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Laura Letinsky

To think about looking


Umberto Lisiero (UL): First of all I would like to ask you, please, to present yourself to our readers and inform them how your love for photography came to be and which photographers have mostly influenced your style.

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Laura Letinsky (LT): I began art school thinking that I was going to be a painter. I was circumvented because in order to take the painting class, I first had to complete a fundamentals class but I could take photography in the meantime. Over the course of several months, I began to realize that I could say something very particular with the camera that I couldn’t say any other way. The camera gave me permission to look, and to think about looking in a way that gave me a voice.When I was finally able to take painting I realized that while I was enthralled with the materials, the stuff of painting, at that point I could make no sense of my infatuation. Somehow, the distance imposed by photography allowed me to engage more with my subject.Photographers who were early influences and whose work continues to resonate with me include, Diane Arbus, Bellocq, Gary Winogrand, Cindy Sherman, August Sander, Jan Groover, Judith Joy Ross… favorite contemporary photographers include Rineke Dijkstra, Uta Barth, P.L. DiCorcia

UL: For the French intellectual Roland Barthes, photography kills the life-flow embalming fragments of life: What does photography represent for you? What characteristic of a photo makes it memorable?

LT: Hmmm, I’m not certain that I agree with the above take on Barthes. My understanding is that photography is akin to death in that whatever is photographed is no longer. In other words, through the act of photographing, there is an acknowledgement of death, that what one sees in the picture can never be again. And by inference, perhaps what is in the picture never really existed, except for as a picture. I am fascinated by Barthes treatise on photography and howhe tracks his initial structuralist reading as it/he becomes dismantled through thinking about his personal relationship to images and to the subjects depicted.The photograph’s proximity to something that seems real is compelling. So compelling in fact that I think (along with, for example, Christian Metz) that the photograph compels the production of more photographs because it is a fetish of sorts and as such, is always unsatisfactory thereby compelling the need for more and more images to feed our desire for what the picture evokes but cannot satisfy.

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UL: For Art Historian Ernst Gombrich, an image is not a copy of reality but the result of a long process; the making of an image means first of all looking, choosing and learning: How do you photograph? How do you reach the final image?

LT: The notion that photography is a mimetic device has long been called into question. A story yes. And as such it can have elements that feel real or true. I am especially interested in how the photograph tells us how to see. From writers such as Walter Benjamin and Joel Snyder, I understand the camera less as invention and more as a realization of 17th century notions of how to see and how to picture the world.
In my projects prior to my present still life series, I always thought I was responding to what was in front of me, reacting to the people as characters and to the scene. And in part this is true. However, in doing my present work, photographing inanimate objects, I have become aware of how intricate the relation is between response and directing, seeing what is in front of your eyes, the camera, and moving, changing, waiting… I often start with one idea but as I’m working, become visually engaged with something entirely different. I fell it is vital to the success of my work to try to walk this tightrope between the natural or found, and the made or contrived.

UL: Your photos seem to have a cinematographic flow; they look like single fragments of a continuous flow suspended between a “before” and an “after”. They are never static images. Is this only my impression or is it your characteristic way of working?

LT: I like that! I am so taken with the in-between, the about to happen, or just missed it. Formally, I try to construct my photographs so there is a kind of danger of things unravelling, of the slightly awkward elegance to collapse into a heap of stuff. Perhaps because this is a feeling I experience in the world, a tension between reading meaning into things or seeing them just as a bunch of incidentals.

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UL: Often you photograph still life (as in your “Morning and Melancholia” series): What do you want to communicate by immortalizing fruit, vegetables, glasses, tablecloths vases or kitchen corners?

LT: I mention above my fascination with how photography realizes 17th century notions of seeing and picturing. During this time, particularly in Northern Europe, the capitalist imperialistic protestant culture celebrated their fortunes and moralities in the genre of the still life. Normal Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked is an excellent exploration of this topic. I am endlessly taken with the way this work indicates the socio-political context of its production and reception, that this population cared about its stuff to this degree to picture it. And I see a similarity between this culture and ours, a late-capitalist global culture that has turned to the home as a site that embodies our identity while at the same time, revealing (on some conscious and unconscious level) who we really are.
The stuff of the table is one of our commonalities, something most of us do. The care and attention we give to this area indicates so much, our class, our aesthetic sensibilities, the work that “home” takes to make, that it is not a natural category but that one must work so hard to produce this space.
Anecdotally, I love to cook and eat. I like things, dishes, anchovies, the green when lemons start to mold…

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UL: One of your photos that I consider, more then others, marvellously taken shows a young man lying in bed intently observing a girl, her face only just visible reflected in a mirror. The young man seems to ask for validation, he seems to be asking the girl for that night just lived together not to be solely a casual meeting but the beginning of a meaningful relationship. The girl is looking down as if she wanted to escape other people glances, as if she acknowledged that she could promise the beginning of an unending love. No words, no signs but a thousand of sensations. Is this interpretation only the result of my fervent imagination or is it close (even if barely) to what you see in that portrait?

LT: I have a slightly different reading but yours is very much in keeping with my thoughts in this project. For me, I wanted to photograph people in a way that explored the complications of being in a relationship, a real relationship with ambivalence, having and not wanting, wanting and not having…
I wanted viewers to feel implicated in reading the story, either having felt something similar to what is depicted, or wanting to be in that pictured moment. I was really interested in voyeurism and how this terms that is about the pleasure of looking had become so negative. That to look was a bad act because it indicated an abuse of power. In further reading of contemporary psychoanalytic material and texts about child-rearing, the exchange of the look–looking and being looked at are equally of merit. In order to form a healthy parent-child relationship, both the parent and the child need to feel each others eyes. I was interested in this potential exchange as mutually satisfying, that to demand the attention of the gaze is wanted, as is the desire to look, to experience that pleasure. And I wanted to foreground the women in the pictures to see if I could shift the patriarchal identification that the camera and the act of looking had been labelled with.

UL: Lately a photo of yours (with no title) has been associated with the poem “A Twixt the Twine” signed Billy Corgan: What connection is there between the image and the text that accompany it?

LT: Yes, and no. I do read a lot of poetry and was flattered to have one of my still life images accompany Corgan’s poem. The old-fashioned flavor of his poem and the deteriorated black and white image we used seemed in keeping with one another.

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UL: Nowadays with digital everyone can turn himself or herself into a photographer. Is there something that distinguishes a great photographer from a common lover of photography?

LT: Ever since Kodak made the Brownie, people have had access to making pictures. To say something important/interesting is not the same thing as saying something.
To make good pictures I think you have to have something you are really interested in, something that you feel you can’t say any other way but as a picture. Making pictures is a process of asking questions, good questions, difficult question, and keeping up this process.

UL: Does the digitally touched-up photo maintain its particular characteristics or do you think it becomes a kind of faded copy of the original? What do you think the future will be for classical photography?

LT: No, to think that a digitally manipulated image is a deterioration of the original is to assume some sort of privilege for the original. But the original what? The scene or thing photographed? I do think that digital technology accentuates the plastic quality of photographic imagery and that the thing, the photograph or print or whatever is what we look at and try to understand.
I’m not good at making predictions but now that digital technology has been programmed to operate as if it is a light sensitive material, once a higher quality image is available, I imagine that photography will be a kind of anachronism still practiced by a few just as some photographers use platinum and large-format cameras.

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UL: The modern use of the term “image” often creates confusion between the “fixed image” and the “moving one”. If we say that with television we moved from the art-era to the vision-era we exclude the experience of contemplating each single image that consents the viewer a more reflective and sensible approach. What solution do you think we need to prevent photography and art to fall in second place compared to the flowing video?

LT: To me they are just entirely different animals with each doing different things. I don’t think video with its dependency on a screen, electricity, etc. is the same as a physical object like a photograph. Video commands a certain kind of attention; it’s almost physiological. However, it remains vastly different in what it accomplishes.

UL: Could you give us, please, a small description of your future projects?

LT: I am not certain right now. There are a number of things that interest me and hopefully this spring and summer I will have the time to explore some other possible directions. I’m always hesitant, maybe out of superstition, about talking about something before it is done. Suffice to say it will be close to home, if not literally my home, to the idea of home.


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