John Divola was born in Los Angeles in 1949 and has lived and worked there since. His images span four decades of seriously playful investigation into photographic meaning. His work first gained international attention when it was included in John Szarkowski’s Mirrors and Windows exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978. His materials and strategies shifted over the decades and among his varied series we can observe the shifting trends and concerns in contemporary photography, yet Divola has always retained a unique sensibility that synthesizes a rigorous conceptual practice with self-deprecating humor. Divola has served on the faculties of California Institute for the Arts and the University of California / Riverside and as a teacher has had an enormous influence on several generations of artists in Los Angeles, Southern California and beyond.
This interview took place via Skype on February 2, 2015.
MAD: You grew up in Los Angeles right?
JD: My parents lived in Venice when I was born, my dad worked at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica and when I was about seven we moved to the San Fernando Valley.
MAD: The earliest work of yours that I am familiar with is the black and white photographs of the San Fernando Valley taken in the early 1970s. How did photography change the way you understood your environment?
JD: I don’t know if I thought about it that way. I can tell you that I was doing that work when I was in graduate school at UCLA and everyone else was making gum prints and blue prints. It was kind of like now; everyone wanted to address the ‘objectness’ of the image. I couldn’t figure out what to do with the iconography so in desperation I decided to photograph the neighborhood where I lived. Photography does place you in a distanced relationship to your subject but I don’t know if there was any conscious manifestation of that for me.
MAD: Well, looking at them now there is such rigor in how you were approaching the subject. I think there are five distinct categories, typological studies of garage exteriors, people holding water hoses on their lawns, there are odd architectural details, people on the street and women shopping in the supermarket. They are all so precisely seen as in a rigorous sociological observation.
JD: That’s an illusion. (Laughter) I’ve done some work with stills from film sets, I at one time collected Hollywood continuity set stills that featured broken furniture, evidence of aggression, empty hallways, I just collected them subjectively and then I noticed that I had categories. The same thing happened in the San Fernando Valley, I would just go out and photograph, and yes while I was doing it I realized that certain images had potential, like the women watering their lawns and I would consciously return to those subjects. But the uniform look of them has much more to do with process, I was riding my bicycle on the sidewalk and people would have to stop and move the hose to let me drive by. So I am straddling my bicycle and photographing those women from basically the same distance each time, I wasn’t directing them to stand in a particular way or place it simply had to do with physical proximity. And the supermarket images were similar.
So you are talking about it sociologically and that perspective was my frustration with the images, that is why I moved away from making more. I remember Robert Heinecken once saying to me ‘Someday you will look back at these and they will be interesting by virtue of their sociological content’ and I told him that I was completely uninterested in that reading of the images. I have to admit that now I look back at them and he was entirely right. But at the time, I was trying to figure out how to reference my process. I was totally frustrated that people thought I was making value judgments about the subjects, about the banality of the environment or about how silly people looked.
MAD: I can understand how you may have been frustrated by that limiting understanding. But the rigor I was referring to is more formal, you say it is just happenstance, having to do with riding a bicycle, but you seem to be applying strict parameters around the language and use of photography, so that the material can speak for itself. I do not see those images as commentary, I am not interested in superficial observations about banality either, I am interested in how amazing things look through the medium of photography, the formal and material aspects of that.
JD: There is certainly a formal aspect to it and indeed and I remember the first intellectual deceit I had was pretending that I had dropped from outer space. In trying to achieve a false objectivity, I was retreating to the formal. I was choosing the way certain shapes like bushes looked next to walls.
MAD: Were you aware of the Bechers and their typological photographic approach?
JD: I did not know anything about the Bechers, I had not yet heard the term ‘New Topographics.’ When was that show?
MAD: 1975 I think.
JD: Yes, so the work that we are discussing is from 1971 and 72. The very first lecture I gave was at Cal Arts in 1973 with someone named Lewis Baltz (Laughter), he was photographing tract homes at the time and I was photographing women watering their lawns. I was much more aware of Walker Evans of course and Friedlander and Winogrand and the New York street photography thing.
MAD: The amount and diversity of your work over the four plus decades is impressive to say the least. One can track not only your own trajectory as an artist but also many of the paths and strategies of what we now think of as contemporary photography. There is appropriation, performance, site-specificity, and architectural interventions a la Gordon Matta Clarke, interest in semiotics. I asked you about the Bechers, but were you aware of these trends or were you just going your own way?
JD: When I was studying photography at Cal State Northridge it was a very insular photographic world, and nothing was addressed outside of that realm. My teacher Ed Steivers was a student of Harry Callahan; Robert Frank came to our class and showed us work. Then I went to UCLA and it was the art world, everyone was looking at Warhol, Rauschenberg and talking about Duchamp. At that point my work changed and I gradually became aware that photography could be part of the broader discourse of art. I was working from a relatively uniformed perspective. I don’t think I was in an art museum until I was 20 years old. There was no Museum of Contemporary Art and no contemporary art galleries to go to, so I am seeing everything in art magazines or as slides in class. I came to the perception that primary component in art was the image, and that I did not have to worry about anything being an “original”. I was also in a context where nobody cared; there was nothing at stake. It was very liberating for me, I felt like I had great freedom.
MAD: You are not the first artist from that era in Los Angeles to express this idea of openness and freedom because there was little critical or institutional infrastructure for contemporary art.
JD: Whatever you made it was not going to go into a white cube. I think if you are an artist in New York, often the universe looks like a series of white cubes. And in Los Angeles at that time we did not have many white cubes to worry about.
MAD: I was an undergraduate at Massachusetts College of Art when I first became aware of your work. I think it was the Zuma series, which are color photographs of an abandoned house by the beach that you photographed over time as you did various things to the interior, such as spray paint the walls. It had a significant impact on me and many of my fellow photography students. We were studying with Nick Nixon and others who were only interested in the photograph as social document, preferably in black and white and in large format. We were interested in color and the performative, something more spontaneous and energetic and urban, and your work looked like what we were after. How did that work come about? Did you just stumble upon that house?
JD: The house is at a county beach and I was running and I did just stumble upon it. I had done an earlier black and white series called Vandalism where I was painting inside of houses, which ended up as my MFA show at UCLA in June of 1974. I wasn’t looking for it but I had been playing around with color, it was a funny time in photography in relation to black and white versus color. Lewis Baltz called color images vulgar and that was the general attitude, color was considered this kind of superficial frosting on the real content. A couple of things were going on in my head while I was making those pictures. I realized that color could capture the ephemeral, like how much moisture was in the air, but also if it was frosting then I will embrace the superficiality of it or integrate it in some way on that level.
MAD: I like the duality of those pictures because it is not just an interior, it is also looking out over the ocean through an empty window frame.
JD: That’s where the ephemeral is.
MAD: It is a picture within a picture. The other day I was thinking that it was as if you were vandalizing the interior of a camera obscura, disturbing the purity of a passive receptacle for light. I get the embracing or celebrating the decorative nature of color, but also there is a sense of the process of making pictures, a playful self-referentiality. There is the graffiti and also the window lets us see out of the box, to the ocean, the pacific, so there are all these references to the sublime, the American landscape, and particularly the much vaunted air and light of Southern California. The duality in part comes from the tension between the destructive force of the graffiti framing the lovely atmospheric effects of light over the Pacific.
JD: At the time I was just thinking that what I was doing to the house was going to proceed in a linear way and what was happening outside the house would be cyclical.
MAD: That Zuma work got you some attention.
JD: It did.
MAD: Was that fun? What was that like for you work to be recognized?
JD: It was a little surprising to me. A Vandalism print was put in the Mirrors and Windows show curated by Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art and I was invited to lecture there. I had never even been in New York before. I flew in, stayed at somebody’s loft down near Wall Street, walked around for three days and didn’t meet anyone. Then I went to this giant auditorium and Szarkowski was there, we had a scotch together in his office. It was kind of a hoot.
MAD: Soon after that you produced a series of color diptychs, which have super-saturated colors that are often compromised or changed by the use of color gels over your light source. So that the immediate foreground is tinted, if you will, with a strong hue, but the color drops off leaving the background with its natural ambiance. I was thinking that here your work is taking on a consistent theme around the concept of photographic illusion.
JD: I talk about it in a different way. I was interested in the relationship between the abstract and the specific. If you paint a goat, it is an emblem of goatness, but if you photograph a goat it is a specific goat. What interested me about photographs was their inertia in terms of being drawn into the realm of the symbolic; there is always some kind of tug back to specificity. If you take a colored gel and you project it onto the goat, then it pushes it a little more towards the symbolic. The thing I like about diptychs is that they herald a kind of cognitive address, ‘Why are those two pictures together?” But if you have two incongruous images that have a common color, it again tugs against the initial analytic impulse.
The other thing that was going on in that work is that I was starting to use Cibachrome (now called Ilfochrome). We figured out that the Type-C prints were fading so everyone switched over to Cibachrome, which is an incredibly industrial and artificial looking material with really saturated colors. It was using that material that in some ways influenced the look of all that work in the 1980s, because I was accommodating myself to the vocabulary of that material.
MAD: That tug between two forms of representation, the symbolic and the indexical in the diptych format really moves photography into the space of language. How do photographs come to mean what they mean? How do we read them? What kind of representations are photographs? One of the things that I have always liked about your work, in addition to the intellectual questions and formal rigor, is that there is a lot of pleasure in your work, sensuality, humor and your work is very accessible. Even if one does not know much about contemporary art, the imagery is so rich and evocative; one can’t help but enjoy it on that level.
JD: The reason I got into photography was that I wanted to enjoy doing it; I sought pleasure in the process.
MAD: When I hear students say they want to be a writer, I say, well do you like words? Do you like spending time alone thinking about language? Whatever one’s medium is, its important to enjoy the process and the materials.
JD: The beauty of photography is that is pulls you not only literally out into the world, but pulls your consciousness into a mode of observation that is really rewarding, almost addicting.
MAD: You have series of ‘nature’ photographs, which are basically rudimentary sculptures of natural phenomena, such as a paper mache moon, tornados, rocks splashing in water, and I thought for a moment that these are a kind of satiric response to the long tradition of California photography with the f.64 group whose celebrated images made a fetish of nature. Did think along those lines at all?
JD: I was thinking about the various categories of the sublime and how clichés were like zombies, you can’t totally kill them and you can resurrect them in a new kind of form.
MAD: The walking dead?
JD: Hopefully the evocative dead. (Laughter). Back to your question about being a California photographer, I never think about things that way. For me one thing leads to another. Someone once said that about my work in a pejorative sense, “Mr. Divola apparently believes one thing leads to another.” Responding, I think, to the promiscuous nature of the work, and I thought to myself, “Yes, one thing does lead to another, and what’s wrong with that?”
MAD: You made a bunch of 20 x 24 Polaroids in the late 1980s including a series you call ‘Little Man.’
JD: Yes, a little man on a hill, I think of those as a pathetic puppet theater of the natural.
MAD: They are so funny, so rudimentary and humble yet this single primitively fashioned figure standing alone atop an equally primitive mountaintop evokes Caspar David Friedrich and the romantic sublime.
JD: I was dealing with various categories of the sublime and I wanted them to be as pathetic and obvious as possible. The funny thing about that large-scale Polaroid camera is that it is very un-photographic. I mean in one way it is completely photographic in that it has incredible resolution every 20 x 24” print is like a contact print. But on the other hand it is a very large machine pointed at a white wall and you just have to put stuff in front of it. It is very much like a painter where you have a blank canvas and you are responsible for everything that is in it. I was unaccustomed to that way of thinking.
MAD: You recently showed some work from the 1990s in New York. Let me try to describe them briefly. They are large-scale black and white images framed in very industrial-looking metal frames. The pictures are a strange mix of the theatrical and the ephemeral. It appears as if you roughly painted the wall with black paint and then threw flour or some other white powder into the frame and took the picture. They feel clunky and delicate simultaneously, kind of dumb in a way. The illusion, the theatricality is obvious yet then something magical happens. There is this dance in a lot of your work between the obvious and the evocative.
JD: You use that word ‘dumb’ and I use that word all the time. I want things to be dumb and obvious and flat-footed, but to address the most ambitious possible iconography. The images are made with photographic backdrop paper, shamelessly painted in an expressionistic manner. And where I cut the seamless after each shot becomes a kind of horizon line for the next image. I want there to be a reference to the literal process of how they are made but then I want it to be what it is which is a dead industrial thing that hopefully references a set of human desires, my personal desires and general desire for transcendence.
MAD: I saw them when you first showed them at Jan Kesner Gallery in the early 90s in Los Angeles. Was there any difference showing them now in New York two decades later?
JD: People seem to care more about them now. But for me I still see them and talk about them the same way.
MAD: I want to ask a somewhat obnoxiously broad question. Photography has to some extent always been attached to new technology and photographers are expected to reinvent the medium every time a new device or process comes around, to create novel visual experiences. Do you think it is more difficult now to create compelling photographic images now then when photography was at its modernist heights from the 1920s, let’s say, and the 1970s? There was still so much to be discovered through the camera.
JD: Yes and no. On the one hand there is this amazing ubiquity of photography and its accessibility and distribution on the web. And there are so many more artists and not just photographers. So the competition is greater and broader but I think this would be a great time to be a young artist. The technology in photography is extraordinary and I wish I had pigment printers and images that I could manipulate any way I wanted, or attach a camera to a drone and fly it around. The idea of image harvesting is wickedly interesting. The web is streaming endless human production of imagery. If I were a younger artist I might be diving in there. There isn’t any less potential now, but you would have to make different work than before. I wouldn’t bemoan the options of the present for someone interested in photography.
MAD: One of my favorite projects of yours is the Isolated Houses. There a lots of things I love about it, for one, it reimagines the Western Landscape, it connects to the myth of American individualism which veers into dystopian visions fueled by paranoia. You made that work in an art / photographic environment that for decades had dominated in some quarters by a critique in which pictures in the world were seen as suspect or even anachronistic. Your pictures are simple and straightforward yet they tap into these deeper myths. But in addition to the conceptual aspects of your pictures there is a real exploration of beauty, things like the desert light, forlorn yet humbly elegant topographies. I don’t know if this is true, but I sense that you found a way to reinvigorate photography for yourself in a way that was not nostalgic, they are very contemporary, yet they have a quality of quiet beauty and careful meditative looking that might be associated with an earlier time in photography’s history.
JD: This is going to be a long answer. To get to that work I have to talk about the work I did just prior called Four Landscapes. I was thinking about the work I made in the 1980s that had to do with the language of certain desires and the sublime. Right after I made that throwing flour at painted backdrop series. I was given an artist residency in Yosemite and I didn’t know what to do and I ended up photographing people wandering around in nature – resulting in really grainy photographs. I decided I wanted to do a body of work about the literal, as opposed to the figurative, desire for transcendence. I made a body of work called Four Landscapes, which were four landscapes of southern California, mountains, deserts, cities and sea. One set of pictures was people in the distance wandering around in Yosemite, another was little boats out at sea, another was stray dogs in the city, and one was isolated houses in the desert. So I was already out in the desert shooting black and white grainy photographs of isolated houses.
I was trying to visually manifest this ironic desire to be outside of culture. So I was already out there and I was seduced by the light of that place and I just gave myself permission for precisely the kind of blow back I assumed I would get for the picturesque quality of the images. But I was old enough by that point that I just didn’t care. I loved being out there, it was the most enjoyable body of work I have ever done. You are out on some dirt road, the car window is open and the wind is blowing, its beautiful and no one is bothering you, the doing of that body of work was just so fantastic. I gave myself permission to do it even though I didn’t think it was particularly cutting edge.
MAD: You caption the images with the exact latitude and longitude of the place, was that a way of masking the pleasure with a conceptual icing?
JD: No, I have just always been interested in specificity, so that was a way to heighten that specificity, its indexicality. I want them to be understood as a particular place on earth.
MAD: Another perhaps under-known project of yours is As Far As I Could Get, in which you run away from your tripod-mounted camera as the self-timer counts down. So each image is in a different landscape but it is always of you some distance away running with your back to the camera. They have a conceptual / performative framework yet they are funny and accessible. I love how simple they are but all sorts of things resonate with them, desperate escape, voyeurism, and this sense that you are running from yourself.
JD: I like those pictures too. Part of it was that I was turning 50 and at some point you realize that ‘HEY, I am never going to run any faster, this is it, I am never going to be any smarter or better looking.’ (Laughter) I had also recently gone through a break up with somebody and that was part of it. The beauty of photography is that it takes a fraction of a second; to investigate the potential of an idea at a very low cost, it’s not like you have to wait a month to complete a whole painting. So you can get an idea and give it a try and all of a sudden you might see some potential.