Philadelphia-based artist Chad Muthard recently self-published Follow My Lead After You, a hardcover book of black and white photographs that read like a piece of long-form fiction. Good design, heavy paper stock, and a nice cover, however, can only get you so far in self-publishing. What I found initially remarkable about Muthard’s latest effort was not that he self-published, but that he self-released it at the NY Art Book Fair this past September, not at the booth of a small press, but at his own table under his own name: Chad Muthard. Just Chad Muthard, a stack of Follow My Lead After You, and nothing standing in his way. The title is advice other self-publishers should heed.
After spending some time with my copy of the book, Chad and I had a conversation about it via email.
Jacob Pastrovich Before we get to the book, I want to talk about your process. As open-ended as the concept of “process” might be, can you share the most important part of your practice that is not related to the bookmaking aspect of your work?
Chad Muthard I create every photograph with a unique intention behind it. That’s not to say that I neglect the iconography used beforehand and how the newest one might add to the formal structure of a body of work, but that there remains an altogether different set of expectations for each to be regarded as complete. An important aspect of process is to control one’s reaction while still feeling free.
JP What type of reaction are you talking about?
CM What I mean is that photography as a medium can be utilized as a way to express yourself without letting emotions run wild outside of the frame. This is not always easily apparent, which is why it can be so difficult for people to understand.
JP What was the process like when working on the book? Do you have a concept, or a general idea for the work before you shoot?
CM The earliest photograph in the book was made in 2008 when I was walking around a graveyard late at night with a piece of vellum and a stick of graphite searching for an adequate name to do a rubbing with. I came upon one that simply said CHANCE and took a photograph then spent years attempting to feel comfortable with the idea of it. I printed it in various ways, applied things like matte medium to the print itself, scratched it up, highlighted it, painted over it, ripped it in half, but for whatever reason it never looked as finished as it does in the book.
You could say that in this book I take that same concept of pushing the boundaries of what can be done—and playing off what has already been done throughout history—within this designated format and run with it. It’s fluid throughout the book and there are no words to hold on to, so the viewer has to concentrate on what exactly may be going on in each photograph, how they relate, and the type of language that it builds.
JP Are the titles “Follow My Lead” and “After You” supposed to be separate but complimentary?
CM In the book, the two bodies of work are separated by a blank page, like a chapter would be. The series were always meant to compliment each other and at this point I honestly can’t imagine it otherwise. There’s something about the acronym for Follow My Lead After You that functions beautifully with the vocabulary inside too.
JP In a number of photographs the reader follows a mysterious woman down a concrete staircase. Presumably, she’s the one taking you on the journey. Did you intentionally create this narrative character to lead the viewer?
CM Yes, the woman slowly descending the staircase and becoming more seductive with every photograph plays a role not only as a reference to archetypes present in art history (Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase), but also acts as a representational icon for the medium itself in my eyes.
JP I notice there are also a few photos of her ascending the staircase as well …
CM … which seems more empowering than simply a fall.
JP Back to the way the book reads: I feel like a lot is left up to the reader in how to work the narrative, much the way a novel might read. As a reader, one might want to make the protagonist angsty (à la Holden Caulfield) or interpret everything in a completely different way. What are some visual clues or elements you used to help this read like a book?
CM It’s hard not to first look at photographs with that general atmosphere of isolation since it’s always apparent, but there are a few hints in the language and gestures that are very easily recognizable. A road, for one, is quite a striking symbol which leaves the interpretation open. It’s never not going to be difficult to tell whether or not a photograph displays fear, anxiety, or humor, but that’s completely up to the viewer. This is part of what I find so incredible about books made up of photographs. It has the ability to change with you over time without the constricting emotions that go along with words alone. I enjoy hiding elements in nature too.
JP Speaking of hiding elements, there are a lot of photographs in FMLAY that have reoccurring details—for example, you include a $5 bill more than once—and signs. Books also appear often.
CM I was talking more about the way an artist may spell out what they have in mind among the branches and woods or what resembles an upside down cross and skull in the smoke of trees set on fire, but now that you are bringing up the $5 bill, I’ll tell you that it’s part of an old ritual where money is concealed for others to find. It’s somewhat absurd to look at it as imagery in a photograph because what you see is all made of relatively the same material yet assigned different values through a human process. As far as reoccurring elements are concerned I definitely do gravitate toward certain icons, especially when they tend to be ubiquitous in the environment, yet rare in the slightest way.
JP There’s a very dark element to the photographs, both in palate and subject matter.
CM I hear this from time to time, but I never know how to respond properly. It’s a subjective viewpoint to a degree, however I will not deny that what I do tends to evoke deep feelings of sorrow and melancholy. I believe these to be emotions that we need to be honest about so if it gets projected at all through my use of the medium I’m entirely fine with that.
JP A lot of the photographs have a timeless feel, while others include things that instantly date them like the label of a soda bottle or an iPhone. I read this as an intersection of past and present and on a larger scale. To me, this book is all about intersections.
CM That’s an insightful way to go about thinking of it. The concept of what constitutes a timeless quality is continually an issue in photography, which in itself is hysterical, so dealing with what is currently at hand is paramount for survival.
JP Do you find yourself constructing other sets of principles in your work? Why, for example, are all the photographs vertical?
CM I found that vertical photos are a difficult format to deal with. Thinking to myself, “How many great photographs have been made in the history of photography are structured this way?” It didn’t seem like all that much at the time; certainly more had appeared to fail than succeed. Once I was able to begin to feel accomplished with a few it simply became a set part of the discipline for this particular body of work.
If we are discussing systems, or rules, I would say that I change the dynamic every day in order to progress forward and not fall into too many sentimental traps. I’m an overtly romantic character; if you feel that way, it’s probably best to be careful about what you put in front of the camera. You may find yourself wanting to come back to it again and again. This could go on forever …
JP Outside of photography, what are some things you’re drawing from?
CM I enjoy a lot films and think it’s important to learn about how cinema has gone through various movements and styles as well. For a while, I was really into Italian Neo-realism and how Fellini took parts of what was supposedly its signature and added to it. That helped a lot with how I began to configure my own work in photography. The play with what is mundane or common and how it becomes entangled in the melodramatic. Obviously, John Cassavetes’s films rank very high thereafter. Same with Woody Allen and Jim Jarmusch; Broken Flowers, Manhattan, and Sweet & Lowdown destroy me every time. Stops a person dead in their pacing tracks or brings to mind a million would-a-could-a-should-a moments.
Reading also plays a very large role in my life. Without it I never would have been articulate enough to accomplish so much so far or be able to write about it even a little bit with intelligence. Where that is concerned there are also many to mention, favorites include Mark Twain, Knut Hamsun, John Fante, David Goodis (a native Philadelphian who played a large role in noir fiction and French New Wave), Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Albert Camus, Paul Valéry, André Malraux (outside of his fiction, Picasso’s Mask is incredible), Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace and as you spoke of before J. D. Salinger (“A Perfect Day For Bananafish” and “Teddy” are cult classics). Painting and Drawing are constants as well, I even own a few, and am always inspired by the new ones that my friends create and how they fit alongside the greats. That said, I have tried on a good number of these hats throughout the years, and there are times when I find it best to focus all of my energy in considering exactly what I myself am doing with the subject matter and ideas I create and put out there into the world.
JP Was there ever an a-ha moment that made you know photography was it for you?
CM At times, it’s as though people simply want you to become a mirror, which has terrible connotations to it, however mirrors simply reflect so there is comfort in the ability to disappear whenever you choose. What other artistic creative medium could possibly offer this? None. The best a sculpture can do is be exactly that—how sad.
To see more of Chad Muthard’s photography or to purchase Follow My Lead After You visit his website.