with Charlie Schultz
Lucas Blalock (b 1978) unstraps a sturdy looking back brace as he recounts a story about descending a staircase the wrong way. I can tell by the way he winces that he is still in pain, but I can also tell by the way he grins and chuckles that he finds the story of his misstep kind of funny. This is characteristic of Blalock’s art too; humor runs like a current through the sophistication of his approach to picture making. He’s playful but he’s also a deeply thoughtful individual, one who it can be said is pioneering his generation’s reconsideration of photographic images by way of his awareness and manipulation of the “behind-the-picture-plane space of photography.”
In advance of his exhibition at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Ketchup as a Vegetable, Blalock paid a visit to the Rail HQ for a conversation with Charlie Schultz that ranged from Blalock’s formative years, to his perspective-broadening experience of Moby Dick, to the way his new work (somewhat) describes the off-kilter quality of our contemporary moment.
Charlie Schultz (Rail): So, Lucas, tell me about your first camera.
Lucas Blalock: [Laughs]. I got a point-and-shoot near the end of high school. It was a very unremarkable camera—but it was a camera, and the pictures that I made with it were the pictures—a couple years later—that I used as my portfolio for my first photo class at Bard. They were just little 4×6 prints.
Rail: No kidding? What drew you to the photo program at Bard?
Blalock: I was really interested in music and movies, and I was reading a lot of novels. I thought maybe I wanted to write movies, you know? Then I got to Bard, and there were a lot of people who knew a lot about art. I didn’t know anything about art at the time, so it was this incredibly exciting field that—to me—felt endless. Photography was a way in to that. It was a way to get to participate in this conversation that I felt like was going on. And for somebody who was interested in storytelling and moviemaking in the late ’90s, photography seemed pretty attractive. Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall were highly visible artists. Photography felt available in that way, so I luckily got into a class.
Rail: Were the cinematically-oriented photographers like [Gregory] Crewdson, [Jeff] Wall, and Cindy Sherman early inspirations for you?
Blalock: Yes, definitely they were part of the equation. But there was a great photo historian at Bard named Laurie Dahlberg, and I took a lot of Laurie’s classes. The first one I took was called “Literature and Photography,” which introduced important thinkers like Susan Sontag. So there was this sort of cinema moment that I was really excited and very curious about, but I was also interested in the Beat Generation and the work of Robert Frank.
Rail: When did you start using large format?
Blalock: Oh, maybe two semesters in? Large format is a required course at Bard. I took my intro class and then the next class you can take is either “Color” or “4×5,” and I believe I took “4×5” first, and then “Color.” I mean, Jeff Wall, particularly, was someone I was excited about and this is the tool he is using!
Rail: And you stuck with it, so you must have found something in that tool that was more effective or more suitable to your temperament than a point-and-shoot.
Blalock: It’s hard to say exactly. Early on, it was because I was staging these very cinematic situations. I was setting up lights and doing this whole production. So, having a camera that would give you a big, clear image made a lot of sense.
Rail: It’s not just that a large format delivers more visual information; it’s a much slower and more deliberate process.
Blalock: Definitely, and I think if you can really fall into that way of participating and seeing. I shot 8×10 for a lot of years and a certain kind of decision-making not only becomes available but really becomes necessary. Once I started doing it, it was never tempting to not do it.
Rail: Stephen [Shore] is such a seminal figure at Bard, and he’s got a big show up at MoMA right now, so we’re all acknowledging again how important he has been not just to American photography, but to contemporary photography in general. As one of your teachers, do you have any memories of him from Bard that are particularly meaningful?
Blalock: Yes [Laughs]. Stephen is a huge figure at Bard. The pedagogical model he set up is something I still feel like I’m thinking about and working through. There’s a real clarity to the way he describes what it is you’re doing when you’re out there with the camera. But I didn’t actually get to work with him one-on-one until my senior year, when he was my senior project advisor—I never had Stephen in a class.
So, by the time I got there I was braiding together two working models. I had taken two road trips across the country making Stephen-Shore-pictures, basically. You know, large-format American-landscape pictures, and then those were interspersed with more cinematic, staged pictures. I was interested in marrying these two propositions. One of the Stephen stories I remember takes place maybe three weeks before my senior project went up. I had all these little prints tacked up on cork board, trying to think about editing—and I remember him coming for the meeting and being like, “Oh, I think I understand how these go together.” “What? You didn’t know until now?” [Laughs]. I think the amazing thing about Stephen as a teacher is his focus on how you could make the picture you had made better. So, it was like, you’d make a picture of some outlandish subject, and Stephen would talk to you about the lack of attention in the bottom third of the frame, or the light. The structural quality of the picture is what you got feedback on most often, and that was super productive for me.
Rail: You mentioned the idea of attention, which is a foundational element in Stephen’s way of working and thinking. What qualities of attention do you look for in an image? Or what qualities of attention do you imagine the viewer will be engaged by?
Blalock: That’s a good question. For Stephen it’s all about attention. Stephen talks about using the camera to take a “screenshot” of what is in front of him, to picture the way we see without a camera. And those investigations are really fascinating because they’re reflexive; not only attending to the subject in front of the camera, but also to the seer seeing. Other of Stephen’s works also do this but without the naturalism, where the subject is most thoroughly defined by our awareness of the monofocal logic of the camera. I would say that my own work starts here but it is something that I tried to take my own way, and the apparatus that I am looking through is different,
One of the most remarkable things about working with photography is that nearly everyone understands how to relate through a photograph back to the world. We have all had a lot of practice! And making photographs for me is first about attending to what is in front of me, trying to develop a relationship to my subject so that the viewer can share in that. But then when I get the film back, often times there are sort of remainders, or possibilities that remain open. It started off really procedurally. I would think, “Ahh, I like this picture, but I don’t like this thing in the corner.” And instead of discarding the picture, that lack become an opportunity to correct or adjust it. And what has been remarkable for me is that as I have been working, photography’s vernacular has begun to expand via the use of apps like Instagram and Snapchat to include the kinds of virtual gestures I have been working with. I could say now that what I’m really interested in is this sort of behind-the-picture-plane space of photography. At this point a photograph is not only a window onto a homogenous elsewhere in the world, if we can use the old window metaphor, but a window onto a space cohabitating elements of the material and the virtual. And in my work, to go back to attention, I am really attending to both.
Rail: You mentioned having a relationship with the thing you’re photographing. What kind of a relationship? Does it start as an intellectual curiosity or more of an emotional connection, and how does that relationship evolve as you move through your process?
Blalock: It can start out in a lot of different ways—I mean I really allow myself a lot of freedom as far as starting points go—but the most common is just seeing possibility in something. Looking at something and feeling that it is overlooked or underutilized. There’s something amorous in it, but it can also just come from me trying to drum this feeling up in myself. It feels both-sided: the relationship might be generated by the object, but it can also be generated internally, or somewhere inbetween.
Rail: Lets get more specific. Can we talk about your watermelon picture, Melon Fingers (2015), with regard to this question of relationships? When I first encountered that picture I definitely responded with my belly before my brain! I mean you see this delicious slice of juicy fruit and then you see these slices of finger tips. I remember feeling attracted to the watermelon and all the warm associations it draws up for me, but then seeing the finger tip slices—and getting this gut level fear that came straight from childhood warnings about knives. As if the photo was a warning against the dangers of enjoying watermelon.
Blalock: That’s interesting. [Laughs] I brought it to the studio, in part because it felt charged with these kinds of associations, and also for its weird seedlessness. Some objects feel like they've already been Photoshoped, and in this case, it has been on a genetic level. So once I had it under the lights and I had photographed it on its own I had this idea of touching it because there was a strangeness between the smoothness of the stretchy plastic wrapper and the cool texture of watermelon beneath it. I was shooting with a friend, and I asked her to put her hand on one side of it and I did the same, which made the melon itself feel like some sort of conductor, and I shot it that way. So I made this set of pictures feeling out what this thing was and how I might draw it into my universe and in the end, when I got the negatives back, I initially thought about doing some kind of multi-panel situation.
Rail: Like Dan Graham?
Blalock: Yeah, exactly or William Wegman’s dropping milk piece. But eventually it all got collapsed into one. I remember liking that the fingernails kind of doubled as seeds in a funny way. I love language slippage, where something can suggest a read, or parlay that suggestion on to another; to cutting your fingers off, or seeds, or the physical feeling of touching, or what have you. This particular suggestion of touch is something I have been thinking a lot about both through the faux touching of my digital interventions and through the suggestion of haptic engagement in the objects. As things—as objects—photographs are pretty unsatisfying. I mean, they have no real volume, no real surface but this has been a kind of opportunity to draw attention to this lack and replace it with surrogate surfaces and volumes in the photographic subjects themselves. This is something photographer Torbjorn Rodland gets at in his brilliant Sentences on Photography, “Lacking an appealing surface, a photograph should depict surfaces appealingly.” I think the watermelon picture is one of my more successful suggestions of this kind of physical feeling.
Rail: Before we can go headlong into talking about your pictures, I want to talk a little bit more about your formative years. We’ve talked about Bard, but after Bard, you went and worked with Vik Muñiz for a while. Can you tell me what that was like, what you would do for Vik? What did you learn from him?
Blalock: Sure, it was great. So I spent my twenties working various jobs—restaurants and bookstores and those kinds of things—and protecting the idea of doing my own work. Eventually I came back to New York after having returned to the South for a few years after graduating from Bard. When I was a student I had studied with Vik and now back in NY some years later they thought of me when a job opened up at his studio. Vik’s studio assistant was about to take a teaching gig in Texas, and they asked if I would like to take over. It was a real nine-to-five. I was the resident photographer, helped manage print production, sent out JPEGS, and did anything else that had to do with imaging or photography.
I think as an artist one of the things I got out of it was to start to understand how a show gets made or how a book gets made. As a young artist I was too neurotic and too much of a perfectionist, which was pretty paralyzing. Working with Vik helped me understand that solving issues means working through them and that a lot of discovery happens along the way. I also met a lot of people and developed relationships with folks I still collaborate with. All in all, lots of wonderful things.
Rail: I would imagine that by the time you got to Vik’s studio you had already put one foot in the world of digital image manipulation?
Blalock: I had. It’s funny, I still have some experiments from college with weird Photoshop moves in them, but I couldn’t understand at that point what those things could possibly mean. It just felt really arbitrary. I couldn’t plug it into anything. I thought about the computer as a sort of alternative darkroom for a long time, and a photograph as a picture made with a camera and a darkroom. It took me a number of years before I began to reimagine it on some terms, and when I did, the things that I’m doing now sort of came into view.
There was a real shift in my work, around 2007/2008. I tell this story when I give talks, but the transitional moment for me was in part brought about by reading Moby Dick, which is funny. That book is so weird and funny and strange, and I felt so much closer to it than I thought I would.
Rail: Wait. What? Moby Dick?
Blalock: I was unsure at the time that being a photographer was exactly where I was headed. By 2006 I was making some sculpture and painted panels for shows in North Carolina and even considering going back to school for architecture. Photography felt like an overly narrow pursuit and a lot of the artists I was getting interested in worked outside of the medium. But in a funny way reading Melville got me to rethink all of that and reimagine the project I was working on.
Moby Dick was published in 1851, which is roughly ten years after the invention of photography, and this pairing, and my love of the novel, got me to take a much harder look at photographs, and eventually painting made around that time. The moment itself also started to fascinate me, especially the way the invention and development of new technologies in the second half of the 19th century fundamentally re-coded all aspects of the world, which felt surprisingly topical in 2007 as the Internet and the smartphone were remapping the world around me. My sense of the history that framed my life in substantive ways got much deeper. Before reading Moby Dick most of the influences I would claim would have been from the period after the Second World War. Afterward, the unexpectedness of its influence led me to look at a lot of material that I just wasn’t thinking through. One of the discoveries I made was in connecting to the history of photography in a way that I hadn’t previously. This set the stage for a lot of looking.
This is a bit of a jump but around the same time I started to really look to Jean Luc Godard’s filmmaking as a possible model of how to go forward. I just really liked those movies—I liked the way they folded things together, like their color sense, I liked the jokes and the disruptive cinema moments. I also liked that they were made with such a great economy of means and that Godard’s limitation of resources became part of the ethos of the films. But maybe the most important thing I got from Godard was the way he was plundering the history of cinema to make his movies.
So, at the time—in 2008, I had just moved back to New York, and I was shooting in the studio for the first time, and I was looking at all this work I had not been thinking about before and I had this feeling that all of these pictures might be folded somehow into my own thing. The last ingredient is that through Godard I had turned on to Brecht and had read his collection of writings, On Theater. After work in the evenings I was coming home and setting up this kind of tabletop studio in my living room. The whole thing was very theatrical. I was literally setting up a backdrop and putting light on to these objects in this sort of miniature object theater. I started thinking, through Brecht, about the kind of labor that I was doing and how I might bring this labor—as he did—into the production. I found, in fairly short order, that the labor that I was really hiding was the work done on the computer. I clearly remember the first time I sort of scribbled with a clone-stamp on a picture and how wrong it felt. It was a way to behave badly but also plugged it into these ideas that I was really curious about—I was like, huh! There’s something in here!
Rail: When you mentioned “a different era’s photography,” I thought immediately of the technological circumstances that create these shifts. Our generation grew up in an analog world and came of age in a digital world. Your work is very much “of the time” in that simple sense, but I wonder why it remains important to you to have an analog base instead of just going all digital?
Blalock: It used to be important in that crossing that boundary—or holding territory across it—felt like part of the work, but now, I don’t know that I need an analog base as much as I just love the tool I use. One of the amazing things about the 4×5 is that there are levels of complexity in the way that you can ask it to describe something that are unachievable with another camera. It allows me to make little adjustments and decisions, and to move around in certain ways that create more intriguing complexity in the picture. But if someone just handed me a digital back that I could just stick in my camera and it would capture my images digitally, I would be fine with it. I don’t need the film.
Rail: That’s interesting, because I think the speed at which you would move would change so much. I mean, when you use film you are forced into a certain waiting period, but if you were to use a digital back, you would be able to see everything instantaneously. How important is that time gap between the shutter moment and looking at the image?
Blalock: You’re right. I’m thankful for all of the slowness! The anticipation and waiting are great for me. And I don’t wish it to be different; I am not attached to the “analogue” as a category or a material in the way some photographers are.
Rail: I want to circle back to painting, and how painters have influenced your thinking. When I look at your work—especially if we focus in on your pictures of human bodies—I see a correspondence with the elongated limbs of El Greco or Parmigianino. I also think about Francis Bacon, and not just his distorted figures but also his use of a more confined space. I think, especially with regard to a new picture like The Seer, Dana Schutz is making paintings that are really analogous to your work.
Blalock: I think a lot about the body. I’ve got this sense that photographs, as they become less physical, and more apt to be seen on screens, our whole congress with them leaves the body out. And I think that one of the things that the photographic print is kind of particularly good at right now is drawing these virtual situations down into a corporeal form but one that doesn’t make them into something else. When we look at a photograph on a screen it is not a representation of a photograph, it is the thing itself and this transitional quality across the digital-material divide makes photographs special and precursors to our understanding emerging technologies like 3d modeling / printing or augmented reality.
I think that when we look at photographs of people, our experience of those bodies is that they are absent—that they are elsewhere. They are not in the room with you as one might say of a figure in a painting because the painting is in the room. And I am really interested in this “not-there-ness.” But the manipulation of the body or of the face or the human figure is delicate. You have less leeway; the actions are more charged, than they are when you are picturing inanimate things. Unlike painting there is a sense I am acting on to the bodies of the figures in my pictures, and it can read as a kind of violence, but I think there is a way in which this complication of the figure can, somewhat counter intuitively, override that sense of absence and make for a different sense of presence.
Rail: It gets uncanny.
Blalock: Yeah, indeed. But to go back to Stephen Shore for a second, his work can draw up a very different uncanny. It’s a sort of totalizing attention in a scene that feels as if your eye cannot move around it fast enough.
Rail: Shore compositions are often so powerful because—amongst other things—of his sense of pictorial depth. I mentioned this before with regards to Francis Bacon, but your work is much more flat, the room in the photographs is so condensed.
Blalock: Digital manipulations become more sculptural in a shorter, more volumetric space. In a deep space, they feel like they’re on top of the picture as if the picture is being manipulated instead of the subject. It can go from a more sculptural proposition to a more graphic or painterly one. For The Seer the way the space is constituted, supports a feeling in the work that there is a reality to it beyond being a photograph of a woman that has been manipulated.
Rail: And not just the re-figured person, but I wonder about the space. For example, that bucket of spackle on the floor in the background is on the same diagonal axis as the figure’s hand, which juts forward. That relationship makes my eye move on that line, right through the image. The hand and the spackle, and for that matter the rest of the room, suggest to me a place of labor. But we have a visionary sitting here. This whole web of associations is built on the title. How does titling work for you? How do you go about the act of titling?
Blalock: I feel like it’s a leftover desire from early aspirations to be a writer. [Laughter]. I don’t know, they have a way of titling themselves, but titles sometimes really get in the way. The Seer is an interesting one to be talking about because that title has got a little more force to it, a little more direction than my titles often do.
Rail: True. Conch and Berries and… is very straight forward, but Athena’s Fruit Bowl shifts the register because it’s somebody’s fruit bowl, and that name has creates its own web of associations.
Blalock: Sure. Each of the pictures have different tolerances. Some of them can take an allegorical title and bear up under its weight where others I find can’t take even the most basic language. I can’t even call it what it is! There’s a part of me that wants to over determine everything to crush a think with decisions, so part of figuring a work out over time has been understanding when I’m usefully in control and when the touch needs to be lighter.
Rail: Leaving areas open for the viewer to make their own connections is what keeps it from being didactic and boringly digestible. If every element was handled with the same degree of attention, it could get flat—I mean the quality of attention would have no tension.
Blalock: And I think that this sense of off-balance-ness is critical to my work. The last thing I want is for the language to ground the energy like a lightning rod—take the energy out and plug it into the floor. Everything is about trying to keep the energy circulating and alive and keep the pictures alive themselves.
Rail: Let’s talk a little about your show in Zurich, Ketchup is a Vegetable. I laughed until I read the press release, and then I was sickened by the reality of the situation. Can you talk a little bit about what compelled you to foreground a story of American politics in this exhibition?
Blalock: So on one level, Ketchup is a Vegetable refers to a school lunch scandal during the Reagan administration. There was a suggestion that condiments could count as vegetables in school lunches, and this felt a little too much like the world we’re living in right now. So to a degree it comes from a desire to address that world and picture it, but on another level, I am as attracted to the sense of dislocation in the language which acts a lot like some of the dislocations in my work. I’m interested in these linkages, in nesting metaphors, and in talking across these various registers. I also love that this can bring to mind whole fields of previously invisible associations. The world feels terribly off-balance and bizarre these days, and the work in this show was sort of made out of that space and to some degree does describe it.
Rail: I’m intrigued to learn about the companion pictures on the back sides of the frames, can you tell me a little bit about those and what's going on there? First, I guess, can you tell me what that is? [Laughs].
Blalock: So, on the back of all of the frames in the show there are small photographs that are dye-sublimation prints on aluminum—that are attached to the back of the frame. When the pictures are hung on the wall, there’s no way to see them. They’re a sort of subconscious of the show or marginalia for the individual works, as cross-references or footnotes, or as Amazon suggestions for “other products you might like.”
Rail: I suppose it’s important that it’s acknowledged in the press release, so that the audience knows they're not being given access to something. I’m curious about the prominence of sexuality in this body of work.
Blalock: There is a lot of sexuality in this show which comes directly out of this desire to draw the body into the pictures, into this non-bodily space, and to test the emotional tolerance we have for letting this Photoshop language I am using carry this kind of thing. But, as might be expected the sexuality in this show falls somewhere between the burlesque and the nervous.
Rail: There are also photographs in the show that haven’t been manipulated. Why is it important to include these works?
Blalock: When I sit down to photograph something or go out to photograph something, I'm trying to have a relationship with the subject and to make a picture that conveys that relationship. I don’t feel any contradiction in stopping at any point along the way. It’s done when it's done. I’m thinking of this picture of a door that kind of looks like a chocolate bar. Sometimes things sort of fold themselves into this language without any help. [Laughs].
CHARLIE SCHULTZ is the Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.