"If something looks wrong there is probably something wrong."

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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.

—Bucky Miller

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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.

BLVR: Evidence.

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.

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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.

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Jogging and Motel Selfies

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An Interview with Photographer Michael Max Mcleod 

Last July, Mike McLeod and I took completely separate photo-centric road trips across the country. I was on my way to Minneapolis for summer camp, and he was headed to New York and back with directions to two hundred adult video arcades—not surprising for Mike. He self-publishes his photographs, which are often rooted in the darkest corners of the male psyche, under the imprint Goodbye Ranch. His zine series Casual Encounters is currently on view at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam as part of an AA Bronson-curated exhibition within an exhibition. The following interview happened in sporadic bursts of text messages over a three-week period after we ran into each other – thanks to social media – on my first night out of town.

—Bucky Miller

I. MEDIEVAL KITSCH

THE BELIEVER: Where are you right now?

MICHAEL MCLEOD: I’m at the Art Institute in Chicago. I just took candy from a Felix Gonzales-Torres sculpture. I’m Instagramming myself pretending to step on Carl Andres and touch Eva Hesses.

BLVR: Why do you keep deleting your Instagram account every few months and making a new one?

MM: I get overwhelmed and delete all of my social media accounts thinking, “That’s it, no more Internet,” but I always come back. Instagram is keeping me company while I drive across the country.

BLVR: I actually re-installed Instagram on my phone for this drive to Minneapolis. I’m glad we both had that impulse, because it let us know we were in Amarillo at the same time. When I saw you there you had just come from photographing a sex shop in an old train car. Do I have that right?

MM: It was sort of unbelievable, you and I ending up in the same Texas town on the same day right across the street from each other. It was an adult video arcade in a converted train station. I never could’ve imagined the ramshackle homemade porn shops I found in Amarillo. Pretty amazing and a little terrifying – converted barns, steel sheds. It’s that porno vernacular I’m after. Lately I’ve been calling it “medieval kitsch.”

BLVR: Medieval kitsch comes through in the photographs. There are times when it looks like you are exploring torture chambers, and the way you are photographing – blasting things with flash – seems like you are investigating crime scenes, but the pictures somehow retain some sensitivity. There’s a lot of fantasy even in the dankest, dirtiest, most hopeless scenes. You told me in Texas that you have two-hundred of these sex shops mapped out on your trip. How much variation is there among these places?

MM: Yes, torture chambers. Or psychological reprogramming labs. There’s this weird parallel with the Internet, too. These video booths are not much more than a chair, a button, a screen, and a way to feed the machine money. They’re all the same in that way, but they’re all different too. There’s definitely a standard-issue video arcade, all of which look the same. But some arcades are so outlandishly different. I get really excited about photographing those.

Legal issues surrounding the arcades differ as well. In some cities, mirrors have to be installed in each booth. In others, the booths can’t have doors; some can only have half-doors. Some have had all the glory-holes sealed over if they were outlawed. These little spaces are definitely contested as far as what a community deems acceptable.

I have mixed feelings about them. Adult video arcades are crushingly sad, the way that video and a hole in the wall has to be a social lubricant for what often goes on between men. But they’re also wonderful social pressure valves. Someone who’s conflicted between culture and desire can find freedom for a dollar.

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