Brooklyn-based photographer Zach Nader prods the possibilities of image-language and perception. As his Counterweight series explores family photographs through digital interventions and obfuscated subject matter, Nader utilizes digital media to as a bridge to transform old meaning into new.
Gregory Jones: To start, Zach, tell us about your beginnings with photography, and who were among your earliest influences?
Zach Nader: The usual story: my mother had a Canon AE-1 that I would carry around. I later graduated to the family video camera, and especially enjoyed using both to make pictures of things other than our family while on vacation.
Really though, I think of myself as much more concerned with images instead of photography. Many of my memories are of watching news events of television (The Gulf War, Waco, the OJ Simpson Trial, Columbine…). They are not my earliest remembrances, but they are some of the most vivid. My early family memories are highly influenced by pictures I have seen of childhood events… and I would spend every Sunday morning combing through the newspaper. I loved to look through the advertising inserts as much as I enjoyed the news content of the paper. So, I suppose my earliest influences were images and the way a world of adults was using them. As I grew older, there were more and more images, and once my family had a computer and a 56.6k modem at home, they seemed boundless.
GJ: The majority of projects on your website are works that use digital tech to create visual interventions in found images. Representations are re-arranged to create new meanings, and the medium is laid bare as you expose the skeletons of digital pictures. What spurred this way of working for you?
ZN:I look for ways to create visual interventions, ways of reprogramming and reworking the codes of image making. Often this is done with digital tools because the majority of images are created and circulated digitally today. There is room in my practice for physical obfuscations as well (look for this in some upcoming projects), and I consider both to be viable and important methods of working.
I have been approaching my practice in this way for about five years now. The shift from more traditional forms of image making came for me when I began to deeply question how images are made, circulated, and understood. At that point, focusing on existing images to rework and de-contextualize became apparent as a necessary (though not exclusive) force within my work.
GJ: As a follow-up. I find this way of working very compelling, because with the sheer saturation of images available for viewing, a major sub-sect of photographers have stopped taking pictures and have begun to instead recycle those that already exist. In one manner of thinking, it could be said that these types of meta-images analyze original photographs just as original photographs analyze the world. Your thoughts on this?
ZN:I think of any work using an appropriation strategy as being just as new or created as making a picture of existing light with my camera. This is the same as any artist working any existing material into an artwork (stone, plastic, paint, sharks, etc.) While this picture-based method of working is largely accepted, there are still language issues. How do we describe and situate these works in ways that point forward rather than back? That is the challenge for artists, critics, and viewers – continuing to build a framework that acknowledges these new understandings and perspectives. My practice is a search for new possibilities of visuality and perception. The source material is necessary and works as a springboard towards something new.
GJ: Your series, counterweight, is a collection of family photographs from which you remove the subjects with the content-aware tool. In the absence of these figures, and with the resulting detritus caused from the overuse of this tool, we find visual products that have a distinct digital aesthetic. Talk a bit about your motivations in this work, why family photographs? Why this technique? Is this a project that is personal to you?
ZN:The counterweight series began with my personal family snapshots. They were scanned and all persons were removed with the content-aware function of Photoshop. I was interested in what would happen when this fill tool was used excessively, and what would happen if images created for an express purpose (to show specific people in a place) had that purpose negated. The final objects are 27 x 37 inch glossy c-prints that are far removed from my early birthday parties or playing in the yard.
Family snapshots are an unusual type of image. I began with them because they are used to simply idealize their subjects. For me, these snapshots are similar in the way a video or picture from a passerby of a tragedy might work in that they often have an unfocused clarity that is difficult (and probably not worthwhile for most) to artificially create. These snapshots exist to show people in a specific place, and were often created quickly and with little to no knowledge of the apparatus used – a button was pushed. They become incredibly significant though as markers of what happened when and where – they are the record. Of course filters can be applied and objects added or removed, but that is not the primary concern for most users. The light might be terrible, someone may have moved, or the photographer really should have just gotten closer, but these are the images that people run into burning buildings for or pay exuberant fees for data recovery.
This specific content-aware technique is one that I have used other works: Aspirations and optional features shown. I am very interested in the hardware and software that shapes the ways in which we make and view images. Content-aware is made for specific, and rather small, uses – having it fill in for representations of entire people and products breaks the tool from the intended use and opens up new possibilities.
GJ: The more I see this type of digital aesthetic, the more I feel a measure of fatalism and cynicism in many of these types of pictures. Appropriating images, in a way, undercuts the sanctity of the original pictures and their meanings, and discards them in the process of intervention. These processes call to attention just how malleable and delicate a sense of meaning or purpose can be. There’s a certain discomfort in this, but at the same time, it’s an idea that just cannot be ignored. Would you agree with this assessment, in your own work or in that of others?
ZN:Those feelings are certainly a common critique of work using appropriated images, and there may be artists operating in this mindset. I do not believe that there is any sanctity or fixed meaning to pictures, and use the methods of work you are describing to move towards eliminating that confusion. The approaches that others and I have used certainly call attention to the malleability of pictures and their associated meanings. There is only fatalism if you believe that photographic images are sacrosanct or contain a sort of intrinsic meaning. If you do not feel that way, then you might see these source materials as that which was otherwise left to languish with latent or perhaps just void meanings. While they were stuck in advertising, hard drives, spam emails, syndicated television, Facebook feeds, or boxes… now they have been reworked and (perhaps) re-contextualized into something new. The value lies in the transformation, the new creation, and the ‘source’ is one of many elements in that process.
GJ: In your statement for this project, you pose this question: “How do image making technologies affect our experiences and memory?” Can you answer your own question here?
ZN:I see the artworks as a beginning to an answer of that question. A large part of my continued practice is approaching the questions I have from different vantage points in an ongoing dialog.
In general, images and the frameworks for creating and experiencing them greatly affect our experiences and memory. Decisions of focal length and aperture in a smartphone camera, dust removal tools in software, auto-adjustments, capabilities in printing, and on and on… all of these result from decisions and practical limitations.
GJ: Appropriation has a long and rich history, from Picasso’s collages and Duchamp’s ready-mades, to Hannah Hoch’s photo-montages, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Pads, and Richard Prince’s Cowboys. Do you feel that you’re drawing on this type of history to inform your own work? How has digital media expanded upon this practice?
ZN: In addition to the artists you mention, several more recent projects I admire draw on appropriation strategies. Penelope Umbrico’s work, Adam Ryder’s Selections From the Joint Photographic Survey project, Ben Alper’s Background Noise, Josh Azzarella’s projects, R.H Quaytman’s work, Erin Shirreff’s Roden Crater, and Seth Price’s image-based works have all been on my mind lately. More than drawing on any one history or lineage though, I think it is a matter of looking for the strongest, most appropriate signal to use in your line of questioning. For me, this often leads to the use of images previously created for other purposes.
Digital media has made this process faster and simpler to execute. It is not terribly difficult to run a search on any variety of services and smash some pictures together. Any tumblr, gif, or meme is a testament to the speed of production and dissemination that is now possible. What has not changed is the need to have engaging reasons to make these new image/objects.
GJ: Last but not least, what’s coming up for you over the next year, photographically or otherwise?
ZN: I was just in a screening at Eyebeam as part of video_dumbo, and I am in a group show at Interstate Projects in June. I will also be showing an installation of The New West Texas Sky Project at Texas Tech University this fall.
A project I help run, useful pictures, will be undergoing a reformatting in the coming months. The details are still being worked out, but there should be more text information and a continued focused selection on artists’ projects. We recently put together an exhibition and are very excited about what the future holds.
I have a few projects I am working on, but they are not quite ready to share. Hopefully they will be in a showable state by the end of summer…
Zach Nader is a Brooklyn, NY based artist that investigates uses and usefulness of images. Nader has recently exhibited at Jen Bekman Gallery, NURTUREart, Magenta Flash Forward Festival with Humble Arts Foundation, Houston Center for Photography, and Yaffo 23 in Jerusalem, Israel. He recently had a solo video screening at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, NY and participated in the video_dumbo screening at Eyebeam. He also helps run useful pictures, a site highlighting the work of artists that actively seek to complicate current understandings of photographic images.
For news on all the latest interviews and features from In the In-Between, click the logo and join us on Facebook.
Interview by Gregory Jones
All images © Zach Nader