Chicago, July 2011: Recently I sat down with Laura Letinsky in her Hyde Park Chicago home to discuss her work and thoughts on art. A survey of her work, Laura Letinsky: What Matters is on view at the North Dakota Museum of art until September and will travel to the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2012. Letinsky is also Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago where I studied with her from 2007 – 2009.
Laura Letinsky, Untitled #5,To Say it Isn't So, 1996; Courtesy of the artist
Erik Wenzel: You first got known for your figurative work, but then you’ve moved on to still life. What initially attracted you to figurative portraiture and then why did you move on from that?
Laura Letinsky: When I first started making pictures I was only interested in photographs of people. I think that it was probably something about being an only child and the camera giving me permission to look. I reveled in the ability to stare at people by using the camera. I was really interested in Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and those kinds of photographers who would go out into the world to photograph.
The couples project, Venus Inferred, grew out of that kind of work. I wanted to try and photograph as a way to think through intimacy. How intimacy gets pictured, how it is mediated and how the media predicates our ideas about what “intimacy” is. Yet the experience seems to wrestle between the stereotype, this romantic ideal, and something more idiosyncratic and personal. Those two things seem really in conflict with one another. I wanted to make photographs that somehow dealt with that.
Towards the end of the project, I increasingly felt the limits of photography and the limitations of romance, in that they both always contain a certain measure of disappointment. Both contain an inevitable demise. The parallel became overwhelming and ultimately less interesting to me.
Through the process of photographing the couples, I realized that I was becoming increasingly more interested in the space that they resided in. And the way that the space, depicted through photography, told us more about the couples in a narrative, psychological and intellectual way. It felt like switching from a third-person omniscient to a first-person narrative.
The still life is a genre form that, like romance, is debased. The still life is always considered to be personal, not like grand historical narratives or picturing famous people. I am always interested in that which gets valued as lesser because of the way these arenas address hegemonic values. When most people look at photographs, they think the picture is tantamount to what is pictured, no more, no less. I wanted to make pictures from nothing, that is, pictures that are not solely about what is pictured, rather how they are made. With a nod to the interference of want. This idea has become intrinsic to my practice over the last twelve to fourteen years.
EW: Looking back, even within the still lifes, there’s a continuous reduction. There’s less and less material and then less and less color: a million different types of whites and then one black-red cherry. And it seems like there’s an emptying out. Or removing layers of silence.
LL: When you can photograph everything–what needs to get pictured? What doesn’t need to get pictured? I strive to empty the picture of anything extraneous, anything that doesn’t need to be there.
It’s a process of building and un-building that I “find” through making the photograph. I’ve never been interested in taking pictures that I knew would look a certain way before I made them. Photography has always been a transformative process, an ongoing amazement. It’s about engaging in a cycle of production, making the photograph, and its consumption, appreciation, apprehension, perception...
Laura Letinsky, Untitled [Laura and Eric-Jesus], Venus Inferred series, 1995; Courtesy of the artist
EW: I’m interested in your response to the reviews of exhibitions of your still life pieces. Francis Richard’s piece in Artforum (December, 2010) seemed to imply that the female body is still very present.
LL: Yeah, I totally loved that review. The question was about what “prettiness” means. It was of particular interest for me in regards to that show [After All, Yancey Richardson Gallery]. It’s one endpoint that I gravitate towards—pretty romantic pictures. But then I pull away from that and go to some other extreme.
In my work I was wondering, when does something sweet spill over into being too sweet? And so Richard talked about the relation to the female body, the still lifes’ wrinkled tablecloths, gnawed bones, and stains as still being very much about corporeality, about sex and desire and frustration. For me these aspects are more present in this work than it ever was in the Venus Inferred work because the people got in the way. [laughs] In that project it seemed forever mired in the people, their thoughts, psychologies, and stories.
EW: Definitely. I was looking through the catalogue, and there are a lot of memorable looks from the subjects—looks at or away from the camera—and as a viewer you enter the photo that way. You go into the subject and narrative and don’t think about it formally. But sometimes that is a formal maneuver, to make an image that backgrounds the formal qualities.
LL: I thought about certain kinds of fiction writing where you get so involved in the story and the drama of the characters that you don’t notice how it’s put together, even though this is what puts you in the place of privileging narrative over form. It sets up an emotional or psychological response or reading. I aspire to Gertrude Stein or Diane Williams or the sparseness of Raymond Carver. Where you move between drowning in the characters, and also being very aware of the craft. There’s a tension that is really thrilling.
EW: Could you talk about the process of making a still life?
LL: When I first started it was the things left over on the dinner table. Literally the stuff I saw when I woke up in the morning and hadn’t cleaned up. At first I wrestled with the truth of the picture. Did I have to start from a real meal or could I set it up myself? Could I buy things specifically for it? What was set up and contrived and what was spontaneous? I realized that question was pretty moot. And so I find the whole debate in photography about things being set up as opposed to being natural really boring because every picture is some combination of arrangement and spontaneity. So when you look at Garry Winogrand’s street pictures, he’s responding to what he’s seeing but he’s as much a choreographer, cognizant of what’s in front of his camera, as Gregory Crewdson or Philip Lorca diCorcia, who are much more overt in their control. The still life evolved for me from adherence to the original scene to just culling from that, without the sense of fidelity.
EW: So for example, I was looking at Untitled #1 that has the sundae in it—did you start the day by going out and buying a parfait because you needed it for the still life?
Laura Letinsky, Untitled # 8 , Fall, 2009; Courtesy of the artist
LL: I did go out and get it. Those pictures from the Fall series were based on fictional and real accounts of last meals. I found a description of a sundae with peanuts and hot fudge that was somebody’s last meal.
EW: “Last meal” like on death row?
LL: This one in particular was, but again I don’t think it’s important whether it came from a Dostoyevsky story or a police report I saw on TV. It’s just from paying attention to the things people reputedly or fictionally have eaten, whether intentionally or circumstantially, as their last meal. Part of it was just the abstract idea of trying to imagine not only the fact of your death, but also what the taste would be that you would want to hold on to, with taste being one of the most corporeal senses.
I wanted those pictures to really reflect the abstract. I didn’t want the space to make sense. There’s a reference to three-dimensional illusion, but then the light obscures and flattens things out so that you really get lost. There’s no “there” there
EW: It’s almost like the objects that are there have been cut out with a razor blade and are floating, detached, in this other space.
LL: Yeah, absolutely.
I remember years ago giving a lecture and a bunch of friends and art historians were there. An argument ensued between them. One said the pictures made him see his kitchen differently because he would look around and see “Letinsky’s” everywhere. Another argued, “No that’s precisely the point of the pictures, that you never see that with your eyes, because they are so constructed for the monocular lens at that particular moment in time. You just don’t see that way,” and I tended to agree with him.
EW: I tend to stare at objects a lot and re-arrange them in my head. So I would argue that in a certain way I do see “that way.” There’s a certain aesthetic approach. So that maybe you’re not literally able to see that way…
LL: Yeah, absolutely, I do that too. It’s an acquired way of seeing. It’s one that artists are trained to see.
I think about sitting at a restaurant and looking around at couples that are bored with one another, and notice that if I close one eye and line up that glass with that spoon with the edge of the napkin…. arrangements that seem to perform some kind of sense. And those pictures in some way come out of that moment and that kind of thinking.
EW: So you don’t think of it sculpturally?
LL: Well, I do think of it sculpturally but I think of it performatively as well. The scene is performed for the camera. Everything leads up to that moment of the photograph. And once it’s photographed it’s gone.
EW: Interesting, I mean I know photography is about that split second when the shutter opens and closes…
LL: For me, sometimes it’s several hours. Some of The Dog and the Wolf photographs are a long, long exposure, as they were taken at this certain time of night, which is called “the dog and the wolf.” It’s a French phrase referring to when the sun is sinking but there is still light. I wanted to explore that different quality of light because of how it feels.
EW: Do you work with digital at all?
LL: I do it either to take visual notes for something I need to remember for a future photograph or for family snapshots. Right now, digital technology doesn’t make as high a resolution image as you can with film without a really, really expensive setup. So I make the 4x5 film negative, get that scanned and then I work with that on the computer. Then I get it printed digitally. I’ll work that way until it’s affordable or until I figure out a project that I would like to work with entirely in digital. That’s the Modernist in me. What I’m doing is still about light and hence, photography. It doesn’t feel anachronistic; it feels like what it needs to be.
EW: So there is some post-production.
LL: Yeah. I’m no purist. And it’s logistical. I wish I could print it myself but part of it’s a time factor and part of it’s that printing your own stuff isn’t really feasible anymore. But more, I’ve found that digital print technology gives you more control than enlargers and chemistry ever did. The single light source in the enlarger to make prints was such an imperfect system. I love digital printing because it gives me such insane control. But, like anything that gives control, it complicates things immeasurably.
Laura Letinsky, Untitled 54, 2002; Courtesy of the artist
EW: It’s hard to quantify which adjustment is the “right” one.
LL: It’s like being a painter where with every single mark you could make an infinite number of changes.
You know I wanted to be a painter when I started art school?
EW: I was gonna ask you about that. In reading about your shows, there is a lot of discussion of the memento mori and the Northern Renaissance.
LL: Yeah, it’s a big factor.
EW: Did you paint at all starting out at art school?
LL: I did. I liked the material of it, but I could just never figure out how to do anything with it.
EW: You could paint still lifes.
LL: Yeah, right. [laughs] But it didn’t make sense to paint representationally.
“What does paint do?” I could never answer that question. Now I feel like I have a different understanding and awareness, but at that time I just couldn’t figure it out, whereas photography gave me this voice. Painting has always been important in the way that visual precedents are always important. While the plasticity of visual form is infinite, in its employment it gets used to define particular characters, qualities, and psychologies, and as such is placed within a set of limitations. Look at Renaissance or Medieval Madonnas and the way that those images are constructed and reiterated in advertising or in other contemporary imagery. It’s kind of incredible. You think, “Oh my God, ‘love’ looks like this.” Or, “‘motherhood’ looks like this.” This holds true for visualizations of masculinity, femininity, want and desire… It’s really pretty bloody limited in the way form is used in relation to those subjects and characterizations.
EW: I guess in certain ways I see that in the work. But then there always seems to be a careful consideration in your work that doesn’t seem to be present in commercial photography. Is there a crossover for you?
LL: Given photography’s ubiquity within advertising, it’s probably unavoidable. And yeah, I look at Martha Stewart and Elle Décor. I think the way those magazines set up a whole condition for what “home” is supposed to look like is pretty fascinating. So it’s definitely in my head, but I’m trying to complicate it in the same way that makes sense to me, in my life. That is, to think about what is really being constructed, produced, and consumed here.
EW: So in terms of medium, do you view yourself as a “photographer”? We also talked about painting and those seem like two disciplines where makers are still very committed to specificity versus an interdisciplinary practice. For instance do you see yourself someday composing a still life as an installation?
LL: I could see myself doing that. Or working in any other mode. But I seem to keep returning to the problems of photography. I’m really beguiled by the medium. I definitely think of myself as a photographer but I don’t think the work is exclusive as such. That is, I think the work is art, to be viewed amongst other art.
The people I look at–Richard Tuttle, Jessica Stockholder, Marlene Dumas, Vija Celmins, Judy Legerwood, Agnes Martin, and Giorgio Morandi–those are the artists whom I continue to go back to and look at probably more than I do photography. I also read a lot–fiction, poetry and theory always inform the work. And pop music!
It’s like speaking a language. I can say things with photography that only photography can say.
EW: I wanted to ask you about the Somewhere, Somewhere series. Why the repetitive title? Also we talked about the figurative and still life as genres, but this would be a third.
Laura Letinsky, Untitled 16, Somewhere Somewhere, 2006; Courtesy of the artist
LL: The Somewhere, Somewhere series are photographs of empty homes and their gardens, after people had left but before everything had been cleaned up. The repetition is homage to Stein’s “A Rose is a Rose is a Rose.” In a Derridian sense, no repetition is simply a repeat of the same elements…the repetition changes the elements themselves. Then there’s something about The Wizard of Oz, repeating, “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home,” as incantation to get back, but to what? We all think we know what “home” is, but it’s nothing. It’s space; it’s whatever we put into it. And if there’s nothing in it, what happens to it? And so the pictures and the space became very abstract–really flat, spatially. There was nothing left and a realization set in that “home” was nothing.
EW: I always thought it was the other way around. I thought they were pictures of your home before you moved in.
LL: Like the potential to move into the place as opposed to leaving?
EW: Yeah, from the point of view of the person who’s just signed the mortgage and it has all this potential but also, “What did we get ourselves into?”
And even when you look at it as a place you are moving into, you know it has history.
LL: Everything’s been stripped away, there’s nothing left.
EW: But that space is still there. It is the same space physically, but everything is different.
LL: That’s the weird thing about photography too; it freezes time. But it’s a time that only exists in a photograph; it doesn’t exist in any other place.
EW: It’s not eternal, but time has a different meaning. It’s like a different chemical.
LL: Yeah, it is. It is a different chemical.
ArtSlant would like to thank Laura Letinsky for her assistance in making this interview possible.