Blisner, Ill.: a conversation with Daniel Shea

Blisner, Ill.: a conversation with Daniel Shea

Social truth is something other than a matter of convincing style” — Allan Sekula, “Dismantling Modernism; Reinventing Documentary” in Photography Against the Grain (1978)

Daniel Shea has been making photographic work about the present conditions of urban and de-industrialised America, in which the extraction of coal has been the principal economic engine of the local community, since 2007. This work has focused on the great depth of energy and violence necessary to the functioning of this industry, and on the complex and visceral costs borne not only by the local environment but by those local families and communities whose lives have been in some essential way tethered to the vicissitudes of an increasingly mechanised and perpetually dangerous business. This work has encompassed the broader ambit of degradation and dilapidation visited with such acute neglect upon those towns and small cities who have hitched their fortunes to the fading wave of the Industrial Revolution, and who have done so out of a belief – latterly more an unrequited hope – in the prospect of social mobility, economic stability and material progress. Daniel’s work has continually found a means to connect the actions and costs of this economic engine, upon which the nation as a whole has and continues to rely, with the diminishing returns it has offered to those whose dependence upon its success is difficult, if not impossible to shake.














At one and the same time as his work has centred on these circumstances, it has engaged with the question of the form in which to represent these conditions – it has engaged with the murky business of the politics of photographic representation. His work seems to have proceeded from a belief that the traditionally neutral stance of documentary photography is, and has always been a fiction. In this newest work, his photographs engage more directly with the prickly question of how to depict realities that are steeped in injustice, hardship and needless death without presuming an autonomous and authoritative stance from which to engage such circumstances. The design, the overall form of this latest work struggles openly – at times with great nuance and persuasive sincerity – with the I who is speaking of a world where necessity and neglect matter far more than aesthetics. He has, in essence, sought to acknowledge the legacy of postmodernism without falling prey to the perils of its own fetishisation.

A curious thing happens when documentary is officially recognized as art. Suddenly the hermeneutic pendulum careens from the objectivist end of its arc to the opposite, subjectivist end. Positivism yields to a subjective metaphysics, technologism gives way to auterism. Suddenly the audience’s attention is directed toward mannerism, toward sensibility, toward the physical and emotional risks taken by the artist. Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” — Allan Sekula, “Dismantling Modernism; Reinventing Documentary” (1978)

These very modest and purely photographic difficulties are not the exclusive product of some contemporary sensibility — indeed, there is a history of debate as to how to negotiate the risks that accompany documentary style work that is nearly as long as that of the medium of photography altogether. However, these past few years have seen a number of American photographers address and seek to resolve these issues in differing ways, having in common a desire to acknowledge the presence of their subjective hand in the construction of the reality they wish to evoke, and a simultaneous wish to drive our attentions beyond the actions of their individual decisions toward a broader theme. Books such as Broken Manual, A, Redheaded Peckerwood and Lick Creek Line to name a few have in various ways contended with these formal questions. Blisner, Ill. addresses itself to a number of these shared concerns, but seeks in its own inimical way to continually remind us of the full measure of neglect and abasement that has been the lot of those whose lives have been so conclusively altered by the meagre inheritance of a gradually failing post-industrial America.


A conversation with Daniel Shea

In your earlier Coal Work you invested a great deal of time and effort in articulating an extensive, nuanced story about the reality of living interdependently and in intimate proximity with the industry of coal mining, and in your latest Blisner, Ill. work, coal mining again takes centre stage. I’ve often thought that coal mining was a fitting analogue for the production of America as a nation, and I think that coal mining speaks to a great deal of that history and the present-day complexities of that historical inheritance, but wonder what motivated your interest in pursuing this industry, and in examining its relationship to the formation and subsistence of its local communities?

I came to coal out of a simple question – I wanted to know what was behind an everyday gesture like turning on the light switch. When I went to Appalachia for the first time in 2007, I had prepped my trip with a lot of research into the history of coal mining. I became obsessed, and it hasn’t left my work since. I even work with coal as a material in my sculptural work. Although the conditions and technology surrounding coal (its extraction, its handling, its burning) have changed dramatically, it’s still the same raw, primitive resource, and thus as a material, it’s always connected to the history of mining and industry. It’s always been a kind of god-like substance, because it was not only produced and consumed in the Industrial Revolution (and much earlier) but it literally fueled it. On top of that, coal is a fossil, fossilized carbon, recording an unimaginable history of the world. Small black rocks can evoke that kind of weight, which is incredible. Today coal is still the number one source of energy in the world, and is so politically contentious. There’s a lot to work with.

There’s obviously a rich and diverse number of ways in which coal as a material and as a material force has great symbolism, but my sense of your earlier work was that you had a powerful interest in the lived experience and the consequences of our relationship to it, our investment in it, and the costs of supporting and living with it. Is that fair? Were you more interested in the discursive opportunities that coal provided you as a material and a subject for photographic work, or more interested in the way that coal has a material effect on people’s lives, and their ways of living with or through it?

Yeah, that’s true. Initially I thought I would make landscape photographs, as the landscape changed so dramatically in the process of being stripped for coal. But as I spent more time in West Virginia, I inevitably found myself in communities of people, and responding to that. People who are locally affected (and historically (and subsequently, culturally)) by stripping industries have a very real and visceral relationship to those industries, and I was trying to find ways to incorporate that into the narrative of a place. By extension, their struggle or affirmation corresponds or implicates our own role in issues of energy and power. Coal has become a kind of center in my web of interested subjects. Currently, I’m interested in its affective and tactile qualities as a material and its ability to conjure up a history of labor and industry.

I get the sense with this recent Blisner work that you’re simultaneously making the claim that there’s a broader urban landscape that has been constructed by the history of our use of coal – an ecosystem, if you will – and that that ecosystem has endured a kind of secret long-running blight. You seem to be using a form of documentary fiction to point to the long history of this blight, to underscore the tangible and saddening record of disuse it has produced, and to highlight the disconnect between its relative ubiquity in the landscape and its invisibility in narratives of the contemporary landscape. Does that seem fair? What else motivates the formal relationship to subject in this new work?

I wouldn’t say that I’m explicitly trying to make that claim; rather, I’m using coal as a point of specificity that suggests more widespread patterns in the rapid history of deindustrialization and subsequent blight. It’s my surrogate subject. I also don’t think the renderings of blight and disuse that deindustrialization created are exactly invisibile, literally, in the contemporary landscape, but that their ubiquity creates a kind of complacency. We are used to things looking a certain way. That’s the way cities “look,” that’s the way The Rust Belt “looks.” Artists have long sought to play with detritus, shift contexts and point to what one might feel should be more obvious.

Formally, with this work, I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to draw from a history of photographic depiction in documentary work, to center the discourse and subsequent critique of these modes of producing and consuming images. Second, I wanted to mix in new ways of photographing this landscape of disuse to project the future with a kind of dread. There’s something existentially beautiful about children drifting in late day sun on a summer day, with nothing really to do. I wanted the photos to take on a kind of dystopian, sci-fi sublime at moments in the book.

There are other points I’d like to pick up on in a moment from that response, but first I’d like to unpack a little further my question about what I loosely termed ‘documentary fiction’. What I’m driving at is the way that in Blisner on the one hand you’ve marshalled artefacts and (if I can say it like this) artefactual elements such as clippings, articles, text, essays in a way that extends the imaginary world of the book, and on the other you’ve also made formally posed images of the gestures of labour and the tools necessary to the production of coal. To my mind, all of this opens up the inside of a history of coal production and the pragmatics of its extraction, and by counterpointing these elements with images of life in the environs of a ubiquitous de-industrialised urban America, you’re showing us what we tend to pass by, and asking about the trajectory of its life from its past to our future…

I fully embrace terms like “documentary fiction,” “post-documentary,” “expanded documentary,” etc. The thing that’s worth pointing out with these terms is that fiction is more of a frame than anything else. The problem with work that purports to have documentary intention is that the work adheres to unrealistic and slippery definitions, codes, ethics, and assumptions. Social documentary work tries to evade these adherences by foregrounding narrative and human qualities, the implication being that the emotional tenor helps expand what we might consider to be documentary. But by using the word fiction, the author embraces the notion that the work involves expanded and fabricated realities. It’s very much informed by notions of the document and indexicality in creating narrative works. This book is about reality and things that happened and continue to happen to people and place. What happens to Blisner over the course of the condensed chronology that the book passes through is based on events, documents and people who lived in south Chicago and southern Illinois in the last 100 years. Very little is fully fabricated from the point of its conception. The artifacts, some of which are clearly manipulated, some of which are more believably found, are meant to both legitimize the world that’s created and to wink at the reader that there is an element of fiction. I’m talking openly about the work being fiction, but when you see it for the first time, or look/read through the book, it’s not initially clear.

I know you’ve been in an interdisciplinary graduate arts programme, and have been making sculpture and other forms of work, and so I wonder whether you think that the inclusion of aspects of those other discourses in this Blisner work enriches concept at the expense of clarity, or whether you think that it introduces a kind of conceptual complexity that shifts the more ‘traditional’ documentary work off its customary axis? I thought quite swiftly after seeing the book of the Rudyard Kipling line: ‘No one knew it was the truth until someone told a story’

That Kipling quote is great. The piece was conceived of as a book, physically, from the beginning, so I’ve always considered how the photographs might serve the object, and subsequently, how objects might serve photographs. I was definitely not interested in a concise form of “clarity,” or perhaps legibility is a better way to describe it. I opted for mild to severe interruptions, obfuscation, conflation, slippage, etc. Because this book deals with the contained history of the town and the more expansive practice of historicity, it’s important that nothing is overly clear. Mythological status is obtained through a murky and cleansing process, one that bounces around, eliminates, and ultimately packages a narrative into the mythic status. I wanted the work to reflect this kind of complexity. I can only hope that the work is conceptually interesting enough to incite the viewer to reconsider the more rote documentary elements as riffing elements.

I’m curious to better understand what you mean by the ‘practice of its historicity’, in part because I think you’re referring there to narrative and not to subject matter, which is to say that I think you’re referring to the established habits of speaking about or depicting a traditional American subject, rather than to the material reality of de-industrialised urban America.

I’m referring to the subjective and nebulous nature of history, as opposed to a given, hard-fact kind of linear history. History always has an author and this author is always choosing what to include and what not to include. Conventionally, history serves as an opposing force to the creation of myth, whereas they are obviously more intertwined. I think in the context of considering a book and its function in relation to historicity, narrative is the subject matter.

I don’t want this to be a cop-out response, but I think work can deal with the failures of industrial myth as a subject matter while also exercising some self-awareness and discernment in the form that work takes. Ultimately, photography always engages with its own history and problematic modes of representation. Not to mention its precarious relationship with veracity, which is not unlike trying to pry apart the way myth gets confounded with truth. There is of course the ham-fisted argument that things of the world need not be complicated by the presumptions of subjective art-making twists and turns, that their content is established in the realities that they represent. The most affirming documentarian might take this position. I can not, because I can’t believe that that is ever possible to achieve to begin with.

Do you think that this formal obfuscation in contemporary photobooks – where the complication of narrative form takes centre stage alongside the conditions of that narrative’s subject – is becoming a new norm in any sense? Is there any sense in which you’ve been influenced by other recent work like A by Gregory Halpern, Broken Manual by Alec Soth or Redheaded Peckerwood by Christian Patterson?

I think what’s really interesting about these projects and an overall trend to seemingly “obfuscate” (instead of adhere to linear, direct methods of story telling), is that they actualize the position of being someone in the world much more faithfully. One of the main points John Friel makes in his essay for Blisner, Ill., is that cognition is strange and defaults to completely idiosyncratic ways of dissecting, parsing, and ultimately creating meaning of things in the world. All of the obvious areas of content in the books you mentioned, be it the compulsion to escape or understanding horrific acts, or whatever, revealed themselves as interesting things to become obsessed with, historically and artistically. Why would anyone really want to just be like, “Ok, time to do a little research, make some photographs, and present this to you as objectively as possible?” It’s so far from the internal meandering that happens in the art-making process, that it’s hard for me to understand not using a kind of formal obfuscation. That being said, within the palimpsest-like making of trends in contemporary art, I’m sure soon we’ll witness a reactionary emergence of a kind of hard-lined, dry, “this is exactly what it is” kind of photographic methodology.

There’s a quotation from a lecture given by the artist Craigie Horsfield in which he says “Art, whilst it may be many things, may also be this: an accounting to others of the world which we together inhabit, to the end not that we escape history, but that we together may stand face to face with the world“. I wonder what you think of that idea in relation not just to Blisner but your overall body of coal work? Who is this work for, and how did your ideas about the function of art in a wider public discourse affect the differing methodologies you used when making the work and editing it into book form?

Admittedly, I’m still very wrapped up in understanding my practice as an observer. I’m still an artist that is “interested,” i.e., I’m “interested” in history, “interested” in labor, etc., and I’m using my interest (which is so hard to understand, because it’s often compulsive) to observe and reveal mechanisms. Blisner, Ill. is for me, in an attempt to better understand these interests. It’s also for anyone else that has an interest in deconstruction or looking backwards at the overgrown paths that perhaps more justly illuminate conditions of history. I’m not going to presume anything about any given audiences or what my work actually does (as opposed to what I’d like it to do), because I don’t think I’m there yet. I think the next step for me is to more aggressively locate the critique. I think many people know that no history is official, and that in the process of mythologizing, complicated things happen, stories get untold. I also think many people know that industrial-era capitalism was not favorable to most people. I hope the critique in this book does something more than point to various discourses, but engage with them. But I’m not entirely sure if the payoff is one that says something new.

I think it’s both very honest and not a little bit courageous to say as much, and in the end, truthfully, which photographer can claim substantially more? For my two cents, it’s work that engages at one and the same time the complex issue of depiction of contemporary reality and its history, and the visceral difficulties and inequities of our present moment. That’s no mean feat. What’s next work-wise, beyond locating the critique? Where is all this work leading you?

I’m not sure if anyone can claim more, but I imagine these things become more illuminated as we continue to produce. Locating this critique, or a more specific wording, critical “frame,” are at the top of my priorities, especially as I work to complete my thesis in my graduate program. Currently I’m considering the exhibition space, and how to translate this book and these ideas to the wall and floor. And how to design these exhibition spaces to have a slower reveal that is engaging throughout. A new project is in the works that considers what it means to be a “native” in a variety of contexts across Southern Illinois history. In particular I’m focusing on native people/early settler conflicts and laid off factory employees and their relationships with their previous employers and factories.

Lastly, but very definitely not least, could you please talk a little about the dedication at the end of the book to the victims and families of the 1951 Orient No. 2 Coal Mine explosion in West Frankfort, Ill.? Are some of the vernacular images and objects in any way related, and how does it inform the work?

One of the main, framing anecdotes in the book is of a mine disaster, which abruptly ends the brief and intense industrial prosperity that comes to the town. This moment is narrated by historic photos and documents (some tweaked and fabricated) of a real disaster, the 1951 Orient No. 2 explosion in West Frankfort. In the context of the book, that disaster happens in Blisner, not West Frankfort, but the event was too serious and too deplorable of an example of worker exploitation of the time to not reveal the source material. It was a tricky decision to make, in terms of how to place it and how to negotiate the actuality of those events in contrast to the fiction that they help illustrate. Ultimately a dedication seemed like the most respectful thing to do, and an opportunity to acknowledge, more broadly a key historical component; this book, partly, is about exploring the social consequences of blind industrial expansion, and how people and their labor existed in that equation.

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