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Discussions Concerning Contemporary Photographic Art

Category — Interviews

Interview with Lori Hepner

Lori Hepner was interviewed on April 25 by e-mail as her exhibit opened on April 11. Her show is up until May 8, 2011. She is our final featured artist for the semester, but be sure to check out our SRO Photo Gallery Artists for 2011-2012.

Lori Hepner, SRO Artist 2010-2011

What inspired you for the concept of this project?

I’ve long been interested in digital technology, both as a means to make artwork and as a way to look at culture, for a number of years.  This work, Status Symbols, was started in a flash of inspiration that hit while learning to solder together electronics for the first time at a local workshop.  The concept was close to being fully formed at the outset, at least in terms of what the aesthetics would be.  I was interested in the layering of light that would wash together through long-exposures of moving LEDs.  I also knew that color negative film would be the best medium to use, as I wanted to use the build up of color density in the highlights, rather than maxing out with pure digital white: 255, 255, 255.  Since I had been using binary code as both a technique and concept in previous bodies of work, the idea to turn letters of text from tweets into a string of ones and zeros happened pretty naturally.  The ons and offs of LEDs would be the actual text the tweet, character by character.

In lay-person’s terms, explain how the process of the LED Ardunio system works. How was this software applied to your project? How are the images captured and converted into photographs?

The Arduino is an open source microcontroller, basically a mini-computer, that can easily be programmed to control physical items, such as motors, LEDs, light sensors, touch sensors, etc, that an artist might want to be a part of a sculpture, installation, or photo set-up.  It is designed to be affordable, as even fully constructed Arduinos are less than $50, and are cross platform for Macs, Windows, and Linux users.  A good introduction to the technology can be found on the Arduino website for those that might want more details (

In my particular use of the Arduino for the Status Symbols project, an array of 8 RGB LEDs, each similar to one pixel on a computer screen, are controlled to turn on and off by the Arduino software.  The customizable program allows the color of light to be changed based upon the intensity of the red, green, and blue channels in the LEDs.  It sets the speed of the on and off blinking, and controls the sequence of blinks to line up with the binary code that makes up each alphanumeric character of a tweet.  By using ASCII binary code, each alphanumeric letter of the keyboard is turned into a series of 8 ones and zeros that are transmitted to the LEDs very quickly.  An entire 140-character tweet can blink by in a few seconds.

My set-up has the 8 LEDs and Arduino spinning below a Hassleblad camera that is loaded with color negative film.  Each individual twitter portrait is turned into a computer program that controls the 8 LEDs.  The LED-array is set to spin and long exposures capture the moving blinks of the LEDs, sometimes through diffusion material, and form the basis of each portrait on the film.  After processing, each frame is scanned into the computer and turned into a printable image file.

What are some patterns you may have noticed in the words from status updates and Tweets once converted into the images of light seen in the products the Ardunio elicits?

One of the most unexpected patterns that I’ve noticed in the work is when tweets have recurring characters.  In the work that I did for the Brooklyn Museum’s, now-defunct, @1stfan project, I was asking followers to tweet back their portrait in text.  The first reply was @1stfans rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr… until all 140 characters of the tweet were used.  Since the tweet was 8 differing characters from the @1stfan reply, followed by a repeated character, an interesting donut shape emerged.  Others mimicked this technique during the month-long project, specifically one of my friends, @npghjunk,who told me that he liked the visual formed by the first tweet.  He then responded by using a series of periods following the text of his portrait.

How do #trendingtopics from Twitter or heavily discussed events on other social media sites affect your work? Explain the selection process for words or phrases to be converted into light-image form.

The one trending topic that I made some images from was the #iranelection.  I was interested in capturing the large amount of messages, but was unable to attain more than 1000 tweets at a time due to an API search limit imposed by Twitter.  The tweets that I was able to save only scratched the surface of the hundreds of thousands of tweets of the hashtag.  I shot a great deal of the first few minutes of the #iranelection but I haven’t shown any of these images.  I may go back to the images at some point in the future to create a body of portraits, but haven’t felt that the timing is right to exhibit these.  Since it is far past the immediacy of the original hashtag, the work would need to be viewed at a time with more cultural relevancy than there is right now.  It’s a battle between the quickness of Twitter and the slowness that comes up with planning physical exhibitions.

You mentioned in an interview with the Brooklyn Museum that you “tweak” the code to create different aesthetic experiences; how are you working to preserve specific contents carried by the words, such as intellectual, emotional or other?

The tweaking refers to the colors that I’ve added in to the code for the portraits for certain tweet characteristics from the work from that project: Hashtags # are red.  @ Symbols are orange.  “Quotes” are purple.  Some strategic words are blue.

Otherwise, the words in each tweet are a randomly generated color that the code generates at the beginning of a word.  Random colors are generated for each of the R, G, and B channels and the color stays valid until a space signifies a new word, when a new set of color values are generated by the program.

How would you like audiences to view your “digital portraits?”

I consider the work to be portraits of the individuals/organizations at the moment of their tweet.  Each tweet is a new representation, whether made into an artwork, or left un-imaged. Each status update is a momentary portrait.

In which way do you really see the images as abstract or has the series been considered abstract because audiences may not fully understand what they are seeing?

The work was purposely constructed to be abstract on multiple levels.  It is first a direct abstraction of the tweet as it changes text into code into light.  It is also visibly abstract in the formal qualities that emerge in the produced image; It is unlike most abstract photographs as it does not visualize a part of the everyday world, but uses the defining properties of photography to create images that cannot be made through any other route.

To what extent is the round image a byproduct of the microcontroller and to what extent are you free to choose the shape of the image output?

I chose to make the portraits circular from the outset.  I have a few experiments going on that involve other forms, but I haven’t shown these outside of my studio.

What image sticks out in your mind? What was the word behind its creation?

A piece that stands out is, @justinrmeyer, 12:41 PM Dec 21st from web (#2), @1stfans gaugcuacugcuaug. This tweet is from a personal friend who is a biologist.  He tweeted a string of  DNA base pairs as his portrait: gaugcuacugcuau. The code within the code comes through in the image, which visually reminds me the nuclear fallout symbol.

Many thanks to Lori for answering our questions. Thank you for a great season.

May 3, 2011   No Comments

Interview with Bill McCullough

Bill McCullough was interviewed March 7 at the Texas Tech School of Art SRO Photo Gallery during his visit to Lubbock and the University. A lively interview, McCullough gave honest and candid answers as well as spirited motions in his commentary. McCullough is passionate about his work as a photographer and only has plans to further his wedding/photography portfolio.

Bill McCullough, SRO Artist 2010-2011

How did you get into photography? And more specifically how did you end up becoming a wedding photographer?

As a young kid, I was always fascinated with magic, science, and gadgets. After watching a show called “James at 16”, I became interested in photography.  I was intrigued by his use of a 35mm camera that was very different than my mom’s instamatic;and, he developed his own photographs in his darkroom.  I saved and bought my first camera at 15 years old. I was fascinated with the camera’s ability to stop water in mid stream. I found the science of photography interesting.

A year later, I saw a few black and white prints that were done by my best friend’s father, Will Lowrimore.  He was a master of the zone system and printed everything himself in his darkroom. Seeing for the first time the power of a perfectly printed photograph, I was inspired to focus on the technique of photography. In high school I talked my parents into letting me build a darkroom above the garage with some money I saved as a waiter.

There was a culmination of several factors that led me into wedding photography. In 2002, I married my wife who is an artist and printmaker. This pivotal change in my life created an environment with an emphasis on more creative endeavors.  Together, we strove to come up with a way to make a living without compromising our intent to create something we were proud of. Wedding photography, full of preconceptions and an overly sentimental tone, begged for a fresh approach, an approach that would allow me to maintain my personal point of view while still making a living. After photographing a few friends weddings, I soon discovered that the wedding provided a framework that allowed me to capture aspects of modern social life that interested me. I never paid any attention to other wedding photography and still don’t. This has helped my own style develop quickly.  I bought a couple of $35 film cameras off ebay, borrowed a friend’s flash, and shot my first professional wedding.

In an interview with, you mentioned that “decisive moments,” in your photography come from your patience and optimism; how do you get yourself in the position of capturing these images, some of which strike me as incredibly surreal, at the weddings?

A lot of practice and concentration.

You can develop an intuition about where to stand and when to click the shutter, but this only comes from the act of doing. Also, because I understand  what I want to show in a photograph, a strong editing practice, which is an art form in itself, is the final step in bringing the best images forward.

In a fantastic essay on photography, Charles Harbutt mentions “How many photographic balIs was the photographer able to juggle at once?” Balancing several elements at once during an ephemeral moment to create a memorable photograph is exactly what I am trying to accomplish. When all the balls (physical positioning, light, mystery, focus, characters, emotion, ambiguity) are suspended in mid air then I have the photograph I am looking for. I hope there is a feeling that the image can never be recreated again.

You use lighting to great effect; what qualities do you look for in a final product you select to present? List some of the criteria you use to select the photographs you present as final products to your clients. When I see your photos, I am intrigued by the stories each seems to suggest; what types of reactions are you seeking to achieve out of the viewer?

I first used flash for technical reasons… to stop action in dark places and present photographs that are sharp and in focus. Since then, I have used light as an element that enhances the performance and theatrical aspects of social situations. Nothing in my work is posed, but the use of artificial light can create a sense of wonder and raise questions for the viewer. I want to ride the edge of presenting photographs about real life  that could never be staged, but also evoke a cinematic mood. Photography is about light, but my additional lighting does not make or break the photograph. Many times I use only the light that is available to me.

Another reason for using extra light is to create multiple layers of elements at various distances from the lens. This depth helps me emphasize the magic that happens when something is transformed from three dimensions into just two. This layering and collage effect places importance on all elements in the frame.

My wife and I edit photographs together. Composition, technique, and mood are the basic criterion we use to present a solid, well edited selection of photographs that the client will see. With further editing that usually occurs over time, we choose favorites that we believe to be special. When I say special, I mean that the photograph contains a hidden depth.

I strive to draw in the viewer, entertain, and give them just enough information to spark their own imagination about what the image is about.

If you are married, who took your wedding photographs? If you are not married yet, but think you might someday be, what sort of wedding photos would you want? For you?

It’s hard to believe I have been married for nine years. My wife had the idea to hire a courtroom sketch artist to document our wedding. She and I share our studio together and see eye to eye on many things.  I love her very much.

Many thanks to Bill for answering our questions.

May 2, 2011   1 Comment

Interview with Tony Chirinos

SRO is pleased to be back for the 2010-2011 school year. To start this year off, we have an interview with our current showing artist, Tony Chirinos. His show is up until September 19, 2009. Be sure to check out our Exhibits Schedule for artist information and upcoming exhibit dates. Keep checking the blog for more interviews, highlights, events, and general information!

Nelson Mandela, 16 x 20", silver gelatin print, 2009

Tony Chirinos is Assistant Professor of Photography at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus, Miami, FL.  He holds an MFA from Columbia University, New York, NY, and exhibits nationally. Tony Chirinos’ series, Fighting Cocks, explores the culture of cock fighting and its spectators. We are delighted to be showing his work and recently asked Tony a few questions:

In your series, Fighting Cocks, the subjects of your images, the people as well as the roosters, evoke a sense of pride within Colombia’s bird fighting subculture. Can you go into more detail about the people, roosters, and families that participate in bird fighting and how bird fighting is integrated into their lives?

These photographs were made on a very small island, San Andres, Colombia, which is situated about 60 miles off the coast of Nicaragua. The people of San Andres are mostly of slave decent, brought to the island by Dutch and English countries. The language is bilingual Spanish-English but most islanders prefer to use the English language. The people and families that participate in cock fighting have been doing it for many generations, learning the trade from their fathers, grandparents and/or other family members. Everyone that I have met takes so much pride in what they do; from the type of feed created for the roosters, to the way they train their birds. It reminds me of Japanese Samurais, the beauty of their kimono, their precise training and their mental focus.

In your artist’s statement, you express appreciation for the bird fighting in Colombia. What is the difference you see in Colombian’s subculture of bird fighting and the negative connotations with bird fighting in the United States, in light of the fact that bird fighting is illegal in the United States?

The negative connotation is that everyone thinks that in every fight, one of the birds dies. That’s not the case. Yes, there is death in some of the fights, but in San Andres, the fight is for fifteen minutes with two referees in the ring. Sometimes the fight is ruled a draw or there is a winner without a death. Look, we allow grown man to beat each other until usually one of the two becomes unconscious. The medical industry has proven that many years of trauma to the head leads to atrophy to the brain. We allow boxing and Mix Martial Arts to happen for the enjoyment and entertainment of the people. As for other animals, it’s hypocritical to allow horse racing and not fighting roosters. The difference is that one is for the enjoyment of the upper class and the other is for the enjoyment of mostly poor people. In both events there is gambling.

How did you become aware of bird fighting and what intrigued you to create this series?

My father made me aware of the Cock fighting culture. He was born in Cuba, migrated to Venezuela, and finally situated in Miami. At a very young age I would hear my dad tell stories about his childhood in Cuba. He would tell all sorts of stories from riding horses to working in a sugar cane plantation. All the stories were very interesting, but the one that intrigued me the most was the story of my dad participating in Cock fighting. I was so intrigued by his story, that I too, wanted to participate. Living in Miami, Florida, I could have never participated in the culture of Cock fighting because of it being an illegal practice. Finally, as an adult I had the opportunity to see first hand what this culture of cock fighting was all about. I was able to visit San Andres about twice a year and became a spectator for two years before I decided to create a project about Cock fighting. I wanted to know everything about this culture and what motivated the owners in producing the perfect fighter. As a documentary style photographer, I try very hard to impose questions to the viewer about the project rather than spelling out the answers to what they are seeing. Some of the questions that I have in mind are: why is the practice of Cock fighting associated with the Hispanic culture? How can I respect this practice the same way that horse racing is respected?

Coño, 16 x 20", silver gelatin print, 2009

In your artist statement you state, “You see a rooster who embodies personality and reveals a stage which references the world that surrounds it”. Can you go into more detail about how cock fighting works as a metaphor for the culture that surrounds it?

Very simple, the majority of the participants are men with big egos. My observation is that cock fighting is an extension to the male phallus. There are lots of Alpha males, all after the big prize. In the real world they are after women, cars and jobs. In the cock ring they are after the top cock, money and prestige.

In which ways has working on this series affected the way you teach your photography classes?

Helping students to learn what is unique about photography, what makes a successful photograph so satisfying to look at, and being in the presence of people just like myself struggling to express themselves with the medium, has been enormously rewarding. I have grown and matured as an artist while teaching photography. My photos inform my teaching in direct and concrete ways: I constantly find myself bringing up in class the very issues that I deal with in my own artwork. Yet, I am aware that my teaching informs my photographic practice in unpredictable ways, as well. I strain to be clear in class, as it is important for me to articulate the ideas and concerns of a photographic project that are vital to artistic practice.  As a result, I return to my own photography regenerated, enthusiastic and passionate, with a renewed justification of life.

Many thanks to Tony for answering our questions. Be sure to stop by and view the exhibit until September 19, 2010.

September 8, 2010   1 Comment

Interview with Elisabeth Tonnard

The Man of the Crowd, detail

Elizabeth Tonnard is a Dutch artist working both in the Netherlands and the US. Her exhibition of her unbound book, The Man of the Crowd, is currently showing in the SRO Photo Gallery until April 17, 2010. We are delighted to be showing this work and recently asked Elisabeth a few questions:

“The Man of the Crowd” is an unbound book displayed on hand-made paper shelves. How do you choose what book form to use for each project and what does choosing to work with the book offer you that other forms of production do not? And beyond that, how do you choose between making a more conventionally bound book and unbound one, such as the one we have on display?

What attracts me visually is not so much the unique, but repetitions with small variations. The physical form of the book is itself set up as a repetitious event, with its pages similar but different. The great thing about it is that you can move the pages and experience the variations within the repetition. Chris Burnett, who has written about several of my works, has recently called my books “bioscopic”. Flipping through the pages you get a sense of a twitching or stuttering of variations that have a similarity but are different. In my codex books I also use the spread as a combination of one (the one spread) and two (the two pages). For instance, Contemplation uses found portraits of one and the same man that are folded in such a way that he is looking at himself (from one page to the next in the spread) throughout the book. In this way the still of the portraits is set into motion by the structure of the book. In Two of Us the text of a Baudelaire poem is broken apart into separate words, set, and rotated progressively at an angle on each page. Flipping the pages causes the words to pirouette as the poem reads sequentially from front-to-back on the recto and, on the verso, from back-to-front. This whole procedure also causes accidental word combinations to appear on the level of the spread. So the conventionally bound book is a fantastic mechanism for both sequential movement and juxtaposition.

The Man of the Crowd was made to be exhibited on shelves, so that the sense of a horizontal street could be evoked (images of a street play a big role in the project). The viewer walks past the work, which makes sense because it is all about flânerie and the act of looking in the streets. I also love to use the natural white of the page in books. I’ve created several books based on a whiteout procedure, in which the white of the page becomes part of the image. In The Man of the Crowd there is a text section too in which Edgar Allen Poe’s story is processed so that his 100 most frequently used words are written in white while the rest of the text is still legible – this evokes the image of a crowded street but also the sense of things that are left unknown, invisible to the eye.

The Man of the Crowd, displayed unbound book pages

“The Man of the Crowd” is based upon a short story by Edgar Allen Poe. How do you choose texts by others to work with, and how important are such materials to your work?

When I see something I will often see it in the light of a literary event. What happened in the case of this specific project was that I was in Paris and sitting at a sidewalk café when I saw this very old man pass me by. He was in between alone and not alone; in between real and unreal. He was wearing the oddest jacket in the oddest shade of blue. He had something ghostlike about him and I was reminded of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd, in which the observer is also sitting in a bar when he sees an old man with a remarkable appearance pass by. I felt the only difference was that Poe’s observer was in London and I was in Paris. It was the same man of the crowd, come back to the streets of the 21st century. Anyways I immediately started photographing the man and the street, till the old man had passed out of sight. So I can’t really say I “chose” a text; it just materialized in front of me.

Another example maybe. When I was looking through a huge archive of street vendor photography I noticed that in a section of photos taken at night, there was a larger percentage of people walking alone in the streets than in the daytime sections. These people also had a certain look on their faces as if their eyes were seeing something else than their actual surroundings. This alienation made me think of them as souls lost in the dark woods of the city, all speaking the words of Dante’s first lines in the Inferno. So I made In this Dark Wood, pairing images of people walking alone in nighttime city streets with 90 different English translations I collected of the first lines of Dante’sInferno. The layout of the book stresses repetition and interchangeability. The images are re-expressions of each other, and so are the texts.

Found texts are important overall in my work, because I often try to make something new from what is already there. The same goes for found images that I recontextualize. I should probably add here that I’m also a poet, and studied literature. The texts I use are often quite banal too, like texts from newspapers, dictionaries, emails and ads. My next book will be a dialogue created from found “conversational phrases”, and with the Belgian publisher Johan Velter. I’m also working on a book of autosummaries of literary works.

Who are some of the artists you consider influential for your work?

My influences are mostly literary. In the case of The Man of the Crowd I see some influence for instance from Beckett, especially his Film, but also from literary theories about intertextuality. When it comes to other artists, I’ve learned a lot from Dutch conceptual artist and philosopher Willem Buijs (†2007) who was my uncle and introduced me to many works in literature and art and in general to looking at the world in a philosophical way. (I recently saw there is a youtube video showing some of his work). A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet Chris Burnett who is a wonderful artist, person, and educator. He was at that time director of Visual Studies Workshop, and both his own work and his courses on topics such as photography as writing were very important in the development of my work. We’ve been collaborating on several projects, for instance co-editing Image Process Literature, a book that will showcase new directions in visual literature, with some thirty artists and writers participating.

Many thanks to Elisabeth for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to stop by the SRO Photo Gallery before April 17, 2010 to see the show.

April 5, 2010   No Comments