I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Photography versus filmmaking, twenty-somethings, and New Orleans.
As participants of the international arts biennial, Prospect.3: Notes for Now, headed by artistic director Franklin Sirmans, Sophie T. Lvoff and Garrett Bradley discuss the nature of editing as it differs between still images and moving images, as well as questions on what differentiates art from moviemaking and narrative from documentary forms.
Lvoff is a New Orleans-based artist and curator. Lvoff uses literature as a jumping off point for her photographic-based work. Most recently having investigated the 1961 Walker Percy novel The Moviegoer, Lvoff’s body of color photographs entitled Hell’s Bells/Sulfur/Honey attempts to describe the indescribable in New Orleans through the search for authenticity and light.
After receiving a BFA from NYU and an MFA from Tulane University, her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries nationally & internationally. Her first solo show was at Good Children Gallery in New Orleans in 2013. Her work will be on view at the Contemporary Art Center as part of Prospect.3: Notes for Now opening October 25, 2014. In 2014 through 2015, Lvoff will attend the Ecole du Magasin curatorial training program in Grenoble, France.
Garrett Bradley is a New Orleans based artist working in film and video. Bradley’s work is reflective of the environments in which they are made. Often combining scripted scenarios with an impressionistic formality, the work leans toward the functionality of social juxtaposition and historical reflection as it relates to human conflict and class in America.
Below Dreams, Bradley’s first feature length film, was named the Best Narrative Feature, and Best First Feature in the 2014 TriBeCa Film Festival IndieWire Critics Picks. Bradley was also named Best Director. In additio to the work shown at Prospect 3, Below Dreams will be screening as a part of Festival du Nouveau Cinema Montreal, CPH:MARKET and the New Orleans Film Festival, October 18 and 23 at the historic Joy and Prytania Theater.
Sophie T. Lvoff We got to talking for the first time about our various ways of working in photography and film when we were eating huge cheeseburgers a few weeks ago. We realized that we have pretty similar ideas and a lot of interesting questions to ask each other about what either of our practices might be lacking or could be helped/bolstered by each other’s practices. In terms of photography, we talked about the lack of sound and continuity, and then in terms of film, the operation of editing, which is something that is used in photography constantly as well. So we started talking about that and it seemed to be an exciting conversation to have as well as relating it to New Orleans!
Garrett Bradley Yeah, thank you Sophie.I was so interested to hear about your editing process, how you conclude a body of work. So much about editing a moving image is about transition: creating a meaningful and graceful voyage from one moment to the next. Certain films make these decisions based on story: each moment is motivated solely to push the narrative. While that’s important sometimes, I’ve always been more interested in how the actual form, the actual images were seeing, work with one another. That’s also why I love Instagram (even though they’re corrupt). But sometimes I’m taking a picture that’s more in response to the one before or after it, rather than with the intention of it standing alone. With moving images, sound is the invisible space, assisting the transitions … I’d say that, actually, we are responding fifty percent to what we hear as much as we are to what we see.
STL So with that in mind, we should just start with talking about your recent finished work, the film Below Dreams. Was Tribeca the premier?
GB Yeah, it was the premier.
STL There’s a lot to delve into in terms of relationships between our work. I was really interested in the motion and how the film sort of takes place almost, but not entirely, while you’re traveling-you’re in a bus, you’re in a car, you’re on a moped. I wonder how that sort of filming device-I call it framing device when I teach photography-related to your story personally and related to the narrative of the film.
GB This first feature of mine was responding to the false assertion made by popular culture that everyone our age, in their twenties, has been well-educated and can’t get a job-that this is the central conflict defining our age group. I spent a year and a half travelling on Greyhound buses meeting people our age who didn’t fit into that demographic, who weren’t privileged but who also had dreams that were being unfulfilled. Lil Wayne references glass ceilings a lot. That image, more than anything else, I think defines our generation, or at least the majority of it, which oddly enough is rarely the focus of the conversation. Leann is a single mother of four and an aspiring actress and model. Jamain struggles with the stigma of being a young black man in the south who has gold teeth and is trying to make an honest living. Elliott is a college graduate from New York who travels to New Orleans in search of a girl who doesn’t exist. The film is a portrait of these three people- connected by their age and passion for life.
STL So, it’s a portrait of people basically unlike ourselves, who have been labeled as privileged and over-educated, battling ourselves and all of our peers in a recession. You’re trying to portray the rest of the people our age?
GB I don’t really identify with that pop concept though either, even though I grew up in New York and went to private school. There is privilege in that certainly, but as a minority—a brown girl, a mixed girl, a black girl—I was always a little different from everybody, and I think that’s why so much of my work aims to bridge gaps and address blurred lines. I’m really motivated by cultural exchange and portraying and highlighting the underdog. I should mention though that being different has evolved into an asset in a lot of ways, particularly as an artist and as a filmmaker. As a woman, I was able to connect with characters like Leann while doing research. As a Black American, I was able to connect with characters like Jamaine while travelling, and as I mentioned, as a college graduate from New York, I was able to connect with Elliott. That layered background and social malleability has proved to help quite a bit in my work as a filmmaker.
STL We can maybe pick back up on the motion question, but I like the idea of the underdog, because it really relates to New Orleans right? So everybody has always classified New Orleans as an underdog city—and obviously more so since 2005—it’s known as The City That Care Forgot. So can you talk about that in relation to this portrait, or as the sort of venue for this portrait?
GB I started taking Greyhound buses with a tape recorder and still camera to New Orleans without any real understanding of why I was doing it or what my purpose was. And in the midst of doing it, I met these people who were my age and were open to hanging out and talking. We got comfortable with each other, we’d watch each other’s seats, make sure the bus didn’t leave, and I started asking big questions, like what they wanted out of life and how they planned on getting it. Coincidentally, around this time, in 2010, the New York Times Magazine came out with this article, “What is it About Twenty-Somethings?” It was this incredible spread of beautiful people in Brooklyn and about this exact demographic that I was talking to on the way to the South, and it was so starkly different. It was so exclusive of the community that I had been talking to. I saw in that moment how history was created, how our perception of the past is so affected by who chooses to document what. That’s key. And that as artists, we aren’t just making work, we’re actually contributing to history, to the future and the perception of right now. So it wasn’t so much about New Orleans off the bat, it was more about the impetus of this reverse migration that was happening and the people that I had met in that process.
STL Talk about the traveling and the continual motion that you used as a tool.
GB It goes back to just this idea of a camera and what you can do with a camera. We spent all our money on lenses. We rented some baller CP2 Zeiss lenses and shot on the Canon 5D Mark III. Those are really small, consumer-level cameras. I could have shot photos; I could have gotten on a tripod and made it a very still “photographic film,” but because it’s a movie I wanted it to move. (laughter) I wanted to hear it and feel it in a way that still imagery facilitates in your imagination. In the final edit, I decided to keep some of the “mistakes.” For instance, when Milena Pastreich or Brian Richard, our cinematographers, were about to turn the camera off, the image would whip downward or in some random direction. I wanted to work that imagery in somehow. When working with Brian McOmber of Dirty Projectors, who was our composer, and Eric Hoen, who was the sound designer, we looked at those “mistakes” and created sounds and emotionality around them. That was a way for me to push narrative feature filmmaking in a direction that felt progressive. Some people want to puke when they see it. Some people seemed to like it. But I felt that was my job as a filmmaker to be bold with that. (laughter)
STL One of the things that struck me about the first long shot where you are capturing dialogue is that it’s essentially a landscape photograph. It’s William Eggleston, it’s Stephen Shore, it’s William Christenberry, and it’s Nan Goldin at the same time, with the lighting. But it was also shot at a low angle and not entirely still. It was as if you were on the buses with the characters, and you got out with them at the bus stops and got a coke with everybody else on the bus. People are stressed, people are tired, people haven’t showered—there is an exhaustion that I felt. Also, wondering about this roving eye—who are you, Garrett Bradley, supposed to be in the film?
GB Well, I’m the camera, I’m the eye. As a person, waking up in the morning going from point A to point B, I come across constant, corner-of-the-eye imagery. I hope the film re-approaches that happenstance, those people and moments and answers the questions raised by daily observation of the world. Like, what does it mean to be a single mother of four? Or, what are those two black men on Jackson Avenue in Central City talking about on that porch? Or, why do some people come to New Orleans and get so wasted? Again, I hope that the eye of this film brings you to these moments and stays there long enough for those questions to be answered. And in your images, in opposition to my own approach, we never see people. There’s always evidence of them, always this sense that someone was just there or is just about to arrive. It’s an apocalyptic feeling. Can you talk to me a bit about that almost ghostly presence?
STL It’s funny that you say the apocalypse, because that has come up before in terms of my work looking “post-rapture” And that’s an interesting question to ask in New Orleans, which, if one has a certain view of it, could be like Sin City.I think that I’m actually slow at photography, and in this new body of work I only have one photograph where there is a recognizable figure. And he’s moving and blurred. The way I’m working really has to do with driving around and following my instincts. This is almost half of my practice. Looking at things that I’m drawn to in terms of color or architecture—a mural, a sign, a shop, a tree, an overpass—and returning a few times. In New Orleans in the summer, you have some really amazing thunderstorms or moments of light. Things just go crazy and look completely impossible. People are milling around, but I’m interested in what happened here and not exactly who did this. New Orleans is a good venue for that as well because you have so much history, yet the state could just fall off the face of the earth because of environmental issues, or something could be stolen, or a place in the city could close up forever, or get abandoned, or become gentrified, and change entirely. I’m interested in photographing something important that happened here, and that could be something made up in my mind in a way that is not arbitrary. It could be an important cloud in this important lighting situation at this important tire shop, before the next change erases that moment.
GB When you’re thinking about the individual images, what is the process for you in finding those in-between moments? Do you find yourself basing them on their form or on their content? Do you find a tendency towards one or the other in creating that connection?
STL I think it really depends on an output, because I’ll continue shooting week after week knowing that there has only been a handful of times that I’ve photographed something. I shoot on film so it’s not like I’ll be seeing it right away, but I know when I send the film in that the picture that I shot or that a roll of film gave me goose bumps. I have a handful of pictures where everything was going right. I felt something in the air—almost like a sixth sense where I felt like it was a really important moment to capture, so I got it. I had a teacher in undergrad say that when printing in color, try to get the color of the air right. That’s also been part of my practice, and the air in New Orleans is specific. But every shot can’t always be an epic photograph, and I hope that there would be more subtle ones that would go in between. For example, I have an image of a bar that is bright purple and there is a graveyard behind it. After, coming upon it randomly on one of my hard drives, I knew that I had something that was ethereal. It was in the air. In terms of the body of work, it depends on output, or the venue, or if it’s going to be a book, or it’s going to be a show, and then it becomes about what goes together well. In terms of a layout and an edit, an exercise I’ve been doing is to sequence and edit a project, it’s such an important part of learning and teaching photography, and looking at photography books, which is a huge part of my practice and my research. You have people like William Eggleston and the book Los Alamos—it’s one of the most beautifully sequenced books ever made. It all has to do with what comes before and after, and a rhythm that emerges from repetition and motifs. I’ve been asked why I don’t make videos. I’ve tried to, but it just ends up being really boring: just wind and a car going by every once in a while. (laughter) So, I wonder how you decide what your output is?
GB That brings us back to ideas about sound which I think is crucial to understanding the relationship between photography and film. My belief is that we’re always experiencing sound just as much, if not more, as we are visual elements of something. For instance, I mentioned making connections between two moments or two scenes with the sound of a car passing by. With photography, is that transitional siren sound really a white wall in between two frames? How do you affect that physical space with stillness?
STL How did Below Dreams come to you as a contender for a film festival and not a video installation, for example?
GB Well, gallery spaces and theater spaces mean different things to the general public. Art and entertainment have always separated themselves from one another. I don’t know who did it first, but that seems to be the case in a lot of ways. Part of what I’ve done with Prospect3 has been to address this very question on what differentiates art from film, if the tools being used are the same. I think it has something to do with transparency and agenda, or the appearance of lacking an agenda. But as far as Below Dreams, I don’t have a stipulation on where it belongs. What interests me most is the possibility of re-creating an integrated environment by way of the projection into the space in which is viewed. In other words, when you speak directly to multiple communities, or less represented communities, you make room to fill physical spaces by way of its exhibition with those same peoples. That’s one example of how art can be a powerful political tool and can create social change.
STL And that’s much more inclusive than a gallery situation.
GB That brings us to Prospect, which was partially initiated with this idea of engaging the local community.
STL Absolutely, and continuing that relationship with the city for years. So how did you cast the film then? These are people that are actors?
GB I cast the film by posting ads on craigslist that read something like, “Are you a single mother? Have you had issues with the parole system in New Orleans? Have you graduated from college and don’t know what to do?” Then I spent months sitting at Hey! Cafe and meeting with hundreds of people. I eventually settled on the final cast based on how well we communicated, on the emotional bond either being evident or not, and according to availability. With the exception of Elliott, who I had known and worked with previously, the entire cast was found this way. Because of this process, the film has been described as being a part of “hybrid cinema,” which I is think is somewhat problematic. Really, post World War II, the Italians (namely Roberto Rossellini) invented neorealism, which was defined by a process not reliant on traditional actors, on sets, on static camerawork, or on tons of money. Filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry at UCLA during the 1960s reimangined this process. These were films made out of social and creative necessity. The term “hybrid cinema” feels like a dismissal of this history in some sort of way, and also speaks to a confusion of how to consider works that are neither Hollywood nor pure art. When you think about it in terms of performances, you think about some of the masters- you think about Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington. When you witness a performance so strong that it becomes real, is it still acting? Or is it a temporary embodiment? And if it’s real, can we say then that were still watching a movie, or is it a documentation of a moment? How do we understand striking performances by non-trained actors in relation to this and the term “hybrid”? Why the need for distinction?
STL How we started this conversation a few weeks ago was discussing how, if possible, to navigate through those communities. In photography there also are many camps. You can ask me, Are you an artist or a photographer? And I ask you, Are you an artist or are you a filmmaker? I’m interested in this question and I’m glad we can talk about it.
GB What’s really striking about your images is that the lighting is so beautiful. I wonder if, in some ways, a hint of control is what people perceive to be fiction, and something that feels less beautiful or less controlled is perceived as being nonfiction. That’s very literal, but when I look at your work, it does straddle that line. I think we have that in common. With Below Dreams, this question of, Am I watching something real or real? was chronic.
STL I’ve had to answer that same question about whether it’s set up, if it’s manipulated, where are the people, did you just have them stop walking at this moment? I don’t think it makes something more or less beautiful, I just like that idea of whether it’s controlled, if it’s the artist’s hand, what you put next to something and what you don’t. I still believe in beautiful things. Going through and art education, which we both have had extensively, you almost feel ashamed at saying that: you want it to be more conceptual, maybe less beautiful. But I still believe there are beautiful things in the world to be photographed. And whether that’s fiction or nonfiction, who really needs to know?
GB I would have to agree. It would make sense in terms of curation, in what context it would be exhibited and seen, but even then that’s more about the ideas in the work as opposed to the process of getting there.
STL Speaking of beautiful things, on our first date we had cheeseburgers and the waiter came up and asked if we wanted mayonnaise, and we both got very sicked out by that. I noticed there was a major mayo scene in your film.
GB Yeah, there was a really heavy mayo scene. That’s thanks to Milena, really. She, along with Brian Richard, has a really incredible eye. We both have backgrounds in photography, and she’s somebody who I can literally plop on a street corner and she’ll find stuff. That’s actually the way that we worked: we shot a bunch—I’m constantly shooting things on my cell phone—and I had a lot of video to show Brian and said, This the eye of the film right here. So, the mayonnaise scene is special for a lot of reasons whether you don’t like mayonnaise or you do like mayonnaise.
At the same time, it’s witness to the audience of some incredible self-sufficiency on the part of a six-year-old and a nine-year-old making dinner for themselves.
STL In a sense, the portrait could end, so there is a bleakness you have come to. There is a hopefulness in one character’s life, and there is a bleakness in the mother figure. I like the idea of there being these tiny accomplishments, these moments of beauty.
GB I’m glad you see that. Despite the logistics, the difficulty of everyday life for these characters, Leann and Jamaine have love. They have communities. They have goals and a sense of purpose which some of us, even with money and education, don’t have. I guess that’s what the New York Times was getting at. But how much sweeter when you know the other half of the story?
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee