Interview: Tim Best

Tim Best is a artist, currently based in Plano, Texas. Best’s practice of lens-based work approaches the intersection of desire and gender with curiosity, carefully interweaving ideas of gender fluidity, deviance from widely accepted codes of behavior, the power over one’s sexual desires, and connections to social assumptions of nature. The bodies in his work flow back and forth between uncanny interior and exterior spaces to create psychological narratives amid penetrative interventions into the printed image.
He received a Pollock-Krasner grant during his stay at the Santa Fe Art Institute’s Emergency Artists Residency. From 2008-2010 he was a member of the Dallas based artist collective 500x. In 2009 he received a Puffin Foundation Grant for his project Micro Expressions, and that same year Best was awarded a residency at Louisiana Artworks in New Orleans. In 2014 he graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and became a finalist in the Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas CADD FUNd grant.  Most recently he has been accepted for a residency at Picture Berlin in the fall of 2018.

The through line of your current work seems to focus on sexual identity, voyeurism and gender driven power struggles. How did this evolve from earlier, more formal works like your “Love Letters, ” “CRUSH,” or “No Dream is Ever Just a Dream?”.

In previous work I addressed the body through obfuscation, destruction and unfamiliar representations. In FLASH I wanted to show clearer images of the body in the place they were photographed and address them in many images. That way I could shoot a lot and rely on the edit to come up with the finished piece. It also made me consider a book to compliment an installation.

There are hints of Nikki S. Lee’s immersive/posed poses snapshots. Specifically, how she immerses herself in a subculture and creates an identity that is both true to the subject and herself. In Flash, is there an attempt to be both subject and “character?”

I saw an opening to use myself in FLASH by turning the gaze on the photographer instead of always projecting it outwards. I think this introduces an element that is at once potentially narcissistic and lets the viewer see me doing the things I’m asking the model to do. This functions as an interruption to the normal “guy with a camera photographing nude models” that reflects the thoughts, dreams and desires I have when shooting this subject. My wish is to reveal something psychological about the photographer that isn’t visible in personal narrative or photographic anthologies. So I turn on myself as a sort of medium to make this attempt. What I have found is more anti-heroic than traditionally heroic.

Are you familiar with the work of Claude Cahun?

Yes, Claude Cahun was a self-portrait artist who acknowledged she was dealing in masks and said: “Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces.” Which is pretty revolutionary thing to say in a modernist context when all artists were trying to transcend themselves to find a true more heroic self. She recognized that there was no transcendental self, or not even a self to find. 

Does Cahun’s work factor into FLASH?

Cahun tells me there is nothing under the mask, no essential truth to find through transcendence of physical limitations. That the truth is what is seen. When she wears a mask, she becomes the mask. I believe the same is true when I wear a mask. I don’t look for deep meaning beyond what I can see anymore, but I demand meaning from what I see. In FLASH, I’m shooting what I want to see from people who want to show me. This creates memories which is more emotionally, socio-politically, and sexually charged than simple photographic documentation. When I add myself it becomes a reflection of my Self which tells the viewer, this is me, this is where I want to be.

FLASH is oozing with vernacular and found photography cues, Is this why you chose instant film as medium of choice?

Instant photography is a reflection of our economy. Since our economy is based on satisfying desires, I thought it would be perfect to make a series that involved shooting nude models with instant photography. It is instant gratification of seeing the image you captured in less than 30min. Digital is even more instant, but it’s not called instant. Digital is too crisp, too clean for me, there is no chemical. Desire is chemical, messy and I wanted messy pictures of bodies in outside places and seedy interiors.

In terms of vernacular, I firmly believe one needs to understand conventions to practice as an artist so that they can be objectively and formally critiqued. Without this underlying knowledge of knowing what to change, I don’t see how there can be any improvement in things. I am deeply concerned with formal artistic values of color and form. I take this and my technical knowledge in photography to inform the use of more analog forms of capture. One that represents the connection between chemistry of bodies looking at each other, and the chemistry of the print.

What is the relationship between the characters in FLASH and the landscape? Not the spaces they inhabit (garages, homes and motels), but the the landscapes themselves. Do you you see them as allegorical or are they helping us to place the people of FLASH? Or something else?

The function of FLASH effects the interpretation of the space. The landscapes are like before and after/after and before images. Some of them were shot before I worked with the model, some were done after I had returned years later to photograph the same space empty. The viewer gets to see the space with and without the figure. It is a question for the viewer: how does this shoot effect the space for you? Does it make it a dirty or perverted space or is it now innocent again since the model isn’t there? After shooting FLASH for almost 3 years, it is not deviant for me, but it may be to those looking at it for the first time.

Would you characterize the FLASH sessions as spontaneous?

I did plan out the photo shoots because I had to in order to get the model to work with me. I put out a casting call on, a site models and photographers use to network, and waited for responses. I did contact some models directly with the same casting call but I wanted to give them as much information about the place, what I wanted to shoot, what I wanted the model to do and how long the shoot would be. Once the shoot got started, it was more spontaneous, although the model had time to think about it. This worked because I wanted it to be a casual shoot, unlike my highly produced projects like POLISHED.

In FLASH, I’m shooting what I want to see from people who want to show me.

Did you start the flash project with instant film systems or were you drawn to it through some trial and error?

I noticed a lot of photographers using instant film a few years ago. This sparked interest in the film and the cameras. I didn’t realize so much was available. The Impossible Project (now Polaroid Originals) was making film, refurbishing old cameras and providing the tools for interested photographers to revitalize the medium. Then the idea of instant gratification came to mind about my next piece and I immediately made the connection with instant film.

What are other the aspects of instant photography that speak directly to the creation of FLASH”

When a photographer comes to a shoot with a big digital system, I think it is intimidating. It shows how much money and power the photographer brings to the shoot. On the other hand, when a photographer shows up with a vintage camera, people want to touch it, they ask questions about it. It brings the model and photographer closer together. I think those are the kinds of the connections I would like to make with others.