In Conversation with Elisabeth Biondi

Biondi04_TheresaOrtolaniBiondi03_TheresaOrtolaniI had the honor of speaking with magazine world luminary, Elisabeth Biondi, at Fridman Gallery where Lift Off: 2014 NYC Photography/Video, an exhibit she curated, featuring recent MFA graduates, is currently on view. Elegant, articulate, and generous with her teachings and time, Elisabeth spoke with me about her years as Visuals Editor for the New Yorker, the relationship between image and text, the role of the MFA program, trends in photography – and her transition into curating.

We realized that we had been in conversation for nearly 45 minutes, and the artist talk – featuring the six graduates that were included in the show – was scheduled to begin. And, I still hadn’t taken a portrait of her. Inspired by her interest in Instagram and new media, I suggested that instead of setting up a formal portrait, I use my iPhone to shoot an impromptu group photo in front of Charles Sainty’s vibrant video projection. Biondi05_TheresaOrtolaniTheresa Ortolani: As a first year MFA student, I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that you chose to curate a post MFA show. Can you tell me what your affiliation is with Fridman Gallery and how the show was conceived?

Elisabeth Biondi: I write a column for each issue of Photograph [Magazine] called “Portfolio” where I pick a photographer and write [approximately] 350 words as well as feature a portfolio of their work. I try to choose photographers who are not well known. It’s very nice because I have free range. Photograph is a wonderful publication. I’ve always been interested in various expressions of photography, which has a big range. This portfolio gives me a chance to write about that. And writing is not easy for me but it’s something that interests me.

TO: Has writing always interested you?

EB: I worked for the New Yorker for 15 years and I’ve read a lot of good writing, so I have enormous admiration for it. I love to read and I love pictures, so I’m interested in the two parts – image and text. Bill Mindlin, the man who does the magazine, knows Iliya [Fridman] who had expressed interest in working with outside curators. I had this idea of curating post-graduate and MFA thesis work but it didn’t come about so I wanted to continue to explore it. I suggested it to Iliya and he was very positively inclined towards it.

TO: Coming from an editorial background, which is a two-dimensional platform, what has changed for you, moving into the three-dimensional space of the gallery?

EB: That’s the interesting part. It used to be that 10 years ago when you went to the thesis shows most of the pictures were on the wall and they were two-dimensional but now very few are simply pictures on the wall. That change has always interested me.

TO: Do you contribute that change to the development of technology?

EB: I think the root, is technology. I come from the editorial world, which has changed; there are fewer magazines, there are fewer ways to get assignments. Photographers still take pictures, but I think technology creates so many pictures that it also takes people back to analog, back to another age. Few go further out away from conventional photography. So, in the end, I think it’s digital technology and its uses that has created this total change; great change. Lift off.Biondi02_TheresaOrtolani TO: Did you choose the title of the exhibit, Lift Off, with the digital age in mind? The digital age, representing a new beginning?

EB: Yes, and I think it was also a lift off for the artists – that another part of their life had started. And yes, it’s a lift off from a more conventional photography into a freer photography, or sometimes it’s no longer even photography at all. When I go to the photography graduate shows sometimes I say “Where is the photography in here?”. The terminology is also changing. When I was writing the [Lift Off] press release, I had to really think about this. They call themselves artists and there’s a reason why they call themselves artists … and some people shouldn’t call themselves artists, but that’s another thing entirely.

TO: I received my BFA from an academic art school [Boston University’s College of Fine Arts] where students didn’t dare call themselves ‘artists’. We were named by our crafts – ‘painters’ or ‘sculptors’. The title of artist was relegated to those who had achieved great success. And, photography wasn’t even considered an art!

EB: Yes. I remember writing something years ago where the subject was “Is photography an art?” Well that’s gone now, I mean thank God, that’s the good thing. But I was also thinking about when art painting changed when photography became a way of documenting things in the 1900’s – it freed painting from being representational. And in some way I think there’s somewhat of a parallel to be made now. That digital technology, without its implications, has freed the photographer, or maybe forced the photographer (it doesn’t matter which way you look at it) to be freer and to look at it in a less confined way.

TO: To think outside the box – the box that is the camera. So how does one define photography now? Is it a chemically-fixed image, a projected image, something that requires a lens?Biondi00_TheresaOrtolaniBiondi01_TheresaOrtolaniEB: I think it’s all of the above, and there isn’t a lens-based photography.

TO: Right, for example with a photogram or the camera obscura.

EB: Right, it doesn’t have to be lens-based. Though there are certain parallels. [Henry] Fox Talbot did photograms. That was a long time ago. That was sort of before the traditions of photography came about, so it’s kind of interesting when you go backwards and forwards.

TO: In your parting interview with the New Yorker, you mentioned the term the “golden age” of photography. What would you call this time now, and can you define what the golden age of photography was?

EB: Well I think that golden age was of documentary photography, I should limit that, I don’t know if I said that then. And maybe it was the golden age of magazine photography. And that’s actually what I’ve been doing for most of my professional career: working with documentary photography. So maybe this is the space age of photography. But what is amazing about these six young people is that they’re so smart. They know why they’re doing this extremely well. They can talk about their work and they’ve thought it out, which was really impressive because I picked the work, not the people.

TO: The works in Lift Off speak to one another across the space. There are different mediums represented: video, installation, and two-dimensional work, but it all follows a similar thread. There’s a dialogue happening; a cohesive flow.

EB: I did want to represent the different disciplines; I wanted to reflect the different kinds of work I’ve seen in thesis shows. That was important. And therefore I wanted the works to be as different as possible. And what actually surprised me in the end was that there were so many threads that connected them. At first, I was extremely fearful of how I would put this together. But it actually was very easy, the work dictated how it wanted to be seen.

TO: Well you’ve been doing this for so many years – on the magazine platform – so perhaps on an unconscious level you did choose works that create an interesting dialogue.

EB: Well that could be. Actually the nice thing post-career, because this is no longer a career, or post-magazine work, is I always paired words and pictures. On the written word side you always have to fight for pictures because editors-in-chief run them, and the words come first. So now, when you put something on the wall the pictures come first. But you have to write about it and there has to be an idea behind it, so there are words, but it’s the picture that drives it, which I love. I curated an exhibition at Howard Greenberg Gallery in 2012. What I did was I looked at the photography in the New Yorker and I at all the issues that I had worked on, which was from fifteen years, but I separated it from the stories that they ran with.

TO: Alec Soth worked with Brad Zellar to create a series of stories, but for his Songbook exhibition he stripped the project of text. Similarly, he wanted to see how the images live separate from the text, and what kind of life they take on. He was interested in the lyricism inherent in the image, minus the backstory. He also spoke about how the viewer is able to bring something to the image, whereas when one reads a story that is illustrated, perhaps with an image, then there’s limitation there.

EB: Well I always bristle at the word illustration. I think pictures should never be illustrations, they should be their own entity and they should compliment the text. And if something is extremely well described in the text, which often in the New Yorker it was, you don’t need to see it anymore. Then the reader can create the image.

TO: In an interview, you mentioned Tina Brown treated images and text as equals.

EB: She did. She had no prejudice. I think David Remnick liked photography, but he is a word editor and his first love is the word. He’s not against photography, but I think if a choice had to be made it was clear what the choice was. But for Tina, especially at Vanity Fair, I think it was easier because she liked to sort of throw it up in the air. If the pictures were good and the text was lousy, she ran a lot of pictures and a short text. At Vanity Fair there was more space for that, it was a different magazine than the New Yorker. I think it was actually a great challenge to figure out how to integrate pictures in the New Yorker; a magazine that’s so well known for it’s literary content, for the words.

TO: You were instrumental in bringing images to the New Yorker early on.

EB: Well when Tina came to the New Yorker her charge was to rejuvenate the magazine and bring it into the late 80s, early 90s, and I think what she did was actually brilliant. She asked [Richard] Avedon to be the photographer and for a while he was the only one. But then you have a little bit of a problem if you have only one photographer. When I joined the New Yorker it functioned more like a traditional magazine. I think it was really smart to have someone like Avedon introduce photography in the magazine. But there was still revolt, some writers and readers didn’t like photography [in the magazine]. I even remember in the beginning when there was photography and people asked what I did, and I told them, they said “Is there photography in the New Yorker?”

TO: And what about the inverse, how do you feel about introducing text into imagery? For example, in the show, aside from one piece, there’s the absence of text. In fact Jesse Chun stripped away the text from her passport images. How do you feel about using text in image making?

EB: It depends. If you use text, you use it; if it works, it works. I think it’s more about the ideas; you start with ideas and develop ideas and then you can develop it in many different ways. You strip away and you add to it. Having worked with words and pictures for thirty-five years I was in that world and saw a lot of art. My professional work was all words and pictures, and how to put them together. [At the New Yorker], we would read the piece of fiction and then we would all sit together and make a list of ideas or details and then look for mostly fine art photography.

TO: So the picture was freed from the responsibility to document, and into the ephemeral?

EB: Yes that was the furthest it moved away. Actually it has changed now, but I think you have to have change. Even so I was very sad when the images went away in the New Yorker for the fiction. But things have to move on, right?

TO: You seem to be comfortable with change. Martin Schoeller said you were a wonderful mentor to him. Can you talk about the relationship of the photo director or curator to the photographer or artist?

EB: In my magazine work I always thought that my job was to be the bridge between the publication and the photographer. I had to talk to the photographer and translate the story to the photographer. And then I had to translate what the photographer had done to the magazine and shepherd that through, assuming that the work was well done. While you do this, you have to actually understand and get involved in the photogapher’s work. And there has to be certain curiosity about the work.

TO: And a confidence in the work.

EB: And a confidence, yes. I push people. I basically push and push. I’m sure some people say “Oh it’s too tough!”

TO: You push them conceptually? To refine an idea?

EB: Yes, all along. Because technically, forget it, I have no idea. I don’t take pictures. So it’s conceptually. How can we be fresh and how you can do something new and not repeat something? And I think that’s why I’m sure there were people who thought I was a tough bitch. I’m careful because I always wanted to remain objective. Photographers have become my friends after I left, but I always tried to keep a certain distance from them when working.

TO: The process of curating must be a freeing for you.

EB: It’s much freer and much easier. And now I’m at a certain age where it’s just very exciting to work with young people and see them do things that are refreshing. It opens up my world in some way. Also I think I had a very good career, so I think it’s time to give something back. I think it’s much more difficult for young photographers now.

TO: It’s like watching a child grow – witnessing the history of photography evolve.

EB: Yes, I didn’t look at it this way, but I think maybe you’re right about that.

TO: And now your child is out there on its own, lifting off into a new realm.

EB: Well I don’t think I’m the mother of photography [laughs].

TO: The cool aunt? [laughs] There’s still a lot to learn from assisting established photographers – lighting, production and the challenges of running a business. But, I’ve seen a big change with the advent of digital photography. Young photographers, or artists of any discipline, can pick up a camera and use it as a tool more easily than they could have 10 years ago. Everyone’s a photographer now.

EB: Yes, but they still have to learn a lot [in order to operate on a professional level]. They have to learn how the tools work, and they have to intellectually define what they’re doing. I think you’re right that the terms have changed somewhat. I always encouraged commercial photographers. Like Martin Schoeller, he has his own projects and he has assignments. And not everyone does that, but I do think the structure has somewhat changed now. Basically, you have to work digitally. If you don’t work digitally you cannot work for an advertising company. And you must work with video too. So there is still a lot of technology involved. I still think finding a good photographer, as a mentor, is a wonderful way of learning. And I think the interesting part with these six artists in this show is they all took a break between undergraduate and graduate studies and they had very different experiences, but they all returned to school and got their polish.

TO: The photographers you’ve hired or taught consider you a wonderful mentor, yet you mentioned that you never take photographs.

EB: No, I just take pictures for Instagram. And that’s fun actually, that’s really fun.

Biondi06_TheresaOrtolaniLift Off is on view through February 28th at Fridman Gallery.

This is the fourth post in the series In Pursuit of an MFA by Theresa Ortolani. If you missed them, please also visit Hangin’ with Foley and In Conversation with Alec Soth.

Hangin’ with Foley

Foley©TheresaOrtolaniMichael Foley and I have followed a similar trajectory:

New York –> Boston –> San Francisco –> New York

We first met, circa late 90’s, at the Ansel Adams Center for Photography/Friends of Photography, where we both worked – he, a docent; I, an educator. A photography museum in San Francisco, directed by Andy Grundberg, AAC showed legendary photographers (Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange) alongside contemporary emerging and mid-career artists (Nan Goldin, Thomas Ruff, Cindy Sherman). They housed a rich education program where young photographers could learn from the best – an institution not unlike the ICP – until the dot-com real estate boom brought them to their sad demise.

Meanwhile, Michael and I both stayed true to our passion for photography. Almost 20 years later, he and I reconnect in NYC. (He didn’t recognize me at first because I had a shaved head back then – back when I lived amidst the crossfire, in a Mission district quonset hut, where we hosted drawing groups and raves and rode bicycles inside “The Hut”. Good times….)

It’s fun to be hanging with Foley again.


In keeping with the theme of my forthcoming monograph, BOUND: The Corporeal Pleasure, I requested to tie him up in his gallery “dungeon” and shoot a portrait. He wanted to be snared by his ankles. I also asked him to write a piece for this blog:

I rolled into “The Pool” at Yale School of Art the other day and I gotta tell ya, I felt the magic. It’s where the students receive their formal critique. I didn’t witness that. I was there looking at some new work of an artist of mine, Ilona Szwarc, in a windowless room. I felt the power even in there. I know there is down and dirty transformation that happens at a place like that. That was a total thrill.

I was weirdly honored to even be speaking about photography there. I’m not talking a romanticized version, I mean like being on a BBQ grill, roasting your shit and slinging it around. Artists need that and not from mommy or your lover or the gallerist that’s trying to sell something, anything just to pay the rent in a never ending cycle of “just barely making it.”

Is the MFA worth it? Yes, absolutely. You are there with your people, your comrades, the people that give a fuck about finding their way through this mess and making sense of it for the rest of us.

And within that lies the beginning of mentoring relationships. That can come at any time or any age, but they are the connections that I find most important. I am mentoring someone right now at SVA undergrad and we just got onto something big in her work and that is about the full realization of the presentation in a gallery context. The work really opened up. Big difference between a book or portfolio box and the stage of a gallery.

I can paraphrase my friend Mary Spirito (former Director at 303 Gallery) and say that I look for work that only that artist could make. It’s a singular voice. It may be a tweak of something familiar, but it is distinctive. I look for work that has an immediate aesthetic impact on the senses…and is then layered with conceptual underpinnings. If it does not visually resonate immediately, I’m not sticking around for the explanation.

I see a lot going on out there, but the clear trend in photography is in the materials. Whether that’s a pendulum swing the other way from digital or if it’s the overall realization that our image ingestion all comes from a screen, I’m not sure. But the ability for a photographic image to stir seems so much harder now. What haven’t we seen already? We have to process things so much faster and retain less of that info to make room for more Instagram feeds. What makes an image special now? In part, that’s why I tend to give greater eyes to works on paper and collage, whether that involves photography or not. Photographers have to figure this shit out. I see a lot of cut paper and digital collaging right now, and I like it. Cut it up baby!

There are so many layers and playing fields in the art market, it’s tough competition. For me, it’s all about developing my own clients over time. That holds true for artists as well. I am not here to make it overnight and then have a wicked hangover. It’s a long road, sometimes dirt, sometimes fresh asphalt, and I really don’t care about the trend as long as my artists are making the work they need to make.

When I’m looking for an artist, it starts with the work. Even is the work feels good to me, I have to trust that we are in it for the long hall. In our arrangement, it differs little from marriage. There needs to be incredible trust and communication. Hey, you are dealing with egos, money and love. There is a lot at stake. Sometimes you don’t grow at the same rate and someone needs to peel off. I was a bit naive on this. When I opened my gallery in 2004, I thought that any artist I started working with I would work with forever! And I believed in unicorns, too.

I fell into this business working at a coffee shop in San Francisco. I worked near Frankel Gallery and one day Frish [Brandt] (Director, Partner) asked me if I had ever worked in a gallery. I hadn’t. So, I put down my apron and went to work there for 5 or so years. I became friendly, with [Richard] Misrach, [Adam] Fuss, Hiroshi Sugimoto and an A-list of artists. This also inspired my own work at the time and I kept these two careers intact for a while. Long story short, I got more into the gallery scene working with artists and my own work as an artist started to recede. I also picked up a few teaching positions along the way. After working with Yancey Richardson, I haven’t looked back….until last month. I am starting to make work again, under an assumed name and plan to show later this year.

I’m super happy to be in the LES. I don’t believe in the Chelsea scene for what I do. I have some huge storefront windows, dumplings and some great coffee. I live a block away. Life is sweet.  – Michael Foley


Please join us at Ina Jang’s opening at Foley Gallery on 1photo 3


This is the third post in the series In Pursuit of an MFA by Theresa Ortolani. If you missed it, please also visit In Conversation with Alec Soth.

In Conversation with Alec Soth

… continued from In Pursuit of an MFA, a series of interviews by Theresa OrtolaniSoth©OrtolaniSoth3©TheresaOrtolani Soth1©TheresaOrtolani

Joanna Lehan, professor: This show came out of the “Dispatches” project, which was included in our last ICP Triennial. We had a whole wall of books that reflected the self-publishing phenomenon, and you were such an important part of that. Is there anything you would like to tell us about the show?

Alec Soth: The way it started is complicated. Preceding all of this was Magnum Photo’s involvement with “Postcards From America”. The first one we did was a road trip from San Antonio to Oakland. I was the organizer of that particular trip and I invited writer Ginger Strand to join us. That, in many ways, started the ball rolling on collaborating with a writer. And then it came to be that I, on a whim, invited my friend and writer Brad Zellar, to do an imaginary photo/newspaper assignment with me. We went out and started doing a number of these locally, in Minnesota, and it took on a life of it’s own. Then Brad and I went to Ohio, where I was doing a talk and, kind of in connection with Magnum, we did the first LBM Dispatch. There were all these mini strands coming together. It wasn’t like “I will publish in a newspaper and then it will be this”. It was continually evolving, which I think is maybe a good approach from a student perspective – that it’s not all planned out. It was about half way through doing the Dispatches that I knew (and had discussed with Brad) that I needed to have this other life – the work that was outside of the text. Brad and I had planned on doing a novel sized book/reader that would go in the literary world, but I also wanted an art book that was purely about the pictures rather than the stories, where the stories are stripped away. In this book I wanted to include a combination of pictures from the Magnum projects as well as from my editorial work. So about 80% of the work is from a mishmash of various things, but it all has something to do with community life in America and loneliness. One of the reasons it’s called Songbook is that it’s not an essay on something, it’s more lyrical.

JL: It’s an interesting time I think in history to focus on the idea of community and isolation.

AS: Yes, it is especially so because of smart phone culture, but I think it’s always been the case, particularly in America, that there’s this celebration of individualism and isolation. It’s all part of being in the world in this little glass bubble. And I think photography is the medium of being in the world of not being in the world. And I kind of love that relationship.

JL: How difficult was it to think about the ways in which you were working in the tradition of “Americana?”

AS: That’s something that has been in my work from the get-go: that relationship and the connection to the American photo tradition. I think of photography as being a language, and it has different dialects, and I speak a dialect and I use it. I was definitely referencing Americana, both in subject matter and in approach. I have the belief that Americana still exists. Because that’s the thing, these places are still out there, these people are still out there, and that’s something I’m less jaded about; it’s still a rich world to be explored.

JL: Each one of your photographs is really startling and fresh and manages to skirt any kind of cliché.

AS: My feeling about cliché is that I like riding up right to the edge of it. I did this project in Niagara Falls – and I think Niagara Falls is the ultimate cliché. But I wanted to show it and do it because you can get away with it if you counter balance it with a different image. Like a musical analogy, feeling is connected to cliché as we have an emotional response to things that it’s always bumping up against. But you don’t want to manipulate people. When you’re watching a movie, you don’t want the music to swell to force you to have a feeling that’s clichéd. It’s often very basic human stuff that affects you. Like this picture that’s at a blind camp in Georgia and it’s an incredibly touching picture. I think emotionally it’s right on the breast of that kind of cliché. On my mind was the really blatant racism I witnessed in Georgia – I didn’t want to see it because I didn’t want that cliché of Georgia, but the fact is I did see it. But then to go to a blind camp and see black and white touching each other, it was like, wow!

JL: And literally not seeing color.

AS: And literally not seeing color! That’s like a dumb metaphor but it was true. So that’s the thing about cliché. Clichés are clichés for a reason.


Theresa Ortolani: So, you stripped away the text for Songbook. I heard Brad speak about your collaborations, and the relationship between image and text at the MoMA PS1 symposium. What are your thoughts regarding the image/text relationship, and the role of photography as language?

AS: Brad has a very sophisticated understanding of photography and the way the text works with the images; he’s great about not stepping on them with text and hopefully my pictures wouldn’t step on his text. And I love that Little Brown Mushroom has generally been a place to experiment with that balance. But I also love pictures on their own and their mysteries being wide open. This book was about that. Songbook is open-ended lyricisms where you can just bring whatever you bring to the pictures. In a lot of ways, I think I’m having my cake and eating it too, and you can do that with photography in some ways because it can work on different platforms. It can be in the New York Times Magazine where it’s a story about oil, but then it can do the Dispatches and become more open-ended but still have a narrative component, and then here it can just be kind of wide open. It’s one of the upsides of photography, especially when there are so many downsides and limitations to being a photographer. In terms of narrative, filmmaking can be such a powerful medium and I’m really envious of it – it’s the cultural medium of our time. It has an incredible power that photography doesn’t have. It’s similar to the narrative possibilities of the novel. So, emotionally this is called Songbook, but it doesn’t do that, it doesn’t do what music does. And in this day and age of fragmentations photography can be frustrating in that sense; everyone is a photographer.

TO: Do you have an inclination to make film – and combine music with narrative?

AS: The inclination comes and goes. A few years ago I started doing these experiments on the Internet in-between slideshow and photography. It kind of crashed and burned in a lot of ways though, publicly too. And that killed it for me. But, every few years it swings around. The problem is, since I know photography, I have my tools, I know this; to do something entirely different is so hard.

Matthew Papa: How did you book the research in terms of finding places?

AS: It was really intense and significant research. Usually for the Dispatches we would draw up a route, and we’d work with different assistants to research every spot on the map for different events or historical topics, though half of the pictures are made on the way to those things that we researched. And that’s just dumb luck, but you kind of make luck. I can never just drive aimlessly, it never works for me; I need some sort of destination. Yeah, research is huge. Research and access. I feel there should be a photography course on access, or how to get it. It’s just so hard. In this case it’s really different because there’s three of us. I find that’s like a power number; three’s a group and you can just enter into things. You look official when there are three of you. You look like a news organization. People kind of accept that because there’s an authority to it. Where, if you’re alone it can look sketchy. But you use your gender, you use your age, you use whatever you have to get access.

Katrina Sorrentino: I think of that incredible access when I think of your work. Could you talk about the intimate relationship you have with people who are on the other side of your lens, your subjects?

AS: I get that a lot and I always feel like it’s a bit untrue, the intimate access. I get access but it’s not always super intimate, or there’s distance there. I actually like a certain kind of distance. I sometimes don’t want to hear a subject’s entire story so that my experience of them is the process of photographing them. When work gets talked about there’s like a little myth that builds up about it, and that’s one of the myths. But, I guess I get described as nice.

JL: Well you are Midwestern.

AS: But a Midwestern thing is, it’s called “Minnesota nice”. It’s like this fake nice. And I definitely am not “Minnesota nice”. And that feels fraudulent too. That’s actually related to this work. I have a tougher, edgier side and in the sense of a novel I wanted the author’s voice to be a little tougher. In fact when I did those New York Times videos I used a very tough voice, that of a very unlikable narrator. I went far in that direction, which is why I got really beat up for it. This isn’t that. But it has more. I think of Weegee a lot, I love Weegee. He has this quality where he’s kind of laughing at the world. With this work I thought a lot about Weegie and Robert Adams as these two characters like the good angel and the devil. Because the thing about Weegee’s work is that it’s joyous, whereas with Robert Adams, though I love him, it’s not really joyous. It’s serene. There’s huge despair there. I love that Weegee joy of celebrating the chaos of the world, and this has some of that. There’s a great recording of Weegee talking – it’s this advice to young photographers where he says, “You can’t be a Nice Nelly.” And it’s so great! I love that. And that was my approach with people, not being Nice Nelly, coming in with the flash, taking over, and not being bashful about it. Maybe it’s not as respectful, but it’s not mean spirited either. It’s OK. There are ethical issues for sure. I’m not free of those by any means, but I’ve had to come to terms with that a long time ago.

TO: In regard to Weegee’s advice to young photographers, do you have an opinion about MFA programs? And, if you were to teach or lecture in one, what kind of advice would you give to your students?

AS: Ah that’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’ve been interested in education. Last semester Brad and I taught a special course in Madison. I also organized a summer camp in my studio about a year and a half ago, and it was one of the greatest things I ever did. I also teach at a Limited-Residency program in Hartford, and am a visiting artist for the graduate program at the University of South Florida. So in thinking about all these different experiences coming together what I’m working on is to be able to give advice, because I’m asked for it but I don’t have it yet. But I have this strong feeling that one shouldn’t get into crazy debt unless they have a lot of money from their parents or something like that. I’m actually really terrified of that issue and advising people to go to those places. Especially since I’ve seen a number of weak programs. But there are places that are strong, such as the program in Florida. It’s hard for a program that costs a lot but one of the great things about this one is that the students go out into the world and meet different artists. They move to meet in Berlin, New York, San Francisco and then Hartford. In contrast, having spent a semester in a classroom with students seems crazy. I think you need to be out in the world, because it’s not stuff you learn sitting around a table; photography itself is learned by doing it, and then this universe is learned through making connections, meeting people and such.

JL: Well certainly this is what we have going for us in New York City, we can stroll out the door and bump into Alec Soth.

AS: Exactly. In Minnesota we have the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and I love the faculty there, it’s super great. But I would never tell someone: move to Minnesota, spend all this money, and you’re not going to make any connections, and you’re not going to really be able to see that much work.

JL: I feel so lucky that we’ve walked here and bumped into you! Thank you, and congratulations.

AS: Thanks so much. That’s really great. It’s good karma.


In Pursuit of an MFA

ICP-Bard_SothTwelve trudge 1.4 miles, post-blizzard, from Bryant Park to Chelsea. One of many stops, along the way to an MFA.

Joanna Lehan’s Survey of Contemporary Photography class stormed Sean Kelly Gallery for Alec Soth’s exhibition, Songbook, on opening morning. Fortunate to have engaged in an impromptu conversation with the artist – I think he was empathetic to our cold shivering selves – we took the opportunity to discuss with him his thoughts on the evolving publication platforms, the relationship between image/text and the role of MFA programs.

At the Songbook signing the next day, I gave Alec a copy of my book Endurance, and he responded: “You’ve published a book, with another on the way? Why are you in grad school?” Dumbfounded, I didn’t have an answer at the ready. His question led me to engage in a series of interviews with esteemed curators, gallerists, critics and artists – in the hope of gaining deeper insight. Perhaps, by week’s end, I shall have a better answer.

  • Throughout the day, today, we will hear from Alec Soth.
  • Tomorrow, we ‘hang’ (you’ll see…) with curator/professor Michael Foley.
  • Curator, Elisabeth Biondi moderates on Wednesday and Thursday – featuring Vince Aletti, Chris Boot, Brian Clamp, Allen Frame, Andrea Meislin, Charles Traub and the Lift Off artists, – as panelists discuss photography’s challenges.
  • Finally, artist/professor, Gary Taxali, begins our weekend with a (!!!)

I’ll kick off this Monday morning with my review of Songbook:

Alec Soth Songbook

On Alec Soth’s “Songbook”, by Theresa Ortolani

The acquisition of language marks a child’s progression toward agency. One’s capacity to understand and use language provides us with the rudimentary tools necessary for survival within a community. The more nuanced and multiplicious one’s languages become, the more power one has the capacity to wield. But, even before words are formed, a child first learns to smile, laugh, cry, flirt – to satisfy basic needs. The infant is a performer. He sings for his meals of mother’s milk day and night, night or day.

It is this kind of lyricism that Soth seeks in the Songbook score. The essence of imagination. Desire at its core. He brings his subjects to the pages of Songbook, and printed large-scale, to the walls of the Sean Kelly, Fraenkel and Weinstein galleries, where the work is concurrently presented. Meanwhile, the viewer projects whatever he wishes onto the images. Pure delight, melancholy, irony, solitude. All readings are within bounds, as the story is shelved, and paradoxically allowed to unfold.

Soth, accompanied by writer-friend Brad Zeller, assumed the role of small town reporter. Together, and sometimes with a third, they entered communities, camps and festivals across the country, storytelling along the way. But, the exhibition’s press release tells us, “with Songbook, Soth has stripped photographs of their news context in order to highlight the longing for personal connection at their root.” Still, despite being photographed digitally, the images are printed in black and white, reminiscent of the pages of a newspaper, music score, or piano keys. Shorn of text and color, the images, removed from their original context, invite viewers to improvise their own stories.

During an impromptu conversation between the Bard-ICP MFA class of 2016 and Soth at the Sean Kelly Gallery, I ask him to comment on the relationship between image and text: “Brad Zeller has a very sophisticated understanding of photography. The way the text works with images; he’s great about not stepping on the images, and hopefully my pictures won’t step on his text…. I love trying to figure it out [the relationship between image and text], but I also love pictures on their own and leaving the mysteries wide open. And so this book was really about that; Songbook is just open-ended lyricism, where you can just bring whatever you bring to the pictures. In a lot of ways, I think I’m having my cake and eating it too, and you can do that with photography in some ways because it can work on different platforms.”

Much like the tension between individualism and the desire for unity that Songbook depicts, image and text also seek balance within our multitude of contemporary platforms of communication. “Texting” calls only for language – the written word – though at times, seeks the aid of emoticons to establish tone. Instagram begs for the absence of text, while Facebook is a dance between both image and text.

Rooted in tradition, Soth, a truly contemporary artist, is fluent on all platforms. As an accompaniment to the exhibit, Soth took over Sean Kelly’s Instagram account, posting pictures from his daily life using his phone. @SeanKellyNY, #SKNY

“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” – John Berger 




Related and Alienated

The idea of experimenting with the photographic process, from the lens to the print, that ‘The Actual’ group exhibit explores at Eleven Rivington Gallery, has made me think about how contemporary practice reflects a sterile idea of beauty.

Marsha Cotrell

“Interior 1″, 2014. Marsha Cotrell. Laser toner in paper unique, 8 3/4 x 7 7/8 inches (22.2×20 cm). Eleven Rivington Gallery

Marsha Cotrell’s works, for instance, are made of layers of laser toner ink. She uses an additive process, and creates an appearance of architectural depth in her geometric abstractions. Those layers of time and light have drawn me to Moholy Nagy (1895-1946), with his fascination with Constructivist/Suprematist color theory and his decision to experiment with Light as a new “medium of plastic expression”. This movement of experimentation arose in an avant –garde context out of a desire to rebel against the bourgeois.

Moholy Nagy

“VIII.Neon Signs, Chicago, 1939″. Moholy Nagy. Color Photograph. “Moholy – Nagy, Documentary Monographs in Modern Art”. Edited by Richard Kostelanetz, 1970.

The Dadaist movement was born in 1916, right after World War I. In words of the Director of MoMA, Alfred H. Barr Jr. ( 1902-1981) “They rejected everything, including modern art, and accepted anything”*. Surrealism was the direct descendent of Dada’s interest in the antirational. It had a deep understanding of the subconscious, and used the analysis of dreams, visions, automatic writing and psychoanalytic drawings as tools.

Even though I feel deeply attracted to the process and so interested in the use of the medium in a new form, as I am experimenting within my practice, I also feel there is a wall between this kind of practice and the content behind it. It is difficult to discern what is happening at this chaotic moment dominated by technology. Some contemporary artists are pointed our gaze to what is experienced inside. “The Actual” presents an abstract image of artifice and process in such a repetitive way, that it doesn’t allow me to connect with any context or reference apart from the medium itself.

In 1942 MoMA opened the exhibition “How to make a Photogram” by Moholy Nagy in collaboration with students. The exhibition was divided into different areas and explained the process of the photograms: conventional photographs of objects as immediate reality, physical objects susceptible to play with their plasticity and light, demonstrations of the effect of natural light in sensitive paper and different supports, and photograms of Moholy Nagy and Man Ray. The process prompted the viewer to be more aware of their daily vision, to seek dormant skills.

Moholy Nagy selfportrait

“Self Portrait”, 1924. Moholy-Nagy. Photogram with torn paper. Collection George Eastman House, Rochester NY.

“The Actual” features work of five other artists as Sara Cwynar, Jessica Eaton, John Houk, Jason Kalogiros, and Miranda Lichtenstein. Their work is presented in the two spaces, separating the artists’ series, and all the images are framed and presented in a classical exhibition format. I would have preferred to experience something more physical, some element that would emphasize a point of contact with the viewer.

John Houk

“Untitled #322_02, 2 colors, #BCA09E, #EB4235″, 2014. John Houk. 2 Creased archival pigment prints. 15 x 10 inches. Eleven Rivington Gallery

I didn’t feel like that when I saw Assaf Shaham’s work at Yossi Gallery. “Division of the Vision” is an exhibition of sculpture, video and photo-based work by Israeli artist Assaf Shaham. His other work gave me the context and the political backdrop for his scanograms, how he questions the limitations of representation and uses studies to document his work.

Assaf Shaham2

“Writer”, 2012. Assaf Shaham. Yossi Milo Gallery


“FR (90 DEG blue and brown)”, 2014. Assam Shaham. From the series Full Reflection Archival Inkjet Print 42 1/2″ × 30 11/16″ (108 x 78 cm). Yossi Milo Gallery

Being in an age where digital technologies are also changing the ways we communicate makes me wonder if the way that “The Actual” turns our focus to spatial perception is not accentuating the virtuality and disembodied zeitgeist of this moment. When I first saw Hilary Berseth in the next room of the gallery, I felt excited and relieved. The movement of the images, the dimensionality, even the expression of the faces didn’t seem to me exaggerated, they were like a breath of fresh air.

*The Museum of Modern Art. Release 113036-38 of the exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism”, 1937.

The more things change, the more they stay the same…


In my inbox this morning, I got my daily email from Hyperallergic, a blog on art and culture. I find their posts intelligent, informative and entertaining, although I must confess that lately I don’t seem to have much time to read them. A regrettable but necessary consequence of grad school’s Hoover-like tendency to suck up every moment of daily life.

The featured post this morning, however, turned that switch off. The lead post in the email included a graphic (reproduced above) showing current gender gallery statistics compared to the ones compiled in 1986 by the Guerrilla Girls. The new statistics were collected by the anonymous collective Pussy Galore and do show some improvements in representation of women, but there are some shockingly low numbers by many galleries. Of the thirty four galleries listed, only six have percentages greater than 50% (the post notes that Marilyn Minter corrects the Salon 94 statistic from 48% to 52% on her Facebook page).

The worst offenders deserve to be called out. They are Tony Shafrazi (5%), Marlborough (7%), Sperone Westwater (9%). Really? Is this shit for real? It makes me want to climb back in bed and pull the covers over my head, but I know that impulse is wrong. This sad news reinforces the notion that getting rid of bias demands active resistance and intervention. I feel powerless in my singularity but making this knowledge known and spreading the word feels like something. We can only hope that some public shaming will cause these powerful brokers of culture to rethink their own influence and power.

Gems of Wisdom from Larry Sultan


I’m currently a teaching assistant for a continuing education course taught by Jen Davis that focuses on image making in and around the domestic. This week she had the students read Larry Sultan’s essay from his book Pictures from Home. The essay is really inspiring and he shares a lot about the making of this body of work and his process. Unfortunately the book is out of print and hard to get your hands on, and if you can find one, it is prohibitively expensive.

A couple years ago a friend of mine shared Sultan’s website with me. In addition to showing a lot of his work, he generously shares essays, lists and tidbits from teaching. As a whole, the written work reveals a lot about process and I find it fascinating and reassuring to learn about other artist’s practice. I want to share this trove with others because it is always good to be reminded that making work is a process that ebbs and flows, not a direct journey from A to B.

If you are interested in digging around these gems, go to his website and select “By Larry” under the Words section.