Interview: Jonathan Blaustein

From the series "The Value of a Dollar" © Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein is an artist, writer, and educator based in Taos, New Mexico. He has exhibited his work widely in the US, and his photographs reside in several important collections, including the Library of Congress, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Jonathan writes about photography for A Photo Editor and The New York Times Lens blog, and has taught at the University of New Mexico-Taos for many years.

From the series "The Value of a Dollar" © Jonathan Blaustein

fototazo: Your body of work "The Value of a Dollar" went viral after a feature on The New York Times' Lens blog. Millions of people saw the project, a body of photographs that raises questions about food production, distribution and consumption. After having that experience, I'm wondering about the arc of your own belief in the power of photography during your career. Do you believe differently in photography's power to effect social or political change or to effect change in collective consciousness now than you did when you started your career?

Jonathan Blaustein: It was a completely unique experience, going viral, when it happened to me. I had no frame of reference. Luckily, someone I trust suggested I document the phenomenon via screen grabs. I captured the whole arc, as it was happening. There were message boards calling me a genius, and others that thought I was an idiot for buying blueberries out of season.

Dialogue was created, which was definitely a step beyond what I thought was possible, when I was playing around with these food items in my studio. In the moment, back in 2010, I felt like it was a massive achievement.

Now, four years later, I'm not so sure. We consume media in a disposable fashion, just like we consume food. It's here, we love it, and then we forget about it the next day. So I'm very reluctant to believe that these types of situations have a lasting impact on culture.

Clearly, images dominate culture in a massive way. The James Foley video, and attendant screen grabs, are proof of that. They scared millions, if not billions, of people shitless. As was their intent.

But with art, I think very, very few things actually make a difference, in the long term. Andy Warhol. Picasso. August Sander. People like that resonate decades later. I'm not expecting to have that kind of impact, unless I get exceptionally lucky.

From the series "The Value of a Dollar" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: In "The Value of a Dollar" you photograph a dollar's worth of different food products as purchased, minus the wrapper. The images contrast sharply with the glamorized advertising shots used to sell these same products. In another interview, you've talked about how the visual language of those advertising images is "a huge driver for America's obesity epidemic."

There's been a movement towards presenting models in advertising, especially women, without extreme Photoshop nips and tucks as a way to encourage a healthier understanding of our bodies and a reality-based construction of our ideals.

Do you ultimately think food industry advertising photography crosses ethical lines and should be subjected to the same types of campaigns for reform? And more broadly, what do you think about how the conversational threads around the body and advertising relate to your project and interest in the food industry? I'm thinking here of things like the power of images to coerce, the ability of the public to separate photographic truth and fiction, the possibility for photography to show truth at all even without post-production, and the right to create images, even if they potentially create negative social effects.

From the series "The Value of a Dollar" © Jonathan Blaustein

JB: I like to show the TVOAD pictures to my students at the beginning of every semester. They always want to eat the Mickey D's burger, and, to a person, they know that what they see in the media is not true. It's a given, to them. That's why it's so amazing that advertising imagery is effective, and proof that it subverts the conscious mind.

I don't know if I'd say the practice is unethical, because the advertising industry is not driven by ethics at all. It's not immoral, it's amoral. It's only about getting people to consume more than they otherwise would. And if it didn't work, it wouldn't underwrite almost all of the content we absorb every day. (Though I suppose the HBO/Netflix model of pay-for-what-you-want does have some legs.)

Of course the way fashion models are presented, much less when they're photoshopped, has a very negative effect on young girls sense of self. Women too. And you're right to compare it to the way food advertising shapes their bodies as well. One set of images seduces them to eat more, the other makes them feel like shit for not being able to meet the standard. When they feel like shit, they eat more.

I'm currently working on a new project that looks very specifically at the way advertising imagery is constructed to speak to our basest instincts. It's pretty remarkable what's being beamed into our homes these days, if you take a moment to look.

From the series "The Value of a Dollar" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: "The Value of a Dollar" and your follow-up project "MINE" in which you photograph objects encountered on land you own in New Mexico are both projects in which you've isolated and photographed the objects apart from their original context. You've chosen to photograph the objects in your studio instead of the stores where you found the items or the objects you encountered in the landscape. What does stripping context and bringing the objects into the studio give the projects?

JB: It's funny. I was talking to a photographer, Brad Wilson, in Santa Fe last week. He just photographed wild animals in the studio. He gave me the same speech I've given others, about how animals in nature have been done to death, and people always think of Nick Brandt. He wanted to try something that felt more original.

For me, when I began TVOAD, I wanted to try to make pictures that didn't look like what I'd seen before. And I had clearly seen photos of food in other contexts, though it was still relatively rare as a subject for fine art investigation. That's changed, in the last six years, as food became a hot topic in the Zeitgeist.

But the real answer is that to combat the linguistics of advertising imagery, it was really important for me to decontextualize. To be "objective," to the best of my ability. Even though most educated artists know that word is practically unusable.

I used my studio table, as it was, and the walls behind it, as they were. The clean aesthetic was an inside joke, as my studio was in fact filthy. But I wanted them to seduce as art, as a way of drawing attention to the seductive power of the types of images I was critiquing.

It was also a big part of the concept that I photograph the items as they "actually" were. The studio gave me the space to do that, almost like a laboratory.

And it was also a big part of my shooting practice. To bring them into my space, which I could control, and then play around. Make shapes. And stare very deeply at what I was photographing. That was my secret: I gave myself a headache from looking so hard.

You can't really do that in the outside world. That's for real life. The studio is for thinking and commenting. For processing reality, at least for me.

From the series "MINE" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: There's lots of stuff in a store you could have used for "The Value of a Dollar," lots on your land you could have used for "MINE" and lots in your studio that could have been part of your most recent project, "The Mindless Consumption of Animals," which attempts to commodify some of the detritus that built up during eight years in your studio space before you moved out of it. What are the criteria you use for selecting the objects for your still lives from all the options available to you?

JB: This one's easy. Instinct. In my practice, I like to combine the structure of a conceptual underpinning with the freedom to make choices in the moment. Really, the process is akin to shopping. (Which I literally did for TVOAD.)

I look, I think, I make decisions based upon ideas that pop into my head. It's thinking about symbolism, aesthetics, humor, all sorts of things. But I would be hard pressed to enjoy making art if all the decisions were dictated beforehand by an overly-rigid concept.

From the series "MINE" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: In an excellent recent interview of Mishka Henner you put together for A Photo Editor, you said, "If your work doesn't have any sort of political undertone, then you're not really saying anything."

It made me remember a contrarian quote by Henri Matisse:
What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.  
Your quote seems to leave little space for his conception of art. To make it specific to photography, your quote seems to suggest photography that stays largely on a level of pleasing harmony of form or that works with content that avoids a political tone or undertone doesn’t create any conversation of consequence. Is that a fair interpretation of your perspective? Can you explain more about your position?

JB: I'm glad to see that people are paying specific attention to what I spout off about in these interviews. As I just wrote to you via email, the interviews are highly improvisational, and I do like to make strong, declarative statements.

Since you're giving me a mulligan, I'll specify here that art can be made for any number of reasons. That's the beauty of it. Anything goes, including things that lack the aspiration to challenge a viewer in any way. I live in a town where "making art" often means standing at a painter's easel, outside, looking at a mountain, and making an impressionist version of that.

That's a practice that was innovative at the time of Matisse's compatriot, Claude Monet. But it has been sucked of almost any and all possible juice, with respect to making art I might call "good."

So I suppose what I meant was that great art, important art, brings a powerful POV to the table. It grasps for innovation and original thinking. It attempts to ask big questions about relevant issues. And it is careful not to steal too much of the soul of what's come before. (Stealing just enough is the tricky part.)

Great art need not be political, but things made just to please are rarely powerful, unless they're innovating. Or contemplating metaphysics. Matisse himself was an innovator in his use of color, form, and even in his subject matter, like the Odalisques. The Abstract Expressionists were radical at the time, though of course they referenced Mondrian, Malevich and Cezanne.

When I see an Ab-Ex-style painting made in 2014, even if it's pretty, I'm very unlikely to give a shit.

From the series "MINE" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: Another quote of yours from the Henner interview I'd like to push you on: "That’s what drives contemporary art, at its best, is the desire to figure out what the fuck is going on out there."

I don't want to suggest that it's an exclusive either/or situation, but this quote raised for me the eternal question of visual art's ability to figure out reality and state a concrete position in relation to, on the other hand, its strength for simply asking questions. What's your belief in visual art being able to speak exactly enough as a language to ask and answer the kinds of specific political, cultural and social questions that allow us to figure out what the fuck is going on?

JB: Figuring out what's going on is an inherently investigative process. That's why I specified the "desire" to figure things out. I've said many times, as have others, that it is about asking questions. No one has all the answers. But a curiosity to know more, to educate oneself through the creative process, is vital.

That's why symbolism is so powerful. Things that are too didactic, or too obvious, rarely capture someone's imagination long enough for them to ponder. Or feel confused. Or angry. Or blissed out.

But as a professional opinion giver, I do try to challenge my audience through my pseudo-journalism. I believe if more artists pushed themselves harder, there would be more great work out there.

From the series "MINE" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: Perhaps a related question. You worked on a cultural landscape project in Southern Colorado, but put it aside because you had "a hard time making the pictures what I wanted them to be." Does the studio allow you to control photography as a visual language more than work created outside the studio?

JB: Definitely. It does. But I happen to be working on a project at present that's forcing me back into my archives. I've found that five years later, there are photos from that series in Colorado that I really like. Certainly, individual images were successful.

But to give you a short answer, for once, I do find that the control of the studio environment works well for me.

Installation view © Jonathan Blaustein

f: I'm looking here at installation views of "MINE" in which you've grouped images and created an inverted triangle and other geometrical shapes with the photographs on the wall. How do you think about the installation and presentation of your images as you lay them out on a wall? Are you emphasizing ideas and themes of the photographs themselves in the layout of them in space?

JB: Absolutely. It's something I've tried to incorporate into my exhibitions, a thoughtful design. For the "MINE" solo show, I just started sketching out shapes on scratch paper.

Within a short span of time, I came up with a repeating pattern that resembled Mayan hieroglyphs. Given the primal nature of the symbols I was using, and my appreciation for ancient Meso-American architecture, I thought it was perfect.

Then, for a show in Derby, England, I did the same thing. This time, I sketched for a couple of weeks, and ended up with a cross shape, with the severed deer's head in the middle.

I'd have to give a shout out to Jesse Burke on this. When I saw his show at ClampArt a few years ago, it opened my mind to the benefit from breaking away from a single line of pictures on the wall.

Installation view © Jonathan Blaustein

f: You're also a teacher and writer as well as an image-maker. How do those roles interact and overlap for you? What do you gain and what do you give up by doing each?

JB: It all came about out of necessity, as much as anything else. As regular readers of A Photo Editor know, I call it the 21st Century Hustle. It's the only way I can make a living in a small mountain town with a barely functioning economy.

But I do believe it's to my benefit. Strengthening multiple skill sets makes you better at each. And the teaching has helped the writing, because learning how to entertain people is a big part of being a successful teacher.

With respect to what I give up, I certainly wonder what I'd accomplish with a single-minded focus. As such, I've been jimmy-rigging my life schedule to find more time and energy in general, so I can continue to make new work. That's been a real treat.

Overall, I wouldn't trade the lifestyle, though. I work with younger students, from difficult backgrounds, and there's nothing I've found that keeps me grounded like that. Giving back is good for the karma.

From the series "Mindless Consumption of Animals" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: You have said in the past you're interested in experimenting with video. Any news on that front? What do you think video might allow you to do with your work that photography does not?

JB: Yeah, I'm still in the playing around stage. I'd like to develop the writing aspect, for myself as opposed to as a journalist, and then film things I've written. We're not there yet.

But clearly, video, or cinema, when done right, offers a far more immersive experience than still photos. You have sound, which combined with moving images, can take a viewer completely out of their own existence. It's the reason that TV and movies are infinitely more popular than visual art, even if those formats are now being delivered by Netflix and Amazon, as much as your local cinemaplex.

I'll get there eventually, I hope, but I'm not there yet.

From the series "Mindless Consumption of Animals" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: Both in how you intervene in some of the objects photographed for "MINE" and in your creation of "Blaustein Mining Company" for the project, there's a spicing of your work with absurdity and humor. How do the absurd and humor serve your aims? Is this a "laugh to keep from crying" scenario?

JB: For sure. I was just using that phrase with my wife the other day, as she's a social worker in the local middle school. Taos is a very rough town, which most people don't know. Her job is much harder than mine, so I was encouraging her to laugh at the absurdity of what she deals with, rather than struggling valiantly to overturn a rigged system all by herself. I even invoked Sisyphus, which is about as clich√© a reference as you can get.

Overall, I just think that humor adds another level to art. It lives next door to the dark side of existence.   I like to bring them together. I'm not interested in beauty, by itself, or grotesquerie alone either, but when they mix up in one art project, or piece, it makes for the best stuff. A la Mike Kelley.
f: Anything else you'd like to add, Jonathan?

JB: Thanks for the opportunity to plumb the depths of my own twisted consciousness. I'm used to being the interviewer, at this point, not the interviewee. So this was very cool.

I'm working on three projects at once, for the first time ever, but I'm not ready to hype them yet. So I'll just end with my gratitude.