This interview took place on the afternoon of Sunday, April 17, 2011, in Moyra Davey’s Washington Heights apartment. What follows is an edited version of that dialogue. The photograph under discussion, Receivers (2003), was shown in “Long Life Cool White,” Davey’s 2008 exhibition at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Matthew Porter: In the 2006 essay “Notes on Photography and Accident,” from Long Life Cool White: Photographs & Essays by Moyra Davey, you characterize your practice as suffering from a period of lassitude, or fatigue. The date of this photograph, Receivers, is 2003. The fact that it’s part of a robust series of images from that year suggests it was made in a fairly productive period. And so I was surprised that the essay was published around the same time.
Moyra Davey: You’re right to be surprised. In fact, I probably made the photograph in 1996. It was taken in the former studio of my husband, Jason Simon, where he stored and worked on a collection of audio components: receivers, amps, preamps, and so on. At that time, we still lived in Hoboken, New Jersey; we moved to New York in 1999. Throughout the ’90s, I took a lot of pictures of his stuff—his collections fascinated me, and his relationship to these objects fascinated me. Actually, any collector’s relationship to his or her objects fascinates me, because I think objects, like photographs, are signifiers of death. And I find it really interesting when people can overcome this signification and have a positive relationship to objects—because I can’t.
But back to Receivers. I shot it with a Plaubel, a really beautiful 6 × 7 German camera with a Zeiss lens and bellows, whereas most of the other pictures in this series were taken with a 4 × 5 or a 2 ¼ camera. So this was an exception, and I lit it with a strobe. What I found most interesting about these amps, preamps, and exposed tubes was their architectural quality, although I was never able to translate this appreciation into the images themselves. But unlike many of the other pictures, I really like this one. I believe it’s pretty powerful. Zoe Leonard once told me she’ll keep a picture in her “back pocket” for ten or twenty years before printing it; she waits until she knows it’s time. I literally had a contact print of Receivers that I kept in my wallet because I knew it was going to be the jumping-off point for whatever show I’d do next—which turned out to be in 2003, at American Fine Arts Co.
MP: What’s unusual about this picture is that it’s one of the few not made in the cinema verité style you usually prefer. Many of your other photographs rely on available light, and yet here you use a strobe, which is much more powerful than even an in-camera flash.
MD: Right, pictures like Shure (2003), which shows dust on a phonograph needle, and other images from that time were mostly made with available light. They’re moody, they’re kind of atmospheric. Many of them were really hard to print. For some reason, my negatives ended up needing a lot of magenta and green correction, and that drove me crazy. That was another thing that pleased me about Receivers—that I was able to color-balance it so well. And I had this realization that it kind of looks like an eBay picture. It’s got that casual, deadpan quality, like you just took the picture with a flash and put it up on eBay.
MP: I don’t think it does the photograph justice to call it an eBay picture.
MD: But I like eBay pictures. In fact, Jason and I collaborated to produce a series called “eBay Pictures.” We photographed hundreds of items on a white bedspread and showed the resultant prints in grids—I think five big grids of thirty little prints.
MP: The size of the editioned final is twenty by twenty-four. It’s interesting that you chose that size, because it’s somewhere between the oversize, tableaux photography that characterizes the ’90s and the small-print photography of earlier decades, both of which you discuss in “Notes on Photography and Accident.” Why did you choose to print at twenty by twenty-four?
MD: I don’t like the degradation or dissolution that occurs at those larger sizes. I guess I like all of the information to be dense and compact. The detail of a smaller print is really striking. Everything is crisp. And printing at thirty by forty is arduous, while twenty by twenty-four is very manageable.
MP: In “Notes,” you discuss Walter Benjamin’s distaste for the work of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch, which Benjamin takes up in the 1931 essay “Short History of Photography.” Besides being too bourgeois, do you think Benjamin found his work to be a little fascist?
MD: Benjamin thought the work was superficial, didn’t he? In that essay, he borrows something that Bertolt Brecht said: A photograph of a factory tells us nothing about the working conditions or the workers within that factory; the mere reflection of reality says nothing about that reality. The work might have had a fascist tendency, I really don’t know.
MP: Also, Renger-Patzsch’s pictures lack what Benjamin refers to as the “tiny spark of accident”—the camera’s potential to signal a moment of historical truth. The element of accident is one you also hold in high esteem and whose absence from contemporary photography you lament in “Notes.”
MD: I wish there was more accident in my own pictures, but it’s not the kind of work that I can make. I work very slowly. I take photographs in a controlled environment. Over a period of about ten years, I stopped photographing people; everything in my pictures is pretty much inanimate. In that same essay, Benjamin says that “to do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciations.” Nearly all of the pictures that I really like to look at are in the genre of street photography. This reminds me of something I wrote about the critic Janet Malcom in “Notes”: “Malcom’s perceptions thrill because they signal ‘truth’ in the way that strange, eccentric details nearly always do.” Remember Anita Hill, who testified against Clarence Thomas at his Senate confirmation hearings? She talked about the pubic hair on the Coke can, and I remember this lawyer friend of mine saying, “When you hear descriptions like that, you know it’s true.” People don’t make that stuff up.
MP: I wonder if you will continue to make pictures that are basically still lifes, or if you will venture out in search of the accident?
MD: In this video I’m making, called Les Goddesses, I talk about the gradual disappearance of the figure from my photographs. And just as I was getting started, the Chicago gallerist Donald Young invited me to make a piece in response to Robert Walser’s microscripts. Walser was a German-speaking Swiss writer who wrote in a miniscule hand that is almost impossible to decipher. His writings are Kafkaesque, which is not really my thing. But the look of these microscripts—recently reproduced in a book of facsimiles—is spectacular. And because I write a lot on the subway, I got the idea to photograph other people writing on the subway. I made hundreds of pictures. So that’s going to be my next piece: portraits of subway riders doing crossword puzzles, writing checks, penning greeting cards. Anytime I saw someone with a pen or pencil, I photographed them.
MP: So you didn’t photograph anyone writing with an iPad?
MD: Well, smart-phones and iPods and e-readers in the hands of other riders often creep into the frame, surrounding the people with pens and pencils.
MP: Your work is frequently tied to discussions around the death of analog media. Is that a deliberate theme in this project?
MD: I do think about it, but mostly what interests me is the gesture, the concentration, the focus—the looks that people have of being in it. They’re in another space, in their heads. It’s the idea that you can be doing something very private in one of the most public spaces imaginable—the subway. People form these islands of privacy and concentration.
MP: Maybe you respond more to the idea of gesture than to that of accident? You often detail the way someone makes notes, like the size and style of their script. For instance, in “Notes on Photography and Accident” you describe Susan Sontag surrounded by papers in bed.
MD: I love that. I love your notebook. I love that you write in such an unpretentious notebook. And the paper’s really fine, like onionskin paper.
MP: This is one of those three-dollar notebooks you can get in delis.
MD: I know!
MP: Your show at the Fogg Museum in 2008, which was accompanied by the publishing of Long Life Cool White, seemed to spark a renewed interest in your work. Do you attribute the show’s success to its inclusion of video and writing in addition to photographs?
MD: My career has been up and down. I started showing in 1982, after completing a BFA from Concordia University, in Montreal. In Canada, I frequently showed in the artist-run and alternative galleries, which are really big there. And I received several grants. But I would also have these long, dry periods where nothing would happen—no shows, no grants. And this could go on for a few years before things would start to pick up again. In 1988, I graduated with an MFA from UCSD. Then I came to New York, went through the Whitney program, and started making the “Copperheads,” which were in many shows. This little bubble moment was followed by a long dry spell. But now I feel like I have some momentum, which, as you note, started with the Fogg show and the publication of Long Life. There’s something to publishing a book that includes your writing: It gives you the weight of the word, and it circulates. And while an exhibition is only up for a few months, a book lasts.
MP: Discussions of your work tend to focus on your nostalgia for all things analog. Will you ever make the switch to digital?
MD: I like analog processes, but eventually I will transition into digital working methods. For some photographers, it’s important that the image originate in a negative with emulsion and grain, as opposed to a file composed of 0s and 1s. But to me it’s like splitting hairs—I find it more of a semantic issue. A lot of my work already exists in a digital format, like the various photographic mailers I produced in, for instance, 32 Photographs from Paris (2009). I’ve scanned the negatives and I think the quality is amazing—the contrast and the color are both really faithful.
MP: In a recent interview, Walead Beshty said he dislikes the word picture, because it says nothing about the way an image is produced and displayed. His comment signals, among other things, the difference between viewing an image on a screen and seeing it on a wall. For Beshty, of course, this distinction in presentation format is paramount—because on a screen, you wouldn’t be able to see the folds in his prints, which are critical to the experience of the work.
MD: His work is very much an object: You see the curve of the paper; it’s sensual, tactile. Recently, I’ve been fascinated by the way other photographers are installing their work as a kind of montage, a visual cacophony of all these different forms of photographic presentation, with images framed and unframed, pinned up, mounted on Plexiglas, or xeroxed and papered to the wall.
I really like to keep things small. I like a book that you can hold in your hand. Oversize picture books are fantastic, but they’re awkward to read—you have to sit at a table with them. And I do most of my reading in bed, frankly, or on the subway. Except when I started making these pictures on the subway—then I became obsessed with spying on people.