Entries in photography (6)



We'll be having a very special exhibition this Friday September 19th. The show addresses environmental concerns and how they may relate to human disease. C. Matthew Luther answered some questions on his approach to this topic. 


This exhibit deals with your struggle with Crohn’s and how the disease may relate to environmental toxins. When did you become interested in these correlations and when did you start integrating them into your studio practice?

"Exclusion Zone"It is a bit hard to describe, and it is kind of like the “Perfect Storm”. Several years ago I did a body of paintings that tried to mimic dreams and hallucinations I had while in a medically induced coma and near death, but that was more specific to an event. Jokingly I generally live with a certain amount of denial of having Crohn’s, but since I was diagnosed 9 years ago there has been an underlying current of my health condition in my artwork. A little over a year ago I began investigating Superfund Sites across Wisconsin because I found that there was one not far form where I lived. I wanted to know what had happened, why, and what toxins existed there. I began documenting more and more Sites because I believe people need to know about their history, where they are located, and if they continue to remain a health risk.

It was about 6 months into the project that I came across a recent research article from Environmental Health Perspectives in which researchers had found significant changes in the DNA structure of mice when PCB toxins were introduced. Several of the Sites I have been documenting have heavy PCB contamination. I had no intention of bringing my disease into the project until I read this article. It solidified all of these ideas I had about being a walking metaphor for how American culture treats the landscape and so on. The article pointed out the links to Crohn’s Disease and the similarities to genetic mutations in the human intestinal biome. I was still unsure if I should introduce my condition as part of the project for several reasons, but the link had been created between what I was working on artistically and what I live with internally. I felt that maybe I can not only create a dialogue about environmental conservation, but also talk about a disease that is often hard for myself and others to describe how they suffer or how the disease affects them. I always think about a couple of students I have had that had either Crohn’s or Colitis. I remember look of fear in their eyes before they tried to explain why they might miss class and why, and then the lift of this giant weight from their shoulders as I told them I could relate, but I also remember their horror stories of trying to explain to other faculty and some of the insensitivity.

Part of your practice involves documenting the EPA “Superfund” Sites. What are these sites and what is it like walking onto one and witnessing it firsthand? How have you been received by government authorities who you encounter in producing your work?

The Environmental Protection Agency of the United States defines a Superfund site as an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located and possibly affecting the local ecosystem or people. These areas are further recorded as Remedial sites (long term clean up), Removal sites (short term hazardous material removal), and listed on the National Proprieties List for immediacy and time of action due to the amount of pollution. The money to clean up these location falls on the responsible party or property owner, but often these properties are abandoned or fall into ownership limbo and money is then allocated from Congress or what is know as the Superfund. Originally Superfund was the title for a trust of taxes billed to petroleum and chemical industries. The tax was dissolved in 1995, at which point the fund was 6 billion dollars.

By 2003 the original trust was exhausted and though there is resistance from the chemical and petroleum industry, there are efforts to reinstate the tax.

All of these sites are different and some worse than others. Some older, some new, and some have current clean up activity. Each site comes with set amount of hazards being on the property or near them due to the toxicity or condition of structures on the property. In general there are few locations that I have enter buildings on the property and most often I am just walking around the property experiencing it from the perimeter. Part of the project is experiencing everything from the outside and the mystery of what occurs inside. Kathy Halbur an On-Site Coordinator for Region 5, E.P.A. Superfund Sites has been an invaluable resource and a pleasure to work with. She has meet with me numerous times and helped guide and direct my project in many ways. Other government and state employees have been a little cold or non-responsive at times and there is a feeling that a wall goes up once you mention the word art.

In your work, you employ various production techniques such as pattern and the manipulation of layers, as well as digital and analogue processes. How do these processes relate conceptually to a feeling of presence and memory?

Overall it is a contemporary dialogue of culture I am addressing in regard to the evolution of digital technology and how it affects us physically and psychologically. This is a never-ending condition. What is new turns old. This is not a new theory, but what interests me is how it affects the human connection to nature, and to the landscape. Not all that long ago the Hudson Valley Painters presented a romantic view of the Catskill Mountains as many great painters presented an idealized view of the landscape that surrounded them. Now the romantic view presents itself through Instagram and other modes of the electronic globalization of images.

This presentation of images affects our vision of life that exists beyond our immediate experience. In my process of photography I use both film and digital for there unique values, one is antiquated, but as a medium will continue to be superior in quality and resolution. The other represents a superior element of storage, ease, and quick editing or manipulation. The elements of print I introduce are generally of a wallpaper pattern, an older traditional value of decoration. It is a pattern to represent home and comfort within an interior space. That pattern and structure of comfort exists along as it supports new forms of digital prints on canvas to adorn the home. All of these forms of process and production speak to elements of how and what we define as the present it in light of the digital experience of ideology and how we experience the past through an analogue vision of comfort, home, and landscape.

"Buffum MDC"How does presence and memory relate back to environmental issues through your specific experience of someone affected by an autoimmune disease?

…I remember one of my first rebellious environmental actions was pulling up survey stakes and remarking trees when I was a punk ass kid full of idealism. I wanted nothing more than that suburban plot of woods to remain as it was a thin 4 acre walk through of hardwood, and to grow it to something more, developers wanted something else…

I am not sure how to approach this question. But here’s my best shot; before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, I was an artist, and before Crohn’s, I was an environmental activist. I went through the door of a tragic event and came out diagnosed with Crohn’s and everything changed, my understand of everything changed. Literally my memory was working on altered for a time. When I look out on the landscape I can see the scares of past events like my scares and I am aware of what is occurring presently and not much changes. An entire economy sprouts up before, during, and after a Superfund Site is created. Before it is defined as a Superfund Site it’s a proposed economic strength, it’s a private industry, and it’s a Gogebic Taconite Mine in the Penokees Hills.

Visiting the Little Menomonee River and the Moss-American Site is a bit eerie. I am familiar with this area from what I have read and about a river so badly polluted that volunteers cleaning up the riverbanks received chemical burns on their legs in 1971 from industrial run off. It is a Site not far from traffic and industry, but the area is now lush with vegetation and rich with amphibian and aquatic life. I recently shot underwater video footage of crayfish, as they would surround my feet as I waded in the water. Now that area is rebuilding itself, relearning how to be nature.

You do not shy away from the more “personal” aspects of what it’s like to live with Crohn’s Disease. In fact, the exhibit contains some darkly humorous elements. Can you explain why you choose to approach these subjects in this manner?

There a story my mother told me about a time in the hospital when the doctors would pull me out the drug induced paralytic to see how I would respond. I would try real hard to communicate, but I couldn’t speak so I would try to draw. The nurse or someone in the room asked me what the international sign for the bird was, and I would lift my finger and everyone laughed. I have no memory of this at all, but the story always makes me smile, and happy that in such a difficult time my parents were able to laugh as well. This illness is something I have to live with and If couldn’t laugh at it or myself, I would be letting the disease win. Humor is hard and a challenge for me to place in art. I love to make jokes and Robin and I are always making each other crack up, but in art it’s a different story.

In general I am tying to lighten the atmosphere and poke fun at myself a little bit, while making connections in the work with the metaphors of digestion, shit and pollution. Telling jokes about shit is difficult and fairly uncomfortable, and the outcome is both funny and awkward, but it is meant to be. It is difficult to describe Crohn’s to people beyond what is portrayed through bad Pharmaceutical commercials or what’s on the Internet. It’s not like talking about the weather when describing how the inflammation that causes chronic diarrhea also causes painful arthritis, or the medication and surgeries. So this is an attempt to create that dialogue with humor, but not forgetting that environmental decay and cultural perspectives on nature art at the core of all of this conversation.

Luther filming in Menomonee River


Interview - Robin Luther

Our next show features a multi-media installation by Milwaukee artist Robin Luther. In this interview we discuss the motivations behind her work.

"Chester Pool 1" Inkjet Print, 16x22"Can you tell us about some of the themes that you have dealt with in your work over the past few years?

As an undergraduate student I was heavily influenced by documentary photographers that I studied in school and made a lot of personal work documenting different sub-cultures that I had connections to. I ended up very interested in ideas focused around family structures and gender roles within the family structure. I used a lot of humor to illustrate these ideas in tableau photographs of insects inside of my childhood dollhouse, taking on the roles of a human family.

In graduate school I continued investigated ideas of family in my work, but became more interested in using my family history and images from my family albums to illustrate larger ideas of memory associated with vernacular images - snapshots, postcards, home-videos, etc.

Over the past couple of years I've returned to a more documentary style of working and researching, while still utilizing narrative techniques in my work. While the photographs that I have been taking are much more straight forward landscapes and interiors/exteriors of locations, they are sequenced, paired, and categorized in a way that implies a sense of narrative and connections between images. I have also begun combining elements of sound, video, and text in my work to create more of a sense of narrative, history, and complexity. My current work investigates themes of place and politics of place, the justice system and injustice within the justice system, family and memory, and collaboration.

You have a background in photography, but you often blend video and sound elements into a larger installation. How and when did you become interested in working in this way?

As an undergrad at Columbia College Chicago I had the opportunity to intern at, and regularly visit, the Museum of Contemporary Photography. It was this venue, centered around photography, that introduced me to the idea that the medium doesn't have to be limited to only still, two-dimentional images and experiences. I got to experience some really incredible video and installation pieces at MoCP. One piece that really inspired me to want to explore video in particular was "Landscape Theory" by Roberto Bellini, which I saw at the museum in 2008.

I personally started experimenting with video in my work in 2010 as a graduate student at UWM. I began by repurposing my family's old home videos into projected installations, and later began using audio recordings in exhibitions with my photographs. The video piece in my exhibition at Greymatter Gallery, "Temporary Residents", is actually the first video piece that I will be showing in a public exhibition.

"Chester High Bleachers" Inkjet Print, 16x22"How have your travels influenced your work?

I've been lucky to have several great opportunities to travel during graduate school, and now after school as well. As a student at UWM I had the opportunity to spend several weeks traveling Peru, and making work. I have also been an artist in residence at a studio collective in Norway, where I will be returning this summer for a second residency.

My work has always been heavily influenced by place, and by my personal connections to places that are a part of my past and present. Travel has been important, and remains important, to my work because it takes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to redirect my thought process and my practice. It creates inspiration for me, but it also presents a challenge that I think is necessary to keep me from getting to comfortable and redundant in my research and practice.

Your current exhibition is about the town of Chester, IL and the maximum security prison that's located there. But conceptually it addresses so much more. Can you talk a bit about this?

Menard Correctional Center, the maximum security prison in Chester, IL, that is alluded to in my current work, is alluded to, rather than visualized, to emphasize the mental pull that the prison's existence has on the place and the sense of being in that place. This series isn't about documenting the prison and illustrating it for curious eyes. In many ways, it's about the fact that it IS so completely out of the way, out of sight, and out of mind, much like the inmates that are deposited in the prison from far away cities where their family and friends usually reside.

The title of the exhibition, "Population:", refers to the fact that the inmates of Menard Correctional Center are counted as residents of the general population of Chester, Illinois. I am particularly interested in the fact that most of the inmates have never seen or experienced this town which they are calculated as residents of, and the disconnect between their past and present, and between them and their family once they're moved to these far away, rural prisons.

What individuals in your life have had the most impact on you as an artist?

One individual that has had a great impact on me on me as an artist is Art Hand, who taught the first photography class that I took as an undergrad. It was because of his class that I decided to get a degree in photography, and ultimately decided to go to grad school and continue my research, as well as teach others. His attitude towards art and making is really refreshing. He was always motivating his students towards technical improvement while pushing them to follow research paths that they're really passionate about.

I've also been impacted by Hans Gindlesberger, who served on my graduate committee at UWM and gave me really honest, important feedback throughout my years there.

My husband, and fellow artist, C. Matthew Luther, impacts me as an artist as well. I am inspired by his work ethic as a teacher and artist, and by his passion for the themes that are present and important in his work. He's also great at giving honest feedback and critique.

"Chester Pool II" Inkjet Print, 16x22"What artists do you look to and have an influence in your work?

I'm influenced by a variety of artists and photographers. Robert Frank's series, "The Americans" is really interesting to me in a lot of ways. He received a Guggenheim fellowship to document the United States with his camera in the 1950s. The Swiss artist captured thousands of photographs along his various road trips across the United States, but did an incredibly interesting job of editing those photos down to a collection of less than 100 images that really depict the country through the eyes and narrative of Frank. I'm most interested in his ability to take truthful photographs of the world around him, but to then depict his own, personal narrative of place through his editing and sequencing of images.

Some more contemporary artists that have influenced my work include Alec Soth and Taryn Simon. Soth is well known for his photographic series, "Sleeping By The Mississippi", in which he documents landscapes, interiors and exteriors of buildings and sites, and portraits along the Mississippi River. Soth also has a really interesting series of short video pieces that he did for the New York Times, called The Continental Picture Show, in which he usually combines still photographs, video footage, sound, and text to convey a short narrative. Taryn Simon is well known for her series, "The Innocents", in which she collaborated with former inmates that were convicted of crimes that they didn't commit, and eventually released from prison as a result of re-trials using DNA evidence to prove their innocence. Simon photographs the former inmates in a location that is somehow connected to the crime that they were wrongfully convicted of. The photographs are printed at a very large scale, confronting viewers and forcing a physical and emotional connection. In small text next to the photographs is the name of the individual, the crime that they were convicted of, and the amount of years that they served.

I'm also very interested in the writing of Angela Davis, Michel Foucault, Jacques Ranciere, Lucy Lippard, Roland Barthes, and many others!


Interview: Christian Arrecis

Christian Arrecis showed at greymatter last April. We recently had a chance to talk to Christian about the many interesting things he's been up to lately.  


Exposing developing self portrait daguerotype

Tell us a little about the projects or residencies you’ve been involved in lately.

Following the end of the Spring 2012 semester teaching, I was an Artist-in- Residence at Prairie Center of the Arts (PCA) in Peoria, Illinois. Once there, I initially spent a lot of time thinking about what I really wanted to do and whether or not I would even get anything meaningful going. It was a matter really of shifting gears and rethinking what I have been doing prior to that time. Needless to say, I just showed up to work in the studio and kept trying out new ideas and eventually something quite meaningful stuck. This new body of work (photograms) is still evolving, but the response has been quite positive and am showing the work in two solo shows and have pieces here and there in a few group shows.

I also attended a workshop in Pittsburgh to learn about making Daguerreotypes. F/295, an organization dedicated to historic, alternative and adaptive photo processes hosted the symposium.

Lastly, I moved back to Chicago after living elsewhere for 13 years. Shortly after returning, I got involved in an after-school program to bring photography to underserved students. It was an experience that I hope to continue.

Exposing in Sun How have these impacted your studio practice?

The residency told me a few things. One, a lot about what I haven't been (but should've been doing) and the value of time. It has also forced me to think very differently about my work – such as materials and process. Aside from a digital lab, PCA has a pretty minimal traditional darkroom. I thought, “how can I make work that speaks to my ideas, uses photography yet I can't really use the resources they have?” Sometimes, constraints are a really good thing. In terms of time, during the course of the year, teaching is a pretty demanding and time intensive endeavor. Before too long, one realizes, it is pretty easy to have those demands take over if you are not careful. It taught me to guard my time more carefully. Of course, I met some really amazing artists and great friends as well. It was a really rewarding time for me.

Interestingly, this has also caused a significant shift in my work as well. I'm certainly a lot more loose and experimenting a lot more. I'm looking at bringing different ways, methods and media to say similar ideas. I'm looking much more at collage, use of found objects. Drawing has figured heavily into my work.

Who are some of your favorite artists right now and why?

There are so many, this is a hard question to feel comfortable in just a few sentences! One is Cassandra Jones. She is doing some really interesting things with found/appropriated photographs including time-based work. Her work references both contemporary usage and the omnipresence of photographs as well as history of the medium.

Caleb Charland is another. His work is a pretty clever mix of physics and visual phenomenon.

How has your work changed since you showed at greymatter?Poked leaf stencil

The work I showed there was quite different from what I have been doing prior and what I have since returned to. This current work (photograms) are really part of something that has been ongoing for some time. The work I exhibited at greymatter (Dissolve) is something that is still part of the background noise in my head, however...

Are there any shows or events coming up that you’d like to make us aware of?

I'll be showing more of my residency photograms as well as an expansion on that work at the Contemporary Art Center in Peoria, Illinois in a two- person show with ceramicist Dwain Naragon in June.

Christian's studio assistant


Interview: Pavel Romaniko

Our interview series continues with Pavel Romaniko from our next show, Trace.

Can you tell us a little about who and/or what influences your work? 

Influences for my work come from a number of sources including books, films, current political events, etc., I am a consistent reader and a lot of ideas come from texts. Recently, for example, Geoff Dyer been a great source for the way I think of making images and about photography in general.

Tell us a little about your background and what impact that has on your work.

My life is equally split between Russia and the United States.
I live and teach here, in the States, and regularly travel to Russia for family visits and work. My image and object making is strongly tied to my roots and the political situation in my home country. I delve into subject matter that directly relates to questions surrounding separation, navigating dual cultures, and conflicting historical narratives.

What types of processes do you use in your work and how do they relate to your conception of place?

My process of working often involves a lot of initial reading, looking through history books and photo documents. I follow a number of blogs and political commentators, compiling cut outs and images. I later use found imagery and collected information in constructing my sets. Once the sets are built, which sometimes can take anywhere from a few days to a month, I light and photograph them. Most recently I had started making video pieces. To me there is a clear distinction between the place and space. My work does not directly document and only loosely point to any specific places. In my mind, they mostly identify historic or a political spaces which are not restricted geographically or chronologically, but only by history and associating cultural frameworks.

How do you see photography in the 21st century as differing from previous times? 

I do and I don't. I think that the demands that we place on the medium have hardly changed. Ultimately, I believe that the anxiety with which the photographers have been approaching and sampling reality have not ceased, it has just increased with the emergence of digital and the corresponding proliferation of capture devices. Oscar Rejlander’s impulses and methodologies in Two Ways of Life (1857) are no different than, for example, of Andreas Gursky’s production of images. One thing that has probably changed the most is that photography has never been as accessible and democratic as it is now due to the recent and rapid changes in technology. Yet again, the methodologies and consumption models that guide the production of images are hardly any different then even a hundred years ago.

Specifically what unique conceptual concerns do you think photography deals with today?

As I mentioned above, I don’t think that the conceptual concerns around the medium have shifted since the moment of the announcement of photography. If anything, I would consider the notions of the contemporary “photographic appetite” or “photographic noise” to be a unique conceptual concern. The sheer amount and the speed at which we produce and consume images is a fascinating social phenomena. How do we negotiate the volume, what do we do with the images, what complexities does this phenomena present for the present, the future (and the past), etc.? My family album growing up was very small, containing just a few dozens of images; I cherish and remember most of them. How different will that be for the coming generations? What is the notion of a family album now; what does it constitute?

How do these issues manifest in your work?

I take certain joy in producing only a few images a month (sometimes not a single one) towards the current project. Of course, I take other photographs using my cell phone, but still, there is something very pleasurable and contemplative about being slow in production of work.

Speaking of place, if you could visit any place at any specific moment in history, when and where would you go?

Something about going back or forward in time does not sit well with me. Though, for some odd reason, I would not mind being present at the initial performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913.


Interview: Leigh Merrill

And now for another installment of our Trace interviews, next up is Leigh Merrill. Quick reminder, the opening for Trace is April 19th 5-9. 

Can you tell us a little about who and/or what influences your work?

I find influences in what surrounds me – what I see on a morning walk or run, something I read, listen to, look at - all can sometimes spark an idea and get things moving in a new direction. My work is often a response to things I see in the environment. 

Tell us a little about your background and what impact that has on your work.

I grew up in the southwest and that is where I became attuned to how we construct our environments. A perfectly manicured golf course in contract to the desert makes one aware that it is not a natural artifact of the landscape, but one that has been specifically placed. The way we control and construct our environments is a question that I think about in much of my artwork. So, from what was early on just a simple awareness of the artifice and construction of our landscape, grew a larger curiosity and influence on my artwork.

What types of processes do you use in your work and how do they relate to your conception of place?

My process involves shooting thousands of individual photographs in a city or neighborhood – like an archivist or historian might – straight on and simple and with the same lighting conditions. (I shoot on cloudy days that allow for even lighting.) Back in the studio I cull form these thousands of images to digitally piece together and create new photographs of imaginary spaces. Each photograph typically is structured around a particular building or object that fascinated me. The final photographs have anywhere between 10 to 100 bits and pieces of different photographs and digital manipulation.

There is a range of aesthetics and ideas present in all of the work in Trace, but your work functions very well together in this group exhibition. Can you explain how these very divergent approaches complement one another conceptually?

All of us are looking at the construction of place: through regional and cultural artifacts that we leave behind (Mattern’s Driven Snow); the political and personal memories that construct place (Romaniko’s Nostalgia) or through the distillation and rearranging of objects in our environment (my Streets project). Although we use different methods of approaching an understanding of place, these methods look at the residue of how we have shaped our environments. These different approaches offer unique entry points into understanding and interpreting a place. The individual photographs suggest a nuanced way to consider the complexity of understanding and remembering.

How do you see photography in the 21st century as differing from previous times?

The shift to digital has allowed an even greater abundance of photographs. The immediacy and proliferation of images online and via every electronic device we own is overwhelming. I think it forces someone who uses photography for his or her artwork to be more deliberate with the way the use the medium. 

Specifically what unique conceptual concerns do you think photography deals with today?

I am interested in the persistence of the veracity of the photography – its unique ability as a medium to produce an image that looks so much like reality we can accept it as truth all the while knowing that with or without manipulation that image is a particular and subjective view point.

How do these issues manifest in your work?

I seamlessly stitch together hundreds of images to construct a final photograph. Without the veracity associated with photography the power of the image would be lost. It is our willingness to imagine that the places I create could or might exist that is crucial and why I use photography for my artwork.

Speaking of place, if you could visit any place at any specific moment in history, when and where would you go?

There are so many parts of our history that are intriguing. I’d just hope my time machine had a built in shuffle or random button.