Interview: Tim Best

Interview

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

Interview

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.