by Jon Feinstein

Published on 08/31/ 2015

The past ten years have seen a growing interest in the materiality of photographs and how digital technology has changed the way they are understood and interpreted. Photography’s ability to bridge and/or function as painting, sculpture and other art forms has become increasingly apparent in the work of photo-based artists like Lucas Blalock, Sara Cwynar, Sam Falls, John Houck, Jessica Eaton, Michele Abeles, Artie Vierkant, Daniel Gordon, Kate Steciw, and countless others. Whether or not these artists actively identify their participation in a particularly new “movement” in photographic history, their work is linked – at the very least, superficially – by a whimsical, yet controlled approach to dissect and reexamine the physical and conceptual potential of the medium in an increasingly digital age.
A Physical Feeling, 2014. © Lucas Blalock

Lucas Blalock, whose work will be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography exhibition this fall, is often considered to be a leading artist in this moment, and has been at the forefront of pushing its limits. He is frequently and internationally exhibited, widely acclaimed, collected, and often copied by younger, so-called “post-digital” generations of photographers. This is particularly visible in countless submissions of emerging photography that I review each year for Humble Arts Foundation’s open calls, and various other exhibitions and competitions I regularly jury. Like his contemporaries, Blalock’s work dissects the current state of the medium, its history, and in many ways its relationship to painting and sculpture. While once photo-based artists like Kate Steciw and Sam Falls have expanded their practice to engage with painting directly, Blalock’s uniqueness lies in his utilization of digital tools. Whether used for sculptural or painterly purposes, they remain entirely rooted in photography.

Cactus Action, 2013. © Lucas Blalock
This That, 2013 ©Lucas Blalock

When Blalock graduated from Bard College in 2002, the photographic landscape was significantly different than it is today. Stephen Shore had just recently begun to embrace digital technology – mainly to preserve his fading 1970’s color negatives – and online discourse on photography was limited to a handful of blogs. Analog printing was still a technical staple of art photography programs, and much of the work coming out of Bard, Yale and SVA, including Lucas,’ was remarkably influenced by photographers like Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson and Philip Lorca di Corcia.
Early Work. © Lucas Blalock
Early Work © Lucas Blalock

One of Blalock’s early professors, Vik Muniz, who he assisted for a few years after graduating, challenged him to think more deeply about why he was photographing this way. Often staged, Blalock’s early, cinematically inspired images included somber nocturnal scenes, low-lit hotel and gas station narratives, and stills that could have been straight out of the movie American Beauty. “I was still very much thinking through cinema as a model for photography at that point,” says Blalock. "When I was at Bard, Vik Muniz asked me – at a time when I was making really narrative pictures –whose point of view were we looking through? Was the camera a character? I remember this bowling me over at the time – I just hadn’t thought about it.”

Early Work © Lucas Blalock
The Contender, 2009. © Lucas Blalock

The prominence of these traditions, combined with the recent emergence of digital technology may have sparked a reaction in Blalock and his contemporaries. In an interview with Carmen Winant for the March, 2013 issue of Frieze, Blalock described photography as being in an “insecure” moment, which he sees as having transitioned from tableaux to a “push to sort out the information in the picture, and also the information the picture itself is made of…” (Winant, Carmen. Frieze no 153. March, 2013).
Muniz’s challenge, and this generally insecure period, helped to push Blalock’s work into new territories in the years following his time at Bard. He transitioned from borrowing its cinematic tendencies to something that examines how we, as viewers, “look” at images.

“I think the work took on its current course after I read Moby Dick in 2007, which got me really interested in the 19th century, and I started to think a lot more through painting and historical photography.”

Similarly, the relationships he built as an undergraduate at Bard helped to foster a new discussion in his work and reading of contemporary photographers who would help to shape this new vision when he moved to NYC a few years after graduating.
Gone With The Wind, 2009 © Lucas Blalock
Apples and Wood, 2009 © Lucas Blalock

“I moved to NYC that summer and spent a lot of time in my friend, and fellow photographer, Barney Kulok’s apartment looking at books. He has a pretty tremendous library. Roe Etheridge’s Rockaway book and Christopher Williams’ shows at David Zwirner were also really important for me to see, as was the 2008 Courbet show at the Met. His paintings can be so weird. Young Ladies on the Bank of the Seine, for example, has these bodies that are so distorted and strange if you really look at them."

Whether or not this shift was a conscious reaction to the canon of photographers dominating grad school curriculum, the onslaught of digital technology, or the dramatic change in how images were shared online, this pivotal point – which Blalock cites as starting around 2007 when he moved to NYC – is most apparent in his first book I believe You Liar, published by his own imprint Iceberg Iceberg Iceberg.
Cydney v. 2, 2008 ©Lucas Blalock

Joshes, 2008, ©Lucas Blalock
WMTMMBM, 2011 © Lucas Blalock

This eight inch square paperback of mostly in-between gestures, deadpan observations, quiet portraits, landscapes and architectural details might seem like a soft moment of pause following his early narrative leanings. However, the early traces of his experimentations with digital technology and accident are also scattered throughout. Cydney v. 2, 2008, for example is a digital sandwiching of 5-6 negatives, shot in profile view on film, and then scanned together, resulting in an image that replicates an in-camera multiple exposure, or technical accident. Joshes, 2008 duplicates the same portrait multiple times, and was one of Blalock’s first instances of what he describes point blank as “fucking with Photoshop.”

“I had first experimented with this at Bard, but at that point I couldn’t resolve the actual reasons for it. It was with this work, starting around 2008, that it took real shape, and it started by making pictures in Photoshop that mirrored darkroom processes or are confusable for analog procedures.”

Heater, 2011 © Lucas Blalock
Building Materials, 2011 © Lucas Blalock

Blalock soon began to rapidly move into heavy experimentation with Photoshop, and a process that involves what he describes as a “twofold process of picture making.” Like his earlier work, he continued shooting all images on film with a large format view camera. However, Blalock started scanning them, sometimes placing multiple negatives in the scanner at once, using Photoshop to give them new dimension. While this might be commercially described as “post production,” for Blalock, it’s more about using these devices, like paintbrushes, as an additional layer to his artistic process.

“When I get my film back a few days later there is the possibility of continuing that picture making. The computer is applied to all of the pictures – sometimes it is ‘grooming’ and other times it is much more active.”

Untitled (Dirty Pun), 2009. ©Lucas Blalock

Going beyond his earlier multiple exposures, Blalock’s work developed into a playful exploitation of some of Photoshop’s most basic tools. Much of the work in his second book, Towards a Warm Math (Hassla Books, 2011) employ heavy use of the clone stamp, which he uses not as a method for retouching, but as a paint brush to create visual distortions, and to confuse perspective. The work – mostly banal still-lifes contorted in Photoshop – encourages the viewer to look beyond the material of what is being photographed, and toward the viewing experience itself.

The book’s opening photo Untitled, Dirty Pun, 2009 depicts a hand pulling a blanket, or possibly a sweater, off of a figure to expose traces of mysterious skin. It’s unclear whether this is someone’s midriff, or another area of his or her body as much of the fabric has been cloned out and smudged. As viewers, we’re not sure exactly where to look, but we can sense a kind of unveiling, a gesture that might serve as a larger metaphor for uncovering the world we are accustomed to seeing in pictures.
Tree on Keystone, 2012 © Lucas Blalock
Accurate Walking, 2012 © Lucas Blalock

Through a disconcerting process, this jagged, and sometimes intentionally failed-looking use of Photoshop serves as a means of exposing and undermining the presence of such tools in commercial photography. While the clone stamp and other tools are often used commercially for retouching, Blalock uses them to create transparency about the images and how they are commonly produced. For Blalock, this parallels playwright Berthold Brecht’s ideas of the “Alienation Effect.” In many of his plays, Brecht used the theater to break down what he saw as distance between performers and audience members, inserted stage directions and traditionally hidden acting cues into the actual stage performances. Just as Brecht once made his stage directions transparent to his audience, Blalock now uses intentionally faulty editing techniques to expose photography’s digital process to his viewers.

“I felt like something similar was available in photography. Photography was also a naturalized presentation made in part by an invisible machinery, or at least a machinery that we had tacitly agreed not to see”

This idea took off in his 2013 book Windows, Mirrors, Tabletops, published by Morel. The title of the book was a riff on John Szarkowski’s 1978 Mirrors and Windows exhibition at MOMA, and the neon that read “Windows, Mirrors, Tabletops” from a glass store Lucas frequently drove by when he was living in Los Angeles.
Still Life With Puppies, 2012 © Lucas Blalock

“I smiled the first time I noticed it, but over time I started to try and think this new term through photography and Szarkowski’s language. I thought about the computer’s desktop, Photoshop layers, and the still life table but it never really set down to any kind of fixed meaning. I liked the feeling though, that it wasn’t totally presumptuous to think about a new term. At least in some ways things have changed a lot”

Windows, Mirrors, Tabletops includes imagery that is sometimes grotesque, often abstract, and, in its most sophisticated ways, subtly disconcerting to the eye. In the image Still Life with Three Puppies, 2011 Blalock photographs a dollar-store ceramic dog tchotchke on its side in front of a cheap green tarp backdrop. After scanning the negative, he shoddily morphs it into a Siamese triplet. The lighting is harsh and snapshot-like, and any attempts to “clean up” the background with the clone stamp are intentionally botched. Like Blalock’s other work, the picture is less about the dogs, the backdrop, or even the monstrous new form he has created, but instead raises the question about what it means as a fully formed picture, and how we as viewers choose, or are conditioned to look at it.
Tenting, 2011 © Lucas Blalock
Rocking Chair, 2012 © Lucas Blalock

Tenting, 2011 turns pieces of deflated balloons, newspaper and streamers into a strange, hovering, paper machete-like sculpture sitting dead center in the frame. While this new colorful beast may be the main focal point, studio objects the background of the photo clue the viewer into the photographic mechanics that are so central to his work. On one side, a rolled up studio backdrop sits in the corner of the room, while a studio reflector juts into the background on the right side of the frame. This is one of few images with a specific, literal reference to the photo studio as a part of the photographic process. They exist more as visual footnotes uncovering layers of digital and analog secrets.

IMG 116, 2012 © Lucas Blalock
The Guitar Player, 2013 © Lucas Blalock

In Rocking Chair, 2012 multiple negatives of a wicker chair are layered on top of one another, blurred, cloned and erased at random points with digital slices cut in certain areas. Perspective flattens into a two-dimensional sculpture that, despite its absolute and seemingly random chaos, feels somehow resolved. This carefully placed randomness feels like x ray goggles that Lucas has handed us as a lens for seeing the every day in a visionary new way.
img116, one of the subtlest images in Windows, Mirrors, Tabletops initially appears to be a straightforward photograph of a paint splotched highway underpass. At first glance, the image resembles a straight photograph of Rothko-inspired abstractions that often result when city officials attempt to cover up graffiti in public areas. At a closer look, it’s clear that these are actually quiet variations of Blalock’s pranks, which create both the illusion of paint on the walls, and an uncomfortable flattening of space. On the area where the overpass meets the ground, the remains of a clone stamp faintly appear, like fingerprints whispering “Lucas Wuz Here.”

Tom’s Legs, 2013 © Lucas Blalock
Hotdog Box, 2014 © Lucas Blalock

As controversy continues to arise regarding overly airbrushed models in major fashion magazines, and Instagram tools have democratized retouching for the masses, it’s interesting to consider Blalock’s work as one that challenges, exposes, and plays with these mechanics. The title of his first and most straightforward book, I Believe You, Liar might actually be an unintentional precursor to the questions raised in his more recent work. Since the publication of Windows, Mirrors, Tabletops, largely in response to the immense popularity of Instagram filters that democratized the ability to “fuck with Photoshop,” Blalock’s work has taken a more direct turn. While still pulling apart the mediums deceptive seams, it’s no longer entirely reliant on playing with photography’s digital tools to make its commentary. “Before I was using the procedural steps in commercial picture making as a skeleton to hang things on,” says Blalock, “where now I feel like I am more likely to see it as trying to get closer to the sense of the thing pictured.”

Hotdog Circle, 2014 © Lucas Blalock
The Smoker © Lucas Blalock

Blalock’s consciously crude applications show the unavoidable artifice that may exist in all photographs, and reveals them as cheap and superficial. His specific subject matter is not central to his final photographs—whether they are landscapes, portraits, a bowl of fruit, random objects purchased at a dollar store. Even his straightforwardly jarring, flash-blasted images of hot dogs hinge on the process of controlled looking. Ultimately, it pulls the viewer from a fantastical, polished world, into one that wears its flaws on its sleeve.