Unknown unknowns - Lucas Blalock & Morten Andenæs

"With each new photographic event, we change not only the possibilities of a photographic future yet to come, but also the totality of photographic history."

The intro of the conversation between Morten Andenæs and Lucas Blalock from Objektiv #10. 

shoe  , 2013, archival inkjet print, 58 x 72.5 in framed (147 x 184 cm), Lucas Blalock

shoe, 2013, archival inkjet print, 58 x 72.5 in framed (147 x 184 cm), Lucas Blalock

Morten Andenæs: My three-year old has started to ask questions about the causes of given situations. Why does it snow? Why is grandmother old? In my feeble attempts to give answers succinct enough to resonate with her, I’ve noticed that she’ll repeat these answers verbatim, affirmatively, as if the questions themselves were never posed – as if she’s telling me something I didn’t already know. She repeats these lines fluently, but without the understanding that comes with having lived through the experience that spawned the statement. I mention this because it occurs to me that even though photographs are used with such ease, and the field of photography in its short history is so vast, our usage and understanding of photography is like a child repeating something with the fluency of an adult, without the concomitant understanding that the experience brings with it.

I learned today that a computer recently passed the Turing test, and what made the news interesting was that the machine managed to pass itself off as a fourteeen-year old. I’ve often thought of photography (and when I use this term I tend to think both in terms of our understanding of images and the ways in which we use the medium) as pubescent. We grant it a certain amount of respect often accorded to those more mature in the hope that they’ll live up to that kind of a responsibility, but at the same time our behavior towards them is dependent on the knowledge that there’s a whole ocean of experience that will change their very beings in the decades to come. Typically, adolescence is a time when we try on certain world views in order to see how they mesh with whatever conception we have of the world around us and ourselves in it. Over time, and much like the phrases repeated to me by my three-year old, these worldviews become assimilated and blend with our idea of the self, in turn churned out as genuine expressions of us. This could be an analogy to the way photography is being used, especially when perusing sites like Instagram. There’s a kind of visual thoughtlessness and lack of understanding of the potential meanings generated, while at the same time, the images look great. They’re different from what we encounter in family albums from the 1970s or 80s. Rather than being an archive of a lost present (and presence) within which we can trace a life, or parts of a life, they seem to be chiefly concerned with affirming presence here and now. They do this with perfect pronunciation, inflection and grammar, but perhaps without the intimate understanding invoked by the term “mother tongue.”

This analogy between photography and language is often invoked in the literature surrounding photography. I'm inclined to go with the John Berger and Roland Barthes version, whereby photography is seen as a pseudo-language, but what concerns me above all, is the common conception whereby photography is treated as a fully fledged language. This idea that we could communicate with images just as unambiguously as we do with words is a way of thinking that denies the photograph it’s full potential as a vehicle that opens a space within us that we didn’t know existed. The power of a photograph is precisely the multiple meanings it generates, its inability to be pinned down to just one meaning, and to treat photographs as akin to language is to commit a certain kind of violence towards the world in our efforts to make that world more orderly and less dangerous to our very being. This is why Barthes was onto something wildly important when he said that he wanted, in writing about photographs, to create a new science for each object of study (for each photograph).

All of this is a way of relating to the question of whether we need spaces devoted to photography. There’s always going to be a need for specialized discourse, and particularly one that manages to bridge the events of the past with the present.

Lucas Blalock: I want to start by saying that I think about the activity of my work as photography even though there’s some perversity in this claim. This is important to me because my project is essentially one of looking and picturing, and it seems that the common name for that activity in our time is “photography.” It’s perverse because I’m not interested in stabilizing, or insisting on, photography’s terms, but in undermining and stretching them. And one of the most interesting things about photography is that it’s so difficult to locate or essentialize. Even the staunchest of photography’s defenders tend to make all sorts of exceptions when it comes to what counts as a photograph. For example, if we were to follow an essentialist trajectory and say that a photograph is a picture made with a light impression on a chemical surface, then we’d have to acquiesce that a photograph is rarely seen in a newspaper or an advertisement; and this is obviously both nominally true and also deeply limiting in terms of understanding photography and its impact on our culture. This may seem like semantics, but I have the sense that teasing out photography’s contradictions and multiplicities is in fact the best way to see it, and a really productive space for working. 

Andenæs: I’ve always considered myself a photographer first and foremost, and whatever I’ve done, whether adding fake piping to a gallery wall, covering the floor of a gallery space with laminate flooring or writing, I’ve thought of it as using whatever means at my disposal to create photography by other means, to borrow a phrase from Gerhard Richter. Jacques Ranciere remarks on Godard’s Histoires de Cinema and the choice made by the director to “write” the history of film in a different medium as a key to understanding not only the Histoires, but also the structure of investigation in general. After my first glance through your book Windows, Mirrors, Tabletops, I’m wondering how you relate to that idea? Rather than investigating from the outside, part of what’s happening in your work is instead to use the very stuff of photography and of the photograph, in order to say something hitherto unsaid about photography. We don’t need to distance ourselves from the medium and use other media in order to expand and undermine the medium.

Blalock: I love this idea of interrogating the medium from the inside! Godard, and Ranciere for that matter, have been major influences in my thinking. I’ve read something somewhere before (maybe Barthes) that has made a similar case for poetry – that a proper poetic criticism would have to be in verse....

Read more in our upcoming issue!