Mark Woods: It is. The coldness or clarity afforded by a critical distance is important too, I think, because, paradoxically, it makes intimacy possible. I'll explain what I mean by that in a minute, but first I want to remark on how fitting it is that you should call attention to this paradox in your first question, because my first solo show ever was titled Intimate Distance. In it, I tried to document the distance that can lurk inside my most intimate personal relations, but also the intimacy that can survive our separation from one another. I wanted the pictures to suggest an uneasy love between people caught moving together and apart at the same time, and for the exhibition to make an analogy between three kinds of intimate distance: the social space between people in the photographs; the strategic distance between my camera, those people, and me; and the aesthetic distance between the photographs and the people who look at them. The look of my photographs has changed drastically since that show: lately, they don’t include people; they’re in color now, not black and white; they’re deadpan now, not expressionist; they’re shot from a tripod now, not handheld; and so on. In fact, the intimacy is very much less overt in my pictures now than it was back then, so I’m happy that you felt it in my current show.
But my concern remains an intimate/distance dynamic of sorts. There’s an intimacy to looking so carefully at something that you get lost in it or absorbed by it--even if it’s an ostensibly “cold” anonymous subject. The empty metal menu-display frame on that railing was designed by someone, and machined by someone else, and installed by someone else, and noticed or ignored by thousands of other people; I loved pausing to look at it, to try and imagine being those people or even being that menu-display frame. Empathy of that sort nearly collapses distance, but its precondition is the distance that makes quizzical looking possible in the first place. This paradox is so fundamental—to aesthetic experience, to love, to work, to political engagement—that we’re oblivious to it in most moments of our lives: we look right through the menu-display frame. I love the way a good still photograph can document that paradox and embody it--simultaneously. Its indexical tether to the scene it records is an intimacy and a neutrality; its stillness is a distance, in the sense of an abstraction, and a privileging opportunity for subjective engagement.
TGN: After Analysis, shown recently at Newman Popiashvili, is a group of images that were taken directly after you left your psychoanalyst's couch, over a period of six years. Is it liberating in some ways to be showing these images under these “revealing” terms?
MW: Liberating, perhaps, in the sense of free association, but not in the sense of freedom from “repression” (I don't look to art or to psychoanalysis—or to anything, for that matter—for that kind of liberation). Not so much my free association, either, since better circumstances for that are my analytic sessions, and my picture-taking, and my editing. Maybe the associations that viewers have when looking at my show are freed up a bit with my guidance. I do, as you suggest, “reveal” something about myself in sanctioning a press release that discloses my status as a psychoanalytic patient. But I hide things that way too. Psychoanalysis has been described as the study of self-deception, and of course one among many goals of such study might be an undoing of such deception, but another might be learning how to deceive better, more meaningfully or beautifully. After all, Diane Arbus said “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” Which, along with your question, reminds me of how appropriate Revelations was as a title for her 2005 museum show. And of the secret kinship, as it were, between photography and psychoanalysis, lurking (come to think of it) in their shared dependence on automatism and latency—as in latent imagery, but also latent meaning, especially of details.
What’s latent is not yet revealed. It won’t be seen until after, if at all. I'm not interested in liberation from secrecy or from censorship; I'm interested in the freedom of latency: the freedom of appearances from their meanings until after; the freedom of facts and their significance to get constructed and linked by way of deferred action. Seeing literally and seeing figuratively can free one another from their expected roles. Sometimes a metaphor I see in a picture I've made turns out to be less meaningful than the facts in it. Sometimes an obvious metaphor gets displaced by a subtler yet beautifully dumber one. This is the freedom to develop an unexpected picture; the freedom to go after one goal (like in my picture titled Strike zone) only to find another one (its dark reflection) creeping up on me. Lacan said “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.” I say what I see is what I get, therefore not what I thought I saw. That's the freedom I’m after. Freedom is after: not an end, but a deferred and misguided seeking. That’s the after I’m after.
TGN: Was there a formula or other parameters that you applied to taking these photographs, beyond the time proximity?
MW: As for the shooting, no formula at all, and not even any parameters. But there were practices and proclivities: I never visit my analyst without a camera and a tripod; I don’t walk around looking for things to photograph, but I feel drawn in by the things I do end up photographing. I photograph whatever catches my eye and holds it, usually standing and pacing around it with a tripod for several minutes to a half hour before shooting, hoping it will teach me how to treat it, how to choose a vantage point and a composition that would do it justice. Fully three of the ten pictures in the show required that I return to the scene for a re-shoot after seeing that my results on film could be improved on, and the other seven of ten already had some re-shooting built in to the 45 minutes they took me to execute. (It occurs to me now for the first time that a typical picture-taking session lasts the same time as my analytic sessions). So although there’s something ineffably spontaneous and associative about the way a scene might catch and hold my eye (and even about turning those perceptions into a picture), there is also something quite deliberate about executing the camerawork, which requires moments of careful attention and precise inspection but also (outside those moments but even, somehow, in them, or floating beside them) allows a kind of spacey dream-looking. (You know how occupying some parts of your mind with a methodical task can free up other parts of your mind for more creative thoughts?) Which (I think) sensitizes my eye (like an emulsion or a sensor) to the things that will catch it next time I’m wandering, not looking for things to photograph. As though inspiration takes practice.
The “after analysis” conceit for this show started out as a pretext, really, for gathering my favorite pictures. I care infinitely more about liking pictures than I do about comparing photography with psychoanalysis. But the pretext turned out to be an opportunity for me to shoot and edit more creatively. This should come as no surprise, since pretexts often serve unintended purposes. For example, psychoanalysis is a pretext of sorts: the institutional goal of saying whatever comes to mind sometimes functions as a pretext for talking through what’s bothering me, which turns out to be a pretext for behaving toward my analyst in some way that will surprise me, show me what else is on my mind. Photography is full of pretexts too: the best reason for taking lots of pictures is not that I’ll get more or better pictures of my subject, but rather that I’ll come to see that my subject is not what I though it was. Sometimes I take pictures even of things that don't interest me so that I’ll be taking pictures once something interesting comes along. I know that these pretexts are necessary—I know this is how it works—but it’s only when I forget that they are pretexts that they serve me best by delivering me to something better. In this way, the formula is an anti-formula, or an after-formula.
As for the printing and editing, however, there were parameters. The “after analysis” conceit seemed to work as a way of calling attention to the conditions of the production of these pictures—the spacey dream-looking I mentioned before—but it also helped me narrow the group down to ten pictures that would fit in the gallery. Roughly twenty pictures still in the running for inclusion seemed equally good to me, and all were taken in the hours immediately following my analytic sessions. But only thirteen of them featured the under/over dynamic mentioned in the show’s press release. That dynamic seemed not only appropriate to the title, but also to the experience of looking at photographs. So I arranged a group of ten around it.
TGN: You have also done a series on stunted architectural portals—windows, doors, grates, and gates—that have been physically or optically covered over and filled in. Are there symbolic or psychological associations that you have with these images, or is it just the simple allure of the unexpected?
Mark Woods, My Father and Me Sowing Seeds, Archival Dry Print, 18 3/4 x 26.5 inches; Courtesy the artist and Newman Popiashvili Gallery, New York
MW: Yes, I do make those associations, more or less freely. That series, titled Access, grew out of my feeling that photographs let me in and keep me out simultaneously: they pull me toward the time and place they describe until I have to stop short, suddenly conscious again of their material surface, as though my nose has hit the glass of a window I’ve been peering through. This ambivalence—sometimes described as a dialogue between the transparency of the window and the impenetrable surface of the picture plane—is my favorite theme in photography’s history, probably because it elegantly and abstractly refigures so many of the all-too-concrete social, emotional, and psychological dilemmas I face. So I was trying to escalate that dialogue, to up its ante, by taking straight documentary pictures of flat, rectangular surfaces that were designed to let stuff in or keep stuff out, but that now appear conflicted as to how or how much they will in fact do so. Documenting such surfaces faithfully did feel to me like coaxing their conflicts into visibility. Seeing allegorical potential in a new surface to photograph for that project was like seeing friendly potential in a new acquaintance. I cast those surfaces as characters in my life, but I also empathize with them. I recognize in them some of my own ambivalence. Or maybe I project my ambivalence onto them, and then I project their ambivalence onto the large photographic surfaces that represent them. These surfaces repeat my gestures of provisional granting and measured withholding; my photographs repeat the gestures of these surfaces; and I repeat the gestures of my photographs by exhibiting them. This is different from revealing their secrets, and more like keeping their secrets, or keeping their secrets in play, keeping their secrets visible, seeing their secrets, like in poker: I see your secret and raise you one. The surfaces confide in me, I confide in you through my photographs of them. I’m tempted to say I betray their confidence in order to grant my own. But access to their secrets remains as questionable as before they were photographed, as does access to mine and those of my photographs. All three of us keep hiding our issues in plain sight.
TGN: Another recent body of work brought you back to your childhood home, where you photographed the same spots referenced in older family pictures. What did you discover?
MW: I met up with my father in the vacant building four days before its ownership changed hands. At my request, he had brought along with him the Kodachrome slides that he and my mother had shot at around the time of my birth, and we projected them on a wall that appears in some of the slides, revisiting the rooms of their origin when it seemed necessary. With help from him and, via telephone, my mother, I spent the next three days choosing my favorites and re-staging them, minus the people, by finding the vantage point and angle from which they’d been shot. Working slowly with a geared tripod head and the precise movements of my 4 x 5 view camera, I discovered that, under the dark cloth, I could use one eye to view the illuminated ground glass and the other eye to view a slide illuminated by the light of the ground glass, simultaneously looking at different times of the same space, as it were, adjusting their positions until they coincided. By closing one eye or the other, I could make very young versions of myself or my parents reappear or disappear from the scene right in front of me. I also discovered that the best pictures to re-stage were the ones that somehow anticipated the project itself allegorically: a picture of my mother, pregnant with me, looking at a photograph of a bride in the wedding pages; a picture of my mother teaching me to look at myself in the mirror; a picture of my grandfather and me looking at one another from either side of a window, our hands pressed up against one another but separated by the glass; and so on.
TGN: Have you gone digital at all, and has technology affected your own working methods in any way?
MW: Working digitally has above all let me get more obsessively perfectionistic about making my pictures look realistic. I’m not using artifice to that end—not more than I used to in the darkroom, at least; I think of it as very much a process of development—of bringing out whatever realism is latent in an image. I shot all the pictures in this show on film—mostly slide film, also known as positive film, as opposed to negative film—in the 6x7 cm format; I scanned the film myself, did all the Photoshop work on the scans myself, and output the resulting digital files directly (without intervention from the lab—an excellent lab with excellent prices called El-Co Color, in New Jersey) to a c-print machine that uses conventional light-sensitive paper. (I shoot with a digital camera for commercial jobs, but in order to get the resolution and feel I want for a beautifully detailed 30 x 37.5 inch print, for example, I need to shoot film—or to buy a $20,000 digital camera kit, which I have not done.)
I actually feel more physically involved in the image now that I’m doing all the digital work myself; much more than I did even when I was doing all the darkroom work myself. Sure, in the darkroom I was touching the paper and the chemicals and the enlarger and so on, but that was like touching it with an animal’s paw: the imprecision and clumsiness of it all only underscored my outsideness from the image. There was only so much that could be accomplished, and then I had to let go, settle for a good-enough print, and just hope to repeat the results for each number in an edition. Working digitally, I still must let go at some point, but that point comes much later, after I come to know an image on a grain-by-grain, pixel-by pixel, layer-by-adjustment-layer level. I can try various combinations of contrast, color, saturation, sharpness, dodging and burning, and so on, all in an effort to make a print look more like the real world to my eye. I can zoom out so the image fills the screen or in so thirty-two pixels fill the screen (I spend a lot of time removing dust specks and grain irregularities from a film scan. I think some of this intensity will disappear when I’m no longer working from film, and working only from images shot in a digital camera). I am still outside the image, but I feel closer to its inside than I did in the darkroom. As if my nose gets closer to the glass before bumping in to it. Or can hover there, very close to the glass, for a longer time before bumping into it. It’s a way of keeping latency in play longer. It feels like I’m touching the image with my nervous system, instead of with an animal’s paw. Or it takes longer, takes more work, for my mind to start feeling like an animal’s paw. I know there’s something perverse about this, but to be so deeply involved in the realization of an image that depends so much on a world beyond my control—depends so beautifully much on chance, on luck, on a lens, a machine, a computer—is a poignant, emotionally moving, deeply intimate experience. Which takes us back to your first question.
Artslant would like to thank Mark Woods and Newman Popiashvili Gallery for their assistance in making this interview possible.