Photos of electrical cords. Mirrors. Eggs. Glass. Objects from the “Amazing Savings” store down the street. These are just some of the subjects that New York-based artists Lucas Blalock and Talia Chetrit capture in their photography, motivated by a desire to answer the question: “What can a photograph be?” Their photographic investigations stand apart from one another, yet they share a similar impulse to use photography not to tell a story or build a narrative, but rather as an opportunity to catch an idea as it emerges out of a series of experiments. As Chetrit says about her own photography, it is an attempt to make “a permanent record of something that never existed.”
Both Blalock and Chetrit’s work is featured in Lay Flat 02: Meta, a new limited-edition magazine that includes over twenty-five artists and writers from across the world. As the editor of the publication (along with Michael Bühler-Rose), it is my pleasure to bring them together to discuss their inspirations, approaches, and ideas.
—Shane Lavalette, Publisher and Editor of Lay Flat
Lucas Blalock: Seeing your show “Reading” at Renwick Gallery last year, I was left thinking about how it is you come up with the hypotheses that result in the experimental situations that make your pictures. Do you think of the experiments in terms of standards?
Talia Chetrit: For part of my show at Renwick, I made color photographs that were created by flashing strobes covered in primary color gels at different materials. I used items that were at my fingertips, mostly papers and fabrics that were lying around—typical objects you might find in a photographer’s studio. The pictures are always a mystery to me until I develop the film and see what has been recorded. This “standard” was created from thinking about photography as a manipulation that is often disguised as a reproduction. This opposition is what excites me about photography—a permanent record of something that never existed.
What I love most about looking at your work is how my relationship with the images changes as I see more of them, how they inform each other. There is this moment when I see one of your photographs that makes me turn back and reconsider the images I’ve already seen. When you make pictures, do you see them in relationship to one another? Is there a sense of building or seriality?
Lucas Blalock: I am glad you feel this! I don’t so much make pictures with other ones in mind, but when I go back to edit I do develop groups out of these intersections. Recently I have been playing with photography in terms of discrete units or quantities, like a more physical numbering system. I have been excited about the way a group of pictures (variables) can come into a strong relationship with each other and produce a sort of open set. In this way, I do think about a sense of building but not so much serially, more in terms of a network or a web.
I know your last project partially utilized digital means, are the processes in “Reading” all analogue? Is this important?
Talia Chetrit: Other than the project Gradient Tool, where I made images that were completely created in Photoshop and then exported them onto film to make silver gelatin prints in the traditional darkroom, I’m pretty analogue. My show was composed of photographs that were either shot on film, created in a darkroom, or made with a scannerbed. Any illusion or manipulation happens the moment the image is being captured. At the same time, I consider my audiences’ understanding of Photoshop and its potential when I make photographs.
You use Photoshop to actually distort and create your photographs. I’d love to know more about your process and your relationship to the image you capture and the final piece.
Lucas Blalock: For me, the computer is just another component of my studio. I rework ideas a lot. Sometimes this means beginning again with the materials or the camera, but at other times I find that approaching it through Photoshop works better. I think it’s funny because as of late I have become a much more technical photographer (swings and tilts, etc.) but sometimes these rather clumsy interventions get much closer to what I want.
On the other hand, I feel your work for me is so closely tied to phenomenon. Do you feel like the current crisis over indexicality is something you wrangle with?
Talia Chetrit: It’s not something I really see as a crisis, but definitely as a monumental change. I feel lucky that I started working with photography before digital so I can understand how monumental that change really is. I think Digital and Photoshop are amazing. It has made photography accessible. It’s no longer part of photography to also have an interest in chemistry and insane amounts of alone time (which I of course love). There is nothing Photoshop can do that you can’t do in the darkroom with the right tricks up your sleeve, but now you don’t have to spend a lifetime mastering a few techniques to then die from the chemistry.
So now that everyone’s a photographer and images are everywhere it’s impossible not to respond to that. And now that digital manipulation is a tool almost everyone can use and is even in the newspapers, how do we even define photography?
I think the reason I don’t use digital manipulation is because my interest is in what is “real” and how we define and identify what that is. That fascination is in part due to Photoshop and the fact that my images could be digitally manipulated, but are not.
Lucas Blalock: That’s interesting. I don’t know if I agree that the darkroom and Photoshop have the same set of possibilities. For me the computer has opened up pictorial strategies that have little relationship to the kinds of things that film can capture. I feel that in my work broaching this technological fissure and “playing” with Photoshop relates to a desire to materialize the technology. I think that the computer is easily mystified because, for most of us, its workings lack transparency, and I am interested in bringing a sense of the “mechanics” of this tool into my pictures. My work is grounded in the idea that an awareness of the mechanics of an image can actually create a greater sense of engagement, and though I utilize both film and digital, I feel that the inherent possibilities in each don’t always line up.
Talia Chetrit: I’d love to know more about how you choose your subjects.
Lucas Blalock: My subjects mostly come from the Amazing Savings down the street from my house and the portraits are people I am close to. For me, a good subject allows me to make the picture I am interested in. I am drawn towards objects that are somehow flexible or open in terms of meaning. Often times a picture fails for me because it is overcoded in one way or another. For example, for a time last winter I was making pictures in my kitchen, and I really liked some of them, but when it came down to it all these domestic narratives sort of got in the way of the kind of thing I was going for. I also had this experience when trying to shoot a pack of cigarettes. But it’s a hard thing to talk about in the affirmative; I just sort of know when something has become available for me.
You said that most of your work also sort of comes from easily available materials. Do you have a litmus test that brings an object into focus for you? Also, I am curious about your use of the scanner as a kind of camera. Can you talk about how this fits into your greater practice?
Talia Chetrit: The fabrics, papers, and lights are items I have collected as supportive materials for other shoots, which are now taking center stage. I also use objects that have been so widely used in photography’s history that they almost lose meaning, like vases and hands. I’m interested in things or moments that are simple but become complex through the photograph.
And I love scanners! I love how immediate they are and how they read objects. I started using the scannerbed as another tool to make photographs to further explore the fact that photography is impossible to define.
So, what are you working on now? Anything you want to share?
Lucas Blalock: I am currently pulling together what I think will be a second book under the title Towards a Warm Math. I am also excited to be collaborating on a project with Jessica Eaton in March. Otherwise, just making new pictures and seeing where it goes. And you?
Talia Chetrit: Exciting. I can’t wait to see your new projects. I’m really focusing on making new work in the studio and pushing myself to a new place, a less comfortable place. Actually some of the ideas we touched on earlier about how to respond to the abundance of imagery and the speed of circulation are things I’m recently grappling with. It’s been really fun. Challenging, but fun.
Shane Lavalette (b. 1987) currently lives and works in Somerville, Massachusetts. He received his BFA from Tufts University in partnership with The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Lavalette’s photographs have been exhibited widely, including recent exhibitions at Montserrat College of Art, The Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and in 2010 his work will be presented as part of “reGeneration2” at Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland.