A collaboration with Spaces Corners
Editor's Note: Spaces Corners is an artist-run bookshop, gallery, and project space dedicated to contemporary photography with an emphasis on the photobook. The following is a transcription of a Spaces Corners discussion with Darin Mickey, moderated by founder Melissa Catanese and photographer Ed Panar on December 12, 2011.
Spaces Corners: Tell us a little bit about your first book, Stuff I Gotta Remember Not to Forget and what you’ve been working on since then?
Darin Mickey: I’m originally from Kansas City, Kansas. Stuff was shot there from 2001 until about 2005. My dad is someone I know very well, like most of us knows our fathers for better or worse, but I also saw my dad as sort of an archetypal figure. He is a salesman and he sells storage space in converted caves and mines. His office is in a cave. Growing up he sold everything from electronic calculators to payroll systems. He got a job in the late 90’s working for a company selling storage space in limestone caves and salt mines. They store everything from doctor’s x-rays to movies. I started photographing him and going with him on sales calls. I was also photographing home, taking pictures that I wasn’t quite used to. I was beginning to think about the landscape as well.
The work was eventually published as a small book by J&L Books. Seeing that this work was completed in this nice little book, I began to wonder what I was going to do after that. I wanted to branch out a little and not work on only one project. Since then I’ve been basically working on three different groupings of pictures, one is called Strange Fruit, what I like to call an "archeology of the absurd." Then there’s a landscape group (On Land) and people in offices (Human Resources), which shares some similarities to the work in Stuff, photographing office environments, driving around a lot. With these pictures I felt like I was starting to tap into something that had always interested me in the books and films I liked: dealing with time as it is now, an unromantic sense of now, with very little nostalgia.
The Strange Fruit pictures are pictures that I was starting to take here and there. I didn’t really recognize them as a group of pictures at first. There was this picture in my parents’ garage that was of a pile of chaos, this would probably be my first Strange Fruit photograph, where I started to see objects for their more complex, transcendent qualities. They’re a discovery for me and I’m still looking for that discovery now. When I’m walking around, I have a lot more doubt about what I’m doing as opposed to when I’m photographing in a more linear, narrative way.
Spaces Corners: As the urban dweller that you are, it seems like this work could be seen as Landscape. When you live in the city, this is the type of landscape that you encounter; these are the types of objects that surround you on a daily basis that you stumble upon.
Darin Mickey: Definitely. I’ll take pictures of a broader expanse, but I’m also thinking more of landscape as not being on an infinite scale so much, but on a more finite scale as well. Another influence on my seeing with these pictures is Jan Groover’s early still lifes. I tend to think of these pictures as "street still lifes" at times.
Spaces Corners: Right, it’s like a type of street photography, but not what people initially think of as street photography, like Garry Winogrand, where you’re seeing the people. Here, you’re seeing space and the objects that inhabit the space. Another interesting thing that’s going on is that there’s this hardcore, intense straight looking at things and a very literal rendering. There’s some manipulation to the lighting that’s going on and you’re in control, so it’s obviously very intentional. At the same time, for being so literal, they’re so mysterious. You’re not giving us any clues; you’re withholding a lot of information. I know you do a lot of shooting when you’re walking around on these long walks and we’re seeing the distilled version of that, which is what gives it a feeling of cohesion. It makes me curious what makes the shots that get in to the edit compared to the outtakes?
Darin Mickey: Whether thinking about this work or more traditional documentary work, I’m always curious as to what photographs can be of and where they can come from. What you can get away with showing or not showing and still having it somehow make sense to someone else. I’m still approaching these pictures with the same amount of attention that I would if they were a portrait of a person. When I’m editing I know what I’m looking for visually and there’s definitely things I repeat and there’s things that I catch. Sometimes I ask myself if I’m just doing the same thing over again. I’d like to say something about history and these objects place in it, how they say a lot about our contribution to history. I want to include some iconic elements and I like when there’s a puzzling metaphor. The piece of metal shaped like a snake for example, was something that was more obvious to me when I was taking it, so was the map on the wall.
Spaces Corners: What’s the significance behind the title and did that lead to the photographs? Isn’t Strange Fruit a Billie Holiday song?
Darin Mickey: Where I saw it written first, was on a record. Joy Division had a record on a label named Strange Fruit and it resonated with me. Some of the first pictures were of weeds and phone books, one that particularly looked like a flower; it was finding the metaphor and the strangeness in these overlooked things. I wasn’t thinking of Billie Holiday or a song about a lynching when I chose the title. The title came to me quite a bit later, after a lot of the images were already made. The pictures helped me find a title.
Spaces Corners: I like to think of it as reality is baring this strange fruit.
Darin Mickey: Yeah, reality is often the strangest fiction. It's this "absurd archeology." Not even going back and finding what’s buried, but something that’s right in front of you; seeing things that are of the time and space that you live in. I don’t live in a beautiful landscape. I go to sleep to the sound of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at night. When I’m in the shower I see a plastic shampoo bottle. When I get food, it’s out of the refrigerator. I like to photograph trees, but I usually have to have a highway in there somewhere; a way to get to the forest. I can’t get away from that.
Spaces Corners: You mentioned that you teach a class called "The Political Landscape." When I look at this work I find it to be political in nature. It’s not overt but there are these undertones. They’re a record of time past, of the material that we’re surrounded by every day, what the world is built from and what we’ve done with that material.
Darin Mickey: It’s less in the forefront of my thinking. I think a picture of an empty parking lot can be loaded with political meaning. What you leave out of a picture can speak volumes. A lot of these pictures are of garbage and there’s the obvious concepts of excess and waste, but I want to leave the pictures open enough so people can arrive at those conclusions on their own. I don’t feel the need to photograph a mall on fire or someone being trampled on Black Friday, or a politician with his fingers crossed behind his back to make a political statement in a photograph. I’d like to show something that’s oddly beautiful and ironic. I don’t think irony is bad, because we’re all conflicted and ironic.
Spaces Corners: There’s a real sense of you stopping and looking, not drawing attention so much to you photographing, but to the process of looking. They also seem to be of neglected items that aren’t totally overlooked because there’s an intervention. They feel like you could have just passed by them but at the same time they have a control. That tension in them is what makes them feel strange. Do you come back to these objects to photograph?
Darin Mickey: These can be pretty slow pictures for me to take at times. I’m trying to show something as clearly as I can which is why I might use a flash so things aren’t too obscured by shadows. I’d like to present all the surfaces in the frame somewhat democratically. I try not to have the technique of taking the pictures overshadow the pictures themselves.
Spaces Corners: There’s a careful control of craft contrasted with the subject matter that wouldn’t normally be given that much attention. In a way, that’s possibly a subversive act. We’re not supposed to look at or question certain things, and in these photographs you’re questioning what is important and what is given value but you’re not giving us answers. There’s this discarded aspect and this intervention that happens. There’s a lot of tape. Somebody took a lot of time to patch up that car or wrap that wood. You’re going back to something anonymous, and maybe even meaningless, and giving it even more care and attention, transforming the object into something else and this revolution that happens between those things.
Darin Mickey: If I expect people to spend time with a photograph, then I should spend some time or thought making it, but there are also decisive, quick moments. It is usually when the light falls in the right way, if it’s not then maybe going back to it. I would like the pictures to have meditative space in them, a space to meditate on things not commonly associated with contemplation. I’m getting to really know the finer points of concrete, newspapers, and phone books. Most people don’t even bring their phone books in anymore. They leave them and I take pictures of them after they get all wet and blown around by the wind.
Spaces Corners: What would you say are some of your influences, including other photographers and non-photographic influences?
Darin Mickey: With these pictures I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Diane Arbus’ portraits; she had a way of taking pictures straight-on and stripping away all other pretense and getting right to the point. Some of John McPhee’s non-fiction books as well, especially the ones on geology.
Spaces Corners: I like thinking of these as portraits because it starts to get at how we define a portrait. A portrait could also be of a space or an object, the non-human world. It seems so obvious and so straight forward at first, but there’s this mystery and uncertainty that’s equally, if not more so, at the forefront of these photographs.
Darin Mickey: That’s good to hear because these are the most uncertain pictures I’ve made. I know when the picture is working for me on an aesthetic level, the lighting is good and all these classical things that I think make a good photograph compositionally are there. But there are things I don’t know and some pictures end up sitting at the bottom of the pile. It might take some time for them to surface with me. I’m thinking about matter in the most rudimentary way, how we’re interconnected with it and that’s strange. We are it and it is us. I don’t think I could ever make photographs that could say that absolutely, but I’d like to make ones that allow the space where you can contemplate that concept. I can only comment on the little things that I see and it’s all just an attempt for me to understand. There’s a sense of magic realism to them for me.
Spaces Corners: Why not just show the objects themselves? Why photograph them?
Darin Mickey: It goes back to the archaeology, finding it unintentionally. It’s the medium I work in. Duchamp’s Readymades get right down to it, but I’m still interested in the object and how it exists in the found environment and in the end how it looks when it becomes a photograph.
Spaces Corners: You mentioned you had many projects going on at once, so how do you decide what photograph fits which projects after you’ve taken it?
Darin Mickey: When I’m looking at the contact sheets or making a print it’s pretty obvious to me and that’s usually sometime after I’ve shot the film. When I’m out photographing I don’t really think about it. Sometimes there’s an oddball that challenges the majority of the group. I like throwing in an interior with a group of pictures dominated by landscapes.
Spaces Corners: What makes you decide to do that?
Darin Mickey: I’m questioning whether an interior can be a landscape or vice versa. I guess it depends on where you live, inside or outside, since all the things in our human world are not really separate from nature anymore. In films, we’re used to seeing an image and then it jumps to something else entirely. We can continue the narrative and it makes sense to us. That jump is something that I like to play with when I’m grouping pictures together. Sometimes it can work nicely with still pictures.
Spaces Corners: Do you see your work in a book as opposed to the wall because of this relationship to film?
Darin Mickey: I don’t really have a relationship to film beyond watching a lot of movies. I usually look at my pictures one after the other or a couple side-by-side. I’ve always enjoyed looking at photographs in books more than on a gallery wall. It’s a more intimate experience. You can sit with a book at home and contemplate the images on your own time in a less chaotic space. I also like how you can approach a book of photos from the beginning, the end, or jump right into the middle of it. It’s up to you when you pick it up.
Darin Mickey's Strange Fruit is on view at Spaces Corners in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania through Tuesday, January 31, 2012.