Now Featuring Mike Slack

Los Angeles photographer Mike Slack began his photo practice with Polaroids. Within that casual instant format, Slack’s work is a rigorous approach to seeing things anew, to looking carefully at space and place. Frequently presented in photobooks, Slack’s carefully-edited photos invite scrutiny to uncover themes and scraps of narrative. He says of his process, “Look first, think later,” which serves just as well to describe the experience of viewing at his photographs.

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MH: I understand you came to photography and publishing in a roundabout way, after your formal education, including college, was over. Can you talk about that process and how you began to take photographs and began to share your work?

MS: I’ve worked in bookselling and publishing my entire adult life and drifted into photography in my late 20s. My frame of reference for art at that time was a jumble of what I’d absorbed through music (Eno, Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, John Cage), monographs I’d discovered at the bookstore where I worked in L.A. (the Bechers, Gerhard Richter, Jim Shaw, Ed Ruscha), and authors I was into (Burroughs, Ballard, Vonnegut).

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When I started making Polaroids on road trips for my job around the southwest, it was suddenly, weirdly satisfying to view my immediate surroundings through a lens, to make specific compositions out of what might be considered “nondescript,” to regard everything as a picture — I was excited by the consciousness-enhancing behavior of picture-making.

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As the Polaroids accumulated I was also excited to arrange and study the images (cataloging them in portfolios), and I started exploring ways of producing and publishing a physical book, which is what led to Ok Ok Ok and introduced me to the community of indie photobook publishers.

MH: What’s your day-to-day photography process like? I’m curious because some of your projects seem omnivorous and almost like visual diaries (Ok Ok Ok, for example) while Shrubs of Death is obsessive in its focus on one subject, one composition.

MS: Like any kind of exercise, a little bit every day is best, though it rarely works out that way. If a camera isn’t close at hand, a kind of “photo FOMO” creeps up. I make pictures whenever the opportunity presents itself — a walk around the block, a trip to another country, whatever I have time for — and also to spend time every day thinking about what it’s all about and organizing my pictures, trying to stay in that headspace.  Occasionally I’ll drill down into a single subject or composition if it seems to work — as with Shrubs of Death or High Tide — but it’s mainly a practice of slow accumulation, looking and recording, building a vocabulary. Ideas and pictures can come from anywhere really, so it best to just be ready. Most pictures will never have a life beyond their moment of conception, so the more pictures the better: look first, think later.

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MH: Photographs, with their literal registration of singular light and time, are still somehow the visual medium I associate most with books — even though books as written documents capture the layered time of edit upon edit upon rewrite. Photobooks are a genre unto themselves. How does the process start for you? And what’s the editing process like on one of your books?

MS: My editing impulse starts when a few disparate images constellate into their own thing, or when it seems like a path might exist through a cluster of images as I’m sorting through the raw files — follow that path, see where it leads. Making the pictures is mostly intuitive and sensuous, often without a clear plan. Editing is a rigorous and a little more analytical, but hopefully the end result still has retains the openness and engagement of the picture-making experience — the result of “edit upon edit upon rewrite.”

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One thing about books: they’re hand-held devices, just like most cameras are hand-held devices. Both are calibrated to the personal psychic space around the hands and the eyes and the brain. I think about that space a lot when I’m trying to figure out how to sequence and organize of the pictures I’ve made. Books are intimate by nature.

Another thought: aren’t photographs just a recent evolution of written language? Which may be why photographs work so well in books, the medium we associate most with writing? And why email and texting are so quickly being replaced by Instagram and emojis? Why is using a camera — pushing a button to record, and share, a visual image —such a natural, pleasurable behavior for so many human beings?

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MH: Can you expand on photography being an evolution of written language? I find that leap curious, because it doesn’t make intuitive sense to me — there’s something about the way written things unfold in time and images unfurl in an instant that I guess I’m not reconciling. Although I can see the parallel when you talk about the process of editing a group of photos. But I would love to hear the connection you’re making.

MS: There are two ideas I keep looping back to about this. The first is from Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which completely shook me up when I read it as a teenager — particularly his depiction of the war-damaged protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who finds himself “unstuck in time.” He starts to experience all times and events simultaneously as his alien captors (the non-human Tralfamadorians) do. At one point we learn that their books communicate through “clumps of symbols,” each “a brief, urgent message, describing a situation or scene. We Tralfalmadorians read them all at once, not one after another. There isn’t any particular relationship between the messages except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time. This fictitious idea — a kind of book containing a multitude of specific symbols collapsed into a simultaneous whole — has an obvious resonance with photography and photobooks, and how individual images can be “clumped” and reorganized, disregarding chronological sequence, to create a new kind of “message” that defies the linear/historical thinking inherent in word-based messages. They’re just another kind of text, relieved of the weight of time and history.

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The second is from Vilem Flusser’s book, Does Writing Have a Future?, in which he argues that written language essentially evolved out of picture-making (as most alphabetic letters have their roots in pictograms), and that the adoption of alphabets sent human culture down a path of linear-historical/conceptual thinking that may be driving us crazy and limiting our ability to explain the real world to ourselves. Photography is a highly technical form of picture-making, rooted in the same pre-historic impulse that led us to written language in the first place — “inscribing” with light and chemicals (or sensors) instead of with sticks and rocks (or pen/paper, etc), thinking with our eyes instead of with our ears — and photographs are not only technically efficient as messages, they allow us to think and communicate with ourselves and each other in new ways — “[t]he alphabet was developed as the code of historical consciousness. If we should give up the alphabet, it will surely be because we are trying to supersede historical consciousness.”

My casual take on this is that photography fills a kind of communication gap inherent in alphabetic communication — it gives us what writing inherently cannot, a different sensation of space and time: “[i]mages produced with digital codes are present everywhere at the same time (even on the opposite ends of the earth). They can always be called into the present, even in an unthinkably distant future.”

Cheap handheld cameras took off like wildfire in the mid-20th century — Edwin Land saw the Polaroid as fulfilling a kind of human need — and I am a child of that era (I was taking snapshots before I was making art). For me, there’s something about assembling a book of photographs that can stir up the Tralfalmadorian sensation of being “unstuck in time,” which seems very healthy for reasons I’m not sure I even understand.

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MH: You used the Polaroid format for a long time and have scaled back on using instant formats now. What did it hold for you when you were using it, and how did you move into other formats?

MS: The Polaroid camera taught me how to look and how to compose a picture in my own way, and allowed me to work quickly and non-technically — that’s exactly what it was designed to do. After making four books out of those prints (around the time that Polaroid went bankrupt), I’d more or less reached the natural end of whatever I’d been doing with that format.

I guess the iPhone is the “instant” format I carry around now, but it lacks the analog sensuality of self-developing film, and I don’t have any deep affection for it. Switching to a digital camera added some complications to the hunting-and-gathering routine — it’s more technical, and dealing with all the files on a backlit screen is kind of a hassle — but I’ve come to terms with it. Lately I’ve been carrying around these cheap little disposable 35mm cameras, just to loosen things up and see what happens, or maybe just to escape the tyranny of immediacy inherent in digital formats. I won’t process a roll until I’ve completely forgotten what’s on it. (“These memories can wait,” as I’ve always misheard the Talking Heads song.)

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MH: What are some of the print formats you use? I enjoy that you do some cheap, mass-produced posters that contrast the with preciousness of an editioned darkroom print or a single Polaroid.

MS: My preferred print format is still the book. I’ve been making archival inkjet prints in my little studio downtown. I’ve never worked in a darkroom. Those down-and-dirty laser-print posters started on a whim and I’ve only really sold them at the LA Art Book Fair, until now. I’m surprised and flattered to find that people have been framing them.

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MH: I’m curious about how you pair photography and travel. I understand that you make a lot of work trips for your day job. It seems like an ideal combination for someone whose work is so tied to seeing the strange and funny in unmonumental places, because travel can leave you in that perpetual state of orienting yourself visually. How does it play out for you?

MS: Good question, as I happen to be in Berlin this week, and I’ve been waking up at dawn each morning, going out for a random walk around the neighborhood before things get too noisy. There are all these cottonwood seeds blowing around and tumbling out of the sky; it’s otherworldly and impossible to photograph. My last book was a series of pictures I made in five days wandering around New Orleans — not intending to turn them into a book, it just worked out that way.

Being a new and unfamiliar place is exciting because when you see a place for the first time there’s a brief period in which it all seems so strange. You realize — or remember? — that beneath the familiar, predictable surfaces of things, the world is really strange, and everything is interesting (even monumental), even the boring stuff, at every scale. Cameras are especially good at reminding us of this fact (or maybe it’s a fiction).

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