“When I graduated from CalArts with an MFA in 1993, I moved to New York City. It’s never an easy time to launch as an artist, but that was a particularly bad time. It was pre-internet, of course, so there were fewer ways to get work seen, and the gallery system was very small and clubby”
ZD : Shall we start with a little background information about how you grew up?
LS : I was born in the New York area, but moved over to London with my family in the early 1970s. London’s been my home most of my life. I opted to study in the USA because the educational system is much less specialised there, so at every level, from BA through PhD, it allowed me to take in a broader range of subjects, periods and disciplines.
ZD : What sparked your interest in art and photography in particular?
LS : I was always interested in art, starting with a love of children’s book illustrations. My mother had studied art history and took me to lots of exhibitions. In 1978 she took me to an epic exhibition, “Dada and Surrealism Reviewed” at the Hayward. That made a big impression on me. My stepmother is a painter, and watching her work gave me a sense of artistic process. I was on a very academic track at high school, very focused on getting into University. It wasn’t until I got to Harvard that I felt I had earned the right to study art, and I took loads of classes in drawing, painting and photography. My training was surprisingly traditional for the 1980s—you weren’t allowed to do anything else until you could demonstrate that you had learned to draw! I took up painting and photography in the same semester when I was 19. They seemed part of the same impulse to me, and still do, though I understand that for many people photography is a “stand-alone” medium for responding to the world and not necessarily an art medium at all.
ZD : I’m curious to learn at what point, if you can pinpoint it, of course, you decided to focus on photography education and what was the catalyst, if there was any?
LS : When I graduated from CalArts with an MFA in 1993, I moved to New York City. It’s never an easy time to launch as an artist, but that was a particularly bad time. It was pre-internet, of course, so there were fewer ways to get work seen, and the gallery system was very small and clubby. I worked in a gallery six days a week, which meant I could never get time to go to galleries! I had a long-term goal of being an artist whose “day job” was teaching, so I made the decision to pursue a PhD in art history. My studentship at Yale was like a working apprenticeship—we taught undergraduates to pay our way through. I focused my thesis on a subject that I thought was important for contemporary art students—the uses of photography by 1960s conceptual artists. My impulse was timely, and the importance of conceptualism really came into focus around 2000 as I was completing. I have been teaching in art schools ever since I graduated.
When I left CalArts in the mid-1990s they told us not to approach any galleries or curators with our work until we had developed “mature” new work that took our student project “to another level”. Of course this served as potent discouragement, and resulted in the majority of graduates giving up on their art as they took on jobs, families, etc. I kept shooting and printing large-scale colour work all through the 6 years of my PhD, but the solo show I imagined I was working towards never happened. I was storing all my prints in my parents’ basement until their boiler exploded, destroying every large colour print I had ever made! I kept making work sporadically but showing very little of it until my daughter was born in 2010. I wrote Why Art Photography? on my maternity leave and have found myself doing a lot more writing in the years since. I’ve been chipping away at a different kind of art project—a one-woman show around photographic themes—for a while, but I’d better not say too much about it or it may never come to light. It’s called Minor in part because it’s about Minor White, but also because it celebrates minor artists, the ones who never “make it” but keep going anyway.
People have on occasion been scathing about photography educators who do not have active gallery careers. What could we possibly have to contribute? How could we possibly act as role models for successful photographers? I have a couple of things to say about that. On the one hand, I have encountered some very famous photographers who are lousy educators, who act as role models of a successful practice but have a narcissistic approach to teaching, only taking an interest in students likely to reflect glory back on them. On the other hand, I know a number of relatively obscure photographers for whom teaching is an important strand of their engagement with photography, who take in new ideas in large part with the desire to share them with students. I like to think that I fall into the latter category.
ZD : The boiler story is devastating, but also slightly hilarious, I had a similar experience with some of my final MA prints that I left on a chair and then without any thought I hung a few shirts to dry above them.. was that the point when you decided that maybe making photographic work could take a different form rather than shooting and printing, I wonder if you saw something as monumental as destroying the labour of your many years of PhD work as an incentive for change? What do you think would’ve happened to those prints if they survived?
LS : I kept working in straight c-prints until my daughter was born in 2010. Then I had a creative hiatus of a few years, while I wrote the book, kept teaching, writing and mothering. It’s over the last few years that I’ve been returning to some of the mixed media experiments I was doing at CalArts and bringing photography together with video and performance. Not much point in speculating about what might have happened with my work if it hadn’t been wrecked. I’ve had plenty of chances to make more work and show it to people—I’ve just allowed my energy to be pulled in other directions. It’s still important to me to keep a drip, drip of personal work going in the background, and one never knows if it might someday emerge at a moment when it is in synch with the current moment’s activities.
My interest in “expanded photography” really blossomed while I was teaching at the RCA. When I first started hanging around there in the early 2000s, the photography world was still in thrall to the Dusseldorf School—it seemed like the majority of students were doing very deadpan, documentary-based work, lots of typologies, and it had become rather formulaic. There was some staged work, but to me there didn’t seem to be enough discussion around photographic works that might be more constructed, sculptural, painterly, poetic, etc. Students who were working in more eclectic ways (including Dominic Hawgood, Alix Marie and Jonny Briggs) sometimes had a hard time getting tutors to take their work seriously. Over the next few years, during the time that I was writing Why Art Photography? all of these topics seemed to become available for discussion, along with ideas around affect and authenticity.
ZD : Could you tell me a bit about Alan Sekula? I’m reading a book about Frank Auerbach and he talks about him teaching and getting Francis Bacon as a visiting lecturer. Did Sekula have a similar status, did you have a sense of who was teaching you or did that transpire later on?
LS : I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of Allan Sekula when I went to CalArts. If I had I doubt that I would have gone to study with him! He was certainly well-known—at that point perhaps more for his writing than his work. His lectures were brilliant, impassioned Marxist rants. I had enough grounding in history and philosophy to understand his point of view, and found him amazingly stimulating, but his perspective on art was so totally different from mine that I didn’t always know how to process it. He was very anti-aesthetic, and was uncomfortable with work (like mine) that engaged with art history, beauty, or erotics. He and I did a whole term of one-on-one photography theory tutorials that culminated in me crying over a Victor Burgin essay that said that formalism was dead and that anyone who was still caught up in what photographs looked like was a regressive, elitist aesthete. Allan was actually quite kind about it. He admitted that this had been a very exciting idea to theorists like him in the 1970s, but that in retrospect they had to concede that form had never been totally extinguished and still had some kind of place in contemporary art. This was mildly comforting to me, but still left me feeling adrift as a student with such a different orientation to his. Part of the reason I ended writing a PhD thesis about 60s conceptualism was a desire to really understand the conceptual shift that I encountered at CalArts.
ZD : I wonder if Burgin still holds that opinion, especially knowing that he works with video games now. You make a very valid point that sometimes work gets ignored, or perhaps just not given the credit it is due, simply because it’s documenting current events or tendencies. Perhaps people aren’t so interested in what’s happening right here and now but after time has passed and it’s seen as a history record, or commenting on something current but from the perspective of an artist who was working 10-20 years ago, then it re-emerges. I’m dreading to think how many photographs of empty streets and people with masks will come up after or even during the lockdown, but maybe these shouldn’t be so easily dismissed as they will be an important document for future generations. What do you think is photography’s role in preserving the here and now, and more in general photographic work that was made last century but is re-evaluated with fresh eyes, i.e. plenty of iconic books are being reprinted – Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment by Steidl, Sekula’s Fish Story and Photography Against the Grain by MACK – in a way making them more accessible to a newer generation of photographers who will inevitably interpret them from a perspective that wasn’t intended when they were created.
LS : I think it’s very hard to tell what work will look important from the future, and from which points in the future. That’s part of what keeps things interesting for critics and art historians!
ZD : I’ve been reading the catalogue for the Abstract Expressionism show at the RA, also Rauschenberg and Auerbach, they all mention the struggle for people to accept that art, in this case painting in particular, can be so much more than pictorialism. Now this sounds obvious and almost archaic but I imagine it was quite the struggle if you were working in the 1950s splattering paint on canvas with no distinguishable forms and figures. Fast forward to this century and now they’re all hailed as revolutionary trailblazers. Do you think that’s where photography is heading too? There are people who would refuse to look at photography that’s not traditional framed prints on the wall, whose worst nightmare would be Dominic Hawgood or Lorenzo Vitturi, and on the other end of the spectrum are those who find prints outdated and boring. Perhaps there’s a golden middle? The opportunities multimedia approaches allow are fascinating, but I think it can risk being cacophonous if the artist’s mind isn’t focused on the end goal – just think about all the resources available, the Internet is an endless pit, and what would happen if it’s combined with someone who has no vision and decides to use technology, for example, for the sake of looking trendy and cool.
LS : By the 1960s when the conceptual artists came along, Abstract Expressionism had become a dreadful cliché, and there were formulaic Pollock and DeKooning knock-offs in all the New York, Paris and London galleries, necessitating a new version of artistic rebellion. Quite a lot of photography critics regard current expanded photography practices less as rebellion than as a cynical attempt to cash in on the higher prices in the broader contemporary art market (a painting by a recent MA graduate typically sells for 5 times as much as a framed image the same size by a photography graduate). At this point, I think it’s important to acknowledge that lots of different artistic trends are taking place simultaneously with a broad variety of motives. It’s helpful to look at individual artists and practices in context to understand them. Artists today can in some ways choose their own artistic lineage. I think the main thing for artists is to research and read up on past work they like so as not to be repeating gestures without knowing what they might mean.
“By the 1960s when the conceptual artists came along, Abstract Expressionism had become a dreadful cliché, and there were formulaic Pollock and DeKooning knock-offs in all the New York, Paris and London galleries, necessitating a new version of artistic rebellion”
ZD : Hasn’t it always been the case that paintings would sell for much higher prices than photographs due to their nature, i.e. being a one-off? Perhaps apart from photograms and chemigrams, which are unique too, but I think that’s quite the progress that photographs right now can command such prices whereas less than 50 years ago (correct me if I’m wrong) and perhaps even more recently than this photography wasn’t considered art and even raising the question was deemed vulgar. What’s your general opinion on the photography market, do you think it’s trying to emulate the broader art market too much, for example limited editions, which goes against the inherent reproducible quality of a photograph?
LS : Generally speaking, people just value paintings more. A painting by a well-known artist would usually be worth much more than a monoprint by them, for example, even though both are unique. Paintings have had a special status as permanent, portable assets for centuries, and photography has only just entered the fray. Photographs are also more fugitive than paintings; usually made of light-sensitive materials and often printed on paper, they are prone to fading and yellowing within a short number of years unless preserved out of sight. I don’t have any problem with editions large or small, I think it is fair enough for photographers to try to make a living just like anyone else. I understand the urge of artists who want to try to evade commodity status for their work in pursuit of political or critical aims, but it is a purism that I don’t personally share. The art market, along with the artist star system, is like show business—an economy of spectacle, celebrity and branding. It is not necessarily the most meaningful, well-wrought or formally innovative work that sells best. Some critics rail against this as an injustice, but it just strikes me as a fact of life. Documentary/socially engaged photographers are the ones who need to think most carefully about the ethical ramifications of sending their work into the marketplace, and have been coming up with increasing innovative ways to fund and distribute their work outside or alongside the market.
I advise my students to stay open to the idea of their work being saleable, and even to consider adding a saleable strand if the work foregrounds site-specific, installed or time-based elements that would be particularly difficult to sell. Some artists manage to make a living at a day job, and to conserve enough energy and resources to make their work too. But it makes sense that if your work could be even partially supporting you, you are that much more likely to be able to keep making it. That said, it remains difficult to sell emerging work. And the question of how to engage with the gallery system is another can of worms for another day.
ZD : Where do you think photo books stand right now? They seem to be somewhat of a grey area in terms of collecting, some are claimed to be collectible and rare, but they’re generally rather affordable, at least compared to edition prints, and easy to obtain. Do you think the photobook has “democratised” (awful word) photography in a similar sense to Instagram? Yes, one is free, the other isn’t, but one can always go to a library or the Tate book shop, or even better – Donlon – and just browse for days without having to go to an exhibition.
LS : Generally, I think the photobook scene is terrific. It is very good news that photographers have access to so many more ways to make and distribute their work. Photobooks are great for the current project-based based work that might unfold as a sequence, a series or a looser constellation of images. There is, of course, a question of who actually looks at all the books. A large proportion of the audience is made up of the makers. But this is not a bad thing. It is excellent for photographers to have a growing community of events, activities, outlets and institutions. The pleasures of this network are a large part of what keeps us all in the game. I only hope that the current economic downturn does not set them back too far.
ZD : This is a great thought to leave it on, thanks very much for your time, Lucy.
LS : My pleasure.