Crisia Miroiu

CRISIA MIROIU: To start this interview, I would dare to ask you how did you discover photography, and, as our conversation progresses, to explore your artistic contribution from a historical perspective and emphasize the role that your art plays in shaping the contemporary understanding of photography.

MAX: Since very early in my life I was passionate about art. My father would take my sister and me to museums on rainy weekends. I remember those dark days and how as soon as we entered in the museum life seemed to brighten up. Picasso died when I was thirteen and I remember crying. I was a normal kid with a strange obsession for art. Around the same age my grandmother, who was a painter, gave me a book by Robert Frank and I thought it was amazingly cool. And that was it! I was hooked up with photography for the rest of my life. What is peculiar in this story is that since the beginning I was interested in photography as an artistic expression and never felt the drive for journalism, documentation or fashion. As soon as I saw Frank’s work I had no doubt that I was looking at very significant artwork.

CM: Also, I’m really curious: Do you still love Picasso? How did your favorites change in time?

M: I am not sure about anything but I believe the best photographers share a deep interest in the world. Most mediums (say, painting since 1900) are mostly “inside-out”. They respond to the Romantic idea of the artist as an enlightened, powerful personality that expresses its inner life and shares it with the world.

I think one of the beauties of photography is that it is “outside-in” and humbler in its ambitions. On the one hand, it is a chant about how strange, complex and diverse the world is. It is the relational, communal aspect of our lives that photography expresses. On the other, the mediating tools intrinsic to the practice dilute its authorial character. The cameras, software and computers used in the photographic process empower but at the same time determine the output. It is a “cyborgian” art, a human-machine product.

I think photography’s main question is about what type of world we live in. Historical photography such as “The Americans” shows us the industrial world of the XX century. It is the street, the factory, the landscape and the people that get pictured in it. I feel this is changing very rapidly. For one, we are moving away from an industrial world towards a bio-cybernetic regime. Our “world” is more and more in our smart-phones’ screens. For good or bad, it is there where the action occurs and photography’s challenge is how to picture a new world. At least, this is what I think I am working on.

But nothing comes out of the blue and looking at the masters such as Frank or Picasso and how they found their own ways is a source of awe and knowledge. I would highly recommend Lyle Rexer’s book “The Edge of Vision” for an alternative reading of photography’s canonical history. And I would expand it to Rauschenberg, Warhol, Polke, Baldessary,…., as we face the challenge contemporaneity is posing to us. By the way, take a look to Hellen Marten’s work. Pretty cool use of photography for me!

CM: Please allow me a question until I engage more deeply with the other aspects you admirably touch: are you referring to Helen Marten – the 2016 Turner Prize winner? Could you develop your take on her use of photography?

M: Yes, I do like her work a lot. There is a bit of everything I am interested in her works: breaks the flatness of the surface making it sculptural, incorporates photography with many other materials, there is a dialogue among painting, photography and drawing, breaks with the document and vindicates the image, does not respect narrative nor linear perspective, it is ambitious in its size, its meaning is complex and obscure…quite an achievement!

One might question if this can be defined as photography but, and this is key for me, who cares? One might pose other similar questions to her work: Is this a sculpture, a painting, a collage, a drawing? Only photography purists and conservatives are concerned with photography’s “essence”. No other artistic practice cares about it anymore. And I feel this is precisely photography’s main risk: to become an obsolete, self-obsessed medium isolated from the main discourses that are going on in art.

CM: I hear you. The purist and conservative perspectives only highlight the limitations of photography as a medium. Thinking over your last paragraph and Marten’s work, this is a question that I struggle with for a while: what is ‘photographic’?

M: What is love? What is culture? What is photography? These are the kind of questions I do not enjoy. All-encompassing definitions prove not to be helpful; to the contrary, pigeonhole the discussions in what generally are trivialities.

Definitions of photography are many: The traditional one defines it more or less as the recording of the image of an object through the action of light. A bit more modern definition could be in the lines of the practice of creating durable images by the action of light. Both, if read carefully, have very different implications. One could also go “institutional” in the lines of photography being what photography curators, as representatives of photography’s institutional community, say it is. Or you could go “multicultural” responding that each community has its own definition, all equally valid. Or my favorite definition: photography is what photographers do.

So what? Whatever the predominant definition is, the role of the artist is to question it. Rauschenberg being contradicted about one of his works answered: “this is a portrait if I say so”. Not all of us can be Rauschenberg but is good to learn from the true masters.

And given that I am in a quote-mood two more come to my mind.

One is regarding the conventional nature of human communication by Wittgenstein. He says: “We don’t have to translate pictures into realistic ones in order to understand, anymore than we need to translate photographs into colored pictures, although black-and-white men or plants in reality would strike us as unspeakably strange and frightful. Suppose we were to say at this point: something is a picture only in a picture-language.” What this means is that something is a photo only in a photo-language that sets conventions for understanding and this conventions are developed by practice and only practice creates meaning. The development of this photo-language is primarily in the hands of the artist: there is no fixed, “essential” language to look for.

And the second, one of my absolute favorites, by Francis Bacon regarding the role of the artist: “Only by going too far can you go far enough”. This is the true lesson: Go as far in your explorations as you can cope with…and most probably will not be enough.

CM: The piece by Marten you sent me is indeed sculptural (and also photographic) but I was wondering: is it a way in which its inclusion within the installation makes the entire installation ‘photographic’? Or, even less obvious, is it a way in which her other works – such as her sculptures – are ‘photographic’?

M: These are very subtle and sound questions which I am not sure there is an answer for.

My way for resolving them is by thinking of photography as a language with its history and its conventions that determine what photography is at a particular historical moment. There are two positions as artists: either one dwells within the confines of its conventions (and still do wonderful work) or one tries to challenge these conventions with the hope of expanding them (with the obvious risk of going really wrong). I think these two positions are related more to the artist’s character than to an intellectual quest. Although I am in the latter camp, I think there is nothing particularly heroic in it.

Let’s go return to the basics: An artist does something (whatever it is), this something being the only truly relevant aspect to consider. It does not matter how good the discourse is, it does not matter its intention or the artist statement. It’s only the work that matters.

But photography has traditionally put an emphasis on “aboutness”. The first thing a photographer gets asked is “what it is about?”. Some answers are straightforward: “this is about describing the immigrants’ suffering at the refugees camps”. Others are convoluted rationalizations in order to be able to say something. If there is no Statement, with capital S, the photographer gets accused of being a formalist (which is considered a bad thing). I would say that an art expression that is “about something” is what best describes the main convention of what “photographic” is today.

Duchamp has this say: “I would like to see photography make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable”. Don’t you feel photography as it is today has become already unbearable?

CM: I find that photography as it is today has become unbearable. I find this capturing of reality unbearable. The hunt for that image that is worth 1000 words is unbearable. The belief that there are beautiful things out there waiting only to be captured is unbearable. The craft of photography is unbearable. The ‘aboutness’ as referral to the capturing of reality is unbearable, as well. But isn’t art always about something?

M: Let me expand a bit my meaning of “aboutness”.

Everything we do is about something. It may be linked to the physical or the phantasmagorical worlds, but there is always something an artist would like to express. Absent a purpose, art fringes perilously with design and decor. But nobody expects an artist neither to explicitly talk about it nor to have a transparent and singular meaning against which the work of art is to be considered. Just the opposite, ambiguity, diverse readings and participation of the beholder in creating meaning are key aspects for the enjoyment of art.

But this is not the case for photography. Even with today’s experimental work (referential or not) curators and the public expect a particular story to be told. The traditional reference to some “reality” is still expected and valued. I think this is the photographic convention that it is going to prove most difficult to overcome.

Take, for example Lorenzo Vitturi’s recent work. It is a very interesting and experimental photography of great ambition. But The Photographers’ Gallery description could not avoid assigning to it a documentary value. Perhaps the artist did too. The main description at the gallery was: “vibrant still lives that capture the threatened spirit of Dalston’s Ridley Road Market”. The “about” determines what you are supposed to see in this work and one cannot be more specific than that!

It is precisely this “aboutness” that takes you to the comfortable, unambiguous territory prototypical of photography and facilitates digestion even when the work might be challenging or innovative. I do not mean that this is necessarily bad. I just say that this is a key conventional limit to photography with very significant implications. And in thinking about photography’s future I would like to highlight the fact that cultural conventions (those around-the-work instead of in-the-work) are more resilient and difficult to challenge.

CM: How did your experiencing with the digital begun? Your first works are analogue-based?

M: Before we move on I would like to reiterate photography’s exception in the sense that all the mulling about the medium is quite dated for the rest of the arts, whose practitioners have other preoccupations in mind. It is not so much that we are in a post-medium time but that the aesthetic fruits of the intellectual quest for an essence have been exhausted.

Answering your question, the move from analog to digital was extremely traumatic.

Aside of the practical problems such as new cameras’ functionalities, learning from scratch the software involved, etc, there were more fundamental things. Prints looked and felt different, there was no physical negative to play with, no restriction on the number of shots taken, mistakes could be corrected with amazing precision, software allowed for, generally, very tacky manipulations, and the list went on and on. Perhaps the most traumatic was that the lab became useless and what used to be a “wet and organic” medium became “dry and electric”. Mathematics became the physical support for photography, although this realization came later.

The deluge of changes at that time meant that the priority was to learn how to replicate the results of the analog while using these new tools. It was later, around the year 2010 when smart phones integrated digital cameras, that the contradiction became apparent to me. It felt as if when the print was invented in the 1450s the printers had insisted in replicating scriptorium manuscripts without realizing the fundamental paradigm change in the production and distribution of culture. It would have made no sense.

CM: I wonder: as an artist who did the change from analog to digital, did you feel that your photographic work was less or more of an ‘intervention’? By ‘intervention’, I don’t mean the traditional sense of the word that some use to refer to the documenting of reality, but the broader one in which none of us can avoid ‘altering’ the world by our creations.

M: I always felt that photography was as subjective as any other of the art forms. The idea of photography as “un-authored”, so dear to postmodernism, was a mirage, perhaps the ultimate simulacrum. Photography looked and felt like reality but it had nothing to do with the Real.

In order to create objective photography one might tried to expel the photographer out of the equation and this is why some years ago there was this drive towards surveillance stills, Google-Street photos and other machine-shot images that curators were so excited about. But even then subjectivism (or ideology for that matter) entered through the back door. Because is there a visual structure more ideologically dense than linear perspective?

Analog photography was as an “intervention” or, if you wish, as mediated as digital. The greatest thing about digital technology, and technology is the key in this discussion, is that it turned all the high-octane philosophy about indexicality, objectiveness, the real, etc, thoroughly obsolete.

CM: Indeed, digital technology freed the art debate of the indexicality, objectivity, or reality arguments. It can be implied that philosophy was not able to contend with the changes that the digital bore. This is why it is exceptionally important for contemporary artists to write about their practice, their views, their understanding and interpretation of the world today. In your opinion, which are the most salient changes digital photography has brought with itself?

M. The digital is thoroughly transforming our world, not only photography, and its main implication is the complete mathematization of our world. It is Descartes dream come true. If I had to choose the core concern in my photography work it is precisely this issue: how a coded reality is affecting our economy, our subjectivity and our lives.

Photographic technology is a perfect allegory of what is going on in the world. My four series called Propositions are explorations on how the digital has undermined what was considered essential to traditional photography: realism, linear perspective and documentary referentiality. This is mainly a discussion on technology’s paradigm change and its meaning for art creation.

But aside of these profound changes there are many others of importance. I am currently working on giving a personal take on three, I believe related, issues: How to deal with the contemporary images overload, which necessarily implies their banalization? How to reinvent the materiality of the photographic object? And finally, could photography, painting and drawing (three mediums in deep crisis since the advent of post-modernity) pull together its commonalities to create new and significant images of the world today?

These are extraordinarily exciting times for photography!