Raphael Shammaa interviewed Emma Wilcox for ASX on April 15, 2013. The transcript is as follows.
Raphael Shammaa: So I found that story fascinating about you getting an anonymous phone call about your building coming down where the gallery is and I was wondering, did you ever find out who that person was that called you?
Emma Wilcox: I have always assumed it was someone who was, let’s call it, one degree less than of layperson than me, but probably no more. What I mean by that is maybe they, um, had, um, heard something from someone who is well connected or had been invited to the right meeting. So the point of repeating the story over and over and over again is just to try to talk about, um, the mechanisms of things like consent, and especially informed consent, and, so trickling down to regular laypeople like myself, um, what is supposed to pass for consent is that you tack a flyer in a few public spaces, convene a meeting, assemble whoever can attend and somehow you have supposedly reached consensus.
RS: In other words, just comply with the law and move on.
EW: Well, as I’ve gotten older, consensus – true consensus – is actually very difficult to achieve, and I think that it’s necessary in this society – I know what side I’m on – but as I’ve gotten older, people are difficult. Democracy is difficult.
RS: Democracy is referred to as being “messy”
EW: Yeah, it is, so I have an appreciation a little bit for how difficult it is to convene meetings.
EW: OK. Um, how difficult it is to have an informed public, but that doesn’t diminish my belief in it
Raphael Shammaa: So let me ask you, was it the development of advancing web technologies that inspired you to pursue forensic research about people and events, or would you have done it anyway? In other words, is it in your nature, do you have a propensity to go out and “dig” about facts and people?
Emma Wilcox: I think –
RS: Or did they both happen together?
EW: Uh, lets see here. I think like many small children, I loved digging in the ground and was occasionally convinced that the worthless bits of garbage that I would find were in fact the relics of a lost civilization
RS: Yes, yes [laughs] very valuable to you.
EW: Oh yes, or perhaps someone else, but um…so a lot of the forensics that I read about that got me interested in it, in a science, they’re always, the practitioners are always taking advantage of whatever technology is available within their lifetimes, but it isn’t really tied to any particular technological advancement. I mean, some incredible gains were made scientifically by people using what we would consider very crude instruments. So it’s more a way of thinking, than it is necessarily one set of tools. Like say a computer, it’s more a way of thinking.
RS: …Right, so if it was already in you to go about and digging and looking for information.
EW: Yeah, definitely. The technology is just a means, and I assume that within my lifetime it will continue to change.
RS: The technology or the tendency?
EW: The technology.
RS: You know, your photographs seem to be of imprints of life as a sedimentation process where each layer rests upon and conceals the previous layer. Is a forensic exercise usually driven by an agenda? And, what were you looking for exactly?
EW: You know, that seems like a trick question, but everyone has an agenda, that is for certain. I have my own preoccupations, the stories that are rattling around in my head, and I think to a certain degree we all are moving through the world and our understanding of it is entirely dependent on our life experience, you’ll come to certain conclusions. Shown the same set of objects, different people will interpret a scene differently in terms of, say, who the actors in a scene were, who was acted upon, things like that.
RS: So part of it was curiosity, and part of it was making a point?
EW: I certainly have a tendency to root for the underdog, but I have probably my own subjective preoccupations. Something that I’ve tried to make clear is that I am not remotely connected with the fine tradition in black and white photography of journalism. I’m interpreting something that’s closer to my own lived experience than any kind of factual truth. The joke that I always make about it is that it’s a vision of New Jersey where all of the S’s are burnt out on the Shell gas station signs and the T is burnt out on the “Trust” sign – it’s a very specific place.
RS: So is that a metaphor? What is it, a metaphor about?
EW: It’s not a metaphor, it’s a sign I saw on the highway.
RS: It’s a sign you saw on the highway [laughs]. What express meaning does it have for you?
EW: I would prefer that other people assign…assign those things. One of the great pleasures of having the photographs kind of live in the world, and especially as they age in time with me, is seeing how others read them. It’s often incredibly revealing.
RS: It’s crowd-sourcing responses
EW: Kind of, and that’s how a lot of the photographs get made, is they definitely reflect my peculiar occupations but they tend to be this sort of accreted, or accumulated, grouping of stories, and I always say that some of them are mine, some of them are overheard, borrowed, occasionally stolen. There’s always that tension, where some of the stories maybe even aren’t mine to use or interpret.
RS: So are they sort of open-ended questions you put out there?
EW: Kind of, yes. I’ll give you an example if you want…oh, it’s not in here actually. The photograph with the rabbits in it, “Father’s Day,” none of that is really too much anything that happened to me, but I noticed that everyone that I met, whether they were a friend or a stranger, had some kind of traumatic pet story. Sometimes it was pets and fathers, sometimes it was pets and parents, or it was some kind of early childhood encounter with beloved animals. A couple of the stories involved automobiles. And so all of them just sort of accumulated over time, so that’s sort of this layering of one story over another story over another story, until it isn’t really recognizably anyone’s. So there’s sort of a crowd-sourcing mechanism at work.
RS: So you put it out and see what happens to it and who shows up.
EW: Well, and then after collecting all these stories, the pictures out in the world and people come up to me and tell me stories about rabbits and pets.
RS: Right. But you know, what I find also very interesting is to identify the type of people who do show up, because only certain people do show up for that. Different kinds of people will show up but not everybody does show up, so it’s interesting to look at, you know, who actually showed up to look and comment and provide their own interpretation – that’s fascinating to look at.
EW: Yeah, what draws people.
RS: Yeah. So let me ask you another question. Buddhists use the term “shul” to indicate a path or trace left by something or someone, and it reminds me of your introduction to forensic landscapes. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
EW: About the introduction?
RS: Yes, because it talks about something very similar, which is the amino acids of a body left behind, leaving a shadow and preventing growth for a period of about two years, and “shul,” for the Buddhists has the same meaning, and they gave it that name.
EW: That’s wonderful, I wasn’t familiar with that word, so thank you for sharing that with me, it’s good that there’s a word for that. So, years ago when I was a student at School of Visual Arts, I was in a thesis class with the chair – he’s still the chair of the department there, Stephen Frailey – and I remember him asking me a couple questions. I think one of them was, did I believe in ghosts. And maybe another one within the same couple of minutes was, was I religious. And I actually misheard him and I thought that he asked me whether or not I believed in goats, which lead to –
RS: In goats?
EW: Yeah, so then we had to talk about the ghosts of goats. But that’s beside the point. What I believe… my response back to him was that what I believed wasn’t necessarily as important but I felt that a lot of people that were in and around the places I was photographing probably believed in one or both… you know, in God and ghosts. So again, there’s this sort of mechanism at play where I’m just so aware of this density, this overwhelming density to New Jersey, and I think I talk about that in some of my writing. There’s this visual density, but it’s more than that… it’s this sort of overwhelming weight of so many stories and most of them are not in the official record. It’s sort of this… almost like the negative space of all these stories that are not spoken is so overwhelming.
RS: Yeah, but you know, you refer to the work as “forensic landscapes,” and forensic by definition refers to fact, not to belief systems.
EW: Well, maybe there’s this issue where um, I really believe that there’s a sort of continuum with how people speak, and at one end of the continuum is the way that people will talk in bars, maybe, or with their family, where they’ll say, “Oh this fish that I caught…” – I don’t know how you’re going to do this in an interview, but you know, I’m making this gesture with my hands – “…this fish was so big.” And that’s one end of the continuum. And it’s lies and stories and all the things that people do. The other end of the continuum is connected with forensics, and forensics dealing with human rights abuses and the power of someone saying “I was there.” I usually bang on the table at this point. It wasn’t like that, and that is truth. So I’m interested in both extremes and everything in between.
RS: So that refers to the graffiti you put on one rooftop about your history conflicts…with my belief, or with my experience?
EW: That’s the issue, and it’s funny because that is actually…I don’t have permission to be reproducing that poetry, so it’s sort of this mangled bit of someone else’s very beautiful writing: “my memory gets in the way of your history.” So I think precisely because so often in the world there’s truths that are ignored, or truths that are mangled or obscured from the record, I try…
RS: Or bent to use to serve a particular purpose…
EW: Yeah, I feel like my way out of that problem is that I’m a very unreliable narrator. So, you know, it’s not about someone having to believe me. There’s that sort of basis there. Probably the reason that there’s all these television shows now that are so popular that are supposedly about forensics, is it’s this seductiveness of not only some sort of absolute truth achieved through science, but you notice usually in those shows this concept of really pure justice prevails. The killer is sort of always who we think it should be and who we want it to be. Those ideas are very seductive but I’m not sure any of that actually exists in the world, so I really interested in the idea of that continuum where there’s sort of lies at one end. It’s sort of this voice saying you have to believe me. But you don’t…why should you?
RS: Does a project like this tend to take a life of it’s own at some point?
EW: Yes! I won’t even qualify that.
RS: How do you always manage to keep your eyes on the eight-ball?
EW: I’m not even sure I know what that means. I think a long time ago – long time being relative, but a long time ago – I had this idea that it was a project that kind of came to a finite end, that it would come to a close. But I’ve come to the conclusion that sort of naturally I just work very slowly, and I’ve complicated my life some and I’m very busy so I don’t make as many pictures as I would like, but even under the most ideal circumstances imaginable, I think that I would probably work kind of slowly. And I’ve really come to terms with that, and I’m very much at peace with it.
RS: Was it slowly or deliberately?
EW: Well, both. But I have been grateful to have lived even long enough so far, and I certainly aspire to have more life span than I have now, but I’ve been grateful just to watch the pictures age and to watch some of the kind of contexts and situations that inspired them, shaped and change –
RS: So it was interesting to discover how we relate to the same pictures, you know, six months down the line or two years down the line.
EW: Yeah I mean six months is sort of a blank. I think some of this is because I tend to work with very long exposure, so every thing’s very, very relative. A minute is a very short exposure for me, so six months is not much time. Obviously the pictures that got away, the pictures that never were taken, where something was demolished before I could get there, or a situation shifted… I always mourn those and wish that I had been faster. But I think at this point I have abandoned any concepts that I ever had about having a kind of specific life span. I view it sort of an ongoing mutation. So, the introduction of helicopters into the work was sort of an unexpected direction, but I ultimately view it sort of as all one project, one body of work and I’m still adding to it.
RS: Yes, everything seems like a continuous body of work. But because of the kind of answer you gave me, I’ll ask you two questions simultaneously, and you can answer them as you wish. First, what I was going to ask, is how do you know you’ve accomplished what you set out to do? And how do you know to stop taking pictures? That’s one question. And the other one is: what’s the part of serendipity in your work? Or is that a silly question?
EW: No, these are… I like both of these questions. The first one’s hard though. It’s a continuous process of, you’re happy with the picture for a little while, and then you’re not anymore and you sort of need another one.
RS: Does it happen sometimes that the picture you take itself asks more questions?
EW: I don’t know about that. Another example would be, I’m sort of always taking the same picture over and over again. Years ago, I took a picture of a white car, and I liked it for a while but then I sort wanted another one or a better one or I thought I could make it more perfect. So, I had taken another one, and that was good for a little while and then it sort of, you know, like any other sort of high, it runs out, and then you want another one. So there’s a whole bunch of pictures where – I think at this point I’m up to 3, maybe 4, maybe even more – I don’t shoot as much as I’d like, and I don’t shoot that much film compared with a lot of people, and then of the film that I even contact, I probably don’t make that many final prints, so it’s sort of, you don’t end up with a lot at the end. So, there’s very few of them where I feel like they’re finished. A few of them are, a few of them definitely… the moment is over. But most of them I’m still looking for the next “car picture,” for example, or the more perfect picture of the billboard
RS: So it’s dormant… it’s an image that’s dormant.
EW: Exactly, and then eventually, I’m always looking for this year’s upgrade.
RS: And it will come into it’s fullness some other time.
EW: Yeah, so there’s that, that’s sort of part one of the question–
RS: Let me interrupt, because I’d like to ask you – do you turn to anyone else to help you decide about which picture to use, or whether this is the right picture, or have I said enough, or is there more I need to say… in other words, do you turn to anyone else to help you get a sense of what’s going on?
EW: Well, you know, you can’t make work in a vacuum, but I think probably the actual image selection and sort of the developing and printing and all of that, that part is actually kind of less interesting than the selection and the thinking that happens when you’re conceiving of a picture, setting it up, trying to figure out what elements… and I can talk a little bit about serendipity, that’s what I mean by the elements of a picture. But framing, things like that, all of those things that need to happen before you’ve even exposed the film, and as much as there’s this image of a photographer working by themselves, there is ultimately kind of solitary and egotistical aspect of making pictures. I’m incredibly indebted – and that really is the word – to a number of a people, most namely my partner Evonne M. Davis, who’s also an artist as well, because the pictures are really built and frequently they’re completely– they start out completely intangible; they’re completely flimsy. So I think of them as being built, and sometimes they start out as these incredibly flimsy ideas.
RS: They’re sketches on the way to the final picture.
EW: Oh my goodness! So, it’s not so much sort of, this popular image we have of the artist staring moodily and somewhat heroically at a pile of prints in some overpriced studio, but it’s more of this sort of, bizarre, halting process of making pictures that is frequently an incredibly involved process where there’s no possible way that I could have single-handedly had that happen.
RS: And the chemistry that takes place between you and the images and the other people involved… it’s hard to describe, is it?
EW: It is. The one verb I can use is “conceptualized,” but that’s just a word, it doesn’t encompass the sort of richness of the back and forth and the dialogue. As much as it definitely in some ways is still this sort of weird solitary process, it’s not really.
RS: Okay, so serendipity in image making…
EW: So that sort of relates perfectly to what conditions are necessary. I mean, some of the pictures in this book were made on the street in a more or less sort of recognizably street photographer mode, and that means really putting yourself out there in the world, where I was, in some cases, working by myself.
RS: And in the evening…
EW: Yeah, this one here [points to a picture], to get the angles, I pretty much had to be kneeling on the sidewalk for a pretty extended period of time. The angles are kind of weird; I was almost laying on the ground a bunch of times. So these were social environments, there’s no possible way that you can escape notice.
RS: You have to be young to take pictures of Newark, young and limber…
EW: I don’t know about that, there seems to be a lot of groaning and moaning about it. But I ended up having dozens of conversations with people, mostly with strangers, every once and a while I would run into a friend, so there’s sort of that aspect, but that’s sort of a traditional still that’s more or less recognizably traditional sort of street photography. So that’s serendipity as we talk about it a lot where it’s sort of, I don’t have control of what street light is switched on or off, someone may drive into the scene… but the other mode of working, the other kind of extreme, would be something like this picture [points to a picture]
RS: Yes, the picture of the car engulfed in mist.
EW: Yeah, so I attempt to set up scenes, stage the sets. I do rely on things that are, you know, theatrical equipment like fog machines and flares and smoke bombs and lights, but I’m not a very practical person. I joke about that a lot, that probably anyone but me could run a more competent set, or have a better understanding of things as simple as, for example, the law of gravity. I’m not a very confident builder or rigger, so I’ll imagine something happening and then because I don’t use anything like Photoshop, everything, in order to photograph it, it has to be existent in the world. I have to try to bring that about. So I think some of the best things that have happened with the pictures is again, this tension between what I imagine it will look like and then sort of the mechanics of the world. Maybe something doesn’t burn the way that I imagined it my dream.
RS: So are you surprised when you see your pictures – how often are you surprised when you look at your pictures after having taken them?
EW: Um, at this point I’ve been doing this for so long, I usually have a reasonably good sense of what, for example, a half an hour exposure might look like. But, again, like I was saying, sometimes just the physical processes of the world – if you threw something in the air, how long with it take to fall down and what will it look like when it breaks apart? And that’s again, where you end up sort of needing other people’s help and you need to sort of enlist your community, whatever that means to you.
RS: So you’re dependent on raw physics, raw physics and you don’t control them
EW: And I resent them deeply. I imagine things floating and you know you can bring things up with wires…
RS: …and guess what, they don’t float
EW: Yeah! So you have to figure it out. So there’s a huge amount of unpredictability, where I suppose a more commercially minded photographer probably would know what something would look like after you set off the smoke bomb. I frequently never quite know what will happen, and in the case of things like living beings, like the rabbits, I didn’t have the faintest idea what would happen.
RS: Let me ask you a question about graffiti. Was it intended to last, or was it intended to last just long enough for you to take pictures of it? Did you get permission? Tell us a little bit about that Google Earth part of the story that I read in one of the articles .
EW: So, lets see. The first rooftop, I can honestly say – and I don’t care who believes me or not – I can honestly say that I wasn’t conceiving of it as any kind of art-making practice, I wasn’t viewing it as a creative gesture. I was angry, and there is definitely a recognizable genre of text – it’s as distinctive and ???? as, say, an interoffice memo or a traffic sign, or any other kind of writing we encounter in the world which is the angry handwritten rant. So I probably was imagining –
RS: That in it of itself is expressive.
EW: Oh absolutely. But it’s not as if I had imagined eventually these photographs eventually would be hanging in shows or reproduced in catalogues.
RS: So when you went up to the roofs with the intention of painting these messages, what was the intent behind that?
EW: Again, I think even talking about intent is sort of ascribing a belief in the future that was a little shake at the moment for me, but, you know, where do we get our ideas from?
RS: You just had to do it?
EW: Let me… … and somewhere I had heard, I’m not even sure where, that the US government would make these passes every ten years over the world. So there was some kind of crude intention, I think, on our most base level, a desire for attention. I mean, that’s basically sort of the ego talking, is I am not invisible, I am not muted, this is happening. And it wasn’t just me, it was a number of us in the situation. And so, we had been through this situation where we had no agency, and that gives you this very visceral need to feel that you have agency somehow. But it certainly was an assertive counting career move, for example. The other rooftops, the rooftops that came after, it had occurred to me that I could make a set of rooftops that would correspond with all these different phrases and words and bits of language that I had been collecting for a long time, so those were much more intentional.
RS: So that became a different kind of exercise.
EW: Yes. It was much more intentional.
RS: So the first one was a need to assert yourself as a living creature with ideas and positions and you wanted to be heard. This was your need to be heard.
EW: Just on the most base level, I think that that was the motivation. The proximity of Newark to the airport I think is very part of its sort of visual identity. The planes especially in the neighborhood of the Ironbound are always going above you…
RS: Somebody was going to see it.
EW: It was this sort of bold, blind faith. And of course, later I ask myself, “and what exactly would that have accomplished?” But there was just this sort of urge to do something.
RS: Like the bottle with a message that’s thrown into the sea.
EW: Yeah, it’s very futile and sort of, a very primitive gesture. But in terms of permission, which you had asked about, the first one was not with permission. Some of them have permission, some of them don’t. And a lot of them are in sort of a grey area. And just the fact that I had two things happen: I had the exhibit at the print center, and that generated some publicity, and a couple things just happened over time. I got invited to speak to an American studies class at a university in Newark, and in the course of… the invitation arose because the professor had been Googling a local art gallery, just trying to visit with his class on a completely unrelated topic, and pulled it up in Google street view, saw the Google Earth – the same way that we do these motions now, to simply keep appointments and do other mundane tasks – discovered the rooftop writing, and had a very hard time finding out who had done it. And it’s all in this sort of grey zone because my friends tend to be renters, and–
RS: So he ran into it, he stumbled into it, and he didn’t know who did it
EW: Yeah, and eventually we were able to connect. So just the fact that I’m talking about this with you, I’m sort of outing myself over and over and over again, as the person who’s responsible for these things. And I do… again, my ego wants them to be permanent but I do understand that it’s a completely, um, it’s kind of a meaningless gesture, and frequently the buildings are slated for demolition. So the whole idea of permanence is sort of an indulgence.
RS: It’s like your own mandala.
EW: Yeah, you have to abandon those notions.
RS: So listen, I once read that a Japanese poet read his work to a peasant woman, and whenever she failed to understand what he read, he went back to the drawing board. He rewrote his poems. He wanted his poems to be within the reach of everyone. And, how would you explain your work to a modern day equivalent of a Japanese peasant woman?
EW: I can’t really imagine that I would be in the position where I’m taking the poet role in this story, so I find the whole question kind of problematic
RS: Okay, let’s replace the peasant woman with you’re invited to a school of teenagers by the art teacher or the physics teacher or someone, to show your work, because they’re Newark teenagers and those pictures are about their environment, and you’re invited to talk about the work. What would you say to them?
EW: I would ask the, and they probably would tell me if they felt comfortable enough to, what buildings they recognized. I don’t feel a sense of ownership. I’m very aware, they same way that I’m working with other peoples’ stories as well as my own. The idea that you have some sort of ownership over the built environment because you can do this weird thing of making pictures – it’s kind of problematic. So, it’s always a good feeling for me when people will tell me something that I don’t know that, again, that they’re willing to share with me about a picture that I made of the built environment. I make the pictures for myself, again, I don’t lay any claim to any kind of journalistic…you know, the idea that pictures can better things, I don’t feel connected to those kinds of historic traditions. But I feel incredibly grateful for those moments when people will tell me about these pictures that are mine.
RS: How they respond to the images.
EW: Yeah, I’m really grateful for that. It frequently feels – and again, I’m sort of saying, why am I’m uncomfortable with this story you’re telling me – it feels like a very inadequate exchange. Frequently I come away enriched, I have a new story, I have a new piece of insight, and I’m not really sure what I’ve given in exchange. But that has literally happened to me probably dozens of times in different kinds of contexts where somebody told me something about this picture. I stare at these buildings, I walk the same route over and over again, I develop a very intense relationship with what I photograph, and that belongs to me. It’s what you get when you stay in one spot for a long time and try to observe as best you can. But there’s just so much that I don’t know. I had a show with the Jersey City Museum a long time ago, and somebody came up to me and told me he recognized his cousin’s tag – his graffiti tag – and it wasn’t even legible to me. I don’t have a very good eye for those things, it was just kind of “wild style.” So that’s a very sort of small thing, like what I’m talking about, that it’s a gift. Someone is telling you something that you didn’t know. There’s so much that I don’t know about what I’m shooting.
RS: When paths crisscross, and things happen.
EW: So I think that’s the best way of answering that, is it’s definitely a transaction, but I sometimes wonder who’s coming out richer in the end.
RS: The images that we look at of Newark don’t present Newark at its best, I’d say. I haven’t been to Newark so I really don’t know what Newark is like. What does Newark look like for someone who goes there?
EW: Not like these pictures.
RS: Not like these pictures?
EW: Again, I’m just going to keep saying this over and over again, it has more to do with my own subjective, lived experience with the kinds of stories that jump out at me. You know, we only see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. The kind of stories that people tell me that I remember or that jump out at me as being vivid have this kind of melancholy feeling, and, like so much about this body of work, there are some aspects of truth and some aspects of lies. That’s kind of sort of something I come back to over and over again
RS: So it’s manufactured, in a way?
EW: Well the thing that I always say that is completely true – and I can point out many different pictures that are specific examples – is the ones that look like they were caught, found in the universe, like that were completely constructed. And the ones that look like they were staged, I found them that way. So that’s this sort of thing that’s happening over and over again that’s existed in the work as long as I’ve been making it, where the lies are truth and the truth are lies. So, some of the pictures in this body of work, they’re actually not taken in Newark, but it all appears to be one seamless place, which, again proves my point that this isn’t really…
RS: …specific to Newark?
EW: This isn’t the lived city that other people call their home. It’s more of a specific evocation of a feeling, a set of circumstances. The things that I’m interested in trying to talk about are real, they’re realities. Things like environmental justice and eminent domain proceedings and land usage and corruption. These things are as real as a brick, they have real consequences. But this place that I’m sort of describing isn’t really a place, it’s a place with a future, it doesn’t have a zip code, no one actually works or lives there, it’s more a state of mind. I was in Canada once, and I thought, “I’m in New Jersey,” because there was just something that reminded me. It was the particular set of visual motifs that I was interested in.
RS: describing a certain form of energy that exists
EW: You know it when you’re there, you can feel it. I’m very ill-traveled, so I tend to say any American city has these places, but probably more than just American cities. I mean, I’m a big fan of film noir, as is probably evident, and you look at the way that the little throwaway details in something like “Touch of Evil,” there isn’t a single block that doesn’t have this crazy lighting and these gusts of garbage and everything is expressing the character’s state of mind. I’m not really sure that that’s what the world looks like all the time.
RS: I think it was Honoré de Balzac, I’m not sure, who said that the mission of art is not to replicate nature, but to express it. That’s an interesting statement, for people who look at art and see something that is not really…
EW: Yeah, I’m trying to talk about these issues that are horrifically present in the world that we all have to live in, but this is not the actual city. I do the actual city a great disservice. And the rest of my time I work with the nonprofit, Gallery Aferro, that my partner and I run together, which is really about trying to advance a city with a future. We work on that. That’s sort of the “real” city that I work and live in.
RS: You’ve said in one of the articles that you were interested in persistence – persistent behaviors, good or bad, in persistent people, in persisting phenomena. Can you tell me something?
EW: I’m interested in endurance. That can take different forms, that can be a kind of way of honoring things that seem really small and humble and forgettable but represent someone’s effort to struggle against their circumstances and make them more functional, more beautiful. I’m a huge fan of workarounds and I mean, really tiny things whether they’re a homemade repair to an object or something much larger and more substantial.
RS: So someone who remains true to their objective and their intentions.
EW: I don’t know about that, but just again, I like to honor these very small things that we do to sort of, go on. And then in a larger sense, I just am interested in the idea that so much of these 19th century buildings that I’m so fond of, the reason that they can withstand so much neglect is because they were so well made. I don’t think manufactured housing today could actually endure the level of civic disinvestment that these 19th century buildings have endured so there’s just something interesting there, there’s something to ponder about what remains, and it’s difficult, because it’s really a measure of how much abuse can you take? And that speaks a lot to , I think, where we are with our economy right now, where every time you think that there’s no way to ring more out of someone’s working day, or have them be more unwell and exhausted, we keep figuring out how to do it. Endurance is kind of an interesting thing. There’s something very beautiful, and something very awful about it. But it’s one of these sort of concepts that really motivates what I do.
RS: I noticed that your prints are in series of seven. Is there anything significant about that? Seven is a biblical number, as you know, and there’s even the “seven-year itch” with couples, and you have the seven holy gifts, and the seven years of plenty, and seven days of the week. It’s a very important number that comes up over and over again. And I was wondering how you came to additions of seven.
EW: There is no significance, though I’m smiling because I love word play and jokes and riddles and anagrams and things like that, so I like play. But there’s no significance to it. It seemed important to make small editions. I make my own prints, it’s a fairly labor intensive process. I’m not an especially large person, so making a 20 x 24 print is a fairly serious undertaking and I love printing. So, they’re not something you would crank out in a huge quantity.
RS: So you use that number because of the labor involved and what it means to make a print?
EW: Yeah, they’re very carefully made. But it is funny that you brought that up, because I like jokes and riddles and things like that a lot.
RS: Did you feel compelled to do this project?
EW: Of course.
EW: Of course. [laughs] Why would you even need to ask that?
RS: I needed to ask that for the same reason you needed to do it. There’s a great sense of the physical in this work – of the grittiness, of nostalgia also. Your work seems to be bearing witness. If it is, to what?
EW: I don’t know yet. And that’s not a flippant answer, it’s really…again I feel like sometimes – this is true of all photography, I think, this is the pleasure of being involved with this medium at all – it has this relationship to time, this sort of involuntary mechanism. Something I think about a lot is how much I’m going to get wrong, where if I live this long I may wish that I had set up the camera so that it was maybe shifted two inches to the left. I get so crazy sometimes looking through the photographic record, where so much 19th century or 20th century or, fairly the more recent past, you desperately want the photographer to have had different preoccupations. Maybe preoccupations that were more similarly aligned with your own. So, again, you don’t really know how things are going to fall. Maybe no one will be looking at these photos fifty years from now, but should they still be existent in the universe, I’m assuming they’re going to irritate someone, somewhere, because I was so completely blind to anything but my own set of interests. There’s sort of what you think you’re doing, and then what you might actually be doing. I’m often absolutely overwhelmed with that feeling, where I have the temporary satisfaction about composing the frame the way that I want it, and excluding everything else. I’m very, very interested in controlling and sometimes relinquishing control of the time signature in pictures. I’ve become much more aware of it recently, it’s been kind of an unconscious thing when I was first starting out in school. And I’ve talked about it, again, this is the benefit of talking with others and having a community to discuss your work with, where it was pointed out to me that the buildings vary, but they’re frequently anywhere from 1860’s through 1930’s construction, sometimes even later. There’s a lot of adaptive reuse, so there might be elements from a hundred years later slapped onto something from a hundred years previous. The automobiles tend to be from somewhere between the 70’s and 80’s, and they pretty much, um, I’m pretty neatly trying to exclude anything where the font or the manufacturer or anything about it is going to very easily identify it as being, I don’t know, lets call it about 1983-1984, and I was born in 1980, so again, I think this started at a sort of unconscious level where I was gravitating to certain things visually. But I’ve become much more conscious of the fact that I’m doing it, where I’m sort of very carefully grooming the set and working the composition, so that things from a more modern era are excluded. I’m trying to sort of control the time signature.
RS: So were these artistic choices, or were they emotional choices?
EW: Kind of the same difference. For whatever reason, I find these things that predate much of my own lived experience to be more pleasing aesthetically, so there must be some kind of nostalgic working going on.
RS: Right, and that’s part of forensics.
EW: Yeah, but the part of it that’s sort of larger than my own lived experience is wondering what they’re actually recording. There’s such an interest now in photography from earlier eras that was not consciously done as art photography. You know, a record of a block will happen to have recorded something that has largely vanished. I mean someone who I can think of who seemed to know exactly what he was doing, I’m not really sure how, it was almost kind of mystical as to how he was able to do this, was Walker Evans. I can’t imagine how Walker Evans was able to figure out what we would be hungry to look at later, after he was dead. It’s kind of magic.
RS: Well you can ask that kind of question about all the plays that were written hundreds and thousands of years ago.
EW: Yeah, I think about this constantly, the relationship of time–
RS: It becomes…human nature hasn’t changed in the past five thousand years, and so they constantly refer to the same basic set of emotions and interests I think.
EW: That’s true, there’s just some things that are just sort of eternal. I definitely think there’s certain visual preoccupations, the fact that we’re cycling through eras and subcultures so rapidly now, I think its this sort of acceleration that’s commercially driven where people my age are told to be nostalgic for the 70’s, which they weren’t alive for. It’s this sort of endless maw where we’re consuming the visual to tride us of earlier eras, there’s something strange that’s happening where it’s accelerating. We’re running out of nostalgia to consume.
RS: Let me ask you, it may be connected to what we just talked about. Do you think that this topic can only be treated in black and white? Or do you think that it could have been done in color? I’m not saying by you, but even by you. What I’m thinking about is when you’re thinking of Shakespeare, it’s difficult to imagine Shakespeare in color, but it has been done in color. And there are certain subjects that lend themselves mostly to black and white and mostly to color.
EW: I have no gift for color. Again, I think it comes out of working kind of slowly and deliberately. I can only handle as much as I can handle, so I try to only have a few variables to work with.
RS: So it’s about streamlining your work?
EW: So there’s that. There’s sort of, for whatever reason, I’m more comfortable with a limited palette, a more simple set of tools, just trying to be sort of honest about where this comes from. So there’s that. And I always felt that there was a really nice analog between silver gelatin processes, which are somewhat toxic and also are increasingly considered sort of anachronistic, to this landscape that has such a long chemical memory. You probably could take it to its literal extreme and try to refine the silver out of the water table and get all artisanal about it.
RS: It’s toxic, but also archival. So there’s this kind of duality there, which is interesting.
EW: Well it’s about choices. In order to have certain products that you can debate about whether they were necessary for the advancement of human life, or whether they were literally just to make people money and advance greed, a lot of the products that we live with in the modern world, they come at, sort of, great consequence. You look at a gold ring at somebody’s finger or sitting at a pawnshop, and what you don’t see is the mountain of tailings that were created to refine that gold. So all of these are sort of consequences. I frequently visualize the material consequences of every time I make a print. So there’s this sort of weird analog. Similarly, with the camera, again it’s a choice: the camera is a Linhof Technikardan, it’s old enough to say West Germany on it. Someone sawed off the spirit levels and glued them back on, it’s extremely functional and precise, but it’s not in very good cosmetic condition.
RS: It’s in wood?
EW: No, it’s metal.
RS: I remember working with Linhofs a long time ago.
EW: So, the point is, it’s a machine that’s sort of taken some knocks, but it was well built so it’s still very functional. There’s a real analog there with these 19th century buildings that I love, that they were really well built, which means they can take some knocks. So there’s a nice analog there. In terms of, again, actually documenting some of these issues, like environmental justice and land usage, there’s probably millions of different visual strategies. I don’t know about you, but when I saw the WPA photographs that were in color on the Library of Congress’s website, it was really a revelation to me because we’ve been sort of brainwashed into thinking of this era as somehow not having the sort of flushed vitality of our own, and nothing could be further from the truth. So I really enjoyed when they uploaded all of those pictures, it was this earlier era in color. Similarly, some of the autochromes that have come to light, the really early color photography, I think we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking it was a black and white world, and of course it wasn’t.
RS: It’s also very interesting to look at them and see how different they are from color today and in some ways they’re closer to black and white than they are to color, because the colors are so different.
EW: Yeah. So I think that’s probably the most direct way of answering that question.
RS: So what would you say, in answer to that question, that “yes it could be done, but I didn’t do it” or “I will do it” or “I’ll never do it” or…
EW: I think I already answered the question
RS: Okay, I think I have to do my own forensics and go over your answer
EW: [laughs] I have no gift for color, I like a limited palette, a limited repertoire of tools, and I like the idea that there’s a relationship–
RS: But nothing is forever, right?
EW: Oh, no. You never know. I have no idea whether the silver gelatin materials will be available to me in ten years, I may have to adapt. But for the time being, I feel like there’s this really nice analog between what I shoot and what I shoot it with.
RS: How does your work resonate, or does it, with what is being debated in Washington these days? The economy, immigration, education, LGB issues,
EW: [laughs] I feel like I’m being set up to fail here.
RS: Why? You’re of your time.
EW: Of course, and I think these things become…they frequently become clearer in hindsight, which is again that functioning of time in photography that’s so interesting, where you don’t really know what you’re doing…
RS: And your role becomes clearer later.
EW: Later. And what I’m sure of now is that one of my overriding preoccupations, if I could try to say what I think the work is about, which again, may not even really be what its about for other people, but what I think I’m doing is about the idea of what it is reasonable to expect, what it is reasonable to want, to desire, and something that I think is very resonant with our current times in sort of a broad kind of occupied-type sense, is that those expectations vary wildly depending on the circumstances of your life, that there’s a very clear message being sent – maybe it’s nothing new, maybe this has been going on for centuries – but there’s a very clear message being sent that not everybody has the right to expect much. So that’s something that I think about constantly. It’s probably the thread that I think is connecting all of the work, is what is it reasonable to expect. Expectations. That’s actually the title of one of the pictures. It’s named after something that I heard someone use as an admonishment, where someone was told, “you have to adjust your expectations, you have to lower them, be reasonable.” So there’s this idea of what’s reasonable. Is it reasonable to want health insurance? Maybe that’s not reasonable. So that’s sort of my overriding preoccupation. And you can connect that to so many things that are going on.
RS: Well, you know, the voice of the artist is often considered to be the counterweight to official policy. As an artist, whether you want it or not, you fall into that kind of category, and people will look to artists in general, and you in particular maybe, to fill that role. I personally don’t think that way, but I was interested to hear what you think about it. I like to do my work quietly and not be concerned by other things, but…
EW: I would say that much of what I do with the nonprofit that I started is about trying to contribute meaningfully to a better world. If so much of the pictures that I make are about this very bleak place where you really can’t expect much, the rest of my time, essentially, when I’m not sleeping, is trying to – in whatever small a way – contribute to some sort of different vision.
RS: So you are responding. That is a response to what’s going on, and it is a political response whether you want it or not. It cannot be not a political response.
EW: No my pictures are a response to sort of the conditions of the world as I experience them and see them. I think the frustration is that the particular kind of work that I feel compelled to make is not going to fill someone’s rotten tooth. I supposed if you sold it and then turned it into money, you could do that. But there are so many different kinds of art making, and some of them can very directly foster social change and social betterment, but I have to find other ways of trying to respond to the world.
RS: So it’s political because you can’t help it, but it’s not in activist form.
EW: I don’t think it fixes anything.
RS: No, it doesn’t fix anything.
EW: I feel compelled to make it, and it’s definitely a reaction to some of the ugliness.
RS: Has your work had any effect on your personally?
EW: [laughs] It’s probably in my blood stream now, the chemicals.
RS: You took it intravenously every day.
EW: It’s sort of a difficult question for me to even coherently respond to, it may not always be directly about my own lived experience but it, at this point, is probably more of a record than I would like it to be, and the experience of having the show recently in Philly was this sort of summation. Thinking, I’ve been doing this for about ten years, and I had to think about what that meant and what had changed, maybe, and what I maybe had traded that I didn’t want to trade, and what I was able to let go of so that I could then do something else for maybe the next ten years.
RS: Did you have to adjust behavior to be the artist whose voice your work is?
EW: I have no idea what that question means, so…[laughs] I don’t know what that means. They’ve aged with me, and it’s still the same body of work but I’m presumably going to keep on living, so it will reflect what I think I’m seeing. They say that people become more conservative with time. I don’t know, in some ways I’ve become a more forgiving person and in other ways an angrier person, but whatever it is that I think I’m seeing, I’m going to continue to try to record it. But it is sort of interesting that there has been no knife, there’s no severing or summation, or saying “that was ten years, now this is over.” I think I thought that would happen, speaking to your earlier question, and it didn’t. It’s still sort of one body of work, which is very strange.
RS: The continuum is still there, unchanged.
EW: It’s unbroken, it’s going to continue. Which I think is a nice analog to the process of aging, where you’re still sort of the same person, and frequently these dramatic events that you imagine will occur, don’t. Change is incremental and slow, and occasionally you don’t even realize it’s happening. That’s been my experience as well. There’s no sort of dramatic severing, saying “Oh, now I’m going to do different things.”
RS: So, tell me something. You are an artist, is that correct?
EW: Must be, there’s no other explanation for this.
RS: How in your mind is art represented in your work? And why do galleries want to exhibit it, which they are exhibiting your work? And why are collectors collecting it? And we know that they are. So what is it about your work that designates it as art and attracts galleries and collectors?
EW: I don’t think that’s really my purview. Do I feel compelled to do this project? I’m going to make them whether or not there’s an audience for it. I would be lying if I didn’t say that, like all organisms, I respond to positive affirmation. I feel really blessed to, again, have sort of an enlarged community where I know that the Tom Gitterman and Elena John at Gitterman Gallery feel there’s something of value in the work, and that’s been going on, again, with all of these large and small interactions that I’ve told you about, where people seeing the work in shows will tell me about it or tell me it’s meaningful to them. It’s an extraordinary privilege. So I don’t discount it for one minute.
RS: Do you relate to what they say?
EW: Sometimes, sometimes not. It’s always a great pleasure to be in conversation with people who are incredibly knowledgeable about the medium or about other mediums, whether it be film or sculpture or video or anything where they can kind of give you a sense of maybe this larger dialogue that’s going on. I read a lot, so it can be really interesting to discover things that people find it reminiscent with writing, fiction, poetry, things of that nature that, it’s just a privilege to be part of that dialogue and people’s thinking. But it’s not an exaggeration to say I just feel the need to make them and again, we all need positive affirmation in the world, but I probably would make them whether or not anyone was viewing them as valuable. I’m just a less happy person when I don’t make things, that’s a conclusion I’ve come to, I’m just kind of not fit to live with. I hope that answers the question. It’s a great privilege to be a part of this larger dialogue, but I would make them anyway.
RS: But if somebody asks you, as I did, “Are you an artist?” Your response is, “Yes I am.”
EW: Yes. There’s no other descriptive term for the set of behaviors. I think it’s been diagnosed [laughs]. I’ll tell you a story. I was experimenting a little with video a couple of summers ago, and I find myself dragging a cinder block out to the middle of a reservoir, a flooded reservoir where people swim, and it occurred to me – probably a little bit too late – as if I was attempting to commit suicide, but to me it was just “oh well I’m pursuing this idea to it’s logical end.” So when you find yourself in public behaving in this sort of less normative fashion – kneeling on the sidewalk, doing things that are incomprehensible, and occasionally even degrade your own quality of life – it’s that or mental illness, I don’t think there are very many other explanations.
RS: So one of the people there whispers to the other, “She’s an artist.” And the other one says, “Oh, I see.” And that explains everything.
EW: I guess.
RS: Why photography? What is it exactly that you photograph? Why did you settle on photography, per se?
EW: Something that I think about a lot, it makes me think about my own work with the nonprofit that I’m involved with, is how kind of malleable so many of us are. I was very lucky – very, very, very lucky – that when I was in high school, I ended up connecting with some people that took an interest in me. There was a small photography program at my high school with a rudimentary dark room, and a woman who was friends with the woman that I worked for in high school was a photographer. But I guess that the point that I’m trying to make is that there’s this kind of terrifying arbitrariness to it, where it could have been something other than photography, which really says something to the value of these kind of chance encounters, and the degree of resources in our environments.
RS: Do you think that if your mentor was a painter, you’d be doing painting now with the same fervent, um…
EW: I haven’t the faintest idea, but it says something about–
RS: Because photography is very different from painting.
EW: I mean I will never know that, but it says something about how we all sort of respond to the resources in our environment, and if our environment is very resource rich… I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many people who, sort of, were hell-bent on creating for themselves as an identity, as maybe an artist, a writer, a scientist – whatever it was that they became – and they did so in resources that essentially were almost resource-free. So I’m always really impressed when people do that, but I consider myself extraordinarily lucky. I always had been interested in staging scenes, but I didn’t realize it. When a small child maybe has a facility for drawing and they have a fine hand, it’s a little bit easier to figure out what they’re doing. In retrospect, I was always interested in sort of organizing things spatially, but I’m not a good builder and I don’t have a fine hand for drawing, so it kind of had to go somewhere. I don’t know, there’s something sort of terrifying about how malleable we all are.
RS: And we could go this way or that way.
EW: So for whatever reason, it’s not an exaggeration to say that sort of photography came into my life, and that was it. There was something immensely satisfying about it, and it allowed me to construct some sort of confident public self, which is one of these major projects that young people have, so I sort of never really looked back. One of the reasons that I went to SVA, and it was the only school I wanted to go to, was because the foundation year there is pretty much about immersion into photography. I didn’t even…and again, in retrospect maybe I would have enjoyed it, but at the time I just wanted to do photography, I didn’t even want to work with other mediums. I didn’t want to draw, or paint. That was it, there was no looking back.
RS: And it’s an interesting event when that happens.
EW: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s a dull story or not, but it just was sort of this straight trajectory. Again, this isn’t unique to the medium. I’ve heard stories, again, of writers, builders, scientists. There’s this search for competency, and it becomes a reason to learn things. I was very bad at things like math and science, I still am, but just being able to achieve some kind of marginal degree of competency in order to, say, print in the darkroom, it was a motivation to try to gain some basic skills in those concepts.
RS: And do you know what it is you’re photographing? Are you expressing something? We were talking about continuum before, and it’s an interesting saying. As to whether we keep photographing the same thing, or we keep making art about the same thing, that it’s a recurring theme, and there’s something that we need to express to get out in the open that we need to share, or that we need to bring to life.
EW: You know, I was talking before about truth and lies. Another word for that kind of stuff is “stories,” which I keep saying. I tried photographing a lie once, and it kind of showed me the limits of what I’m doing, or what I seemed to be doing at the moment, where there’s this story about when the people who might have killed Jimmy Hoffa were brought into court, there were stains in the backseat of their car – blood stains – and the guy whose car it was, he said something to the effect – I forget the model of the car, but – he said he had been transporting a Coho salmon to his mother-in-law as a gift. And of course there was no salmon, and presumably there was a mother-in-law, but none of this transpired, it was a complete fabrication, it was a lie. So I tried to photograph this. I found the right car with the burgundy interior and the right vintage, and got a Coho salmon and set the whole thing up and tried to make the lie, and it didn’t work. It was a very mediocre picture. So that kind of showed me where I was on that continuum, that I believe in stories, all kinds of stories, including ones that maybe are harder to believe than others [JD4].
RS: I want to ask you a question that has absolutely nothing to do with photography, but it is something that happened today. The Supreme Court ruled that you cannot submit anyone arrested for drunken driving to a blood test without a warrant. Of course, everybody in the enforcement industry would say that by the time you get the warrant, the proof would have disappeared. And what’s interesting is all the justices were united on this except for one, who’s maybe the most conservative one, and he said that this is a matter of urgency, you cannot wait to find a judge in the middle of the night to get the warrant and go back because by that time, the evidence has disappeared. Does that mean anything to you? Because on the one side, there’s, of course, a matter of privacy, and on the other side is the matter of the general welfare. I found it a very interesting case, where there are two interest colliding.
RS: You don’t have to answer that question…
EW: No, I’m just thinking. It’s a very vivid picture, these kind of rash decisions in the middle of the night and the judge being hustled out of bed, or whatever picture it is that is being painted here. Specific to the issue of drunk driving, I have no sympathy for people who do that, so it tends to… I just don’t have a lot of interest in leniency towards people who do that. But as a general– in a larger sense, I think that relying on the judgment of sort of state apparatus is not really working out so well. The bulk of citizens will get stopped and frisked, so that’s an “issue of judgment,” and I put that in quotes. That is not even vaguely resembling what it supposedly is. It’s funny that you pick drunk driving, because that’s sort of an issue where I’m not too concerned about trampling on people’s rights. So, go ahead and extract a vial. But yeah, a lot of stuff is very intangible where you have to…um, maybe another sort of way to frame this, when you’re talking about intangible evidence, that it feels like there’s just horrendous, horrendous amounts of work that needs to be done overhaul in the justice system, so that what constitutes evidence as something like sexual assault, for example, rape, you’re not always sent on this sort of doomed quest as a victim to produce this evidence that has to fit the assertive standards. There’s a lot of sort of human rights type scenarios that have this problem with intangible evidence, where people who fled for their lives under very difficult conditions then have to produce papers that no one would possibly be able to remember to stuff in their pockets on the way out the door, so I think there’s a lot of instances where there’s a real problem with intangible evidence. I get inspired by the forensic scientists that I read about because some of the work they’ve been able to do with reconstructing what happened literally from the contents of people’s pockets, from their bones, from things that didn’t even seem like evidence to a layperson is really inspiring.
RS: Thank you very much.
EW: Yeah, on that cheerful note, on the contents of one’s pockets.
Emma Wilcox is represented by The Gitterman Gallery, New York City.
(All rights reserved. Text @ ASX and Raphael Shammaa, images Copyright Emma Wilcox, Courtesy Gitterman Gallery)