Journal of Contemporary Art
Leslie Tonkonow: How invested are you in the use of photography? Is it essential to your work?
Ellen Brooks: At a graduate review at UCLA my sculpture teacher asked me that same question (I was doing photographic installations). Using the photograph has been primary in my work. I don’t use the word “use” casually. From the first photography class I took at UCLA I questioned the authority of the photograph. In the late 1960s it was still looked on as a record of fact. I did not embrace that idea; instead, I thought of it as a material with special properties that were unique onto itself. I didn’t believe it as a fact. I recognized that it looked factual but wasn’t.
LT: Is your degree in sculpture?
EB: Photography and sculpture. I use the photograph for its look of veracity, the believability of it as a material. Early in my career, when I was working with the body and doing installation-oriented pieces, it was important that there was this tangibility that it came from something that existed in the real world, that it wasn’t solely made by hand. This use of the photograph as source continues to be an issue in the work.
LT: Since finishing school you have continued to work photographically?
EB: Yes, but I continued incorporating sculpture into the work. The Tableaus began with my making objects and arranging them into scenarios that I would then photograph.
LT: Your sculptural background is interesting to me because your photographs seem to be a dialogue about photography and painting. I really never understood the pictorial relationship between photography and sculpture until I was doing some research on Bernice Abbott who was a sculptor before she became a photographer. She talked about an objective reality in terms of the way she photographed buildings—it was all about three- dimensionality.
EB: My way of thinking about art and art-making began when I was a child. I would experiment with materials and create new systems of combining and executing ideas. It was very physical. I made sculptural arrangements for some of my first photographs. The majority of my work has been made in the studio. I was not comfortable being out in the world with a camera.
LT: Do you still feel that way?
EB: In a basic way I do, in terms of the physical dialogue—whether I look at it, walk around it, see what it’s made of, how it’s supported and how it functions in the space it occupies. I’m also interested in the relationship of sculpture and photography with the real and the lie of the real (in terms of physicality).
LT: You blow up many of your photographs to a monumental scale.
EB: When I was first in school, in the mid-to-late-1960s, I was interested in how the photograph occupies space. What is its size and scale relationship to the viewer? Why does it traditionally exist on a wall at midpoint as a band of gray? I thought there must be other ways of reading this information. In early pieces I used the floor as a place for looking. The work at this time was about the act of looking and being looked at, about voyeurism and vulnerability. This psychology has always fascinated me. I wanted to shift the scale of the photograph, to take it off the wall and see that it could be read in a different way, but remain photographic. The reading of the photograph has always been primary.
LT: Earlier you talked about using photography because of its validity in terms of reality. It occurs to me that what you have done is set up a very interesting discourse of opposites. On the one hand, you are using the camera, which evokes the documentation of reality, and then, on the other hand, you are photographing other photographs that you have manipulated by painting over them. Then you dislocate these images even more by shooting through the screen. And if you haven’t gone far enough, your subject matter is about a sort of controlled artifice.
EB: The camera allowed me to watch through a shield. This invulnerability broke down with the presentation of the photograph. The idea that it comes from the real world continues to interest me. In the past seven years of working with the screened image, it has been important that the images exist in the material world: magazines, glossy picture books and calendars. Their sources are important for me. For example, the sushi pictures came from a calendar with monthly presentations of different sushi. How rarified! Where a picture is from, its context, and how it is read and used in the world is critical for me. This can generate a body of work. The paint and the screen enable me to use many different sources from popular imagery. The work is not embedded in issues of appropriation; I have always used substitutes to talk about culture. In some of my early Tableaux I recreated existing photographs from magazines and books.
LT: Have you ever worked from photos that you shoot yourself for instance, in the series on golf courses and waterfalls?
EB: In terms of the screen work only when I did my Head Column and in preparing the 20 x 24 Polaroid Heads. I photographed people in my studio with specific ideas about genre and gender. I wanted to see if I could take a person’s photograph and strip it down to its essentials. For the other pieces I used source material. As I said before, I am not interested in walking outside with my camera—that would interfere with my seeing and thinking. Traditional photographers say that the camera helps them see how the world is pictured. I am using the glut of pictures in the culture to be reflective of the culture; how people read, adore, and desire those representations; how the photograph exists in a magazine, a calendar, on a table in a home, in an office and how somebody dreams and longs for those things pictured.
LT: Why do you paint over these found images before you rephotograph them?
EB: The screen is very dense so I originally painted to enhance or repress areas in the original where I did not want my hand revealed. I am not interested in having them look like manipulated photographs. Later I used the paint to color-coordinate entire bodies of work, like the Courses and the Falls. The color coding had to do with an artificial reality—nature as artifice.
LT: When did you start using screens and why?
EB: I had been making photographic tableaux from 1978 to 1985. When I moved to New York in 1982 I continued with these ideas; however, the presentation and palette were changing. I was stripping away some of the theatricality. People would ask “Why use substitute figures? Why not photograph real people? Why make all these parts and then photograph them?” My response was that I wanted distance. I wanted the reading to be part of the subject and the narrative to be mundane and ordinary on some level but fabricated. I asked myself, could I photograph a person in my studio and strip from him or her any personal history? Could that person be photographed so that the viewer wouldn’t project onto him or her? Having taught photography for many years it has always unnerved me when students tell presumptuous stories based on their photographs—this person feels this way, that person’s life is like this. It was total projection. I wanted to make pictures of generic types and eliminate any personal reading. I questioned the reality of what was being represented in certain types of photographs. I didn’t believe that these tales were true tales. They were surface tales because the camera is not truthful.
LT: A major part of the history of photography has been concerned with the ability to affect social consciousness and politics through images; one can see other people staving and suffering—the photo projects during the Depression, the many photographs of people with AIDS…
EB: I think some of it is valid but not all… and it’s going to come into question more and more as the public realizes the impact of computer imaging. The ease in manipulating picture events, as evidenced in historical photographs of the Civil War in which soldiers were moved around, is a precursor for adapting an event for the photographer’s own purposes.
LT: So photography is a form that naturally engenders narrative on top of itself in a way that painting or sculpture would not.
EB: If one is dealing with representation then there is always the appearance of an implied narrative.
LT: Were the portraits the first series of images using the screen?
EB: I call them Heads. I don’t see them as portraits. At the same time I was photographing still-life arrangements. These were conceived to be seen as one piece. The Still Lifes were derived from existing images and were to function as objects of the moment that would talk about the culture—for example, I used pictures of ikebana or sushi that became icons for the popularization of the exotic. This became the mode of the conversation between the Heads and the Still Lifes. They were controlled and contrived. Later these arrangements became larger and encompassed ideas of decor, the body, and the landscape.
LT: Are you conscious of the history of the photographic medium?
EB: When I was in seventh grade I gave a book report on the “Family of Man.” I think about the impact technology is having on the medium, which is very exciting. How we see the photograph as an object is going to be evaluated once again. An early concern of mine involved thinking about the viewer and his or her relationship to the image; as well as the responsibility of the photographer to what is being photographed. This is also one of my concerns with my students. How do they deal with the proliferation of images and how do they interact with their objects, both inside or outside the studio?
LT: What is your responsibility?
EB: The pictures I use are quite removed from the original moment they were taken. I am concerned about how I reconfigure these pictures and the context in which they exist. My issues are about how we read the photograph, how we dream of and desire what is pictured, how we are losing ourselves in this glut of images. We absorb the culture through pictures and then become that which is pictured.
In the Adolescent piece the viewer, the subject, and its configuration in the space were critical to its understanding. The piece was about confronting an image of the body at a particular time of transition—a change that is universal, a moment when something is about to happen. It was about looking at ourselves as sexual beings, about alienation, discomfort, becoming boy/girl/man/woman. It was a difficult piece for me to make. I’ve just completed a piece that again deals with the body, using photographs of over-life-sized figures. However, this piece is less about becoming and more about loss.
LT: When I visited your studio about a year and a half ago you were thinking about whether to remount the Adolescent piece. This was during the Serrano and Mapplethorpe censorship controversy. I am curious to know what it was that motivated you to make that piece in the mid-1970s.
EB: I started working on it in 1973 and finished it in 1976 because I decided to change it halfway through. What motivated me to make this work was a desire to investigate this period of time— preadolescence—in private and public. This is a transitional period, quick and potent. I wanted it to be an installation and to be confrontational— to actively engage the viewer with memories of vulnerability and separateness. The fact that they were one and a half times life-sized nudes added to the anxiety of the space.
As a child I was interested in the body, first my own and then images represented in the world. Daily I would look at my parents’ book American Paintings and examine the painting Persephone by Thomas Hart Benton. The ultimate horror of a woman—being leered at, being vulnerable and unsuspecting. As an adult I realize this was a fantasy for many men. As a nine-year-old it was mixed with fear and terror and sex.
LT: How many kids did you photograph?
EB: More than thirty. I ended up with seventeen photographs of children.
LT: Did you publicly exhibit the project?
EB: Many times, but never in New York. The response was positive but very controversial. When we talked a year ago, there was an opportunity to exhibit it in New York, but the timing was not right. I would like the piece to be seen in terms of when it was done and in relation to my current work. I dealt with issues of censorship with institutions and individuals in the mid-1970s. I consider these issues very serious and not something to be dismissed by the possibility of attention from the wrong places.
Another reason I hesitated was that my eleven-year-old daughter asked if I would be a news topic in the New York Times and if I would be called a pornographer.
LT: Your work has, on the surface, a lush, seductive beauty. But there seems to be a real socio-political or psychological subtext that runs throughout all you do.
EB: Social, cultural, and psychological issues have always been important in my life so it is inevitable that they would figure in the work. What dismays me is that this is not always seen. I don’t know if that’s a failure. I don’t know if overtly political work is necessarily always seen that way. I don’t think most didactic works are effective politically. I have been thinking a lot about this in relation to this new piece, which is based on figures from a book about posing. I’ve inverted the poses so that they became male and female suspended figures. In conjunction with those images are photographs of light beams that are also from source material. They will coexist as an installation.
Early on, my work was involved with ideas of the social, cultural, or political tone of a particular period. The Adolescent piece was about sexuality, gender, and the presentation of the self at a moment of being on the cusp. It was confrontational in terms of the viewer’s relationship to his or her own sexuality. The Tableaus were about gender dilemmas, representations of sexuality, expectations of sexual roles, one’s understanding of the body, the idea of the photograph being a continual recreation of what we think of as truth. These were some of my more explicit works and they weren’t necessarily read the way I wanted them to be. It has become apparent to me that most work is misread; it doesn’t matter how clear one’s intentions are.
In the work from the past six years the social/cultural context is more difficult to read, even though it is derived from the abundance of images that provide us with moments of reverie and longing for a natural world that is being manipulated. The Courses, Falls, and Tanks are about the overcultivated, groomed, and designed landscape. Though made to replicate these pastoral views, they are artificial, dead, and claustrophobic.
The new project is a return to the body, but the moment depicted is not as positive and affirming. It is about the demise of the body, about suspension, dissolving, and disappearing. The light beams are mechanized spectacle, controlled drama, artificial spirit.
LT: You grew up in Southern California in the 1950s and 1960s and I grew up at about the same time in the Northeast in front of the TV. I thought that Southern California was the only really valid place in the world because it was where everybody on TV lived, both on and off the screen. How much do you think that growing up at that time and in that place has affected your work? Has TV influenced you at all?
EB: Enormously. LA had an impact on me and still does. Nothing is stable there, it’s always changing. The people look different in Southern California. My interest in the facade and the artificial has a lot to do with what I saw growing up. Hollywood is a major force in Los Angeles and a lot of people I know reflect this. I love TV but it can’t hold my attention. I’ve always seen it as background material for both image and story. My relationships with LA and TV are ambivalent. They are both seductive. I was also a magazine junkie. I’ve always been curious about what media presents as lifestyle models.
LT: David Rubin wrote a very good essay about your work for your show at Albright College. In it he talks about the generalizing effect of the screen. It strikes me that here is a real analagy between video as a cool medium and the breaking up of the image on the TV screen and the way you break up the images in your photographs.
EB: That’s true. When I began working with screens I conceived of the phrase “the leveler of language”. The screen generalizes everything, whether it is a person in my studio, or a reproduction from a book or calendar. I can put paint behind and it’s all the same thing. It exists as a photograph, but it is neutral in terms of the source and it’s as impenetrable as TV.
LT: You talk a lot about anger and cynicism in connection with your work.
EB: I have a dark and rather cynical view of the world. The Night Pictures for me are not about beauty. They are about excess and being on the outside.
LT: They are a series of works you made based on architectural photographs of expensive, beautifully landscaped homes artificially lit at night.
EB: These were derived from magazines. I started thinking about the contrivance of the landscape, evidenced by the extravagant outdoor lighting, about lighting up the artifice. I was struck by the absent viewer. Who were the lights on for? Who sees this? Who’s out there looking? And then, from that point, I thought about the window light and how we interpret the golden glow of indoor evening light as warmth and domestic bliss. I thought that this was a fallacious projected image.
LT: It’s the illusion that all is well with the world.
EB: That’s TV and TV families. For years I pretended I grew up in that kind of family, but there were many secrets and cracks in the picture. In terms of what TV and the media serve up, we wished for that. We saw it and wished for it to be our own. I think with Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and Watergate we learned that all was not as it seemed, that lies were being told in all sectors.
LT: I don’t think too many people realize when they see your work—the waterfalls, the golf courses—that these are really morbid statements.
EB: They are about demise. The Falls are not raging, rushing waterfalls out in nature, they are about domesticated waterfalls that would be situated in an atrium, bringing nature indoors. The Table Rocks are about refining nature to a high point and then purchasing it as an object and placing it on a piece of polished furniture—from the earth’s core to an intimate place in the living room. The Courses are about the shaping of the land for recreational purposes while maintaining the notion of the pastoral. I was intrigued by the fact that golf is a predominantly upper-middle-class male sport. It is palatable nature. In the new work, which is about the demise of the body at a time when it should be experiencing life, I feel a kind of claustrophobia, non-breathing—that there is no space. It’s all compressed onto the surface. One is drawn in and there is no depth, no place to go.
LT: Does the juxtaposition of the falling bodies with photos of light beams signify hope?
EB: Somewhat, if hope is spectacle. Personally I see the light beams and the fireworks as evil, anti-nature, crowd-control devices, a general leveling, a diversion of energy—the spectacle as empty theater.
LT: Do you see that as a balance of opposites?
EB: I think so, but I’m reticent to talk about it. I know that there’s a synchronicity. Back to the issue of optimism, I guess I don’t feel very hopeful.
LT: But maybe you would like to.
EB: Sure, I’d like to but in terms of the culture as a whole I think we are in a time of medical, political, and cultural upheaval.