5.10.2012

Interview: Blake Andrews, Part I

Blake Andrews, Emmett, 2011

This is the first of three interview posts with Eugene, Oregon-based Blake Andrews, a photographer and member of iN-PUBLiC. He runs the photography blog B and is also involved with the Portland area photography groups Lightleak and Portland Grid Project. The second part will be published next Thursday.

Blake’s early history, experiences with iN-PUBLiC, role as a photoblogger, thoughts on street photography as well as influences both contemporary and historic have been covered fairly thoroughly in interviews here, here, here, here, and here.

The following questions attempt to complement these previous interviews and you may enjoy reading one or all of them along with this one.

fototazo: I have one question for you on the blog: what kept you working on it as many others dropped theirs?

Blake Andrews: That's a good question, and well-timed too because my blog is actually now on indefinite hiatus. But during the 4+ years I kept the blog current, the main thing that kept me going was just sheer enjoyment. I like writing. I like trying ideas on for size. At a certain point the blog gained a level of inertia. It had a momentum of its own, and so I had to feed it every day. And the pouring out of ideas on one end seemed to help ideas generate on the creative end, like a siphon hose. It was there every morning staring at me like a hungry lion. Feed me.

In its last year or so the blog evolved for me into a sort of art project. I wasn't interested so much in writing expository essays as toying with the whole form. I was asking, what the heck is a blog? What is it expected to look like and why? How can it be different? So that's what generated a lot of the recent experimentation, changing headers every day and making up new profile locations and colors, and all the polls, and making the background fade like an old newspaper. I went through a long series where I gave each post a song name, and I named posts after photo books, and posted things upside down or inside out or whatever. Anything to just try something different, to keep myself entertained, to make myself laugh. When I'd write posts that made me laugh out loud that's when I knew I had something good.

Gradually I wound up creating this online persona. B is sort of a crazy cynic. I suppose there's a part of me that's like that, but in many ways it's not me at all. I'm actually a nice guy. I'm shy. But for whatever reason I carved out this territory online where I'm a weird photo-geek who'll say just about anything. And I've probably sabotaged any hope of a fine art photo career in the process. So be it. But it is troubling that people know me as a blogger rather than a photographer. People reading my blog might call for me to be committed, but the truth is I'm very committed, as a photographer.

Blake Andrews, Eugene, 2005

I guess what it comes down to is I'm not really a critic. I feel silly cranking out some educated-sounding critique about a photo project or trends or whatever. Who am I to be an authority on any of that? But what I am an authority on is my own life, and so I tried to root the blog in personal exploration. Every post had at least one subtext, and often two or three, many of which only made sense to me. It became a sort of scientific workbench, a place to dissect and recombine ideas. But in the end it was mostly for me. I often felt a disconnect with readers, like I was saying one thing and they were reading something else. The posts which really made me laugh rarely received comments.

In the past year the blog began to feel more like an obligation and less organic. If I didn't write something for a day or two, I felt like I was letting folks down. I started to track hits, page views, comments and a lot of other meaningless crap, just to try to gauge who was reading. Why did they read it? What did they want? When I found myself worrying about that stuff I knew the end was near. My post about dead photoblogs last December was a premonition, but it was unconscious. I didn't realize at the time that I was writing about myself.

A main problem since the beginning is that my blog has gotten in the way of my photography. I have many photo projects that I want to pursue and a certain amount of free time. But as long as the blog was around, it's what received my energy. Ideally there should be a way to do both, to pursue projects and keep a blog up. If I could do the blog as a little side thing and just write one post a week it would be great. Some people can do that, but I've found that style doesn't work well for me. If I'm not writing every day my posts don't have the right snap. In order to write well or perform any task really I need to get sort of obsessed. And I was obsessed with B. But it was keeping me from getting obsessed with my own photography. So on March 1st I decided to go cold turkey and put it on hold for a while. At first I just thought I'd leave it for a few weeks. I've done this before a few times when I needed to recharge and always resumed blogging. But I'm really enjoying the time off so I may extend it indefinitely. We'll see. I honestly don't know what's going to happen. It's really up in the air. I've been tinkering with it a bit lately, slowly lightening the text every few days, letting past posts fade into the blank page. I think that might be a good way to end it.

One of my projects while my blog is down is to compile B's archives into a series of Blurb books, not for sale but just to allow me to make a hardcopy of what I've done. I got freaked recently when I read that Too Much Chocolate went offline not because of a creative decision but because it'd been hacked. Someone got in and sabotaged the archives. Which really sucks, and would suck if it happened to B. right now all if it exists only online. So I'm making a hard copy which will wind up being four books of roughly 350 pages each. Booksmart can get them into rough form but they still require some tweaking, so I'm in the process of editing now. It's been fun going through old posts and seeing the gradual changes over time. Once I get the raw posts printed I want to put the best ones into one volume for iPL.

That's one project. I have several others, but I'm not really ready to discuss them.

f: During your year of experimenting with B, did you come to any conclusions on what a blog does best? Or what its limits are as a format?

BA: It wasn't just a year of experimenting. I had been experimenting a little bit ever since the blog began, but it definitely picked up in the past year. What does a blog do best? That's a tough question because I think it can be many things depending on who is writing and what the audience is. The blogs that tend to capture my interest are those which are most personal, which tell me something about the person behind the work. In that way they're somewhat like photos. I tend to respond best to photo projects where I can get a sense of the artist, of the person behind the image. Maybe the image is just an elaborate smokescreen.

I felt a bit limited just in terms of what I could do with layout, fonts, and design. My blog was like most. It was run through a pre-existing template (Blogspot in this case). There were some times when I was in the mood to just substitute a graphic for the whole page, or rework the columns, or whatever. And I couldn't. But that's not much of a complaint. It is what it is.

I think where a blog becomes interesting is when it gets interactive. A post can generate comments, and then those comments generate more, and then that material is integrated into the essence of the blog. It turns the author-audience dynamic on its head, because now everyone can be both. When I read blogs often the most interesting material is in the comments section, which tends to be more raw, spontaneous, and unfiltered than just a straight essay. Of course comments sections don't always rise to great heights. But I like their interactive spirit. I tried to incorporate some of that into my blog in the form of polls, quizzes, and deliberately provocative statements, but the reaction rarely rose above a quiet whimper. Maybe that's part of why I quit.

Blake Andrews, Near Lovejoy Fountain, Portland, 2005

f: One question on the photoblog world in general: In an article on Wired about photobloggers in 2010, you said “I'd like to see more day-to-day journaling from prominent photographers...thoughts by photogs as they work through ideas” and also "more unpublished street photography circa 1965-1985; more creative quizzes, lists, contests, and generally interactive posts."

Have any of these hoped for changes happened? Or is the photoblog world more or less where it was two years ago? 

BA: I think the blogging world has generally diminished in the past few years. Or maybe shifted is a better word. To Twitter, Facebook, relinks, and other shortform outlets. I see a big move toward Tumblr in particular which is a great outlet but it's built around relinking more than original creation. Maybe there is some sense of community there. I don't know. A few years ago there was a very strong sense of community in the blogosphere. All the photoblogs had links to their favorites in the sidebars, and we sort of kept track of who was out there, and it seemed a new one came online every few weeks. There was a feeling of excitement that something new was happening, that we were all participating in something larger, and outside the previously established channels. Now that feeling is less strong, for me at least.

I think the blog form is well established now. There's a certain preconception now of what it should be, the role it should serve, and most blogs fit themselves inside that box. Show some photos you like, link to a new show, review a book, whatever. It all blends into the same mushpile for me. I see very few contests, quizzes, interactivity, or anything bizarre or absurd or anything that makes you ask "What the fuck?…" Which is a shame because I think "What the Fuck?" is a very important question. It needs to be asked every day by every artist. Every day we need to see something or read something that we don't understand, that makes us ask WTF? Sometimes art is very good at filling that need. WTF did Ellsworth Kelly create? What planet was Joseph Beuys on? Sometimes it's in music. You listen to the Beefheart or Deerhoof or Sun Ra and it's all about that. And sometimes photography can do that. I'm reading the Mark Morrisroe monograph right now and he's very strange. Half the time I don't think he knew exactly what he was making, and that's wonderful. That's so important. Because life needs mystery. But right now I don't sense that much in the blogging world. I don't feel much uncertainty. Maybe we're in a lull before the next creative wave. Who knows.

I do think the WTF? question is best asked in a noncommercial setting. As soon as you introduce advertising there's no WTF? The question has been answered. Even if it hasn't been answered there's the suspicion that it has.

You also asked about day-to-day journaling by prominent photographers. The only recent example that comes to mind is Richard Prince's online journal. That's been fun to read. It definitely raises the WTF question. But it's just one small example. That type of journal isn't very common, probably for the same reason I've found it difficult to blog and keep up with other projects. Most prominent photographers are quite busy and don't have much time for blogging. You can't make a living at it. Paying jobs take priority.

Blake Andrews, Portland, OR, 2002

f:  The social dynamic of the photography community in comparison with other visual art forms is a very particular and highly developed one. There are very few painting or sculpture blogs in comparison with photography blogs. Photographers pay heaps of money for reviews that don't exist for other art forms which in large part are about networking. Photographers also seem to me much more active on Twitter and other social media forms than other visual artists. And I'm not aware of an equivalent to online discussion spaces like the Flak Photo Network for other art forms.

With all this in mind, I think of a quote from a recent interview with photographer Gregory Halpern: "Photographers can sometimes be the most conservative and least ambitious of visual artists."

I'm wondering if all this connectivity, all this common intake of information results to a degree in homogeneity of thought and more of a tendency for group-think than other artists in other art forms. Or - alternatively - it's the other way around, that the type of person photography attracts is also the type of person more likely to eventually weave this interconnected world of social media, reviews, and discussion spaces that photography has created.

Why is the photography community so integrated socially as compared with other mediums? And is this something that makes us more prone to being conservative in our thinking, to homogenization and to group-think?

BA: Photography invites a lot of thinking just by its nature. There are so many ways to approach it. Is it art? Evidence? Documentation? Memories? Look at Google Street View which makes thousands of new images every day. On the face of it it's the least artistic application imaginable. It's pure record-keeping, map-making. But once those photos exist someone is going to twist them into art. I don't think painting or sculpture have the same problem. The intention there is generally more obvious. In most cases, those are nonutilitarian outlets with no practical application.

Another aspect in that photography is very egalitarian. Everyone has a camera and so everyone has to come to terms on some level with what role photos play in their lives. Few people have fine art paintings in their homes but everyone has photos. So there are 7 billion ways to approach it, and no one clear path, and so photography tends to attract thinkers and theoreticians who want to sort it out. That's part of its problem. Sometimes it can become buried in hyper-conceptual rhetoric. And it is pretty widely open to interpretation. I've often wondered about photos in relation to music. You can play a song for someone and within ten or fifteen seconds they will generally know if they like it or not. There's a societal construct from early childhood which trains one in musical appreciation and taste, even if it isn't always conscious. But show that same person a photo and they will probably have a much harder time deciding. Is it good? Bad? Interesting? There's less of a societal baseline for determination, so I think that invites in all the thinkers and theoreticians.

I think the reviews you mention have tapped into some of that ambiguity. Since there's less of a baseline for judging photos, the reviews have stepped into that role. And maybe they've preyed a bit on the ambiguity. Some of it is about getting feedback but as you say there's also a lot of networking. Part of the photographer's job now is to create a niche for their work, create a storyline for it. You can't just send it off into the world as is and expect it to be understood. You have to tend its nest, and reviews help foster that.

I don't really follow other art forums so I can't compare photography easily to other forms. All I know is that there's a lot of social media centered around photography. Perhaps part of that is that photographers nowadays are generally computer-savvy. Computers are more integral to picture-making than say ceramics. So if you're hanging out in front of a screen anyway social media is a natural outlet. And of course photography is a 2D medium which translates relatively well to a flat screen. It might also be that photography is a fairly solitary activity. So maybe photographers are especially hungry for social outlets. I don't really know.

I think another part is that photography is relatively young and hasn't yet segmented in the way some other arts have. I see a huge range of topics covered in FPN, everything from documentary to portrait to landscape to general advice. It's all collected in there under "photography," when the truth is all of those interests might not have much in common. It's like having a forum with text-book writers, advertising copywriters, novelists, and poets all contributing. Or a music forum covering classical, pop, jazz, new age, etc. Is there such a forum? Not that I know of. It might work in some ways but would probably be too scattered to generate much substance. I suspect poets would get more from talking to other poets than from ad writers. It's the same with the reviews. They're open to just about every type of photography, when in reality some forms have very little in common with others. So a place like FPN is nice as a catch-all. But maybe a more targeted forum is better for nuts-and-bolts feedback.

Blake Andrews, Seaside, OR, 2005