Q+A: Lucas Blalock vs. Barry Stone
This is the second installment in a conversation series initiated by Lucas Blalock with contemporary artists concerning materiality in regards to current photographic practice.
Barry Stone is a photographer hailing from Austin, Texas where he teaches at Texas State University. He currently has a solo show up at the Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery in Brooklyn. I met Barry last week for a discussion about his pictures as part of the opening of the exhibition and wanted to continue that conversation here. The show will be up through April 25th and there is a catalog available through the gallery.
LB: I was thinking about your work in terms of this series on materiality and started to think about the snapshot as a ‘material’ in your work, and how this seemingly casual/incidental interaction w/ the world informs your pictures. I would like to ask about the Unicorn picture in this regard because I feel like it sets up a very peculiar set of double-binds that get to really central questions about photography as it relates to both language and the world. This picture is at once straightforward (a ’straight’ photograph) and at the same time calls into question this perspective by representing a magical animal. Can you talk a bit about how you see this?
Barry Stone, I Met a Unicorn, Austin, TX 1.10.2010
BS: It’s funny, whenever I think about the term “snapshot,” I immediately think of Eggleston in The Democratic Forrest stating to Mark Holborn in the afterward, “Ignorance can always be covered by ’snapshot’. The word has never had any meaning. I am at war with the obvious.” I don’t share Eggleston’s disdain for the term (nor do I think you are ignorant for bringing it up!), and further, I feel that my work is complicit with “the obvious.” In essence, the image of the unicorn is exactly that, a snapshot. The image was taken at a birthday party that my four-year-old daughter attended. In Texas, we often bring ponies to these types of occasions, and on this special day, one pony was dressed as unicorn, which captivated all involved despite its apparent shabbiness. Most of my images, which end up in exhibitions etc, do not result from planned shoots, but come from daily life. It is only later, through the editing process that I assemble the pictures into a series to form a kind of syntax to address a set of concerns or questions I am preoccupied with.
LB: I don’t recall the Eggleston quote but I feel what he is saying in a way, that the category (snapshot) can obscure a picture or, at worst, keeps one from looking at it beyond this initial identification. However, I think it is your ‘complicity with the obvious’ that makes this image of the unicorn so disarming and in turn effective. Maybe the unicorn’s ability to ‘captivate despite it’s apparent shabbiness’ has a deeper relationship to the snapshot’s power which could be proposed in the same terms? As if the world could be seen as shabbily dressed up in the magic of photography?
Also, the picture’s title, “I Met a Unicorn,” plays on this same kind of seemingly casual paradox? Can you talk a bit about your intentions in these subversions?
BS: When putting together the exhibit, “I Met a Unicorn,” I was really preoccupied with the basic question of how we describe our world through pictures. For a long time, I have been fascinated by the place where language intersects with picture making and where the two diverge. I am also interested in the descriptive value of a photograph and photography’s relationship to contemporary life. Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Descriptions which wrestles with the logic of negative existential statements, uses as an example the phrase, “I met a unicorn,” to try to unravel how we can logically speak of magical animals that do not exist in the real world. Russell through analysis of the structure of language asserts that it is the grammar of language (somewhat like the term “snapshot”) that is obscuring the truth value of this statement, which, really when broken down, goes something like; “I met something. That something fits the description of a unicorn. A unicorn is a mythical horned horse.” When we talk of unicorns we talk then of a picture of a unicorn, not an actual thing.
Given a photograph’s indexical link to its subject and the fidelity of its description, the object recorded and the image of the object are still conflated even in 2010. To demonstrate this magical transformation someone, I can’t remember who it was, suggested to imagine a photograph of your mother, and then think of stabbing her eyes out with a knife. This is a horrible crime to commit to the symbol of your mother! Photographs however are technical images, to use Flusser’s term, that don’t merely offer their subjective poetry innocently, they come from cameras which are the product of consumer preferences, and market forces, as are the images produced with them which are in turn influenced by context (art historical, vernacular, advertising, etc), psychology, and a whole host of other factors. Given this context, the magic photography performs is truly shabby at best.
LB: I would like to ask about Russel’s theory in regards to the suite of photographs that make up the exhibition and the way that they function as constituent parts of a whole (the show as vantage onto the world). The components of the pictures could be seen as exceedingly diverse but there is a feeling that they are all ‘failing’ to describe the world in the same way or to a similar degree? In other words, I feel that they are all strongly sympathetic to each other. Is there a Russel-like breakdown that unravels the grammar of the exhibition?
Barry Stone,Drawing on Red Table, Mae’s Preschool, Austin, TX, 4.7.2009
BS: Each picture in the show offers a different method of photographic description. Though each description, however detailed, fails to create a ready narrative or offer a steady denotation.
For instance, Drawing on Red Table, Mae’s Preschool, Austin, TX, 4.7.2009, is an image of inscrutable child’s drawing. I am interested in how we make a pictures innocent of learned pictorial convention, yet there seems to be an individual language evident here.
Barry Stone, Sunset Photographer, Cape Charles, VA, 8.11.2009
All of the traditionally photographic images (6 of the 7 in the show) engage directly with pictorial space, flattening and playing with our perception of the two-dimensional picture plane. There are no discernable horizon lines in the pictures, even in the most conventional, Sunset Photographer, Cape Charles, VA, 8.11.2009, which is my version of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. Here the horizon is obscured by the Monet-like color reflected in the seaside sunset that the woman portrayed is attempting to capture.
Barry Stone, Crop, The Golden Hour by Thomas Moran, 1875, Jack S. Blanton Museum, Austin, TX, 1.2.2010
My pictorial concerns are related but different in Crop, The Golden Hour by Thomas Moran, 1875, Jack S. Blanton Museum, Austin, TX, 1.2.2010 which directly acknowledges photography’s relationship to art history. The picture comes from a series of detail photographs of paintings hanging in museum permanent collections. In this instance, I have rendered the image in black and white to recall the landscape photographs of Carleton Watkins in order to reveal and re-examine photography’s continued debt to painting.
Barry Stone, The Jeff Wall, MoMA, New York, New York, 3.28.2007-11.24.2009
The Jeff Wall, MoMA, New York, New York, 3.28.2007-11.24.2009 speaks to a different kind of construction of an image in the context of the contemporary art world. The original photograph was taken just outside the entrance to Wall’s retrospective at MoMA. In Photoshop, I rendered the wall in black and white and left the floor in color to subtly test the perceived veracity of an altered photograph. Later, I applied spray-paint to the surface of the print in the form of a white arc. The arc, I believe, plays perceptually with the image space depicted in an interesting way, and despite its awkwardness seems somewhat, I hope, elegant in its application.
Barry Stone, Artificial Pond Reflection, Austin, TX, 3.28.2009
Other works in the show engage description in different ways. Artificial Pond Reflection, Austin, TX, 3.28.2009, is an observed photographic reflection with a tricky title taken of a man-made pond. The strong Texas sun will bore a hole in your head, it is so bright, so the specular highlights coming off the water create a “made with Photoshop” kind of star pattern by overloading the sensor. This is the camera’s description, which in this instance rendered the light as a physical and tangible body.
Barry Stone Alan Greenspan as a Rainbow in Washington D.C. on October 23, 2009, 12.20.2009
Lastly, Alan Greenspan as a Rainbow in Washington D.C. on October 23, 2009, 12.20.2009, describes abstraction in both pictorial and conceptual ways and relates to notions of magical thinking. This image was created by sampling (in Photoshop) a press photograph from the online Washington Post of Greenspan testifying to The Ways and Means Committee during the economic crisis of the fall of 2009. In the original photograph he is shown responding to being asked if his faith in the free market’s ability to regulate itself was misplaced. He admitted that he was wrong, and with that so were his Ayn Randian notions of laissez-faire economics that he had held so dear for forty years. I bent the sampled colors into rainbow shaped gradient. Since I already had a unicorn in the show, it just made sense to go with rainbows! This “rainbow of shit” culled from the image of Greenspan’s flesh, tie, and jacket stands in for the perceived value of credit default swaps and the abstracted nature of contemporary finance capital. The image retains its indexicality, but this time is twice removed.
LB: The confluence of magic(s) in the Greenspan piece is fantastic! And I think the intentional conflation of the ‘magic’ involved in the deeply abstract world of contemporary capital exchange / value production, and the magical exchange of symbols central to image making sets up a very productive metaphor. This is something that, in a less humorous way, George Baker touches on in Photography and Abstraction in the Words Without Pictures collection. (Aperture, 2010)
I am wondering if you see the Greenspan piece at all in terms of the snapshot? To me there is something oddly photographic about a certain kind of digital intervention. It seems it is something that (again) is developed through the casual performance of a basic mechanics (i.e. simply making the machine perform an action within basic constraints) only now the apparatus in use is the computer not the camera. This assimilation or transmutation of categories might not be useful, but I am interested to get at how to talk about this? How is it that a gradient generated out of Photoshop can act like a photograph? Does it become dependent on language? and if so is it any more dependent on language that a pictorially abstract ’straight’ exposure? It’s too much to get to here, but I am interested in your thoughts…
BS: Yes, I read the Baker piece after I made the rainbows, but I felt like he could have been describing the impetus for my work. I have definitely thought a lot about gradients this year, and they are in the zeitgeist in contemporary digital and photographic arts. Cory Arcangel’s gradient paintings leap to mind, you have done some portraits washed in gradient light, Hannah Whitaker’s work, James Welling… this is definitely out there and has been for a while.
When I think about what distinguishes a photographic description from other image making methodologies, I come to indexicality, light, and fidelity in combination. For me, and this is a half baked theory, fidelity comes down not only to rendering detail, but also to creating a seamless gradient. A smooth tonal gradient appears removed from the hand and is what makes photo-realistic painting so magical and I suppose so infuriating to others. A rainbow is light made visible, broken down into its constituent wavelengths, and thus it is the evidence of the material of light.
I think this perhaps why it is so interesting to photographers engaged in investigating the medium itself. It is ironic then that the most hackneyed expression of light, the rainbow, should be so prevalent among the most avid students of the medium. But I think to address your point of the Greenspan rainbow feeling photographic, digital captures are data points related to observed (by the photographer) and captured (by the camera’s sensor) wave lengths of light. In some ways (and this may be a stretch) sampling a digital photograph from the internet is like taking a picture (remedial as it is) with Photoshop instead of a camera. Instead of recording a subject with 12 million samples like a 12MB digital SLR would, I made a photograph (drawing with light) from 6 or 7 data points, which then was then digitally amplified to simulate a smooth gradient of light, creating an indexical image which reveals the processes by which the original image was made, altered, and finally transmitted.
Lucas Blalock is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY.