Come out and support TODAY Katrina Sorrentino’s solo thesis exhibition How to Make the Bed from 6 – 9 PM at the MFA Studios in Long Island City.
Join us TOMORROW Friday April 1st for the 2016 Class MFA Group Show ALL AT ONCE at ICP Midtown (School)
DECOMPOSED explores the systems and boundaries between binaries – image/text, conscious/unconscious, corporeal/spiritual – and focuses on the points at which these constructs converge, invert and decompose.
These primarily lens-based images were crafted via various techniques: masking, piercing, sewing, drawing, digital imaging, and printed in multiple layers. The original works vary in size, medium and technique. The final pieces were then reproduced, Glicée printed on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag and also included in a handmade, limited edition 7 x 7 inch, 50 plate artist book.
Elisabeth Biondi moderates a panel of experts at Fridman Gallery in discussion about the challenges recent graduates face. With: Vince Aletti, Chris Boot, Brian Clamp, Allen Frame, Andrea Meislin and Charles Traub. (Abridged Transcript)
Elisabeth Biondi: I come from a very traditional editorial background, and things have changed tremendously in the past three years since I left The New Yorker. In the show “Lift Off”, we have six extremely talented artists who have just recently graduated with an MFA degree and they are now facing the world without the help of their schools and programs. And so, I want to place that in the context of, “what is the world of photography now and how has it changed?”
Charles Traub: I think the shortsighted view is, “This is all new” and the truth is the content isn’t very new. Moholy-Nagy predicted everything that we’re talking about: the integration of the ideas of photography being a matrix for all kinds of creative activity – whether commercial, personal, film, video – he wasn’t thinking of the video they didn’t have, but he was seeing the idea.
Chris Boot: Absolutely nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed about the environment of dissemination, production and communication – and obviously that is all driven by the Internet. It profoundly challenges the publisher’s role. Publishers used to be these capricious characters … on whose opinion and wishes an artists’ career might depend. Books were the most influential bearer of photographic knowledge; it is how ideas traveled across borders. Now you can argue a lot of that happens through the Internet, but the book, there’s nothing quite like the book for being the final articulation of a given body of work. What people are doing in terms of the materiality, in terms of production techniques, in terms of ideas, and concepts expressed and communicated through the form of a book. It is the most thrilling area at the moment; there is so much innovation.
Allen Frame: Not much has changed in terms of content, which is the essential thing. It all has to do with point of view and as humans our perceptions are our way of perceiving. It has not changed so much that we’ve created a new art form, we’ve just created different ways to distribute the ideas.
Chris Boot: It’s an incredibly difficult business to publish photo books. If there’s an audience of a thousand people for it, we’re probably not the right people to talk to. Books become viable at the seven thousand and above number. Those are books by photographers with highly established reputations, big audiences or are addressing topics that everybody wants to talk about. The individual artist book – it’s a really tough business. I personally get four proposals a day and I do find myself saying all the time: you should do it yourself.
Charles Traub: The thing that’s new is that you can do it yourself for very little money relative to what it once cost and you can also make a book called an e-book on the screen. I like to use the term lens and screen arts. The screen is a pretty damn viable place and it’s not so far removed from those beautiful Kodachromes we once projected as well. So you can do it yourself, whereas you never could do it yourself in the past.
Brian Clamp: Probably fifty percent of the exhibitions at the gallery coincide with the release of some sort of publication, so someone with a book contract in their back pocket certainly becomes much more attractive to the gallery simply because it’s a great formula for promoting work. The publicity from the book fuels the exhibition and vice versa.There are so many books being published, many photographers feel it’s a requirement at this point. And it is so obvious that not all work necessary lends itself to the printed page, not everyone has to have a monograph. It certainly is important and can open doorways for people, but it’s frustrating for me to see artists all assume that that’s something they have to do.
Vince Aletti: When you say not everyone has to have a monograph, I would go a little further and say not everyone deserves to have a monograph. There’s an awful lot of material out there that just feels featherweight and doesn’t really hold the book. But it’s the same thing with gallery shows. There’s an awful lot of work out there that is easy to walk in and out of. I think it will always be the case that there’s good work and bad work or good work and not so interesting work.
I’ve been seeing that it’s process driven, that it’s essentially abstract, that it’s moved far away from the constructed photograph. And more and more of the work that I’m seeing feels like that it comes, maybe not from the darkroom, but with that sensibility. And that’s really struck me over the past year that I, frankly, have gotten very bored with fictional images – that kind of Crewdson school – and I’m glad to see that there’s not as much of that now. But it is kind of amazing to me how many people are working with process, with what feels like going away from imagery, going away from documentation and working almost completely in abstraction.
Brian Clamp: I think there are conceptual reasons why we’re seeing a lot of abstract photography, but I feel like part of it is market driven because we’ve seen edition sizes reduce and reduce and reduce. There are collectors that want to own unique objects, so now we’re seeing almost every gallery with one artist who’s producing unique photographic objects.
Andrea Meislin: Regarding the traditional image, we’ve all sort of moved on from street photography, which is really a shame. The most interesting work that I’m seeing is either composed, constructed or it’s played with; it’s conceptual in nature. And then the visual results have to be as stunning as their concept; they have to match well and be a cohesive presentation.
Charles Traub: I think what is incumbent is for people to figure out how to get beyond these very issues we’re talking about, of the problem of the gallery, of the problem of the book – not that they’re not important, but what else can one do and how can one use the devices and the technology and the public display and architecture and everything that’s out there. Certainly the curriculum had to change because of the digital world. And the artist/photographer is concerned about trying to say something individually through the lens, as the lens is a matrix. What has changed is we’re all much more visually literate, at least this group is, and better educated about what the image is, about what it can do.
Vince Aletti: The challenge for any artist is that you can pull off something wonderful, but then you have to do it again. You are producing something extraordinary, but that’s never enough. The people that excite me and keep me engaged are the ones that are able to sustain a career by constantly evolving, constantly changing and having a signature that is not set in stone.
Allen Frame: I wish more people were like you Elisabeth, and by that I mean, you write this column for Photograph and introduce a photographer in each issue and it is up to you to decide what type of photographer. You set the parameters of somebody that’s not represented by a gallery yet and you make that call of skipping the many filters that are in place before we see somebody’s work in a gallery because there are all those filters that occur before we get to find out about somebody. And I find as the art world becomes more and more corporatized in New York, that kind of risk-taking happens less and less and I wish that there were more people who would take that kind of a risk.
Allen Frame: The fault of a lot of curators, young curators, is they just put their friends’ work in it and it’s not that coherent or interesting.
This is the fifth in the series In Pursuit of an MFA by Theresa Ortolani. If you missed them, please also visit The Space Age of Photography: In Conversation with Elisabeth Biondi, Hangin’ with Foley and On Songbook: In Conversation with Alec Soth.
from the series In Pursuit of an MFA
I 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 on view through February 28.
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 was scheduled to begin. Though I had initially intended to set up and take a formal portrait of Biondi, inspired by her interest in Instagram and new media, I instead asked her to take some “selfies” with her artists and gallerist Iliya Fridman in front of Charles Sainty’s vibrant video projection, while I photographed them.
Theresa 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.
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?
EB: 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.
Lift Off is on view through February 28th at Fridman Gallery.
from the series In Pursuit of an MFA
Michael 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 such as Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, alongside contemporary emerging and mid-career artists like Nan Goldin, Thomas Ruff and 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 end.
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 Wednesday.
Beginning February 23rd, I’ll share the photos I’ve taken and the conversations I’ve had with artists, curators and gallerists. Our discussions center around the role of the MFA program, new media and the intersection of image/text.
Until then, you are invited to attend the related exhibits and events:
Incoming ICP-Bard MFA student, Theresa Ortolani, was chosen as a 2014 pdn FACES Portrait Photography Competition winner. This is the seventh time Ortolani’s imagery has been selected as winner of a pdn competition. Previous works have been included in pdn’s Environmental Portraiture, Sports, Documentary and Book competition categories, and have twice appeared in the pdn Annual. The complete group of 2014 pdn FACES images can be seen in the current print issue of pdn, and online, in the Winner’s Gallery.