This is the first Atlas Discussion, a series of interviews I have started with artists that I know and respect. My hope with this Atlas Discussion series is to give artists a chance to say what they need to about their art. I have long enjoyed hearing artists speak about their work in Bomb Magazines interviews or more recently Modern Art Notes podcast, Art21 or (less formally) Beer with a Painter on Hyperallergic.
Jeri Coppola kindly consented to be the inaugural interview for the Atlas Discussion series (Though Matt Magee was my first interview for Atlas a year back). I was friends with Jeri before I saw her work. At her show, Jeri Coppola: Kairos at bkbx gallery, I was led to question methods of presenting photography. Our conversation helped me reconsidered my ideas of “perfect photographs” and source imagery as well as memory’s involvement in making and viewing a photograph.
Jeri Coppola’s work Treading Water VII, 2015 can be seen in “between a place and candy: a major survey of new works in pattern + repetition + motif” curated by Jason Andrew and organized by Norte Maar. The opening reception is Monday, March 16, 6-8pm an the show runs from March 16-June 12, 2015 at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery.
I hope that our discussion is the first of many fruitful Atlas Discussions.
Jeff Bergman: Your show triggered many questions for me. That is my absolute favorite thing that happens to me when I see art.
Before we get to process and image, tell me about your relationship with photography. Be as broad or specific as you like, but please try and think of your relationship to the medium. I ask this because I know we will be talking about memory.
Jeri Coppola: I went to undergrad at Mason Gross [School of the Arts at Rutgers University] in the early 80’s and it was quite early on in the school’s life. They didn’t have a huge amount of courses to take so you basically had to take all the courses. This ended up being very helpful and I ended up gravitating toward the photo and filmmaking courses. After a few years I went to ICP for the one-year course (General Studies) to focus on the Zone System and my printing. I did not end up taking ANY of those courses, and by the time I went to Grad School at Bard, I wanted work in a more multi-disciplinary way.
I do have a love/hate relationship with Photography. One of the things I like about it is that it is a complicated medium. On the one hand, anyone can take a great photo, and often does. The darkroom is a huge part of my work, even though I don’t print constantly, and I am not a great printer (despite having more than enough chance to become one). I am more interested in the odd things that happen when you are printing than making a perfect print(happy accidents). I also have quite a hard time with the idea of the flawless surface that a lot of photography strives for. I find it interesting that a lot of photographers take photos of rust, decaying objects, wrinkled faces…and then make the print “perfect”. We can get into the archival process and fear of death and aging later if you like. (This is all mixed up with memory and sentimentality).
Early on I realized I was interested in a narrative, even if it was unclear. I also was interested in the frame (using that word both ways) Often a single image isn’t so interesting to me, I prefer a conversation between images, or between image and installation.
I think most of my influences in Photography are not “photographers” but artists who use photography as a tool. That is more how I think of the medium myself. Although Robert Frank is a big and early influence, and I think of him as a proper photographer. And Duane Michaels. But both of them pushed the medium quite a bit. Sophie Calle was a great influence for narrative. Then the Starns blew everything wide open, but by that point I was already gone.
JB: Turning more specifically to your use of photographs as something more than a single, legible image: how did you come to use photographs as building blocks for an installation or compiled image or (towards a different end) something to mask or veil?
Maybe I should have just asked – How do you use photographs? But that seemed to open. Feel free to answer either.
JC: I do think that I am (have been for a while) interested in the materials of photography as much as I am the image. I don’t usually think of the photograph as the end product, but a part of the process. One of my big struggles it to make the work look how I want it without falling into the sentimental trap that you can fall into dealing with the subject of memory. Digital has added another wrinkle or two. Now that you can make larger digital negatives, Older alternative processes are more accessible because of digital.
JB: You delved into something I am very interested in with flaws and imperfections as well as accidental discovery. This is something I would love to hone in on and get some examples from your own experience. How has the darkroom facilitated this discovery? What does it mean to your work today?
Also a flawed object is acceptable in painting and sculpture but never in photography. What does it mean to exhibit (not flawed but) imperfect work/ photographs?
JC: First thing that I come up with when I think about flaws and imperfections is retouching. AND now photoshop. I rarely retouch, unless I find the dust distracting, or overwhelming. BUT I do crop out things that I don’t want in the image. Sometimes in the darkroom, sometimes with scissors. Photography has a lot of rules that sort of confuse me. Don’t touch the paper or the negative, if there is a dent it is ruined…all the edges have to be straight, dust shows you are an amateur…ugh.
The second thing is that photography often seems to be a search for a perfect surface. NO flaws, NO wrinkles, flat flat paper. I guess that is the least interesting part to me although I do love a beautiful classic photograph, don’t get me wrong. But I remember when I first saw early photos that were used for reproduction, Weegee, etc, and how much I loved seeing the photograph that had notes and crop marks and had bent corners from being handed around. The black and white photo paper has qualities that really interest me, they always have. I am very impatient in the darkroom, and early on I realized I could use (almost) any mistake I make to my advantage. But having said all this there is also a trap in using all these flaws and thinking that making the work look a certain way is enough. It is a fine line to walk. I have gone too far more than once and obfuscated the image. Sometimes that works for the piece, mostly it goes in the trash. Also beauty and sentimentality as a crutch is a big trap here. I am not saying I don’t love a beautiful photo, I do. But I also want a narrative. Or something a bit tougher. Which is always difficult to pull off.
One use of mistakes comes out clearly in one of my series, which is text cut out of photographs which I started because I (along with almost every photographer I know) had boxes of “seconds”. Not good enough for showing in anyway, but too good to throw away. (often the cost of photography makes you keep stuff that really should be chucked, but It is hard to throw out) I started cutting them up into letters and stringing them together. Sitting with scissors and just cutting out letters freehand. (although my last text piece was not photographs but transparent papers and I did use a stencil ) I think of the cut photographs as a sort of handwritten note. The text is written by me, but not autobiographical. It is more of a character that is sort of like me, but much more neurotic.
Back to flaws: The large water piece at bkbx almost didn’t go in because I thought I had gone to loose with it. I decided to try it anyway, and I am glad I did. I just nailed the corners down and went with where the edges landed. As far as the pattern of the water goes, that was sort of accidental too. With an earlier piece I was laying down grid of photos (which started because I wanted to make a larger image and I only had small paper…) and while I was rearranging the pieces the pattern emerged. Two separate series seemed to emerge, a sort of horizontal one (the Kairos series) and a vertical one (the Treading Water series). I have been interested in water for a long time, and it lends itself to my process for a number of reasons, not the least being it is very forgiving in a grid. Size becomes a factor here, and it is very fun to play with, although just making something larger isn’t always a good idea.
Using mistakes interests me, mostly because you have to look 2 or three steps ahead and see what you can do to “fix” the mistake. Or go with it. Or throw it out. But it then becomes more of a single image, rather than a mechanical replicant. I rarely do editions, but when I do, they are small “like” editions of 2 or 3. My repetition is usually in the image itself, not in the edition.
JB: I am intrigued by the “purity” of photographs. Not so much pure photography in how it was made and printed, but as you say a perfect sheet, a perfect enlargement, a perfect dust free negative. We allow without a second thought that visible brushstrokes, impasto and whatever other painterly shenanigans is fine (Johns using yardsticks nailed to the panel) and in sculpture, but very few artists get free of that in photography.
Since you are interested in how you can use the mistakes, and exploit the flaws and quirks of the print process, How much of that do you want to be your intervention? In other words, how much of a hand to you want in that initial darkroom flaw?
JC: The flawless surface. [This is a] huge question for me. I think that the chemistry of the darkroom and the gadgets of the camera attract a certain kind of brain. I have a little of that (I love the magic of the darkroom and I am a bit of a camera geek, but not a complete gear head…) I think photography attracts a lot of fussbudgets where dust and scratches are the enemy. Photos have at least two surfaces that have to be “perfect”, the film and the paper, and then you are often looking at it through glass. That is an awful lot of layers to go through to see an image. I am not so interested in that perfection.
So that sort of brings me to your next question. I do have control in the darkroom, and manufacturing mistakes is almost as much of a rabbit hole as trying to cover them up is. It is very easy to make a photo look old and romantic. It is one of the dangers that I try and avoid. It is always sort of a push and pull process. But one that I do enjoy. I often have to look a couple of steps ahead and see if I can “fix” what I have done in the darkroom. Sometimes I intentionally print too dark or too fast, and I do get into a zone in the darkroom… then I have to look and see what happened later, after the print is dry and might not look at all like what I expected. That is a weird step because I have to decide what the print is telling me to do. I am concentrating on traditional gelatin silver printing here and I do experiment with alternative photography a bit as well as a bit of digital. But the classic black and white print on paper always calls me back.
I also feel that the photograph is just step one for me. The next step is how to install it, and hope that the importance of the image isn’t lost in all this process. I think that is why I have simplified the image so much.
JB: Onto something we haven’t discussed at all, the initial image. When you are shooting, do you ever aim for the bad shot, the blurry shot, the out of focus shot?
In fact, lets back up and ask the question more simply. What, when and how do you shoot?
JC: In general, I shoot 35mm film, but lately I have been fooling around with digital negatives. I also like to use old cameras, and see what happens with that. I often have prints or images hanging around for a long time before I know what to do with them.
I just realized I haven’t even ventured into the world of focus and grain in the photograph! Sharp detail! everything has to be sharp! Maybe that is enough on that subject?
JB: I think I know that travel and distance play into a lot of the memory themes you work with, but I am very interested in hear how your movement to Cape Breton and back, or around NJ and NY affects your shooting style/patterns.
JC: Funny, travel plays a large part in my work, although it is definitely more about the journey than the destination. I remember when I got my first car, after being fairly protected, I was just allowed to go wherever I wanted. The first thing I did after I got my license was drive an hour from my fathers to my mothers. (I do think my father followed me, but after that…I was on my own) I still feel that same freedom now when I drive or travel. I love airports, train stations, long car trips. I feel like that is where I get most of my thinking done. In a moving landscape I can let go and let my mind wander. I love how when you are on the move, you catch stuff out of the corner of your eye and it is just out of your line of sight. Often when you go back it isn’t what you thought at all. I am more interested in the blur than the reality. Which hooks in nicely with memory and forgetting. The distortion in both sight and memory is an interesting place to wander.
Most of the time we’d sit in the kitchen and start looking at the pictures. They’d go through them, quickly at first, one after the other or one page after the other. But then it always happened: we’d get to one picture or one page and they’d stop,and it was almost as if a little bone, a tiny little bone, somewhere inside, as thin as a wishbone, just cracked, and they’d sit up and rise back and start talking, looking right through me, and then they’d be gone. Back there. Gone.
JC: Memory is at best unreliable. There are studies that prove that the more you remember something, the less true to the original it becomes. Sort of like the game of telephone, or handling something over and over again, edges wear away, fade and wrinkle. But the stories we tell ourselves are our personal histories and we hold on to them.
I have a couple of memories that I am positive are not mine but repeated stories that I heard from my parents. Photography enhances that because it is a frozen image in time, that seems definitive, but that too is constructed. I am interested in where memory and forgetting meet. The absence of memory leaves a space to (possibly) be filled with a story. Or it remains a gap. Then there is the idea of safety. What is safe to remember and what is not? Like a conversation, a memory can have many different versions and angles. Then there are fragments of memory that do not hold the entire story, but become a story in themselves.
Memory invades consciousness when you are moving through the landscape. I am lucky enough to spend time each year in Canada. I can be driving home from something at night, and start thinking about something and when I snap too I have no idea where I am even though I have been driving the same roads for 15 years or more. The trees look the same, the road looks the same, it isn’t until I see a specific house or road that I become sure I know I haven’t passed my turn. That is where I want my photographs to live.
Photography references place and time so quickly and clearly that often a snapshot can trigger a memory long forgotten, or even invent a story. There are often moments unseen out of the frame that could inform what we are seeing. But we only have the information we are given. We have now become so used to cameras being part of our daily lives and supplementing our memories on so many levels: surveillance, family photos, formal portraits, they can even exchange a fictional memory for a non-existing one. A memory is often just part of the story. This makes me question what photograph itself means to me and how I can release the image from its borders and boundaries to suggest the story beyond the frame in space, or before or after the photo is captured in time. Landscapes and seascapes allow a portal to enter into the mind. Repetition and boredom lead to inner thoughts. There is such a layered strata of remembering it takes time to sift down.
-Jeff Bergman and Jeri Coppola February and March 2015