Laura Letinsky is a theoretically minded photographer who is sensitive to art history. Her photographic still lifes have all the light obsession of a Vermeer and the lushness of Dutch vanitas paintings, but contain modern Styrofoam cups among natural detritus of orange rinds and rumpled and spilled cut flowers. And her recent photographs of two-dimensional image ensembles construct mysterious relationships and disarrange our familiar associations. Her work is often beautiful and ambiguous and full of the pathos of decay and, as such, suggests the outlines of the photographic medium itself.
Originally from Canada, Letinsky is based in Chicago, where she is a professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago. She has published and exhibited widely and internationally—most recently at PHotoEspaña 2019.1 I originally met her during her residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin in the summer of 2017. We Skyped between Berlin and Chicago in July 2019 to reprise some of our conversations about her work and about the photographic medium.
Sarah Goodrum: The first question I have is about the trajectory of your career. Looking across your different projects, I went back to the early images that you made of couples and looked through the various gradations of your still-life images. I was reminded of how you’re always pulling apart the layers of the still-life genre, and I think you are always really caught up with the indexical quality of photography. If I look at your work as a sort of timeline, you’re starting with couples and then you pull the couples out of these scenes, and then you have these sort of abandoned spaces. Then you get into still-life scenes on tables that themselves seem to have been abandoned, and slowly the objects have disappeared and become collage. How did you get from couples to where you are now? [Image 1].
Laura Letinsky: In 1989 when I first started the couples project, Venus Inferred (1990–96, published as a book in 2000), it was at a time when I had initially been interested in Diane Arbus’s photographs of people presenting themselves in public. It was a move from photographing people in public situations that, for me, was sort of a way of obfuscating the question of voyeurism—“Am I being a voyeur by photographing?”—as I felt that if people were on display and wanted to be seen, that I was just going along with what they wanted. Moving to the more intimate scene of romance and love was an acknowledgment of this arena as one that is heavily orchestrated. That is, the subject of love is the stuff of mainstream culture, love songs, self-help books, Cosmopolitan magazine, and porn, yet we consider this aspect of our life as individual and idiosyncratic. As I worked on this series, I became less interested in what people offered as their appearance or how they presented themselves. I grew dissatisfied with the limitation of what could be pictured; what the photograph offered seemed to collapse into melancholy, as it was predicated upon the impossibility of fulfillment—really, the classic structure of romanticism and desire. You can only want what you don’t have. The predictability of this narrative and its conspiracy with the photograph that also is predicated upon never fulfilling what it portends. . . . I felt I knew the answer, or the picture, before I even made it. And I was tired of this formulation.
Were there any particular theoretical influences driving your thinking about that project?
Laura Mulvey was obviously a big influence, along with Teresa de Lauretis, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Lauren Berlant, and also Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud. I did a lot of thinking about questions of seeing and picturing and also, as I worked through the couples project, I was interested in mainstream and religious representations of romance that predicate the visualization of love today. Through the Enlightenment, there was a shift from the sacred and the allegorical to attention to the person. Forms like painting set up the expectation of what things look like and visual material works as a pedagogy to tell us what we want. The photograph supported a notion that what is pictured is real, while at the same time we’re suspicious of what we see. We reenact what we see and then photograph ourselves, enacting a cycle of production and consumption between what we see and how we (re)enact this, proving it through photography that then shows us who and how to be. It’s a kind of never-ending snake eating its tail, like an ouroboros.
Image repetition compulsion—the compulsion to photograph everything—was being fully realized through the advent of digital technology and the iPhone. Mainstream media, including advertising and our self-production/promotion, was omnipresent. This shift from pictures of people to pictures of objects felt like a shift from looking at the couple from a third-person point of view—a kind of primal scene, à la Freud—to a first-person narrative. In photographing still life, as in my 2004 book Hardly More than Ever, I was building on the photograph’s use in mainstream media and advertising.2 I was really interested in the still life, in particular the Dutch-Flemish, Northern European tradition of picturing in a particular way that necessitates the invention of photography. As Walter Benjamin and then Joel Snyder articulate, the photograph is less an invention than a realization of a set of ideas and ideals about how to describe the world. Furthermore, this mode of picturing that is photography serves the purposes of capitalism and colonialism and consumer culture [Image 2].
From the still life work I was doing, I guess around 2008 or 2009, things started to fracture for me, and I turned back to ceramics and textiles as other ways of thinking about some of those questions. I made Stain (2013) using napkins and Molosco (2009–present) with a set of porcelain dinnerware. Stain, in collaboration with John Paul Morabito, is a set of eight damask dinner napkins with eight stain variations woven into the neutral hued fabric. I was frustrated by our societal adulation of whiteness that is a totalitarian prohibition against, as I see it, life itself. Why don’t we appreciate scars, stains, wrinkles, pigmentation for that matter, as signs of virility, of the goodness of life lived, of process and change? As for Molosco, I’d read Michael Pollen’s treatises on food, and his invitation to eat as much junk food as one wants as long as one prepares it, because making ice cream, cakes, French fries, etc., is labor intensive and discourages overconsumption. I decided that to mitigate my own desire for clothes, housewares, et al., I’ll make my own things. It began with a quest for the perfect bowl in which to eat a Mediterranean fish soup (I like to cook), and I became obsessed, producing plates, bowls, servingware, and cups [Image 3].
Photography seems to trigger desire, such that when I see something, I want that thing or I want to be in that scene. I’m thinking of the recent Celine ads—they’re all over the magazines, and they’re just so beautiful. The Marni ads have also been so beautiful in the last couple of years. The way that those images trigger my desire to be somehow in that life, as if, if I had those objects, I would be able to live that fantasy.
What happened at that point when your object-based still lifes started heading toward collages of photographs?
I started working with photographs because of the way it seemed like there was no difference between the photographs and the objects, in that both of them were just a part of that cycle of consuming and producing. I was using the photograph as a kind of raw material akin to the object, thinking: What was necessary to have in front of me to make the photograph? Did I need the thing or was an image of the thing the trigger for the thing? I was trying to restructure the desire so that, if you want my photographs, you don’t want a fantasy that is represented, but rather the photograph itself. The photograph is a photograph is a photograph, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, like the rose is a rose is a rose [Image 4].
Rather than a projection of a fantasy, my pictures use the fantasy, indulge in it even, but foreground that the picture is a picture and whatever it projects is just that. Rather than focusing on the “what,” that is, what is in the picture, I want my viewers to be aware of the act of photographing: “how,” if you will, we are seeing and understanding our world.
When I was in in Spain, going to museums there, listening to the hyperbolic “This is the pure genius of [for example] Gaudi,” it astounded me that there was nothing really being said, besides the fact that he’s pure genius and I should be amazed and in wonder. Similarly, in the descriptions of Diego Velázquez’s paintings, they were not about what Velázquez is doing formally or conceptually, but instead: “The coat of arms that Phillip is wearing goes back seventeen generations in his family and it was passed down. . .” The things being represented, rather than the process of representation, is what gets emphasized, as if representation were completely transparent.
It’s the process of representation that I’m interested in and foregrounding at least as much as, if not more than, the “what” that is being represented. A means of engaging representation, in its variations, as a way of thinking through how the means of representation, including what is represented and how, reveals what and how we think.
If one thinks of your work in terms of the structure of desire, there are a lot of pulled punches. There are a lot of abandoned scenes. A lot of things that didn’t involve us that we’re getting the aftermath of. That’s always my sense—of a belated arrival. Especially with your projects The Dog and The Wolf (2008) and To Say It Isn’t So (2006–9). Before things get into two-dimensional fragments, we’re always sort of coming upon the scene of a party or a meal or an experience and it seems like desire is there, but it’s hard for us as the viewers to even know what it would be that we’re missing. To me, there’s a little bit of a melancholic quality to these scenes [Image 5].
I don’t know whether the photographs are of a party you haven’t been to or a party you’re leaving, in the sense that we’re always leaving the party and always missing something. In photographs (as in life?), there’s always the belated arrival, the realization you have after somebody says something and you walk away and you think, “Oh, I should have said x.”
In all my photographs, there’s a sense of one’s point of view being slightly off, of the viewer’s perspective convoluted. I try to structure the still-life work with a kind of non-unified perspective that defies or usurps the authority of the monolens, which enforces a kind of unified narrative and a “there” there that I just don’t believe. This is in contradistinction to our desire for a whole and unified master narrative that is posited everywhere. I just think it’s so fucked that we want that and we adhere to that, despite all the evidence to the contrary. It’s like the garden of Eden that figures in almost every origin narrative: this idea that there’s someplace that we can go back to that really never existed in the first place. And the reason it’s not there is narrated as being the result of knowledge; that is, our ideas of innocence, perfection, and idealism are predicated upon ignorance. One bite of the apple. . . It’s a platonic problem that, once you make a representation, it’s always a bastard child. It’s never pure. I try to embrace that.
Is this why you think you got away from objects toward these sorts of portraits of two-dimensional collage, where the objects become images themselves? [Image 6].
It’s all photographs. I remember one time somebody looked at one of my pictures from my series Ill Form and Void Full (2010–14; book published in 2014) that had some “real” grapes in it. So, there was a picture of grapes and then there were real grapes, and he said that the thing that amazed him was that he was thinking, “Oh, that’s a picture of grapes, and that’s a picture of a picture of grapes. . . But wait, they’re all pictures. Everything is a picture.”
In my more recent work To Want for Nothing (2015–present) I wrangle with the fact that things that are photographed are the same in their photographic-ness. For example, a picture of a person and a picture of grapes are both just pictures. In their picture-ness they are the same stuff, which is very different than the relation between a person and a grape as real, physical, historical, political entities. It’s this homogenizing that the medium performs that I’m working with. Like being a circus ringleader trying to organize unruly performers.
I don’t see as much of a difference between using photographs to photograph and using “real” objects, because after all, even the grape is a manufactured object. As are humans, in the sense that we are a compilation of everything that’s preceded us. There is a tension in the images around what the two-dimensional does, what it pictures, as well as the possibilities and limitations of two-dimensionality.
It seems that you’re always playing with the photographic medium as a medium. The early photography-esque Polaroids in your Time’s Assignation, And Other Polaroids project (1997–2007; book published in 2017) seem to be playing with the idea of the decay of the photograph itself. I wonder what you were thinking through when you were playing with these “decaying” Polaroid images? [Image 7].
The Polaroids were a kind of project that I did while I was doing other things, and I didn’t think of it as being a project when I was doing it. Rather, I used the black-and-white Polaroid film as a means to see light’s effects on a scene and also, the formal arrangement of what I was photographing. They were more like studies or sketches for the large-scale colorwork. After I did the book Ill Form and Void Full, David Chickey, who is the publisher and creative director of Radius Books, who designed and published that book, asked me if I had any other projects on the line and the only thing I had were the Polaroids.
He really liked the work, so we pulled this series together from hundreds and hundreds of Polaroids. Sometime between working on various aspects of the large-scale color still lifes, I’d actually thrown away about two years of them; at some point I thought, “What am I going to do with these?” and then I couldn’t stand throwing them out because I liked them too much.
I had discovered early on that, with Type 55 Polaroid, you get a positive and a negative, and you can stop the action of the positive by putting on an emulsion. But I didn’t like doing that because I liked the faux-aging quality to the Polaroid positive when you just let it go. Within the first month, the images shifted radically, but then they really stabilized and didn’t change. The coupling of the subject of the still life, which is engaged with time and time’s passage (as you said, the melancholic nature of the scene) with the medium, and what the medium denotes, sets up questions about time’s passage. I mean this in the sense of Barthes’s writing about the “that has been” and also thinking about anachronistic technology (by 2007, Polaroid wasn’t available anymore).
I called the project Time’s Assignation—so, the idea of a meeting with time. Or I think about assignation, almost like an assassination [laughter].
This brings up the theme of decay in your work—and the good old associations between death and photography and the sort of pastness of photography. This brings me to the idea of “the telephone game,” which I know is something you associate with your textile work. I kept experiencing your images as images with a code that is not necessarily detectable by us as images that are related to a scene that we can’t quite witness—almost like crime scenes. I wonder if this concept of the telephone game also works with your photographs.
It definitely is related to the photographic images, in that I think of the photograph as a translation (of a translation of a translation of a translation). But I think the only way they would work as crime scenes for me is if one believed that there were a truth or an origin that the photographs were uncovering. I’ve always been really suspicious of that—there isn’t a there there to go back to. Rather, the scene, that is the photograph—and what it means—is pulled from so many different elements that start before the photograph is even conceived.
Do I go back to when I was three years old and had my grandmother’s favorite blue soup bowl that I loved that I found a replacement for that isn’t quite the same thing but a facsimile of that blue bowl? Or my memory of being in her garden, the sandy sugar sweetening the tart crunch of a rhubarb stalk? There’s just so many ways that the image goes back to something else: a movie that I saw, other’s people’s photographs, smells, sounds, tastes, and touch. . . . There’s no one place that the photograph is derived from or where it arrives.
Where do you think your work is headed from here?
I just had a small show at DOCUMENT in Chicago of work from the recent To Want For Nothing series (2018) and I’ve shown a few other pieces here and there, including in PHotoEspaña and at the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Chicago. I have an upcoming show of this new work with my longtime gallery, Yancey Richardson in New York City, in September.
For me this work is about trying to make sense of all the disparate elements we must negotiate in trying to figure out how to put together a life. It’s not just about making a home or being a partner or having children or having desire, but all the conflicting little bits that have to come together and the things that cannot be filled in or are not said or not seen, in order to make one’s life “work.” I think whatever political stage in which we find ourselves right now, the idea of believing any of what one sees or hears just feels so hard. As I get older, I sometimes just have to not think about things because they hurt. Trying to find little sweet spots in between into which I can get lost, to go on. This necessitates leaving empty swaths of space and of time. Is it a refusal? Or an acceptance? Pain or pleasure? These categories are not so clearly black and white. Are they nameable? Picture-able?
The pictures now are built from lots of different kinds of sources, and I’m just trying to find a formal coherence, but there’s also narrative of course: the way that a portrait of Rihanna will meld with a Design Within Reach set of drapes that will meld with a piece of jewelry, with a bride from a wedding magazine, and with a batch of donuts that are pictured as part of a recipe from Real Simple. All these images that tell, show, and instruct us what home and life and love are—while at the same time we consider these aspects of our personage to be natural and innate. It really isn’t. It’s very programmatic.
In your more recent images, there seems to be more narrative within the space of the picture. There seems to be an almost Max Ernst-like surrealist montage quality. Is this just my perception, or do you feel like there’s more narrative there?
Well, I feel like it’s ironic, because I was trying to empty out the narrative, but emptying out the narrative is an impossibility, maybe. I think about James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), where they tried to be totally objective and instead they ended up with hyper-subjectivity. I’m thinking, “Damnit, I really wanted to get rid of narrative, to be abstract, but I can’t get away from it.”
I found the still-life works so difficult to pin down, but in these recent images, there are dynamics that build up between the “actors” in the image.
With this work, I’m thinking a lot about gender. All the images of women, and the particular way that women are shown, as compared to the relatively few images of men, with women’s bodies used to sell everything from pharmaceuticals to ice cream to cars to notions of love and romance. I think of Robert Heinecken’s work, even if my work doesn’t immediately look like his. The reference to surrealism has come up with this work. For me, I’m not interested in melting clocks per se, but the strangeness and the structural ambiguity of Ernst’s and especially Magritte’s spaces with the kind of impossibility they posit (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”); in my work it is not a grape, but a picture of a grape. It’s different from somebody like M.C. Escher, whose spatial puzzles are a game, and it’s playful. There’s a painfulness in Ernst and in Magritte that intrigues me. A sense of loss and a sense of making.
And a sense of taking things that are normal and making them unreliable. Making the normal setting suddenly fall out from under your feet.
Yes, that normal is a construct and not concrete.