Interview with Josh Brand
By Sara Knelman
While visiting Toronto recently, I had a chance to chat with Grange Prize-nominated photographer Josh Brand, in residence for the week at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Along with Leslie Hewitt, Brand is one of two American photographers up for this year’s $50,000 prize (they will vie with two Canadians, Kristan Horton and Moyra Davey).
As of 8 October, two simultaneous exhibitions of all the artists’ work are up at both the AGO in Toronto and the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College in Chicago. Voting is open until the end of October, and the winner will be determined entirely through public voting, either on-site at the exhibitions, or online.
In addition to The Grange Prize exhibitions, Brand’s work is currently on view in New York at Laurel Gitlen in the show I Live My Thoughts with Bianca Beck and folk art objects collectively attributed to Anonymous Americans. His photograph Night Picture (Future) (pictured below) will be on view at London’s Frieze Art Fair, 14-17 October, with Herald St gallery. Brand will also be represented by Herald St in a two-person presentation with Pablo Bronstein at Art Basel Miami in December. His band, Hurray, is at work on their fourth LP.
For more information about The Grange Prize, and to cast a vote, please visit The Grange Prize website.
This interview was conducted on 11 August, 2010.
Sara Knelman: A lot of the discussion around your work focuses on the fact that it’s analogue and not digital. Is the element of chance and experimentation a part of your process?
Josh Brand: Yeah, that’s a core element in why I’m interested in photography, to have that access to chance, and this material process where you’re not seeing everything that you’re making. In general, I’m interested in the condition of not knowing in relation to your experience of the world, so I think this is a way to access that experience. Or maybe I’m just not interested in having an idea and making something. Doing something where you know the outcome is not that interesting to me.
Also the way it works as a metaphor for experience – seeing things in the world and translating them, changing them via your perception. I think that the process of photography in general, even in the broadest way, is very similar to that, trying to record your experiences and then they change as you record them. I think the way I make things is an extreme version of that process. But then even the darkroom is like Plato’s cave, a metaphoric space for consciousness.
Do you experiment at all with digital technologies?
I have a digital camera I use for vacation photographs. I think the lack of limitations, or being able to see what you’re doing the whole time [is unappealing to me] – also I don’t really have the technical knowledge of how to do things on the computer. But it’s more that the physical process of photography has always been one of the main attractions for me. Wanting to have an experience where you’re not in control of things, and there’s that possibility for change, and surprise is really important to me as a way to get pleasure out of it. I don’t think I would have a good time in the same way if I could put everything exactly where I wanted.
I’m still making choices and I’m still attracted to certain habits of composition, or ways of looking at things, that have a certain degree of consistency. The process of figuring out what I think of a picture can take a long time. There’s always the potential that it will get reused, of using a print as a negative, or finding a place it can fit, or a relationship with another picture that I think is interesting.
Do you always make photographs without a camera?
No, I take a lot of pictures. Maybe half negatives and half things made with objects and paper in the darkroom. A lot of it is looking at pictures, re-photographing photograms, making feedback loops, recycling and changing things that I’ve made. A lot of it is just walking around in the world, things at home, things in my apartment.
Are all of your works unique objects?
They pretty much all are. I think that’s based on my process, always changing the way that I print something. I’m not just making a straight translation of a negative. I’m always changing things. Even if it’s just something small, shifting the picture around on the page. I don’t like to repeat things, I don’t see the point of having more than one copy of things. But for most of the pictures, it’s just impossible to repeat them: the things that happened to make the picture can’t happen the same way more than once.
That’s an interesting statement for a photographer to make, though it seems to be a decision that a lot of photographers are making, in relation to how photographs are consumed as fine art.
It’s definitely something that, in the history of photography, you read about –decisions people have made in relation to making editions, how do you deal with how things exist in the world, how things exist as commodities in the art world, when there are so many possibilities for how a photograph can exist.
Your work has an obvious connection to abstraction, but I wonder if you think it also has a connection to documentary photography?
I guess if you think about early photography, like recording nature, putting a leaf on a sheet of paper and trying to keep that shape. I’m interested in the feeling of why people started to do it, the desire to see things in that way. It’s interesting that that was the source of photography in the beginning – that kind of basic recording of the world. I think analogue photography is the most direct way for me to feel like I’m doing something that relates to nature and the world around me, a feeling that you’re trying to touch or record something.
In relation to recording, I wonder if you can tell me how your work is connected to your interest in music and your work as a musician?
I photograph a lot of musical objects that translate more as abstract shapes or icons. So I’ve photographed a piece of a drum a lot – it’s like a symbol, it could be a lens or an eye.
When I first started to learn about experimental music or free jazz, it was like using the same tools to make something that doesn’t have the same limits. I do play music with friends a lot, I have a band; it’s called Hurray. The music started out more free, improvised, really quiet music, sounds you would hear going for a walk but made by instruments. It’s evolved to the point that we’re doing songs now.
So do you see a parallel between your experience of music and photography?
They’re both ways of recording your free time, structuring these situations, recording something that you do with your body, translating some perception in your mind through your body. But they’re also both just habits that I have.
[Josh shows me some new work he’s experimenting with]
This is a photograph of the moon with some chemical change, taken from the window of my apartment. A normal print would be solid black with a white dot.
How did you generate the sense of a landscape in this image?
I didn’t let it have the whole time in the developer, I moved it out as different sections were developing at different speeds. So that would be another thing I don’t have control over.
Are there photographers or historical periods that you find particularly inspiring? I’m thinking about Surrealism, Dadaism, but also about the American landscape tradition – particularly Minor White?
I feel like he’s someone who’s been overlooked. I like his erotic perspective on landscape. He’s someone I looked at very intensely when I first encountered his pictures, when I was 17 or 18, it had a really strong impression on me when I first encountered it. But then I have just gone a long time without seeing the pictures again –though I had pretty recently started to want to revisit them. Arp and Ernst were people I saw before I really knew much about Man Ray. Surrealism in a broad sense is something I’ve been interested in lately.
I wanted to ask you about the scale of your work. A lot of fine art photography is increasingly large-scale, while your work is more traditionally sized. Do you think about working in a larger scale?
I guess there are a lot of factors involved. My darkroom in high school was small so I could only make small prints. When I worked at labs in New York, the scale was mostly in this range, and I also feel like it’s the space that person’s head could fit into. Also thinking about the scale of photography over the whole history of photography. This for a long time was the scale that made sense for people for a long time.
Do you think about where your work will end up, how it will be seen by people?
I’ve spent a lot of time in museums, even just growing up. It’s a place I’m used to seeing art. It’s also really important for me to live with art by my friends. I love books, and I do think about seeing things that way. I think that also influenced the scale that I make things. Your first experience with art in general is in books.
What was it like to have work in the Whitney Biennial this year?
It was really different from anything else I’d done before. I think the main thing about the experience was to feel a connection with the history of American art as it takes place in New York. Even though it’s meant to represent the US as a whole, it feels like a big part of what it ends up representing is what art is like in New York at that moment, and connecting to this history that is something that I think about a lot – artists like Rauschenberg and Johns and Warhol, and just being aware of other people who have shown in that show.
Have you ever had a show in Chicago, where you completed your BFA?
I had one photograph in a group show 3 or 4 years ago. It will feel special, going back there. I like Chicago.