As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
I met Joseph Bartscherer in 1982 at a Richter show in SoHo. My girlfriend at the time, Vikky Alexander, knew Joseph and thought that I’d like him. Joseph was sporting a cane from a knee accident. We immediately started talking about Richter and then about photography. When Joseph moved to New York in 1993, I subdivided a floor with him and for seven years we worked next door to each other. It was wonderful to have Joseph as a studiomate and it’s something I deeply miss now that I live in California. On a humid September afternoon last year, we met up for a few hours in Joseph’s Hudson Street studio.
James Welling Joseph, let’s begin with some background, where and when did you begin making art? What got you started?
Joseph Bartscherer I was at Harvard studying literature and philosophy. Ben Lifson came to the college as a visiting artist and suggested that some of the ideas preoccupying me in my academic coursework might be addressed more immediately making photographs. Eventually this led me to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where I began Construction in 1978.
JW NSCAD was known in those days as a hotbed for conceptual art. Dan Graham, Jeff Wall, Lawrence Weiner, Gerhard Richter, Benjamin Buchloh, many known and soon-to-be luminaries were there. You also studied with Robert Frank. Did the atmosphere at the college figure in your approach to photography?
JB Graduate students in Halifax were not expected to attend formal classes but rather to mix with faculty and participate in the climate of debate, often vigorous debate, that prevailed at the school. The art I made took shape in the swim of those discussions. Between semesters in 1978, I’d returned, as I’d done throughout college, to work construction in New York. By midsummer I’d been laid off and started bringing my camera to the site every day—the job was in Times Square—instead. When I got back to school, the demolition and excavation of a square block in downtown Halifax had just begun. It happened to be the site of the oldest piece of block-planned architecture in North America, a row of cast-iron buildings constructed just around the time very similar ones were built here in New York, in SoHo. There was resistance to the demolition from preservationists but it was finally agreed construction could proceed if the new building was fronted with the original 19th-century iron facades. I followed the construction over the course of a year. The photographs described practical events and evidence of structural progress that would reveal, even to an outsider, a sense of what was being done. The pictures were made to be clear and singular, each a self-contained observation about a task or development on the site. At the same time the pictures were intended to function in concert, and fall into groups. For instance, I’d photographed an elevator shaft at four stages of construction, and that formed a natural series.
JW Often very early work has important elements that continue into mature work. In this early piece, you chose a hierarchical landscape. Construction sites, as I understand them, are guild structures, different groups of people engaged in very specific tasks. That particular site in Halifax was also an excavation: you see in your photographs a lot of earth, sides of rocks. I find so many interesting echoes in your latest work, of this very early piece: your grouping of pictures, your mixing of manmade and natural elements, and your picturing processes of structuring and accumulation.
JB It was an establishing piece for me and one that was literally concerned with grounding. The original 19th-century buildings sat on bedrock with no foundation so they had to excavate 20 feet into the earth in order to build the modern building, to go back, in a way, into geological time. Implicit in the new construction were questions of origin and priorities. Once something exists, it becomes part of a familiar landscape and the decisions that led to its making fade. Here, because it was all so new, you could see and question certain basics which seemed purposeful, or arbitrary, depending on whether you could figure out the sense of the construction method.
JW In the next two bodies of work you take a look at radically different organizations of space and materials. You move from looking at a construction site to looking at agriculture. And you move out to Seattle from New York. How did Five Farms and Pioneering Mattawa start?
JB Let’s backtrack. On the construction site, you could decipher what was happening because it was following a purposeful order, the place was organized around functional processes, and the series I made reflected them. When I drove across the country with this still in mind, I looked with the same eye at the American landscape, one that had been purposefully built: a town is located where two rivers come together, or because it happens to align geographically with two older settlements. Or it served as a halfway point, a trading post. So it was, in my mind, a reflection of priorities, desires, hopes, processes.
What you saw once you got over the Alleghenies—and especially once you got out into Oregon territory—were places whose present look still showed the organizing work of the first settlers. Thirty minutes from Seattle you could see a valley that, once the trees were cleared, had been used only for agriculture, homesteads whose fenced fields retained the contours of their original boundary lines; it’s one of the things that led me to making the Snohomish pictures.
JW Okay, so now you are settled in Seattle…
JB I was feeling around for a project and one day, driving through Snohomish Valley, about forty minutes northeast of the city, I got stuck behind a truck laying fresh tar on an old road. The road was deep black and the fields on either side were a dusty brown. To my art-schooled eye it looked beautiful, like a Richard Serra drawing. And I thought—too bad, it would be stupid to photograph this because it would be such a decorative recapitulation of a minimalist gesture. But then it occurred to me there were probably a lot of people in the valley who also noticed the tar truck, and for them it was good news because they were reconstituting the road; it meant the end of winter, the beginning of spring, a new cycle. I looked at the valley and the disposition of ditches, fields, fences, and buildings. Everything in sight was carefully, purposefully placed. This bucolic farmland, which initially looked only like countryside, was in fact a functional terrain that could be approached in the same way I had approached the construction sites.
JW You worked on that project for four years, mastering a four-by-five camera and sorting out technical questions along the way. Those pictures have a wonderful kind of pearly gray. You recorded—in black-and-white—farms and landscape, but there’s also a beauty in the clouds, the soil, the tractors, and the reflections in the irrigation ponds. There’s a real command of not only a way of seeing, but also of making photographs. This struck me immediately when I first saw the pictures.
JB I still felt very new to photography. Because of the conceptual nature of the program in Halifax, I had almost no technical background. I had to teach myself what I needed to do to make the kind of pictures I wanted to make. In Snohomish, and on the construction site, I was often photographing things that didn’t have ready names, things a small-format camera could delineate only vaguely, or would render abstract. I wanted to describe phenomena like the layering of sequential concrete pours, how they changed color or surface texture because of variations in drying times or temperatures, that would indicate the time and eventfulness of an accumulative process. In Snohomish I was sometimes photographing slight variations in the color of the earth or patterns of vegetation, and in order to render it vividly, I needed to figure out how to use a view camera and print well enough to make very clear descriptions. I also wanted the constituent materials of the fields—the crops, weeds, soils, equipment—to have a pictorial presence that reflected their material actuality. Coming from a construction site, I was unable to imagine how to make pictures that would handle deep space. I found myself, for the first year, making pictures around the stockyards and barns, the architectural spaces that recalled the construction site. It took a year to think of the distant fields as part of a system that related to the waste reservoirs and near fields close to the barns and the cattle-yards, and to be able to start understanding and describing the spaces in an integrated, intuitive way.
JW You worked on Pioneering Mattawa for nine years. It seems to me that it’s in this work that you discover the formal vocabulary of installation, of gridded arrangements that your most recent work, Forest, relies on. The viewer is encouraged to look at an array of pictures in relation to each other, and to do the work of assembling the piece because you can’t see it all at once. It’s really a process of looking at things, remembering and coming back to them. That vocabulary of grids mimics the internal structures of the agricultural land, and projects the activity that’s taking shape in the photographs. Set up the Mattawa piece for us. As I understood it, Mattawa was one of the last WPA projects. It always struck me that you found something that Walker Evans might have photographed.
JB Mattawa is a place in the eastern Washington desert, south of the Grand Coulee; a parcel of land included in a vast irrigation project foreseen by FDR as a side benefit of the dam. Its founders thought that since there was all this water impounded in the reservoir behind the dam, they might as well use it to irrigate the desert. It became a model for a number of grand scale irrigation projects throughout the world. In the late 1930s the U.S. government made public their plan to irrigate more than a million acres. Homesteaders soon settled throughout what was still a great stretch of aboriginal desert, a piece of country that looked much the same as it did for thirty or forty thousand years. The irrigation canals themselves were only gradually built from the ’40s through the ’80s. I first heard about this project in 1984, when it was announced that the very last parcel of the original acreage was about to be irrigated. They were building concrete canals out to a spot on the map called Mattawa. So I began photographing in 1984, and continued til 1993.
I was drawn to sites of settlement, places in the process of being established—the building site in Halifax, the dairy farms in Snohomish, the orchards and vineyards in Mattawa—places where almost every material thing there was brought to be used for a discernable purpose. As they evolved the sites retained intrinsic coherences and continuities that allowed me to make a series of pictures, each with its own subject or set of subjects that, seen together, would coalesce as a unified whole. The subjects—walls, stairways, fruit trees, tie-downs, watercourses and barrens—were rich with metaphoric and symbolic associations that counterpointed the work’s formal and topical austerity.
JW You worked with a writer on Mattawa, Willard Wood. The piece involves texts written by him, by you, and by the two of you. How did this collaboration come about?
JB Willard is an old friend, a poet and translator, who was a crucial colleague for me during the time I was completing Snohomish. It so happened that in 1984 he was working as a farm manager near Mattawa, and heard about its impending development. He was the one who asked me to come out and have a look. The original idea was that he would produce a series of texts, I would produce a series of photographs, and they would be presented together as an integrated piece. The way it actually transpired was more complicated than that. Wiley was living there spending a lot of time figuring out what of consequence was going on day to day, which events signaled the progress of the agricultural development, trying to make sense of the place. I would come out for weeks at a time from Seattle. He would call my attention to a new lock or siphon or to the way the sage was being systematically ripped out in blocks. He took me to where we could look out over miles of territory and see the progress of settlement by looking at where the dust blew up over new ground. A lot of what he noticed led me to the photographs I eventually made.
JW It’s really surprising that you can find poetry in such a brutal environment.
JB The very first text we produced for Pioneering Mattawa was about the shaping and the pruning of trees to optimize yield. Our conversations circled around the poetic or philosophical implications of what was going on. We came to talk about the settlement in Mattawa as an exercise of will, of dominion, that recapitulated the original settling of a piece of the earth, as primal in its way as a Neolithic settlement, as elemental and articulated as the landscape of Virgil’s Georgics. We understood it as both in opposition to, and in harmony with, the intractable givens of the natural order. Water being moved across the desert could flow most efficiently if it took advantage of gravity. Canals would carry not only water but pesticides, seeds, and weeds, bringing with them the history of earlier farms upstream. A tree pruned to produce the most apples possible had to take account of the orientation of the sun and the tree’s natural tendency toward vertical growth.
JW You are describing basic, good farming practices. What is remarkable is that they take place in the desert.
JB It seemed when we first went out there, you could stand in a field in the middle of Mattawa and name every single thing in sight—ground, sky, sand, sage, rattlesnakes, rabbits, bunchgrass. The epistemological structure of Mattawa seemed very close to its ontological structure, by which I mean what was nameable and knowable seemed very close to what was there.
JW You made grids with empty spaces and texts among the photographs.
Where did that idea come from?
JB I began working with groups of photographs right from the beginning. It probably came out of a frustration with what seemed to me the superficial completeness of a single photographic glance. Notwithstanding the work of the Bechers, or the great books of Walker Evans and Robert Frank and many others, the prevailing histories of photography still celebrated the isolated image. It was more interesting to me that groups of photographs could act as aggregates, that individual photographs could stand in relationship to each other as stanzas in a poem, or collections of poems in a book. That there could be interdependencies that would bolster, reinforce, undermine, contradict each other within the body of a work. I’m generally drawn to works that are fragmentary in microstructure but also monolithic, whose bits and pieces together address an overarching idea. While I was making the construction pieces I read Moby Dick, and was interested in the way Melville used the grand narrative structure of the plot to contain the fragmentary, tangential, discombobulated pieces that became individual chapters and individual sets of semi-independent imagistic, or philosophical ideas. It seemed to me that by organizing a work around an apparently coherent but factually broken field of endeavor, and building it of fragments, it was possible to reflect an actuality. As the pictures begin to come together as a body of work over the course of a year or ten years, the images would conglomerate and break apart, and come to be organized in different ways.
JW Yes, that’s what I found surprising. You continue to rearrange the pictures and put them together in new ways. As you’re developing the piece you’re exploring it, you’re adding new modules, and then old modules get combined with other old modules—you’re learning about the subject, as well as the piece.
JB Relationships among pictures are hard to predict. Photographs of disparate subjects, or of unrelated places convene, for instance, because their picture spaces are similarly drawn, or because of the proximity of the camera to its subject. Close-up photographs might seem to form a certain group, or photographs that took as their nominal subject a singular plant—an isolated apple whip, a corn shoot, a potato vine at the edge of a field—would form a natural group. But then all the pictures of potato plants, or fields flowering or harvested, or pictures with high horizon lines would form another. I organized the photographs not so much chronologically, or to trace a narrative, or by typologies, say the way the Bechers have, but by following an associative logic based on affinities and disjunctions among pictures and picture groups.
JW It’s as if you are evoking literature as a book layout on the wall, or better yet the diagram of a sentence on the wall. The same structures of layout and schema recur when you work with the front page of the New York Times, in Obituary and later in Ava Gardner Dies. How did these begin?
JB I began as a subscriber, just noticing the New York Times on my doorstep every morning in Seattle I was struck how the schema of the front page resonated with that of the landscape I was repeatedly visiting in Mattawa. There are types or categories of pictures—a man at a microphone, a sports figure in action, a landscape identified as the site of a disaster—that would recur day to day both within the framework of a single page, but also repeated from one day’s front page to the next. The two-dimensional grid of the page provided a graphic matrix where striking, poetic, or jarring juxtapositions could and did occur. Eventually I noticed how pictures and layouts played off each other over the course of time and my take on this seemed analogous to the read I had of consistencies and changes in the evolving landscape of Mattawa. I began setting papers side by side, laying them on the ground, or putting them on the wall one after the other, to underscore resonances I noticed between editions maybe days, weeks, or years apart. By then I had many different collections of newspapers lying around the studio, but the piece that seemed to be developing on its own and had the most potential was a collection of a dozen or so papers that carried a front page obituary. Playing against the superficial logic of the group—they all featured dead people—were the particulars of disparate, remarkable lives that resonated with a reader’s own personal history and psyche. So the piece recollects public news and conflates it with private memories. Like Mattawa, Obituary began with the premise that it would go on for a long period of time. It’s now been more than eighteen years. As it grows it parallels an increasing portion of my own life and also the life of any viewer. A 22-year-old looking at the piece might revisit images, events, even artifacts—the newspapers themselves—of early childhood.
JW You are uncompromising about this piece. I saw it at Marian Goodman maybe ten years ago. You exhibit the actual newspaper—the earliest ones are yellowing and the most recent ones are in pristine condition. It’s also a piece about archiving and saving things. There’s a lot of backstory to the work. By choosing this range over the last eighteen years, you introduce the idea of the archive, with its replacement by electronic media—the Internet started up during the life of this work. It also charts the move from black and white to color photographs in the Times. I find that significant.
In 1999 you began Forest. As it stands now the work consists of fifty-seven individually framed photographs arranged in a solid grid three high. It appears you’ve been going to the same landscape over numerous seasons. When you rolled the maquette out for me today, I counted fourteen photographs of the exact same location; a heroic image of a tree topped by a windstorm. There’s another location where you seem to be standing on a bluff, looking out over a group of old and young trees. There are seasonal photographs of that view, and they are interspersed in this array so that I have the sense of looking at the same places, coming back to them, going forward in time, backward in time. In a strange way Forest lines up with the New York Times piece; they both mark changes in an orderly way—daily, seasonally, annually.
JB Yes, and the timespans of the two pieces overlap.
JW In Mattawa I keep coming back to the image of plants silhouetted against this white desert sand. Forest has no silhouettes; it’s a jumble of things, and yet the impression I get after looking closely at it is that for all the chaos of a forest, it’s a highly structured place. Lookng at your pictures, many of which you made by repeatedly going back to the same places, the absolute regularity of natural forces becomes visually unlocked. And Forest is a work about abstraction; it pictures very complicated dynamics that take place in this aboriginal site.
JB Something I didn’t think about as I was making it, but saw progressively as the piece came together, is the way color would function in the final piece. Which is in some sense proper to the forest, but much more a function of the Ektachrome palate as it relates to the colors of the forest. It has a dynamic role in the presence of the entire grid: there are affective associations we have with the greens of the trees, the reds and oranges of fall, that operate within individual frames, create associations among pictures, and also trace abstract lines and shapes across the grid. It’s something I didn’t anticipate, but once it surfaced, became part of my approach to both the place and the piece. As I get into any piece I find the pictures I make increasingly relate to pictures I have made before. As this one grew I wondered myself at the number of repetitions. Practically it came about because the forest is accessible by just two logging roads which are open only part of the year. There are watercourses and discernible tracks worn by deer and other animals, but no hiking trails. It’s easy to get lost. In the first year or two I was preoccupied to distraction trying to figure out where I was so I could get back at the end of the day. This dread of being lost drove me to familiar places. I knew how to walk to a particular view so I would return, only to discover it to be a new place occupying recognizable ground, a place changed by light, foliage, humidity, animals, wind. So the pictures describe wild places that are also known places. The repetition of images structures their wild aspect while, at the same time, their persistent wildness undoes the possibility of knowing them. Many of my pieces, and most conspicuously Forest, deal with the relentless, changing continuities of remembered places and marked events.
Because of the density of the images, the repetitions are not always obvious to the viewer, but somebody approaching the piece might slowly realize they’re seeing one picture that nearly duplicates another 30 feet down the wall.
JW Some of the most amazing pictures in Forest show life and death competing; gooey protoplasm is issuing forth in a freezing spring stream, for instance.
JB It did become obvious to me as I spent more time in the forest, and as it started to extend over years, that my own mortality, my life story, was somehow paralleling the progress of mortality that’s inherent to the evolution of the forest.
JW Which brings me to your de Tocqueville quote: “Generations of dead lie here side by side. On the forest floor, life and death meet face to face as if they wished to mingle and confuse their labors.”
JB The original idea for my show in Paris last year was that Forest would be on the ground floor, and that Ava Gardner Dies, a collection of portraits drawn from Obituary, would be upstairs. This piece had already been published as a bound book, but for the exhibition the portraits were to be stacked and arranged on tables around the gallery. The hinge between the two works was an excerpt from a text by Alexis de Tocqueville that included that quote. Around the time he was working on Democracy in America, de Tocqueville made a trip to the then distant wilderness between Buffalo and Detroit. He wanted to see a real aboriginal forest, because in 1830-something, when he made his trip, the East Coast of the United States no longer qualified in his view as wilderness. He went out to the forest primeval for several weeks with his friend and collaborator Gustave de Beaumont and subsequently wrote an essay about the forest that finally appeared in print some twenty or thirty years later, posthumously.
Recently a friend came by my studio. What she noticed, which interested me too and hadn’t struck me before, was the degree to which my approach to narrative in a photograph differed from the approach of artists interested in storytelling, like Jeff Wall, or even Nan Goldin. Whereas they were using pictures to tell stories, I was working against the narrative. I chose subjects that seemed to have their own built-in stories, and I would take that story for granted in the same way that Melville, once he had the plot laid out, took the hunt for the white whale for granted, and could then play against it with the more fragmentary parts of the work. In the same way, Walker Evans took the circumstances of the Great Depression and the remnants of the Old South almost as a photographic set against which he could play his contemporary observations that often had nothing to do, topically, with either subject. His picture of Allie Mae Burroughs can just as plausibly be construed as a picture about a certain erotic tension, or the relationship of youth to age, as it can be read as a picture about a woman caught in the historical flux of the Great Depression—
JW What you’re saying is that when something is released from narrative obligations, then narrative returns in a different guise.
JB The narrative is a pre-existing web, not something that exists because I’ve made the pictures. I don’t tell the story of Mattawa, I more or less take that as something you’ll imagine. Or in Construction you sort of know what it is to make a building, and you’ll bring that to the picture of a dead concrete wall with the ghosts of the plywood form pressed into it, so a picture of the impression of plywood on concrete comes to be a picture about the invention of an edifice. The individual images become invested with the metaphoric life of their backstories. The play of backstory against present observation becomes the life and dynamic of these pieces, and of a great deal of work I admire.
JW You make a very forceful case for it in your work. Photographers create highly structured ways of seeing—Joel Snyder uses the term “rules of attending” to differentiate how photographers create their work. We all look at things with different rules of attending.
JB I try to make my pictures read as plausible stares. It’s one of the things I admired about Robert Frank’s pictures when I first saw them, how much they felt like what it was like to see. In his case and in a lot of Andre Kertesz’s work, it’s not so much a stare as a glance. But the principle holds. One of the things I built into my pieces—most self-consciously starting with Snohomish—was that my proximity to a subject would reflect my curiosity and, to use a loaded word, intention. So when I was photographing things very close up, I often used a wide-angle lens. The pictures don’t look wide angle, but they approximate what it feels like to stand very close to something and stare at it. If I were to use that lens to photograph things from further away, you’d be much more conscious of the photographic distortion. I was interested in disguising the distortion and instead making a sequence of pictures that, one by one, read as moments of consciously focused attention. This introduces the idea of the looker and so raises the question: why is somebody staring at something this closely; wherein lies his curiosity that he would look at something in such a way? To the extent that it evokes the act of looking, it suggests a frame of mind in which somebody’s attention is aroused. Then you have introduced to the photographic project something like literary voice.
This artist interview is sponsored in part by the Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation.
James Welling is a photographer who lives in Los Angeles. His work will be included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial and will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in April. Welling will co-edit the next issue (#37) of Blind Spot.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.