Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published on our previous platform, In the In-Between: Journal of Digital Imaging Artists, and the formatting has not been optimized for the new website.
The work of Matthew Swarts can be described as pictures brought back from the dead. As an artist of appropriation, he re-conditions found images through both digital and printing processes. Writing this interview let me to spend a long time thinking about the meaning of images whose intentions have long since been forgotten, and in a sense I’m intrigued by Swarts’ interest in recycling these types of pictures. In the act of re-purposing, he breaths into these images new life and new meaning.
Gregory Jones: First off Matthew, how did you get your start in photography, and who do you count among your biggest influences?
Matthew Swarts: As a senior at Princeton University, I was very lucky to be included in an introductory photography class taught by Emmet Gowin, who more or less single-highhandedly ignited my passion for image making, and later, teaching. Although I was a philosophy major and had been privileged to an incredible education, Emmet’s teaching was spectacular and beyond anything I thought possible in the Liberal Arts. The care with which he administered to each student’s curiosities was simply awe-inspiring, to say nothing of the implications and reach of his truly astounding artwork. Later, after some bumbling around considering a career in medicine, I realized I really needed to become an artist, and went to graduate school at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where I met, among many other gifted teachers, Abelardo Morell. Emmet and Abe have enough luminosity between them to illuminate a small city. Their influences have been profound. I cannot find sufficient ways to thank them enough!
GJ: The untitled projects you’ve been producing over the past 8 years all involve appropriated imagery. You collect images en masse from the internet and you manipulate them digitally as well as through various printing strategies. Please take a minute to discuss your process. What types of images do you look for, and what, overall, are some of the ideas you’re trying to convey?
MS: I’m fascinated by the way the web has become an indexed image thesaurus. When I began the work you are referring to, I was living in Central America on a Fulbright Grant, and had dedicated a year toward making a decisive switch from analog to digital processes. In addition to falling deeper toward image manipulation with software like Photoshop, I began to collect images from the web. At first I was fascinated by the strange, new web-created mis-relationships between words and pictures, and wanted to map this in some way. I also was curious about Copyright and Fair Use, philosophically, and the drama in the electronic music and hip hop industry over new sampling technologies. I began filling up hard drives with images collected from simple word inputs, making vast folders at first with the titles of my searches. The dependence on words quickly broke down and I was left with images that I was simply drawn toward, in some cases for some obvious reasons and many others that were simply more mysterious.
These images, the curious ones that were orphaned, became the basis for my first foray into seriously making work that addressed appropriation. I had a cheap (it actually cost only $19 on a rebate deal) inkjet printer. It had all kinds of problems and left strange but interesting artifacts on every print. Soon I was passing all sorts of materials through this printer (paper towels, lunch bags, wrapping paper, xeroxes, and other weird substrates). When I made something new out of these disparate materials, I put it aside. Sometimes I ‘aged’ the original by folding it and carrying it around in my wallet, or submerging it in a print tray full of water or tea. Later, during a very fortunate artist’s residency at Light Work in Syracuse, New York, I had access to very high end printing technologies. It seemed fun (and playfully absurd) at the time to ask questions about copyright by making high resolution scans of my appropriated imagery creations, then meticulously re-printing the $19 printer ‘originals’ at very large sizes on ridiculously lush paper.
GJ: In your 2004 series, the pictures you re-conditioned were found through Google searches of terms like “‘sex,’ love,’ and ‘death.’” While drawing on these basic human tenets, you also bring into the equation the limitless amount of available information on the web. How does this democracy of imagery pertain to the narratives we cast on ourselves? And if I’m reading your work correctly, why do you choose to satirize the idea of that democracy?
MS: I like to think of the web as a giant camera. It is, really, in the sense of the original meaning of camera obscura—for what we call the internet can be thought of as a dark box of connected servers that we input information into through apertures that are now everywhere. Yes, this stream of information is seemingly limitless and, if you exclude certain political arguments about access and censorship, democratic. By confining my searches to archetypes for basic human needs, I was simply curious as to what the visual ‘novel’ of the internet would look like. At first I was interested in hiring developers to track the relationship between electronic words and pictures. (I remember talking to a programmer from South Africa about creating an installation that would ‘read’ the New York Times by displaying google image results for each word in the headlines.) Later, I jettisoned that in favor of singular images that read like icons for our collective curiosity. Maybe that’s where you pick up on satire, for the larger drama is often darkly comic, and of course, tragic.
GJ: I am especially intrigued by the 2006 series, which is comprised of altered family photographs inherited from your grandfather upon his passing. In the statement accompanying them, you indicate that the techniques you used “have their analog in the arc of loss” by preventing the complete viewing and understanding of the original image. I can see cultural significance in the act of shrouding both the body of the deceased and the mourners. Were you hoping to imbue this mournful tone to the series? Do you feel that the screens with which you veil the images take on a new significance in the context of grief?
MS: That was certainly a major motivation during the creation of those images. My grandfather was my best friend, hands down, and the feeling of his loss is immense in my being. I’m sure I wanted to address the sudden inaccessibility of his person in some way that honored the remnant of his presence. I had lived with those images all my life, had heard the stories that accompanied them, and wanted to see if their significance to me could be communicated to others. To be completely honest, however, I had just finished a three year visiting professorship at Amherst College where the standing criticism of my role in the Department centered upon the fact that I did not teach, of all things, drawing. In some ways, it was immensely satisfying and personally significant having my hand-scribbled work chosen and displayed as part of Leslie K. Brown’s SYNTAX exhibition at Boston University.
GJ: One of the highlights your work is the obfuscation of the images. I think a major theme we’ve found in this post-photographic landscape is the subversion of meaning, and a type of purposeful rebellion against what we consider to be traditional pictures. Does this stem from an organic progression of ideals? Or is this attitude more based on the avant-garde’s constant thirst for creating the unexpected? Does the avant-garde even exist anymore, given the limitless scope of today’s art-making?
MS: I can’t really speak for the avant-garde. I certainly want to make images that are new, where meaning has multi-radial possibilities, where there’s a strata of possible readings, and where one central narrative is not so easily collapsed. As to the obfuscation: that has to do more with the idea that we are bound now as a culture to ‘screens’ of all sorts: computer screens, cell phone screens, surveillance screens, et cetera. By making my own screens out of interwoven collected web artifacts and handmade drawings, I am simply acknowledging how our first-hand experience of things is now heavily mediated.
GJ: When considering the images you appropriate, I think of a thought I heard not too long ago. It’s the thought that everything you see around you, absolutely everything, will one day be discarded. It seems to me that the images you use have already been discarded, pulled from the junk pile, and re-fashioned like old pieces of furniture. This makes me wonder: why should we make new images when we can simply recycle the old ones?
Of course there will always be events and people and places to document, and new ideas to explore, but it’s not until I think of the detritus of old images that I begin to consider just how narrow a window an image has to represent its intended meaning. There isn’t really any question in here, but do you have any thoughts or insights to add?
MS: Well, I’m certainly interested in the trash-heap of electronic data that swims in front of me at every moment. What we discard on the web has a great deal of anthropological and sociological import to me. Joerg Colberg recently wrote about what he sees as (the mostly useless) proliferation of photographic images in such repositories as Facebook. While he finds little meaning outside the fact that photography is popular today, I find goldmines. Centuries upon centuries from now that data will still exist intact for our cultural examination. Can you imagine, for example, if Leonardo had a Facebook account and an email address? 😉
GJ: Part of what this journal is about is the exploration of manipulated imagery and how it represents the perspectives of the artist. Documentary work always leaves traces of the photographer’s personal touch, but manipulation offers total control of vision. I’m a strong proponent in allowing the work to define the artist, rather than the other way around. So if I may ask something more personal, how do you hope your work defines you?
MS: My work is eclectic. I’ve been motivated more by my curiosities, probably because I had teachers and other influences that were off-the-charts curious. While I would like for there to be some underlying quality to the work I produce, I’m more interested in maintaining my alertness and inquisitiveness, over any singular style. I have made work that is remarkably traditional, that fits within certain definitions, and other work that explores some newer questions. Hopefully, I’ll continue to explore whatever photographic and artistic avenues that continue to be meaningful to me, without pressure to conform. The photographic universe, especially in this post-magazine world of the internet, is vast. My efforts in context seem tiny at times. I am, however, always motivated to try to make new things.
GJ: Last but not least, what’s in store for you over the next year, photographically or otherwise?
MS: I am thrilled to be teaching, and that will continue to be the backbone of my life. Project wise, I’m fairly busy these days with a few things that are more documentary in nature, and a couple that pick up where some of these projects you have been interested in leave off. Copyright and Fair Use, it seems, are still interesting image territories to be exploring, provided you stay on the good side of the law.
Matthew Swarts has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Doubletake Magazine, Contact Sheet, Afterimage, Fotophile, In the Loupe, and other publications. He attended Princeton University and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and has taught photography at Amherst College, Bowdoin College, Ramapo College, The University of Connecticut, The University of Massachusetts, Boston, Middlesex College, and The Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He is the recipient of a J.William Fulbright Scholar Grant and the Ruttenberg Arts Foundation Award for the best new work nationally in photographic portraiture. His work is in the permanent collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Library of Congress, The deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Princeton University, and Light Work, among others. He lives and works in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Interview written by Gregory Eddi Jones and Meghan Maloney
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