"If something looks wrong there is probably something wrong."
River Valley—from Transfigurations (32”x40” Gelatin Silver Print)
Bucky Miller in Conversation with Photographer Michael Lundgren
In Michael Lundgren’s kitchen there is something called the cabinet of death. It houses mostly artifacts that the photographer collects in the deserts of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, but among the expected seed pods, mammal skulls, and dried-out lizards are some dusty, mysterious bits of technological evidence. The most memorable of these is a half-melted and charred orange pill bottle that has fused to the digital camera memory card it contained, creating a reliquary for something unknowable but entirely relatable.
The cabinet is a reasonable parallel to Lundgren’s picture-making. His first book, Transfigurations (Radius, 2008) was akin to a Sonoran landscape survey performed by a magical realist. The work he’s made since, which he calls Matter, is a bit different. The landscape has remained the same, but Mike’s relationship to it has evolved. A selection of those pictures are on view at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco as part of the exhibition Where There’s Smoke from July 10—August 23. On a recent and unexpected drive through the Arizona desert Mike and I started talking about the shift in his picture making and I started recording.
Untitled—from Transfigurations (20” x 24” Gelatin Silver Print)
I. LOOK AT IT
THE BELIEVER: Your first book really was entrenched in the history of landscape photography, and I think the new work is less tied to the generation of photographers who influenced you. It deals with landscape in a way we aren’t used to seeing.
MICHAEL LUNDGREN: Exactly. The older work, I’ve been noticing more and more now looking at it, was really my way of digesting history, tracing the path of history in terms of photography in general, and specifically landscape photography. It charts the path of my understanding of my predecessors. It’s much less mine, even though I had thought it was mine at the time.
The new work has much less precedent, and the precedent is not in landscape photography. Even though it’s connected to the landscape, the precedent is in work that’s maybe only become possible because of the pictures generation.
BLVR: Like what?
ML: The idea that photographs come from other places. The idea that a valid art photograph does not just come from the solo artist with a vision, but that one can glean things from contemporary culture, from the vernacular, from advertising. That generation changed the way we see pictures. Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel are probably the largest, most obvious influence.
ML: Yeah. They are the biggest influence in the known world. In the unknown world, which is where the best work is, other artists are important.
BLVR: I don’t know of many landscape photographers who are thinking that way and it makes me wonder if you should even be considered a landscape photographer. Actually it seems like a silly distinction to have to make.
ML: It always has been. When you pull out a box of prints in front of somebody, and this is even in front of highly educated curators, the first thing they ask you is, “What’s your work about?” Curators, writers, critics: “What’s your work about?” And what I want to say is, “Why don’t you look at it.” But instead I have to say something that encapsulates what I’m after. And so I position myself in the tradition of landscape photography, generally. It is the easier thing to do, even though it’s more than that.
I think one of photography’s difficulties in being considered on equal footing with other mediums is that there are these types associated with it, and the types are generally subject-based. So you’re this kind of photographer, and you’re this kind of photographer, and that puts you in this little box. And then people see photography as a set of boxes. We have to work pretty hard to break down those stereotypes.
BLVR: The show at Fraenkel seems to be a step away from the stereotypes.
ML: It’s definitely a step away. I haven’t seen all the work yet, but it seems to be a step away from the place where photography has been held for a while now—you have to be radical. They call it Where There’s Smoke and I’m honored to be a part of it. The implication is that if something looks wrong there probably is something wrong. It really gets at the central idea about photography for me, which is this assumption that what you’re looking at is real when it’s never real.
It seems like a step backwards that we actually have to mount a show where that’s the premise, but maybe that’s what is necessary. And that’s not a critique of Darius Himes who curated it. He’s seeing people who embrace this kind of picture making and he shows that this is the way that photography functions at its best. We need to embrace that. He’s talking about exactly the way that photography works.
Untitled—from Transfigurations. (32” x 40” Gelatin Silver Print)
II. DENOTATION AND CONNOTATION
BLVR: I feel there’s a common misunderstanding of the artist’s role in society in 2014; that the artist is not only responsible for making the artwork but they’re also supposed to be a scientist, or a historian, or an activist.
ML: And that’s the notion that art has to be tied directly into the social, and it needs to be understood and described, as connected to the social, in the most immediate way. Why? When did that happen? [Dave] Hickey would say it’s when institutions started giving out stupid money.
It brings us back to what we’re trying to do photographically and why it might not be accessible to people. Essentially we’re embedding within the picture more or less scrutable metaphors, and people don’t want to dig for that kind of thing even though it’s quite simple. I mean, how do you read a photograph?
BLVR: Are you asking me that? How do I read a photograph?
BLVR: Look at it. Think about it, think about what’s there, what it’s doing, how it feels.
ML: Exactly. It’s not complicated. It’s not any different than the way someone would look at architecture and think about what architecture signifies, what choices in architecture signify in terms of the larger culture. It’s a similar process. Christian Widmer always described it as this really basic two-step. One: What is the picture of? Two: What does it feel, look like? How does the looking, feeling like relate to what the picture’s of? He uses the words denotation and connotation. It’s so simple. I think it’s way easier than understanding a poem because things are given to you in such lucid ways.
Maybe part of our problem is that we’ve been making photographs for people who understand the history of photography to some degree, and that’s something that may be absent from a lot of the art world.
BLVR: I don’t know that an understanding of the history of photography should be a mandatory requirement. Photography is so ubiquitous, we should hope to relate to anyone through pictures.
ML: But it’s also to a large degree mute in its ubiquity. It’s communicating under the covers. Which is why people need to be educated more about what pictures can do.
We make work for a very small group of people. Not intentionally, I just think there’s a small group of people who will get excited about it. It limits my bank account, and it limits my salability in certain places, but I continually want to make things that I don’t understand and that alone implies a certain obscurity to what’s being made.
Untitled (earth)—from Matter (32” x 40” Pigment Print)
BLVR: I think your new pictures are, in a lot of ways, your most obscure. We touched on the shift away from the traditions of landscape. The most immediately noticeable shift is a change from black and white to color.
ML: Yeah it’s about two-thirds color and one-third black and white, depending on how I’m feeling.
BLVR: It’s not the meaning of the work but I think it does change how people interact with the pictures.
ML: It’s how I got away from what I was doing. I was done with Transfigurations and wasn’t interested in making those pictures anymore so I ended up just buying a bunch of color film and charting away with a different medium. Because—switch cameras, switch films, whatever it is, whatever your medium is, and you can’t make the same kind of objects.
One thing I thought about color—and this is not a new thought—is that it’s a much more direct way of seeing the world. It’s color and the world is seen in color, which relates to my thoughts about photography and the notion that photographs are evidence.
To back away from the misty transformation of the black and white work and try to get really close to the thing, to try and represent the thing itself, I had to photograph with color and I had either to photograph at high noon or with direct flash. Instead of the direct flash photographs becoming extremely denotative they became almost cosmic, which was a surprise.
One thinks about flash and thinks about unflattering light. Here is the thing, no shadows, all the detail, no room for metaphor. That’s the sort of assumption one has. But for me I was able to push the flash photography into a space where the flash almost looked like it was coming from outer space, or like we were on a different planet.
Displace—from Matter. (32” x 40” Gelatin Silver Print)
III. PALETTE OF THE UNDERWORLD
BLVR: I think the flash has a lot to do with the severity of the new work. The transformation that occurred in the black and white work was gentle.
ML: Gentle, and unknown. Not very visible. Behind the scenes.
BLVR: And now it’s very much…
ML: Kaboom. I’m here to fuck you up! There’s this idea of the photograph being a sort of flat death. It’s a transformation that makes this three-dimensional world in time, into a timeless two-dimensional object that’s similar to a tomb or a taxidermy. And the flash, being from the eye of the camera, is perfect. It’s a supremely photographic light. It’s the only time, unless you’re camping with a headlight on, that you see the world lit from the eye of the viewer. So when you look at a photograph that I’ve made with direct flash it’s as if your eyeballs are lighting the scene.
BLVR: True. Isn’t it great that there’s also no way to ever see like that?
ML: Exactly, except in a photograph. And that’s the great thing about photography. It doesn’t deny that you could be looking at this thing. It still has this kind of window quality. Even though I don’t want it to be a window—you have to fight against the window all the time to defend photography—it still has the window. And you’re looking through and illuminating the world with your eyeballs. It’s so awesome. Especially in the desert, with the only color film we have left, it brings out the pallet of the underworld.
BLVR: But it could still be anything right out the window.
ML: Right. It’s partly the darkness. Because even though they are lit by flash, dark things are still really, really dark. This black volcanic landscape I occupy stays black even though it is extremely illuminated. Anything remotely darker turns blue.
Robert Smithson described the sun as an inescapable condition. I think using flash was a way for me to put the sun wherever I wanted it, whenever I wanted it. It’s also the light of visitation, of discovery. It’s the light of forensics. It’s what one uses to try to understand what happened somewhere.
The Algaeic Fox—from Matter (32” x 40” Pigment Print)
BLVR: Do you think when you make pictures you are trying to understand what happened somewhere?
ML: That’s part of it. It’s twofold. I’m trying to understand and I’m trying to create. I’m trying to understand the phenomena on this earth both human and natural, which is the same goddamned thing, can we accept that finally? I’m not trying to understand that by documenting, I’m trying to understand by making something that circuitously speaks to that understanding, or to that question. Because it’s not really an understanding it’s more of a probe.
The work in Matter are photographs of the earth but not the earth we know. I’m implying that one way to see something that could be intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually important to us as humans is to not see it as our own. To see it from the perspective that this is not our home, this is someplace else. One of the ideas is that this whole body of work is evidence of another planet. A planet of ruin that we’ve come across. That’s one of the visual tropes that runs through the work. I think that’s where the idea that pictures are mythological comes into play.
BLVR: I’m curious about the overlap between mythology and reality.
ML: There’s both. When there’s both, things get really interesting. Leave the photographs. When you feel two almost conflicting emotions about something, that experience is way more compelling than when you are fully convinced and that your opinion is right. When you do that something else emerges. In my daily life I spend most of my time believing all these little stories I tell myself about what I am and who I am and who other people are and what I’m doing here, who has wronged me, all this stuff, whatever it is, even if I’m just feeling sad. If I say to myself the opposite, if I describe to myself the complete opposite of the way I am thinking and feeling, these two versions sit together for a little bit in the center of my world and then something else shifts and I can’t believe either one of them. I want to make photographs like that.
If I died and that’s what I got with my picture making I would be successful for myself. I think one of the major problems in the world is that we’re all just walking around thinking we know what the truth is, and we don’t know shit. It’s pig-headed. As soon as you pose the opposite eloquently and intelligently, there’s this space for an opening. I could sit here with a right-wing republican and I could start to have my opinions changed. I’m interested in what happens on more of a personal level.
BLVR: So are you trying to change people’s opinions?
ML: I’m trying to make a space inside them where their stories can’t exist. I don’t care what happens afterwards. Do what you want with that. I want to make the space.
Untitled—from Matter (40” x 50” Pigment Print)
Bucky Miller conducted this interview.