Reading photographs may be like reading language, but only up to a point.

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An Interview with Photographer Mike Slack

The Los Angeles-based press The Ice Plant, run by Mike Slack and Tricia Gabriel, is among small presses currently turning out photography books that are more manuscript than monograph. Aside from co-managing The Ice Plant, Slack is a photographer who up until this point has worked mostly in Polaroid, producing a series of books that ask to be read despite their lack of text.

I walked up to the Ice Plant booth at the LA Art Book Fair this April and Believer illustrations editor Jason Polan said hey and introduced me to Mike Slack. Mike Slack showed me a picture of a dome in Casa Grande. Over the next few months we emailed one another.

—Bucky Miller

I. THE PERCEPTION ENHANCER

THE BELIEVER: When I ran into you at the LA Art Book Fair you were having a conversation about some black and white laser prints that you made and were selling in unlimited editions for five dollars each. You said that you might go print more that night if something sold out. It’s a total contrast to the unique-object Polaroid prints that you’ve made in the past, but the aesthetic of the pictures has stayed relatively constant. What were the major catalysts for your shift in process?

MIKE SLACK: Those prints were made quickly and cheaply while I was doing something else—we needed a big poster for The Ice Plant’s space at the Fair and at the last minute I added a few of the pictures I’d been playing with earlier in the week. I liked the effect – distressed, dreamy, Xerox-like – cranked out a few more, cut them into a stack of smaller posters to sell at our table, then kept going back to print more as they sold. I’ve been staring at all these new digital photographs the last few months—scrutinizing the pictures in super-hi-res full color on a bright backlit screen, correcting, adjusting, controlling, etc—so the lo-fi effect of those laser prints, with all their flaws & variations, was really liberating. 

The more radical shift—using a digital camera after a ten year affair with the Polaroid—began a few years ago as the 600 film was becoming obsolete and my cameras had all seen better days. Whatever I was doing in that format felt complete, more or less, and the charm of its limitations was wearing off. The routine of making pictures is not so different now—I’m attracted to similar subjects, spaces, feelings, ideas, using the camera as a kind of meditation device or perception enhancer—but turning these lifeless electronic “files” into alluring physical objects is a different process with its own pattern of trial, error, experimentation.

BLVR: I like the terms you give the camera, especially “perception enhancer.” It might just be me, and what I’ve been looking at lately, but I see a similarity in your photographs to a lot of the art that gets put under the umbrella of West Coast minimalism. There’s also a cool sense of humor to your pictures that feels relatively Californian. You’re based in Los Angeles—do you think the place has influenced the way you work?

MS: Definitely, living in Los Angeles, and also working and driving around the southwest. When I first started living here in the early 90s, all of this new geography activated some ideas and abstractions, about ambience and background noise especially. That gave me something to sink into visually and think about, a concrete space to inhabit and investigate—which gradually became a compulsion to make pictures.

The natural light here is hard to ignore. I’m not sure I would’ve made the same type of photographs elsewhere, or developed the same sense of composition and color, though a lot of that “style” was a factor of the limitations of the Polaroid film and cameras I’d adopted. There’s a crazy vastness to both the alien landscapes of the desert and the human sprawl of Southern California and Arizona, all the ambiguous zones and peripheries of urban and suburban development, that I find endlessly alluring and mysterious, and often, at street level, absurd. I really can’t explain the humor or why it feels Californian, but I think the “minimalism” actually originates from playing the drums when I was younger: the only instrument I can play is a drum kit, which is all about rhythm, repetition, geometry, math.

II. HIGHLIGHTING A PASSAGE OF THE WORLD

BLVR: Your photographs seem to work in a specific zone, and it’s one that you champion with a lot of the work published by the Ice Plant. I’m thinking of Ed Panar’s pictures, Ron Jude’s, Jason Fulford’s. It’s the type of photography that doesn’t allow an easy answer to the question, “What do you photograph?”

The picture logic and the play between images becomes more important than in the average monograph, and it requires a little more commitment from the viewer. It feels more literary. You even published Fulford’s guide on how to read his own book, and that’s just it: these books ask to be read, not just looked at. Where does that interest come from?

MS: I don’t know where this interest originated exactly. I’ve had an attachment to books & words for as long as I can remember. You hold a book in your hands and you want to read it, right? I suppose the way I make pictures is similar to how I read text on a page: following a path, a flow of sentences, a train of thought, and underlining phrases, words or passages that resonate subjectively in some way. Composing a photograph is like highlighting a passage of the world that holds my attention, or like taking notes in a journal or a detective’s notebook, or making a short field recording of some ambient noise. (Whenever somebody asks me “what do you photograph,” two words come to mind: “things” and “nature.”) Over time the picture-types start to repeat and accumulate into a kind of language, and can function as a kind of text.

We have this lemon tree in our yard in LA, and in the springtime I watch the bees maneuvering from flower to flower, completely in their zone, burrowing in for the nectar, seemingly unaware of anything else. Making pictures can be like that—a biological impulse, a state of heightened attention, with the camera as a proboscis/prosthesis, extracting all these pictures and letting them cross-pollinate over time. I don’t really intellectualize this until later. Not that it shouldn’t be intellectualized, but much of the content of the pictures is chosen and composed almost unconsciously, without intention, and later communicated to a viewer wordlessly. It’s more about the sensation of having thoughts than the specific ideas contained in or attached to the pictures. The structure of a book provides a few clues or suggestions, and a viewer (consciously or not) decodes a syntax, a potential encoded message in, or between, the photographs. Is this like language? A pamphlet about Marcus Schaden’s ambitious new PhotoBookMuseum project describes photobook as “a type of visual Esperanto.” I don’t know if that’s exactly right, but there’s something to it.  Reading photographs may be like reading language, but only up to a point. I would say that cameras, as ubiquitous as they are now, still feel like a futuristic technology, but the impulse to use them is very primitive and ancient—people have been depicting their surroundings for a very long time. Didn’t most alphabets evolve out of simple pictures drawn from everyday life? 

In any case, how masses of discrete picture-texts work their way into physical books is another process. For the photographers you mention, the book is what drives their work forward. It’s central to how they organize their pictures and work out ideas and projects. This can take on so many forms, depending on the edit & sequence. Hopefully the work grabs you on some level and keeps you coming back even if its “meaning” isn’t immediately clear or obvious—the book seduces you (design, materials, title, cover) into a thought-space that can suggest a range of ideas you can decipher or fabricate at your own pace. The “read” might feel poetic/literary, or maybe psychological, scientific, philosophical. Or maybe it’s just funny? Humor is always welcome, and is its own form of abstraction. Ed Panar’s ANIMALS THAT SAW ME: Volume One, for example, is completely charming on the surface – we have a bunch of surreptitious snapshots from the NY Art Book Fair of random people reading the book with big smiles on their faces – but it was also name-dropped a couple years ago in one of Timothy Morton’s lectures on Object Oriented Ontology and his notion of the ‘strange stranger.’ This is a perfect situation, where the same book can trigger different responses from different audiences—good for sales, but also for the ‘life’ the book takes on after its release. 

A few days after you sent this question, I found some books by Vilém Flusser, a philosopher I’d never encountered before. In the 1970s and 80s he wrote a lot about photographic images as a fundamentally new medium for generating and communicating information, distinct from — almost surpassing—texts and language. I’ve only dipped into some of his books and am not sure I totally grasp or even agree with him, but this passage jumped out at me in a section (from DOES WRITING HAVE A FUTURE?) about “Texts”: 

Literature is directed toward a receiver, from whom it demands completion. The writer weaves threads that are to be picked up by the receiver to be woven in. Only then does the text achieve a meaning. A text has as many meanings as it has readersThe greater the number of ways a text can be read, the more meaningful it is…” 

Replace literature/text with photograph and receiver with viewer and this seems to tie into what you’re saying about ‘looking at’ monographs versus ‘reading’ photobooks and responding to their poetic/literary qualities. In Flusser’s view, the text, or, say, a certain kind of photobook, is incomplete without the reader’s contribution to its message. 

BLVR: Have you found any resistance from audiences to engage with the work in the desired way, and if so, have you found ways to lead people into it?

MS: Naturally the audience is relatively small, but also enthusiastic. Each book finds its place eventually, and there are numerous blogs and publications (like Aperture’s excellent Photobook Review) getting the word out. Spaces Corners, the photobook shop and gallery based in Pittsburgh, uses some especially intriguing and speculative categories for its books—Time & Place; Puzzles; The City; Nonhumans; Journeys; Archives and Collections, etc—which are a great way to position the books, especially for a general public who might find them arcane or intimidating. (My own books might fall into several categories there, but I like that they’ve labelled them as “Science Fiction.”)

You mentioned NOTES ON FULFORDS RAISING FROGS FOR $$$that was conceived as a ‘reading supplement’ to Jason’s book, based on some lectures he’d been doing about his work, but what I love about that booklet is how quickly his ideas and suggestions drift into a space that’s almost as abstract and open as the photobook in question, revealing a bit of the book’s circuitry and origins without really explaining anything about the pictures. The reader still has to engage with the book itself to activate its content.

BLVR: How do you navigate being an artist who releases your own books while also publishing work by others? It seems to be a common trend in photo book publishing, and I really like it, but I’m curious if it ever becomes a conflict of interest.

MS: It’s not a conflict for me. The two pursuits overlap and feed off each other (or blur together into one endless time-consuming psychic process) but that doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Making my own pictures and editing them later is often abstract and solitary—it’s a long-term practice without a goal, like yoga, or karaoke—whereas working with Tricia on The Ice Plant’s books is very collaborative and concrete and communicative. I learn a lot from the publishing side of things, working through all the specs, talking through the ideas, etc. The relationships with the artists have been rewarding over time and keep me tuned into the various ways of working with my own pictures.

III. AN ODD DISRUPTION

BLVR: Part of the reason I admire The Ice Plant is that the books are relatively accessible—they tend not to be as costly as some other photography books. They also tend to incorporate a fair amount of humor. How important do you think accessibility and humor are to artwork?

MS: Humor is a good ploy—hard to say how important it is, bit it can function as a little wedge that gets tapped into your brain. You sense an error, an odd disruption in the familiar surface of things, which is attractive, it feels good to react with laughter, to be amused. That little rupture might jolt you toward another insight about the work, or the medium, or can at least keep you on the hook.I much prefer artwork that makes me laugh. All of my early reactions to Art (capital A) involved funny stuff, or cheeky ideas disguised as (or contextualized as) Art. The big Warhol retrospective in Chicago around 1990 was a huge revelation to me at the time. Later, I was fascinated with Jim Shaw’s book “Thrift Store Paintings,” which is still hilarious and strange (I remember having a conversation about that book with John Waters while I was running the cash register at Book Soup many years ago). Ed Ruscha has been consistently amusing for several decades, but also very thoughtful. Jason Fulford has a real knack for combining melancholy and comedy, often in the same image—when I first happened upon his book Sunbird, I tracked him down and emailed him the same day (which quickly led to J&L Books publishing my first book). Frankly, I see funny, weird shit everywhere I look, and it’s hard not to photograph it.

If accessibility, i.e. low cost threshold, keeps the door open a little wider, I’m all for it (though I feel like I should insert a harsh diatribe here about the perils of buying “cheap” books from that monolithic internet retailer everybody uses, the name of which I don’t even want to mention here). While we always want to be true to an artist’s work, I’m fine with making books that are accessible to an audience outside the art and photography world, maybe in part because I myself didn’t really grow up around art (or ideas about art) and stumbled my way into it through various widely available means (music, the public library, movies, etc). 

BLVR: What’s next for the Ice Plant?

MS: We just released Seth Lower’s The Sun Shone Glaringly—a deadpan riff on everyday life in Hollywood and LA that combines his photographs of nondescript set locations around town, portraits of aspiring actors squinting against the sun, and lines of text lifted (or seemingly lifted, or misquoted, or imagined by Lower) from film scripts, all of which are totally out of phase with each other and don’t add up to the heroic narrative they seem eager to tell… Later this year we’ve got a small book of fantastic snapshots of The Rolling Stones hanging out at a swimming pool in Florida in 1965 (photographer unknown—the prints were found by Lauren White at a flea market outside LA a couple years ago). And also a project called Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, an artist book based on an extensive archive of ‘conscience letters’ from the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona—these are letters visitors have, since the late 1930s, mailed to the park along with chunks of petrified wood they’ve regretted stealing and later want to return to assuage their guilt.

BLVR: As we’ve been conducting this interview you’ve emailed me some photographs, more of the black and white stuff that I saw in Los Angeles. Where do you think you are headed with them?

MS: I’m headed wherever they take me, to be honest. I’m just experimenting with how the pictures work in different contexts. Many of these will end up combined with some color images in the book I’m working on now to publish early next year. I don’t know if it’s a funny book, but it’s starting to take on what might be called an “abstract clarity” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Darin Mickey, because it sounds less pretentious than “ambiguous specificity”). The pictures don’t tell a story, in part because I believe all stories are false.

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Bucky Miller is a camera-man.