Interview: Thom Bennett

THOM BENNETT

1. Can you give us 10 words to describe your “empty signs” series?

South, Malaise, Empty, Bleak, Worn, Sculptural, Loss, History, Alienation, Languageless.

2. Can you expand on one of those words in relation to the work?

Louisiana (and the South in general) is such a unique and strange place and, in both urban and rural areas, there is always a sense of things being on their last legs but somehow holding on. Tumbledown is a word that comes to mind. These signs, like the past, once held meaning and were guideposts to things of particular importance. Now just the basic structures remain and we are left to our own imaginations to wonder what they pointed to. Same with our region. Structural institutions that once defined the South no longer exist. I think in some ways we’re still trying to fill in the blanks and create a new South.

3. Walker Evans famously wrote that color photography was “vulgar.” He seemed to soften on that view a bit (in his own way) when he started working with SX-70 cameras and film in the early seventies, stating, “…nobody should touch a Polaroid until he’s over sixty.” You are well short of sixty, shooting signs with monochromatic instant film and an admirer of Evans’ work, does that aphorism ring true in any way for you?

Well, not too far from sixty! I started using the SX-70 again when The Impossible Project began making film after Polaroid’s demise. I’ve had an SX-70 since college and would pick it up every now and again not thinking that one day Polaroid would no longer exist. Anyway, I started with TIP’s color film and liked the palette for the signage that I was photographing but, for this series, I wanted to look mainly at the graphic structures of the empty signs so color was not that important. In most of my other work I shoot B&W so that worked for me as well. I was heavily influenced by Evan’s use of the SX-70 and I mentioned to John Lawrence during a review that I felt like I was cribbing from the greats by photographing signage and he said, “Well, photographing signs is a grand tradition within photography.” That helped loosen me up and before I knew it I was taking photographing signs in my own direction.

4. Your signs no longer function as signs in terms of advertising or utility. Semiotically speaking, though, the conversation never ends. Since the signs no longer “communicate” directly with us, thus losing its most basic meaning (and identity), do they still symbolize anything for you?

Yes, I think by their sheer presence in the landscape they remind us that something was once here that was important and required a visual reference to guide the viewer (consumer). I’m amazed that the words and signage will disappear but the structure of the sign is not taken down. Why do people leave up an empty sign? Do they have the hope that one day the sign will again be utilized? Or is it just too much work to bother with taking it down? I guess it can be see both ways.

5. And because these signs are no longer communicating in their original graphic design sense, have they already become a kind of public art/sculpture even before you shoot them?

Exactly. What I try to do is frame them within their current context to make as graphic a representation as I can. I’m very concerned with composition and how I frame these within the landscape they sit in. I’ll try to walk around each sign so I can to see where it fits best with the background and surrounding landscape.

6. It’s (somewhat painfully) obvious that time has passed since these signs were new. What about this aspect of time in your images? Is that important for you?

Yes, but most of these signs are, to my mind, not really that old. Maybe 20 to 30 years old? Not that old in the scheme of things. But they’ve been allowed to go to seed. I think it is tied up in how our economy has changed over the last 30 years. Lots of these signs were probably for small businesses that were important to the local community. Now we have big box stores and online shopping. No one needs the local shops anymore. These empty signs are indicative of that.

7. The film you use is a reinterpretation of classic polaroid SX-70 film. In many ways it’s extremely fugitive in nature and in all likelihood will fade with time. Are you cool with that?

I worry a bit about that. It’s difficult to get a hard and fast answer to the question of how long these prints will last. I trust that as they age and change that will serve the subject matter as well. All things fall apart and the only constant is change. A hard pill to swallow at times but one we have to embrace.

Thom Bennett is a New Orleans-based commercial photographer; his day job is as staff photographer at M.S. Rau Antiques. He has been using the same SX-70 since buying it new in 1979 and still wishes he had used it more than he did.

8. How does shooting with instant film affect your editing process?

Since it takes at least 20 minutes to really see what the final picture will look like, I try to nail the exposure and composition in a couple of shots of the same subject. So, I try to edit in camera. There are some anomalies of the film that I don’t like and will immediately edit those photos out. I shoot a lot of these signs so, if one doesn’t work, I’ll either try to go back to it or forget about it and move on. There’s always another one around the corner.

9. Do you care about which camera to use?

Kind of. I really like the functionality of the SX-70 as well as the size. I have a Sonar version plus a couple of 680’s that shoot the higher speed film but I’m probably drawn to the SX-70 as, to me, it is the most elegant and nostalgic. And it was a groundbreaking camera when it came out in the ‘70’s. I’m very nostalgic about it.

10. Tell us about the work you have in Louisiana Contemporary at the Ogden in August (2017) . Any other upcoming projects?

I was lucky to be included in the exhibit! I have six images included and I’m looking forward to seeing how they will be hung. All of these signs have arrows in them so the are tied together visually. I seem to be winding down this particular project and, for an upcoming show during PhotoNOLA, I am going to collage all the empty signs I have into four larger pieces and include some text by Percy overlaying them. Looking for different ways to express to the viewer how they all work together. Originally, I thought each would stand on its on but I think seeing them playing off each other may help strengthen the overall effect. 

About Thom Bennett

“Signposts in a Strange Land is a photographic exploration of empty vernacular signage along the backroads of the South. The writer Walker Percy recognized the South as a strange, exotic place, unlike anywhere else in America; a place that clings to the past and stubbornly refuses to accept the present. His book of essays, published posthumously, entitled Signposts in a Strange Land, is a jumping off point for this series, which explores the themes of the past, alienation, language (or, rather, the lack thereof), and loss. In photographing these signs I seek the public expressions of thoughts and ideas, now empty, that were once pointers to some immediate necessity. In isolating them in their current state of disrepair, they become signifiers of that uniquely Southern sense of loss and alienation. Using a vintage SX-70 camera and Impossible Project black & white film lends the project a sense of nostalgia and loss and isolates the graphic nature of these empty signs.

Thom Bennett is a New Orleans-based commercial photographer; his day job is as staff photographer at M.S. Rau Antiques. He has been using the same SX-70 since buying it new in 1979 and still wishes he had used it more than he did.

Interview: Tim Best

1. 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.  

2 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. 

3. How much of yourself do you think exists in the characters you portray? 

In FLASH, there are images where I am performing such as the photos taken of me as the MC from cabaret, and there are images where I am not a “character” where I am nude or show off my pubic hair.  The former reflects the curious side of myself that likes to wear masks and pretend.  The latter is all me being myself.  So it’s not a question of how much for me, it is what aspect I am allowing to surface. 

4. 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.

5. 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. 

6.  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. 

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

The function of FLASH affects 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.   

8. 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 ModelMayem.com, 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. 

9. 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.  

10.  What are other 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.

Interview: Ashley Gates

Ashley Gates is a Mississippi-born photographer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been exhibited in galleries across the U.S. including the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery, Aperture Foundation, and the Eudora Welty House and Garden. Her book of found Polaroids, We Didn’t See Each Other After That, was exhibited at the Phoenix Art Museum and was selected as one of photo-eye’s Best Photobooks of 2016. 

1. I always find some great comfort in looking at old photographs, even if they’re of people that I don’t know. What is that quality for you?

On a purely existential level it’s fascinating to look at a found photograph and realize that I will never know any of the facts about it: the Who, What, Where, When. Sometimes you can learn the When if there’s a date written on the back, or the Where if there’s an obvious landmark. But of course it’s the Who that intrigues me the most. I love that there’s this galaxy of information floating around somewhere that I’ll never have access to; there’s something final and outer-space-like about that. Naturally we try to fill in the blanks and project our own narratives onto the picture. And regardless of whether I know the person in the photo or not, it can be an emotionally overwhelming experience for me–almost embarrassingly so.

2. Both of your books are collections based on images but also based on the words we use to describe those images. Can you talk about that?

Both collections were sourced using specific search terms online. The idea for first book was a complete accident and happened only because I had been searching eBay for refrigerated Polaroid film that had never been opened. Whenever I searched “polaroid” + “refrigerator” on eBay, I would often come across actual Polaroid photographs of people standing in their kitchens. So I bought several of them and arranged my favorites in a book. 

The second book is more light-hearted and is technically a collection of screenshots, whereas the first book is a collection of physical photographs I purchased from eBay sellers and then scanned myself.

3. How did your new book come about?

I had been noticing for a while that “Not bad” was a popular caption on sunset photos that were posted across social media. I was amused by this caption because it’s one of detachment, of playing it cool. It’s almost a collective refusal to admit that something is beautiful. Or maybe it’s just a sly acknowledgement that sunset photos are ubiquitous and unoriginal. (I take them all the time, and I say take them all you want.) But once I started seeing this caption over and over again, I began searching for “sunset” + “not bad” and taking screenshots. I ultimately only used Twitter screenshots because they were the easiest to search for. It’s more difficult to find images on Instagram because their search tool doesn’t allow for multiple hashtags.

When I decided to arrange the screenshots in a book, I only searched dates ranging from November 9 to January 20–the day Trump was elected and the Inauguration–because it’s a reminder that the sun will probably still come up tomorrow, even if on some days it may not feel like it.

4. Tech specs: For your own instant work, what camera/film do you prefer to shoot.

I have a variety of instant film cameras, including the SX-70, Spectra, and a Fuji Instax, but by far my favorite instant camera to use is a Polaroid Land Camera. I have the 250 and 230 models. I prefer Land Cameras because using the peel-apart pack film (vs. the popular “shake it” polaroids we all love) feels even more like magic to me. My absolute favorite film to use with the Land Camera is the black and white Fuji FP-3000B, which is now discontinued. The level of detail it can pick up is astonishing.  

5. With Polaroid becoming scarcer and scarcer, what are you transitioning to? (If applicable. I ask this since you’re were scouring eBay for refrigerated Polaroid film.) 

I still have a lot of discontinued instant film stored in my fridge, and I’ve been trying to save it for more coherent projects or special trips. I recently shot a few packs of the Fuji pack film in Paris, and I love some of the images.

I haven’t developed a strong connection to the new Impossible Project instant film yet. I’ve had mixed results, but I’m going to keep trying. I’m perpetually thankful that they are dedicated to preserving the medium.  

6. Originally, the “refrigerator” images were intended to be instant and probably also ephemeral. Why are they still around, and why do we still care? 

When I look at an old photo that has been discarded, or one that’s for sale at a flea market or online, my very first thought is, “How did it end up here?” It’s strange to know you’re seeing something in its afterlife. So, why are they still around? I don’t know. And I think we care precisely because of those unanswerable questions. We also care because we are holding evidence of a person’s life. And they are a frightening and beautiful illumination of the fact that so many people will never know who we are– while we’re alive, and especially after we’re gone. 

7. You mention the “ordinary” in your book intro. What makes the ordinary so compelling sometimes but not others?

I think most of the ordinary snapshots we find at flea markets or elsewhere are compelling because time itself has made them extraordinary. If I take a snapshot today of my current bedroom and look at the photo tomorrow, it’s unlikely I will be moved in any meaningful way. But if I look at the photo in twenty years, who knows? Maybe I’d be moved to tears.  

8. Why instant photography? 

Each photo is irreplaceable and one-of-a-kind, and I love the finality of that. It forces me to slow down. It is also a physical object, a kind of talisman. I love shooting other kinds of film, and I also enjoy shooting digitally and with my phone, but instant photography is a unique experience. There is no saturating or leveling or adjusting or filtering at all– there’s just a singular, tangible artifact. 

9. Anything else you wanted to say or wished I asked about? (Optional.)

10. What’s your next project?

I’d like to make a book of my own instant photographs at some point, but I’m in no rush to do it. That could happen next year, or in twenty years.

In the City

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Afternoon Light

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Splashes of Color

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