Photographic Image and Text at the Crossroads of Imagination

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In 2013 the SRO Photo Gallery re-starts the conversation around the photographic in art by interviewing collaborating artists Nicholas Pierce, a senior creative writing major, and J. Eric Simpson, a senior studio art major, about their artwork installation currently included in Harbinger 2013: Art in Publication, an exhibition of artworks selected for publication in this year’s Harbinger, Texas Tech’s student journal of literature and art. The exhibition is on view in the Landmark Arts Studio Gallery through February 10th.

In this collaboration, Simpson’s photographic selections, which are very intentionally cropped out of vintage vernacular photographs (mostly gelatin silver prints from the 1890s through the early 20th century), are paired with Pierce’s “daily poems” which are manually typed on vintage paper.  Pierce and Simpson were given the same set of questions and asked to answer them independently, without consulting with each other.  What follows are their answers edited into a mostly univocal reply – Simpson’s responses shown in blue; Pierce’s in green. As with their artistic collaboration, Pierce and Simpson each contribute facets of the replies as published below.

Nov 12, 2012

Give us a brief overview of how the collaboration started.

Collaboration between [us] was a long time coming, at least a year ago. It might have begun over an interest in conversation and dialogue from which we wanted to create by various means. In all honesty I believe we started collaborating the day we met, throwing ideas around and such, discussing the relationship between image and text. It began as a collaborative film, using Eric’s photography and my writing. However, it wasn’t until the end of last semester after Nick’s [Land Arts of the American West] trip through the southwestern part of the country that the conversation really picked up.  We started working seriously on this project. Nick started typing out daily poems, which in their most rudimentary sense, focus on the unedited, raw, and moment driven act of expressing thoughts through words.  During this time, I began taking vintage photographs and cropping them to reveal/create new images.  It didn’t take long before [we] started to pair the two together.  It was then that we realized that we had been creating each of these components for a much larger dialogue. I suppose, in a sense, it hasn’t changed much.

Please state, in one sentence if possible, what this art praxis strives to address or achieve.

We’re exploring memory and creation. We use archaic materials—a typewriter, worn paper, old photographs, etc.—to get at new ideas, new metaphors. There’s a diarist quality to the project as well, in that I write a poem a day, edit it very little, and then date that poem. When Eric manipulates a photograph, it’s final. We won’t find another like it, at least not exactly. The same could be said of the paper I am using, for no two pages age alike. In other words, even a reproduction of our work would be an original. I am not sure that [we] have figured out what we are striving to do with these works as of yet. 

Inhale and Exhale

An initial impression is that neither the photographic elements work to “illustrate” the text, nor does the poetry serve to “describe” the photographic image.  Please comment on this observation.

The Urn

Pewter queen of a plastic garden. You:
heaven’s container, little pot of oblivion.
Not less because you are empty;
the body only a room
away from the strangers
filling the pews’ blank spaces.
                                       [Jan 15, 2013]

There would be no sense in pairing a photograph of an urn with this poem; it would be superfluous, uninteresting and un-complicating. It seems that to “illustrate” would be a basic mimetic regurgitation of what “should be” as far as text to image goes.  A sort of one to one if you will.  In other words, this thing points to that thing or this thing supports that thing.  Nick and I are not interested in this.  What we want to do is create a conversation which exists on multiple levels, multiple readings and multiple interpretations.  On the other hand, if the poem was paired with, say, a photograph of the shell of a car after an accident, things begin to get interesting. The car then too becomes a sort of urn, and the narrative is thus expanded. In order to do this we are exploring the connections and the contradictions between text and image and pairing them up so that the work becomes more dynamic in terms of viewer involvement.  Of course, with this project, we’re working with found photographs from a time period when portraits were largely popular, so finding a photograph of a car accident is unlikely. Then again, who knows what we’ll find? It could be that Eric and I come across a photograph of an airplane and think it a perfect fit for the poem. It could be that Eric crops a photograph and something new—something that we didn’t see in the photograph before—appears; is imaged. When this is done, the image and the text may not correspond on a literal level.  And that’s one of the best parts about this project—the surprise.

AT MY STEPFATHER'S LAKE HOUSE

In which ways do you feel the poems affect the way the photographs are comprehended/experienced, and visa versa?

I suppose you can look at it somewhat like a diptych: when one image, be it a photograph or a poem, is paired with another image; both components work to question the other.  Things change, metaphors are created or extended; and there can be, often are, in each poem and in each photograph multiple images. [As] said before, they are not necessarily pointing towards one another, but they are definitely aware to their relationship with one another. To some extent I would say that they hold the other accountable for what might be implied to the viewer.  In other words, the poems work to imply one thing while the photographs might work to imply another, sometimes these are the same thing, sometimes they aren’t.

Another observation is that very specific “material” choices are being made – actual vintage photographs rather than color copies or inkjet prints from scans and manually typed poems on aged paper rather than laser printouts on regular (newer) paper. Please comment on how these material selections and decisions are important or necessary to the “work’s work.”

The reason we do not use color copies or inkjet prints is because of an interest in the “unique,” the un-reproducible, the one of a kind. This interest may have stemmed from growing up with things like Walmart and digital cameras, but I can’t be certain.  What I do know is that we want to create an object that is tactile and tangible, but is not so for its own sake.  Sometimes—and I think this is when the work is at its strongest—the material becomes itself an image, contributing to the images of the poem and/or photograph. As a result, [we] are giving new life to the discarded or once lived materials and are deeply involved in what sorts of images can be created by virtue of this. 

Dec 5, 2012

To some extent, the material choices for the works could be thought of as “nostalgic”. Please comment.

I don’t find that “nostalgic” is a good word to use. Nostalgia’s often viewed in a negative light. Sixty years ago it was even considered a disease. I wouldn’t go so far as to call our work nostalgic, but that certainly is an element of it. It seems to imply that we are trying to create something that mimics an older time. This is not the case.  Eric and I are enamored with the aesthetic quality of some old photographs and old papers. But by dating each of our works, by cropping the photographs rather than trying to recreate their appearance with old or new technologies, we absolve from ever tricking our audience into believing they are looking at something not from our time. What we are trying to do is take something from another time and crop or frame the things that interest us in order to look at them through a contemporary lens. There is also an inherent irony to dating old pages. We live in the information age. Books are disappearing, quickly. By doing this I find that we are expanding the conceptual dialogue that we want to have.  So a different word would be better, but I’m not sure I know what that word is. 

One final question about this work: give me your thoughts about “images” in this work.

Through the process of creating these works it has become quite obvious that words construct or compose an “image” just as gelatin silver might.  You could look at one of Eric’s photographs, paired with a poem of mine, as a continuation of the narrative established in the text, another stanza if you will; and vice versa. Then again, maybe they don’t do this at all; maybe it’s the viewer who constructs the image.  I don’t really know; regardless, I find it interesting. Our work is in constant conversation.

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