Vancouver native living in Brooklyn, artist Sara Cwynar makes photographs that look like a composite archive of collected visual materials. She’s attracted by the way images morph, accumulate, endure and change in meaning over time. The familiarity of kitsch truly fascinates her.
MC So how did you first make photographs?
SC I was studying literature and I was bored and interested in what images can do instead of language, so I started making ugly black and white still lifes of eggs in sun beams on hardwood floors and Canadian trees in snow and things like that.
MC So you made ugly pictures then, but your pictures are still ugly now in a way?
SC Yes! Ugly with an intentionality that was missing before. Now I am drawn to minor pictures — things that are not traditionally understood to be beautiful. I like images that fall outside of a typical idea of a highly produced “artistic” photo and the possibilities involved in re-presenting these as art.
MC So how do you achieve your goal of making things ugly?
SC I’ll use the example of my “gum display” pictures. The image begins with a stock photo of a gum display stand from the 1960s (from a catalog that store vendors could use). It is sort of badly photographed to begin with (the shadows are all wrong, there is too much gum stuffed into the display, there are light leaks on some of the prints), and then warped with time and light and yellowing of the printed material. In almost every respect it is valueless, but I think there is something very beautiful here. The way that the passage of time is written on the surface of the image through its fading, the nostalgia in that, the unhidden intentions of the original photographer to stuff as much product as possible into this product shot, extra touches like putting some of the gum packages on angles and stacking them in very deliberate ways, these old packages with their text that are familiar to everyone but now disappeared. This image is ugly, yes in a way, but also more human and beautiful than many slick, idealized images of the sort we see everywhere. I take this picture and re-photograph it as a new picture, add more shadows, add more objects, and push out the things that make it ugly until the ugliness folds in on itself and becomes something else.
MC What does it mean to be a photographer nowadays, in an era where everyone can take pictures?
SC I think it means first to not ignore the fact that anyone can take a picture, to do something that embraces that. This is something that not everyone with an iPhone can do, what art is good at doing when it works: to show something about the world around you that you couldn’t see by just looking.
MC So on that note, are we building a parallel reality or is it just a better way to know the world in which we live?
SC The latter! Photography at its best kind of remixes reality and shows it to us anew, but is still very much tied to reality, has an index in it, and that’s what gives the medium its power. My pictures are just exaggerated versions of a picture you already know. I am also very interested in hyper-reality — the idea that images have lost this root in the real world, have completely absorbed and replaced reality. I get a sense (from Toiletpaper Magazine) that you like this too. In your project, you present what looks like a found advertisement but on closer inspection is something much darker and less mundane.
MC So you like when these idealized images hint at something darker, which often happens accidentally, though it is obviously played out with much intention in both of our work.
SC Yes, I love those images (in Toiletpaper) because they look very near to something that exists. Something I love about printed matter is how susceptible it is to fashion and to changing styles and understandings of what is “classy” or “tasteful.” Commercial pictures, especially from the height of modernism, often reflect an idealism, a glossing over of reality, that now seems quaint and also sinister. There is a lot of misogyny in advertisement, racism, smiles hiding real political problems of the time. Advertising still does this — completely ignores politics, I mean — but when you look back at images from the 50s and 60s, it is much more palpable and striking how the reading of these images has morphed over time. There is something great to be mined from that.
MC So in a way, you are taking familiar images and foregrounding the absurdity and the artifice in all commercial or popular images?
MC And old printed matter even warps in color.
SC Yes! That’s something that Toiletpaper does very well, appropriating a certain yellow, sort of harsh lighting that immediately dates an image to a certain moment in time.
MC Where are all these pictures going?
SC Mostly, I think a contemporary art practice lives on the internet. Most people experience my pictures through their computer for better or worse. That’s why I try to make them so dense, so you can’t really see what you’re looking at online, you can’t quite understand unless you experience in the real world.
MC What is your personal definition of kitsch?
SC Kitsch is something familiar, something we see with an idea in mind of how everyone else sees it, that we look at with a collective eye. My definition is informed by the Czech writer Milan Kundera’s. Kundera sees kitsch as what we look at to ignore what is difficult about life, most fundamentally that it eventually ends in death. Kitsch can manifest itself as many things — religious movements, parades, politics, advertising — it is a means of ignoring reality. In this sense, kitsch is also a manifestation of the hyper-real, a way of distilling the messy world into an easily digestible set of images that can replace real life. This goes back to why images are more important than language – you see something particularly remarkable in real life and the only language we can think to use is, “It was like in the movies,” i.e: it was “like an image.” Kitsch is the basis for a familiar, collectively understood image world that has subsumed the real world.
MC Can an image kill you?
SC The idea that a photograph is always a truth is very slippery, as we’ve talked about. I was just reading this old camera manual and there is a section about police photography with quotes like, “Often a good picture means the difference between conviction and acquittal” and, “Police departments in smaller towns and communities are following the example of the larger cities by arming their officers with cameras.” This is so funny because we all know now that a photograph isn’t evidence, it is easier and easier to falsify a picture. But as I mentioned, much of the power of photography lies in its increasingly tenuous tie to truth or reality. So even though it shouldn’t be able to, it could kill you because it holds a truth, but that truth can be completely fake — it can prove something that isn’t real. So this makes images even more dangerous than ever.
MC Photography is a very dangerous art?
SC The most dangerous!
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