Entanglement vs. distance: it’s an old problem in photography. While the camera was initially seen as a cold machine—an objectifying lens that froze nature into perversely still frames—it eventually came to be recognized as a means of engaging with the world, a tool for expression. A passport, a passageway, a context for connection. A drive for intimacy which led to Robert Capa’s famous admonition to “get closer.”
This problem is not limited to photography—all artists are caught in the same bind. Does the artist maintain a remove from his or her subjects, cultivating independence from the systems that surround them so that they can critique and question freely? Or are they as implicated as the rest of us, drawn into the market like any other producer?
These questions run through the work of the New York-based artist Daniel Shea. His latest book, 43-35 10th Street, takes its title from an address in his neighborhood of Long Island City in Queens, New York. The area, which in the past 15 years has transformed from a moribund industrial zone into a gleaming thicket of residential towers, provides Shea with the jumping-off point to think about seismic ideological and socioeconomic changes: gentrification, deindustrialization, the intensifying effects of capitalism and more. Indeed, in all of Shea’s work, the micro and macro run together fluidly: a single image can represent the path he’s chosen through life; the contours of his artistic career reflect tectonic shifts in the landscape of Western economies the world over.
At first glance, it would seem like Shea is part of the problem rather than an appropriate critic: he grew up in the Midwest and, when he had the chance, moved to New York City to pursue more lucrative forms of photography. Looking at his career from this perspective, it appears that he traced a path from the decay of the rusting industries of Illinois towards the magnetic desire of a New York life. His progression mirrors larger economic trends that are happening all across the United States and the globe: namely, that former industrial areas are emptying out, while a select few cities amass ever-greater concentrations of wealth, power, and talent. As Shea himself put it, the economic stagnation of one place can often be linked, even if indirectly, to booming economic growth in another.
Returning to the micro-scale, Shea’s move also embodies a tension that especially plagues the most flourishing cities: the development of formerly marginal neighborhoods into places in which the original residents can no longer afford to live. As an artist, Shea sought the expansive—and once affordable—confines of Long Island City because he wanted space to create his work. But as in so many other places, what followed him, and other artists, were developers and construction cranes, ready to transform a once-overlooked patch of land into a luxurious residential playground. Which begs the question: is Shea part of the problem?
And thus, we arrive at the paradoxes contained in Shea’s book, 43-35 10th Street. In the words of the jury which recently awarded Shea the prestigious Paul Huf prize, “Using a variety of visual mediums, Shea’s work explores the complexity and ambiguities of urban development in his home city, New York. Drawing from his experience as a commercial photographer, Shea presents us with a seductive yet disconcerting world of concrete, steel and glass, which traverses the boundaries of fact and fiction. His [images] allow us to reflect on late capitalism and its effects on a changing city landscape.” In other words, the book contains a judgment of capitalism from an individual whose own life choices acutely reflect the system’s very dynamics. Furthermore, Shea supports himself with commercial photography: he pays the bills by creating images of desire, thus contributing to the visual clutter that his artistic work would like to cut through. In short, the book evinces an artist who is completely tangled up with the subject he is critiquing. And yet, Shea’s proximity is exactly what puts him in such an intimate position to help us understand the temptation of the system and its fundamental lie.
Because of his years working on commercial shoots, Shea knows well that looking is tied to desire; that we can be inexorably drawn towards things, even if we don’t agree with them. “The project began, in part, because I couldn’t escape my own desire to look at this gleaming architecture. I found myself attracted to things that, politically, I’m not on board with at all. But formally, I can’t lie: I find this stuff beautiful.” He concludes, “The deep paradox of critiquing something is that you spend so much time with it and think about it so profoundly that, in some ways, you end up writing a love letter to what you were hoping to attack.”
Shea realizes he is walking a fine line. While finding himself inextricably embedded in the dynamics that surround him, with grace and self-awareness, Shea is credibly able to critique the processes in which he is taking part. What puts him on the right side of this razor-thin divide? Whether at home, on the road, in the studio, or on a job, Shea is in constant, conscious negotiation with his environment, his economic choices, and the aesthetic consequences these will have on his work.
First, on the aesthetic front: if Shea shoots perfume ads for a week in order to make enough money to focus on his artwork for the rest of the month, there’s a danger that he will keep on shooting perfume ad-like images even when the commission is over. Shea’s solution to this problem is not easy, but it is clear: “You have to be so rigorous about how your images work, how they’re released, and how they’re attached to your identity. It takes a sleight of hand to do it right. It’s very difficult. A few artists can have their images float through both spaces, but for the rest of us, we need to be incredibly mindful of how our work is produced and circulated.”
Second, from a financial point of view, Shea is equally precise: “I took on commercial work because I could make more money, faster, doing those jobs. I used to only make work at night, when tired. I often still have to do that, but sometimes, more recently, I have been able to carve out days or weeks so that I can make these projects my full-time job. I have to buy that precious time.” Yet as Shea well knows, such money comes at a price: “Commercial photography ruins artists because it’s so lucrative. It’s a much more comfortable life. It’s seductive. But if your will to make your own work is not strong enough to handle getting paid a lot of money a few times, you probably shouldn’t be an artist.”
Indeed, this is where a cardinal difference between the commercial photographer (or really any commercial activity) and the artistic photographer is felt. A commercial photographer makes his or her work, ultimately, in order to get paid. Production and monetary exchange complete the process. An artist, we hope, is making work for themselves. The process of creation is an innate driver for them, not the output. The research, the conception, the discussion, the feelings, the ideas—all of these count towards the artist’s inner satisfaction, not the response that is generated.
A focus on process, rather than production, is essential. Here, the figure of the artist (and the writer, the critic, the activist, the craftsperson, the teacher…) serves as an indispensable counter-weight to the ravenous appetites of the capitalist. For Shea, “My process of making pictures is a process of meditating on an idea or a thought about the world. I put less emphasis on the result.” Two-thirds of his creative process—carrying the camera, setting the focus, finding the right spot to stand—is simply something to busy himself with while he’s thinking and searching for his expression. In the last third, the strength of the individual images starts to clarify, and he focuses on what the final result might look like.
A developer who cared so much about process and so little about output would not survive long in the New York market. But try as the market might, artists resist being turned into another commodity. If we believe that art, as an activity, still holds any critical power and serves any function besides creating objects to adorn the homes of the wealthy, we have to believe that the artist retains some remove from his or her subject and brings a needed outside perspective on what he or she looks at.
To this point, a pivotal image in the book depicts a plastic smartphone screen protector smudged with oily fingerprints. In this simple frame, all the connections between sight and desire, inviting surfaces and hard reflections, separation and entanglement, come together. Cities, more than anything else, are powered by desire. Their towering glass-and-steel structures reflect the heights of our own ambitions. In the present day, these same feelings are contained, in miniature, underneath the glass of our smartphone screens.
This smudged fingerprint photo is important because it captures the twinned intimacy and distance that gives Shea’s critique its power. On the one hand, his photos are screens for our desire. We touch them, reach out to them, want to possess them—and in doing so, leave our trace. At the same time, as they attract us, they keep us on their surface. We will never own a Long Island City apartment just by looking at one. And deeper, we can never fully obtain what we desire; our screens (and our photos) will draw us in only to let us slide across the uppermost layer.
Yet the fact that Shea made his picture of the smudged screen protector from a distance, however small, is imperative. Without it, Shea’s work would be lost. Yes, he lives in New York; yes, he supports himself by working as a commercial photographer; but he also maintains the drive and discipline to criticize and question the dynamics of the processes that he’s involved in. His involvement is what lets him get so close; his artistic eye creates that crucial separation.
On the surface, Shea’s images embody the desire that is inherent in the real estate boom that he is living within. But his images decisively turn away from the commercial realm when they confront us with our own desire, when the smudge on the screen reminds us that the screen exists, that the image is not real. That small smudge is revealing and it is honest. An advertisement would never show that smudge because it would ruin the power of its perfect illusion.
But if we are not meant to feel desire, then what feeling are we supposed to have when looking at Shea’s admittedly seductive images? This is not commercial work: the smudge, the seriality, the abstraction prevent it from being so. Thus, as with all art, the final meaning is left to us. While we ponder these images, while we think about our role in these endlessly intertwined processes, another glass panel is being lifted into the sky, another luxury condo is going on the market. Perhaps you’re reading these words on your phone. However distant we try to remain, we must acknowledge our own entanglement. Ideally, though, we will find a place where our entanglement becomes a strength and our ceaseless desire shows us a way out.
As part of winning the Paul Huf Award 2018, Shea’s work—and especially ”43-35 10th Street“—will be exhibited at Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam at the end of 2018.