Lucas Blalock’s studio is located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Everything in his space – books, objects, fabrics, models and, of course, photographic equipment – reveal how much his practice is deeply intertwined with his thinking. Challenging the medium, his mentors and the conventional paths to picture-making, he has subverted the misconception of Photoshop, excavating deliberately into its countless layers. By reshaping meaningless objects, Lucas has created new spaces for them to be loved. His images defy and embrace life, leave the viewer with all questions opened and one pleasant truth: practice is the only way forward.
Let’s just start from the beginning. How did you start making photographs? Do you remember your first photograph?
That’s a funny question. An-My Lê was my first photo teacher, when I was half way through college. Before that, in high school, I hadn’t been exposed to photography or visual art so much. After I graduated from high school, I bought a point and shoot camera, and I went on a trip with a backpack to Europe. I did make some pictures on that trip but just point and shoot, really simple. At that time I wanted to be a writer and I was really interested in film. That’s what I was thinking I would do. Then I got to college and eventually it took a turn. At first, when I got into photography I was thinking a lot about storytelling, about cinema, as if I were making very short movies. This was the beginning. I was really in love with literature, very interested in figures like Robert Frank, who’d been involved with the Beat generation, but also Cindy Sherman, who was making these very cinematic pictures.
School was a major turning point. At Bard College there was an amazing culture for photography. It had a lot of energy around it, which made me curious. I took this class called “literature and photography” with the Photo Historian Laurie Dahlberg. I read most of the seminal texts about photography before I really started making pictures. Somehow I moved backwards, so by the time I started actually photographing all these things were already in my head.
Were you still trying to be a writer at that point?
It was still my idea, yes.
What was your love in literature at that time?
Oh, it’s hard to say. I read a lot, I still do. It’s part of how I stitch things together. But I don’t remember exactly who influenced me at that time. I really loved Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man and had been quite a lot into the Beat generation as a teenager. I had gotten interested in Artaud and Rimbaud. . . Growing up in the south before the internet, my way to get into things was through other authors. So I found Jack Kerouac, Jack Kerouac talked about Dostoyevsky and Proust, so I read Dostoyevsky and Proust. Through this method I found authors that I wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise. It was chasing the trail. I got into Artaud through Jim Morrison.
Pop culture was much more accessible to me, and through that I found other things I loved. I started listening to jazz music because of the Beats. They were talking about Charlie Parker and I was asking myself as a 15 year old, “what does Charlie Parker really sound like?”. This sort of excavation, removing the layers and looking for what’s underneath, was my way.
Excavating through layers. There’s a similarity to what you do with photography…
Certainly. Getting to things by this method back then has had a huge impact on how I still think and work.
Is there any other memory as a child that sparked your passion for photography?
I was always romanced by photographs. I was fascinated by pictures on book jackets and cd covers. They felt like windows to another world.
Lucas Blalock, The Covered Piano, 2015-2016.
Do you think our approach to photography was more romantic back in the day?
Well, yes, it was more secluded – things were more separated. Not having easy access created more romance. It’s so easy to shine a light now if you get interested in something – to uncover a thing all at once. Back then, it took a lot of work to figure out what it was you were looking at.
Is it easier for younger generations now to get into art?
Yes, I think it’s easier. But it also sets up its own weird problem. It’s hard to feel ownership. When we were young, it seems to me that discoveries could be more yours. When I was a kid, more than visual art, I was really into music and music was an important part of me growing up. All my friends were really into it, we would trade things back and forth, try to find things no one had heard before. There was a real possession, and collectivity, in that, we were exploring something that no one around us was hearing or knowing. And if they wanted to know it, the path often led through other people. I don’t think that’s so true anymore.
This is so true. I know that, being your teacher, Stephen Shore was a huge influence for you. What have you incorporated of his thinking into your practice?
From Stephen I got the way to think about what the activity of making a photograph is. I got the idea of seeing a photograph as a matrix of variables which can be put in play . . . or as a photographer you can work to combine them in the most alive way. Through working with him I came to understand how to think structurally about a picture and how to play on that structure. These decisions could either forward the logic of earlier pictures or could contradict them. Stephen also talks about how his own photographs, and photographs more generally, act as a cultural record. Both of these ideas have been very influential for me.
Is this what you have in mind when you make pictures? Are you trying to create a cultural record?
My main objective is trying to relate to the subject of the picture and, by relating through photography, I am also wanting to relate to the photographic apparatus and its evolving conditions in our lives. The cultural part, the “aboutness” of it happens sort of on its own. Primarily, my desire is to have a relationship with the things I’m photographing. In some ways the camera provides a very narrow space for me to have that relationship. There’s no touch, there’s no smell, there’s no words, there’s nothing of it all. It’s just a very narrow vector.
For me making photographs is about trying to have this relationship and then heighten that relationship to the point it’s clear enough or specific enough to share it. Photoshop is part of that relationship, that’s part of the current cultural landscape, part of the current photographic apparatus, part of what photography has become. I’m not thinking in a third-person way about a cultural reference, but I think somehow I’m mining that culture.
So speaking about the relationships with objects, do you assign meaning to these objects and eventually this meaning shifts when you photograph them? Or would you be able to name an object to which you assigned a new meaning by photographing it?
I would say it’s less symbolic than that. I don’t think about an object because it’s a symbol of something else but because I am interested in the thing itself. One of photography’s greatest impacts in the 20th century is that it played a central role in transforming everything into a commodity. It is a condition that narrows the terms of our relationships. So, in turn, I’m more interested in objects that fail to do a good job in that system. I’m also interested in alternative ways objects can become circuits for energy, that they can connect to us through other kinds of value. This fake cactus which is made of spongy rubber is pretty kitsch, but it’s also got qualities and I can fold into my own thing. It can serve a purpose, it can pretend to be Edward Weston for me.
When I look at this fake cactus, I also think it’s really hard to find something similar elsewhere. How has America, which is a country particularly imbued with consumerism, fostered your conversation with objects? Do you think your take on objects would have been different if you were not born here?
I have no idea but I do think it is specific. These things that I’m attracted to came out of an imaginary that is very rooted in being American. I think you’re right, I don’t know what I would be doing if I was somewhere else or from somewhere else. I imagine it would be different. All the ingredients in the stew are really important. You could say that making these pictures is about trying to have a love relationship with these things. I love this fake cactus, and one way I can make this relationship of love more present in the picture is to think about Weston – which is also a nod to a love of things in Weston. To think about all these things together and play with and understand the set of possibilities that are emerging around this object certainly has a foot in my love/hate relationship with America.
Would you then say you love every object you’ve photographed?
I’m trying to love them all. I don’t think I’m succeeding. My work is about an attempt at love.
Is there an object you found very difficult to love?
It’s a good question, there are all sorts of things that won’t behave like I want them to or that I can’t control – not that this is love! A case for this might be with an object that’s been photographed a lot, like a cigarette. I have since made a picture called The Smoker, but before that, when I started making photographs of cigarettes as still life objects it became clear that they carried too much baggage — that we all had too much of a readymade relationship to these things already, and that previous relationship was louder than any conversation I could create. This became a problem in the work, both in that picture and in my work more generally.
I guess I’m interested in things that are out of the limelight or not made explicitly to be desired visually. The more made for the camera the object is, the less space is left.
Somehow you’re giving a new life to an object that hasn’t previously deserved so much attention?
That makes me sound like God (laughing) ! Just kidding. In some ways you’re right, our consumerist society assigns an exchange value to these objects, which greatly sets the terms for how we see them. This narrows things but we obviously still have other attachments, like sentimental attachments, or like I wanted to say before about music traded amongst friends in small towns — magical ones. These connotations are part of things, but in some way photography’s determination to make everything into an image denies some of it. It gets flattened. There is a veneer of sexiness . . . it’s about possessing. And I am interested in all these other ways to relate and if you can summon that up through photography.
Primarily, my desire is to have a relationship with the things I’m photographing.
In some ways the camera provides a very narrow space for me to have that relationship.
As we produce and consume images in a bulimic way, isn’t photography itself an object of consumerism?
Bulimic is an interesting word. I never thought of it that way, but that’s a good word for sure. There’s a book about Kafka where the author talks about how part of the power of Kafka’s literature came from the fact that he wrote in German, and that German was this high official language of the state. So, it follows that Kafka essentially made German say things German never intended to say, he made it stutter or become guttural, made the language uncomfortable in its own skin. He called this Kafka’s “minor literature”, like a minor chord in music. He is writing in a sort of minor literature that interrupts the higher (major) language. With photography you might say that advertising is this dominant language, so for me there’s an opportunity to ruffle those feathers and play with that. Understanding that we all speak this language and understand its role lets me make these other propositions within the field.
Lucas Blalock, Given holes and holes and houses and birds, 2014.
How long have you been working here at this studio? How did you find it?
I’ve been in this building since I got back from graduate school in 2013. I started off by moving into my girlfriend’s studio when I got back from L.A. across the hallway. I was in that studio for a number of years. Then eventually my friend Chris Wiley and I wanted to share a place and this space became available.
Is there a ritual that you do in the morning or when you come here at the studio?
I drink a lot of coffee! (laughing) Not so much, I would say. I walk here. It’s a 30 minute walk, it’s a very nice part of my day. But my days are all very different. I do some teaching and work on projects outside of the studio as well. I also do a fair amount of computer work at home. My days can be sliced up in all sorts of different ways.
How do you start working on a photograph when you’re here?
It can start a lot of different ways. Either something, an object or situation, feels like it is presenting itself to me, or else I just start and try to make get my attention up. I also see things out in the world and then I go back with a camera and take pictures. There’s a lot of chance. And then there’s me going and buying things like this cactus.
Lucas Blalock, Cacti, cacti, cacti, 2015-16.
Where did you buy this cactus? It’s a beautiful object!
Oh, I bought it in Chinatown, I bought 6 of them. There were all different cactuses there. It’s all pretty intuitive and, like I said, it is about trying to develop a relationship. Like “How can I make you happy?” [to the object] – it’s about tending to this question, maybe there’s a backdrop involved, maybe not . .
When I was a younger photographer, I would come up with what I thought was a good idea and try to make photographs with that idea in my mind. It made my work move in fits and starts, it wasn’t very consistent. Good ideas only came so often, the right thing or the right situation only came so often, so I wouldn’t make many pictures. As I got further along it became important to me that I could make the work move. I wanted to literally practice. I had this idea that no one would get good at the piano without playing it all the time and I wanted to apply this kind of thinking to what I was doing. I started being interested in work through problems and trying to get myself excited enough about looking at something to photograph it. This is still the activity that goes on in my studio a lot. Sometimes I feel I need to make some pictures and I’ll just push things around until I can figure out a way to keep going.
Is it a necessity, an urgency that you feel?
Yeah. It’s like an exercise but in this way it is also a means to work out an energy that is in me..
It’s like a workout. The more you do it, the more you like it, the more you want to do it, right?
Yes, for sure. I feel like I have a certain energy in me that needs to be processed. This way of working has become like a machine for processing that energy. There are other ways to make energy moves through your system, but this one is mine! It’s important to me.
How has Photoshop reshaped your way of thinking photography?
I’m not an artist who begins with an image in my head and needs to make that image. I’m an artist who’s working through problems and trying to figure out how to find new footing. Photoshop was like a bad word when I started. There was something really repressed about how I and other photographers were relating to it. And so that gave me an opportunity and I am really thankful for that opportunity. The computer has certainly shaped my thinking and led me down a path that I really have gotten a lot out.
Would you say you mostly work on single images rather than a set or a project?
I think the bigger projects take care of themselves. The work you make, if you spend a lot of time on it, has its own glue. Projects have their own internal consistency. They will become. When I was younger I wanted to define what I was doing and then do it, and I think that the work was often dry and boring. I find there’s more of a resonance if I just work through and having some trust.
Lucas Blalock, The Sleepers, 2016.
Have you ever collaborated with other photographers?
I haven’t literally collaborated with other photographers, but there are a number of photographers and other artists who have been enduring voices in my studio. My community has been extremely important to me. I did though make a more formal collaboration with an augmented reality company last year.
Oh yes, Making Memeries! An installation and a photobook you released with Self Publish, Be Happy. That is a project that once again challenged the boundaries of photography. How did that idea come to your mind?
The augmented reality thing came from Bruno Ceschel. We had worked together on the ‘Hotdog’ book and we have known each other for a while. He had been commissioned by the Tate to build a performance space for the Offprint book fair and he had been on a panel with Allison Wood from Reify who was the other partner in this project. Bruno thought of us and basically asked if we would be interested in making something together. So that’s where it started. I went to Reify’s studio for the first time and saw what they were doing. It was mind blowing – seeing it for the first time. . Initially I didn’t know what I was going to do but we began to work it out. It was a pretty quick project. There wasn’t a lot of time between when we started and when we needed to have it done, but it was great! I learned the parameters of a new tool and Allison and Reify were very helpful and generous in helping me understand how to realize the ideas that I had.
That book challenged again your perception of space. Firstly working with the “shelf space”, then utilizing what you call a “plainer” space, and now this virtual one… What’s next?
I’m curious about where things are right now. I feel very dedicated as an artist to pictorial space, the space behind that membrane of the photograph. This has been the space I’ve been most interested in and where my work has developed. Augmented reality kind of broke the fourth wall, or moved it out to the screen of a device, which is still somewhat uncomfortable for me. It was a great learning experience and pushed me to really consider what a post-picture condition might look like. What does it mean if the desktop gets off the screen and expands to share our bodily space? It seems inevitable…
I had this idea that no one would get good at the piano without playing it
all the time and I wanted to apply this kind of thinking to what I was doing.
Could you tell us more about how you developed your photobooks? How was your relationship with the publishers? How did you collaborate with them?
I worked on very different projects. I see the book as another form or speed. To talk about speeds sounds funny but it has helped me to think about the various conditions we are dealing with. If the exhibition print is the slowest speed, as it’s big and bulky, hard to get around, and requires special conditions to see it, then you might think of the internet as another speed, the fastest one. The photobook is somewhere in between these two, it’s a great middle ground. It has some of the permanence of the print, the hard sequence, but book travel so much easier than exhibitions.
That said, all the books I’ve been working on are really different. Inside the White Cube was a real collaboration with Sam Cate-Gumpert and Elizabeth Jaeger of Peradam. They were involved in every part of the design of the book. That book began as a bootleg version of a catalog of a show at White Cube that was never produced. White Cube was supposed to make a book to accompany this show, but they weren’t able to in the end. So a year later we made a book that was a counterfeit version of their book (or of the other books in the series). At first glance, it looks like their book but it became a point of departure. For instance, in the White Cube books there are a few pages dedicated to an artist project at the end of book. So we took up this challenge in our book and the artist project at the end of White Cube ended up becoming a calendar – for the year 2020 no less!
With other books, the collaboration was different. Everyone’s got a different angle on things and the projects have asked for different input. Windows, Mirrors and Tabletops which I published with Morel, and Towards a Warm Math with Hassla were both almost done before we started talking. In either of these cases I am asking for a lot of trust to me make the book I kind of already had. This is a really generous position and I think that both of those books are exactly how I would have wanted them. Sometimes it’s great to work with people that push you and get you to do things that you wouldn’t do otherwise, while other times being allowed to let a thing get out there the way you imagined it is really amazing.
Do you use Blurb as a tool for testing your books?
Yeah, I do that. I use it to make a fair amount of dummies. It’s really useful and it’s nice to have books in the studio. Looking through books is an easy way to sit down and talk to someone about the work. Prints can be a little more cumbersome.
So talking about editing, it looks like you don’t have someone else editing the work for you when you’re making a book?
It really depends on the project. Antonio de Luca, who helped design the “Hotdog” book, came up with a lot of the ideas in design, in that book the pictures change orientation and they do all these funny things. He came up with those things, so that book, like others, was more the result of a conversation with someone else.
We hear many publishers complaining about the difficulty of the market today. Do you also feel we’ve reached a bottleneck for photobooks production?
Surely everything has become much easier nowadays. As with music, there’s something that’s shifting. Cultural products mean a different thing than they did at some other point. When I first started learning about art books were my way in. That’s how I learned. And partly because this is true, books are really important to me and have been for a long time. But I do feel that as they become easier and cheaper to make, we get more and more and more of them. As availability grows, which is great in a way, there are other things that get lost in the shuffle. I would like to keep making books, so it’s hard for me to say that there are too many. At the same time I see how people get fatigued by what’s going on right now. It can feel it as overwhelming and exhausting.
Are you creating another world in this studio or are you creating reality?
Good question! Windows, Mirrors and Tabletops title comes from this glass store in Los Angeles, but it is also a reference to John Szarkowski’s 1978 MoMA catalogue, Mirrors and Windows: American Photographs Since 1960. To lay it out really roughly, Szarkowski talks about these two modes of photography: the mirror and the window. The window is the photographer who is presenting what’s in front of the camera, and the mirror being someone who really wants you to feel their subjective vision of the world. A few years ago I would have definitely said that my way was the window. I was showing the conditions of things, I was really interested in things as they were. Recently there are more mannered, weirder, bodily, stilted decisions in the work. It’s harder for me to answer, but I still feel very drawn to this idea of the window. But on the other side I feel close to something the illustrator Chris Ware once wrote of the painter Philip Guston. Ware said that Guston’s late paintings did not look like how the world really looked but looked like how the modern world felt.
If the exhibition print is the slowest speed, as it’s big and bulky,
hard to get around, and requires special conditions to see it, then you might
think of the internet as another speed, the fastest one. The photobook is
somewhere in between these two, it’s a great middle ground.
We know your work as a photographer, but I know you also follow other projects. You teach photography and curate exhibitions as well, as the one opened recently at Malmö Konsthall, Subjektiv. What would you recommend to a young person approaching photography today?
I think this idea about finding a way to practice your art “like the piano” is my best advice. Work a lot. Spend time learning about art. Go see things in person. Art is fascinating and strange. I’m an artist who’s been really moved by the world of art and ideas, I tend to gesture that direction when I think about what people should do. But you also have to make sure you pay attention to what’s around you and then figure out how you relate to it. Making books was super useful to me early on in my practice. It gave me a way to finish a project when I wasn’t given other opportunities to finish them. And that was important. Finishing something can give you a real energy to go on and work on the next thing. It’s important to finish things. So if you can take those opportunities, do it.