We recently had the privilege of asking Meggan Gould a few questions about her artwork. Exhibiting internationally and currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Art at Bowdoin College, Meggan takes a critical look at the way photographs are used to visualize the world.
Your website offers up seven separate series you have been working on. While they are quite different in visual terms, they all seem to wrestle with the idea of what a photograph is and how they are used to visualize the world. Could you discuss any over-arching idea(s) which might be informing these projects?
You have touched on it in your question – I am interested in probing the idea of what a photograph is and the relationship of the photographic image to vision. I have continually been struck by the relatively limited way in which we habitually approach the photograph. This began, in my earlier work, by questioning the idea of how we hold the camera and frame images – the association between the eye and the camera – and trying to incorporate more corporeal freedom into the photographic act; can a photograph differentiate between the visual qualities of attention and distraction, for example? The contemporary context of visual upheaval has continued to inform and push these questions – the act of physical engagement with the camera and the image formed therein has shifted, as has our interaction with the resultant image (physical vs. virtual). Much of my most recent work has struggled more with the latter issue, with how photographs themselves function in the world at large, as physical objects or as pixels.
Could you talk about the decision to show your “verso” series as photographs of the backs of photographs, as opposed to showing the actual objects with their backs facing the viewer?
I never considered framing and presenting the objects themselves as an option with this group of work. The act of photographing the photographs – the photographic act of attention afforded to the (ostensibly non-photogenic) surface of the back of the photograph – is a critical part of this series for me. I want these surfaces to emerge as picture spaces in and of themselves, and in order for that to happen they needed to succumb to the same act of mechanical reproduction that generally renders scenes/objects “photo-worthy.” This also permits me, of course, to present these photographs slightly larger than scale; making such mundane objects larger-than-life allows me to (hopefully) provoke a new visual interaction with them.
Also, the “verso” series contains markings that hint at (and your statement affirms) their belonging to family photo albums or being personal mementos. These are very specific types of photographs. Could you talk about that decision and in what ways using these types of images influences the work?
In the broad collection that I have amassed of these images, there are very few that are not from the context of personal mementos – a few press photos, military photos, etc., but mostly I am interested in looking at how photographs are customarily used, touched, written upon, folded, cherished, torn… in how photographs live in the world. These have come from collections lent to me, from my own family’s albums and boxes, and from flea markets galore. I have not deliberately excluded categories of photographic imagery, in fact, but have certainly gravitated towards sifting through collections that are distinctly personal because, I believe, of the way that the marks, stains, and text on the photographs point to or hint at the lives that these photographs have led as objects in the world. Surprising connections have emerged – the number of interpersonal, letter-like messages, for example, in text snippets scrawled on the photo backs, the ways in which text points to “correct” interpretations of the silver gelatin information, the common use of humor, and the interplay between public/private notations.
These are often not photographs that were ever intended to be seen outside of a very specific context and yet, decades later in a flea market, they retain no knowable context. I have always been fascinated by our persistent desire to know exactly what is depicted in a photograph – the eternal “but… what is it?” question that surrounds photographic looking, the gesture of flipping the photograph over in this quest to decipher. The photographs I have chosen are, overall, so divorced from their original context that they are entirely unknowable, and we are left only with our own visual pleasure therewith.
You often use found imagery (“verso”, “go ogle”) and your blog notes a personal fascination with found photographs. In which ways does recontextualizing found imagery affect your work?
As I mentioned above, a lot of this boils down to not wanting the original context of a photograph to matter – not wanting to be so overwhelmed by decoding the who-is-it or what-is-it representational factor that we forget to experience visual pleasure. Found photographs are profoundly unknowable, leaving us, as viewers, fully in control of how we read them. We are so used to specific caption explanations, titles, etc. that very precisely direct our readings of photographs; I love the unadulterated moment with a context-less photograph.
Some of my work has played with recontextualizing found photographs via caption/title information, however. The “Go Ogle” series plays on this idea of text/image relationship, but only in a computer-generated association. A found image of a dog, for example, might come up during a Google Image Search for “cat,” for example, due to how the search algorithm works; no human sifts through all internet-based imagery assigning representational value to specific jpegs. This series of work played off of that, using 100+ found images for any specific search to distill out a visual essence, via a mathematical averaging process, of text/image association.
Are the “blackboard” and “verso” series ever shown together, since they both present subjects in transition?
They have not been shown together to date, but I would very much love for that connection to happen.
You utilize and focus on old (blackboards and printed photographs) and new (Google and computer screens) technology in your images. Could you talk about the role of technology in your work?
I can’t seem to avoid this obsession with how we live with and create photographs, and technology is an unavoidable part of it. I suppose that for me it is not about technologies per se but rather about how and what we look at, and how and what we decide is worthy of capturing photographically, through whichever technology we happen to be using.
I don’t necessarily make a distinct division between old vs. new, and in an odd way it seems to have boiled down to how we use mutable, generally rectangular surfaces in our lives: backs of photographs, computer screens, blackboards, camera view-finders. I tend to see each as a framed picture space in and of itself, and am fascinated by how the pictures that form on these surfaces shift over time, and how rarely these moments are rendered as photographic images. These are surfaces habitually viewed only in the context of specific information (text on the palimpsest of a blackboard, notes on the back of a photograph, mouse action on a computer desktop); the technology itself is irrelevant to the moment of visual cohesion that I am looking for within each framed space. Whatever the technology, can I use the photographic image to delve further into habits of looking, and habits of over-looking?
Do you have any upcoming projects or works in progress that you are especially excited about?
I will be part of a group show at Colby-Sawyer College in January-February 2010, and I will have a solo show at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art from March to June 2010 – the latter will be the first time that a number of different series of my work will be shown together, and I am excited for some of the connections that you asked about to be visually manifest in one exhibition space. I am working on a new body of work that hasn’t quite made it to the website yet, but which continues to probe issues of my physical relationship with the act of photographing, as well as with screen culture.
Many thanks to Meggan for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to take a look at her website and check out her upcoming exhibitions.