Judy Fiskin Interviewed by John Divola

Divola: Your background was in Art History. How did you decide to become a photographer?

Fiskin: After the first week of graduate school at Berkeley, I realized they had changed the game on me, and I quit school. I went over to the university employment center and found out that the only thing I qualified for with my B.A. in art history was clerk typist. So I re-enrolled and decided to stay in graduate school until I figured out something else to do. After a year, I came down to L.A. to finish at UCLA. I was taking seminars on modern art with a really wild guy; his name was Kurt von Meier. This was the late sixties, and he was having us do "happenings." We would all get together and go to the airport and watch the planes come in, or he bought a small TV, and we all threw it off the pier. For one seminar, he told us to get hold of a camera and document some image of popular culture. I was given the heart. This was after seven years of art history, looking at lots and lots of images. I don't remember using a camera before this. I looked through the lens and right away I thought, "This is what I want to do."

I learned the basic mechanics from my then brother-in-law who had a darkroom in his garage and was teaching himself. It was enough to get me going and it accounts for my rather peculiar take on technical things, because he taught me wrong. I mean he didn't know that much. Then I just taught myself after that.

Divola: What do you mean when you said they changed the game?

Fiskin: In college you're just having a great time discovering all this stuff. I was in it for the appreciation and not for the information. In graduate school, you were supposed to be thinking about dates – dating every work, putting everything in the proper slot. And even though now in art history there's more of an idea of work in its broad historical context, I wouldn't be interested in that either. When I had to get serious about it in an academic way, I didn't want to.

Divola: Did studying Art History influence your work as a photographer?

Fiskin: What I think directly translated into my work was the idea of looking at art in tiny reproductions. A lot of my experience of looking at art was in reproductions that weren't that much larger than the size that I make my work now. In Los Angeles at that time, there weren't too many examples of real art to look at.

Also, after spending hundreds of hours in dark rooms looking at thousands of slides, I had quite an image bank stored up in my subconscious.

Divola: For the last eight to ten years, I've never seen a photograph of yours any larger than a couple of inches square. Has that been the case from the first, or is that something that you evolved into slowly?

Fiskin: It took me about a year to get down to that size. I did take one class in photography, a summer school class at UCLA. Everybody was doing 8 x lOs. By the end of the class everybody was trying to make 11 x 14s or 16 x 20s, and I had already started trying to make them smaller. They just looked too gross to me. I worked in 5 x 7 for awhile, then I got it down to 4 x 5, and within one or two years I got down to the size that it is now: 2 3/4 inches square. The way I arrived at it was that it was the farthest that my enlarger would go down. I didn't realize that if I had put a book on the enlarger table I could have made them even smaller, and I'm grateful now that I didn't because I don't know how small I would have made them.

Divola: How do you think the small size affects the reading of the image?

Fiskin: For me, looking at small images somehow recreates the experience of looking through a viewfinder. When you are looking through a viewfinder of a thirty-five millimeter camera the scale disappears; you don't know the size of the object you are looking at. It's like receiving an image directly into your brain. And when you have to get up to the photograph and peer into it, you lose the sense of separation between yourself as a body and that picture as a separate entity.

At this size they're edible. You don't just scan them. You take them in all at once. The small scale organizes the image visually in a really graphic way. It gives it an immediate impact. Then if you want to look for detail, you can.

Divola: You employ other strategies that further undermine an attempt to read detail: your exaggerated tonal scale, the highlights being blasted out. Is that a conscious device for reducing that kind of information?

Fiskin: I never started out with the idea that I wanted to reduce the information in the image. I wanted the photographs to act on me in a certain way and to look a certain way. At the time that I got interested in photography, I also discovered Atget. The first two years I tried to make photographs that looked as much like Atget photographs as I could because I thought his prints were so beautiful. But he was using albumen paper and a big view camera, and I was using silver paper and 35 millimeter. Reducing the print size and printing high contrast was my version of reproducing the look of albumen paper, which has bleached-out whites and very strong blacks. On silver paper you couldn't make such an extreme print large, so detail had to go.

But suppressing detail also did something I was very interested in. I was trying to match my mental image of the world, rather than the world itself, and mental images of objects aren't full of detail. If you think "house," you're going to get something very general, and if you want detail, you're going to have to make an effort to add it. Dropping detail made the photographs more general, like mental images.

Divola: Does that particular kind of print have anything to do with creating atmosphere?

Fiskin: When I first started I was really interested in atmosphere. I've developed away from that, but that's true of the first stucco bungalows that I did and then the stuff I did in San Bernardino – and even the military bases to some extent. I was interested in a sort of Raymond Chandler atmosphere – too much sunlight, making you squint, everything really menacing. That's how I picked San Bernardino. I grew up in Southern California, and on my childhood map, after San Bernardino there was a big void that you would fall into if you went any farther. And then one day I was driving through there, and the smog was so thick it was palpable. It made the place look filthy and disgusting, and that was very appealing to me. In my mind, it was a very creepy place. That's why I wanted to photograph there.

Divola: To photograph is often compared to an act of redemption – to select from an infinite number of choices that which is to be remembered. In some of your early work there was a sense of redeeming from popular culture certain gestures which otherwise might be dismissed. However, in your work dealing with furniture in museums, the objects which you photograph already populate a catalogue of redemption. Their context, the museum, is an assertion of their significance.

Fiskin: There's a way that you can't avoid that act of redemption as a photographer, especially if you're doing anything that looks at all documentary; the work is going to be read that way anyway. I didn't try to avoid that reading or undermine that reading, but I was more interested in something else: a feeling of the arbitrariness of the world. A metaphor that I've always used for that is aesthetic choice. One of the reasons that I have always dealt so much with kitsch material is that arbitrariness of choice in popular architecture and popular art is quite obvious because the choices are, from our point of view, so often wrong.

That's why I photographed flower shows. Flower arranging has such a frozen aesthetic. The judges at those shows would take me around and say, "See, that rose is half an inch off." I would nod my head. I couldn't see anything wrong, but this was an aesthetic that had very, very, strict rules. It was an aesthetic, but it was completely awkward. What appealed to me was the idea of so much meticulous care being put into something that turned out so wrong.

Furniture in museums has already been designated and canonized as high art, but a lot of it fits into the same category as flower arrangements. I didn't go photograph Shaker objects in museums. I photographed wild Victorian furniture. I photographed Rococo French furniture from the 18th century. Because it's canonized in the museum, people look at it and tick off all these examples of "good taste." But in fact a lot of them are quite bizarre, which puts them in the right territory for me. It gets back to the idea of the photograph as redemption when you say, "Let's look closely at these things and see what's really there." The furniture is being redeemed from conventional notions of beauty. In the photographs the objects are freed to take on a different kind of beauty.

Divola: When you photograph a piece of furniture from the 18th century, the context it operates within is the present. To some degree it undermines the notion of history.

Fiskin: By making objects appear slightly off, the way that I do in the photographs, by making them appear different from the way they're presented, you have to deal with them as objects of the present. Once you do that, you have to ask, what are they now? We're used to understanding them as direct links to the past – if you have contact with this, you have contact with Louis XIV. In fact, it's not true, and once you throw that notion out then it becomes very unclear what they are or what your attitude toward them should be. That is always the feeling that I'm trying to get at in whatever I do.

Divola: Yet all of your work seems to be anchored in a representation of particular historical eras.

Fiskin: The eras that I've dealt with up until this furniture series have been close to the present, starting from the bungalows of the twenties and thirties, and that does bring up the question of the nostalgia. I want to deal with that a little bit. For instance the desert landscapes – it wasn't just that I wanted to go out and photograph the desert. I was going out and photographing an idea of the desert. That idea of the desert was set in the forties, and I'm sure it came from forties movies. But I was also working from my own memories of having a lot of childhood vacations in Las Vegas and Palm Springs. But I still don't think of the way that I dealt with it as nostalgic. A friend recently looked at the furniture work and said he thought I was casting a cold eye on my own nostalgia. I think it's nostalgia with a distance, a step back from nostalgia and an acknowledgement that what you're longing for is just another image.

Divola: Your work often addresses aesthetics as subject. In more recent work it was the aesthetics of high culture, the objects which literally populate the museum. Your work is a kind of catalogue of the stylistic codes which characterize an era.

Fiskin: I'm looking at the idea of how those definitions are put in place. One way to define each era is through this kind of visual shorthand that gets constructed. Once you've got some distance in years from that, it looks more and more arbitrary. In Some Aesthetic Decisions, the flower show images, I was dealing with an aesthetic that had been frozen in the fifties. This was already 1984, and here was this whole group of people who were doing something very consciously aesthetic, but the aesthetic was thirty years old and they didn't have any idea that that was so. I found that an interesting thing to be dealing with.

Divola: The idea of arbitrariness sounds sort of metaphysically bleak.

Fiskin: It is. What I am dealing with over and over is having your ease in the world pulled out from under you, because I don't feel easy in the world. The flip side of that, the positive side of that, is that it makes a clearing where you can see the world with fresh eyes, see the world with a sense of wonder. Once the comfortable meaning of things slides away, it makes you aware of your own contingency in the world, but it opens objects up for you to really see them and have a strong experience of them. That's a positive thing, and it can be applied to everything – even sixties apartment buildings.

Divola: Weren't the emotions you wanted to inject often emotions of detachment?

Fiskin: They were about being detached when you didn't want to be detached.

Divola: There's an emphatic reticence about them.

Fiskin: Yes. During my career as a depressed person that was part of my personality. In fact, at that time of my life, I didn't talk much. I hung around with people who would talk for me. But I also think that the reticence in the work is an attempt to allow a thing to speak for itself. If I leave an object seeming like it doesn't have enough meaning, I think it just allows it more room to be there, to have presence.

Divola: That notion of presence is interesting because your work has often seemed impenetrable. All that's allowed to come through is this stylistic code or this idea of a type of an object.

Fiskin: Impenetrable, opaque, obdurate: these are good terms to apply to the work. They all express something about what the world feels like to me.

Divola: To call all aesthetic decisions arbitrary undermines the whole pretense of the arts as this notion of humanizing the world, or inflecting objects with a sense of individual character and value.

Fiskin: But that is just what makes it arbitrary. For every era of art making there is some new agreed-upon code. If you don't agree on it, then it doesn't mean anything. That's one of the things that conceptual artists explored: That is, looking at art as an activity that depends on consensus. If the consensus dies, then the object is up for redefinition. The game changes all the time; for me, if you look at that too closely, you're getting into real queasy territory. How do you say anything means anything if that's the case? I'm not making art in which everything that I'm doing is meant to lead you to that conclusion. Instead I'm trying to make that into a visual experience that leaves you somewhat uneasy.

I do appreciate these objects that I'm looking at. But I have to make up my own terms of appreciation, redo the objects; then I can appreciate them. In that sense, I am doing a kind of photographic rescue mission, but I know its limits.

Divola: I'd like you to talk about the cataloguing approach that exists in your work. You often work with the methodology of the catalogue, exploring variations within a group of similar objects.

Fiskin: I think there's something basically appealing about variations on a theme. A lot of people in photography have done that. I think photography is a great medium for cataloguing because you can gather information endlessly. In the Dingbat series, I did a lot of photographs of apartment building facades that were decorated with geometric motifs. You could drive through Los Angeles and say, "Boy, there's all these apartment buildings and some of them have circles on them, and some of them have triangles and some of them have squares," but you couldn't have the experience of seeing them all together except in a series of photographs.

Also, that kind of serial structure is a benign way of working out greed. It's a kind of stand-in for owning things. It satisfies your acquisitiveness.

Divola: Photography often has been described pejoratively as a form of shopping.

Fiskin: Yeah, and I'm a great shopper, too. But if that's all it was, it wouldn't be enough. The catalogue structure does lots of other things. It lets me put things together in a way that feeds into the idea of the arbitrary. That showed most clearly in the Dingbat series. I had so many photographs that I was able to divide them into several different sub-series. On the surface it sort of looked like an encyclopedia of sixties architecture, but underneath, if you looked at all the different categories, they didn't make sense as categories. One category was buildings with side stairways, another was geometric motifs, another Japanese roof lines. Those categories don't really add up to anything when you put them together. I had one category of peaked roofs and another category of Japanese roof lines, but Japanese roof lines also have peaked roofs. They could have all gone in the peaked roofs category. It started to fall apart on you if you were paying attention. It was about dissolving order, but I did it in a playful way. I put together three buildings that had decorative screens on their facade with a building that had a tiny diamond-patterned window, because that looked like a screen to me.

Divola: You generally emphasize the concrete, discrete objects as opposed to photographs of broad fields of information. It seems very consistent, even in the desert work.

Fiskin: I think that's a question of sensibility. One of the reasons I chose a desert landscape as opposed to a mountain landscape is that the desert is where you can see things discretely. I got images of a cactus or a bush just sitting out there by themselves. I was able to silhouette them, so they really stand out. I also had a verbal idea, which was "rock," "mountain," "sagebrush." I was going to try to come up with some primal image of those three things together. I got one photograph that I think finally did that. That goes back to the idea of working from idealized images in my mind.

Divola: One of the fascinating things about photography, as opposed to many of the other media, is that it pulls you out into the world. It pulls you into what's outside the house. Is that any sort of motivation in relation to the work?

Fiskin: When I come up with something I want to look at, some part of the world opens up. When I was looking at little stucco buildings, since L.A. is so full of those, L.A. became a whole playground for me, because I was not just looking at them and appreciating them, but I could really focus on them. I was looking at them with a purpose. The interesting and unfortunate thing is that when I'm through with the series I could care less about those buildings. The world keeps opening up and closing down through this process.

Making something that you really like is like getting a shot of morphine. It's pleasure. Unfortunately for artists, you can't keep getting that hit from the same thing over and over again. That's why your work has to keep changing to some extent. You get bored within the work. That's what keeps me going, to have that pleasure and not be bored.

Divola: All of your work is shot either in the Los Angeles area or the New York area. Why is that?

Fiskin: First of all, shooting in L. A. was a matter of circumstances. It's where I grew up, it's where I mostly went to school, it's where I discovered architecture, and it's full of different kinds of interesting architecture. There was fertile ground for me here. Also, when I started, I was interested in the atmosphere of this semi-arid place with lots of light. I think again I wanted to recreate something about my memories of childhood that way. Also, for many years I felt like I couldn't live anywhere else, couldn't have an identity anywhere else. That's no longer true.

I went to shoot in New York because of what I would see when I took trips there, driving in from the airport, going through Queens. At one point in Jamaica the expressway is elevated, and you see all these little houses with all kinds of different siding – weird, at least to West Coast eyes. I was fascinated by that. At a certain point I realized I could go there and photograph those houses. There was a whole different kind of vernacular architecture there.

I would like to shoot in all different kinds of places. I'm interested in domestic architecture in Germany, pictures I've seen of vernacular architecture in Africa, especially Mali. This stuff is on my mind. In fact, I don't enjoy travel that much, but I have this terrible feeling that I might actually get myself to some of these places to do this. On the one hand, I would really like to do the work. On the other hand, I think I would hate the trip. So, we'll see. In the meantime, I'm about to go to New York for six months to shoot Stick Style Victorian architecture on the Jersey Shore.

Divola: Is there any difference in working in New York or Los Angeles?

Fiskin: Yes. People reacted differently to what I was doing in each place. People get upset when they see you outside photographing their houses. I learned to tell the story that seemed to satisfy the most people the most quickly. When I first started in L.A., I used to tell the truth. I would say, "I'm a photographer" or "I'm an artist and I'm doing this series on small houses." Nobody believed that. I learned to say something else when I was in L.A.: "I'm a location scout and there's going to be a movie made and your house might be in it." There's nobody in L.A. who didn't go for that. Really, it's just a question of what people are used to and know about.

Then I went to New York, and I was photographing in Brooklyn. The first person that came out to question me, I said, "Well, I'm an artist." Total relaxation. They got that right away. They said, "Oh, you're an artist. We have some artists moving in around the corner. If you think this house is interesting, there's an even more interesting house around the block." This happened over and over again. In New York the concept of being an artist has reached everyone. No matter what people say about L.A. as an art center, it does not get you anywhere to tell people in L.A. that you're an artist.

Divola: What was it like to shoot in the desert?

Fiskin: I always went out there alone. Before I went I was really interested in reading survival books. I was pretending to myself that I was going to go out there and get lost. So I learned all this stuff like how to burn the tires on your car to signal for help. I sent away for a huge orange plastic tarp that spelled out HELP, to throw over the top of your car if you got lost. I put together a whole survival kit. I had a little snake bite kit. I carried boards in case the car got stuck in the sand, even though when I did get stuck in the sand I had no idea how to use them. I had to go find someone who was parked in a trailer nearby to get my car out of the sand. The truth is when I went out there I never went more than a five minute walk away from the highway.

Actually, I've had lots of fantasies about being in danger when I'm shooting, and I've heard other photographers talk about that, too. When you're walking around behind a camera, you lose track of what's going on around you, and I think that makes you feel vulnerable. There was the danger of hostile people coming out of their houses at me. How was I going to handle them?

Divola: What was it like photographing military architecture?

Fiskin: I thought it was going to be incredibly difficult to get permission to photograph. In every case except for one, all I had to do was to call up the public information office at that base and say that I was interested and sound like my interest was positive, and they rolled out the red carpet for me. Someone there would take me all over the base. Nobody ever questioned what I was doing. Nobody ever checked my references, nobody ever called me to see if I was at the right telephone number. At some bases they let me go around by myself.

The best place for my purposes was a Seabee base in Ventura. The Seabees are the construction battalion, and in peacetime they go all over the world to help rebuild in places that have had natural disasters. There were these big fields of what my guide called "materiel," which changed from week to week. There were things like giant rubber water bags that they would drop on places where there had been earthquakes. But most of what was there was unrecognizable, and there were acres of it. For me, it was like finding miles of functional minimal sculpture to photograph.

The other thing they did on this Seabee base was to train soldiers in construction. They had a miniature block of houses that they would have the trainees build. Then, when new people came in, they would tear down the houses, trim the wood and rebuild them. So the houses kept getting smaller and smaller until they used up the lumber. They also had 2' high telephone poles so the guys could learn to string telephone wire without worrying about falling off the pole.

Divola: Is the perspective of a woman evident within your work in any way?

Fiskin: I think so. It's subtle. It can only be seen in a certain context. When I first started showing my work, some of the ideas I was working with were generally in the air. There were a bunch of photographers who were grouped together at that time after a show called "New Topography." New Topography was work that dealt with the landscape and the urban landscape in a very neutral-looking way, coming out of the documentary tradition of Walker Evans. It wasn't totally documentary because a lot of emphasis was given to a certain kind of beautiful print, but an air of absolute neutrality toward the subject matter was essential. All the work of the New Topographers was men's work.

My work came out at the same time, and there were ways in which it was related to theirs. I wanted the work to look objective in a certain way, too. On the other hand, arbitrariness and depression and bleakness are not so present in the work of the men who did New Topography. I wanted to inject certain kinds of emotional states into this neutral-looking work. That, I would say, is more female and less male.

When I photographed the flower arrangements, part of what drew me to that was the milieu. It was such a paradigm of the options traditionally open to women. I got to know some of the women, and when they felt comfortable with me, they would say, "We're not doing flower arranging; we're doing sculpture." But they're not doing sculpture in a creative way, and they're not doing sculpture in a professional way, although the competitions they go through have all the trappings of something highly serious. It's a picture of an activity in which women were doing this thing that was parallel to what men did, except the stakes and the rewards were very low. Women get to pretend to do what men do. These women were all middle class and upper middle class, and very conventional, something I feel that I narrowly escaped in my life.

I remember sitting in an auditorium when one of the clubs was giving a demonstration of flower arranging, and I had the fantasy that the doors were going to swing shut. We were all going to be locked in there forever. I was going to be the only one who wasn't really a part of this world, but I was going to have to live in there, the flower arranging world, for the rest of my life. I think that's in the work.

Divola: Could you talk a bit about the influences that surround your work?

Fiskin: The specific influences started back when I was studying medieval architecture. I liked Romanesque architecture, which is heavy and squat, with sort of powerful generalized spaces. I was drawing on this taste for heavy and somewhat awkward architecture when I decided to look at vernacular architecture.

Then there was Atget. And after Atget, Walker Evans was a strong influence because of the way he centered objects, the way he was interested in looking at objects, in vernacular architecture, and the way he made vernacular architecture look monumental. My earliest work on architecture was trying to make the stuff look monumental. It doesn't any more, but it did at the beginning. After that there was an influence that I didn't see at the time, even though it was all around: minimal sculpture. But when I look at my photographs of simple buildings centered in the middle of a square frame, I have to think that somehow something about the minimalist aesthetic filtered into me.

Then there are things that look like influences, like the Bechers, that I just don't think were influences at the time this work was developing. As for the work of the New Topographers, I had pretty much gotten to all the essential elements of what I was doing before I became aware of them. I was dismayed to find out that there was this bunch of other people who were doing such similar work.

Divola: Often based in the aesthetics of minimal sculpture.

Fiskin: I think it also comes from looking at a lot of 19th century landscape photography and really loving it. but having to deal with the problem of the fact that it had already been photographed. How do you make those photographs again in a contemporary way? I think that was a problem that they were solving and that I was solving too. That was another very heavy influence: 19th century American landscape photography.

Divola: How do you know when you're finished with a body of work?

Fiskin: Usually these days, I just make work for a show. When I have the show, that's it for the series. For instance, I think when I had the show of the desert series, I didn't feel like I was finished. I still wanted to go out to the desert. I was still interested in it. But once I had the show it was dead. I couldn't do it anymore.

Other times, you see things on the proof sheet that you know would make good photographs for that series, and you just don't want to do them anymore. It just gets boring. You've tapped it out in some way. You just know. I mean it's as simple as that.

Divola: The process of art history is to take a category of objects and reduce it into propositions about what it means. It seems to me that you have great skepticism about that reduction.

Fiskin: Yes. It's because I'm more interested in creating an experience than in summarizing experience.

My work a lot of times gets talked about as if it were documentary work. My definition of documentary work is photography in which the information is the most important part of the work. In my work, the information is the least important part. It's there, and the work wouldn't mean the same thing without it; I don't deny it, but it isn't structured around the information. The most interesting part to me is the visual play: how many different kinds of one thing I can put together; how these things look when I make them into prints. The most interesting part is looking at this little universe of representation that I can make out of the world.

John Divola is an artist and educator who lives in Los Angeles, California.