t know the people I photograph.
Dwight Street, 2008
© Rory Mulligan
RS: I like the idea that your relationship with a place can effect how you photograph strangers on the street. What about in the context of events? I think of the photographs at diner parties or the one on the school bus. Are these gatherings emblems of the idea of gathering or do they have specific context?
RM: Right. Those two are specific contexts. Ones where I’m invited to the gathering and given free access to photograph. Those are the best because I have some affiliation with the present group and don’t have to worry about getting punched in the face every time I click the shutter. So in a sense there is almost more pressure afterwards because I am very traceable to the people in those scenarios and if they don’t like the photograph, I can hear from them (never have by the way). But, more to the point of your question I’m always most interested in the final result, the photograph. Events mean groups, which means interaction, which means a certain degree of unpredictability and potential chaos.
© Rory Mulligan
RS: What is the roll of the magical or mystical in your work? How does the banal influence or affect that magic?
RM: Magic is just a heightened awareness of the banal. I would say I hold a reverence for what many would consider banal or even sub-banal and that reverence can come across as mystical or magical. On one level I’m very wary of the terms (magical/mystical) and don’t want to come across as naïve or sentimental using them to describe my work or how I approach the world. The fact of the matter is that I have a pretty definitive stance on—almost a shield against—the everyday because I find most of it unbearable. At the same time the transformation of seen world into photograph, when it works, does feel magical or maybe miraculous is a better word.
RS: Maybe then a better focus would be on the unexplainable or the indeterminable. There are many moments in your work when something seems to be occurring but no catalyst is present. I think of the smoking matchbook or even (my favorite) the gently gliding Halloween ghost. The view point is very calm though—there seems to be no shock or surprise at these strange occurrences. Are these the moments where the strangeness of the banal seeps through a comfort? Do they alleviate the unbearableness of the everyday?
RM: Yes, definitely. Those two specific images also have a sense of weightlessness common to them. It reoccurs in a number of my photographs, I’ve noticed. I like to photograph scenes where the object or body is momentarily weightless, unrestricted by the very temporal and corporeal rules that govern the world. It’s only an illusion though and photography makes that illusion possible in a beautiful way. As for the inexplicable nature of the work, I have issues with the way some artists approach the idea of mystery. If it just becomes smoke and mirrors or a wild goose chase with a very boring explanation, I’m not interested in the pretension. If mystery becomes too dense and begins to resemble babble I can become aggressively annoyed. I realize with the way I arrange my own work it can become a bit puzzle-like, but that’s part of the territory when you’re working in a purely visual medium. I am naturally drawn to situations that make me ask “What is that?” rather than state “There it is.”
© Rory Mulligan
RS: In your photographs there are many things that seem lost or hidden either visually or emotionally/conceptually. There is nostalgia, which is layered with a strange and distanced contemporary view — a sort of play of hide and seek. Are you playing a game with your audience? What do you hope they might find?
RM: It’s funny because I really don’t think about audience. Not that I don’t care about what people think — not that at all. I just don’t put concern into how one might interpret what they are seeing. I have enough trouble figuring it out for myself. A lot of my motivation comes from wanting to shake up a nostalgic view of the world, namely a nostalgic view of it through black and white photography. I love the medium and it’s rich history, but at the same time I want to push it into a contemporary and relevant place.
© Rory Mulligan
RS: I love your ‘pin-up’ portraits of men. They are associated with both pride and shame — exhibition and timidness. They own their own sex appeal and turn the awkward into the desired by the brazenness with which the bodies are presented. Tell me about these images – do you think that they function as a type of pin-up?
RM: The thing with photographs, especially planned ones like portraits, is that they almost never turn out how you expect or want them to. If I could go through some of my photographs that appear campy or like a pin-up and I told you that I was dead serious while making them, you would probably feel bad for me. I’m almost never interested in creating a ‘sexy’ photograph of anyone I shoot. Sometimes the whole feel of a shoot is more like a doctor’s appointment because it can be so awkward. That goes for the rest of my daily non-photographic interactions as well. There is always some sort of tension, especially if the sitter has his own expectations of the shoot or scenario. When photographing in Central Park at night, I would bring along a female friend to diffuse the tension. Otherwise, I’m usually shooting alone. I’m definitely playing with the idea of erotic male portraiture because I think it’s a pretty funny genre. Objectification is something thought of as mostly happening to women in art and life (and this is true), it’s interesting to turn the tables and kind of ‘exploit’ men.
Smoking Matchbook, 2008
© Rory Mulligan
RS: What I am really captivated by in these portraits is that they really hold their own. If you are ‘exploiting’ men you are doing it on terms which you have defined rather than participating in a stock language of photography which has functioned like that in the past (or in other parts of the present). If you goal is not to be sexy how do you see these figures?
RM: I’m not interested in sexiness, but sex. Sexiness implies a lot that I want to avoid in the dynamic with my subjects. It’s such a cliché for gay male artists to photograph desire and their wants. On one hand, I’m glad there’s enough gay art that there are clichés within it. On the other hand, it’s a cliché. But really, I see a lot of my work as a response to the canon of 1960s and ‘70s black and white street photography—a genre dominated by heterosexual white men. In many ways I’m operating in the same mode, but I also have a very different experience with a different world. I insert these photographs of men almost like punctuation or breaks in between the more seamless streams of ‘found’ images that fall more into line with traditional notions of the medium. There is something very predatory and lecherous about the photography I’m talking about. So really I’m trying to exploit those men, not the ones I’m photographing. Maybe I just have delusions of being Turgenev’s Bazarov.
© Rory Mulligan
RS: I am interested in the way in which you image men. Can you talk a little about masculinity in your work?
RM: When I photograph men there is always a desire to project my own ideas about my dealings and relationships with them. I think the way men ‘own’ their bodies, which is different from the way a woman can ‘own’ her body, is that this ownership is enacted through a very outward projection—away from one’s own body. In other words, here I am, this man, this muscle, this mass of body. I am powerful, but at the same time I’m not allowed to be turned on by myself and any sexiness I feel about myself has to be denied and projected outwards, thrust, if you will, out onto an audience.
It’s this odd self-loathing narcissism, kind of masochistic in the way that men can be. I’m talking about straight men here. Gay men are much more fluid in their own bodies, sometimes. Some gay men are equally stuck in their own perceptions of how they should be sexy or ‘own’ their sexiness—as objects to be adored, looked upon and desired. They just flip the script of straight men. I find the most interesting men to be ones that feel somewhere in the middle, both ashamed and assured of themselves and unclear of exactly how they want to be presented to the world. Possibly unaware of their own sexual potency or at least unsure of how to wield it. Not sure if they should be complimented by my interest in them, or made nervous by it. I’m still not sure if I want to make a statement about masculinity as grand idea or simply distill my very specific experience of it. I tend to think that my own neuroses lead me to the way of the insular, but then again this can still reflect a larger idea.
Dad & Moon, 2008
© Rory Mulligan
RS: How does your gaze change when it is reflected onto yourself? I have read statements where you discuss ideas about failure in relation to these images but they also seem proud to me. How do you use yourself as a symbol in your work?
RM: I think the self-portraits are related to my last comments in a big way. I started making them at the same time I started making portraits. For me they work on a few levels. First, they’re almost empathetic responses to portraits. I feel some sense of responsibility or accountability when I ask strangers to present themselves as vulnerably as they do for me. Second, they act as a response to my frustrations with the medium itself. I love photography but it will always be a static, mute, two dimensional object. I’ve always had a little bit of a performer in me, so it’s an outlet to let go of some rules and restrictions that I encounter when shooting. They’re more expressive than most of my other photographs. Third, they’re also in reference to the idea of the self-portrait as an inherently female dominated genre. “Men look out, women look in” — that sort of overreaching generalization. So, I want to turn that idea on its head a bit. It was also fun to put up these photographs of myself in grad school with all these hot-shot teachers forced to look at naked me and then real me sitting in front of them. I would barely speak, yet I’d have these really aggressive photographs right behind me. It was all a performance in itself.
Blair Street, 2010
© Rory Mulligan
RS: How does the temperament of the Cindy Timberwolf series fit in with the rest of your work? Does the childhood or nostalgic perspective permeate your other works?
RM: Cindy Timberwolf was made right after I graduated from Yale and moved back to my parents’ house. I had been going back there a lot during grad school to photograph, but I hadn’t actually lived there since I was 17. So, when I moved back I was very anxious. I was done with the academic bubble. All of my friends were scattered. I had to start making money again and not just worry about making work. I felt like my life was much more ‘together’ before school than after. A lot of the work I have made from home was spurred on by something tragic that happened right before I started grad school. I felt very removed from the place and people there and suddenly I was there and one of them again. So, I think there was this confusion of feeling like an adult, but really feeling like a child at the same time that comes through in the work. I think it fits in with the rest of my work, but it feels both slower and more anxious at the same time. Kind of like the dread and beauty of a long summer day with nothing to do.
© Rory Mulligan
RS: The surface of your photographs is so luxe and captivating. The tone, texture, and compositional balance make your grey scale really glows. Your technical mastery of your medium is evident and becomes important to the overall read of the work — maybe even alchemical. What is your relation to your photographs as objects?
RM: The physical object is very important to me. I’ve been photographing for about 9 years now and I’ve spent 7 of them (on and off) working as a printer for other black and white photographers. I’m in the darkroom almost everyday. It only feels right that I have this sort of symbiosis with the final product I present. People always think I’m such a technical perfectionist or snob, but the truth is I would develop my film in Hawaiian Punch if that worked. Maybe as I get older I will start to become more particular, but I guess I’m just not intimidated by black and white. I know what needs to happen and how to get that. At this point, it’s just natural. We are simpatico. This is also a sign that I should push myself into newer realms, which I have been doing quietly.
I know it’s not entirely practical to work completely analog in our time, but neither is being a photographer in the first place if you don’t have a trust fund. I really love the experience of the darkroom and taking that away would really devastate me. People go on and on about “It’s about the final image. That’s all that matters.” Well, yes, but I think the dramatic shift away from analog is reflective of the larger culture. Yet, there is a desire to move back to knowing where what we consume comes from and how it was made. That heartens me.
© Rory Mulligan
RS: Overall do you feel your works are creating a new finely tuned world or recording the strangeness of the existing one?
RM: My work is fiction. I think of the description of glove making at Newark Maid in American Pastoral. That description is precise as one can get, almost like a clear photograph. Almost an Ezra Stoller. Roth isn’t writing a documentary or manual on how to make ladies gloves, but it’s clear that he knows more than something about it. I also think of Joyce Carol Oates’ Upstate NY in We Were the Mulvaneys or Walker Percy’s New Orleans in The Moviegoer, or so many others. Maybe I envy writing more than any other medium because writers are able to take the physical groundwork of a place and populate it with fictional characters and events to create their work. We accept the fiction and the veracity of their description simultaneously. Photography suffers because it is taken so literally. Photographs can describe the world as well as our best authors can, yet we believe a writer’s world of fiction much more readily than we accept a photograph’s. I would like to think that my work pushes for creating fiction: using the world as a template to mold my own creation, a world within a world.
Bronx River, 2009
© Rory Mulligan