Saturday, November 12, 2005

Zev Tiefenbach, the interview part two


It continued (apologies for breaking in the middle of a sentence). If you'd like to continue listening along, click here. (stream it) [35:48 minutes, 32.7MB]

If you missed it, and got here in the middle of things, part one is here.

If you would like more information on Zev's work, please click here.

Zev Tiefenbach...moments in the text, but then moments that are overtly lyrical. You know, I might not ever be able to be in the same room as Leonard Cohen, but jeez, boy, do I ever think of him a lot, and that being in the work. It was a matter for me of creating a very, very strong lyrical visual presence in the gallery that really collaborated with the subtext, which I think is really cool that you can't see the subtext, but it's hinted at by the typewriting on various images in the gallery. So the subtext is almost visual and partly visual in some places but really overt on another level, like the subterranean that exists in the digital world fills in the blanks.
Zeke: OK. To now take the spotlight off you slightly, who are some other photographers that have turned your crank?
Zev Tiefenbach: I'm blow away by Diane Arbus. When I started to get into photography I was really all about the folks that where doing the work during the Depression, like Dorothea Lange. Photographing what was really going on for folk during the American Depression. The work that was commission by the American Agricultural...what was it called?
Zeke: WPA
Zev Tiefenbach: What does that stand for?
Zeke: Work Project Assistance.
Zev Tiefenbach: And that to me was really, really compelling, that social reality work, that started back with Heinz and so on. And I really always looked at Henri Cartier-Bresson. There's a big divide for me, I mean, between two photographers working at roughly the same time, you had Bresson and you had Robert Frank, doing two completely different things, though they're viewed historically in the similar context. And to me there's a huge gap there between what the two were doing, one, Bresson, you know, his book was called "The Decisive Moment," where he thought in one moment he could summarize what was happening in the history of the world. And, to some extent, he was able to do that, which speaks extraordinarily of his skills as a photographer. Then you also have Robert Frank, in his most well known book, "The Americans," in a much more humble way, says there's a system of images that he's working on, that sort of create a line that sort of loosely represents a curve, if that makes sense. That he viewed American society in that works as very dynamic, very pluralistic, and in his work you can see that. It requires a system of images to replicate a curve that might represent American society. Rather than a dot, where Bresson got his dot, and said "This is where the world, politically and economically, is right now." When I look at Frank's work, I really feel that that's where Diane Arbus is coming from, as well, I think Diane Arbus in the tradition of Frank and not in the tradition of Bresson. And someone like Arbus, to go to Arbus, and Frank, are people who really believed in photography in a very, very personal sense, they lived through the lens, they viscerally were photographers, they struggled so much with what is was to see and how to see. And later on in Frank's life when he became one of the most famous photographers in the world, in a relatively new medium, but nonetheless, he is one of the most well known photographers in the world, he moved to Cape Breton, and spent a long time trying to understand what it meant to create these images. What it was to have dealt with iconographic images that he had created and what they meant to him at that point in his life. You have a series of images that he made after, posting some of the best know images in the world on a close line in a barren field in Cape Breton. He shifted it, he repositioned his work, and that's what I appreciate most about someone like Frank, is that he understood that the meaning of any images that he took evolved and changed and shifted on themselves, whereas Bresson, 'til the end of his life, stood by the decisiveness of the moments that he depicted. So that to me, in terms of an archetypical divide is really what it's all about. I guess my life's dream is to spend a month in Frank's workshop and talk with him and hang out with him. I mean, that's really, really...
Zeke: Write to him.
Zev Tiefenbach: Yeah, I will, absolutely. That's what I want to do every day.
Zeke: Are they're any direct allusion within the images you've got to any specific pictures taken by other people?
Zev Tiefenbach: I think that enters into it at some point, but I have to say not specifically. I mean, where I really get my inspiration for imagery is really from more in the everyday, like I really get off on reading National Geographic, where you see just brilliant photographic work, I love coffee table books on the main streets of America or commercial photography. I think a lot of advertising work is just so compelling, advertising photography is really, really compelling. So I spend a lot of time just browsing images, and some of the stuff that just blows me away is stuff that I’ve seen in other contexts where I just think it's brilliant image work. So probably I've seen some images somewhere along the line that I've been blown away by and I've accidentally replicated it, but I wouldn't say I've really overtly...or that I can really remember. I think that's kind of the nature of our society, that some of the greatest photographers on the planet make their living now as stock photographers, and are anonymous, and have just thrown a lot of images into the proliferation of Image Culture. I reference image culture in different ways that I'm not even really aware of because it's so expansive, but there is a subconscious image culture that is very developed, I think, I probably am participating in, but that's something I need to understand more later, that I don't really understand now.
Jackie Mabey: I was just thinking, most of your photos are exterior shots, they're de-peopled. Generally, just going over them, there is not a lot of people in them, or occasionally you [laughs], a reflection of you. And thinking they're sort of similar to Lee Friedlander. But I think the difference between Friedlander and you is that your work doesn't have that coldness, that satirical eye, there's more warmth in them. I find that interesting; is that on purpose? Do you purposely go to de-peopled places?
Zev Tiefenbach: Yeah, definitely. For a little while, like, my photographs...Lee Friedlander, for sure, is one person I think about a lot, for sure, when I'm photographing. It's really astute that you mentioned that. In my development as a photographer I started out by taking those really in your face urban photographs. I would really put myself on the line, go to really dangerous places for example to get those images of drug dealers, shifty type characters, and photograph them, and get those photographs and then bust out. Take a lot of street shots, to try to get a lot more of that Bresson feeling of being in the moment, you know, you see the guy's eyes, you can see the yellow in his eyes, you can see that he ain't happy, and you've got that. And it gives you that sense of being right there in the moment. I really got off on that, it was really thrilling work to do. I just found it just so wrought with ethical difficulties. I found it just fundamentally exploitive. In terms of just being able to sustain that practice I couldn't, I didn't like it at all. What I'm really, really interested in is there is a photographer Roman Vishniac, who's gaining a lot of notoriety, he's passed on. He foresaw, let's say, the annihilation of Jewish European culture in the 20s and 30s, and what he did was he smuggled himself into Eastern Europe and between the periods of, I think, between 1925 and 1937, photographed massively and extensively in Eastern Europe with all kinds of different miniature cameras and so on, to try to develop an archive of something he foresaw being annihilated. His most seminal work is called "A Vanished World," and it's incredible, that's probably one of his most compelling works for me, in terms of documenting it. What he did that's different that I can't do is that he did do that, I mean, he did get the close up of the rabbi over the Torah, and he did that surreptitiously, and that's amazing stuff, I can't do that. But what he did do beyond that is he's got a lot of scenic shots of what life was like, you know, the apple seller, whatever, that sort of thing where the people themselves is not the issue, he doesn't need to exploit, he's photographing the residue of the lifestyle, of the existence. And that's what I really go out to do; I go out to find the traces, the remains of our society. So I'm interested in how our society works just as much by the garbage that we leave behind and the way we leave behind that garbage, as I am by a frontal head shot of starlet in... You know what I mean, that is just as important. So in a sense I seek out abandoned spaces, empty spaces that have a sparse remain of, and that almost characterize how we form our society. That's really what I'm looking for. And I think Friedlander...and I've really tried to make a shift from having those kinds of images of garbage and remains from being didactic to being lyrical, I kind of tried to bring those into my life. Because it...the thing at the bottom of the line that blows me away the most, that's my interest, is these traces, these residual effects of human existence on our physical world, I mean, that's my photographic mandate, but what draws me into image making, what makes me a photographer, what makes me love doing what I do, is the image itself. So when I'm in the darkroom and the image is coming up in the developer and I'm over it like that caught me is just a moment of magic, and I guess a lot of people have written about the magic of that moment. But even when I'm in my house I've got my printer printing out my images, I'm over the printer, I can't wait to see that image. So, at the end of the day, I also want to make images that blow me away, that are really beautiful in their own way, so there is this process. And there's this Canadian photographer...oh, I'm gonna forget his name...a Canadian photographer who just had a show at the MAC-when I'm done doing this I'll go on the website and throw his name into the mix- who has being working on a phenomenal body of work, which are similar except they're larger format, but he's created these absolutely phenomenal landscapes out of industrial waste sites, for the most part.
Zeke: Edward Burtynsky.
Zev Tiefenbach: Yeah, thank you, Edward Burtynsky. And those images also blow me away and are similar inn terms of what I'm doing. I'm dealing much more with the quotidian, you know, and my interest is much more about the quotidian, and his interest is obviously on the broader strokes, human beings actually do tear mountains to pieces to get bits of metal out of them, leaving these devastated landscapes that are also incredibly beautiful. Me, I say human beings do throw garbage all over the place and live in these concrete, paved messes, which are also beautiful.
Jackie Mabey: It's interesting that you brought up the whole ethical issue, like, the whole Flaneur thing, would you say then in your images of people, say, for example, the one with the girl looking in the mirror, are trying to work on more a dialogue between you as photographer and the person being depicted? How do you handle that power relation?
Zev Tiefenbach: That relation has to resolve itself outside of the work in my opinion. Because, to me, the images that you see, like the woman on the bathroom counter, it's about my relationship to her in the image, or the viewers relationship to her. But, in terms of her being publicly depicted in that particular instance, I have to resolve that, whether or not there's an ethical consideration about that outside of the work. I have to, in my mind, say to her, "Hey, can I depict you like this, in this gallery context or setting?" So there is a very personal narrative that has to go on between me and her, that dialogue, to resolve that power dynamic. But I have to resolve that, otherwise I can’t put it on the wall, because once I put it on the wall then it really is about a relationship between her...like she is being viewed, right? And I feel like I have an obligation to the audience to allow her to be viewed without compromising the ethics of the viewer. Does that make sense? I feel like I have to resolve that in order for the viewer not to feel like they're exploiting this image. So I mean, her consent, in terms of being depicted like that, and her consent to be photographed like that, I mean, it has to be an important part of it. So in a sense, I would want it to be...I have to deal with those ethical considerations in order that the viewer can look at that image as though it were a candid modeled shot, right? So that they can see the image without feeling part of the exploitive system. I'm not sure if I've explained that. I think it's a really, really smart question, and I wish I could explain a little bit better.
Zeke: There, you brought up a couple of times the Holocaust, the guy doing remnants of Jewish culture that was disappearing. How do you feel or do you feel that Jewish culture informs you work?
Zev Tiefenbach: Very good question. I would say that specifically, I mean, in other bodies of work that I do I want to and I've sort of dabbled in exploring Jewish identity. I can't say that this work is more informed by...I guess in the 20s and 30s, photography was new, there was these different schools I described, like Robert Frank and so on, but there was this sense, post-WWI I suppose-I mean, I wasn't really around then-but like Walter Benjamin was writing a lot about the changing world, and you had Atget photographing Paris at night, and I think that Walter Benjamin and Atget were doing the exact same thing. Walter Benjamin writing about the Paris arcades and this society that was changing just so rapidly, and Atget photographing at night, with no people, the remnants of that. So I feel like there was this school of thought then that ended up, I would say informing Robert Frank, about photographing this rapidly changing world, and creating documents to try to understand it and create reference points for how society was changing. I say that, but I also say that Walter Benjamin...I specifically site Walter Benjamin because, one, I think he's on of the great thinkers of our time that informs me, but there's a personal narrative of Walter Benjamin that I really connect to and it effects the Jewish identity, and it effects where I come from with my work, in that Walter Benjamin tried to smuggle himself into Switzerland in order to escape the Nazis, and he died on route to Switzerland, he died-and this is just so compelling to me, and I don’t have anyway to confirm it-but the report is he died with this enormous briefcase that he was carrying around with him, which was his manuscript. He was trucking this thing which was probably 600 pages or more around with him, to try to continue his work, and he died fleeing the Nazis at that point. To me, it just underscores how I take it seriously...it's like, the world that I heretically come from, which is this Eastern European culture that my grandparents come from which was entirely annihilated, I can't experience that, I feel the loss of that. So I think what has ended up happening is that I have this fundamental obsession with documenting this world, with where I am, and understanding that and trying to come to grips with photographing a world that is basically strange to me. So I think there are these connections that I don't think I'm necessarily tying together very well, certainly, in the future, those are the questions I want to try to understand.
Zeke: Are there any questions you'd like either one of us to ask?
Zev Tiefenbach: I think you guys have-you know, it's much easier to ask questions than to answer them- I think you guys really nailed together with your questions a sense of what the show's working at.
Zeke: OK. Are there any questions you wanna ask us?
Zev Tiefenbach: [laughs] Personally, I am fascinated by this gallery. And I view this gallery as this benevolent force in Montreal.
Zeke: Thank you.
Zev Tiefenbach: This benevolent force that's almost, that is inherently, basically, altruistic...I mean, I don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of the gallery, but what I want to understand for myself is it's evident that there is a long term vision, in terms of promoting Montreal art and culture here, I'm just so curious to know where your passion for promoting Montreal art and culture comes from.
Zeke: It's just fun.
Zev Tiefenbach: That's wild, it blows me away that this gallery has so consistently and effectively done that with very little gain to itself.
Zeke: Hello?! I get to drink lots of beer.
Zev Tiefenbach: There you go, beer and fun.
Jackie Mabey: Meet interesting people.
Zeke: You should have seen me on Thursday night.
Zev Tiefenbach: Well, I spoke to you Friday morning and you sounded pretty good, I'm pretty impressed.
Zeke: It's the sort of thing where I lucked into it, and recognizing early on that this is something different and as time progresses, A) realizing I'm getting better at certain things, B) this still is lots and lots of fun but with the better abilities to do things and then take it to the next step, then why not? You talk about working in an office, yeah, it is the sort of thing where I'll put it on the line, and I would never be able to do that at all. It is the sort of thing where I get into arguments with friends all the time, "No, let's wake up at seven o'clock in the morning, I'd love to be at work at seven thirty in the morning." There are very obviously things that are a pain in the neck and really, really annoying but it is overall to me the most fun in the world. And whether it is the sort of thing of being able to rearrange and redesign the gallery once a month for shows or, conversely, being able to drink myself silly on certain nights when bands show up, what more do you really, really want out of a professional life?
Zev Tiefenbach: But there is something else there, to me, as the galley's become more established- and everyone knows, within the art and culture community in Montreal knows about Zeke's Gallery-with the effectiveness in which your gallery operates in a lot of ways it could be easy for you to say, "OK, we've paid our dues, we're moving up a rung, and we'll show proposals, and deal with a different rung of artist."
Zeke: That would then go against everything the gallery was set up for.
Zev Tiefenbach: That's what I mean.
Zeke: The first show that I had was my friend Bertrand Lavoie. It was, where both of us were working in the record business, and then after knowing him for five years, I suddenly discovered, "Holy smokes! He's a great painter." So then I spent the next five years trying to convince, "Bert do a show! Bert do a show! Bert, I'll do the hustling, you do the painting. It'll be great." Finally, after five years, he said, "OK." And recognizing that to do a show, it's not like knee jerk reaction, "I'm a painter, let's do a show." It does require a certain kind of commitment. And it was the recognition that any sort of cultural field does have its gatekeepers, and I definitely want to go breaking down as many gates as possible. It's "OK, let's see if we can go subvert everything," and that's where the mandate came from, and then if I were to flip that around, at which point, where would I be standing? I'd be the establishment as opposed to trying to change the establishment, that is my goal is to change the establishment.
Zev Tiefenbach: That to me is the very essence of what makes this gallery altruistic, you know, the desire of the gallery to always keep it real, which fly in the face of conventional economics and conventional art praise. I think that's just amazing. I struggle to understand how...because inherently the gallery has to have a business sense.
Zeke: It's incorporated non-profit and as long as I have my beer I really don't need much for salary.
Zev Tiefenbach: That's just amazing to me, that over seven years the gallery has stayed so true to a mandate that is I think inherently altruistic, I think that's amazing. Benefit to the city of Montreal, it's great.
Zeke: Cool. That it?
Zev Tiefenbach: Yeah, that's it.
Zeke: Thank you very much, it's been fun.

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