Photography has finally come full circle so that it can investigate itself and its uses, the latter of course being the aspect where things get interesting. Lisa Fairstein’s Ultra-Static throws the viewer right into a seemingly absurd world, which, however, feels oddly familiar (because it is). Pulling together references from different areas of photography the resulting images offer no relief in the form of advertizing or magazine copy, which would allow us to filter the imagery. Instead, we are left with photography’s artifice, with all that photography is so good at, and bad at. Find a conversation with the photographer below. (more)
Jörg Colberg: What makes a good photograph?
Lisa Fairstein: I’m interested in the various modes photography uses for expression, with images made by any number of personalities, agendas, viewpoints, contexts. Not what is photographed so much as why and how - how images work and how we work them distinctively. And this doesn’t only pertain to images consciously made with this foundation in mind, but to various kinds of photographs across the board. So it’s not about a “good” photograph, per se, but for me what is good in the consideration of photographs. A good photograph is mainly one that shows me an intriguing perspective.
JC: I’d love to hear more about that. What is “an intriguing perspective” for you? Can you be a bit more concrete?
LF: What I mean is that with so many people photographing and projecting any number of motivations for photographing (some more native to them than others), what fascinates me about looking at images is to consider the viewpoints of these people, and what inspires them to make pictures. I appreciate that these viewpoints exist - from incredibly contrived and well-thought commercial work, to “naive” amateur work, to very self-conscious fine art work - the breadth of motivations for photographic representation interests me, and so I find “good photographs” in all kinds of places, based on a curiosity for what is being expressed. Within that, there are some people who make great photographs, from very unique and unusual perspectives, both amateur and more considered, and, I think, that is always very exciting to find.
JC: There is a lot of talk (possibly too much) about photography having some sort of identity crisis, given our exposure to so much of it and given the fact that we seem to believe more in some photographs than in others. With Ultra-Static you seem to be acknowledging some of those discussions, playing with imagery seemingly taken out of different contexts. Could you talk a little about how you came up with the ideas that led to the project?
LF: Photography has always had an identity crisis. That is part of what fascinates me about it. And yes, we do believe in some photographs more than others. I wanted to find a way of working that addressed the different ways I had come to think about image making. This involved sort of zooming out and looking at beliefs surrounding photography and the activity of photographing and editing, breaking the “program of the camera” as the philosopher Vilém Flusser framed it, to create a space in which to work. I’m interested in photography because of the way it functions in the world as an extension of our activity. I wanted to deliver something that spoke to people both in terms of its familiarity, and also for its ability to deliver jarring expression of thought and life.
The work isn’t just about an analysis of photography’s functioning, that questioning is part of it, but I also wanted to deliver something generative along with that. Maybe instead of being a deconstruction it’s more of a reconstruction in its offering of a variation on experience. And that offering takes on what has been discussed as a contemporary sentiment in art-making today - embracing a skepticism and a sense of irony along with an earnest kind of enthusiasm. The starting place was an interest in the process of image-making, which engaged, more specifically, seductive imagery, and that could then be reconstituted into something new that would approach a different set of goals.
To execute the images I wanted to work within a set of rules that were similar to say the “rules” of commercial production - the recipe that commercial photography has developed to communicate visually - and disrupt that, formulating my own set of rules to create by. I wanted to offer a variation on imaged experience, for all that that can deliver. And I played with the actual construction of the images as well, in both analogue and digital terms, blending these modes at times to point to the construct. I was interested in incorporating the simplicity and directness of stock photography, for example, with a new type of expression, offering new meaning within the claustrophobic space of the uncannily familiar, to emphasize the space between reality and fantasy. Also, photographic representation, especially as fabricated in my images, renders the subjects and objects as existing in a similar and precarious existential space - somewhere between being and object - and I wanted to emphasize this as a way of calling attention to questions about their existence as well.
JC: When you say “the claustrophobic space of the uncannily familiar, to emphasize the space between reality and fantasy” - what do you mean by that? Could you expand on that a little?
LF: When something is familiar, but uncomfortably so, I associate it with a claustrophobic feeling. In my pictures, because of the simplicity and familiarity of the style, and how these are mixed with some unusual or unexpected situations or implied emotions, such a feeling is created. And the sense of constructed space in the images, along with the physical edges of the photograph itself, exaggerate this further. This claustrophobic feeling makes me question what I am looking at and how it makes me feel, and, in that, it might lead to a consideration of the images and subjects in terms of what is “real”, or not.
JC: Furthermore, I’d be curious how you’d explain things to someone who might not have the same art background you have. Let’s say you go to a diner and you end up chatting to someone sitting next to you at the counter, also having a cup of coffee. How would you talk about the “photographic representation […] renders the subjects and objects as existing in a similar and precarious existential space - somewhere between being and object”? The reason I’m asking is because I do think there is a need for photographs and how they operate to be talked about in a wider context, outside of the art world. But I am very worried that art-world jargon runs the risk of making such discussions inaccessible for a non-art audience.
LF: When explaining my work to people without art backgrounds I usually start out by saying that what interests me, and what partially motivates the work I make, is the how and why of taking pictures - how we can all have similar technology, and get very different results from it, partly because we are motivated to take pictures for very different reasons. People get that. Some of the aspects of the work might be lost on them, but I think there is a feeling of someone trying to express in a way they can relate to, and instantly and effectively, even without a thorough understanding of everything that might go into making the work.
As for the “precarious existential space” I was talking about, it does sound… precarious. But what motivated my thinking there is the play with the sense of belief in the representation of people and things in images. People are reduced to printouts (or digital transmissions) and exist in images side-by-side with objects that end up holding the same status. So when I was editing my images I would select images that were at once active and which also had a stillness to them - but in the images where cutouts of people are re-photographed as still lifes alongside objects - they were somehow even more still, and this thought especially stood out. That is something recognizable in the work, even without having the formal language to describe it.
We can’t all be specialists. As much I was motivated by a variety of things in the making of this work, I am happy that the images stand on their own. Even if all of my thinking isn’t evident to someone viewing the work, it clearly is work that is trying to communicate to the viewer, and in a way they are unaccustomed to. People can engage that in the experience of viewing it.
JC: Your approach to photographs appears to extend into their titles. I’m curious about your ideas behind the titles.
LF: The individual titles point to… the whimsy and the absurdity of the images (Bananas), or to the conventions in the images that are “off” (Ear), or to the conventions that are staid (The Beach), to conventions of art production, such as monochromes (Rolling Monochrome, Static Monochrome), to conventions of photography itself, as in the behavior of repetition in photographic imagery (Shadeeka Stutter #2), or to the implicit fact that they are all constructs (Chromatic Composite).
The overall title for the series, Ultra-Static, suggests how the results of the works demonstrate an unclear narrative, and toy with the conventions of photography, and with commercial photography, such that the images are stuck in their activities by virtue of not demonstrating a clear and prescribed read. They are somehow more still than we might be accustomed to seeing in photography. Static monochrome and Rolling Monochrome become the two most successful and important images of the series for me, partially for this reason.
JC: [Devil’s Advocate] The moment a medium becomes interested in itself it might in fact be having some problems. Photography seems to have come full circle now, arriving back at where it started - trying to find out what can be done, except that now instead of looking at the world, it is looking at itself. What do you think?
LF: Photography is not just looking at itself now, but looking at itself doubly. If by “problems” you mean a signaling of some kind of an end to photography, I would say that I don’t think reassessing the use of language (and photography could be said to be a language) leads to an end. Languages continue to develop and change as people change. We will continue to find new uses for the same medium, even if that means the same uses take on new meaning. People who claim the death of a medium might be unwilling to consider this. As we change, our approach to expression will change, and this applies to both traditional media and those to come.
We might have to redefine the activity of photographic image-making. Not just photographs, but photography as a whole is losing its traditional context. I think it’s important to consider that the line drawn around what makes a photograph, or a photographer, or a photographic practice, is sort of arbitrary. And so photography has the possibility to grow, perhaps beyond pre-defined criteria, and artists working with photography will grow along with it. I continue to find work that interests me, that engages photographic concerns in a variety of expressions. I don’t see an end to that. And maybe the lines delineating photographic work eventually won’t be as defined, and maybe it won’t continue to be such a topic of discussion.