Sunday, March 29, 2009

Interview with Alex Segreti

Before I was Born
County Fair, North Carolina
Family Snapshot, 1972

My parents are driving from Michigan this week to visit me and to see my show at Daniel Cooney, so I have been trying to tie-up all loose ends before they arrive, including an interview with Alex Segreti. Alex, who is originally from Chicago, is now a senior in the photography program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He was given an assignment to interview a photographer who has influenced/inspired him and whom he has never met, and I was flattered when he sent me a set of interview questions.

Alex: I am originally from Chicago and I noticed that you have a lot of connections to the city. What was it like attending UIC for photography (I had considered attending the school but opted to move to New York instead)?

Tema: I moved to New York City during the summer after I graduated from Oberlin College in 1995, but then I moved to Chicago a few months later. I grew up in the Midwest, and Chicago seemed more familiar and more manageable to me at that point in my life. I only applied to graduate programs in Chicago because I wanted to stay in the city. I liked the faculty at UIC, like Doug Ischar and Esther Parada, and felt that our critiques in the photography program were helpful and informative. And I liked Chicago then for its tough grittiness, which influenced what I was photographing. Now, I prefer New York so much as a city, it is almost hard to recall my former romance with the city of Chicago.

Alex: The Chicago Police ride-alongs sounds very interesting – how did it come about/how did you get started on the project? What was it like to actually be there with the police officers?

Tema: I shot the police ride-along images for an organization called the CITY 2000, which commissioned photographers in Chicago to photograph aspects of life in the city during the year 2000 for a series of exhibitions and for an extensive collection of images that now exists in the Comer Archive at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I originally met with one of the CITY 2000’s editors, and we arrived at the idea that I would make pictures of crime scenes.

In the beginning, I bought a police radio from Radio Shack. I drove around in my car listening to the radio, almost like a modern WeeGee, and tried to race to the scene of a crime, except I had no luck with this approach at all. It was pretty comical, really. Then I started contacting police departments, but no one would let me go on rides with them. I was discouraged, but I mentioned my situation to one of my photography students at a city college where I was teaching. My student was a police officer, and he talked to the authorities in his district, and eventually I got my foot in the door. After I went on ride-alongs in this district, it became easier to get authorities in other districts to allow me access as well.

I spent many shifts riding in the back of police cars in some of the roughest neighborhoods on Chicago’s south side. Often, for hours, nothing remarkable would happen, and both the officers and myself would seem to almost crave some drama and action, and I’d feel a little guilty for having these thoughts. Many of the calls were related to domestic violence, and I often watched officers perform the role of social workers. I saw a number of drug dealers get searched and arrested and I photographed an elderly man who had died in his bathroom being carried out of his apartment in a body bag. Actually, the saddest experience for me was watching a dying dog take its last breaths in the parking lot of a housing project. I had developed a special bond with a female police officer, and she was also disturbed by witnessing this death and commented that sometimes it was even harder to watch animals suffer.

While I was shooting this project, I was also at the lowest point in my personal history, and so these recollections of my own demons are inseparable from the experience of making this work in these environments. These are dark, ugly memories that I rarely recall anymore. I left Chicago at the end of the year 2000 to start a new life in Minneapolis.

Alex: My aesthetic is similar to your American Stills project, but in classes at Pratt, I have occasionally been told that it is too 1970s, not contemporary enough. What are your thoughts on that issue and what sort of feedback have you gotten on the American Stills project.

Tema: My American Stills series has never been subjected to a critique in an academic setting, so mostly I only hear the good stuff or nothing at all. I am sure I might hear some comments along the lines of what you are describing if a class or a critic dissected my work.

I was not consciously trying to make retro-looking pictures, but I am conscious of the work that influenced this series, like Eggleston and Shore and Sternfeld. I was interested in similar concerns with color and mood and the American cultural landscape as a subject. I am attracted to a straight–forward style that I associate with this era of photography, and I am not interested in incorporating some of the elements of what we might consider “contemporary photography” – like staging, or high-tech lighting, or digital manipulation.

I tend to be drawn to things with a lot of history and things that evoke some nostalgia. And not just where photographs are concerned. There are very few objects in my apartment besides my computer that were built in the past few decades. My own aesthetic is like a fusion of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. I love films like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. Most of the books on my shelves, besides a lot of art and photography books, are biographies and memoirs and novels by authors like John Updike, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer. All of these influences naturally carry over into what I choose to photograph.

Alex: For your newest project, The Ballad of Sad Young Men, what inspired you to get started (I notice that most of your work from your website is not portraiture)?

Tema: I had been shooting some portraits in Texas, Arizona and Utah before I started this project in New York, but there were only a few that I was happy with. One of portraits that I did like was an image, Teenage Boy, that I made at Barton Springs in Austin in the summer of 2007, and it was one of the sources of inspiration for me to shoot more portraits of young men. I knew for a while that I wanted to make photographs about masculinity and about adolescence, and a conversation in August 2008 with a friend about the song, The Ballad of Sad Young Men, provided the structure I was looking for to make pictures of these subjects on Main Street in Binghamton.

Alex: You received CAAP grants for your project, Dog Show. How did you go about getting the grants and do you have any advice for new photographers interested in receiving grants for their work?

Tema: Those two small CAAP grants are to date, the only grants I have ever received in support of my work, despite the many grants I have applied for in Minnesota and New York. I was a finalist for the McKnight Photography Award in 2005, and I was more disappointed when that grant didn’t come through for me than any of the others. So my advice to new photographers is the same advice I’d give to myself: just keep plugging away and don’t get too discouraged. Clearly, most photographers who do receive grants have a long list of grants they applied for in the past without the same success.

Alex: What are some challenges you faced when working on projects and getting your career started?

Tema: The most obvious challenge is finding a balance between making work and making money. It is still the most difficult challenge in my life as an artist. Besides my part-time positions as a photography instructor and some commercial and editorial photography assignments, I have supported myself over the past fifteen years through jobs as a record store clerk, a bookstore clerk, a waitress, a wedding photographer and a window-dresser. Trying to bring in enough income to survive, let alone to travel to work on photography projects, continues to be challenging – especially in New York City and in this current economy.

Alex: What has your experience been like teaching at the ICP?

Tema: I love teaching at the ICP and I feel very lucky to have established that relationship shortly after I moved to New York from Minnesota in 2005. The ICP anchored me to a photo community during a transition that was difficult and unsettling in many ways. I have enjoyed working with a diverse and international group of students for the past three years and have developed lasting relationships with some smart and wonderful people. I find teaching extremely rewarding and stimulating, and it keeps me even more engaged and organized in terms of my involvement with photography.

Alex: How important do you think education is for photography (undergrad)? Would you advise a student to go on to post-graduate studies?

Tema: I think that entirely depends on the student in question. I value the education I received at Oberlin College and UIC a great deal, and I certainly think that both undergraduate and post-graduate studies can be significant in leading to a career in the arts.

Does that mean everyone who completes a master’s degree is going to succeed in the art world or even work in his or her field of study? Of course not. Does that mean there haven’t been many photographers who have developed successful careers without getting a higher education in photography? Of course not.

Alex: The web plays an important part in today’s society – you have both a website and a blog; how important do you think it is to a career in photography? Has your blog helped you generate ideas? What are some of the benefits you have experienced by writing a blog?

Tema: I think it is crucial for emerging photographers to have a website or a significant body of work on-line, as yes - so much of the dialogue and discovery of photography these days does exist on the web. However, my website is static, and it is simply a resource for completed projects and a list of my accomplishments in photography. My blog is more active, and it reflects my day-to-day involvement in photography. It helps to give me structure for work-in-progress and to reflect about my relationships to other artists and to the art world. Writing has become as integral to my relationship with photography as taking pictures. It helps me to better understand myself and it helps, for those who might read it, to have a better sense of who I am and what I care about. As a result of that, I think it has lead to relationships and opportunities that might not have existed otherwise. And furthermore, a blog is the least expensive and most democratic way for artists to share their work and ideas with the rest of the world.

Alex: Is there any advice you would give someone coming out of school, trying to start their career in photography (networking, gallery representation, portfolios, etc …)?

Tema: Besides continuing to make work, I think the most critical aspect to starting a career in photography is staying involved in a photo community. The more effort an emerging photographer puts into things like writing blogs and supporting other artists and creating their own exhibition opportunities in the beginning, the more likely it is that a gallery will take interest in an artist in the long run. One small step naturally leads to the next, and it is a long and bumpy road, so it is important to develop some patience and endurance. Ultimately, artists make a leap of faith that their talent and passion and commitment to their medium will be recognized. It is important to be productive, visible, engaged – pay attention to your peers and how they are succeeding, and try to learn from them.

Alex: What is the current state of the industry? Where do you think photography is going – visually/aesthetically – in the next 5-10 years?

Tema: These are my least favorite kinds of questions. Photographers and galleries are facing major economic challenges and are trying to find creative and resourceful ways to survive and to move forward; so that’s my response to the current state of the industry. As for where photography is going in the next decade, if I knew the answer to that, it would be really boring and disappointing. Photography is going wherever photographers take it. I hope and trust there will be some good surprises.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Anna und Gero
copyright Andreas Weinand

I had the opportunity to look at the images and read the essays in my copy of Lay Flat which arrived in the mail this week and I especially liked some of the exceptional writing about photography.

I was stuck by the beginnings of essays by Tim Davis and my friend, Cara Phillips, who writes regularly and thoughtfully on her blog, Ground Glass. In her essay in Lay Flat, she writes about the role of blogging itself in expanding the dialogue of the photo community and the potential of the medium.

As someone who also takes pictures, writes, and swims; I loved how Cara opens her piece:

When I am swimming laps, I exist in a different state of being. In the cool water I have no form. My limbs are heavy as I push myself across the pool, but in between strokes I float weightlessly on the surface. And while I methodically swim back and forth across the length of the pool, I feel totally alone and work at my own pace, even though I must negotiate my small space with several other people.

Metaphorically speaking, photography is like swimming; each person has their own pace, their own stroke, and their own rhythm, but they are in the pool together ...
(from "The Secessionists Revisited: Artist Collectives in the Age of the Blog," Lay Flat, Cara Phillips, page 13)

And Tim Davis begins his essay:

There is one thing that separates us from animals. I know we have opposable thumbs and stock markets and hybrid SUVs. But the most essential thing line of demarcation between human beings and say, squirrels, is the stories we can tell. Animals don't have narrative. They can't turn the arc of their experience into a reoccurring tale. They know the scent of danger, but can't describe it. The narrative is the ideal housing for significance and it is significance that makes meaning and meaning that makes us matter.

I once worked at a publishing company reading the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts and it was tragic and awe-inspiring how many people felt they had important stories to tell. But that is because we are pathological narrative makers ...
(from "One Credo After Another," Lay Flat, Tim Davis, page 5)

More information about the content and sale of the inaugural issue co-curated by Shane Lavalette and Karly Wildenhaus at: LAY FLAT, 01: REMAIN IN LIGHT

Monday, March 16, 2009

The New Yorker

Photography critic, Vince Aletti, rocked our worlds with a review of our show at Daniel Cooney in this week's GOINGS ON ABOUT TOWN in The New Yorker. Here's what he wrote:


These two young photographers approach portraiture from very different angles, but because their pictures are similarly fraught, complex, and compelling they complement each other nicely. Romeo, whose subjects are mostly friends and lovers on New York’s bohemian fringe, combines intimacy and theatricality in pictures that make the most of available light, dark shadows, and tattooed flesh. Stauffer photographs strangers—young men she meets on the street of Binghamton, New York, who appear at once rebellious and vulnerable. This volatile combination is kicked up a notch by erotic tension, but Stauffer is tender rather than confrontational, and her work looks beyond the boys’ cool affect to something warmer. Through April 18. (Cooney, 511 W. 25th St. 212-255-8158.)

Thank you, Vince!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Emerging Photographers Auction at Daniel Cooney

Untitled (Man With Axe Under Apple Tree)
Sara Code Kroll

Lau Fau San, Hong Kong: Three Stray Dogs
Jane Tam

Back, Self-Portrait
Mickey Kerr

Two Swimmers
Palmer Davis

Daniel Cooney has recently opened bidding for his third Emerging Photographers Auction. Among the many wonderful photographers whose work is available are Sara Code Kroll, Palmer Davis, Jason Falchook, Mickey Kerr, Brian Lesteberg, Ellen Rennard and Jane Tam.

Bidding is open thru March 26th, 2009.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

David Smith

tall one, 2008
copyright David Smith

Tonight brings the opening of the first solo exhibition of my very dear and old friend, David Smith. David was one of my students when I taught photo classes at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago after graduate school, and he was the first familiar face I saw at the ICP when I started teaching there in winter of 2006. He was working on his MFA and found me in the media lab, and we had coffee at a diner nearby and caught up on the many years and transitions in our lives in between Chicago and New York. My entire first year of living in this new city was wrought with massive anxiety and uncertainty, and David tried to reassure me that is was possible to live in New York City with its set of pressures and to make work as an artist. His sensitivity, intelligence and depth invariably have a calming effect on me.

I am so excited to see this beautiful new work he has been producing in his studio. David's work is thoughtful, quirky, conceptual - always evolving and transforming. He is an artist and a thinker - rearranging objects and fragments of images to be considered in another light.

According to the press release for this exhibition at HQ Gallery in Brooklyn, David B Smith performs and documents a highly self-conscious creative process. He begins by arranging blank canvases, like building blocks, into various structures. Starkly photographing each one against a black background, the resulting primal images, like seeds, inspire a variety of playful works in various media. Painting, digital imaging, and sculpture are all referenced and these experiments are installed opposite the original photographs to provide space to explore the dynamics of possibility.

In the end, the artist has developed a body of work that simultaneously straddles a variety of media, without actually abandoning the photographic image. Using this hybrid practice, Smith responds to the gallery format in two different ways. First, the artist challenges the "no paintings allowed" mandate of a sculpture gallery with a show primarily focused on stretched canvasses. Second, Smith utilizes the gallery format to show a chronological documentation of his work as it moves from one form into the next and back again. The result of Smiths work is an exhibition that defies his chosen media while carefully scrutinizing and exposing his methodology.

David B. Smith
Before and After

HQ Gallery
236 Grand Street
Brooklyn, NY

Opening Reception:
Saturday May 7th, 7-10pm
on view thru May 3rd

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

culturehall at Foundation NY

Art fair action kicks off today, and my head is spinning a little from sorting out where to go and what to see, but here are a few stops at the top of my list:

David Andrew Frey, founder of culturehall, a new curated site for contemporary art, can be found at Fountain NY at Pier 66. I have recently taken on the position of Assistant Curator for culturehall and look forward to inviting new artists in the upcoming months.

Amani Olu Projects will be exhibiting work by a group of artists at the Scope Art Fair including Michael Buhler-Rose, Gerald Edwards III, Jon Feinstein, Alison Malone, Marc McAndrews, Bradley Peters, Peter Riesett, David La Spina, Tina Tyrell and Ann Woo. I got to see Amani participate in a panel discussion last night facilitated by the Camera Club of New York that created a lively dialogue about collecting photography amongst gallerists, Daniel Cooney and Michael Mazzeo, as well as photographer and curator, Cara Phillips, from WIP and two prominent photo collectors.

Photographer, Jason Lazarus, a former student and old friend from Chicago whom I haven't seen in person in nearly a decade, will be presenting a solo exhibition of his work thru Andrew Rafacz Gallery at VOLTA NY.

And the previously mentioned Juliana Beasley will be exhibiting work from her Eyes of Salamanca series thru Group Station Independant Projects at the Bridge Art Fair.

All events thru March 8th, 2009.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Go Juliana!

Two Cowboys, from Eyes of Salamanca, 2006
copyright Juliana Beasley

My art crush on Juliana Beasley began when I discovered Doug Rickard's features of her work on AMERCANSUBURBX - "Last Stop: Rockaway Park" and "Eyes of Salamanca". Doug's passionate and poetic interpretation of the people and the pain in her Rockaway series brought to mind Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn ... the mother who gets hooked on speed trying to shed weight to fit into a red dress to wear for her television debut while her junkie son spirals down with his girlfriend into their own hell of addiction.

It also brought to mind one of my earlier art crushes and now close friend, Emily Carter, whose memoir, Glory Goes and Gets Some, shares a similar honesty, boldness, vulnerability, compassion and fascination with the farthest reaches.

Then I read Juliana's own words in her interview with Nymphoto and I was riveted - picturing this kid in Philly catching fire flies in jelly jars and digging graves with sticks at the side of her house who grows up to find inspiration in a woman who collects a specialty brand of dolls at fairs and a man who teaches his dog to count to ten with his paws.

I think by now I've learned the hard way from internet dating and art crush disappoints and the like - don't come on too strong, too stalkerish. Keep it short and sweet. So I sent Juliana just a few words ... and she wrote back!

We have since become virtual pen pals - keeping tabs on one another's ups and downs and unraveling all kinds of subjects like mothers and relationships and road trips and past demons and present fantasies. I am such a devoted fan at this point, I even offered to come over dressed as River Phoenix to clean her messy apartment in Jersey City. But as we both spend much of our lives glued to our computer screens, who knows if it will ever happen ...

Juliana is coming to New York City this week for two big photo events. She will be showing Polaroids from her secret stash depicting her early days as photographer/stripper in a group exhibition at Michael Mazzeo Gallery opening March 4th. Her larger body of work about stripper culture, Lapdancer, is available in book form here: Lapdancer.

Selected photographs from her most recent project, "The Eyes of Salamanca," will also be exhibited later this week with the Group Station Independent Projects at the Bridge Art Fair. These strange and remarkable images examine a Mennonite community in the Yucaton Peninsula whose religious faith and relationship to the land could not contrast more starkly the stripper scene she previously explored. The sun-burnt faces, bright blue skies, looming white clouds are altogether of another time and place. And thanks to the support of a New Jersey Arts Council Grant, Juliana will return to Mexico in April 2009 to spend a month continuing to photograph and to write about the Mennonite community.

More information about these upcoming events, along with some incredible writing, can be found on her blog: Juliana's Lovely Land of Neurosis