A Conversation with Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern are photographers based in Rochester, New York. Their first collaborative book East of the Sun, West of the Moon (Études Books, 2014) was released last fall. Lavalette would like to thank Ahndraya and Gregory to taking the time for this conversation while they are temporarily living and working out in Los Angeles, California.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon (Études Studio, 2014)
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

Benjamin Chadbond & Patrick Mason: Études Studio has recently published your book East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a series containing images by you both. The work contains many references to binary concepts such as night and day, birth and death, lightness and darkness and continuity and transition. This is the first time you have produced a body of work together, perhaps a poignant parallel to the ideas of duality expressed in the book. Can you talk a little bit about how these ideas influenced the work and how they manifested themselves through your collaboration?

Ahndraya Parlato: Some of the binary concepts you’ve listed above are a product of the guidelines we gave ourselves while producing the images, which were all made on either a Solstice or an Equinox. Being both the longest and shortest days of the year, the ideas of light/dark, and day/night, are inherent to these days; and as markers of seasonal change, crop sowing, and reaping, also call to mind birth and death. In addition, we were having a baby while working on the book, and this only further enhanced our interest in these ideas, giving them a more personal nature.

We’re also interested in the idea that a thing or place can be both the same, and also not the same, simultaneously. The mirrors are perhaps a clear example of this. The still life does not change, but the season, the light, and the weather do, and so the photographs themselves are different. There is continuity and duality. It’s quite simple really, but also lovely at the same time. What does it feel like to see this happen in a series? There is also a moment when the location does not change, but the subject does; both subjects are naked, though they are not the same person. We found it interesting to see how much we could play with these notions.

In addition to the dualities you’ve already mentioned, there’s also the duality of our own inherent individual photographic styles: Gregory’s practice is more “straight,” while mine is more “interventionist.” We didn’t want these to be polarizing, so we sought to create a middle ground between our two practices, which again was sort of a continuity within dualities.

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

BC&PM: It could be said that this series is in some ways an inverse of Muybridge’s explorations. Where he was using photography to capture events that were beyond human experience due to their speed, you’re using photography to isolate moments of phenomena that happen on a grander time scale and therefore are also obscured from our ordinary experience — the changing of the seasons, the movements of the heavens etc. and presenting them in a more poetic and personal, rather than scientific, way.

AP: Yes, we weren’t interested in a scientific study of these days, but rather the metaphor they provided (although I guess that an abundance or lack of light is in fact a technical attribute of the days and not a metaphoric one). And although this is somewhat personal, it feels very universal to us. The things, places, and people that are photographed are ordinary, recalling to me a piece like Jonas Mekas’ As I was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, a film comprised of snippets of his life, his home movies, and outtakes, but also relatable in a much larger sense.

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

BC&PM: So it sounds like that while working on this project you began to approach photography differently than how you had in the past. This is interesting as you both have quite distinct individual practices. As you mentioned, Ahndraya, your hand is often more evident in your work, with you taking the role of director/producer, while Gregory’s work is more in the straight documentary style. Did you feel that through working together you each incorporated into your own practice a little of how the other works?

AP: Although at times Gregory’s work may borrow from the aesthetics of documentary, it’s not really documentary. Its subjective lyricalism is equally as important as what it depicts. However, we agree that our work is quite different. Though adjacent from working on this project, our practices have been dancing towards each other ever since we got together. Gregory is more open to intervening in his photographs and directing with a light touch, and I’m more open to using the unaltered world to stand alone for its metaphoric or narrative qualities.

BC&PM: The essence of photography is often thought of as being its ability to capture and freeze a single fleeting moment, the “decisive moment,” and for a book that seems to be so much about the relationship between photography and time yours fittingly opens with an image of something which is literally frozen, an icicle. However, throughout the book you attempt to break apart this concept of the photograph as a frozen instant in a number of different ways – here we think of your images that utilize long exposure or even multiple exposure techniques. This together with the imagery of changing seasons gives the book a chronological emphasis and seems to imply that what you are trying to capture is the process of change over time rather than just what is at a certain moment. Is this a fair assessment? And can you talk a bit about your use of these techniques and your ideas on time and photography in relation to this series?

AP: I think this is a fair assessment, although “the process of change over time” implies to me a bit more grandeur than the small changes actually captured in this book, which, given the constraints of the series and its size, can really only speak to quiet, more minute changes.

For me, the use of long shutter speeds and multiple exposures was not just a way to render the passing of time, but also to give a more surreal, dreamy quality to that which at first glance seems quite banal.

Gregory Halpern: I don’t think it has to be one or the other, and I wouldn’t necessarily say we are limiting ourselves to trying to “capture the process of change over time.” Some of the pictures speak to change over time (i.e. the mirrors in different seasons) but some speak more to, as you put it, what is at a certain moment.

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

BC&PM: I guess that when we say “the process of change over time” in reference to your series we are thinking of the minute and the grand rather than exclusively one. When arranged in a sequence, the images that speak directly to change and those images that depict was is at a certain moment form another set of dualities and perhaps this links back to what you said earlier:

We’re also interested in the idea that a thing, or place can be both the same, and equally not the same…

This idea has a very dialectical quality to it, in which the process of development and change is brought about by the conflict of an internal antagonism of opposites contained within the thing itself and that the true being of something consists in this process of transformation.

AP: If I understand what you’re saying correctly, I agree, but I also think the question is true of photography in general, and not only our project.

BC&PM: You have said that the photographs were made in a number of locations. Were these locations arbitrary or did you have particular places in mind that you felt would suit the work? How much do you feel these locations influenced the final form of the series?

AP: We simply shot wherever we found ourselves on those days. I don’t think the specific places are essential to the project, or rather, that we aim to say anything about them as places. We made a point to re-photograph certain places and things, and that is important to the structure of the series, though not necessarily the symbolism of the specific objects that were re-photographed. Many other things could’ve been chosen instead and sufficed just as well.

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

BC&PM: How important has your general outlook and understanding of the world been to this project? We ask because we get the sense from this work that you’re both Romantics. Here we’re referring to the word Romantic in the vein of Romanticism rather than romance, as pertaining to love. Can you speak a little to the metaphysical quality and perhaps even Romantic quality of the work?

AP: I think that one’s understanding of the world is important and applicable to everything one makes. How could it not be? There is, perhaps unfortunately at times, no way to escape oneself.

The way that Romanticism sought to emphasize individual experience and emotion would be applicable – I always want to trust intuition over reason. But in the way Romanticism reacted against urbanization, I would say it is not. I think the work celebrates the industrial, urban space.

BC&PM: East of the Moon, West of the Sun takes its title from a Norwegian fairy tale of the same name. Can you tell us a little about how you happened upon the title?

AP: I read the story!

GH: We liked the idea suggested by the title – the idea of trying to rely on two shifting landmarks as navigational guides, how disorienting that idea is and how it creates an impermanent, elusive, if not impossible, place.

BC&PM: You have published East of the Moon, West of the Sun with Études studio, which is split between Paris and New York. What was it about the Études Blue Book collection that suited this work?

GH: We liked how the Études books are somewhat experimental, shorter books, and that they tend to be studies, riffs (or études!) on a single idea.

BC&PM: As a team and creative duo this is the first work that the two of you have completed together. Do you have plans to work together in a collaborative capacity in the future?

GH: We’re actually still working on this! We would like to make a larger body of work spanning a larger period of time to explore the same ideas. Ideally, we’d like to keep going for five years or so, and sort of chart time via the growth of our daughter, and then do a larger book.

BC&PM: Lastly, Do you have any advice for other partner teams attempting to make work together? Perhaps a what-not-to-do list?

AP: As with anything in life that requires interacting with another person, I think it always helps to be nice.

GH: It’s hard to do, but maybe one piece of advice is that collaboration allows you to diminish the role of your own ego in the work, which can be helpful. In some ways, you create a third person when you collaborate, and that can be freeing.

from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
© Ahndraya Parlato & Gregory Halpern

Purchase East of the Sun, West of the Moon here.

If the Supply of Lambs Hold Out: Simen Johan’s Until the Kingdom Comes

Coinciding with his 2013 exhibition of the same name, a book was released of Simen Johan’s work, Until the Kingdom Comes. The 12.5×15.5” book contains twenty-eight photographs spread over sixty-four pages. The pages are unbound. Even on a table, this results in a bit of slippage when paging through the book. Photos are often split across a spread and must be regularly realigned. The book is always falling apart, much as many of the environments depicted inside seem to be disassembling. This conceptual hook sets a bit weakly in the face of material realities. The paper is a smooth matte surface of 100% recycled post-consumer waste material. This material sourcing is a counterweight to the environmental desolation that permeates many of the images. The cover photograph, Untitled #171, depicts over sixty small Yellow-headed Blackbirds populating, and even nesting in, a burnt black landscape with sludge covered ground – little avian bits of color and life in the face of devastation. The matte surface of the paper dulls the blacks and the depth of the images a bit more than one might hope. Given that the cover of the book bears no distinction from the interior pages, other than being the outermost sheet, it feels redundant to see this image a second time inside. While the material attributes of the book leave some things to be desired, the work itself and the sequenced compilation of it into this loose folio present the viewer with dramatic images containing rich and complex thought.



Spreads from Until the Kingdom Comes (Yossi Milo Gallery, 2014)
© Simen Johan

In the 2011 press release for Johan’s Until the Kingdom Comes exhibition at Yossi Milo Gallery, Johan states that the work, while having Biblical allusions, “refers less to religious or natural kingdoms and more to the human fantasy that one day, in some way, life will come to a blissful resolution. …In a reality where understanding is not finite and in all probability never will be, I depict ‘living’ as an emotion-fueled experience, engulfed in uncertainty, desire and illusion.”

It is a curious move to invoke a particular bit of language and thereby the concepts that come with it, and then try to distance oneself from it. In this case, the point of such an act, presumably to guide the viewer away from limiting the pieces to religious commentary, does not keep the title from bringing the richness of the eschatology he references to bear on his photographs. And, it certainly does not diminish the way in which they carry meaning.

SimenJohan_Interview_02Untitled #154, 2008 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

SimenJohan_Interview_03Untitled #171, 2012 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

The project’s title derives from a portion of what is commonly known as The Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus prays “Thy kingdom, come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” This bit of the prayer refers to an expectation and desire for a future condition that returns the earth to something akin to what was lost in the expulsion from the Garden of Eden – a state of peaceful bliss and coexistence between god, humanity, and nature. Johan brings the Eden narrative to mind with his photo of a tangle of python silhouettes writhing around a branch, devouring innocent mice and striking out at flitting doves, suggesting both the narrative instigator of the troubles of humanity, as well as the struggles that continue to plague their resolution.

SimenJohan_Interview_05Untitled #155, 2010 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

SimenJohan_Interview_01Untitled #140, 2011 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

Biblical and theological relationships iterate from this in a tangle of history and interpretation that lies beyond the scope of this writing. However, one other text bears heavily upon what is seen in Johan’s photographs. Generally, interpreted to be speaking of an idyllic future, the verse, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,” comes from the prophet Isaiah. It is commonly elided into the phrase “the lion shall lie down with the lamb.” Given Johan’s subjects in the photographs, which include both wolf and lamb, though not in the same photo, the resonance of this text is pitched.

SimenJohan_Interview_06Untitled #164, 2011 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

The rich literary and visual history of these themes and metaphors progresses through the centuries. An incarnation of these ideas along the path to Johan’s photographs is P.T. Barnum’s exhibition The Happy Family, one of Barnum’s most popular and profitable attractions. According to an often quoted anecdote, it originally consisted of a cage holding a lion, a tiger, a panther – and a baby lamb. When questioned about the future of The Happy Family, Barnum quipped, “The display will become a permanent feature, if the supply of lambs holds out.”

The glory of the much-lauded original exhibit had deteriorated by the time Mark Twain paid it a visit:

A poor, spiritless old bear – sixteen monkeys – half a dozen sorrowful raccoons – two mangy puppies – two unhappy rabbits – and two meek Tom cats, that have had half the hair snatched out of them by the monkeys, compose the Happy Family – and certainly it was the most subjugated-looking party I ever saw. The entire Happy Family is bossed and bullied by a monkey that any one of the victims could whip, only that they lack the courage to try it. He grabs a Tom by the nape of the neck and bounces him on the ground, he cuffs the rabbits and the coons, and snatches his own tribe from end to end of the cage by the tail. When the dinner-tub is brought in, he gets boldly into it and the other members of the family sit patiently around till his hunger is satisfied or steal a morsel and get bored heels over head for it. The world is full of families as happy as that. The boss monkey has even proceeded so far as to nip the tail short off of one of his brethren, and now half the pleasures of the poor devil’s life are denied him, because he hain’t got anything to hang by. It almost moves one to tears to see that bob-tailed monkey work his stump and try to grab a beam with it that is a yard away. And when his stump naturally misses fire and he falls, none but the heartless can laugh. Why cannot he become a philosopher? Why cannot he console himself with the reflection that tails are but a delusion and a vanity at best?

While, it is this later state of The Happy Family that echoes the faltering and unrealized eschatology of the sloughy creatures that proliferate Until the Kingdom Comes, not all of Johan’s animals appear to wait in defeat. Some instead, suggest the veneer of plenty and peace that comes from Barnum’s duplicitous lamb replenishment strategy. A number of Cotton Headed Tamarins and tiny snails greedily devour an overabundance of pomegranates in paradisiacal proportions. But, lest this kind of communal fruit eating make the wrong suggestion about the dietary proclivities of Johan’s beasts, in another photo, a White-crested Hornbill rests guardedly on a broken branch, with the hindquarters of a frog dangling from its beak.

SimenJohan_Interview_11Untitled #137, 2006 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

Johan’s lamb is faring better than Barnum’s renewable sheep. The photo of the lamb is as peaceful as one might expect. The grassy field recedes to a misty horizon, with tree braches vignetting the top corners of the photo. Under the shade of the tree, the lamb appears to have just risen from rest to a sitting position. It looks tranquilly at the camera. The wolves, however, bear a more direct kinship to the version of the peaceable kingdom that Twain saw in Barnum’s exhibit. One sits; others prowl behind. Their fur is matted and their bodies gaunt. They appear unable to move effectively, bogged down by their unnaturally sea-swamp habitat. These wolves are desperate for a lamb.

SimenJohan_Interview_08Untitled #172, 2013 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

The animals in the photographs are totemic, representing something beyond themselves. While often photographed in species isolation, they do not read as specimens. Whether engaged in combat or encased in ice, the beasts are integrally connected to their environments, though they remain monumental within them. They are as sculptural as the physical objects that often accompany the photos in exhibition. They embody the spiritual state of both expectation and defeat, the cracks in the hope for the future that run through human desire.

The anthropomorphized nature of the animals in the photos easily transfers the emotional condition of the image from the animal kingdom to human psychology. Johan’s flamingos have a quality of animated entanglement reminiscent of the flamingo croquet mallets of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. A lemur reclines in a tree branch, a bit of a dandy. It has picked a hibiscus and draws it to its nose, savoring the aroma. Two snowy owls sit on a park table in the fog, one cranes his neck in a hoot that becomes a jolly chuckle. A jungle of red monkeys stare cautiously at the viewer. One, sitting towards the back, screeches at the intrusion – Twain’s boss-monkey asserting his power.

The title, Until the Kingdom Comes, and its liturgical origins fundamentally engage the idea of waiting – expectant waiting. The nature of what one does during this period of waiting is at the heart of religious and universal human experience. Johan’s totemic creatures mark this time in telling ways.

SimenJohan_Interview_04Untitled #174, 2013 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

What does waiting represent in relation to (false) expectations and the realities that these icons inhabit? The multiplicity of animal responses to this seem to differentiate themselves along the lines of potential human response. The orangutan is settled on a bedding of burlap sack on the forest floor among the roots of a large tree. Gravity weighs heavily on his jowly face, as he looks sadly into the distance. The light reflecting in his eyes suggests expectation, awaiting the movement of the sun that is breaking through the canopy. An albino deer moves confidently through the snow-covered forest, its abnormal pigmentation expands its freedoms and sense of security. The bison lies in a barren waste-filled landscape, having accepted a defeat that has seemed inevitable to it in the past. It has taken the dust of the land upon itself and become a monochromatic unity under the dark skies of the approaching storm. Similarly, the rhinoceros appears to have given up, dropping into the yellow sand that dusts its own body, with no intention of ever rising again.

SimenJohan_Interview_09Untitled #179, 2013 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

Interspersed with the fauna images in Johan’s book are a number of other types of photographs. In the position of what would be the book’s endsheets, are printed simulations of marbled paper. The swirls of color set the palette for the book while being prescient of the polluted liquid surfaces in the book. The first photograph is the entrance to a cave, where white light radiates out from the threshold, suggesting conventional passage into something transcendent. The next photograph maintains the unearthly presence, a tree deep in the fog. The first animal to appear is a similarly shrouded beast, what appears to be a hippopotamus, swimming deep below the surface, only its rump illuminated by the light from above. Then the giraffes reach their necks high into the clouds above, but this is where things begin to turn. The soggy ground is less than inviting and the mist around their heads looks as much like smog as like clouds. Any doubt about the atmosphere that is developing in this image are then removed by the subsequent photo, where two albino elk, antlers locked around a tree, lay on the ground in defeat, fully encased in a cocoon of ice. Johan pulls us back and forth between these two ideals through the sequence of the book. A palm tree serves as a symbol of paradise, but it appears without ground, roots exposed, washed up on the edge of a rocky shore. A mountainscape is covered in a dense mysterious fog that becomes magical as the light passing prismatically through the droplets of moisture creates a rainbow filter over the gloom.

SimenJohan_Interview_07Untitled #167, 2011 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

The amalgamation of sentiments, creatures and environments suggests the kind of universal harmonious union that is referenced by the title, but in the places where these elements are most readily apparent, Johan disintegrates The Happy Family. Parakeets flutter around in agitation as a moose inflicts yet another wound about its own kind. This building of potential for something transcendently concordant to be torn asunder by its own unsustainability is at the heart of Johan’s assessment of our existence. The book concludes with two foxes, huddled together in the snow. Their snouts matted with blood, tears freezing down their faces. Despite moments of hope and inklings toward something different, these creatures can barely hold it together. While the same thing could be said about the binding of the book, the photographs inside are insightful and incisive. They leave one fearful that the philosopher monkey is correct and our tails/tales might be “a delusion and a vanity at best.”

SimenJohan_Interview_10Untitled #153, 2008 (from the series Until the Kingdom Comes)
© Simen Johan / Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery

A Conversation with Erik Schubert

Erik Schubert (b. 1980, Omaha, NE) received his MFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and his BFA from Columbia College, Chicago. Schubert has taught photography at MassArt, Greenfield Community College, and currently teaches at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Schubert has been in several exhibitions throughout the United States including Boston Young Contemporaries, SPECTRA: National Photography Triennialand the Photographic Resource Center NEO Emerging Artist. Schubert was included in On the Road: A Legacy of Walker Evans exhibition at the Robert Lehman Art Center and the Flash Forward Festival. Schubert is represented by Panopticon Gallery in Boston, MA. How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013) is Schubert’s first artist book.

How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

Carl Gunhouse: What are your first memories of photography?

Erik Schubert: My first memory of photography was through books. My immediate family didn’t photograph much. I don’t think my mother even had a camera, at least one that I can remember, and my dad didn’t make the time to use one. Most of the pictures from my childhood came from my extended family – my grandfather with his clunky point and shoot, and my uncles with their SLRs. Because of this, books were an early entrance for me into photography.

Three in particular stood out. One was my grandparents’ complete collection of cream, green, and gold colored Encyclopedia Britannica books that I would pick up at random and travel through the pictures. The second was a book my mother bought me called 20th Century Baseball Chronicles that I would look at religiously, as I was a baseball nut. And the third was the most elusive in terms of memory, but most impactful in terms of feeling, a biography on Harry Houdini.

I would sneak away to the library at the Catholic grade school that I was going to and look at this book during free time. It never seemed to have been checked out. It was a picture-heavy book that, looking back on it, seemed almost fetish-like and other-worldly. It was one of those books that made me feel like I had stumbled upon a secret. I think a part of me wanted to be an escape artist like Houdini. I tried finding it and went back to look for it when I was a teenager, but it wasn’t there anymore. So the memories really stay with me, and the feelings that those photographs left still linger with me today.

CG: How has your work been shaped by growing up in Nebraska?

ES: I don’t think I’m necessarily conscious of how Nebraska has shaped my work, apart from the experiences I’ve had growing up there. I guess there is a sense of quietness that runs through most of my work that is also prevalent in the geography of Nebraska and somewhat in the people who live there as well.

More than Nebraska itself, it was my experiences in my family that really shaped my ability to observe the dichotomies and extremes that were present in my life, and, as such, my need to observe through poking at my environment. I think this injected a dry humor into my work as well. So, I guess, looking at my work, there is a mix of quietness and dry humor that comes from my family and the land.

Basement Rental, Omaha, NE, 2008
© Erik Schubert

Exercise #4, 2010
© Erik Schubert

Untitled (How to Create Original Material), 2008
© Erik Schubert

CG: You did your graduate studies at MassArt in Boston. How did you find your time there? How was studying with Frank Gohlke?

ES: It was challenging, and it shook me up a bit, which was needed for me to change and grow. At the time, it was a mix of frustration and excitement. I really felt part of a community where I was doing something important with this thing called “art.” It was amazing working with all these great photographers in such a dynamic city. I feel lucky to have had those experiences and feel the better for them. When it was all over, I really didn’t want to leave school. I wish it could have been one of those super long grad programs I’ve heard they have in Germany.

Studying with Frank was great! I loved hearing him talk about our work and respected his opinions that were always smart and tender. He took us out photographing one semester, and it was great to see him work. We drove in search of a good location, and ended up at one of the oldest working gas stations in the US. He put on his ball cap that said “Vote for Kinky,” started charting his location with his GPS unit, and then started photographing. It was great to see that.

Frank, Kinky, Lynnfield, MA, 2006
© Erik Schubert

CG: Your Dad was a traveling pharmaceutical salesman, and you traveled with him on sales trips? How much of your father and his profession is in How To Win Friends And Influence People? Can you talk about how this project began?

ES: I traveled on a few sales trips with him in my later teens, which shaped my understanding of him, how he operated as a salesman and how people reacted to him. There’s certainly a theater and ritual to the whole process that I got to see firsthand.

I can remember how his car was always filled with brochures and pharmaceutical drugs and the constant aroma of coffee and bananas, from the peels and empty cups on the car floor. In the back seat, he would always carry a full bottle of Listerine mouthwash, and his suit jacket would always be hanging from the back window. Before each call, he would prepare his materials in the trunk or backseat, put on his suit jacket, take a big swig of mouthwash, spit it out, and go in and make the call.

It’s hard to know how much he’s in the work. He’s in parts of the foundation along with my own experiences in retail sales. He introduced me to this type of landscape and gave me a behind the scenes look at being a salesman for a multinational corporation, so he’s definitely in there.

This project began in the periphery of another project that ultimately failed. I was photographing the television news media on location reporting local news, and I had followed them to an auto expo they were covering. It didn’t turn out so well. Having photographed the media in different situations, I found that in some ways they are a kind of closed-off society. I think I became a kind of threat and pest to them, and it was a real challenge.

Instead of leaving the expo, I ended up staying longer and photographing the expo itself. I found the environment to be both familiar and bizarre and became really interested in these locations. I had gone to expos in my youth – either with my dad, who worked at them, or with my mother for cheap entertainment. There was a comfort there, but it’s extremely bizarre at the same time. Having not gone to one in a while, I could now see the spectacle of it, and because of this, I just kept going to them and this series developed.

Offices, Riverside, CA, 2007
© Erik Schubert

A. Santoni Boxed Shirt, 2007
© Erik Schubert

Variety Still-Life, 2007
© Erik Schubert

CG: You’ve said that your work tries “to explore and communicate metaphorically the success, failure, and complexity of corporate mythologies in society.” Can you elaborate? Where have corporate mythologies worked their way into society?

ES: Through photographing the business ephemera used in the process of advertising and sales or making photographs at expos, the images start to re-contextualize how we read that particular object or place, taking them out of context and examining the aftereffects of their use. In that process, we begin to either understand or become confused about how that object functions in our society, often in ways that are humorously troubling.

We have certain needs in our society. And certainly companies who provide products to meet those needs have to pay for employees, operating expenses, etc. It’s not about this underlying structure; it’s about how far corporations are willing to go to make a profit. It’s about how easily they veer off the path of reality in the conquest of making more profits.

And because of this, corporate mythologies are everywhere. We see these mythologies in advertising on a daily basis. It’s pervasive. In particular, we Americans see so much advertising that it’s eerily similar to the amount of propaganda seen by Koreans about the Kim family in North Korea. I find this correlation eerily fascinating.

One of the biggest mythologies is that they’re operating in the best interest of the consumer, the people making their products, and the environment. I think consumers easily swallow this mythology as an excuse to buy the cheapest products without thinking about the working conditions of the people who made the product, the motives of the corporation and other important ethical questions. We’re not stupid, but questioning becomes harder and harder when more companies aren’t being questioned about this mythology and when there’s a demand for producing cheaper and cheaper products at whatever the cost.

Rejected Public Art, Castle Rock, CO, 2010
© Erik Schubert

Untitled, 2008
Graphite on graph paper
© Erik Schubert

Vacation Expo, 2006
© Erik Schubert

CG: Have you found Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People to be helpful in your own success? What is success to you?

ES: In some ways yes, but on the other hand one has to keep those techniques fresh, I think, in order for them not to come off as disingenuous. So, in that case, no, I haven’t found it aligning with me. But also, some of his philosophies/techniques on communicating are just common sense, and we often can use them without thinking.

As for success, I try not to think about life in those terms since making this work, but I often do so anyway. The barometer of success has been ingrained in me since my youth. It can be dangerous to the psyche to judge one’s worth based on success, and yet, it seems to be a very prevalent and stereotypical way men are judged in our society.

CG: How To Win Friends And Influence People started pre-2008 with the expo work, right? How did the collapse in 2008 affect the direction of the work?

ES: Yes, it started near the end of 2005. The crash didn’t really affect the direction of the work per se. But it did affect my thinking about the work, reconfirming for me that what I had done and was doing had an important connection to our society and the pervasive greed that’s present.

CG: The book looks like a business convention from the early 1980s that was never cleaned up, leaving all the aspirations and hopes behind on drab carpeting. How critical is your work of conventions and selling?

ES: It is critical, and expos also look like these photos in the book. That’s how these places look when you slow down and notice where you are and what’s going on around you, looking between the products, the sale, or you could say in between the “magic.”

It’s also a complex and competitive thing we’ve built to base a living off of. So in some ways, I feel I’m taking an endearing look at these places, focusing on the leftover hopes and aspirations. These people have put their time, money and energy into this structure. In the scheme of things, it seems very fruitless and yet in our society it’s very prevalent.

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

CG: How To Win Friends And Influence People encompasses lots of disparate ways of making photographs with a variety of pictures like still lifes, interiors, landscapes, as well as a single portrait. In editing, do you ever worry that they won’t all come together? How was the process of working with Lavalette on the editing of the book?

ES: No, I wasn’t worried. I didn’t know of another way that would better uncover and communicate the complexities of the subject. I feel it allows for many different narratives or readings of the work.

Working with Shane was great. It felt good to have fresh eyes looking at the work. I had a basic edit that we started with, and I had these drawings that I had worked on in relation to the photographs that I sent to Shane to see what he thought. He liked them and came up with this great structure where the drawings become the chapter breaks so to speak. And then from there we just threw edits back n’ forth until we refined the edit down to what it is now.

CG: How does it feel to have your first artist book out in the world?

ES: Feels great, and a bit of a relief!

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

spread from How to Win Friends and Influence People (Lavalette, 2013)
© Erik Schubert

CG: What is one of your favorite photobooks? What was the last photobook you purchased?

ES: That’s a tough one because my favorites seem to be always changing at different stages of my work or periods of my life. Probably the book that sticks with me though, always being on that list of favorites, was the first photo book I picked up, William Eggleston’s The Democratic Forest.

Through the sequencing of pictures, Eggleston’s certainly communicating his democratic way of seeing that we all know is tied to his way of working and thinking about his work. I’m interested in how all these disparate images of different geographies, from Memphis to Berlin, come together. They almost feel like a personal quest, maybe without purpose other than to make a journey. You feel his momentary gaze through the pictures and the edit. In some ways it feels very diaristic too.

The last photobook I picked up was Mark Steinmetz’s Greater Atlanta. I think that might have been about two years ago. But there are so many good ones coming out, I’m sure my dry spell won’t last much longer.

CG: What are you working on now? Is there anything we should look out for?

ES: I’ve been working on a few different projects. Photographing at local speedways, looking at the race cars themselves and the spectatorship of it all. Another project, currently titled Vivarium, explores such places as botanical conservatories and other types of man-made environments that are trying to replicate various flora ecosystems. I’m also constantly making pictures around the town that I live in in Colorado and hopefully that will turn into something fruitful.

I’m also in two group shows right now. One in Boston at Panopticon Gallery, called On First Contact, in which two of my portraits are on display. The other is at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Colorado Springs, Colorado, called Gods & Monsters. I have an installation of work from the How To Win Friends And Influence People series with my first ever and finally completed How To Win Friends And Influence People quilt.

A limited number of signed copies of How To Win Friends And Influence People are available to purchase online in the Lavalette Shop.

How to Win Friends and Influence People Quilt, 2008/2013
Textile of various fabrics, quilted by Stacy Lundberg
© Erik Schubert

Century of Ink: In Praise of Mechanical Book Design

Throughout the twentieth century, the production of books required an entire team of skilled laborers. These laborers learned their trade through long apprenticeships and hands-on application. Photographers who specialized in illustration and reproduction existed within larger production team of typesetters, platemakers, and pressmen. This golden era of applied photography (a professional trade whose craft existed before the advent of photographic academization) was a genre of images crafted for a specific end use.

By the early twentieth century, the Linotype had transformed the workflow of the printshop. Literacy rates, worldwide, soared due to the widespread availability of cheaply printed books, made possible by the ability to mass produce the written word into print. Instead of hand setting individual letters, typesetters could now produce column wide lines-of-type which could more quickly be set into the printing block. This matrix limited the addition of images to the text, which were usually printed separately and tipped-in during the binding. It was not until the development of the halftone dot that led to the increasing demand in well-detailed photography for illustration.

By midcentury, through proprietary computer systems, phototypesetting (a precursor to what became desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s), typesetting became more integrated with photography. Designers could unify text and images in a more precise way and repeatable way.

Entire layouts could be montaged in a literal cut-and-paste method, which could then be rephotographed through a photostat camera. The function and syntax of making pasteups, were hardwired into the functional logic of desktop publishing software, such as Adobe Systems’ Illustrator, followed by shortly thereafter by Photoshop.

To paraphrase Walker Evans’ comments on how the vernacular image is read, as artless as these types of photographs appear, they become a kind of art due to their lack of pretense. However, to refer to these books as vernacular would diminish the contribution of the skilled artisans who created such publications. Many of these mid-century books are high quality, and often feature unique design characteristics whose layouts are striking on re-examination.

In fact, they are quite sophisticated, and their design are as relevant today as the day they were published. In the era they were made, the means of their creation were transparent. Looking at them today, and by having a greater understanding the mechanical means by which they were crafted, we can have a greater appreciation of these these forgotten, sometimes humiliated, volumes. The graphics are of the past, but their staying power is a reminder of their freshness.

A Conversation with Penelope Umbrico

Penelope Umbrico is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Her photo-based installations, video, and digital media works explore the ever-increasing production and consumption of images on the Internet. Utilizing photo-sharing and consumer websites as an expansive archive, she navigates between producer and consumer, local and global, and the individual and the collective, with attention to the technologies that produce (and are produced by) these forces.

Umbrico has exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally, including in exhibitions at MoMA PS1, NY; Museum of Modern Art, NY; MassMoCA, MA; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA; Le Mois de Photo a Montreal Photo Festival, Canada; Alt. +1000 Festival de Photographie, Rossinière, Switzerland; Lodz, Poland; and Foto Colectania, Barcelona, Spain, among many others. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a John Gutmann Photography Fellowship Award, a Deutsche Bank Fellowship, New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship, a Peter S Reed Grant, an Anonymous Was A Woman Award, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and an Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer’s Fellowship.

Umbrico’s work was featured in Lay Flat 02: Meta (Lavalette, 2010), and her first monograph, Penelope Umbrico: Photographs, was published by Aperture in 2011.

Mock-up for exhibition installation of Moving Mountains (1850–2012) for Aperture Remix, 2012
© Penelope Umbrico

Zach Nader: You recently exhibited Moving Mountains (1850-2012) at Aperture, a work in which you rephotographed depictions of mountains from the Aperture Masters of Photography series of books. Using iPhone apps, you processed these and output them as photographic prints, as a digital slideshow, and as a book. In the wall text, you stated, “I propose an inverse correlation between the number of photographs that exist of mountains at any one time and the stability of photography at that time.” What might stability in photography look like today?

Penelope Umbrico: The reason I focused on the mountain was that I had been seeing pictures of mountains everywhere: on the side of U-Haul trucks and moving boxes, insurance ads, the cover of Blindspot magazine. That project was about the immovable mountain, photographed with something that is so moveable, the smartphone. I cannot imagine a more unstable definition of what photography is than what it is to make a photograph with a smart phone. The gravity sensor in smart phones is really what does it for me. You’ll be taking a picture of something at a particular angle and the picture flips around. Many of the mountains are upside down in this project because I’m photographing looking down and the iPhone flips the image. I just left them in the same orientation they were made in the camera.

I began this work by searching the National Archives website where I found numerous scans of Ansel Adams’ photographs. What is interesting about them to me is that they have been created over a very long period of time. Some of the images are scans of prints, some are scans of books, high-res, low-res, copy stand reproductions of the actual photographs, copy stand reproductions of books, and so on. There is an incredible amount of reproduction. I think there is something really interesting about Adams going out with his camera and tripod and making these beautifully crafted images in order to provide the American public access to these mountains, and then the archivists in the National Archives doing the same thing with Adams’ work. They are using whatever means they have to make his work accessible to the American public – but what a huge difference between the two!

So when I was commissioned to make a work around one of Aperture’s books for their 60th anniversary exhibition, Aperture Remix, the entire Masters of Photography series seemed perfect to explore; the idea of the “master” photographing the mountain, in contrast to how we can take photographs now.

from Moving Mountains (1850–2012), 2012
© Penelope Umbrico

ZN: In the March 2012 issue of Art in America you refer to images found online, stating that “all images (artful, authored, pedestrian or unauthored) become unassignable and anonymous in this unlimited exchange of visual information, and function as a collective visual index of data that represent us…” In this context, how do you see your role as an individual producer of images?

PU: I was talking about the idea of reception and projection of images. If I put all of my work online, and you do a Google image search for one of my projects, you see it mashed up with everything else. So, it becomes unassignable and unauthored, in a certain kind of sense, in that context. I know that I am authoring my work. But I understand that in the context of the web, anyone else coming to it receives it in any number of possible ways. It takes some work to know something about images you see on the Internet, but the Internet doesn’t encourage this kind of work. It’s very easy to come away with a superficial read of what you’re seeing.

Of course, when an individual takes a picture, she is the author of that picture, and her subject is the subject of that picture. But as soon as that picture is recontextualized on the web, the subject changes, the picture-taker changes, and I think that shift is pretty interesting. The picture goes from being an individual and authored image to a collective anonymous image that regards no author at all.

from Broken Sets, 2009
© Penelope Umbrico

ZN: Do you think this authorship can be gained and lost repeatedly?

PU: Yes. But everything can be gained and lost repeatedly. A ring that I lose can be picked up and given to someone else, it could have a history of many hundreds of years, it would mean different things to different people.

ZN: I agree, but many people do not treat images that way…

PU: Nonetheless, it’s still true. Think about the Tiananmen Square picture of the guy in front of the tank – for Americans it represented something completely different than it was said to represent in China. But this is an image that’s known as authored, and seen out of context, will still be assignable. Or when we see a Walker Evans out of context, we still understand it as being authored by Walker Evans. There are images that are so iconic they become kitsch, which creates an entirely new genre of this sort of image. Memes, you might say. Talk about authorship gained and lost repeatedly!

Your work, in some ways, deals with memes, right?

ZN: I am interested in how types of images become sufficiently commonplace, in that their value lies more in their repetitive, reproductive aspect rather than any specific content. One of my main interests at the moment is exploring what happens to an image when the impetus for its creation is replaced.

A recent video of mine, optional features shown, began with clips from car commercials. It is striking to me how similar they all are, though they represent multiple brands from around the world. Through repetition and the removal of the cars, text, and persons – through this clouding of vision, an opportunity to see these images beyond their intended use occurs – their scripted nature can begin to unwind.

Your interest perhaps tilts more often towards personal edits rather than institutional decisions, though both self-perpetuate in similar ways. Your Grand Central project is especially relevant in that it addresses these types of scripted images and their drift over decades.

PU: Yes, that project for the MTA used the photographs I found online of the rays coming into the Grand Central terminal. It is an image taken by a specific photographer, well actually 4 photographers who took almost the exact same image, but online, these four images are repeated in a myriad number of ways – people have flipped them, added color, made them grainy, sepia, high contrast, enlarged and cropped them. They are sold as posters, and mouse pads and coffee mugs, and these four images are attributed to at least eleven different photographers as well as to “anonymous” and “photographer unknown.” And all have the commercial site’s watermark on them with copyright restrictions.

Installation view of Five Photographs of Rays of Sunlight in Grand Central Station
New York Transit Museum Gallery, 2013
© Penelope Umbrico

ZN: What are your thoughts on others appropriating your work? Have you seen any successful executions?

PU: I actually don’t think it’s particularly interesting to see other’s appropriations of my work, though it is amusing. The questions for me is why would one appropriate my work – that is, how is the artist engaging with my work, and what is she trying to say by using it. I haven’t yet seen anything that is interesting. I’ve seen a few misguided jerk-ish attempts at criticizing my work – that’s not at all interesting from the point of view of art making – these attempts reveal more of an ignorance about art than any critical engagement with it.

Anyway, I don’t think there can be a successful appropriation of my work – I’m not iconic enough of an artist for someone to be able to do something about my work without it being a personal comment – and that’s just not interesting.

Installation view of TVs from Craigslist, 2009
© Penelope Umbrico

ZN: Several of your works emphasize moments of technological breakdown, visually and with the obsolescence or emptying of the depicted object. Televisions are particularly prevalent: Zenith Replacement Parts, Broken Sets, Signals Still, TVs from Craigslist, and collections of Universal Remotes. What is your interest in and relationship to the television?

PU: The television is the first popular device that moved us toward an image-based culture from an audio and text-based culture. And every generation of television promises more life-like images. I am particularly interested in the screen as the surface of reception, and now projection, and how the screen sifts information. And of course, I am always on my screen… half of my studio practice is accessed through the screen, I read and write with it, and most of my professional correspondence is through it.

With TVs from Craigslist, I was thinking about the obsolescence of the TVs being sold – no one wants these big old bulky TV sets. But what I found fascinating is that the subjects taking picture of the TV in order to post them on CL are often reflected in the very object they are trying to get rid of.

As I am wandering across America through various city’s Craigslist sites, I have a kind of access to people’s private spaces – these pictures are taken solely for the purpose of selling a TV, no one seems to care what else is in the image, and I find a lot there! It’s quite voyeuristic except that these images are offered to us without reservation. The images of people reflected in these dark TV screens have the appearance of ghosts, and I have come to think of this work as revealing “us” as the literal ghost in the machine.

Installation view of Signal to Ink, InkOut of Order, 2011
© Penelope Umbrico

spread from Signals Still / Ink (Book), 2011
© Penelope Umbrico

ZN: Your 2011 artist book Signals Still / Ink (Book) was printed at 125% ink density. The ink quickly rubs off as one flips through the book, leaving marks on the reader’s hands and on the pages. This material aspect of the book seems to physically draw parallels between the ways in which we experience images and the ways in which we leave marks on screens that we touch (blank screens are depicted in the book). What was your thought process in making this work, and what is the significance in making a book that leaves a trace of itself on the viewer?

PU: That project came out of thinking about images and how they are now untraceable when we see them online – the unassignablity you first asked me about. I was considering the materiality of print medium versus the lack of materiality of the screen-based image, but I had come to think of the objects being sold there as heavy physical bodies (some of which contained ghosts). Making physical, material prints of them was a way for me to address an aspect of this materiality/immateriality.

The Signals Still project was about the screen having a signal that has no message, or at least no message we can decipher. I had found a lot of TVs for sale whose screens were turned on but there was no signal, just static, or a haze of light, like a sort of hum. For the book, I printed those screens on an offset press at 125% ink density on newsprint. I wanted to make a relationship between ink on paper as the first screen that sifts information and how we receive images now. And I wanted to address the effect of the signal on our bodies, literally that the medium works on you in a physical way (in the McLuhan sense). So if it comes off on your hands, there it is: the signal leaving a trace on you that is traceable.

Installation view of Signals Still, 2011
© Penelope Umbrico

ZN: You have previously referred to yourself, specifically, as a “photographer” rather than an “artist.” What is the distinction and importance for you?

PU: That was more of a response to the exclusivity of what it means, in some circles, to be a photographer. I wanted to acknowledge that there has never been one kind of photography. It was sort of a reactive statement based on the fact that what I do online uses a photo-documentary strategy. I travel, navigate, through virtual space and I look for things that will support an idea I have. I make screenshots or download images and crop them in specific ways for what I am looking for. I frame the virtual world the way I want to see it. This is what a photographer does, frames and edits the world in the way that she sees it. So, at one point, I decided not to make a distinction between my practice and traditional photographic practice. I felt it was constructive within a photo context to claim the medium in my practice by asserting my title as a photographer. I think, in general, those kinds of distinctions are not very useful though, and I have called myself a “photo-based” artist, but even that is sort of ridiculous because I do many other things that are not photo-based. But, I can live with this because I’m always thinking about photography. Maybe everyone needs to be called photo-based now – since we are all making and viewing images all the time and, more than ever, we see ourselves and create our identities through these images.

ZN: In your recent monograph from Aperture you included many texts that support your practice. You chose to scan the original source material, presenting the text in the context of the book page. Why this approach?

PU: The book is laid out in two parts. The first part contains nine bodies of work arranged by theme, and the second part is a sort of appendix about the work. Because all of the work comes from appropriated sources, I wanted to maintain a parallel relationship in the texts – an equal dialogue between the bodies of work and the texts around them.

The idea of treating the text like an object was a way to give it a physical and material integrity. When you read a text in a book, the book itself becomes part of the context. We’re used to receiving or making photocopies of texts, and we all take excerpts of text and re-contextualize them to support an idea. A photocopy is another context, of course, but still the trace of the original book remains. Photocopying seems quite natural, but paradoxically, if you make a good photograph of text, it becomes something else. What is meant to give a contextual integrity seems inverted – the more this image has fidelity to the original book, the more it seems like an appropriation.

Some of the texts just read like text, while others, such as a photocopied page from one part of a book inserted into another part and scanned, read like collage. And some read like objects; A scan of a folded photocopy printed to scale and slipped into the book as though actually a photocopy – it’s an image of an object, but it’s also an object to be read. Of course, these are all meant to be read, but I wanted to raise questions about authorship and how text on a page might function as image and object and conceptual information. I love the slippage between image and text in these reproductions.

Installation view of Mountains, Moving: of Swiss Alp Postcards and Sound of Music
Alt. +1000 Festival de Photographie, 2013
© Penelope Umbrico

ZN: What are some upcoming projects of yours that we can look forward to; any lectures, exhibits, or events?

PU: I’m doing another “mountains” project for the Alt. +1000 Festival de Photographie in a small town in the Swiss Alps. The title of this work is Mountains, Moving: of Swiss Alp Postcards and Sound of Music and the images are sourced from old postcards of iconic Swiss Alp images and images of the Austrian mountains from the film, The Sound of Music. While searching the web for Swiss Alps, these mountains kept showing up. Of course, in the story, they are supposed to be in Switzerland – they’re crossing into Switzerland to safety. I like the fact that one mountain range can substitute for another. I shot all these images of mountains off of my computer screen. I wanted the idea of remoteness to be in the act of looking and capturing, as well… to talk about the idea of distance this way. I’ve never been to the Alps, so for me those mountains are distant, mythical and, in a way, not real. The camera apps further this sense of the unreal, turning them upside down and making them almost psychedelic.

ZN: How will these be displayed?

PU: We’re making out-door billboards – they’ll be situated right in the mountains. I’m also doing a public collaboration there, and calling it A Proposal and Two Trades. The proposal asks people to think about looking collectively, and what it means to take a picture they’ve already seen of the mountains in front of them. The two trades are: 1. Take this “already seen” picture with a smartphone – the ancient mountain and the new smartphone/technology trade information, and 2. E-mail me the picture, I receive it and process it with various smartphone camera filters and send it back. I get new material, they get my work.