For those people interested in questions of “post-photography,” the name Matthew Brandt has likely appeared on numerous occasions. His work has shown in group exhibitions with titles like “After Image”, “What is a Photograph?” and “Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography.” Yet surprisingly, for someone so cutting edge, Brandt is deeply rooted in the traditions, the history and the materiality of the photographic medium.
After being named to the 2015 Prix Pictet shortlist, we reached out to Brandt to find out more about his widely varied output. Below is an edited transcription of managing editor Alexander Strecker’s interview with the artist, via e-mail.
LC: What first drew you to photography? And after so much experimentation in the field, what’s remained special about it for you?
MB: I grew up in the medium through my father, who is a photographer. I worked on photo shoots since I was a child: setting up lights, loading film, etc. So the logistics of photography were very familiar to me from an early age. Today, despite its social omnipotence and widespread use, photography remains for me a strangely intimate and comforting thing, instilled since childhood. These days, photography is so quick, but I do remember when it was once so much work and time to get just one single picture…
My practice isn’t necessarily about unpacking this relationship, but I do believe it gives me a drive to follow through with the medium. When first learning to develop a black and white photograph, I remember splashing and dripping the chemistry to get different effects…But it wasn’t until moving away from home that I began to take photography seriously as an art form. I was living in New York and attending Cooper Union. This was where I adopted a more conceptual understanding of photography. I had classes with professors like Lorna Simpson, Hans Hacke, and Walid Raad, to name a few. There, I was thinking more about the conceptual parameters, the social aspects and the responsibilities of photographing.
Still, I started art school with a focus on painting, drawing and sculpture. I found myself spending so much time indoors, it was photography that allowed me to actually get out of the studio. With a camera, I had the ability to riff off of my experiences (and on top of that, even get a tan). So photography eventually dominated my interest over other practices.
I later began to integrate photography’s materiality into my practice after moving back home to Los Angeles. At this time, I began exploring the medium’s historical aspects in making my work. My relationship to photography continues to change as the medium continues to evolve. As it is becoming ever more omnipotent, I am finding myself taking less photos myself and doing more Google image searches—for better or for worse.
LC: You are both an envelope-pusher of the photographic medium (“Lakes and Reservoirs”) and deeply steeped in its specificities (“Polaroids”). What’s so important about this kind of formal “play” for you?
MB: The “envelope-pushing” I do is circumstantial to being “steeped in the specifics,” in my eyes. For example, the means of soaking a photograph of a lake in the lake’s own water was a way to tighten up the photographic referent, a way to get deeper into the specifics of that lake. It’s a way to get closer to the “real” (for lack of a better word).
By collapsing the image and the “real,” one can perhaps reach the symbolic. Put differently, most of what I do stems from the relationship between the photographic subject and its representational material. Whether it be using Polaroids or using gum-bichromate printing to make a picture, each methodology has its own set of baggage to carry. This baggage then serves as a context for my subject (or vice versa).
Representation has always had this subject/object dilemma. It is usually when photography becomes standardized that the veil becomes invisible, and a more direct link to the subject is established…but this notion doesn’t really appeal to me so much. I am really trying to make the veil of photography a little more opaque.
LC: For the Prix Pictet, you were nominated for a series titled, “Honeybees.” In the statement, you describe how there was a gap of one year between your discovery of the bee corpses on a California beach and your decision to use them in an antiquated 19th-century process, gum-bichromate printing. Is it usual for you to have such large gaps in the production of your work? What happened to all those bee corpses in the year they were lying around? And what was it about the gum-bichromate printing process that made you think, “A-ha! The bees!”
MB: Yes, it is typical for me to have a long span of time while developing a project—it is never just a 60th of a second. For “Honeybees,” I don’t recall a distinct ‘AH-HA!’ moment, but rather a slow, creeping movement into realization.
During that year, the gathered bee carcasses remained in the makeshift box that I first collected them in. They were on a shelf in my studio where I store a lot of varied materials. These are all materials that might or might not eventually work their way into a picture. For example, just last month I proposed to my fiancée with about 1,000 roses. I later detached all the petals and thorns and put them on this same shelf. Perhaps they will work their way into something—or maybe they will just sit there until I die. Most of these things on my shelves are material glimpses into moments of my life. As they decay on my shelf, they are also digested with thought, or simply forgotten about.
In the instance of the box of dead bees, as they were sitting on that shelf, I was following the story of Colony Collapse disorder. In this case, perhaps the media helped keep the idea alive in my head and I continued to think more about them. I knew this was an impactful historical moment.
At the same time, I was learning about and exploring historical photographic methods. I was attracted to gum-bichromate for its role in Pictorialism. It’s a medium that was prevalent during a time when perceptions were changing, when painters were loosening up their brushstrokes and representation was broadening.
Finally, I discovered that the material process of gum-bichromate was the only photographic medium that could incorporate a material—like ground-up bee corpses—in its creation. That was that. Making pictures out of hundreds of dead bees is a very humbling experience.
MB: While my practice appears very different from some of the past winners, I do think there is a shared, essential aim: to capture. Perhaps dead bees are just another material for the checklist, or perhaps the parameters of photography are expanding.
Now, my gesture of imposition on the subject (by reaching out and taking the bee corpses from where I found them) goes against most traditional photographic modes of objectivity—but I have always been a bit skeptical of this notion in relation to truth-value. You could say the literalness with which I engage is a thread through my work. Perhaps my ignorance is what leads me. I work as a way to understand, as a way of digestion and learning.
Of course, there are some mundane differences too. For example, on a logistical level, my works are not editioned, they are one-of-a-kind. Some of them I have not seen in years—who knows, perhaps some of the bee pieces are lying at the bottom of the frame? But even a “mistake” like that could give the viewer a deeper intimacy with my work, a glimpse of age and the passage of time that speaks to the vulnerable nature of my subject.
—Matthew Brandt, interviewed by Alexander Strecker