Continuing MAN’s August Newsmaker Q&A with photographer Zoe Strauss. The introduction to the Q&A and part one are here and a juxtaposition of recent work by Mark Bradford and Strauss is here. [Larger image of picture above is here.]
MAN: Let’s talk more about the pictures you took. You shot everything digitally?
Zoe Strauss: Yes.
MAN: How many?
ZS: I took a couple thousand. I had just one camera. I used a different lens for about one minute, but I mostly like one camera and one lens. That total seems kind of false because literally, without exaggeration, I’d take 100 photos of the same place I’m standing with different variations of people moving in and out of the shot. So it’s not that many photos, it’s variations on one structure a lot of the time. When you’re shooting with a digital camera you can keep going endlessly, and who doesn’t love that?
MAN: So what do you think really worked? I see there are about 1,100 Gulf pictures in your Flickr stream, about 800 from the first trip and about 300 from the second trip. I noticed you really liked the colors of the oil booms and other industrial cleanup materials and that you liked to place them against the coastal landscapes or Gulf-scapes.
ZS: You bet, those were the most distinct components of a lot of the photos: the artificial band of color that’s now in the landscape. I think that worked best for me, maybe even more so than the oil. It’s such a foreign component in these very traditional landscape photos, so I think that worked pretty well. To be honest I always kind of generally like structured architectural photos, but in these pictures on this trip, I thought the abstract, organic photos looked best. I don’t know if they’ll be the ones that tell the story the best, but they’re the ones I felt were the strongest. [Larger image here.]
MAN: You feel like they worked better than your pictures of people?
ZS: Yes. That’s just my aesthetic preference, but that’s the feeling I had of being down there, a feeling of being both overwhelmed and confused. It’s so unbelievably beautiful that it’s also a little frightening. Those images, while they might not necessarily be the strongest to other people, they’re the ones that I think will help me order and base the other ones [in the moment and place].
MAN: I think this is a question that kind of gets at your broader artistic practice, but I’ll make it specific to the recent event: What business does an artist have at an oil spill? Why should an artist be there?
ZS: I did think about that, particularly because I flew over the site twice. I don’t if I’ll be able to articulate this right, but an artist’s job is to help make people think. This is going to be long-lasting and this is going to be a catastrophe that’s going to be there for years to come. Part of an artist’s ‘job’ is to try to make something that will be part of the dialogue. I know it’s a hard… with photography in particular, it’s very difficult for there to be a line. It’s slippery between photojournalism and fine art in terms of how people perceive photography. [Larger image here.]
MAN: Is that why you’re attracted to working in series?
ZS: Actually I think it is, it definitely is. I think part of it is coming off of the big project I worked on for 10 years. [Ed.: Strauss’ I-95 project.] “On the Beach” is very similar to the structure of what I’ve put out there before, which is allowing the editing process to be seen.
MAN: Can you think of or have you thought of art historical precedents for your Gulf work?
ZS: Absolutely. I think all the time about photography and particularly the meanings that photo is giving to culture and how photography has shifted ideas about image. I think this is more like Alan Sekula’s work. He’s done a lot of work specifically about the oceans and globalization. While of course it’s aesthetically not similar to his work, it’s more in line with his idea of including a fine art piece that talks about these issues without making it, I think, didactic. His work also includes the ability for the viewer to make what they will out of it, rather than a piece of journalism.
It’s also certainly engaging the idea of an American road trip, like Robert Frank, and certainly Ed Burtynsky’s ‘oil series.’ These are all things that have to be referenced when looking at my own work because they’re so important.
ZS: I don’t have any big plans for it yet. I wanted to make it first. I felt like it was important to go immediately and make it and then figure out venues afterward. I might show it at Bruce Silverstein, my New York gallery, and I’m probably going to do a project with another Philly guy who was also down there for a while. He’s a writer who’s interested in the same threads I am, and also in the long haul of this. [Larger image here.]
MAN: What do you want to do with the images, how do you want to present/show/publish/etc. them?
ZS: I’ve got to sort out the “art” from the “journalist” possibilities, I’m pretty sure three or four of these photos are important to show as a straightforward recording of what’s happening there. But to be honest, the scope of what’s happened is impossible to articulate, in words or photos.
MAN: One of the things that an artist has the privilege of trying to do is to make images or objects that exist in a particular time horizon or tradition. So if/when you make your book of these images or prints, they’ll almost certainly end up institutionalized, in archives, in libraries, in museum collections. Especially considering that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is launching a retrospective of your career in the not-too-distant future. Do you think about that?
ZS: I definitely think about that. We have a very interesting divide in which the idea of newsworthiness falls by the wayside rather quickly – that is people will move on from the spill to the next thing pretty quickly – but we fetishize art in a way that allows these things to remain relevant through display, inclusion in museum collections and so on. I do think about that. I don’t know that about my own work because it’s too presumptuous to think of myself in that construct, but I do think about the longevity of art collections and how they continue to move these moments to the forefront of public thought. [Larger image here.]
MAN: Will any of this work be in the PMA show or have you thought about that?
ZS: The show at the PMA! How f*cking awesome is that? Can you believe it? It is so awesome I don’t even know what I”m going to do.
I purposely tried to push that out of my mind as I made this work. I wanted to make sure there was no thought that this might be included. I felt I wanted to make this work with its own structure on the basis of how I felt compelled to talk about it. I mean, maybe it could, but it would have to be an ‘after-edit.’
MAN: Sounds like you’re having fun with the PMA show.
ZS: I will be perfectly frank with you: Right now I can’t even think about that because the amount of Xanax it would take to simmer me down is not manufactured in this world. I’m cognizant of it, but it creates so much anxiety in terms of the way I produce – which is kind of full-throttle – I don’t know if I can deal with it. That’s just the honest, real answer. I purposely don’t think about it.