INTERVIEW EXCERPTS: Lanya Snyder in conversation with Paul Kneale, for Contemporary Photography Forum, a 2017 exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art (Florida).
In occasion of the exhibition Contemporary Photography Forum at Boca Raton Museum of Art in 2017, the curator of the exhibition Lanya Snyder held a conversation on photography with the featured artists.
As Paul Kneale is part of ARTUNER’s Crossing the Borders of Photography at the Deadhouse, in Somerset House, London, we are revisiting that conversation to shed some light on the artist’s practice and his relationship to photography.
[LANYA SNYDER] Last night, I was watching a documentary, and a quote from Robert Frank in 2008 appeared on the screen:
There are too many images. Too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore.
So, I thought I’d just start with this. Because, in thinking about this exhibition, I wanted to open the field of discussion about the use of imagery today, in the context of defining a work of art, to expand the idea of what a photographic image is outside traditional definitions, say within museum culture where there are departments devoted exclusively to photography versus painting and sculpture.
PAUL KNEALE: I think this shift in attitude towards images has to be read inside a material shift, a technological shift. Even 10 years ago, we were well into digital cameras, Photoshop, inkjet printing for large scale production. And with this mainstream shift to digital for creating, storing, and producing images there’s a huge change in the material economy, and thus the perception of this production to which Frank is referring. I remember when I got my first digital camera, and thinking it was really amazing that it could store 100 pictures on the card. Now the capacity — even on your phone — is so big, it’s just another data management issue rather than one of scarcity. For $60 now, you can buy an external drive that will store literally millions of images. And not only are my phone pictures so much higher quality than that first really expensive digital camera, it’s not even the device’s main function!
Also, the relationship to on-the-fly editing is important. If you look at a teenager’s camera roll you’ll see that they probably took a few dozen selfies to get the one they finally posted to their social media account (this screenshot of the all-selfie camera roll is its own kind of confessional sub-genre). And then there are filters that might subtly change your face shape or, more explicitly, make it unrealistic. There was a popular one a few months ago that did a four-way split where you could manipulate your gender, age, and attractiveness. So I could see what I looked like as a beautiful old woman. The popularity, accessibility, and ubiquity of these types of photo-editing software have definitely undermined the document status of the photographic image. There’s a photographic duality in culture now based on authority — we assume that the narcissistic self-portrait might be highly edited, while we’re asked to believe in the veracity of the image on the front page of The New York Times, even though it’s produced with the same technology.
With regards to Frank’s worry that this made photography less of an art, I would argue the opposite: I think it brings it closer — but with different demands. Insofar as the material process of creating the digital image — the relationship between sensors, pigments, surfaces, screens is now open to the type of reflexivity that twentieth-century painting explored, but importantly on these different terms. For me, the digital image production becomes a kind of painting, with the subjectivity of the producer foregrounded in these material processes. There’s an opportunity for a détournement of the medium that the purveyors of this tech would prefer stays opaque and continuous with the analog photo.
LS: You have formal training in terms of attending art school. But, to back up a bit, I’m curious what your first experience, or earliest memory, with photography is, perhaps from a young age.
PK: Growing up in the 1990s I remember my mom always had a little Vivitar compact 35mm camera with her to document whatever we were doing, especially on vacations. But she didn’t really try to capture the action. Rather, it was most often a staged group photo of the whole family which, of course, involved asking some stranger to actually take the photo. And this often led to reciprocal photos taken of the stranger’s family. These exchanges were always a few minutes long, going back and forth, with a few polite questions about where they were from, etc. It always had the effect of actually stopping whatever you were doing. So, the results, when they came back from processing some time later, never reflected any kind of relationship to the experience you remembered having. They were just rigid bodies in front of historical buildings, waterfalls, beaches and restaurant tables. In that way, photographs didn’t have any feeling of a causal link to the real for me. They felt more like a method of isolation — a way to divide and focus, inherently staged. I remember when I was maybe 12 or 13, being on a vacation in Florida, and I had bought a cheap disposable camera that had prepaid development on the film — so there was no notion of ‘wasting’ the frames, and I could do whatever I wanted with it. The area we were staying was a very middlebrow, urban beach area full of condominiums and T-shirt shops, and I ended up using the whole roll making images of the graphic shadows that the palm trees cast on the dirty sidewalks in the strong sun. I was just using the camera to make a composition from the found material of the street there, and in some ways, although I was too young to be doing it reflexively, it was against the notion of the subject. No people or cars. I looked for spots I could fill the frame of the fixed lens with only a bit of shadow and a gum-covered cement slab. I also distinctly remember that when the 4″x6″ prints of the roll came back from the lab, I was frustrated that they were not bigger. The relationship between the scale of experience, which the camera mediated, and the scale of the re-production was unsatisfying, insufficient.
A few years later, maybe around 15, I discovered a monograph on Wolfgang Tillmans at the mega-mall bookstore in the next city over. At the time, there was no access to, or awareness of, contemporary art whatsoever in the blighted factory town I was growing up in, so it was a mind-blowing find. I remember being really excited by the way he treated the pictures as objects in his installations, and this got me thinking about the kind of spirit world of materialism. How these various registers of high and low materials created emotional stories between each other and not didactic analysis. It was a feeling of exploration rather than position taking. This excited me a lot at the time because the way art history had been taught at the state-funded high school I was attending was as this logical and dry succession of movements. I think, by contrast, this work of Tillmans helped to open me onto the ecstatic dimension that is involved in formal questions. By implicating the literalness of materials so prominently in the process of photography it also started to equalize it in relation to painting and sculpture. It became less of a technique and more of an approach, or even simply a type of aesthetic thought.
LS: […] Was there a particular moment when you decided you wanted to pursue [art] as a formal career? Or, maybe that wasn’t necessarily the thought process.
PK: My first art school experience was in Toronto. In Canada it’s quite common that a larger university which also offers science and humanities programs, has an ‘art department,’ so it’s a sub-division of a huge school. The professors at the art department were mainly from a 1980s moment in Toronto that was very into conceptual photo, video art, DIY, and had kind of its own world around it. It didn’t feel like we were really patched into the New York scene in terms of the contemporary art, but had instead just carried on. Kind of an island — very uncommercial, interdisciplinary, and conceptual. There’s absolutely no market in Canada. Staying there, for artists, means having a day job. The result is a kind of drift toward the time-based and the immaterial. We also had access to this incredible neo-Gothic building in the middle of Chinatown. It was only maybe 20 percent occupied by the school and the rest of it was abandoned and run down. We were able to more or less do what we wanted there — which was very free, and now, in retrospect, totally uncommon.
Later, I went to The Slade in London for my MFA, which was more of a traditional kind of art school. It had divisions and I was in the ‘Media’ area which was the non-aligned and catchall place for people that weren’t oil painters or bronze casters. I think that their overall philosophy was ‘Zen riddle.’ They (to my mind, purposely) didn’t provide any ideological direction or school style. Elsewhere in London, such as Goldsmiths, you absolutely had to be a Marxist. The Slade was, by contrast, laissez-faire, and the focus was on process, and how you were thinking rather than final results. There was also a really strong project space scene in London at that moment. Going to the school connected you socially, and also pointed the school scene outwards quite a bit. Almost all the students were already showing, but in this very particular low-pressure environment, they were also very concerned with the digital, and the Internet, and new platforms for distribution. Probably most relevant to my current work was that I got resourceful about materials and production — because I was completely broke. At one point in the main library while using the photocopier, I hit a glitch that gave me free copies. Over a period of time I was able to reverse-engineer the glitch so that I could produce it at will, and I ended up with unlimited free copies. The photocopier (minus the print output aspect) works on an identical premise to the scanners that I later moved on to, so it was here that I really started to explore it as an approach to image-making.
LS: I would suggest that there are artists, even photographers, who have employed graphic design as part, or even as a significant component, of their work for some time. This is completely different than using these tools as a skill set in which to further a new mode of working. This brings us back to the beginning, when we touch on how new media has not only redefined process, but totally transformed present day culture and its perceived value when applied as an unconventional approach that succeeds.
PK: Yes, I think a lot of the time these pure/unpure technology discussions are false binaries. And, with all respect to writers and curators, are perpetuated by people who don’t make things with their hands, which is always a hybrid, non-binary process. I would be very interested to know how many critics could give a highly technical explanation of something simple — on the spot — like how electronic matrix metering uses an onboard database of tens of thousands of reference images to algorithmically adjust exposure and saturation. This, metaphorically, is like discussing how oil paint is thinned with linseed oil to build up layers and control luminosity—a knowledge any good painting critic would have as a matter of course.
This is also a particular plague within popular notions of photography, because of its superficial appearance of an indexical relationship to reality. When, of course, even an old brick of an analog camera, like a Nikon F3, is jammed with highly-complex electronics that are determining the outcome of the image. Perhaps consumer software like Photoshop simply pulled back the curtain on this already existing state of affairs and forced people to confront the spectral reality of images which they had thought to be concrete.
I also grew up making images with the invention of computers. I have very early memories of outputting ASCII drawings on a Commodore computer printer. On matters of technology, the art discourse almost always lagged way behind, creating a kind of parallax, as the institutionalized orders of canon and market are so invested in the existing categories and understandings. I think that we often perceive a moment of newness as a question of breakthroughs. But often the person who gets the credit is not the first innovator, but rather someone who has been able to formalize a language and make it understandable, push it over a controlled line and distribute it. It has always seemed to me that the more important question was how to evaluate these technological interventions into the process of image on formal and aesthetic terms. There has to be a degree of reflexivity—the system should show itself. The artwork that utilizes technology stays accountable to itself, and located in its own time, by allowing rupture. I think only at the point of the rupture can we start to really evaluate: Is it any good?
LS: Paul, how do you feel about being labeled as a “new media” artist? What does this mean to you personally and specifically?
PK: When something new emerges, people want to naturally look for patterns, group things, and produce narratives that support their own views. So, in some sense, as a type of shorthand, a label like “new media” could be helpful at the very most general level, just to know that we are not talking about Rococo sculpture. At the same time, I don’t identify with that label, or find it particularly useful in terms of really developing the conversation around my work. Because labels are always generalizations they’re also flattening out some of what is most important for a particular artist. I don’t work with the materials and approaches that I do because I’m exhausting the categories of “new” or “media.” Those are concepts that frame what’s going on around us, rather than the other way around. I try to use materials that are unavoidable, basic. If they are seen to be “new” or “media” then I think it’s an indication that these are the things that are unavoidable and basic right now. At the same time having a dedication to the present is also very much about creating a relationship to art’s past. It’s important for me to carry on certain discussions, many of which are perhaps even mid-20th century discussions, but using the materials and approaches that are now at hand. I think this is the way you can hope to situate the character of the now within the greater story of art.
LS: What are your thoughts about the term “post-photography,” which is now popularly thrown around in relation to the ever-evolving medium?
PK: It is funny now that the prefix “post” immediately makes me think of social media — “post a picture” rather than the more art specific “post-modern,” “post-medium,” etc. But maybe that’s also important to the discussion. I think the public now assumes that images may have been manipulated, and the burden of a given image is to prove its truth claim, if that’s important for it. Sometimes this is done externally, through being presented by a trusted institution like a major newspaper. And sometimes it is done through the actual aesthetic of the image — playing on tropes that we correlate with “realness.” But this is really a slippery business. I think with this idiom of “post-photography” we can risk attributing a false classicism to photography — a frozen moment that never existed where the medium was one thing only and everyone agreed on its ontological status. This, of course, is not at all the case. But perhaps this intellectual and artistic history of photography, which is just a series of radical revaluations of what it actually is, has somehow come close to the general public’s opinion now, so that artistic output is much closer to the realm of commercial output. Photography is the largest hobbyist medium in history. I don’t think that you could really claim painting or poetry or performance have ever been taken up on even a fraction of the scale of photography now in everyone’s phones. Imagine if everyone you knew was an amateur sculptor! There’s also this hobbyist dialectics of the medium which are writ large in society. There’s a lingering deception that a correlation exists between the photographic image and reality in this hobbyist dialectics. So the art context must perpetually readdress these issues, precisely because they are so pervasive.
In my work, I consider photographic process such as the digital scanner I use, actually now correspond to an ontology that’s aligned with how we historically think of painting: a process of translation between a mental impression or event, and the artists reproduction and manipulation of that on a surface. I don’t think we are “post-photography” in the sense of after photography, but we are very much “post-photography” as a cultural obsession. And, I think, within this obsession of the constant production and “sharing” of digital images, there is actually a kind of processing and acceptance about the instability of these popular truth claims. We’re evacuating a type of causal nostalgia in favor of a networked web of fantasy. The red pill of photography’s truth turned out to actually be the blue pill of the limitless capacity for digital image making and circulation.
PK: Painting is something that humans have been doing for tens of thousands of years. So it has been a lot of different things, and those things tend to get flattened by the contemporary common usage of the idiom. I see what I’m doing as a continuation of that history, but with an approach that makes sense for the present.
Some of the earliest cave paintings are simply these negative space images of hands — created by blowing berry juice around the outside of the hand. And while we’re accustomed to call that a painting, it’s really quite logically similar, in photographic terms, to creating a photogram or cyanotype. On the material level, the inks that are used by the inkjet printer in the various stages of creating my paintings are more similar to acrylic paint than acrylic paint is to the egg tempera of Giotto, for example. Which is again, materially, very different from oil painting or a silkscreen process. Painting for me isn’t so much a particular substance or media, but rather a kind of intent. And this intent, at the most generic level, is something like a desire to create an image, where one did not exist before, either from mind or observation, using whatever tools are needed to create that image.
Along these lines, it’s also important to use the tools that reflect the time you’re in. To not be nostalgic for another time but to confront your own time. And, necessarily, making visible the nature of those tools, how the process is a discourse of form, and how this also expresses ideology.
In my scanner paintings, I use the particular set of tools you mention — tools that are usually thought of as being within the realm of photography, toward these ends. The process always begins with what seems, at first, like nothing: No image or object on the glass surface of the scanner, and the lid of the scanner wide open. I make an initial scan of what’s essentially the lighting conditions in the studio the time of day, the weather, if the lights are on, etc. These are all factors that affect the image you get from this process. I repeat this technique over and over, building up layers, and also combining different light conditions. The resolution you scan at is also a factor—it plays the role similar to shutter speed, and the make and model of the scanner is also a variable. I’ve actually got dozens of scanners in the studio—a Canon X430 creates a different look than an HP1510. I think of this layering part of the process as a time sandwich, because as you combine the layers, you combine moments in time and different amounts of time. A layer scanned at 100 dpi might take 30 seconds, while a 6000-dpi layer would be hours! So the image that results is made by light and time, but which moment in time you’re looking at is indeterminate. It’s a quantum image of time, multiple worlds. I think this is also like a painting, where the time that’s involved in creating the image is a multitude, even if its result is visually available there in an instant. The actuality of the image always recedes away in time from its surface, which you could say is the opposite of the idea of the index in photography. And, in addition to these factors, there are also errors that can occur when you layer the scans. I always go for the very cheapest consumer scanners, because the processors in them are not as good, and this introduces an element of chaos and détournement. I might be working with a painting at one point and the color is a medium pink, but after another hour-long scan, the information produced is so huge the processor has an aneurism and gives you back a bright fuchsia! And the envelope around all this, which I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, is the basic idea that a digital image sensor is fundamentally different from a light sensitive film. You’re no longer dealing with a trace, but rather a trace interpreted as a binary code, and then reassembled on a screen based on algorithms and databases of reference images. This, to me, is again much closer to the process of observing an image, either from nature or from one’s mind and working in stages to transpose it onto a surface. That’s what I’m doing with the scanner paintings. So it’s very hybrid. It uses these photo-world tools, but the manner and intent with which they’re used is the territory of painting. And, by using these contemporary image-making tools in that way, I’m trying to see what gas painting has in it. I want to see if it can stand up against the digital image flow of the present, be vital even. And I really think it can. I’m trying to use these systems against themselves.
For me, that’s important because these tools reflect the world. A cheap scanner is an ideological object. It’s a crossroads of technology and global manufacturing networks, and consumer desire, and image ontology. The quality of the image that you get from the process is an expression of these crossroads. The colors, textures, errors, and limitations. They’re abstract, but they express all of these realities many of which are very abstract themselves.