Interview by Timothy Ogene
In this short dialogue, Brian M. John, a recent photocommunications graduate of St. Edward’s University, reflects on photography as a fluid mode of creative expression that could be used to realize more than one narrative goal. Brian’s work explores the spaces between visual and audio impacts, a complex style he hopes to further purse at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he currently studies for an MFA in Studio Art.
Your body of work is subtly complex in ways that remind me of Paul Klee’s comment: “Everything (the world) is of a dynamic nature.” I suppose said complexity derives from pairing sound with still images, and the abstraction/experimentation of/with colors, perhaps in pursuit of the very dynamic/uncertain nature of reality. “Synesthesia VIII,” for instance, combines nature and the abstract, with a monotonous sound looped from start to finish. On one hand, the combination departs from our idea of the photographic image, hence engaging us at a non-linear level; on the other, the repeated sound, running for almost four minutes falls into a predictable pattern that is almost contrary to the dynamism embedded in the work. In the end, one simply wonders: what is the artist aiming for?
You ask what I am aiming for, but much of what I hope to achieve is reflected in your initial observations. As you said, much of my work departs, and quite deliberately, from our usual expectations of the photographic image. On one hand, I utilize the juxtaposition of different types of images (the representative in opposition to the pure abstraction) and on the other, conflicting sensory data (the sense of ‘timefulness’ in the audio recording as opposed to the static images). Both are methods by which I attempt to jolt the viewer into a more complicated relationship with these images, and images generally.
The problem, as I see it, is how to achieve this with the greatest economy of means. At times one senses the dissonance that you mention, the repetitiveness or monotony of certain elements in contrast to the dynamism or complexity of the underlying themes. This is merely the product of frugality, however, and I believe only furthers the goal of heightening the viewer’s awareness of the process of engaging with the work.
The Russian critic Viktor Schklovsky wrote in 1917 that “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” Schklovsky talks about a poetic “roughening” that distinguishes poetic language from prose, a way of slowing down the reader to heighten their awareness of the words, the poetic imagery. I attempt the same roughening in order to slow our reading of images, so that we can truly see rather than simply recognizing.
In other words, inferring from your answer, you are in pursuit of photography as double dialogue, seeing and unseeing; the image – paired with sound and other items – as a means to an end, a metaphor. When Henri Cartier-Bresson says that taking “photographs means to recognize . . . the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning,” he perhaps is equally hinting at the viewer’s responsibility to: first, see the fact (what is); and second, unsee the image in other to embrace what it may represent. But what we are describing here, as a friend would say, is “serious stuff,” far beyond the frivolization of photography on social media, not to downplay new, silly tools, but to emphasize the fact that serious photography, one that engages, or rather pursues said double dialogue, is an intellectual process. And as John Berger said, “information, do not in themselves constitute meaning.” In other words, an image – intended to evoke said double meaning – must have an essence that does the job. How do you make this happen? Has it been a deliberate process for you, or a “thing” that happens as a fallout of process?
As my work has evolved, I have noticed an oscillation between intuition and conceptualism. Generally, I begin to investigate a new way of making images very intuitively. The purely abstract images, for example: I began making those simply because I was curious what it would look like if you used a camera to take a picture of pure color. The camera became a filter through which I saw a different world. It was a very playful process. In the end, I liked the images, but there was something lacking. The prints were beautiful objects, but rarely more than that. Simultaneously, I was frustrated with my other images being read simply for “the fact itself,” as Cartier-Bresson put it. I had two problems, associated with two distinct ways of making images. This resulted in the neat solution of simply combining these different image categories, creating a third. Juxtaposition became one of my primary artistic strategies.
Unfortunately, because I am by nature more analytical than intuitive, the concept eventually took over the process, and I had to move on to other modes of image making, rather than allow the work to become mechanical. That’s when I began making more time-based and multimedia work. I actually haven’t shot a straight photograph in about a year or more. Techniques, conceptual techniques as well as mechanical ones, are all just means to an end. (This could also be said of an entire medium.) I will inevitably return to still photography soon, because I have a deep and abiding love for it, but only when I am able to do so without making images solely in order to fit a concept.
So, to answer your question, I make my best work when I am intuitively seeing and making images, but within a well-defined conceptual framework. That dual action that you refer to, of seeing and unseeing, is aided by these methods (juxtaposition, sound, time, etc.) but it can only come about if I am myself both seeing and unseeing the world.
. . . and how did your studies here , at St. Edward’s, shape – if at all – that interplay of process, concept, and intuition? On your acceptance to the Art Institute of Chicago: Congratulations. Are you overwhelmed? Are there new areas you hope to explore there? What word would you leave for art majors preparing and polishing their applications for graduate school?
My time at St. Edward’s was incredibly fruitful. I stumbled into a photography class somewhat accidentally, and that moment completely redefined school for me. Once I discovered my passion for photography as an artistic medium, I threw myself into the program wholeheartedly. It was there that I learned to talk and think about art, and my work was very much shaped by my conversations with my professors, even if we sometimes disagreed. I made some really meaningful connections there, and I think that it was the quality of the dialogue between the best professors and the most committed students that led me to want to go to graduate school in the first place. To answer your question, it was actually one of my professors that was perceptive enough to realize that I was overceptualizing and needed to take a step back. It would be hard to overestimate the influence of that time and those relationships.
With regards to graduate school, yes, I am totally overwhelmed. I’m overjoyed to be going into such an amazing program, but very conscious of the brevity of it (two years) and very concerned with how to make the most of it. I have no idea what my work is going to look like at the end of those two years, which is exciting, but also terrifying. Right now, I’m looking forward to having my own studio space so that I can construct images in a very deliberate way that I have never had the opportunity to do. I have lots of ideas, but it’s too soon to say what will bear fruit.
Here is what I would say to applicants to MFA programs: Start the process early, much earlier than you think you need to. Spend a lot of time thinking about where to apply, and then apply to a lot of places. Visiting a school is the best way to know whether or not it’s the right place for you. Keep your portfolio consistent and to the point. Don’t overreach. We all know what people respond to in our work, and what we like better than other people do: prefer the former, but don’t misrepresent yourself. Lean heavily on professors, friends and other artists to help you critique your portfolio and edit your essays. Prepare for your interviews: know what you want to say about your work, which artists you want to talk about, etc. And be prepared to talk about your interests outside of the visual arts. Very importantly, remember that rejection is the norm and that the process is highly arbitrary. Finally, think very hard about the cost vs. benefits of an MFA program.
“Despite, or perhaps because of, my intense fascination with the photographic image, I have long been unsatisfied with photography as a purely figurative medium. Representation is often overemphasized amongst photographers. Instead, I constantly find myself seeking new ways to recontextualize imagery. I want to expand outward from an image of “the thing itself” to the medium, the frame, the act of perception.
I draw upon a variety of artistic tactics in this pursuit. The juxtaposition of radically divergent types of images provides the architecture for my still photography. By intertwining the figurative and the abstract, it is made evident that even the most subject-oriented images are mediated by aesthetics and that the most abstract images are not created in a void—they are reflections of a material world. My newest, time-based work investigates how the computer, the internet and the screen itself shape our understanding of images. Finally, I am interested in how art can reveal the nature of perception, and how sensory phenomena can be brought into dialogue with photographic imagery.
This work reflects upon the relationship of images to the world and of ourselves to images. Our experience of the world is a mediated one, and I would have us challenge that, even as we revel in it.”
Image in Header by Brian M. John. Yellow/Blue. 2011. Inkjet Print. 24x32in.