This discussion has been condensed and edited from a series of email exchanges that took place during January 2011. The photograph, Marks of Indifference #9 (Jeff Wall) (2006), was shown in “Marks of Indifference,” Mark Wyse’s 2006 exhibition at Wallspace in New York.
Matthew Porter: Let’s start with the title of this photograph, Marks of Indifference #9 (Jeff Wall). The title implies indifference to the urban divider—a structure that dominates the image, a form that you eloquently framed. Does this mean that you think the thing is ugly yet makes for a good photograph?
Mark Wyse: I was looking at the world very closely in Jeff Wall. Other works in the “Marks of Indifference” series were made not by looking through the camera, but by setting the camera on the ground and pointing it toward a subject. I was trying to shift back and forth on what it meant to make a photograph that had a sense of “indifference.” It’s that impossible desire to try doing something without intention, to let the camera become a blank recording device, disconnected from the mind of the photographer. Was the characteristic of “indifference” a quality of the decision making, or lack of decision making, on the part of the photographer? Or was it inherent to the subject photographed? Or did it manifest itself in the relationship between photographs? I tried to clash the divisions that Wall sets forth in his essay.
MP: Right, the series borrows its title from Wall’s 1995 essay “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art,” which can be read as a self-serving polemical defense of photography’s inevitable return to depiction after a brief flirtation with conceptualism or, as Wall phrases it, the “definitive negation of art as depiction.” Wall even argues that abstraction is depictive. How do the photographs in your series “clash the divisions” in his argument?
MW: The essay triggers something in me that I can identify with but don’t really like, which is why I love the essay and hate it at the same time. The content of the argument is not as interesting to me as the tension Wall creates between himself and his reader. When I read “Marks of Indifference,” I can’t help but be impressed by and in awe of Wall’s intelligence and insightful perceptions. As a photographer the essay is intimidating. It has that quality of a strict superego beating down on innocent desires. Or the intimidation and tension between a father and son. Of course, this is my own projection, and I want Jeff Wall to take the blame for my own anxieties, but I guarantee it is in there somehow and unavoidable when I am reading the text. I think I was trying to reconcile that conflict in the photographs, trying to get it out of me and find a solution to that anxiety. I have no idea if any of that tension comes across in my series of photographs.
I was trying to draw attention to an experience of photography that I am still trying to understand—that in a photograph you see the world but feel a thought. That discrepancy—I want to call it a “mental seizure”—attracts me to photographs and their makers.
MP: When you say, “feel a thought,” are you talking about a triggered emotional response (something visceral) that conveys a different meaning from what’s depicted? This sounds like the paradox in Roland Barthes’s 1977 essay “The Photographic Message,” in which he discusses a photograph’s second meaning—what it connotes.
MW: The word seizure implies the mind and body violently working something out. That experience resonates with me. My body projects onto the photograph new attachments, new thoughts, that have nothing to do with and everything to do with the image I am looking at. An analogy would be the experience of anxiety, a bodily reaction to an unknown thought.
MP: To borrow from your essay “Too Drunk to Fuck (On the Anxiety of Photography)”: “Why is this person talking about that subject?” So, why are you looking at that fence? What attracted you to the blue wall? Or rather, what are you negating?
MW: I don’t think I am the one to answer correctly what I am negating or repressing in that photograph. If you asked my wife, she would most likely tell you that I am constantly intellectualizing my feelings. She finds it highly annoying, so I try to comfort her by telling her I am trying to work through it in my art practice. It never ends up sounding reassuring. But assuming some aspect of one’s way of relating to the world spills over into one’s art, perhaps there is something like that, indirectly, in the photograph. It might not materialize so visibly in one photograph, but my hope is that it builds in the body of work. I like the permission one is granted with the photograph: You can embrace your feelings and disavow them at the same time. What is repressed can come forward but remain unseen.
I don’t know why I took the photograph at the time, but now I can’t help but project the thought that somehow the wall represented a barrier or an empty space between my intellect and my body. I also think I was unconsciously responding to how the wall mirrors how I see some of Wall’s work—its blankness, how it divides, impedes, and closes in.
MP: Your approach to making this photograph seems anything but indifferent: A diagonal line of mortar between two bricks intersects at the apex of the lower left corner, the camera appears to be level with the center of the wall, horizontal and vertical lines are parallel to the corresponding borders of the picture, and the amount of red brick and green foliage feels just right.
Furthermore, the photograph was made with a view camera, a piece of equipment that doesn’t exactly favor the spontaneous impulses of the subconscious. If we start over and let a discussion about aesthetics and composition be the entry point to the photograph, we could say that you are employing what Wall would call a strategy of modern picture making, or are engaged in “that independently beautiful depiction and composition that derives from the institutionalization of perspective and dramatic figuration at the origins of modern Western art.”
MW: The characteristic of deliberateness or precise framing of the blue wall in Jeff Wall is a sort of playful, loving tease aimed at the control felt in Jeff Wall’s own work.
I’m not sure why a view camera couldn’t favor the spontaneous impulses of the subconscious. I would leave the camera out of it. Whether I am looking at something with a view camera or a small camera, or making a decision in three seconds or thirty minutes, it doesn’t follow that I understand the photograph or what I am doing at the time. I would say that most of the time, I make photographs only vaguely knowing the thought behind the making of it. For me, a lot of the meaning comes later, with the contextualization.
Conversely, when I look at Gabriel Orozco, who very interestingly evokes the unconscious, the temporal, the gesture of a quick insight or perception, I feel like the thought behind a photograph is so readily available to him and visible to the viewer. The looseness of Orozco’s camerawork reminds me of what Wall calls “deskilling,” a sort of conceptualist paradox of intentional casualness or indifference toward a particular tableau, like the framing of a subject. If you look at Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, you have the opposite; you have fussy framing in pursuit of making the photograph transparent. In a sense, Shore dissolves himself into the spaces he photographs. He disappears. The paradox for myself, looking at that wonderful book, is that I often tend to drift into a feeling state of being in my body but have no idea what I am thinking. I am looking at the world, but my mind is elsewhere.
MP: Recently, your photographs have become smaller. Wall made his pictures large in part to avoid the trappings of the “photo ghetto” (a place where he thought Shore became confined in the 1970s), but now maybe the opposite is true—the pictures have to be small in order to avoid a tired association with a pictorial style that peaked in the ’90s.
MW: The recent photographs are smaller as my attention has shifted to relationships between pictures. This has also allowed me to recontextualize my photographs in relation to the work of other artists, using book reproductions that are framed in the same manner as the photographs I make. I’m also interested in viewers projecting their own thoughts onto the photograph. And when the photograph is smaller, viewers become less absorbed physically; this allows them to see their thoughts more clearly.
MP: I don’t think we’ll see the end of photographic prints in our lifetime, but certainly their usefulness is waning, and they’ve ceased to be the primary way that most photographs are disseminated. I assumed that part of your decision to make smaller prints resulted from a need to match your own authored works to those appropriated from books—you’re making a concerted effort to attach yourself to an analog tradition. The “Marks of Indifference” series was the last of your larger works—of a size Wall might regard as appropriate for pictorial art. Your subsequent shrinking of the print size is in some ways a repudiation of Wall’s insistence on large prints, yet perhaps it’s the logical next step after the conclusion of his essay. In order to “experience the experience,” spectacle has to become manageable and intimate again.
Wall quotes Theodor Adorno in order to include the phrase “marks of indifference,” and it’s the only place, other than the title, that the phrase occurs in the essay. You seem to be exploring what Wall calls the “heavy burden of depiction” in photography, but I’m not sure how the concept of indifference in your pictures relates to Wall’s essay.
MW: That makes sense to me. I don’t see the work as an illustration of the “Marks of Indifference” essay. I see it as a reflection of my relationship to Jeff Wall. The photographs are in some sense a resolution of that anxiety. The photographs allow me to see how I think; they allow me to see how I feel. To be indifferent is to not care, to not think, to not feel, to sever all relationships and be alienated. This seems like a paradoxical desire, an inversion of the pain and burden of caring too much. Right now, I would have to agree with you, I find the experience of the spectacle alienating. I would like the spectacle to become more intimate but not necessarily manageable. I would like the intimate to become out of control. This seems to be where we are moving, and the Internet reflects this most powerfully—intimate, alienating, and out of control.