Ken Schles:

An Interview

I had the opportunity to sit down with photographer Ken Schles a few weeks ago to discuss some ideas that had recently been bouncing round my head and how they related to some of the ideas discussed in his books.  We started talking as soon as I arrived at his home, but I wasn’t able to get my recorder out quick enough to catch everything.  Nonetheless, as you’ll see below, we had a long, engaging discussion touching on a whole variety of themes… [I should note that all hyperlinking has been added by me to further some of the points we discussed]

Ken Schles: The evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel’s piece on Edge.org talks about the Internet collapsing different kinds of space. Obviously we know how the Internet collapses physical and economic spaces (brick and mortar commerce vs. e-commerce; the ability to contact people or do work remotely), but Pagel talks at length about how the Internet collapses intellectual space as well. This reinforces what he calls, our “infinite stupidity.” The Internet encourages social tendencies that reinforce infinite stupidities…

But he also notes evolution works intrinsically because of its stupid nature. That evolution creates stupid variations that work or fail in the most unpredictable of ways. And sometimes those stupid “failures” turn out to work so beautifully well in the most unimaginable ways.

It immediately reminded me of an ongoing diatribe that the critic A. D. Coleman had on his blog against a woman writing in an online forum. [Ken Schles also guest posted for Coleman on this subject- see his posts here and here.]  Coleman blogged a disturbing picture of a woman arrested in Florida who was injecting cement into other women’s buttocks to change their body shape/body image. He was talking about women who emulate destructive visual models. I started thinking about that in regards to what Pagel said about our infinite stupidities. There are things we emulate because of images—things that gain social traction and cause us to emulate certain behaviors. I started thinking about this in relation to body modifications and I wondered what might be an example of infinite stupidity around body modification that might be beneficial. I remembered recent studies that have shown that men who are circumcised don’t transmit AIDS as readily as uncircumcised men. I thought, “Aha!” here’s an example of a socially proscribed body modification that, to my mind, serves no intelligent purpose—no objective, logical purpose, other than fulfilling, what traditionally has been for some, a religious-social practice, and yet it now is seen to have this very positive side-effect.” Uncircumcised populations succumb to AIDS at much higher rates.

Nicholas Calcott: Yeah – that particular study – they had to stop the medical trial that they were doing because it was so successful that it would have been unethical to not circumcise the control group of the study. But that’s all an example of social memes that have some sort of evolutionary benefit. But this whole idea is interesting as well because, typically, in animal populations [and human populations], the larger the group size, the more complex the group dynamics. There’s a fair argument to be made that when our ape ancestors started agglomerating in larger groups, the need for the kind of complexity that that introduced, introduced the need for language, which allowed us to evolutionarily develop.

KS: Right. …which has caused a radical growth in brain size, which, in turn has had a multiplicity of consequences. It’s led to an increasing dependence on our use of technology, which then multiplied further the complexity of our social interactions.

NC: Exactly. So, the Internet age is leading to larger group sizes—a much larger group of people who we individually interact with every day… One might expect that in the long run it might lead to some really interesting developments…

KS: Certainly. Pagel’s essay notes our infinite stupidities have led us to produce geniuses like Einstein. Our social networks, while they may reinforce our infinite stupidities, also cause us to operate socially in very complex ways. Our use of the Internet introduces very different social arrangements. This complexity is very different than how we’ve operated historically in groups. And while there are some positive outcomes to be expected, there are also many countervailing aspects to it as well.

They say that our bodies process thousands if not millions of bits of information simultaneously, but you’ll find it’s hard to think about more than 3 or 4 things at once. There are interrelated factors percolating and operating organically and unconsciously, which influence our behavior and influence social outcomes. I think our networked systems start operating as autonomous entities along similar organic/unconscious lines as well, to the point that we, as operators within them, become almost superfluous as rational agents. Think of it as a kind of mob rule on steroids. Even when we think that we are acting as rational agents, we more often than not are facilitating another kind of process, another kind of decision-making system. If you start thinking about the way that people make decisions—or the way that things become popular through cumulative advantage—by way of group oriented social means—outcomes are not primarily based on critical reckoning. Deciding factors can be quite irrational. Our conversations impact us and influence us on so many different levels. Mostly our discussions move along other emotive lines that focus on the way that we say things; that only tangentially addresses the content of what we might be saying. So I can see why someone like the critic AD Coleman might get pissed off about the way an online forum discussion is going if it’s not operating in a particularly logical way. I think, because of the Internet, we’re beginning to see this “kind” of emotive reasoning manifest itself more and more across larger groups. And we can see it reflected in the photo world itself. We’re moving towards a place where we get someone like Alec Soth, who, to me, is more of a social phenomenon than someone who has been looked at closely or critically at every step of his development [in that Soth’s popularity exploded immediately – due to the internet – without the kind of critical examination that would have come at each exhibition and book as his popularity slowly increased]. His work is projected and consumed in the marketplace like a force of nature. I feel this is a good way to describe it—because the social/critical niche it occupies is more about systems and arriving at a particular social/critical space as opposed to looking at the work critically in a traditionally linear and logical way over a period of time. Alec Soth, or at least the way his work has presented itself as an entity within a social economy, seems to presents itself as a system of being, a force of nature that appeared on the scene already fully formed—it seems to be something almost phenomenological. But this type of “reasoning” fits, because images themselves operate that way and aren’t linear or logical constructions.

The discussion about the changing critical discourse in photography and how it affects the practice of photography is intimately connected to our discussions about the changing nature of our social interactions.

NC: In some ways it’s the old difference between the individual and the collective except that it’s all being played out with spectator of the individual – in the sense that we’re all individually looking at the way that this system works and it seems that we’re all still trying to process the content of all these events in a traditional, old fashioned, critical way, in a system which is working in a more elemental sense.

On the blog, I had a discussion with Domingo Milella. He’s an Italian photographer who works on landscape, essentially, as his main photographic focus. But I had a really interesting discussion with him about how he’s trying to use landscape to capture a contemporary moment. In the sense that he photographs these sort of layers of landscapes, these old caves in Turkey, these architectural, archaeological towns in Italy and the layers of history being self-evident when looking at the entire thing. And he feels that trying to picture ‘now’ is simultaneously more complex intellectually and more simple visually. The way that all of this stuff functions now has less to do with the actions of individuals within the system and more to do with the system working in a more elemental level. That the only way that we can comprehend the system, the global social-economic-critical ecosystem, is akin to how we would comprehend, say, a river or a storm. As opposed to it being so-and-so has this thought, so-and-so has this thought… There’s just too much information.

And so we’re reverting to a very basic, basic critical reaction to this entire thing.

KS: Our responses lean towards the emotive as opposed to the analytical. Which is interesting because if you think about how emotive responses operate… Studies have shown that we think more effectively when we bring emotive valuations to bear upon our decision-making processes… The traditional Cartesian way of looking at the world, where logic and emotion exist antithetically to one other, has been found to be false: yet I think the assumption is still there that emotive reactions to critical problems are suspect. Recent studies have shown that without emotion we cannot arrive at values. And it’s primarily our values that allow us to arrive at something of import, to surmise significance. On the one hand, it may seem that we’re moving in an irrational direction, when in fact, our emotive reactions are allowing us to assign value to our assessments. Our “irrationality” feeds the source of our rational decision-making processes.

I keep coming back to this primary idea that countervailing forces both enable us and hobble us.  If you don’t mind, I’d like to quote Guy Debord:

What brings together men liberated from their local and national boundaries is also what pulls them apart. What requires a more profound rationality is also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchic exploitation and repression. What creates the abstract power of society creates its concrete unfreedom.

This has a lot of resonance in relation to what we’ve just been talking about. The structure of discourse, which allows for discussion, confines it as well. Traditionally our public discussions were much more hierarchic and seemed more linear. Again, I think about the critic A.D. Coleman. He was a public critic in the traditional sense. He projected ideas that were broadcast down to a large number of people. Now that we’re networked, the creator/audience hierarchy has been upended and it’s propagated a situation where people may feel they are informed enough to say, “I can make my own connections; connect my own dots. I don’t need you to point things out, I can critique things in my own way on my own terms.” And soon everybody wants to inhabit a similar critical space. It creates power distortions and power struggles to the point where intelligent discussion can easily become subsumed.

This could be a good thing: it creates a constant flux. Think about the way this country was started by a bunch of rich white guys and how they talked about creating a free democratic society, but the freedoms and the democratic society they instituted was actually quite limited. Look at slavery and the way women were treated—we can go down a long list here… But by keeping certain ideals alive among educated and enlightened people, we’ve raised awareness to the point where everyone’s demanding more power, more of a voice in society. But when push comes to shove, we find that when everyone shares power there is less power to go around. And now, over the last 30 years, these egalitarian goals have been again disassembled—the distribution of power in this country has been systematically skewed through legislation to once again favor the rich and powerful. As more and more people became empowered, once again, countervailing forces have also increasingly disempowered a majority of stakeholders.

Democratic power has a very Kafkaesque quality to it, and that power has always, in a very certain and real sense been illusory. It’s been centered around subjective perceptions. Power can easily seem to appear or disappear depending on how we focus our attentions on it. We’re entering into a time where everyone is powerful, and in a certain way, and because of that, nobody is powerful. I think that networks exacerbate these inherent contradictions of empowerment and disempowerment. Just as flash-mobs can quickly appear and disappear, groups can organize via networks around issues quickly and effectively, or dissipate just as readily.

The discussion about the changing critical discourse in photography and how it affects the practice of photography is intimately connected to our discussions about the changing nature of our social interactions. They’re also connected through ideas about hierarchy, and are also linked to economic structures…

But more than anything, I begin to start thinking about photography as practiced in the larger world and how it is totally overwhelming our little practice of critical photography. I think a lot of what is seeping into… On the one hand we can say photography is cross-pollinating itself, but it’s also acting in ways that very much negates traditional critical practice.

NC: The economic structure or the social structure?

KS: Both. They are interrelated. They both impact the creation of work. I’m not sure how we could separate the two. Collectors, who, through their “good taste” and who are seen to be “intelligent” about what they’re doing, very much drive the market, which, in turn, drives what’s left of the critical discourse, which very much seems, to me, to be operating in reaction to market conditions and attentions. Because I’ve always seen the marketplace operating primarily along social/emotive lines, I was quick to dismiss its impact. I felt the collector emphasized, through their collecting, a desire for work that projected a certain kind of status back onto them, which, to me, for years, was not about what good work was “supposed” to be about or what the work was “supposed” to speak to if the work was, for me, of any interest. I was much more interested in what Szarkowski had to say, for instance, which I felt was more centered on a critical/theoretical evaluation rather than an emotional/economic one. I saw the discourse in more Cartesian terms of “intellect good, emotion bad.” Which I simplistically translated to “Critic good, collector bad,” obviously, an over-simplistic reckoning.

But now as I think about the things that Szarkowski had to say, the way that he developed his program around ideas—before contemporary art photography was seen to have any substantial economic value… Let’s look at what’s happened subsequently in that ecosystem, the museum system. Now that large sums of money have come into play, look at how much the concerns of the institutions have come to turn around capital expenditures and around programs to build larger and larger museums, the costs of that emphasis, what that emphasis entails, the kind of trustees they need to get involved to raise the kinds of money they need, to get the crowds to come in to sustain these ventures. It all becomes a much more complex social-economic ecosystem. And I do think it’s affected the way that curators operate. It seems to have disempowered them in a way, diminished their critical voice; it’s taken them away from a more critical model that I’m taking Szarkowski to embody (this may all be fantasy on my part). But it seems to me that the influence of money has inculcated a culture of corporatized bureaucracy, made curators into bureaucrats who now must balance their roles as curators, of projecting critical ideas, and balance that with the economic needs of the museum and the social ecology of what it takes to get people into the museums. In one sense this “sociality” makes them more “accountable.” But I think it also has diminished their critical function to a degree. However, their reality is much more complex, because their role now is also made more difficult as they need to respond to the changing nature of how we, as a society, metabolize images—changes brought about because of the Internet. I think all these factors have greatly challenged their ability to move a critical discourse.

And there are yet larger shifts underway, in terms of photography as a whole and as a medium. Photography always, historically, has operated along several different lines because it has the ability to function in different ways for different uses. You have the camera as a scientific or forensic tool, you can have the camera as a private social qualifier that says, “I was here with my family at this point in time.”

NC: Photographs as memory is what you’re talking about…

KS: Right, but photographs have many different functions. And I feel like a certain function it has traditionally served within the art community is being overwhelmed and eclipsed by photography’s more vernacular uses.

NC: Well it’s interesting that we’ve been talking about the marginalization of photography, but we’re really talking about a specific kind of photography: “Photography as art” would be one term or “Critical photography” is another.

KS: Yeah. Critical photography is a good term. Using photography as a critical tool to point out things.

NC: So then the question with all of these various dissolving ecosystems – the way that the critical space has been marginalized and that photography as criticism is also increasingly… Well, marginalized is the wrong word and that sort of gets at the heart of the question I want to ask…

KS: Well, I wonder if critical photography, as we’ve known it was just a temporary blip.

NC: Well, is it that a kind of critical photography as a whole is being marginalized, or is it a certain kind that uses a certain vocabulary [e.g.] that is being marginalized?

KS: Coming of age in the period where John Szarkowski was such a singular voice, his vocabulary about photography was the end-all. We endless discussed the work of the artists he championed: Gary Winogrand, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Atget, Evans. The whole dialogue about thinking about how information moves through an image, the use of formal devices… these are things that we all learned in school. How do you make a “good photograph?” How does it operate? Those discussions all addressed formal approaches, which had to be taught. And that language became fairly complex to describe these artist’s motives. I wonder if that language has extinguished itself to a certain degree.

NC: Part of the value of that language was that we all spoke it; still speak it. My generation learned it as well. And I have a strong sense that, when students go to photography school now, they’re still learning the language of Szarkowski and Friedlander and etc. etc. Eggleston, Shore, all of those classic greats of American photography.

KS: But as I start thinking about the shift to more emotional reasoning the work that comes to mind is somewhat different. For instance, I start thinking about the rise of someone like Nan Goldin, whose work is, to me, so much more in an emotional space as opposed to a formal space. And I start thinking about Anders Petersen and a lot of the work that I see coming up that doesn’t fall primarily along formal lines. This other work is much more about an overall Gestalt of what is being emotively thrown out there. I begin to think about contemporary practice when I start thinking about those kinds of things. This, to me, becomes very interesting because the work itself propels itself along because of its emotional qualities. I think it therefore speaks to a much broader audience as well, and I think of them as a much less sophisticated audience (but why do I think that?). But more than anything, I begin to start thinking about photography as practiced in the larger world and how it is totally overwhelming our little practice of critical photography. I think a lot of what is seeping into… On the one hand we can say photography is cross-pollinating itself, but it’s also acting in ways that very much negates traditional critical practice.

It’s an interesting phenomenon and we’re in very interesting times. For me the shifts elicit an anthropological response as much as anything.

NC: It’s interesting as well, on this topic, that one space where critical photography has preserved a stronghold among people who like this kind of stuff, which was always a minority group, is questions about the nature of the image itself. It is a topic that I increasingly come across over the last decade or so. Your last couple of books, being an example of that, or the people who are working on the border of photography and who are discussing the nature of the medium itself. Do you think that that is a reaction to, in some ways, not necessarily on your specific behalf, but a reaction to this ecosystem? In a way, is to question, “What is photography?” a way to still have a discussion using photography?

KS: I wonder if it’s a byproduct of the marginalization of the sphere that critical photography operates in. Or maybe the general public doesn’t want to have critical discussions. They’re just happy to be seduced by images. They don’t want to engage in a critical discourse. Look at the fact that photojournalists can barely operate now as an economic entity… Photojournalists can’t make a living making sophisticated statements about the world. Their motives are seen as suspect.

Maybe photojournalistic practice always existed in a very small space. Its history was very short, but important for the time that it operated in. Photojournalism arose in the 1920s (discounting someone like Riis or Hine) along with the rise of the picture magazine, it had its peak around the 1940s—by the time TV came around, started falling away. We saw critical journalistic work moving to the book or to the museum as a refuge of support. After the Viet Nam War photojournalism became quite marginalized. I think during its hey-day photography and photojournalism were effectively able to talk about issues that affected the larger world. It’s become increasingly marginalized (even as it has become more sophisticated) and it doesn’t effectively talk about issues in quite the same way anymore. This all sounds familiar though—weren’t we having this discussion in regard to popular criticism of photography and its marginalization? Still, images bring a kind of knowledge that text can’t – a certain kind of immediacy – sophisticated in its ambitions or not. When was the last time that the still image galvanized a large public discussion around anything? Abu Ghraib?

Part of this has to do with the sophistication of who is photographing as well as who is being photographed. I think of what you were telling me about Ryan McGinley [before I began recording I was describing to Ken that I attended a Sylvia Wolf lecture arguing that McGinley’s work is important as art in that he self-consciously documents a generation who act solely for the sake of it being documented, a commentary on a type of Facebook photo before Facebook existed]. We all know about pictures. And so, for anyone to move in a space with a camera and say that they’re objectively documenting something that’s going raises all sorts of issues.

I think it then becomes a ripe time to talk about the whole process of making images themselves. First off, where does this dialogue happen?

KS: Well, there is the public space that the photographer operates in…

NC: Public discourse is more what I’m talking about here.

Does that mean that all photography is stuck between the binary of photographing, essentially, surface – a formal exercise, stylistic, aesthetic exercise – or between something in some ways… I don’t want to say insignificant, but… marginalia?

KS: OK. I bring up physical space because when I first started getting into photography in the ‘80s, it was getting increasingly difficult to find a public space to photograph in. Photographing on the street, many times, came to be about negotiating turf. The groups that were most easily photographed were those that had no means to control their space. You could get access to the affluent—but essentially under very controlled circumstances. People feel they have the right to control the projection of their image. We can think about it in material or physical terms, but the projection is conceptual.

We have been moving towards a more abstracted public space. It exists as a form supported by a particular media: A newspaper is a place where you can talk about certain issues because it is supported by people publishing and buying that newspaper, but it also presents as a kind of public social space. So if you can’t buy that medium anymore, where information is supposedly free but then it becomes unsupported, it collapses that public space.

Tell me, what real public space exists? Where is there a public discourse anymore? The town meetings the politicians do, they seem like theater, they seem like farces. That’s not real public space, that’s not where real discussions are happening. It’s moved away from the forum, the public agora, the marketplace. It’s been privatized in all sorts of ways, and now it’s been chopped up into a creation that exists only within people’s brains at this point.

NC: You’re saying that public space exists…

KS: …only as a conceptual space.

NC: It’s a conceptual space, but the size of your public space is directly proportionate to how powerful you are.

KS: Yeah, that’s certainly true. Maybe that was always the case, and the rise of the middle class after the industrial revolution allowed for all kinds different distributions of power, which allowed for other kinds of public spaces to develop.

NC: Wouldn’t this open up an opportunity for a new discussion using photography? In some ways the image has always been an extremely useful tool for making the private public. It seems like the image would still be a useful tool to “show truth to power,” as it were.

KS: Yeah, but it’s problematic because then only “insiders” have a right to speak critically. And if public space physically dematerializes, what are you left to photograph? It becomes a problem.

NC: But in industrialized western societies, does that mean that all photography is stuck between the binary of photographing, essentially, surface – a formal exercise, stylistic, aesthetic exercise – or between something in some ways… I don’t want to say insignificant, but… marginalia.

KS: I don’t know… First of all, we can only photograph the surface of things. But the surface of things can reflect its significance. And that’s what we do by pointing the camera towards any particular place. We’re saying, “This is significant,” and it allows us to discuss why something is significant. It may not be readily apparent in the image. It may be. It may, over a period of time, come to be significant.

I guess the problem is trying to understand what the realms of possibility are. I think that that’s what we do as human beings: We try to understand significance. And the camera is an amazing tool to project significance.

NC: It’s interesting that you use the term “project significance”…

KS: If you talk to beginning photo students, you’ll often hear them say, “I don’t know what to photograph, I don’t know where to look.” They’re usually lost because they haven’t found a way to visually express something that’s significant to them.

I’m reminded of Flusser, where in the very beginning of Towards a Philosophy of Photography he talks about significant surfaces. This, to me, resonates profoundly.

It’s all about significance. I find that people who have a difficulty trying to figure out what to photograph, it’s because they don’t know how to go from thinking about what might be significant to projecting significance through an image. But it’s all readily available. Think about the stupid way that people photograph—it’s all about significance.

NC: What do you mean when you say, “the stupid way that people photograph.”

KS: By “stupid” I mean the somewhat mindless mass: billions of photographs that are being made year upon year.

NC: Photos of my cat, for example.

KS: Yeah, the cat pictures. I think about my kids—how they’ll pick up a camera and what they might start to photograph. I think about the people who take pictures of their kids, billions of pictures of kids that will never, ever be looked at more than once or twice. Most times these pictures are insignificant – the picture itself is not what’s meaningful here. What’s meaningful is the act of taking the picture in relation to what they think they perceive. The act itself is meaningful precisely because the act qualifies something they think is significant.

As we move towards a networked environment, and we have a near infinite supply of source material to sift through and categorize, I think it becomes less important for individuals to express significance by means of his or her own hand. But the finding of significance is no less important. In fact, the process of finding significance becomes more important as we, as individuals, struggle to find meaning in a more abstracted social environment.

NC: It’s interesting that you bring up kids because I think that there is a kind of dividing line there. When we as thinking adults or humans pick up a camera, regardless of whether or not we’re photographers or some average Joe, yeah, I completely agree with you. But if you look at photography done by kids, not by some prodigy, we’re not talking Lartigues here, but so-and-so gave a digital camera to that kid [or something]… The photographs are not necessarily about significance. They’re not necessarily about what so-and-so finds important. They may be to us looking at them.

KS: Well, take any naïve set of images… What’s that group in London? The Archive of Modern Conflict. They’re going in and they’re finding significance in what are, for the most part, mundane, vernacular images. So they’re taking these naïve images, and they’re finding significance in them and placing them a new context that highlights significance they find within them.

I think there are two processes going on: There’s the process of making the picture and there’s the process of digesting the resultant picture. Those are two different processes. It’s the difference between finding significance and expressing significance. Those don’t necessarily have to overlap. They overlap when in a great artist, I think, because that someone has the ability to not only find significance, but also to express significance in a way that is meaningful to others.

As we move towards a networked environment, and we have a near infinite supply of source material to sift through and categorize, I think it becomes less important for individuals to express significance by means of his or her own hand. But the finding of significance is no less important. In fact, the process of finding significance becomes more important as we, as individuals, struggle to find meaning in a more abstracted social environment.

NC: That actually segues really nicely into your book A New History of Photography. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process of finding significance… Because the images that you used in the book were not taken for the book, to be used in the book in that way. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but they’re pulled from your archive when you found particular resonances. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about adapting that idea of finding significance to this particular project.

KS: You are absolutely correct. With A New History of Photography, I realized that I’ve been influenced by a lot of different photography and found traces of those influences throughout my work. [The images included with this interview are from this book.] I looked at my work as it evolved over time and saw that I was picking up on different “ways of seeing” that mimicked work made across the history of photography. I became interested in looking at how our influences intimately affect how we perceive the world.

The impulse to do the project started off very playfully. And I thinking how stupid – infinite stupidities, right? – how stupid the basic idea was. People are always asking, “Who are your influences?” I decided to riff on it. I was playing with this idea that language starts to form the way that we perceive reality.

NC: Yeah, the Lacanian idea of language structuring the unconscious.

KS: I know of it more through Heidegger, where “Language speaks us as we speak language.”

So, I started thinking that here’s these socio-cultural elements that I’ve incorporated into my being and it affects the way that I see the world, and I project those influences out again when I project an image of the world. And it becomes a kind of continuous process where I put something back into the world and other people may pick up on it and become influenced by it. It’s a recursive, generative process. Which brings us back to the way that networks operate and how they will affect the way that things are made and dispersed and understood.

I found certain ways of working to be significant to me. I’ve been influenced by many kinds of photography found throughout the history of photography. Formally, I structured the book along the lines of the first history of photography written by Beaumont Newhall in 1938 [Excellent video on this subject here].

As Benedetto Croce says, “All history is contemporary.” We look at history from the perspective of how it’s significant to us contemporaneously. If you were to pick up a history of photography you’d notice all sorts of lapses lapses and omissions. You can’t help but to begin to wonder why one thing is emphasized over another. And then you might realize that history is constantly being written and rewritten with changing emphases depending on current concerns and practice and idiosyncratic predilections. I wondered why early documentarian photographers, like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine were not included in these early histories of photography. Or a portraitist like August Sander—where was his work? When we look at Diane Arbus’ work, we can see the influence of someone like August Sander. Lisette Model, who brought an understanding of Sander’s work over from Europe, taught Arbus. Sander’s work deeply influenced Arbus. And similarly, if you think about street photographers like Winogrand and Friedlander, etc., you can see how they were influenced by Riis and Hine, early documenters who were not included in the early histories of photography. Canons are reappraised in the light of contemporary practice.

But histories also arise out of very organic personal experiences as well.

So I made a history that reflected my influences. It was a filtering of, a weighing of these canons…

NC: But it’s a really funny thing, going back to what we were talking about before, in that you’ve taken a very very hierarchical, old style critical function of creating a canon, which is what, essentially, a history of photography is – the old text books, the Barnett Newman idea of “This is important, this is important, this is important” – and you’ve flipped it on its head. You’ve created a personal canon, in a way.

KS: But we all do that. We’re always going to be doing that. We respond to things that resonate for us personally. If you talk to someone in Northern Ireland about the history of Northern Ireland, depending on what side of the partisan divide they were on… If you talk to a Jew and a Palestinian about the history of Israel… Projections of history are never static. We all emphasize particular aspects depending on a host of factors, which change according to context and change over the course of time…

NC: That’s certainly true. I find what you’ve done very contemporary in that way. I feel like this particular process wouldn’t have occurred to anyone previously. Despite the fact that it is a history, it is a very classic, traditional way of regarding the medium, but regarding the medium and the history of the medium through the lens of your own work is really interesting to me. It toys with the idea of, as you were saying, significance, and what is significant and what is it that we all sort of remember. As well as the idea of what are images and what are iconic images.

There was the classic Vik Muniz project, which is one of his early ones [called ‘Best of Life‘], where he went back picked a series of very iconic images, like the image of the Vietnamese girl running after the napalm attack. And he didn’t go back and look at the pictures, but he just drew them from what he could remember them to be. And if you compare the memory with the photograph, the things that Muniz’s brain picked out from the images, they’re not the same. You can look at the individual images he’s drawn and recognize them as the original photographs, but if you go back in and look at them side-by-side, they’re very different. They might share certain things. It’s an interesting look at the way that images are constructed.

And, in some ways, the way that A New History works is that it’s doing the same thing with a history as opposed to individual images.

KS: Yeah, mine is a generalized approach. Other than the picture of the kid holding the gun that looks like the William Klein picture [above], or the nude torso that looks like Paul Outerbridge’s Woman with Claws [at the top of the page], I’d be hard pressed to say that a picture is trying to specifically be another picture. And when I made the picture that looks like the Klein, I wasn’t trying to emulate anything. The kid was there, I was there, and he had the gun and he was playing with it and doing his thing. But when I start to think about my urge to take that picture, and I start to wonder about the urge to make any image… What qualifies as a valid forum for discussion? What makes for an interesting picture? We learn these things. And we act in response to theses things.

And, I think we tend to gravitate towards the things that we know and the things that we’re familiar with and that we know are acceptable and have made “successful” images. I’m not going to try to invent a whole new formal system. I’m going to look at people that worked within certain lines, who made a certain caliber of work, and then see what makes sense to me. I might adapt it, I might use it, integrate it. The analysis of this process became interesting for me.

NC: You had mentioned to me in the past that this whole process of building A New History of Photography is what led to Oculus. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KS: A New History of Photography was about having images already in mind—and how that affected and colored my way of seeing the world. Oculus is about the idea that images not only color the way you perceive reality, images constitute a basic framework to see and understand reality. Images are an entry point to knowing the world. Oculus takes the same underlying principle, which talks about how images affect our perceptions of reality, but it takes the discussion out of the formal specifics of the history of photography and brings the discussion into the philosophical realm. Oculus explores the meaning of images and how they operate. It also looks at image as a way to talk about metaphor—specifically the metaphor of light.

As a culture, we’re very concrete about our understanding of images. Even as photographers working in the world, we’re somewhat isolated in our discussions of what images are to begin with – we primarily see them as “pictures” of what they portray. But I think our understanding can be richer. Images really are metaphors more than anything. They are about the ways we structure our ideas and inferences about reality so that we can understand reality and project those understands amongst ourselves. Perhaps the irony is that we’ll never grasp reality: it’s simply too large a thing. It’s infinite. And as finite beings, we inhabit finite realms, and we’re affected by a specific culture—by a history that is projected in a particular way. We understand reality from a finite perspective. And we make images that are finite constructions to try to bring understanding to something that is infinitely large. Images allow us a means to go from the subjectivity of our being and allow us to talk about what we confront: a finite projection that is situated within the infinite.

So Oculus is moves away from examining particulars of historic stylistic approaches that I concentrated on in A New History of Photography, and it moves the discussion into the realm of the nature of images and the nature of memory and of metaphor. For me, Oculus is a platform to talk about deeper philosophical constructions.

But I want to add, and this, I think, is crucial: the work is palpably grounded. It does not constitute an abstract philosophical discussion. The discussion in Oculus is deeply rooted in the specificity and subjectivity of a personal crisis. I feel this is a vital component of the work, and it goes back to our earlier discussion about how meaning is transferred along emotional or intellectual lines, Oculus very much occupies both these spaces simultaneously. It very much fits into an ongoing discussion about work that one can emotionally respond to as it talks about issues. It is not a cold conceptual piece that merely illustrates an idea.

This brings me back to a discussion in Oculus about Plato’s Republic, and the use of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to describe the meaning behind Plato’s “line of cognition.” To me this argument encapsulates a large part of our discussion here. Plato despised images because they didn’t reflect a “true” reality. He was trying to get towards an objective knowledge of things. I find images interesting, expressly because of the conundrum they present. They project things they are not; they allow us to see, through metaphor. I’ve become extraordinarily fascinated by Plato, because what is perhaps his greatest discussion is embodied in the allegory of the cave, which is itself an image, a metaphor. Here’s a guy who hates images, and yet he is compelled to create an image to convey meaning and to project significance.

That’s why it’s interesting to me that Flusser would say images are significant surfaces. That’s why this whole discussion revolving around significance is so fascinating. And that’s why my 7 year old taking a photograph is also so interesting–because he’s trying to parse significance from the world, he’s trying to find significance.

NC: Yeah, he’s using a metaphor to talk about the crisis of metaphors.

KS: That’s the crux of where I am right now—and perhaps where we all are—when trying to understand these things. I don’t think we’ve come very far in 2500 years. Plato dismisses images. I can’t dismiss images in that way. I think they’re an amazing entry point into ideas. I see his line of cognition not so much as a linear path of “This is better, and this understanding supersedes this other one,” as it builds, going from “faulty” images and beliefs towards a perfect understanding of the world, of what is “good.” I see his line as an examination of constant recursive travel on the way towards knowledge. And that even someone on the “enlightened” end, say a critic, or someone who is trying to disperse his knowledge, someone who could rightfully say, “This is the way it is,” even then that person could do well to go back to the beginning, to fundamental images to reinvigorate their understandings. One needs to constantly reevaluate where one’s assumptions are coming from; to test where one’s ideas are seeded, and then, examine where they might be going. It’s a constant process. And our images are what we use to enter into that process of gaining knowledge. This is necessitated precisely because we are subjective and not objective beings and we must be wary of anything that smells of a kind of received knowledge. Perhaps this idea goes back to Socrates and the Socratic method of learning: knowledge is something that is gained only through the experience of personally picking apart a discussion, not through reading a text. Knowledge doesn’t somehow just appear printed on a page. For me that’s why images become so compelling and so interesting: their open-ended nature constitutes a kind of discussion.

In the end it’s all about significance and finding meaning. That’s why it’s interesting to me that Flusser would say images are significant surfaces. That’s why this whole discussion revolving around significance is so fascinating. And that’s why my 7 year old taking a photograph is also so interesting–because he’s trying to parse significance from the world, he’s trying to find significance. Finding significance is our human nature, our drive. It is our manifest destiny to divine meaning in a meaningless universe.

NC: There’s certainly an interesting through line, especially bringing up the question of significance, thinking back to Invisible Cities. We’ve had a discussion a little while ago about that particular book by Calvino and it’s relationship to your book Invisible City, as well as the fact that that it is not only a book about cities, but actually a book about signs. And that it can be read as a book about photography, especially given Calvino’s fascination with photography.

KS: Yes, Italo Calvino was very interested in photography. And he was also very interested in subjectivity. That’s how I connected to him and his book, and how I connected his work to photography, and why it became the seed of Invisible City, my book Invisible City. In Calvino’s Invisible Cities, it’s Marco Polo, this one individual trying to somehow describe the objective reality, this truth of an empire to its ruler, Kublai Khan, who I see as embodying and representing a deity-like figure: an objective being.

The Khan owns a vast empire. He is the overseer, but he also has no understanding of it. He represents objective truth because, since it is his empire, as the ruler, he represents the empire. But it was Marco Polo who went and experienced all these different moments, all these different places within the empire. And it was only Marco Polo who, because of his subjectivity and through his subjectivity, that he could bring an understanding of the world to the Emperor isolated within the confines of his royal palace.

NC: It’s funny also because in the book, the only way that Kublai Khan, the emperor, can begin to experience his empire is by Marco Polo using chess pieces as signs, and using a particular configuration of chess pieces on the board. For the emperor, these configurations of the chess pieces were more revealing to him about the nature of his empire than facts.

KS: Right, it goes to the whole discussion of images versus words, and the impact of images as opposed to facts—of the use of representations as a more tangible, visceral, a more real entry to understanding. My favorite quote from Henri Cartier-Bresson, who people tend to dismiss these days because they think he’s so old fashioned… He says that facts don’t offer us anything. “Facts are not interesting. Facts are not interesting. It’s a point of view on facts which is important.” Facts are of little significance. The important thing is how those facts are arranged and what meaning we derive from those facts.

Photography picks up the surface of things, it picks up facts. But the thing that’s most fascinating is the individual—whether it’s the person reading a found picture, or in the person creating the picture, it’s the struggle of a single individual trying to organize information into packets of significance. Images are signs that point you in a direction, just as the chess pieces were signs that pointed Kublai Khan in the direction of his invisible cities.

In the end, while I might present an image to represent something that is of significance to me, you’re the one who’s ultimately going to say what it signifies for you. Gilles Peress talks about how half of the creation of the image is made by the viewer looking at the image and saying what it means and why it’s significant. That has a lot of resonance for me.