An interview with photographer Mark Peckmezian
Your photographs often make great virtue of the fact that they are first and foremost tactile physical objects, that they are partial articulations of a specific moment, that they are malleable and that they are porous in terms of meaning or interpretation. Could you talk a little about why you work this way, why you generate digital images of your work in this fashion, whom your specific influences have been in this regard and also how this might affect the way that you exhibit this work physically in a gallery space?
I started working this way more or less intuitively, 7 years ago or so. This was when digital was first starting to dominate photography, when the majority of photographers migrated. I just had a feeling then that a given photograph wasn’t the same shot digitally and presented flatly as an image, as it was shot analogue and presented as this sort of material photo-object. I just felt drawn to work in this way, it felt right for the images I wanted to make.
In retrospect I understand the reasons for that decision. A big draw is that it leverages the history of the photograph. Until very recently photographs were always seen in some material form, a print or on a billboard or in a magazine. This is how we sort of digest and understand images, where we process a host of contextual cues, unconsciously or consciously, that help us define an image more finely. I am always very aware of and concerned about this — “context” is how I think about it — and I think it’s one of my biggest preoccupations, one of my most enduring fascinations. Still to this day I am so struck by the fact that a given photograph is very different when, say, printed plainly with a thin white border, versus printed on a piece of paper that is crudely ripped, versus printed as a test strip, presented next to a near-duplicate print, printed with creases and folds and dust, and etc. I see all of this as an additional lever of control over an image, to help you refine it’s meaning.
My influences in this regard were vernacular photography. It’s my biggest influence. In general, I think there isn’t any photography out there that excites and grips me more. There is a magic to a lot of vernacular photographs that I find so mysterious and interesting.
I am only now starting to exhibit work seriously. In the past, funnily enough, I liked presenting digital prints of scans of my analog prints. I really like this idea. I usually enlarge them quite a bit, where, say, a 4×5″ darkroom print will be scanned and printed as an 11×14″ digital print. I don’t fully understand how and why this works, but I think it does. It accomplishes something that feels right and true to me — perhaps in the same way working analogue as I do felt right 7 years ago. That said, I am having a show in July and I am presenting a mix of darkroom prints and digital enlargements of darkroom prints.
There is a broad and deep vein of playfulness, of absurdity and performance and sardonic wit in so much of your work. Can you talk about how you work in your studio, how you work with some of your more regular subjects for portraiture for example, how and why you introduce this theatrical platform into the studio space when you’re making these images?
The playfulness and humour just comes naturally, from what I’m drawn towards unconsciously. Lately I’ve been making these very theatrical images in the studio. For example this one or this one. I think of these as being about qualifying an image idea to a very fine point. With the one above of the dog, for example: I found the dog really pretty, prim and proper and sprite-like, and I liked his clean form. I wanted to shoot it in a style that was consonant with this — a very “pop” style, with clean, sparkly light. But I recognize that the image, as is, is really cheesy. So I reveal the studio set up to create some ironic distance. I’m not, to be clear, inviting the viewer to laugh at the cheesiness of the cutesy dog photo, so much as, given the knowing wink and nod to the set up. I feel that the viewer is allowed to sincerely and shamelessly enjoy the cutesy dog photo. This sort of dynamic is a big idea of mine, something I’m very interested in exploring more.
You alternate between working in very sparse and highly patterned and decorative spaces, and between these differing types of images what seems constant is a certain tone, having to do with those qualities of playful absurdity and sardonic wit I mentioned before. I’m curious how much of this sensibility and this aesthetic you’re able to make use of, and to transfer to your professional work and how your clients tend to view this approach?
Again, that tone just comes naturally, it is essentially just a reflection of my personality or worldview. On this point I want to note that this is all I really aspire to accomplish, to make art that reflects my personality and worldview with a high degree of fidelity. I feel like all art ever needs to be is honest and authentic in this regard, that’s maybe the only necessary condition for art to be “valid” in my mind. If the substance of that worldview is untrue or uninteresting or whatnot, so be it, that’s secondary. It’s hard to care about art that the artist doesn’t even really believe in. I’d add to your description of my tone a “sentimental” side, preoccupied with beauty and, for lack of a better word, the sublime. It used to be the dominant tone in my work.
With regard to commercial work, I don’t expect to get photographic tradesman jobs, where you’re hired to use these tools of camera and lighting and Photoshop to realize someone’s vision, although I have been offered and am happy to accept such jobs. For the most part I expect to get hired, when I do, for my own vision or sensibility. It’s too early to see how this plays out.
You seem to particularly enjoy working with dogs, and to do so not only in the studio but out there in the world. What draws you to photographing them in principle, and how have you found it working with them when you have a set of pictorial objectives that they cannot in any way understand or attempt to fulfil?
I consider the vast majority of my dog photos to not really be about dogs at all, but about photography. The dogs are the raw material for this — a particularly amenable raw material, no doubt, given that they’re so varied and lively and animated. To put what I’m saying into perspective: I want to undertake the same sort of project with plants. There should be no difference between the two, really.
I find shooting dogs much more pleasurable than shooting people. Dogs can be difficult subjects in certain regards — they’re quick and jumpy and undisciplined and so on — but I see that as a good price to pay for their authenticity and naturalness. Dogs don’t know how to lie or fake or pretend. And of course shooting a subject so quick and unruly does make for good practice; you have to have a quick eye and mind, and solid command over your tools.
Who are some of your favourite portrait photographers, and what in particular draws you to their work? What is it that you are hoping to find in the process of making portraits? Yours seem deeply collaborative (not merely in the sense of the studio portraits), and the fact that you often work with the same sitter makes me curious as to how you understand portraiture, how that view has been influenced and by whom, but also what you’re digging around exploring or playing with…
Off the top of my head: Arbus, Rineke Dijkstra, Bettina Rheims, Tanyth Berkeley, William Eggleston. Eggleston in particular is a rare form of genius. The portraits in his book “5×7″ are maybe the best I’ve ever seen. I feel like only relatively recently have I started making proper “portraits,” where the photograph is about the sitter, whereas before I made figurative photos that involved people more or less as props. I feel like I do both now.