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Interview

November 12, 2008

Jeff Brouws

Photographer Jeff Brouws has a voracious appetite for the real America — the one that unfolds along the continental highways, arranges its post-industrial ruins in daisy chains of small towns, and does its best to resist its neglected urban centers. Evincing influences from Richard Misrach to Charles Bukowski, from FSA projects to the songs of Tom Waits, Brouws' substantial career of international exhibitions and books, most recently the monograph Approaching Nowhere, is part sociopolitical activism, part melancholy poetics — and is opening the eyes of Paris Photo audiences to a powerful strain of intellectual realism in contemporary American art. Artkrush Contributing Editor Shana Nys Dambrot gets into his head.
AK:  You have pursued the four major series (Approaching Nowhere, American Typologies, Highway, and Inside the Live Reptile Tent) and their sub-series simultaneously, and over the course of many years. Which series did you start first and which is the most recent?
JB:  The earliest series comprised the carnival images (later titled Inside the Live Reptile Tent when the book was published by Chronicle in 2001). I began shooting these carnival spaces in 1987 in Ventura, CA. I had never worked with a series in mind prior to this — I'm self-taught, a high-school graduate who never attended art school, so I was unfamiliar with how an "artist" might go about making work — but there was something sociological about it, and metaphorical, if we think of the "American Dream" as a bit of a con. I worked diligently on it for about six years, put it down, and then picked up a few additional images in the late '90s when I moved to the East Coast. As a Springsteen fan, I had to check out the Jersey Shore, and Asbury Park in its state of sublime ruin just proved too compelling to pass up. However, you're also right: I was simultaneously working on other projects during that same 1987-1993 time period.

The most recent work has focused on inner-city and de-industrialized America (Discarded Landscapes). As my work has taken a more sociological and political stance, I feel morally compelled to do work that makes social commentary about racial injustice and socioeconomic conditions in America. While I'm thrilled that we have our first African-American president — and think his being in office will instigate an important conversation about racial equality — I still find it important to document street conditions in places like Detroit, Buffalo, Gary, and Youngstown. Having gone repeatedly to these locations over the last ten years, oftentimes I can't believe I'm in the US. We still live in a very segregated society, and the majority of the population hovers in an economic gray zone. This work functions for me as a reminder; it keeps me awake. All the series are overlapping to some degree: they all fall under the rubric of cultural geography or visual anthropology. But this epiphany didn't come easily or quickly: it took about 15 years to see all the pieces fall into place — to see their interconnectedness.
AK:  Have you closed any of the typologies, considering them finished?
JB:  Most of my series, especially the typologies, are open-ended. I do have a fantasy of doing the "Big Book of American Typologies" when I'm 80 years old. By then I'll have 507 partially painted pick-up trucks, 642 abandoned gasoline stations, 396 signs without signification, 2233 strip malls, and 992 surveillance cameras under my belt. You get the idea. By keeping things open and evolving, I can make photographs wherever I am. This is especially true of the Franchised Landscape material; it's ubiquitous across the American cultural landscape, everywhere, all the time. I never have to travel far; these are the everyday components of our daily lives. That being said, I probably won't revisit the Freshly Painted Houses or the Carnival work. I definitely feel done with those projects. But my city work could occupy a lifetime.
AK:  How did you end up participating in Paris Photo?
JB:  Initially, the gallery that represents me in Boston — Robert Klein — began showing my work there in 2006. Both he and the Robert Mann Gallery in New York are exhibiting on my behalf this year. I think my wife and I will have to break down and make the trip to France.
AK:  When you travel are you generally alone, or with company, assistants, etc. — and how long does a typical trip last? How do you decide where to go?
JB:  In the early years I did both: I traveled in the company of friends and alone. Married now for ten years and traveling with my wife [noted photographer Wendy Burton], I take things a bit slower these days. We usually do two big trips a year that can last as long as six weeks. Lately we've also been making shorter forays into Rust Belt areas that last about four or five days. I don't wander as much now; I have specific targets and want to get there quickly to work in one concentrated geographic area. The project I'm working on now dictates the destination. Funny, but as the price of gas escalates I wonder aloud whether the Great American Road Trip might become a thing of the past.
AK:  What was the inspiration for security-camera pictures? Do you consider those political, given the Patriot Act and domestic-surveillance context?
JB:  For this series I was influenced by two things: Wim Wender's film The End of Violence, where all crime is wiped out by ubiquitous surveillance cameras covering every street corner in Los Angeles; and by the encroaching omnipresence of surveillance in the US and around the world since 9/11 (something Foucault and Orwell warned us about). I actually started shooting these cameras around 1999, but in the post-9/11 environment I had interesting encounters with the authorities, and only avoided arrest because I could prove that I was a photographer doing something legitimate. Without a doubt I see these images as very political — while the watchers don't like to be watched, it's something we as citizens have to do, it's patriotic even. The powers-that-be find it highly suspicious, which in a circular way suggests to me how subversive making these photographs is. However, it staggers the imagination that as citizens we don't protest or question this incursion into our privacy. Kerouac once said, "The woods are full of wardens." That's something we should be ever-vigilant about.
AK:  You have said that your work deals with the "loss of geographical identity" signs without significationand personal history, but there also seems to be an environmentalist component in documenting destruction and entropy, especially in the rubble pictures, the strip malls, and the franchises. Do you consider the portrayal of socioeconomic breakdown in general to be political, or more of a photojournalist's deliberately disinterested voice, like, say, an Allan Sekula?
JB:  Yes, I do believe we have been heading toward an erasing of geographical identity — a leveling as it were. It'll all be the same before too long, unless we stay on top of it. However, awareness is growing and I think new generations of urban planners more sensitive to notions of place are out there practicing their craft. Americans are also reclaiming some of their constitutional power to resist, as well. Scores of Wal-Marts, for instance, have been banned from many local communities that understand the destructive effect that big-box stores have on local economies. But I don't regard myself as a photojournalist; I take and make a different type of image — maybe something hybrid: part art, part document. Photojournalism is more in your face. I take a quieter, more distanced photograph. Documenting social disintegration and entropy, seen in a certain light, is definitely political photography. Every aesthetic decision a photographer makes can have political implications; however, it's hard sometimes for photographs to carry the whole message. That's why we often merge images and words. It's interesting that you mention Allan Sekula: truly one of the greats of our generation and someone I deeply admire.
AK:  I can't help but see a little Ed Ruscha in there, too, with those drive-in theaters, gas stations, and "signs without signification" — and we've already mentioned Kerouac. Can you talk about your influences and inspirations as a photographer?
JB:  Without a doubt, Ed Ruscha is probably one of my main influences in terms of subject matter and, to a lesser degree, approach. His Twenty-six Gasoline Stations got me on the typological path — I did a direct homage to him with my own Twenty-six Abandoned Gasoline Stations in 1992. And my Language in the Landscape series [fromReadymades, Chronicle Books, 2003] was probably inspired by his word paintings and general overall engagement with language. There are many other visual points of inspiration: Hilla and Bernd Becher, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, William Christenberry, David Plowden, and every Farm Security Administration photographer, but especially Marion Post Wolcott. While I unhesitatingly love her photographs, it was more her lifelong commitment to social justice that made such a lasting impression on me. She'd doubtless complain about there being no people in my images, but I think she'd sense the human presence in them and hopefully give me a thumbs up. For the record, I've actually made portraits all along; they're just not up on the web. It's not a huge part of my oeuvre.
AK:  Why are your scenes depopulated?
JB:  I don't see them as depopulated. A hint: the presence of automobiles, or fragments of automobiles, in so many of the highway images for instance, are my stand-ins for human beings, for human agency. That being said, I do go for a sense of unease, disquiet, or anomie in many of the photos, which I think is best suggested and reinforced by a certain emptiness. What did Thomas Wolfe say? "There's a terrible and obscure hunger that haunts and hurts Americans, making us exiles at home and strangers wherever we go." I try to get that feeling into my work. However, maybe this is all about to change for me. I had an epiphany the other night watching President-elect Barack Obama give his acceptance speech. I realized a profound sense of alienation has affected me my whole life and I traced it back to April and May of 1968 when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. I hadn't thought about this until that moment with Obama speaking, but a certain hope died in 1968 — even for a 13 year old — and an anger and frustration arose in its place. However, as Obama, spoke I recognized that which had been lost, and perhaps was on the verge of being reclaimed after 40 years. Will this new sense of hopefulness impact my work? I don't know. But it feels great to feel good about being an American again. People might start finding their way into my photos. Who knows? There may not be a need to depict so much emptiness.
Jeff Brouws' next exhibition with Craig Krull Gallery is tentatively planned for early 2010, and the Toni Tapies Gallery in Barcelona will be showing a selection of his photographs at the ARCO International Contemporary Art Fair in Madrid in February 2009. Robert Mann Gallery will feature his work at PULSE Miami this December, and he has recently written The Call of Trains, a book compiling the work of iconic railroad photographer Jim Shaughnessy.

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