Interview with Artist Farrah Karapetian
I realize your work, in addition to being photographic, is sculptural and performative in nature, but I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about how you first became interested in photography, specifically? My father gave me a camera for Christmas during my sophomore year at Yale, so I took photography second semester. I found the critique of photographs to be a refreshingly genuine process: You put your work up on the wall, the class analyzed its significance, and if it fell short formally or otherwise, you took the print down. The object of the print itself became a really important way to learn how I was seeing and how that was evolving over time. Whereas I had always been a good draftsman and an analytical thinker in literature, this process taught me how to learn. I abandoned the camera a couple of years after undergrad.
For cameraless photography . . . ? Yes. I had long understood the photographic print as a unique object and had a lot of questions about defaults in photography like scale, color, and editioning. Then I went to Kosovo, and on my return to New York, found myself frustrated with the experience of printing pictures of burned-out villages so far away from them in space and time. I slammed something down on the enlarger, setting off the enlarger’s light by mistake, and made a first photogram: the silhouette of the current object interfering with the image of Kosovo projected around it. This felt good: It conflated what was on the page with the feeling of making it. Plastic processes, like drawing or sculpture, are always associated with the temporal reality of their making. What you do is what becomes the work, rather than having had the experience two weeks prior and getting back into it to try to rearticulate that experience.
I decided to pursue that very present feeling. At that point I stopped using a camera and I began very bluntly to allow objects to dictate the scale and the color of the paper instead of letting the dimensions of commercially available papers, or the ratio of a camera’s viewfinder, do so. Then, of course, that complicated itself over time with respect to what I wanted to render photographically and how that was going to work. I began to want to reenact more complicated situations than those available from found objects: Sometimes I would recompose material from media I saw—documents circulating in the news—and sometimes I would reenact a subject’s memories. In these cases, I began to make objects that I or human subjects could work with in three-dimensional space between the light and the photosensitive paper.
When people speak about my work in terms of sculpture, it is either in terms of the photogram—the print itself—as a sculptural object in space, or in terms of the objects I’ve made to complicate the picture plane during exposure.
Can you speak a bit about why the photogram plays such a central role in your work? It creates a more plastic environment for me, although I still find the poetics of the everyday that are available through conventional photography to be the stimulus for what I do. Facebook feeds tend to slip through our minds quickly, but if an image or scenario sticks with me, I can resuscitate it through the processes I’ve developed.
As an example, in 2013, a veteran of the US Armed Forces described to me a posture that he and his teammates would assume during combat, which he and they would be able to reenact through muscle memory, especially if they had their weapons in their hands. I remade their weapons in resin so that light could pass through to the photosensitive paper behind and create a more detailed shadow than would the opaque veterans’ bodies.
In remaking the guns, with which I was entirely unfamiliar, I got to spend some time with them as objects. Otherwise, I might have deployed my personal political orientation onto the objects before investigating their form and function in the veterans’ lives. The veterans pulled their old uniforms out of dusty duffels and began to tell stories of the last time they’d worn them. They put the resin weapons in their holsters and held them in their arms, and felt the weight was similar to the real thing. The shapes and the weight helped them assume the positions immediately. So after going through the process of making sculptural negatives and then photogramming the negatives with the veterans, I understood their memories, and therefore, their perspectives more.
Photogramming in the way I do, then, extends the process of the making of one photograph so I can spend more time with it, but it also makes that moment of exposure very haptic, very sensory. When color printing, I’m alone in the dark, or I’m there with the subject in the dark, and they have to use their muscle memory to get back to a particular narrative, and I have to use mine to get around to the paper and the enlargers. Darkness and physicality, then, also heighten my awareness of what the content that I’ve been looking at means to me or to someone else.
Eventually, if I’ve worked with a subject long enough, I can also push through its literal nature to a more abstract body of work. In 2015, I was working with my dad’s drum kit, which I remade as a steel armature without the drums’ bodies and with glass cast cymbals. This change in the sculptural language of the kit is according to the logic of light: The lines of the armature and the clarity of the glass would make for more articulate shadows. The first wave of pictures that came from that were very literally photograms of the drum kit with my dad. Over time, I got on a roll with the abstract questions the kit brought up: What happens if I do this, what happens if I do that? It’s almost as if everything can begin with that one mental image, and then a body work is built out of turning that image and all its constituent photographic variables around over time. So by the time I got to the final body of work in that case, most is unrecognizably related to a drum kit. In another series, that would be true of migrancy or nationalism: A photographic, experiential, or remembered image will catalyze a project that then moves me to push photography’s capacities of light, shadow, and surface. The photogram is an extension of the possibilities of photograph and a breaking down of its variables.
You mentioned abstraction a few times in describing the photogram. A lot of your work is political or deals with political issues. Do you find that abstraction is a good way to distance yourself from a particular bias within the work? As citizens and humans, in general, we’re getting all kinds of information all the time. You may see an image of a group of migrants landing in Greece just after you’ve seen an image of a friend’s child, and just after you’ve spoken with your mother about your father’s cancer, while driving past a homeless encampment in Los Angeles, and at the same time, you’re registering the visual distractions of an unwashed windshield. The way we process the politics of one human in touch with another is never pure; we riff. This happens in the studio too: A picture like Irere I (McQueen 2003) is the product of multiple effects of metals, waters, ices, and light sources on a piece of photographic paper. It is also the product of me crawling around in the dark and rotating these variables every night. The variables themselves, though, I isolated after months of working over pictures of migrants in the news, sailing, researching my family’s migrations, and sorting through my psychological orientation toward the issues of forced versus elected movement. In the end, though, it’s a beautiful picture—the palette of which reminded me of Alexander McQueen’s work in fashion in 2003—hence its name. Does this multiplicity of influences in the end mimic the politics of viewership more than would a photojournalist’s focus on the migrants in the boats? Both are useful enterprises, but yes, my process is about a diversified mediatic digestive process.
This may be a twenty-first century way of thinking about photography, rather than as a photo essay, but it’s truly about accessing voice and perspective. This is easy to see in terms of the way we understand other mediums. Even in literature, the fact that a book focuses on a particular war is not why we remember it. Hemingway wrote about World War I in A Farewell to Arms, and Remarque wrote about it, too, in All Quiet on the Western Front, but the two books are very different. The subject is a starting point, not an endgame. Politics, then, as you put it, motivates the development of abstract languages, not as a way to disguise or distance oneself from one’s position, but as a way into position at all. Forensic photography focuses on the literal; journalism and design focus on varying levels of position toward the literal, but fine art explores and analyzes before resolving, as does literary work.
In a way, I think it’s more transparent to work on your voice at the same time that you’re working on a subject, because it acknowledges that you have a voice. Part of the problem of the conventional photograph is that its goal, historically, has been to erase itself. It’s a window onto an event or a subject, and these photograms are not; they are deliberately not windows onto real events. They take as their premise that fact and fiction are always in question and probably coexist.
You’re represented by Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles and Danziger Gallery in New York City. Can you talk a bit about the process of gaining representation? It’s a match; it’s a marriage. There’s no magical answer to that question. I’ve had group shows or even solo shows at many galleries, especially in Los Angeles, but representation works when you find the right kind of dynamic with someone that includes both sales and a handling of relationships and ideas.
When I talk to my students about gallery representation, I do note that the word should be taken literally. It’s not just that someone’s there to sell your work. They really do represent you and what you’ve done, so it’s helpful if they can speak in a way that you know is going to be OK when you’re not in the room.
I met Tarrah von Lintel years ago in New York, but I didn’t really spend time with her until she was about to move to Los Angeles a couple of years ago. The dynamic between us proved itself quite natural. Things were getting done between the two of us, and it was working in all the necessary respects, as well as being a pleasure to do business with her: Sales and decisions were such that I understood she wanted to help build awareness of what I do.
I also talk to my students about the fact that one’s commercial gallery representation does not have to accommodate all of the ideas you have for civic engagement. The gallery should support museum acquisition and group shows that represent good conversation for your work, but you can also do shows at nonprofits, or in public work, and kind of build a narrative to your liking that isn’t only contained within that one relationship. I also tell my students that when they have multiple dealers, they will have different relationships with each one, and each might have different tastes, and that as artists they may want to show some work with one and other work with another, depending on the energy that any one dealer has around the work.
I met James Danziger after an art fair; he came to the studio in Los Angeles and we talked from there. I’m now working on new work for both dealers, along separate threads. I don’t recall how either James or Tarrah first encountered my work. People just pay attention. The more involved you are in the world, eventually the right kind of matches turn into studio visits, which turn into group shows or solo shows. And if that works, then you do it again.
Your work has been collected by the Getty, LACMA, and SFMOMA, among others. Did gallery representation precede or follow these acquisitions? The three museums that you’ve just mentioned are Tarrah’s doing. Tarrah definitely focused on building an institutional base for my work. Of course, I also have to be involved in cultivating relationships with curators with whom I share interests, but the sale depends on the support of the dealer.
Museum acquisition is really important, not just as an item on the CV or as the development of your work’s market value. For somebody who has grown up with the idea that art and writing are actually the legacies of conversations between thinkers, the first time your work enters a museum collection, especially if it’s one that you went to as a kid, as with me and LACMA or SFMOMA, an acquisition feels so great. I know that now this piece is in conversation with all the stuff I looked at as a kid that was important to me. The piece might then get turned around in curators’ minds for decades and enter new and different conversations as the narrative of art and politics changes. So it matters a lot to know that at a particular moment in my work’s development, with the effort of my dealers, a curator and the board at a museum decided to include the work as part of that ongoing conversation.
Do you have a sense of what work of yours has been most widely collected or of what’s most popular among collectors? And, if so, to what do you attribute that; what is it about that particular work? Off the top of my head, I’d say the Relief work of 2015–16, the Stagecraft work of 2014–15, my Slips of 2013–14, and Accessory to Protest of 2011 were very widely collected. Before and after those bodies of work, I have often spent time on the scale of public artwork or installation. I work with sculptural material; I work with a scale that is one-to-one with an event; and so at times I have worked on a scale that encompasses the entirety of someone’s memory or that really reworks a photograph as an object in space. Those types of artworks take up a lot of real estate; they are cornerstones of the practice; they are very important to me; and they’re big parts of most of my shows, but are more challenging to collect than are some of the iterations that I make en route toward or away from them.
Do you think the fact that your work often takes the form of photograms enhances its collectability? The photogram is much more of a one-off than a digital photograph or even a negative. Yes, it is unique, and I’m sure that figures into its collectability. That is not why I work with the photogram: There is something important to me about the fact that each gesture I make results in a unique moment, which results in a unique object. I’m not interested in repeating myself, and I think of edition structures as being fabrications of the market. It’s existentially an impossible thing to have two of the same thing. I’ve just never been able to wrap my head around the idea that there are two of the same of anything.
So your work is not editioned? There’s no way to do that: One photogram happens and then another. I have no incentive to try to make duplications. I’m sure that is done in some cameraless practices, but the field is as diverse as is any other.
As to your question about collectability, one uneditioned print may be of a different value than something that occupies an edition structure. Frankly, though, I’m sure that a photographer could make a lot more money if he or she did ten pictures in an edition and sold them each, or stepped up the edition price as it sells the way some galleries do, so I don’t know that I’m at an actual advantage in terms of price because of the unique nature of the work. I know I’m flooding the market.
Unique photographs—photograms—can also require of photography collectors that they understand the surface of the print differently than they would under more conventional photographic circumstances. A photogram will often bear on its surface the marks of its making. That is a shift in values for some collectors: from imagining that such a mark is a flaw to understanding that it’s a mark of process and therefore further proof of the unique and almost eventful nature of the work.
It seems that your work and the form it takes is in some ways a criticism or refutation of how easily, and often haphazardly, images today are divorced from their referents and disseminated out into the ether of the Internet. This problematic relationship between the photograph and its referent has existed since the advent of photography, but I wonder if making work that challenges this seems especially relevant now considering the extent to which false news, manipulated images, etc., are used as a form of propaganda. It’s criticism—as in “critical thinking,” rather than judgment—but it’s a long-term practice rather than a knee-jerk reaction to current mediatic events. Everyone has to make a choice about how they think subject matter should be handled. Whether you are an accountant or a writer or a photographer, you have to find a way that you feel most productive in terms of the way you handle information. I feel most productive when I am involved in a first-person narrative of handling my materials and spending time with my subjects. It’s a matter of investment that doesn’t necessarily mean I come out knowing more about the subject, but it means that I have lived with it longer.
I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the Egyptian revolution or the Arab Spring, but because of the Accessory to Protest work, I’ve lived with a document from that period to the extent that I have been able to turn it around in my mind and imbue it with lived experience. Surely we have all seen an image or a news item that is skewed one way or another and felt rage, frustration, and impotence in the act of finding immediate, intense investment in something and then moving on to the next immediate, intense investment. Issue after issue. Spending time with one is important to me.
It seems like a lot of contemporary photographers deal with that issue but in a very different way than you do. Instead of making individual, singular kind of slow photographs like you do, they sort of embrace the aesthetic of online images. Which is just an observation, I guess. But I sometimes wonder how effective that is in terms of a refutation or criticism of how we produce and consume images. Mimesis is a poetic device. I would say that I engage in one kind of mimesis of the images that cross my path, and other artists embrace a different kind. They may embrace rapidity, the actual context of social media, or otherwise, but for me, stretching the found image out and divorcing it from context is important to clarify.
I do not think that the distinction between slow photography and conventional photography is a digital one per se or that one should separate cameraless photography, or experimental photography, or photography that emphasizes its material from a digital present. In fact, that can serve to isolate cameraless, experimental, or material instincts in the realm of the anachronistic. One does not refuse the digital future, and the other is not subsumed by it. I use digital tools when necessary—even 3-D tools.
What you mention, though, is definitely an issue right now. At the time of our conversation, my work is included in two exhibitions—at the Eastman Museum and at the Houston Center for Photography—that include photographs the materiality of which—the handling of which—is primary. In these shows, the curators—Lisa Hostetler and Keliy Anderson-Staley, respectively—aren’t just looking at the process per se, at cameralessness per se but at why at this time there may be a kind of turn toward the slow photograph, as you put it. (I love that term!)
It’s every artist’s job to pervert on some level or at least push the model of communication that they’re analyzing or criticizing. Otherwise how do you point to it? Any number of devices in poetry serve to direct a reader’s attention to the writer’s concern. So you could put me and Ryan Trecartin in a room and give both of us somebody’s Facebook feed to look at. His perversion of the feed would be different than mine. We would gravitate toward different languages and actions to abstract our thinking about the feed. Neither his nor my reaction would be a denial of the fact that we are all faced with “the feed” and the value systems around it.
Interview and photography created January 4, 2017 at the artists studio by Zachary Norman
To contact and see more of Farrah’s work visit her website. farrahkarapetian.com