A conversation with Emile Rubino

I spent some time with Emile Rubino while he was installing his show other things at the ICP- Bard MFA studios in Long Island city. His show will be up from Thursday the 20th to Sunday the 23rd at the studios (24-20 Jackson Ave Long Island City.) Opening reception Thursday April 20th from 6-9pm.

DV: Do you consider yourself a photographer?
ER: Yes, I consider myself a photographer in the same way painters call themselves painters. I am an artist and my medium is photography. As unfashionable as it may seem these days, I do work in a medium specific way and make photographic pictures so I am a photographer. I think there is something important in that but it is also a very personal choice, and I have nothing against more heterogeneous and multidisciplinary approaches.
Photography always occupies an ambiguous position where it has to negotiate its relationship to its vernacular existence outside of art. It’s something that other mediums of depiction like painting don’t really have to do in the same way. We don’t really question whether a painter is also a sign painter or a house painter, he’s just a painter. But as a photographer you always have to negotiate your designation in different ways depending on the social context. Throughout my time in art school, I felt like I always had to carve out my space between telling certain people from the photo side of things to be more open-mind and a bit less “geeky,” meanwhile telling many of my friends who are painters, sculptors, performance or installation artists etc: “please take me seriously, I’m not just pressing a button.”
If you look at the history of photography I think there is a way to consider this difficulty to actually be one of the most important driving force for the medium — a kind of engine that keeps it moving. First, people tried to set strict rules to try to make photography look like a serious and independent medium, it had to be black and white, 11×14” etc, then you’ve got people like Jeff Wall who try to emphasize photography’s kinship and relationships to other art forms like cinema, sculpture and painting especially, instead of trying to show how different it is from these other art forms. More recently there has been a focus on questions around materiality which were a very direct repercussion of the many questions brought about by the Internet and its “great flow/stream of images”. These practices have taken various forms and have been more or less interesting. I think that they have remained more interesting when they’ve managed to address photographic materiality and objecthood without abandoning more fundamental questions of representation.
These different waves tend to focus on one aspect of the medium in order to try to show that photography should be taken seriously and that it is a complex art form…, but each time it is also a bit limited because of that. Those are things that I think a lot about in my work and that I have been trying to negotiate.
Back when I was in undergrad I was always making photographs in a documentary mode, and on the other side I started to reflect on the “current issues” in photography and I was influenced by all the things I was reading and looking at, which addressed these issues around the place of pictures today…, so I began to make another type of work that was not so photographic but was very much about photography. I was doing these two things at the same time and it felt really schizophrenic to me. Since then, I have spent a lot of time trying to bridge these two things together and merge them into something more coherent so that I would feel a bit more aligned with myself. I’m still making pictures in a documentary mode of picture-making, but I also consider the pictures I make as objects and that’s where things like making my own frames or certain kinds of printing have come into play recently.

DV: So you made the frames yourself? ER: Yes.

DV: That’s obviously really important to you. Did you do it out of cost concerns?
ER: There are a few things to it. A part of it is linked to me starting to work at a rather modest scale. This is something that I could talk about a lot and I have written extensively about it my thesis book but generally it comes from my love and attraction for a lot of paintings that are rather small. Many of these paintings often have really simple wooden frames. So part of it was simply “why can’t I do the same thing for my photographs?”. In undergrad I was making my own prints, they were large silver gelatin prints and then I spent my whole scholarship money on the framing. Then I felt like those objects had became really precious. They had museum glass and I was afraid to handle the edges of the frame, they didn’t really feel like they were mine anymore. I didn’t like the distant physical relationship that I had to them. Ideally, I would like to have a relationship to the pictures that I make that is a little closer to a painter handling his or her canvases.
Finally, I like the really simple frames because for the most part, they simply do their job at framing the picture without looking like they are trying too hard to “figure out the sculptural question” on the edges of the frame the way that quite a few artists have attempted to lately.

DV: So did you make the prints yourself?
ER: I’m working with a printer to make the prints but I’m making my own frames. I switched the whole thing around for the moment at least. The frames are a little rougher so I’m not really scared to handle them, they feel like they are more my objects. Part of it is the cost but the way I see it is not as a default way, I like the idea that the work I make physically reflects my own material conditions, it’s always one of the most interesting thing to observe when looking at art I think.

DV: Do you think you have resolved what you were struggling with or what you were trying to work against in this show?
ER: If it was resolved I would stop! I don’t think anything is ever resolved, but I think that it’s reached a point where things feel better to me and where new avenues have opened up… It does feel like I am a little less running after myself, I feel more unified and it brings new possibilities to the work. It was really my goal by the end of the MFA to have a few pictures that constituted a good starting point for the next thing.

DV: Are you satisfied with the amount of pictures in the show?
ER:Yes! I always work towards reduction, I make a lot of pictures, I shoot hundreds and hundreds of photos but editing is extremely important, I think editing is more than half the work. Ambitious art doesn’t mean “big” art or “art” in large numbers… Someone like Albert York who made twelve paintings a year at the peak of his career was extremely ambitious I think. He wanted his small paintings to do so much, and had such high standards for them (Manet, Corot…) that it was hard to make more than that. It may seem a bit pretentious in a way, but I don’t think you choose to work that way, it’s just one big struggle with oneself really.

It would be really hard to justify making a one picture show, that is one of the privileges that cinema has in a weird way we could say. In photography or painting it’s really hard to have just one picture and call it a show so they do need to have some kind of relationship. But at the same time my goal is really to produce self-contained and autonomous pictures that could be moved later on to be put next to other pictures, or seen in another context. I try to make small tableau/ pictures and try to get them to act in an autonomous way, which is something that isn’t the most natural thing to do for a photograph. When you make a photograph it is more prone to going on the page and used as a tool of communication, or to exist in a sequence/series with other images. So I try to make autonomous pictures (as opposed to images). Putting them far away from each other in the first part of the show helps them to gain this autonomy obviously and that’s why I also hung some of them closer to one another in the bigger room to try to challenge them to preserve this autonomy even with less space between them.

DV: Is painting your primary inspiration?
ER: I guess so, I mean I love photography to the same extant but it is my medium so perhaps I tend to be more critical of it and less accepting towards certain things. I do think that there is more great paintings than there is truly great photography for sure and my greatest art experiences are mostly related to painting.

DV: So why be a photographer and not a painter?
ER: I think that’s the reason why I pursue photography in a “straight”, “documentary” mode instead of pursuing it by other means. Although many of the contemporary photographers that I admire the most have found ways to turn the medium on its head to make it into a more additive process, I can’t see myself being so invested in these approaches.
I stick to photography instead of painting not just cause I am bad painter but because it keeps me away from the anxiety that I’ve always had with beginnings and ends. In an additive process like painting you need to slowly build up the depiction that you’re creating and the questions of where to begin and when to end are primordial. Pursued in this way, photography is perhaps a bit like a punk rock song — the beginning and the end are left out. You have to make more or less spontaneous decisions at first, which in turn brings a new set of problems to the table. Then there is only a certain point to which you can push things if you want them to remain photographic.
In a few instances, when a picture I make seem to offer itself up to some kind of subtle manipulation that would further enhance what I think this picture should do, or the way that I think it should behave, then I take the liberty to do that as well. That is the case for the ghost picture, the cat picture and the microwaves pictures. I like to leave myself free to make pictures in slightly different ways, which can involve photoshop or flatbed scanners while trying to keep these photos within a kind of documentary realm. Different starting points are necessary. The goal is to keep things interesting for myself.

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