Stephen Frailey

Stephen Frailey in his studio, Summer 2009


Stephen Frailey is my friend.  Friendship in the art world can be a slippery thing – with all that ambition, networking, admiration, hero worship, and envy at play, we sometimes don’t fully fathom our own motivations when it comes to cultivating friendships.  I knew of Stephen beginning in the early 80s seeing his work in exhibitions and magazines and mutual friends telling me that we should meet.  But Stephen was in New York and I was everywhere but New York. So it wasn’t until 1999, when he hired me to teach for the photography faculty of the Bard MFA program, that we finally got to know one another.  By that time, it wasn’t as if we were without ambition or professional goals but we were on the other side of the career obsessions of our 20s and 30s.

There is a lot to admire about Stephen; he has had a multifaceted career in the arts, as a photographer, writer, curator, educator, administrator, and editor.  Stephen is exceedingly polite, gentlemanly, and generous. He has supported photographic artists in so many varied ways; He is a devoted teacher, he hires hundreds of photographers to teach at the School of Visual Arts, he develops new programs at SVA such at Photo Global and the new masters degree in fashion photography. He has organized fundraisers and auctions to support photography education in Afghanistan and started a photography scholarship for young women in honor of a beloved student Tracey Baran, who died tragically a few years ago.

Stephen started the magazine Dear Dave, in 2008, initially as a kind of stealth SVA publication, the idea being to highlight the extraordinary photographic work being made by SVA faculty, students and alumni. It has since broadened its content to include non-SVA work.  Stephen’s embrace of inclusiveness and plurality in photographic practice is evident in his editorial choices.  He wants fashion, documentary, personal and commercial work to have a dialog. He has established this programatically in the Photography Department of SVA and that is his goal with the contents of Dear Dave. Pick up any issue and you will see this inclusiveness, where student images and the work of acclaimed artists and photojournalists exist side by side without hierarchy.

In spite of all that he does as an educator, writer, and editor, Stephen continues to be a committed artist. His images are very much a product of his sense of humor and restraint; they are friendly yet somehow resistant to easy interpretation.  In the 1980s he primarily worked with stock imagery inserting visual non-sequiturs to transform the familiar into the inscrutable. His recent work is even more enigmatic, if possible.  Working in his studio in upstate New York, he constructs simple juxtapositions of materials that on first glance seem immediately knowable but like the strangest birthday present you ever got, magically morph into unanswerable questions, funny and troubling simultaneously.

This conversation took place in Stephen Frailey’s office at the School of Visual Arts on January 11, 2011.


Stephen Frailey, Untitled, 1982

SF – I vividly remember being in Europe being surrounded by all these grand things and photographing ants running over a crack in the sidewalk – something happens when you are traveling, you could be an accomplished photographer with a serious agenda and yet  still feel compelled to photograph the Eiffel Tower. So I don’t travel with a camera anymore

MAD – So you are on this trip to Europe and North Africa after college and you are photographing ants crossing the sidewalk – did you feel guilty or self-conscious about that? Was that a willful rejection of typical tourism or was that just your normal approach?

SF – I don’t quite remember but it was probably willful. I think being a young artist involves a certain level of arrogance, I probably thought that I was not only fulfilling my agenda but probably thought I was undermining the bourgeoisie – Laughter

MAD – I’m sure they felt completely undermined.  Do you still have those photographs?

SF – Yes I do, in fact I showed them here at SVA a couple of years ago when the faculty and staff did a show of work they did in college. Its funny, in the early 1990s I was asked by Artforum to do a portfolio of images based on my experiences in Morocco. So it ended up being an exercise in photo illustration since I had to reconstruct or make images that embodied my experience since I had no images from there so to speak.

MAD – You studied photo at Bennington.

SF – Yes, photography, painting and dance. When I came to NYC I chose photo, I mean obviously I wasn’t going to dance, that was a Bennington thing. Contemporary dance is very important there,  Martha Graham taught at Bennington.  If you wanted any kind of physical activity at Bennington, it had to be dance.

MAD – No football team?

SF – No football – there was a yoga team – laughter. I wasn’t a  very good painter because I had no feeling for paint. And I became interested in photography because not only was it self expressive but as a cultural matrix—the many ways that it is embedded  into the social fabric.

MAD – Well for you photography has never been about the camera right? Some people love the equipment, the interaction with the gear. For some the camera is a traveling companion or as Arbus said, a kind of passport, allowing entrance into strange or unfamiliar places.  Your pictures have never been about the camera or even the ‘place’ but more about the image itself.

SF –  Yes but I do get entrance into particular trains of thought and ideas I would not have approached or been led to without the camera acting as a kind of guide.  Even my beekeeping activities started with an image.


Stephen Frailey, Untitled, 1986

MAD –  You came to New York thirty years ago – what was the goal or idea for coming here?

SF – It was the same as anyone’s – we come to New York to fulfill some kind of ambition and this is the place to do it if you are in a creative field, especially. I did not have any grandiose ambitions – I mean your ambitions sort of proceed – your first goals are to find a reasonable place to live and find a job and then get a better job and to have fun – it seemed absolutely natural and inevitable to come to New York. And in 1980 I think it was a more hospitable place, I paid $100 for a small studio apartment in the East Village. The art world was much smaller as well, you could practically count on two hands the people who were interested in photography as an expressive medium in the context of making ‘art’.

MAD – And you knew who those people were?

SF – Well I became aware of them soon enough. Many of my friends from college were waiting on tables or hanging sheet rock and I thought that if I was going to work 8 hours a day I should work in a field where I was going to learn something useful so I thought I should work in a gallery.

MAD – So did you just walk into Mary Boone and ask for a job?

SF – I walked into all the galleries in Soho and gave them my resume – which was not impressive by the way, it mostly consisted of pumping gas in Vermont and working for a tree surgeon in Westchester.  So I walked into Paula Cooper and talked to Douglas Baxter, and I had no idea who he was at the time, and he said that they were not hiring but that I should go talk to Mary Boone. She hired me, I was there for five years and within six months it seemed I knew everyone in the art world. Again the art world was a much smaller place and Mary’s gallery was on the ascent with Julian Schnabel and David Salle.


Stephen Frailey, Untitled, 1988


MAD – That period of the late 70s early 80s produced what has been termed the Pictures Generation, a time period that is being critically revisited right now.  It has been suggested that it was singular era with Soho as one of the major centers – just before, as you suggest, the art world became this huge sprawling monster. You were there, do you think this is just a bit of nostalgia or did you feel at the time that it was a golden moment.

SF – I had no history in the art world so I had no perspective to make that judgement – but at Mary Boone, which was the center of all of that there was a palpable sense of excitement and plenty of ambition on display. It was a moment when the act of making art, what it meant and how you made it, was being redefined. I do remember a kind of tension and competition between artists, practices and philosophies. One night on my way to a party at Jean Michel Basquiat’s I ran into Sherrie Levine on the street, I invited her to come along but it was clear that she despised the Neo-Expressionism that he practiced and represented. I don’t think she could support that kind of vortex of emotion and spontaneity.  So there was the East Village scene and the Metro Pictures conceptualists and the Neo-Expressionists at Mary Boone. I mean every era has its styles and heroes – if you look at the ads in Art Forum in the 1970s – for most of those names you think – where are they now?  It was a good time, but I see it now in my students – the 10 years after they graduate – when they are making their mark in the artworld in various ways is tremendously exciting for them. You meet so many people, build a community of friends and the world opens exponentially.


Stephen Frailey, Untitled, 1992

MAD – I was not aware that you studied painting, or maybe I just forgot…

SF – It was indeed forgettable

MAD – Well its interesting in terms of how you construct images, I would not say its painterly because I don’t think photography is painterly, but there is something in your very utilitarian use of photographic equipment in service of the image in which the frame and field are very particular.  Because your images are relatively flat and there is no horizon line, things like proportion and scale also is in doubt in your images.

SF – Even though I studied photography, I rejected the traditions fairly immediately because it wasn’t relevant to me.  My work is related to painting in the sense that I have a studio practice and my images deal with a flat plane. For years I built my photographs  based upon found images, in which the ‘image’ was central. But now that outside image does not exist in my pictures at all.

MAD – Right, your earlier pictures had other pictures in them so they had a direct reference to things outside the frame, things like architecture, fashion, bodies and narrative, so in a sense they had a connection to cinema.  But over time you seemed to have stripped out the outside references. There are objects, surfaces and textures in your more recent pictures, and there is certainly a dead-pan humor – but they are somewhat enigmatic, inscrutable even in the sense that they don’t seem to reference anything outside of themselves.


Stephen Frailey, Untitled, 1992

SF – To talk in general about the arc of the work, I’ve always considered myself a collage artist, and I think all photographs are a kind of collage of a certain type because of the way they put often unrelated information together.  My working method has always been a variation of putting an object on top of an image and the work evolved from illustration toward abstraction.  And I also moved away from objects toward surfaces.  In the 1990s I was a photo illustrator, that was how I made my living, I had done a lot of photo illustrations for books, newspapers and magazines and I wanted to move toward something that was less illustrative.  A key image for me, was made when I was in residency at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa Texas, and instead of placing an object on an image and photographing it, I poured a blue liquid in a shallow baking pan.

MAD – I like the idea that one learns something from one’s own work – that it points the way forward. So that by placing an object on top of an image and rephotographing that set up you realized that maybe there was a way to make a living there. Tell me more about the photo illustration period of your career.

SF – It all predates Photoshop of course. After my gallery days I felt somewhat rejected by the art world – which is a whole other topic. But as it turned out they were terrific years, I was a commercial photographer doing a lot of magazine work, making photographs about ideas.  Photo illustration was a form of photography that few people identify; it was kind of disdained and I thought it was an under-appreciated form. It was challenging to problem solve under these intense deadlines. I would get three different assignments a week; I would get a call on Monday and wanted an image about emphysema by Wednesday, or a picture about sexual harassment in the office. I did a picture for the cover of the New York Times magazine that was about date rape.

MAD – So you developed a style that became a vehicle for a commercial career. At a certain point did you think you had to change to get back into the art world? Is that when the more narrative elements begin to disappear?

SF – An entry into the art world did not motivate me, but I thought my work had reached a level of obviousness, which is a danger of any kind of editorial imagery.  When you are making an image for a magazine the goal is to make it immediately legible and some of that was infiltrating my own work.  So I wanted to flee obviousness without the work becoming vague. I consider my pictures unusual, and I don’t mean that to sound self-aggrandizing, but they are unusual in the sense that they are both abstract and absolutely clear and specific.


Stephen Frailey, Untitled, 2007

MAD – Your pictures are clear in that they are descriptive of recognizable things, but then one is confounded about what to do with the specificity. They are not utilitarian or narrative….

SF – The function is not immediately clear.  So in a sense I inverted the activity of the previous ten years which was to make something legible and literal.

MAD – The manner in which you work, though, the actual procedures have not changed at all right? Its basically a camera on a copy stand pointing down at a variety of small objects assembled below. You have never taken the camera off the copy stand – you have never taken it outside and pointed it at the direction of the horizon, for example.

SF – No – it’s a completely narrow enterprise

MAD – I am curious about that loyalty to a way of working. Is it a sign of stubbornness or insanity? Or a belief that within these self-imposed parameters something magical and interesting can happen.

SF – All of the above.  But that’s part of the charm and the pleasure. You set these narrow parameters yet the variations on that theme are infinite.  A painter does much the same, most paintings are pigment on canvas, but within that anything can happen.  My wife, Mary, says I am a creature of habit…

MAD – But it doesn’t mean that you are predictable

SF – I would hope not, I always try to reinvent what I am doing, trying to discover new things. With some exceptions I have a problem with photography that chooses one topic and then repeats it, a body of work about redheads or fire hydrants.

MAD – That’s the classic modernist cul-de-sac – everyone seemed to work that way in the 70s before the whole post modernist shift. Photographers doing portfolios of fine art prints of garage interiors or such silliness

SF – That works for some people. This topic comes up all the time in teaching, some think that visual coherence comes from choosing a specific topic, whereas I am interested in trying to follow the student’s thought process to unpredictable places.

MAD – That’s what makes you sensitive to contemporary photography – for many young photographers its not about a particular style or subject matter – its about the image – so a landscape, a still life and a portrait can be part of the same broad embrace.

SF – That’s what I find stimulating, trying to find the connective tissue between those disparate images.  But in terms of teaching you have to understand individual temperament, some students are methodical and need to name their topic, while others are more scattered and intuitive but trust that a topic will emerge through the accumulation of these disparate images.

MAD – The teacher’s challenge in that case is to determine whether its random and incoherent or if there is a nascent sensibility developing.

SF – That has sometimes everything to do with editing.


Stephen Frailey, Unitltled, 2008

MAD – Speaking of teaching, you have been chair of the photo dept at SVA for 12 years, and you were teaching there before becoming chair.

SF – I just got my 25 year plaque…

MAD – Oh, wow and yikes!  And you were chair of the photo dept in the Bard MFA program for 10 summers. My impression is that teaching is really important to you, it’s a vocation. Has your attitude or approach to teaching changed over time?

SF – My approach is pretty much the same but instead of just being in the classroom setting, I can set the tone for an entire program, at least to some extent.

MAD – One of the reasons I ask is that when I was an undergraduate 30 years ago – critical theory was never a part of the dialog, there was nary a mention of any writing about photography beyond Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography, maybe there was some growing awareness of Susan Sontag or John Berger. But within a few years it seemed as if everyone in academia was scrambling to read a suddenly long list of theorists, Sekula, Burgin, Foucault, Baudrillard, Kristeva, and as interesting and useful and many of these writers are – it seemed always kind of weird to me that almost overnight, all these artists, photographers, and teachers felt inadequate, as if they did not know the right things to proceed to make art. Did that phenomenon effect you in that way?

SF – I have never had an intimate relationship with theory. I make a differentiation between work that is theoretically informed and work that is intelligent.  I took a class at ICP with Abigail Solomon Godeau in the early 1980s and at that time she was a writer at the pivot point of that theoretical shift. And although I  engaged intellectually with the ideas I thought it was completely elitist. One of the things that most interests me about photography is how broad it is. Its not just a theoretical medium it’s a medium that creates objects of desire, So to answer your question, I never felt burdened by theory. In the classroom I would rather try to come up with less predictable references for the students beyond the list of canonical texts or authors.  Also I think there was a big difference between what was happening in university programs and what was happening on the streets of lower Manhattan in the early 1980s.  if you think of the artists at the beginning of their careers at that point, whether it be Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Laurie Simmons, I don’t think their work was theoretically inspired.

MAD – Yes but their work was almost instantly theorized in journals and art magazines and became visual anchors for the accelerated theorization of art.

SF – On the opposite end of the spectrum, when I was studying photography at Bennington college, the expectation of the kind of photographs you could or should make was very narrow – black and white, landscapes, abandoned farmhouses, and maybe a portrait or two. But I was shooting Polaroid SX-70.

MAD – So was that a defining moment for you? In terms of rejecting those provincial, sentimental and limited expectations?

SF – Yes although it was somewhat adversarial and my work was treated dismissively, I had a very playful attitude toward those restrictions and that helped form the basis of my inclusive approach to photographic education, I think.

MAD – We have something in common there – although my adversarial relationship to the photography department at Mass Art was not playful at all. I respected the social humanist tradition that they espoused but thought it was not the only investigation possible. They thought otherwise.

SF – There are two profound fallacies at work with this narrowness of approach. One is that the future is something that we know and second is the rejection of photography as something that is central and crucial to daily life, whether it is a surveillance camera, a highly stylized fashion image, a photograph of a farmer standing in front of a barn, or a photograph of a big baked potato going by on the side of a truck.  This narrowness still exists, perhaps with certain aspects changed.  Recently I was a an assessor at a very good art school in the Midwest and I respect what they are doing but they think of photography in very narrow terms as being self expressive and being part of a very specific photographic art tradition.  When I would bring up so-called commercial work they thought I was talking about wedding photography.  So the idea of a photograph in the context of culture outside of hanging on a wall in a gallery or museum was not being addressed.

MAD – So this inclusive attitude toward photography, your belief that a fashion image and a documentary image have equal value or at least are worthy of investigation and practice is not only the basis of your philosophy toward teaching but is also your approach to the magazine you started three years ago, Dear Dave.


SF – Definitely with Dear Dave, because I wanted to see a magazine with that pluralistic approach to photography, that could stand next to Aperture and Blind Spot. I don’t think I have entirely achieved it yet, but I want the different genres of photography to have a conversation in one place.  I feel like that kind of stubborn attachment to photography only as an ‘art form’ is a leftover from the kind of battles photography felt like it had to have generations ago, to reach a parity with painting.  All these academics whose basic premise is ‘photography is an art form’ prevents them from looking at a photograph on a side of a truck, which to my mind, suggests a remaining level of insecurity, that photography must never waiver in its insistence that it is an art form – this is not liberating, its constricting.

MAD – There is a joke that you love and you always tell about two penguins standing on an ice floe

SF – I think its you who loves that joke…..

MAD – Well I I don’t know if I love the joke or just you telling it. Anyway, I think that joke has everything to do with your photographs.

SF – I’ll accept that

MAD – Yes because it has to do with looking at something you think you know or can identify, but then there is a doubt that maybe its not, and then its reaffirmed, kind of.  It’s like an ambiguous tautology, you never quite know if the obvious is true or not.