Jason Koxvold has been making photographic studies of what I would describe as the backstage landscapes of neoliberal growth for the better part of the last five years, in locations that stretch from outer Russia to the Los Angeles River, and many points in between. While this work is subdivided into a number of small and medium-sized projects, it properly falls under the larger rubric of one cohesive work entitled “Everything and Nothing”, and its principal focus has been an effort to uncover and to explore the extent to which the singular logic of one economic model for growth has expressed itself in similar ways across vastly different parts of the earth, and in often dramatically contrasting cultures.
This work has evidently been a personal obsession of sorts, and one to which Jason has dedicated a tremendous amount of time, travel and income. The fruits of these efforts, beside the numerous stunning and deeply acerbic critiques he has elaborated in the form of large format landscape photographs, come in the form of a series of interlinked questions about the manner in which our normative landscapes – specifically those intermediary spaces that connect up the goods and services by means of which we fulfil the most routine habits of everyday life – speak to the embedded assumptions we have about the way the world should be organised. Jason’s work takes its reference points from a long tradition of landscape photography, and more specifically from American documentary landscape photography – a tradition that encompasses the work of Timothy Sullivan and Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams and Robert Adams, Joel Sternfeld and Mitch Epstein. Common to the evolution that can be traced in that genealogy, his work embraces a sense of bemusement and bitter confusion at the obviously callous degradation he has seen, a sense of awe at the magnitude of the forces at work, and an unrelentingly demanding critique of the manner in which supranational capital can be creative in its destruction. If in the work of Carleton Watkins landscape photography was just beginning to be put in the service of prospecting for opportunity, and in the work of Ansel Adams those prospects were forever encroaching upon those small preserves he so treasured, then the intersection of those two dynamics of hope for opportunity and hope for preservation are frustrated, if not subverted, as they combine in Jason’s work.
To his credit, Jason does not envisage or make use of any notions of a ‘pristine wilderness’, nor does he hark back to some elusive and (to my mind) illusory halcyon moment of great simplicity or harmony. Were he to rephotograph the frontier of Watkins it would be with an eye to include the early graves of those millions of Native Americans whose unwilling sacrifice laid the foundations for manifest destiny. His work is sobering in that it shows across such an immense swathe of the globe how chillingly identical is the arrangement between policy and capital, or how cynical the marriage between utility and development. So it would also be fair to say that his is not work toward which we should turn for hopefulness, but rather for a continual deeply rational source of deeper and more incisive critique. His work is not equivocal, and the fact of the far-reaching identity it depicts in the architecture of economic development – in the construction of growth – should serve as one further impulse (were such a one necessary) to continue to redefine and refashion the terms of our evolving relationship with each other and with the earth.
While neither he nor I would stake a claim to this work belonging in the canon, the illustrious and compelling photographic history to which I referred is relevant in that it sets out the ground from which Jason has tried to make his own use of the camera. He has a clear sense of how photographic seeing can help to clarify some of the more numinous truisms with which we operate, and to illustrate with sufficient sharpness of focus as to be incontrovertibly self-evident the scale of the struggle we’re faced with, should we have an interest in addressing ourselves to the challenge. To my mind, that gesture is in itself hopeful, and his work sits alongside a broad range of other contemporary efforts by undergraduate, postgraduate and amateur photographic work that has tried and that continues to try to grapple in photographic terms with where it is that we find ourselves at present.
Interview with Jason Koxvold
Can you talk a little about how you got started making this work, when it became clear to you that you were in fact making a coherent and cohesive body of work about a series of interrelated issues, and how you resolved to continue working away at it all this time?
I have always been interested in making photographs for myself, but a couple of things happened that drew me in a certain direction. Several years ago, a friend was kind enough to lend me a large format camera for a few months and I experimented with it heavily. From a technical perspective, it’s a challenging type of camera to operate – quite intimidating at first. Once I had come to terms with all of the controls and found a comfortable system of working, I found that the technical layer fell away and left me free to work more on the conceptual framework.
Large format cameras lend themselves to producing very studied, carefully-composed images – the exact opposite of digital cameras, which encourage, in my opinion, a scattershot approach to working. I found that as the camera forced me to think more about the work, and the types of imagery that I was attracted to, that these things happened to be aligned with my personal sociopolitical points of view.
On the one hand, traveling with these cameras is a royal pain. I don’t tend to leave the country with the 8×10″ camera because it’s simply too large. Even the 4×5″ is challenging, between its weight, the difficulties of flying with sealed boxes of film, and the increasingly common suspicion of people with cameras. But it’s not hard to stoke the desire to keep working in this space – I find that the more work I make, the more focused the ideas become, and the more urgently I need to continue making it.
You obviously believe that photography can at the least make visible certain commonalities in our own and external cultures, commonalities that can be instructive and informative. How do you go about trying to put that belief into action with the pragmatic and aesthetic choices you make when choosing subjects and when actually photographing? In what way do you think that your photographs reflect some of your core beliefs about photography?
The power of photography, I think, is the dichotomy between what is real and what is interpreted. That is to say, we know that photographs are real – they are pictures of things – so we naturally assume a level of directness, or honesty. But that’s not necessarily the case. For example, Mitch Epstein makes intensely critical and startlingly beautiful photographs of some of the uglier trappings of society. He seduces us with hazy, expansive landscapes redolent of Constable, creating a tension between subject matter and visual style.
My approach is a little different; I don’t deliberately set out to create a ‘beautiful’ image; at least, they don’t feel beautiful to me. If anything I think of my visual style as having a bluntness to it; at their best, I can almost hear them making a humming sound. But even as they are not beautiful, the bluntness is intended to invite examination, to draw the viewer in to a dialogue with the work. That, I think, is key to photography as much as any form of art – to provide a canvas for re-evaluation, and the opportunity for change.
Your photographs evince a pretty unremitting focus on the machinery of trade and consumption, the brickwork that underpins the things we drive, buy, wear, eat and so forth. But it also at the same time concentrates on the externalities produced by urban ‘development’ and gentrification, the slowly deserted or neglected spaces that lie outside of the centre. What is your view of the interrelation between what we commonly call globalisation and urban spaces, and why do you think its important?
I’m interested in the idea that what you might call the brickwork of our manufacturing and consumption is the same across the board. It’s as if the planet is becoming ISO certified, and you can take a piece from one place and plug it into a piece from another and expect it to work.
When you unpack this idea, it implies an ongoing commodification of humankind that is not necessarily optimistic.
Can you put into context what you mean by “Everything and nothing. Photographs of the future”? Should we understand that as a somewhat bleak set of expectations about where we’re headed, or as something else altogether?
It’s a title that is intended to work on a couple of levels. Visually speaking, in terms of cataloguing the contents of the photographs at various scales, it can be taken as simple quantitative statement. Just as atoms make up molecules which make up larger things depending on the scale at which you view them, in my photographs I try to focus on ‘lots of things’ and ‘no things’; compositionally, I find this interesting. A lot of my work consists of very stark, singular compositions that are made of seen or unseen volumes of much smaller things.
Then there is the qualitative interpretation; the question of ‘is more better?’, which is something that in my opinion goes directly to the core of today’s greatest societal challenges: how to manage aggressive, unchecked growth, and whether such growth creates real value. The inevitable, and largely unasked question, in this regard: what happens to hastily-built things when we discover they have no intrinsic value or meaningfulness? Given the decreasing length of our attention spans, the rate at which everything (a brand new mall, for example) returns to nothing (an abandoned mall) appears largely unexamined. James H Kunstler’s short and brutal TED Talk is interesting, and quite entertaining, in this regard.
If I start looking at a project like Arctic, wherein you photograph the decaying almost anachronistic vestiges of the Soviet Union and work your way into the suburban environment, I see strong thematic links between that project and your subsequent Los Angeles River project – not just in terms of disuses, but in the common topography between these vastly different places. This also then ties in with some of the terrain you cover (physically and conceptually) in the Landfill Project. What interests you so much about decay and disuses? The excellent art critic David Levi-Strauss wrote something about this in a short piece on seeing Robert Bergman’s portraits from “A Kind of Rapture”, and he said “The truth is, photography can only do a couple of things really well. It can make visible the tracery of a relation, beginning with the relation between the photographer and his or her subject, and it can reflect on death. Neither of these effects is automatic, by any means, but it is possible. One would think that, out of the millions of photographs that have been made between people over the last 165 years, it would have happened more often, but in fact it is exceedingly rare.” What are your thoughts?
When I visited Russia I was immediately struck by the similarities between the vestiges of their Cold War and ours. Arctic was one of my first projects working in large format and in many ways was where I started to connect the dots between my own sociopolitical points of view and how photographs played a part in that.
I agree with Levi-Strauss to some degree; that great photographs can make visible relationships, by applying an editorial filter in the placement of the camera, making decision of what to include and what to omit. Where I disagree is in the idea that it is limited to the photographer’s relationship to the subject, although perhaps he was referring more exclusively to portraiture; I’d love to unpack his statement further.
What makes, for example, the photograph of the MiG interesting is, in my view, the relationship between the aircraft and the buildings behind, the basketball hoops in the foreground. Here you have a large, expensive decommissioned weapon set in front of some of the most bleakly awful apartment buildings. To me, that says a lot about a nation’s priorities from a financial point of view (and theirs are similar to those of the United States) – greater weight placed on the military industrial complex than on education; an attempt to create a sense of nationalism in the lower class; the simultaneous instillment of fear of ‘the other’ in those same people. And while Landfill Project and Los Angeles River are intended to stand apart from Arctic, I think you see those commonalities of policy reflected in our approach to architecture and public space.
More than most photographers your body of work is truly global in terms of the breadth of territory you’ve covered, and in terms of the larger themes that it draws together in these various places and pictures. What is that reflective of? I’m tempted to make the assumption that it means your work proceeds from a fairly concise and detailed set of positions about how they world is linked together, about organisational schema at an economic level, but also about what photography can do?
You’re absolutely right. I think at the core of the work is this idea that it’s very difficult to grasp what the world looks like today, and how it works. On one hand this seems counterintuitive: visually speaking, genetically speaking, culturally speaking, we appear to be becoming increasingly aligned.
On the other hand, there’s this sense that the common man has no visibility into what makes all this work; where those sneakers were made, what that shrink-wrapped chicken cutlet came from, whose money rescued (and therefore bought) Italy, where your own money went in the previous bailout. I have a sense that as our industrial and financial processes become more complex, as supply chains become more exploded, the relationship between the individual and their environment is just vapour; completely incomprehensible. While it may make for remarkable efficiencies, huge leaps forward, I believe that it starts to erode man’s sense of place in the world.
How do you manage the actual making of this kind of work in so many places, and with such alarmingly consistent frequency?
I work very fast alone or with one assistant, photographing for just a few days in one location as time allows.
Can you talk a little about your research beforehand – your preparation, your reading, the way you begin to form the germs of ideas and how all that ties together or is thrown out of the window once you actually start shooting..?
I find that the act of traveling and photographing often provides the seed of the next idea – in sharing stories with the people I meet along the way. Typically I find myself drawing connective lines between these personal experiences and the larger cultural tableaux; inevitably these lines dimensionalise and add texture to the story.
In many regards these projects are a continuation of the central story – Everything, and Nothing – so each stage could be considered another chapter in the same narrative.
Then I plan an itinerary fairly tightly, using Google Earth and Street View, get on a plane, and rent a car on the other side. If there are logistical challenges on the ground then I adjust the plan – sometimes on the fly, viewing satellite imagery on my phone (which once resulted in my spending four hours in a cell with the FSB in Russia) but the goal remains the same.
China clearly plays a large role as a character in your work, and you’ve elected when photographing there to stay away from some of the more charismatic photography of the industrial jamboree that’s driven its remarkable growth as an economic force. How have you found it to be working there, and what have you learned not just about the country itself but how it fits into a broader picture?
As a young man, fifteen years ago, I never found China interesting. It seemed far away, and largely irrelevant to my life. Since then a lot has changed; as global logistics have become increasingly seamless, I think there’s a slightly more developed sense of what China is and what it means. I travelled there almost by accident about five years ago, and immediately developed a rapport with the place.
First of all, I find fascination in the culture, with all of its inherent contradictions – communism and explosive capitalism, the individual’s relationship with the state, censorship in a time of rapidly growing communications networks. These things all cast light on our own condition in the West, and our increasing financial ties to China provide fertile territory to be explored photographically.
From a practical perspective, working there presents its challenges that I haven’t faced elsewhere. Anywhere that there’s a real language barrier – places with cyrillic or asian alphabets, for example – is always interesting. More than that, it seems to be difficult for foreigners to drive in China – so you require a driver, and then you have a bigger language problem, which would almost be amusing if it wasn’t so frustrating. Bizarrely, the last time I worked there, I ended up speaking in French to my driver, as it was our only shared language. Lesson learned: I’m currently working with a local production services company to help smooth the processes for my next visit.
Brian Ulrich has launched his debut monograph on the nearly decade-long study he’s made of the role consumption and retail play in American society. The work as a totality is grouped under the title Copia (as in plenty) but the book is called Is This Place Great or What. If you’re familiar with the work then you’ll see why I’m curious to know your thoughts on it. To me it seems he’s hit on a very dynamic subject matter and at an incredibly opportune moment, just in terms of the way that cultural practises and financial and economic forces intersected over the past decade. What are your thoughts on his work and on the subject matter in general?
I love Brian’s work; he takes a different approach to similar themes as the ones I deal with; Copia evokes the same type of thought that I’m digging into with Everything. I’m very much looking forward to seeing his book, which, appropriately enough, is being printed in China.
What has been your sense of the experience of the labourers you’ve seen on your travels across these great expanses of construction, in China and Dubai and elsewhere? You typically photograph them set relatively small against the immensity of their working environment, and don’t tend to make portraits of them – but they’re there… I’m guessing it might be problematic for them were you to approach them to ask to make individual portraits? How do they fit into your work and the way you make decisions about including labour in your photographs?
The scale at which I portray the worker is deliberate; I’ve never really thought to create individual portraits as part of this body of work. Rather, the photograph runs roughshod over the notion of the individual, representing humans more as faceless makers and consumers of things – hence Units of production.
What other photographic work do you see as being in some sense a progenitor and an influence to your own? I’m not so much asking here about aesthetic influences as conceptual or pragmatic influences… I tend to think quite often about the early photographers of the American frontier when looking at your work. Not merely for the use of plate cameras, but in fact principally for the obverse sense of what the horizon represents in yours and their work. When you look at the Carleton Watkins landscapes on the Library of Congress website there’s a visible sense of the belief in manifest destiny, of the promise of the landscape and the fascinating unchartered expanse that lays beyond the horizon. In your pictures the horizon is typically hemmed in by a distant conurbation or traces of construction. Do you feel a kinship or share an interest in that work?
For me the interest is in the inherent contradictions of the place and the sociology behind it. I’ve found Robert Adams to be influential, and like him I find tension in the friction between the man-made environment and the natural world. As you mention from the work of Carleton Watkins, the horizon and the vanishing point naturally suggest an inexorable pull towards progress, for better or for worse, and I think the same is true in my work.
You were recently in Japan travelling and making work. What did you see there, and did it relate to other discoveries or principal interests in your practise?
Yes and no. On this latest visit I photographed some of the aftermath of the Tsunami – I was headed to Hong Kong and thought that it would be worth stopping in Japan to try and understand what I had seen in the news. The photographs I made there were visually arresting but, I felt, were an awkward fit with the larger body of work. It’s still hard to put into words what I experienced; suffice to say I felt very small, humbled by both the disaster itself and the Japanese response to it.
Do you think that because you focus on these units of production, on these interchangeable infrastructures by which global markets are interconnected, that it will be difficult for you to establish a natural conclusion to the work? I mean, all subjects are in principle interesting almost in perpetuity (or until either the subject or the photographer passes away), but yours addresses an economic logic with certain cultural and behavioural derivations that has really spread across the world, and that as you say expresses itself physically in so many different places… I wonder how you see the totality of the work developing, and whether the subject matter makes it complicated to wall off at some point?
This may well be a story that continues for the rest of my life. That would be ok. Or, maybe one day it will run its course naturally, or the political landscape will change so radically that the story is no longer relevant in its original shape. It may not be up to me.
What are your thoughts on other really large scale and long gestation photography projects either currently in existence or in development? I’m thinking here, for instance, not only of Brian Ulrich’s Copia work but of Sebastião Salgado’s Migrations work for instance, or Espen Rassmussen’s Transit, or even Yann Arthus Bertrand’s The Earth From The Air… Have you made decisions as to how to develop your own project in the light of others, or been inspired or deeply dissuaded by the way another photographer has created a large body of work over a long period of time?
Some of my favourite longer-term projects are those that clearly develop and change over time; when what began as one idea, upon deeper exploration, becomes another. Epstein’s American Power springs to mind in this regard, as a story revealed itself to the artist while he worked. There’s an honesty that I appreciate in his description of the project that underlines the truth that making art is a deeply personal journey. Change, which is what my photographs are largely about, is guaranteed; you begin in one direction, perhaps with a fairly rigid point of view – and from there, who knows what turns you might stumble upon. It’s life.
Have you thought about publishing a book, or quietly slipped out a self-published monograph somewhere? Do you think that perhaps the photobook or the printed space might be a better environment for the consumption not only of your pictures but of the intellectual and theoretical context in which your work operates? I’m thinking here partly of a photographer like Taryn Simon, who plays really intelligently with the documentary form and whose work always seems to me at it best when viewed in a well designed book…
I would love to make a book. Taryn’s photographs are remarkable and, as you suggest, the act of collecting the photographs as part of a larger taxonomy of things is integral to the work itself – it is appropriate that photographs of collected things would be best experienced as part of their own larger collection. Of course, the act of drawing a line around such a body of work imbues the images with context that is absent when experienced alone.
What’s on the horizon for you?
As well as extending the existing projects within Everything and Nothing, I’m continuing to focus on the relationship between the U.S. and China. One avenue I’m exploring is a return to directing as part of this project: I feel there’s the possibility that a short film would help connect some of these threads.