Now Featuring Jeremy Haik
Photographer Jeremy Haik knows his tools, from film to pixels, and knows their limits. These limits are what concern him, because while limits circumscribe what we can know and see, limits shift as new ideas are born, and old ones die. The avante garde becomes the old guard. Playing with the way images, monuments and knowledge decay, Haik’s pictures are reminders of the twin promises and pitfalls of progress.
MH: The images for your featured prints come from your Un-titled series. How did you frame the series and what were you exploring?
JH: When I started the project, I was thinking about how nonlinguistic elements of a book leave a distinct impression on the reader, and how transmission of information (graphic or textual) inherently alters the message. By removing all of the text (the title, the author, the publisher), the graphic and physical components in the background become the main focus. And you can see how these pieces have their own distinct presence, which may have very little to do with the text. Even though book designers work in response to the content (I’m thinking specifically of Peter Mendelsund), the design has its own independent influence over the reader. Especially with books that were first published a long time ago, the cover can change drastically as time passes and new editions are created. All of this led me to think more and more about how the container (in this case the book) shapes the message it holds. A good analogy is to think how water moves from a rain cloud into a reservoir, through a pipe, out a faucet and into a glass. It’s water the whole way, but it takes the shape and character of each individual container along the way. In all of my work since this project, I’m looking for this fluidity and I respond with my own efforts to highlight and manipulate it.
MH: I’m interested in how often images of classical sculpture appear in your photocollages. Can you talk about how you select and cull images from your source materials, and what kind of images speak to you?
JH: One of the first photo projects I ever did as a student was of the sculptures of political figures scattered throughout Washington, DC. Even then, I felt there was a connective thread between figurative sculpture and photography. You could argue that photographs freeze the contents of the world, and I think this characteristic of photography pushed me towards things in the world that are defined by an overwhelming sense of stillness, like statues and architecture. Sculptures are meant to last for centuries, and they freeze the world into stone. To me this feels like an attempt to immortalize your worldview by creating a physical reminder, which hopefully persists far into the future. I use classical sculptures depicting scenes of tragedy or failure in some way because I think this desire to leave a physical mark on the world is ultimately destined to fail. Even though these objects survive, their history and their meaning become twisted and perverted over time. In a lot of ways, it is similar to the idea of the book as a container, it’s just stone instead of paper. And although you can trace the beginnings of many of the political, scientific and philosophical systems of today back to the ancient world, the presence of this imagery in my work is a reflection of a world today that needs profound change, but which can’t shake the weight of the past. Like the albatross in Coleridge: the symbol of good luck which becomes an unbearable burden around our necks.
MH: What are your tools? Do you work digitally? I’m curious about morphs and glitches that surface in some images (your Arkheion series especially) and how distortion can be a product of the tools you’re using or of deliberate digital edits.
JH: Some of the work is done with a scanner, and other work is more straightforward photography. I’m still a kid with regard to how I treat technology and, to a larger extent, the tools I use. I like to take things apart and I might possibly be more interested in seeing what the guts of something looks like than I am in having a functional tool. So the Arkheion pictures came out of an attempt to move a scrap of paper across the scanner in perfect alignment with the scanner head, which is pretty much impossible. What it reveals, though, is the way that a scanner dissects color in forming an image, so if you interrupt that process, the color elements aren’t lined up any longer. Even though it skews the color alignment, you still get a relatively clear picture. With those particular images, I always intended to print them, so the separate color elements of the scanner (RGB) were remapped in the computer to reflect the colors of an inkbased process (CMYK). Lately, though, I’ve been really into the idea of manipulating light and perspective in the studio in way that look digital but is done incamera.
MH: You cull images from books for your work, and you also make books. I love how you present book and zine projects on your website, as uncropped, casual scans with hand and wrist showing, and it’s great how that approach gives a little window into your practice and your conceptual interest. What’s your approach to making images (or images and text) for a book?
JH: I was a writer before I was a photographer and I think I treat text and images on as much of an even plane as I can, so I try to approach words from a visual perspective and images from a linguistic perspective (if that makes any sense at all). I’m glad you mentioned the book/zine images; I tried taking straightforward photos of the books I had done and they seemed really sterile, and for me that felt completely contradictory to what a book represents. For a piece of printed material to really be effective, you need to be able to feel the object in your hands, feel the pages bend and slip between your fingers. And from a totally practical standpoint, you can see how big the book it is when there’s a hand in the image.
MH: I love the idea of books as edifices destined to crumble like any other monument, eventually. What are some of the texts that have influenced you, either as research or as source material?
JH: I just recently rediscovered a collection of Time Life books from the ‘60s called Great Ages of Man, and the subtitle is “A History of the World’s Cultures”. It’s essentially an encyclopedia of cultures across the world and throughout history. My dad had a few of them when I was growing up, and I specifically remember always looking at the one on Classical Greece, so that’s another source for the classical imagery. It’s doubly appropriate that these books are mostly outdated, and the information they contain has eroded in a way; no one really buys encyclopedic sets of books like this anymore. I think that’s in part why I tend to use older books, the process of information decay that they are undergoing mirrors the physical erosion of a sculpture or piece of architecture. A few years ago I was introduced to a book called Pleasure of Ruins by Rose Macaulay, which is this fantastic mixture of poetic reflection and allegory with a broad archeological study of ruin sites all over the world. In the epilogue, she says “the human race is, and has always been, ruinminded.” What I love about this quote is that, it’s not just about looking backwards at the past that produced the ruins we can see, but looking towards the future and envisioning the ruins that will inevitably come to be. There’s an edition of the book where a photographer named Roloff Beny was commissioned to photograph the sites in the book, and I really love the way photographs are used in this edition as a record of Beny’s subjective experience (some of the images are overwrought to the point of being melodramatic) but also as empirical archeological documentation. As far as other writers, Borges is someone I come back to quite often, the essays in Labyrinths especially. And a copy of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium is always floating around in my studio. It’s a series of lectures on literature he prepared before his death in 1985, but I think every artist should read it at least once.
MH: What kinds of photography have influenced you? I see threads of the way photography is used in industrial, commercial and scientific documentation, i.e. photography as data, as much as any of the more narrative and expressive branches of photography.
JH: The Beny images in Pleasure of Ruins are an interesting example. On their own, they would be fairly unremarkable and dated examples of travel or tourist photography, but the fact that they sit next to Macaulay’s text creates a shift in their contextual meaning. And they serve two completely different purposes, one is to provide an index of reality and the other is evocative of experience. Beny actually had some success as an Abstract Modernist painter before he became a photographer, which makes sense if you look at his images in that context. So to answer your question, I’m interested in all of those kinds of photography that you listed precisely because the lines between the descriptive and the subjective are so blurred. It’s an inherent quality of photography. And as more people use photography to augment spoken or written language, those lines becomes even more difficult to discern. All of this is why photography seems to be the most appropriate medium for me to engage with; it is inextricable from the culture we live in. Nearly every single person on the planet has a relationship with photography, whether it is conscious or not, and that infuses photography with an endless capacity for examining the world.
MH: What are your tools like (scanners, cameras, etc.) and how are changes in those technologies changing your work?
JH: When I first learned photography, I worked with a photojournalist from Seattle. At the time, digital images were made with modified film cameras that had a digital back. This was cumbersome and expensive, and there were not many people using these cameras apart from journalists. So I encountered a fairly new form of digital photography in the context of journalism, and at the same time I learned analog photography as an art student. My approach to imagemaking was informed by these two distinct perspectives and that has been a part of my work ever since. So as far as tools go, I sometimes shoot film or Polaroids with a largeformat camera and other times I shoot with a DSLR. For a while I was only making images with a scanner (the Untitled books, for example). In the end, though, digital printing is so much easier and faster than darkroom printing, so the pictures always end up in the computer. I don’t know if the changes in technology necessarily challenge what I’m doing, but I am always reading industry websites about what new cameras are coming out. With photography in particular, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of pixels and bitdepth, but my approach to technology as an artist (and as a teacher) is that if you can master the mechanics of your medium, then you can execute your creativity without the technology getting in the way. Technical literacy for its own sake is not very interesting to me, but in the service of a creative endeavor it can be really powerful. Technology is a means to an end, so as I see it, the more things advance, the more opportunities I have to make things the way I envision them.