Executive Director Laura Wzorek Pressley in conversation with CENTER Alum, and photographer Eric Cousineau on his commissioned series “Essential Worker” in response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. In this podcast, we hear more about the ongoing project created to honor the essential workers risking their health to keep our country’s infrastructure intact.
Selected for the Director’s Choice Award, The Other Stories project questions family inheritance in various ways. You explore what has been passed down to you through the generations– you credit your grandfather for introducing photography to you and even mention the 1952 Hasselblad he gave you. You account for your great-grandfather’s archive of 2,000 negatives and describe both these men as significant figures in documenting and perpetuating labor movements. Through the lens and archives, these figures are depicted as champions. However, this project is centered on the untold stories of substance abuse, domestic violence, and neglect. Stories such as these exist in all of our families. At least I assume they do, as they certainly exist in my lineage. Your project statement frames these stories as “inherited darkness,” and you question what your personal responsibility is in relation to ancestral trauma. While you worked on this project did you discover an answer to your question? Did you determine what your responsibility is for this inherited darkness?
I’m still knee-deep in making The Other Stories. I’m about forty to fifty pieces in at this point and between the two-thousand photographs in the archive, the printed archive material, and the digital and mixed media processes I’m working with, there are probably countless ways to chart a path through the entire body of work. It can be an overwhelming journey at times, like feeling lost in an ocean. I’ve still not found all the answers to these questions and I’m guessing some will remain elusive.
That being said, I have decided — for better or for worse — that sunlight is the best disinfectant. If you zoom out to the macro-cultural context here in the United States, we tend to repress and deny the negative, violent and shameful moments and replace them as “truth” with magnified versions of the positive. We have trouble accepting two simultaneous, but conflicting truths: that we can be capable of tremendous good and almost bottomless darkness. On the whole, I guess that most families developing in that context tend to follow suit. And we see how that has played out on the national scale. All of that history catches up with you; there is no free lunch. The path I’m taking in this body of work is to attempt to acknowledge those hidden histories and integrate them into a wider whole to try to heal. But, there’s obviously a fine line here between what’s “too personal” and “fair game” — I have to reckon with this individually on every piece I create and I’m not sure I’m a fair judge of whether I walked that line sufficiently.
What drove you to take this on as a project?
There are both emotional and practical answers to this question. An emotional answer is what we were just discussing. On the pragmatic side, I’ve been fascinated by the physicality of both mixed media projects and archives for some time. Here’s an anecdote: almost twenty years ago, I was the Editor-in-Chief of our high school yearbook and my volume was the 87th volume. Before breaking ground on it, I painstaking went through the other 86 volumes back to 1914 to create a mood board of sorts to bring that history forward in both design and execution. The physicality of those archives really captivated me. So, in the context of my art practice, I was looking for ways to push my own vocabulary and bring in my propensity to be an archeologist. I started The Other Stories about a year before the pandemic began, but as the pandemic has worn on, obviously this particular project has been well suited compared to my normal way of making images.
I can relate to the question of responsibility, and for many of us we must ask what we will carry forward from our heritage and what must be left behind, but few of us would turn to art for resolution. Why was art the method of investigation? Since it was art that you relied on, did you always intend to publicize this intimate series about the hushed stories of your ancestors?
I’ve always investigated things creatively and — in this instance — the whole of what I had in front of me to work through was visual. And, to a degree, the whole notion of inheritance even came about, to begin with as a result of me publishing a book of my last body of work. So, investigating through art was the only choice.
I’m a bookmaker at heart and, given the fact that the last time my great-grandfather worked with these pictures was on an abandoned book project, it seems obvious to me to realize it in book form at some point. But, it took me over a year of working on the series to begin to share it publicly, largely for some of the ethical reasons above. The CENTER Award is the first time I’ve shared the work widely online and this interview is the first time I’ve talked at length about it. Bringing other folks in on it is difficult, but natural.
This is a mixed-media series, which from what I know if your work is a bit of a departure from previous works. The aesthetics are very powerful in this format, it is truly compelling and rich work. The many layers of media combine well with the ambiguity of which parts of the work were repurposed family photos and which parts you added later. The final outcomes leave the viewer in a little bit of a loss in the chronology, the origin, and the author. I think memory, and in particular, trauma works this way too, as it makes us wonder what bits of ourselves, good or bad, were inherited and which are of our own making. Can you talk about the process of creating this series? What constituted a departure from former approaches to your subjects? How did you arrive at your choice of using mixed-media?
My typical approach to making photographs up until this point involved creating narratives in a “lightly controlled Mets luck” sort of way, leading to my debut book, Love We Leave Behind. For example, I’d exert control through model casting or the general direction I’d head on the road, but I’d leave to chance other details like wardrobe, makeup, posing, time of day, the specific route taken. All the photographs in that body of work are made with a digital Leica, which — as a rangefinder — sort of embodies that control meets luck persona. I’m most influenced visually by well-crafted cinema, so those photographs really wear their inspirations on their sleeves in terms of their degree of glossiness.
But, there is a big part of me drawn to the dreaminess afforded by things like instant film, vintage gear, historical processes, and mixed media. So, I’d been looking to start to expand my practice’s visual vocabulary. I had originally conceived of The Other Stories as two strands of images in conversation: one curated set of my great-grandfather’s photographs printed normally and a corresponding set of photographs made from scratch by me in my typical style in response. As I got into making the photographs, I found the contrasts between the two approaches didn’t integrate well, so I decided to lean into the archive photographs themselves and the historical processes they were created from. This forced me to exert my line of inquiry in another way, through mixed media and my graphic design instincts. That breakthrough has opened a door of possibilities across my practice moving forward.
Even though I’m still working on this body of work, my mind can’t help but occasionally wander to “what’s next” and I’m excited by the possibility of synthesizing the disparate approaches of Love We Leave Behind and The Other Stories into a singular approach which is more than the sum of the component parts.
There are some recurring motifs as well, red circles, scratchy handwriting from what appears to be grease pencils, burns, tears, and red. I have only seen these works as digital images which makes me wonder how much I am missing from seeing them as objects in-person. How much is missing by viewing these on a screen, or what is lost when these photo-based objects are viewed as a digital image? How does your process reflect the content, and in what context to envision them being viewed at their best?
The issues you ask about were definitely things I struggled with in the beginning. The thought of working with entirely unique pieces was (and is still at times) terrifying, so after I shifted away from the approach I talk about above, I started making photographs of the archive photographs. Overall, these felt too flat and the overall physicality of the constructs I was shooting attracted me more, so I decided to fully commit down the unique piece path. I don’t anticipate exhibiting or printing anything other than the unique originals. I’ve found the physicality of the originals to be reasonably preserved on the screen, which is funny considering that I don’t like the prints of them.
Even though I’m a bookmaker first, I’ve found that I’m most excited at the moment about the prospect of realizing The Other Stories on the gallery wall. That was surprising to me. The mechanics of the framing and displaying of the work on the wall coupled with the physicality of the original pieces themselves opens up a unique path for the series. This is especially true once you start to put twenty to thirty of the pieces onto the wall.
Stepping back, I think what this speaks to is that I don’t believe these mediums — the show, the book, the screen — to be “better” or “worse” than each other. Each one offers a unique model for the work to speak. The trick is finding the right way to adapt the work for each medium.
The content of the photographs in the work read like gentle memories: A man, presumably a father figure and little girls playing in the water, a family posing in the snow, and portraits like any other that are easy to imagine on a mantle in any house in the world. The photos alone read as something so familiar it is almost mundane. Yet, the photos are torn, the subject’s eyes are scratched out, some are encircled furiously, others taped together across brazen tears and red dots punctuate them with immediacy. The story behind the images and the markings made upon them are deep with emotion and meaning, yet the story itself is still untold. You talk about how you did not bear witness to the stories you are investigating in the project statement, and yet they have impacted you. They are not your stories exactly, and you can’t recall the events but clearly, something remains in the depths of your memory. As a viewer I can’t say that I am all that invested in the story itself, I am of course curious what the narrative might be. However, I do not feel like something is missing, instead, I find it easy to insert my own narrative, as if you created a space for others to enter. As you put this work together did you consider the viewer’s experience? Is it intentional to leave space for others to insert themselves, or is this perhaps my own ego kicking in? What do you intend for the viewer, if anything?
I very much consider the viewer’s experience in-so-far as I want them to have an experience considering the work — love it or hate it. It is definitely not your own ego kicking in. My intent is to leave enough space for others to enter, otherwise, I think the work would become overly specific and viewers would just bounce off. There is an added benefit here, which is that the act of conceiving of and leaving this space assists in avoiding the exploitative and ensures that the specific individuals pictured continue to have enough agency.
What has the response been from others? Did your family engage with the work at all, were they part of the process? How did your family respond?
I’m particularly proud that a gallerist recently described the work as “relentless” as that’s the spirit under which I’m operating. Creating these works using base photographs that were not captured by my hand was very foreign to me and I’ve been very surprised at the depth of the supportiveness I’ve received in the approach. It’s really helped assuage any fears I’ve had on that front.
How my family has engaged with and received the work is a lot more complex. My parents kept me at arm’s length — correctly, in my estimation — from the side of the family I’m now exploring. The distance that opened up, along with both my mother and father’s transparency about the family, is a prerequisite to making the work. Similarly, my own interactions and observations of the family (both indirect relationships and through the photographs) add a separate inflection point. But, no one in my family has influenced with intent specific decisions about how I make the work. So, in those ways, the family was simultaneously both a deep part of and not at all part of the process.
My mother and father have been supportive. That my father is supportive is particularly meaningful since he is actually in some of the pieces as a child or young man. I’m not sure how much my extended family follows my practice, so I’ve not engaged with anyone else in the family about it. My expectation is that there will be deeply conflicted feelings and opinions depending on who you ask and my guess is that there may be some degree of validity to those feelings and opinions depending. My hope is that they’ll keep as open a mind about the work as I do about their feelings about me making it.
This interview series is part of our Photography 2020 Compendium initiative wherein we are investigating the past, present, and future of photography. You are clearly part of a long line of photographers, and I wonder how you view the trajectory of photography? What has photography meant for the different generations of your family? How does it serve as a tool for the political arena? What have you witnessed as major shifts in the field, and what does it mean to be a photography today? Where is the field heeded, or where might you hope it goes?
Outside my fine-art practice, I’ve been employed in film labs and, currently, as a Product Manager for the Google Photos Print Store. I’ve watched my dad for my entire life help bring to life journalism, advertising campaigns, brands, and more through photo-engraving. My great-grandfather was telling stories both personal and political. Photography, at its root, is a tool by which we tell our own stories and myths, whether you’re referring to photography as a fine art field, or the vernacular use of the medium in albums and home, or its technical utilization in offset printing. We’re already seeing more people than ever be able to tell their stories and truths in situations where they might not have been able to in the past.
With this in mind, I anticipate photography will continue to find new methods and means by which it helps us make myth — just as it’s always done since its inception. Photography is often pegged by those inside and outside the field as somehow more utilitarian or real than fine art like painting. What those takes on photography miss is how highly adaptable photography has always been. It’s adaptable to the point that it can easily be grafted onto and evolve into many other mediums. I feel photography can become painting in a way that painting cannot become photography. This is incredibly freeing once you realize it and I think more artists, gallerists, and curators will discover this over time.
That’s not to say where the field is headed is all roses. The same adaptability that makes photography so strong as a starting vantage point in storytelling is the same adaptability that helps some of those in the political arena find new paths for increased disinformation and more effective propaganda. Tomorrow’s war is nowhere and it’s an information war. If photography was a supporting cast member of yesterday’s war, then it’s now become as central to waging war as the sword, the rifle, the machine gun, or the bomb.
Executive Director Laura Wzorek Pressley in conversation with Nicole Werbeck, Senior Supervising Editor for Visuals and Engagement, NPR, discussing service journalism, the empathetic response and Nicole’s experience of “this past year with the pandemic, photographers are the only people that often have been out; and they are the ones finding the stories”.
Your project the Traces Left Behind is centered on the South London Community New Malden, which consists of the largest population of North Korean defectors. What is your entry point into this community? How did you come to work within this context? Is there a personal connection for you? In general, how to select subjects for your projects, and what is your relationship with the subjects of the work?
I contacted a charity called NK Connect in November 2018 with Gem Fletcher, an Art Director who I was working with. They do some exceptional work in the community despite having minimal resources. I showed them some of my recent work, explained that I wanted to create some uplifting art about the community. I was interested in a mutually beneficial collaboration. This is a long term project for me; much of my time has been spent getting to know different groups within the community, building trust, and learning about their experiences. A lot of time was spent together before we even began shooting.
Our biggest challenge was the language barrier. Very few North Koreans within the community speak English. So one of the most important parts of the project was working with a translator. We connected with The Korean Senior Citizen Society who is a part charity shop, run by volunteers and part education center, running all kinds of lessons to help people in the community. There, we met some of the incredible older women who formed their traditional dance troupe who practice their routines in the back of the shop. This was a great starting point, as the ladies love to perform and enjoyed the creative process of being photographed. Other programs include lessons in how to be happy where they use laughter therapy, traditional Korean instruments, an introduction to museums in London, they learn reflexology and practice on each other, choir practice, free haircuts, and English lessons. Every day they supply a free lunch where the seniors cook for each other. Anyone is welcome to join, and it’s a crucial part of their daily rituals as well as being a lifeline for new defectors. Their ages range from around 55 to 94.
From there, they introduced us to the KPOP dance competitions which were held in the Churches in and around New Malden. So I started going to the competitions and slowly introducing myself to the community, not shooting just seeing who was interested in speaking to me. I was interested in finding out why the groups were so important to them, what were they hoping to get out of it? Is it about connection? Is it a sanctuary for them or something more existential?
I also spoke to the translator who took me around New Malden and introduced me to members of the community that was perhaps more isolated. Surl Lee is an artist (builder by trade) we visited a few times in his studio, which is a garage behind a residential home.
The translator also acted as a fixer; she found a restaurant in the back of a small supermarket that is just a door by the side of a fridge that I would never have found without her. The restaurant is run by a North Korean chef who shared various North Korean dishes with us. So much of the project has been about spending time, listening to their stories, and experiencing their incredible culture until we became friends.
The North Korean community draws considerable attention from the press, but our aim is to focus on much more of an internal understanding of the community, to look at the less tangible elements of a re-established life so far from home.
I am a great believer that it is the trivial acts that tell us the most about humanity. From my experience researching the community, it is the simple things such as dance and sharing food that has established a democratic setting whereby everyone is accepted. A safe space for people to express themselves freely, no matter what their background. This has been especially evident at the KPOP competitions, where the children have come from all different walks of life and backgrounds from different countries.
I hoped for the project as a whole to be vibrant, hypnotic take on our current political climate. Looking at identity and ideological views through rituals that at first, could be dismissed but should most definitely be celebrated. I wanted the series to have a very practical resolve, in that it helps bring together the refugee communities that live alongside one another here in London. It also aims to celebrate cultural heritage whilst looking at the human rights element of individual stories. The different ways we express pain and compassion or how symbolic gesture is used not just for oneself but to maintain a connection to one’s roots, to one’s country. I wanted the stories to be told in a more intimate way and show how we use our bodies & movement to digest complex emotions, focusing on the power of the more ethereal aspects these activities sometimes bring out.
My work often looks at the idea of negotiating borders and looking at space and place in terms of theory. The two different aspects of the human/landscape relationship.
It is never personal to me, my memories, it’s specific to that culture and country. Also combined with my interest in leisure sites as a perfect case study for the way we interact and what we can learn from humanity when looking at what is initially perceived as trivial.
The “human dimension” of a landscape has always been important to me but it has become increasingly interesting recently whilst I am focusing more and more on the environmental factors we are facing at present, advances in technology, and the effect that has on the people and the land. So I’m looking at the important use of landscape as a physical ‘space’ for living and working, but also as a ‘place’ with its meanings and contributions to societal identity. Not focusing on my identity but the identity of that country and their history. Through that, however, I’m also reflecting on my place in the world and my understanding but that isn’t something I focus on with the work more a reason behind why I make the work and what fuels me to do so.
It’s through landscape perceived as ‘place’ that I look at the concepts of ‘sense of place’ and ‘place identity’. In this case, it’s London, which I haven’t done before, I’m not usually making work about my home. This project is looking more at place-related behavioral rules and how they are being transferred.
These people connect through dance. By performing in front of each other they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position but they are so enthusiastic which creates a really positive space. Supporting the idea that people know how to act within their environment in a secure way and thus build up a personal relationship to it. I’m becoming more interested in mental map studies within this project and the notion that borders support people’s efforts to establish a clear representation of their places.
The video begins with a stage-like setting presenting a crisp palette of gentle tones as text in Korean and English provide a little context: “defectors come to settle; to build a new life free from the regime.” Immediately, it is a beautiful scene, one that reveals a feeling of joy, grace, and intention. The content is contemporary, yet traditional, clean, and yet a little unclear as to where and when the scene is situated. It is a compelling juxtaposition of concepts and aesthetics, one that carries throughout. Can you talk about your choices? Why did you choose to present amiable aesthetics that feel light, and pleasant as the backdrop to content that is heavy, or at very least complex? Was there intention in blurring the visual sense of time, while providing text that gave specific clues about the subjects? How do you utilize the balance of aesthetics and content to portray the complexity of your subject?
For this project, I was looking a lot at the colors that appear naturally in North Korean architecture. Oliver Wainwright’s book ‘Inside North Korea’ was a great resource in terms of studying the color associated with the regime, these quite sickly pink, blue and green pastels are a recurring theme throughout, so that was the reason for the color scheme.
I’m also an avid fan of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle and I think that has seeped into the aesthetic unintentionally, the push and pull between sculpture and mythology. That’s something I hope to push with the next studio shoot of the artist also, bringing the themes that naturally occur in his work to life and presenting him and the props we are going to use in quite a sculptural way.
The final set for this first chapter ended up being heavily inspired by a particular installation by the artist Marleen Sleeuwits, who kindly gave her permission. She very much investigates the idea of non-places, creating spaces that could be anywhere and nowhere. Impersonal environments where time and geographic location becomes abstracted, concepts which were vital to the film as we needed to use the set to isolate the individuals from their day-to-day lives. Moving them away from reportage, using the set as a visual device to create a heightened reality where there was more room left for contemplation.
That use of abstraction was important because it was only by removing other referential frameworks that we can give each story it’s own blank canvas in a sense, which really helps focus in on each of these individuals. So we are able to absorb the emotion in these movements and allow their character to come out. It’s a visual device to help the audience resonate and feel a sense of connection, whilst attempting to remove some of the prejudice or longstanding clichés.
Your work often explores the relationships of land and identity and how the two inform one another. You also tend to incorporate memory that is framed both by nationalism and the internal interpretation of one’s life. In Traces Left Behind, your subjects are defectors, individuals who have left their home nation, and established a home in a new country. In this case, nationalism, place, memory, and identity are renegotiated. Elements of the old life are preserved, and others are left behind. What attracts you to the ability to rewrite our own narratives, to keep what we aim to preserve, and to liberate ourselves from what we object to? There is a unique agency that you seem to point to in a way that, at least to me, reads like a heroic notion of self-determination. Is this agency something you think we all possess, or is it unique to specific circumstances? Why is this a significant concept to explore for you?
I am greatly affected by any narratives that relate to abuse of power, we see it all around us in different forms and to varying degrees. It can so often make people feel powerless or overwhelmed and that is something I strongly object to. One rarely knows their own strength or self-determination until they experience extreme adversity & hardship. I am definitely drawn to the concept of resilience.
I’d been thinking about how people get trapped in a narrative of trauma. It’s almost as though you’re supposed to feel ashamed of your past when something bad has happened to you. So the rituals and the performing of these dances are ways of expressing their culture but not having to do it through language, which I think is quite healing. I began thinking about movement as a form of healing and how non-verbal activities are often the things that resolve trauma rather than having to sit and relive something. New bodies of work usually start for me, when I have had a visceral response to a certain moment.
I think it’s quite often an emotional reaction to something I have experienced or read. I tend to work quite intuitively and then follow that with a period of extensive research, to help me understand how I can push the parameters of my chosen subject matter. It’s very much about putting the time in for me and usually ends up being quite labor-intensive, whilst I’m trying to understand what it is that has captured my imagination and where the nuance lies within the material, and the pitfalls in succumbing to fantasy, nostalgia, and divisive stereotypes when looking at North Korea as an artist.
There was an interesting article in Frieze written by Cleo Roberts that summed up my overall feeling well. She addresses the way in which ‘The popular imagination often holds North Korea as a hermetic state with which any contact is untenable.’
As I was reading the article I was in complete agreement, it’s important to avoid idealism in the work. She discusses the importance of undoing these stereotypes, and instead ‘revealing the higher degree of mobility, autonomy, and access than is conventionally associated’.
Looking at the nation’s humanity, averting attention from the’ country’s masquerade’ and looking at and making space for the ‘individuality’ to be drawn out from this ‘totalitarian state’.
Artist Surl Lee crossed the border more than 10 times something I had no idea was even possible, and whilst he mentions that this may have been because of a mixture of naivety and not fully realizing how much danger he was putting himself into, that paints a very different picture than the uniformity of the mass games and compliance that we have in our consciousness ‘reveling in uniformity and obscure characterization’ as Cleo Roberts sensibly points out.
She uses a phrase at the bottom of her article about ‘showing the glitches in this synchronized operation’. I’ve thought about that a lot in this project, each of the North Korean subjects are these glitches and it’s very important that they aren’t disenfranchised or treated as the ‘other’, they are a flourishing part of the London community now & I would say much better at finding and building community/traditions than many of the people born here appear to be. We have a lot to learn from them and are lucky to be invited to experience and share their culture.
This interview is part of a larger series of investigations that CENTER is conducting under the banner of the Photography 20/20 Compendium. We are exploring how lens-based media has evolved in the 21st Century, its role in the present day, and speculating about the future of the field and medium.
What have you witnessed in the 21st century that you consider significant shifts in photography and lens-based media? How do you see the role of lens-based media impacting the world today, and what do you hope for the medium’s future?
The dissemination of imagery has become so fast that I think many people have become aware of the constant level of distraction that we are all engaged in. There seems to be this idea of mass preservation of every experience. I think people are becoming increasingly suspicious of this constant level of engagement & starting to realize it is unnecessary and unhealthy.
It is important for me to use my practice in conjunction with a particular cause, to figure out how I can use my practice to benefit society. I think across the world we are seeing people turn to a slightly more holistic approach to life and work, this has always been important to me and something I am putting a great deal of thought into, I think most people are. As a result, I think there will be a greater level of introspection and attempts to study and dismantle the medium for lens-based media.
Hopefully, we’ll also see new levels of interactivity between the language of the media and how artists are tackling this through their art. Each type of image influences the production and reception of the other – advertising, music videos, TV, etc. So I would imagine there will be a deeper level of interconnectedness. That is something I very much admire in artists such as Matthew Barney and Julian Rosefeldt’s work. They address the metaphors of changing and vanishing systems, ideologies, and societies. I think we are all getting more adept at creating our own visual language and developing these interior worlds to make statements about our fundamental values and creating an important dialogue around civilization and the current state of the world.
Thank you Virgil for being in conversation with me about your project, My husband won’t tell me his first name, which was selected for the Editor’s Choice Award. In researching your project I enjoyed discovering an overwhelming amount of content on your career as a Neurologist. You have also been widely praised for your photography skill set as well, and it seems the intersection of these two worlds you traverse makes for very powerful work. As someone with a neurological condition (Temporal Lobe epilepsy), I have found art to aid greatly in understanding my condition and in expressing to loved ones what it is I live with. I have found refuge in art practices and often use both written and visual arts as a tool for navigating the condition. The fragility of the brain, at least for me, has also allowed for discoveries of the brain’s resilience.
Given that your project is created with and about your patients, I am curious if your photography practice is useful within your medical practice? Have you found images, art, and art-making as useful tools for aiding in living with ongoing neurological conditions? Have your patient’s families become aware of your photography, if so what is their response to the work? It is very easy to see how the medical practice has informed the photography practice, but can you talk a little about how photography has informed the medical practice?
Photography allows me to socialize with my patients. Safe, social interactions, often lacking for them, cause our brain to release dopamine and serotonin creating positive, healthy emotions. Clinic visits can feel stressful but engaging with them in their homes, having coffee, and socializing is not. Consequently, when my patients come back to my clinic they recall me not as their neurologist but as the photographer-friend who spent time in their home. The concept of “home” is a more durable and permanent memory than an anxiety-laden clinic visit.
An example of this occurs in my community at a dementia daycare facility, where I am a board member. The focus at this facility is engaging the participants in art, music, dancing, cooking amongst other activities.
I don’t know if their families are aware of my photography, but they rely on me as a neurologist.
In exploring your work I kept finding myself drawn into the titles of the photos as much as the images themselves. That might bother some photographers that I find the text as intriguing as the images, but the poetry is undeniably compelling: I understand you more than my left side, My Brain is fogged. It’s dirt, and even the project name itself, My husband won’t tell me his first name, these titles offer insights to the work, but just as powerfully they offer insights into the conditions and experiences of dementia. How do you select the titles for the images, and what are the origins of these poetic lines? How do you view the relationship between text and image in your work? Is the use of text as significant to the use of images for you?
Over the years, I’ve accumulated quotes from my dementia patients. This is the origin of the captions. Like most photographers, I don’t care for captions. However, I try to find a way to interweave quotes with photographs and so this is my use of captions in this context.
I feel quotes are equally important to this project because that is the fundamental basis that drives this project. However, I think quotes can be overused, diluting the project.
Initially, I made portraits and then had the opportunity to collaborate with Larry Fink for several years. About a year ago he said, “you need to make perception photographs.” Perception? I thought what’s that? He said you’ll figure it out. In the midst of the pandemic, I’ve been making perception photos. Being temporarily relieved of my professional work due to the pandemic I retreated to the small farm my wife and I have, spending my time there. Retreating there I had a new focus, allowing me to put a magnifying glass on my subject and clicking the shutter at the very threshold before it burns. I notice now what is actually there more than before. The sun rising, sending rays through the woods, bats, swallows, weeds, shadows, and so on.
I usually have a quote in mind, go out into the woods, and make a photo. Once in a while, but not very often, they are a good match for the quote. Occasionally I dig into my archive. Most of the time I remember a quote and go out to make a photograph.
My grandfather died while suffering from dementia. He was a quiet man as long as I knew him and much of his life was a secret to me. Towards the end, he often confused me for old friends of his past, and he spoke to me as if I were one of them. I learned more about his past in those final confusing and heartbreaking moments than I have ever had before dementia kicked in. There was something akin to a portal that opened into his past, and yet he still seemed so distant I could not share the joy of learning of his youth with him directly. Memory is a slippery thing, and photography for many is one of the primary ways of grasping and validating a memory. However, even an image can be untrue. It seems like memory and images are two things we rely on to understand our histories and in turn ourselves.
How do you perceive the relationship between images and memory? How has your work as a neurologist informed your interpretation of memory? How has photography informed your interpretation memory?
Photographs and memories, that’s a good question. Whether on a screen or in print photographs are visual objects. The print form uses multiple senses: visual, tactile, spatial, smell, and finger movement. A photo on a screen uses mostly visual input. That’s why I make handcrafted Pt/Pl prints. They are the most archival prints lasting maybe thousands of years. Memories are transient but Pt/Pl prints are permanent. Vision and memory are pretty well understood through neuroanatomy and neurochemistry. The eyes are the camera (or the video camera) of the outside world but the brain processes it into meaningful information, the internal world. Vision is the most prominent sense that we have, and memories are stored in the hippocampus, the memory center, along with other areas of the brain. And it’s no wonder that a photograph from the past triggers past memories. People with Alzheimer’s dementia, which is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes gradually declining language and comprehension of language, predominantly depends on vision and auditory sensation amongst others. It’s not that simple but vision and auditory sensations remain somewhat less compromised early in the disease process.
Anne Basting quote: “A memory is not an object preserved in the museum of our minds. It is a living, changeable thing that is shaped by who we are when we encode it and by who we are when we retrieve it.”
In your project statement, you advocate for spreading awareness about dementia. You speak of the need for more financial support as the rates of those with dementia will increase exponentially until a cure is developed. Since the project’s inception have you witnessed any improvements to the methodologies of treating dementia? Has your work been utilized in ways that have helped advocate for more support in treating dementia? How can we, the readers and admirers of your work support your efforts for advocacy?
For over a hundred years there has been no improvement in the treatment of dementia. While much has been learned about pathophysiology, there is no cure or effective treatment. To my knowledge, there has been no evolution in the care of dementia patients. They are usually socially isolated and often warehoused in long term facilities. Their only activities are to play Bingo and use coloring books. Obviously, this is inadequate as we know that integrating the arts along with music and dance allows for an authentic mental and emotional engagement. They have unlimited creative potential. We can do more.
Viewers can contribute a donation or volunteer to their local nonprofit day programs for dementia patients. Nearly 1 in 3 of us will develop dementia if we live to 80 years of age and nearly one in 2 of us will take care of someone with dementia. We will be them.
My work has not been used to advocate for dementia patients at this time. But I’m working on a book project.
This interview series is part of our larger analysis of how artists in the 21st century are advancing lens-based media, and how lens-based media has become ubiquitous.
Can you speak to your trajectory with the medium? How have you seen the medium evolve in the past 20 years, or throughout your career? What speculations, hopes, or concerns do you have for the use of lens-based media in the future?
I can’t recall when photography wasn’t part of my life. It became branded on my brain the moment I stepped into a dark room with my father and saw an image appearing before my eyes, on a piece of paper in a tray with water and with a red light on. I believe it was my first language in some way because my father was a photographer long before I was born making beautiful 8 x 10 silver gelatin prints of his family.I thought every kid had a darkroom in their basement. Photography has evolved in the last 20 yrs., digital photography, Facebook, Instagram. An explosion of photographs. But they’re not photographs they are JPEG‘s and viewed on a monitor, not physical photographs. I prefer the handcrafted print which is a solid artifact. I combine digital photography with a handcrafted print as I use digital negatives for Pt/Pl contact printing. I feel photography is taken for granted these days with the use of the iPhone and lacking consideration for the craft. However, I think the abundance of people participating in the visual language of photography is a good thing. I believe ( and hope) there is a resurgence of alternative photography practices. I don’t know about the future of photography, but it is here to stay for now.
Executive Director Laura Wzorek Pressley in conversation with Ann Thomas, Senior Curator of Photographs at the National Gallery of Canada discussing themes from the essay “From Conversations in Time to New Narratives: Building Photograph Collections for the Future.”
Executive Director Laura Wzorek Pressley in conversation with Rubén Esparza, Independent Curator, Artists, Founder + Director, Queer Biennial discussing the genesis of the Queer Biennial, experimentation and his impressions of the submissions and winners of the 2020 CENTER Director’s Choice Awards
Your project Imagined Futures was selected for the Curator’s Choice Award, the project explores concerns that you describe as universal to queer immigrants. In your practice, you have integrated your own experience as a queer immigrant originating from Peru. The work feels like a portal into personal complexities of living in an age that is widely situated within identity politics, for better or worse, often defining how each of us relates to one another.
How do you navigate the relationship between the personal and the political in your practice – are they inherently intertwined in your work or are there elements that distinguish them as separate constructs?
I don’t think of it in such binary terms; I mostly focus on my personal experience with the full awareness of the political implications of a queer Latinx body taking space in institutional spaces and conversations. Imagined Futures addresses concerns universal to most immigrants, regardless of their sexuality. My experience, however, is colored by my queerness. To be an immigrant is inherently political—to leave your home in order to embrace a different one is a very difficult choice. All of my work weaponizes my personal experiences to bring light to larger issues of our time. I believe that the more personal something is, the more universal it becomes.
In Imagined Futures, I access this idea of the futures we didn’t get to live in our home countries, and the persistent thoughts of what our lives might have looked like had we never left. Many people think of immigrants in the present tense, where we are presumably better off than where we were before. But most immigrants don’t want to leave their homes, we have to. So for me, the political or radical act here is in affirming that immigrants have complex identities and relationships to their homes before they even get here. Immigration does not have to be an act of erasure—through this work I propose a new way to honor and release a past that may haunt you.
Beyond the dichotomy of personal and political, you also reference the individual and universal, framed as a private ritual that is then shared publicly. The dichotomy seems like an important element in Imagined Futures, which presents a few seemingly opposing concepts that first appear to be polar ends of a spectrum. Yet somehow, the work transcends the polarity in a way that illuminates the vast space between two concepts. For example, the individual loss you mourn in the portrait becomes representative of the universal mourning of all those who have left life at the expense of an imagined future. Similarly, you perform a private ritual to produce the images, and still, the public component of sharing that intimate space blurs the lines between what is public and what is private.
I come across a lot of work that rests on one end of the spectrum or the other, what influences your choices to work on the entire spectrum between the individual and universal, or between the private and public? Is dichotomy, or the space between two opposing concepts familiar terrain in your practice?
This has been a long-time struggle in my practice that I have learned to balance. I’ve always made autobiographical work but am fearful of the trappings of narcissism. So I work really hard to make sure my work tells my singular experience but always reflecting on a larger universal concept. The specificity of my stories has proven fruitful—humans are curious by nature and pine for an intimate look into someone else’s life. I try to capitalize on that curiosity to then engage the viewer in a larger conversation about topics I’m interested in: immigration, queerness, masculinity, colonial intervention. This project, more so than any others, really played with the concept of private and public on a lot of different levels, both conceptually and formally. In my work, I think in layers, with each layer being a point of access. I try to remain aware that some people may access the work through its formal qualities, while others may identify with the themes in it. As each layer is peeled, there are always ways to go deeper. I find it respectful to, at the very least, honor the person who does not like my work by investing in thoughtful, considered, professional presentation. Very often I see work I do not like, but I can appreciate the effort an artist has put into presenting their work professionally and thoughtfully. As a viewer, I feel respected and that’s one small way to positively access the work for me.
Imagined Futures emphasizes the significance of mourning, as a ritual and what seems to be a healing process of letting go, or perhaps finding closure around something that was never realized yet imagined so vividly its realness is undoubtedly valid. You describe the choice of using a photo booth as akin to a confessional, an apparatus of the Catholic sacrament of confession. The ritual quality to your process for this project seems like a very significant element in the work.
How does ritual inform your practice? Most rituals have distinct beginnings and ends, confession for example, typically begins with atonement and results in one reconciling their sins with God and obtaining forgiveness and mercy. Where does the ritual for Imagined Futures begin and end? Is it a personal ritual the audience bears witness to, or are the viewers somehow intertwined in the process?
Though my work has always been introspective, this is the first time I actually employed a ritual. The connection to the Catholic confessional presented itself in the process. I made the first work for this series on the eve of Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
I was in Berlin at an artist residency and that evening was so strange and surreal—I was completely aghast and did not know what to think. I popped into a photo booth cabin simply seeking refuge, I wanted to be in a small, quiet space and that was my best bet in a public space. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a future that might look different from what I knew was to come, and I made a picture (or four) of that moment by inserting a coin into the machine. In that moment I felt a symbiotic relationship with the booth, it became my collaborator. It was powerful to release control of the picture-making process, centering my experience and letting the machine make a picture of this being mourning in its womb. Almost a year later the idea for this project surged and when deciding what shape the project might take, I thought of that moment in that photo booth in Berlin. I realized it was a perfect way to make the work on-the-go and the process itself set the parameters for the formal elements of the work: four unique images, each a standard size, all black-and-white analog images, varying chemistry markings. From then on I began to draw parallels and connections. One day sitting inside the booth I noticed how much it mimicked the Catholic confessionals of my youth, which I hated, and how this was a great opportunity to reclaim that experience. Each time I got to make a confession in my very own terms. The ritual was for me. I was fully aware that these images would eventually be shared publicly so I focused on my own experience, the rest would come later. Once the objects went on the wall they became something else for me, they became public property in a way, they became a shared experience. People often ask me if I remember what I was thinking in each photo—which future was I thinking of? The answer is no, I don’t remember, and I don’t really care to. I’m more interested now in the conversations we can have about what feelings the work incites in the viewer, about global migration.
Imagined Futures is presented as “50 seemingly identical self-portraits.” This alludes to the idea that the intentionally similar imagery you present is concealing an unseen element that is not fully represented in the frame. The viewer is presented with images that look almost identical, and yet the work suggests that a distinguishing variable is unseen.
How do you balance the content that is seen and the content that is suggested in its absence? How do you balance the concrete with the ambiguous? What motivates you to leave the viewer in the space between knowing and the unknown?
I speak earlier about layers, and this has a lot to do with it. I think of this very intentionally in my work. I try to make work that is specific enough that it guides the viewer in a certain direction, and then I purposely allow for a certain amount of abstraction and universality so there is room for curiosity and imagination. An earlier project titled “Life Stand Still Here” presented works that were fairly abstracted in nature, and in that case, I used very specific titles to nudge the viewer toward a general direction. I’m not a fan of the age-old excuse “the work is about whatever you want it to be.” I am very intentional with my motives but I think there’s nothing worse than spoon-feeding the viewer. So that “unseen” content is where the magic happens. Once the work is on the wall, I’m not seeking a specific reading of the work, I’m rather hoping for a general emotional response. The work becomes a mirror, and each viewer will project their own experiences onto it—whether I want it or not.
This interview series is part of our larger analysis of how artists in the 21st century are advancing lens-based media, and how lens-based media has become ubiquitous.
Can you speak to your trajectory with the medium? How have you seen the medium evolve in the past 20 years, or throughout your career? What speculations, hopes, or concerns do you have for the use of lens-based media in the future?
I reside firmly in the photography community, that’s where I’ve “grown up,” but I have not taken a picture in a very long time.* The last project I made for which I went out and made photographs with a camera was almost 10 years ago. Over the last decade, I’ve moved from taking pictures to manipulating pictures, to getting something else to take the picture for me, to working with archives and found footage, and lately, I’ve been working with printmaking, laser etching on velvet, moving image, installation, and sculpture. The photography world is very siloed. While most fine arts majors tend to interact and study different mediums, photography programs continue to be segregated from the rest of the art world. We have our own magazines, our own festivals, our own review events, our own art fairs, our own art centers, etc. I think we do ourselves a disservice by not having a closer relationship with other mediums. Many of the most exciting artists working today in photography are re-inventing the medium through collage, installation, sculpture, performance. I hope in the future we can decentralize photography and continue to invite more possibilities for experimentation.
*When I say that, I refer strictly to my fine art practice: I take pictures daily with my phone, and I have an active commercial photography business.