I Shutter To Think
Six photographers offer a snapshot of the state of the art
In a city that's home to the world's first photograph, you'd think the art of the camera would rule. But despite the presence of that primal relic; despite the thousands of other historic photos held by the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center; despite having had many great practitioners of the art – Depression-era documentarian Russell Lee, his latter-day political heir Alan Pogue, Garry Winogrand, Burton Pritzker, Ave Bonar, Donna De Cesare, and Bill Wittliff, to reel off a few names – live here, photography's profile has never been the highest in Austin.
But now that may be changing. The Ransom Center's commitment to the form was recently renewed when it became home to the archive of the legendary Magnum Photos cooperative. Lesley Nowlin devoted a gallery completely to photography for two years, and though it closed in February, another photography gallery, B. Hollyman, took its place. This year, in its triennial survey "New Art in Austin," the Austin Museum of Art included six photographers. Five of them belong to Lakes Were Rivers, a collective of 11 artists working in photography and video who support and critique one another's work. That group released its first book this spring, and it sold out.
With this new boost in visibility for local photographers, the Chronicle convened a group of artists in the scene to discuss the place of photography in Austin. Participants included Ben Aqua, an artist and designer who, he says, "picked up photography for fun, just to learn the camera" in 2007 and never put it down and whose work has been shown in Chile, France, Germany, Mexico, and across the U.S.; Elizabeth Chiles, a member of Lakes Were Rivers whose work is featured in both "New Art in Austin: 15 to Watch" and the 2011 Texas Biennial and who teaches at Texas State University – San Marcos and at UT; Santiago Forero, a native of Colombia who moved to Austin in 2007 and has been featured in "Young Latino Artists 15: Consensus of Taste" and "New Art in Austin: 15 to Watch" and was named 2010 Artist of the Year – Photography at the Austin Visual Arts Association Awards; Anna Krachey, also a member of Lakes Were Rivers whose work is featured in "New Art in Austin: 15 to Watch" and who teaches at St. Edward's University; Denise Prince, an artist whose work includes photography, video, and performance and who has shown in the U.S., Mexico, Italy, Spain, and Turkey; and Barry Stone, another member of Lakes Were Rivers whose work is featured in both "New Art in Austin: 15 to Watch" and the 2011 Texas Biennial and who teaches at Texas State. The conversation takes as its starting point one photographer's remark that Austin has been "a very welcoming and supportive community, despite the fact that photography is not particularly popular here, or at least it wasn't until February 2011," when the "New Art in Austin" exhibition opened.
Elizabeth Chiles: Well, I can't say whether or not photography in Austin is more popular than it was before, but I can say that the curators who chose the artists for "New Art in Austin" were open to what is happening in photography. They were able to see the strength of the artists in Lakes Were Rivers and appreciated our individual work, because we're all making very different kinds of work. That the works are in conversation with one another was interesting to them, the fact that we're getting together and not just patting each other on the back and working in a bubble but pushing each other. And the dialogue that we have with one another was interesting to them as well, so they were able to tap into it as an intellectual current. Five of us from Lakes Were Rivers were chosen for "New Art in Austin," and Santiago was chosen, so that makes a sixth photographer. Then there's a moment like: "Wow, there's a lot of photography in Austin." But whether or not that makes photography more popular, who knows?
Anna Krachey: More visible?
Chiles: It makes it more visible, and it starts this conversation, which then you say, "Oh, it's not just Lakes Were Rivers. It's not just 'New Art in Austin.' There are also other photographers working."
Barry Stone: The emergence of digital has opened up an entirely different venue for work to be disseminated. It's created a lot of new questions about what a photograph is, like: "How many solutions to the rectangle really are there? What makes you so special?" Those kinds of questions have propelled a dialogue in photography, so there's an interest. Then when you have a collective interest, there's a little more energy. You know, the fellas at Okay Mountain pulled their resources together, and all of a sudden, people don't remember what one artist did in Austin but that there's something happening in Austin because there's 10 dudes in that group doing a bunch of stuff. The same thing happens with photography.
Ben Aqua: Facebook. I blame Facebook. [laughter] Five years ago, Facebook just exploded all over our faces. We were like, "I don't know what this is, but I'm putting all my photos on it." And everyone is putting their photos on it, from family photos to serious art photography. It's this huge spectrum of everything. And the use of cell phone cameras has really shifted our perspective on how important photography really is in terms of capturing particular moments. And Facebook created this sense of importance – it challenges the rules of what photography is in this weird way. Like all of a sudden, a cell phone picture could be seen on Facebook and then translated into a physical gallery setting.
Stone: With digital transmissions, the photograph becomes information, and information is equated to text or what have you, and it becomes another way to communicate, and that I think is really interesting and kind of frightening in some sense, that photographs are interchangeable in this medium as just information, and the aesthetic experiences are then just information as well or another tiny piece of the big pile of stimuli.
Aqua: What's frightening?
Stone: I guess a certain preciousness goes away. You know, the revered aura of the object disappears, and I have a little bit of nostalgia for that in some ways. It's very exciting, but the pace of it is so amazing. It's consumed and thrown away so quickly. There's also a certain kind of aggressiveness to it that's troubling in some sense.
Denise Prince: But that's kind of nice. It takes away from the exalted position of the artist, and that equality is a bit threatening, because of course anyone can take an interesting and very evocative photograph. And yet, whether or not that's the issue that we're talking about, the social networks have changed the way the craft of photography [is perceived], you know, the lack of apparent craft, that extreme technical detail, is much less important.
Austin Chronicle: So the rise of social media enhanced the democratization of photography, and now everyone walks around with their own cameras, shooting and sharing images. But has that had any impact on the way you interact with other photographers in this community?
Stone: I see a lot of work on Facebook. I find out things on Facebook. People will say they're having an opening, so I'll go to the show if I can make it physically or I'll go to the website. I truly, truly stay in touch and discover a lot of things. It's kind of like when I was living in New York: We were all making c-prints, so everybody on the subway had yellow boxes under their arms, so you're like, "Oh my god, all hundred of these people that I'm standing with are photographers, and we're all fighting for the same thing." You know, Austin was definitely the velvet rut in a certain way; you could hang out, and it was kind of cool. Facebook raises the game a little bit because you're realizing that everybody is doing things, and you want to participate in that dialogue. It makes our relatively provincial town much more cosmopolitan when you're connected with everyone at once.
Krachey: For me, Facebook has really extended the ability to have a discourse with the artists working in photography that I consider to be my peers, wherever they are. Via the Internet, I became friends with an artist working in photography in New York who's at a similar place in her career. We started a dialogue via Facebook, we friended each other via Facebook, and we have since become in-real-life friends. She has definitely promoted my work there, so that's been really important for me, and it allows me to feel more connected here, not so much in a bubble. It makes me feel like living outside of New York, it's still possible to be part of that instead of so distant from it.
Santiago Forero: Also you have these people who influenced your work, and through Facebook and social media or their Web page, you can get in contact with them. They are not these [inaccessible] people like you thought before: "Do I contact their agent?" Or you go hear a lecture at Arthouse, like the guy who curated the Whitney Biennial, and the day after you met him or you didn't even meet him but you tell him to friend you, just to know more about him or to try and connect. Without that [social media], you wouldn't know how to get to them. The connection is much more easy.
Aqua: But the other half of that equation, in terms of how Austin feels different, is the idea of the event, the Facebook event. On Facebook, there's this huge spectrum of events that are constantly happening, and the visibility of those events makes it feel like this is a bigger city. Every day there are a ton of things that people are inviting me to, and we don't have to just wonder, "What is going on on Friday night? Who should I call?" Facebook already has a list of those events, with the addresses.
Forero: It's more about what to choose than what to do.
Aqua: Exactly. I've talked to several people who have been like, "There's almost too much stuff going on in Austin now. I can't decide what to do on Friday because there are eight things that people invited me to."
Chiles: I go out a lot by myself, and there's no risk at all. Ten years ago, I probably wouldn't have gone out by myself in the same way all the time. Before, I thought, "Oh, I should just watch a movie and hang out at home, because I'm not going to call a friend to do something." Whereas if you get an invitation on Facebook, you can see like 10 of your friends are going to be there. They've already RSVP'd. [So] if you go there by yourself, it doesn't matter. You're going to see a lot of people that you know. You're really aware of being dialed in.
Stone: When I came back after six years, I was definitely excited about what was going on in Austin. There were some more contemporary galleries: "Ooh, Art Palace is here, Okay Mountain is really interesting." [Now] Okay Mountain is in a sort of transition. Art Palace is in Houston. Then the major institutions stepped up and got new buildings. The Blanton opened, the Visual Arts Center [at UT] opened, and Arthouse did its thing. Now it all seems to be imploding again. AMOA is directorless and homeless, if you will. Arthouse has had its own woes with its curatorial issues and whatnot. Austin seems to be in this constant "burn up and then rise from the ashes" [routine]; it's always trying to reinvent itself. It's interesting that we keep talking about Facebook, because Facebook is still interesting and exciting and possibly less troublesome in terms of art institutions.
Prince: That's probably why Austin works as well, though. I think that my better work comes from what you describe as a lack of support. It comes from a pushing. I have friends who can always tell me that I'm doing a good job and support me, but my boyfriend will always scrutinize my work, and I think it's a very similar situation to living in Austin. There is no guaranteed support here. It sounds like what we've all said, though, in a way is we always have been a community; we simply are able to recognize it a little more easily now through Facebook because it's something to locate it with. Even if the institutions rise and fall, we are connected. We have been a community, and social media is just giving rise to an easy way to share it.
Krachey: When I arrived here in 2005, painting and drawing were huge, partly because that was what Arturo [Palacios] showed primarily [at Art Palace]. Okay Mountain did a good job of showing photos, but they primarily showed painting and sculpture as well. And when those [venues] all kind of crumbled, that took the limelight off of those things a little bit. I definitely remember feeling a little bit frustrated, but that seems to be changing.
Stone: Well, we'll lose our time, too. It all goes in cycles. We seem sort of different, and then it's like, "Oh, photos," and then move on to the next thing. But [as to] Denise talking about a relative indifference to the public institutions, I kind of want to have that and I don't, because I mean, Facebook is awesome, but also it's insular in its own way. You have to be friends with such and such. Public institutions reflect what we value, and I want what I value naturally to be reflected there and have that create a sort of public discourse. Having strong cultural institutions is vital. That's what makes us civilized.
Forero: We don't have an International Center of Photography [here]. In Houston, there's a Houston Center for Photography. We have the Austin Center for Photography that brings in lectures by photographers, but we don't have a space like that. "Okay, tonight you're going to see the next photo show."
Aqua: Domy Books is one of the most interesting places in town to see photography. I've been really impressed by their curating. Russell Etchen. I love the stuff he shows, photographywise especially.
Stone: It's amazing to have a real art bookstore.
Aqua: Exactly, the physical photograph is so important there. I can't think of another place in Austin where it has that same importance.
Chiles: That's the reason why the AMOA show and the Texas Biennial were a huge deal for me personally. It changes the work so much to have an exhibition. It's a completely different ball game just editing images on the computer or putting together a book – that's an interesting process, too, and leads to all kinds of different ways of thinking about something, but as soon as I make prints and put them up on a wall, it changes my work enormously. It changes the way I think about the work in terms of being in space, in relation to a viewer's body, images in relation to one another, being able to see multiple things at once. So Barry's sort of touting institutions, saying they are important. They're a huge deal to me in terms of feeling like it's possible to have shows here. As an artist, it doesn't work for me to [be] like, "Oh, I can just make work on my own, and it doesn't really matter." It does change the work for me. It actually changes the way I can see the work and think about the work to put it on the wall.
The 2011 Texas Biennial, featuring work by Elizabeth Chiles and Barry Stone, runs through Saturday, May 21, at Women & Their Work, 1710 Lavaca, and other locations. For more information, visit www.texasbiennial.org.
"New Art in Austin: 15 to Watch," featuring work by Elizabeth Chiles, Santiago Forero, Anna Krachey, and Barry Stone, runs through Sunday, May 22, at Austin Museum of Art – Downtown, 823 Congress. For more information, visit www.amoa.org.