‘A lot of it is this tension between what we want things to be and what they actually are.’
JR Wallner received his Master’s degree from HFBK in July 2017. At the same time, he published a book of photographs, I can make you as clean as freshly fallen snow. JR was interviewed in Hamburg in August 2017 by Art Springboard's Wolfram Schnelle with the interview continuing via email conversations for a year. This resulting interview has been heavily revised, edited and redacted over the course of that year.
Wolfram Schnelle: Your art and your life seem so closely interlinked –
it doesn’t seem like art could ever not be a part of your life.
JR Wallner: I don't think there's much of a personal/professional divide in most of what I do. Some people seem better at creating alternative versions of themselves, creating a more coherent picture.
Photography is a medium for exploring the 'now' as much as it is for talking about the 'then'. It's broadened my language. It helped me translate experience through a practical application of that experience. Pictures help create context in what often feels like a series of disconnected events where I seem like the only constant. When I take pictures, I guess it assigns me this status of creating meaning, but when viewed as a whole I feel like what I do is very reactionary. I'm not sure that what I do is all that new and it's difficult to take a position with pictures because the reactions to them often fall along the lines of moral/ethical boundaries and taboo, and our subsequent attraction to or exaggerated rejection of them. Pictures always play on our notions of distance or closeness between the viewer, photographer and subject. I don't feel comfortable with the distance the camera helps facilitate, either between myself and the viewer or between me and the subject.
When I started taking pictures, I had kinda romantic notions of it as a powerful, moving, emotional medium. Looking at other people's pictures, I'd get this sense of wanting to know the people or places. I think this is pretty normal when you're looking at a picture of Jimi Hendrix, and when you already have other stuff outside the image, like hearing Purple Haze in your head. It puts the image in motion. But photography also levels the playing field between the famous and the nobodies. Just being at the right place at the right time and becoming a face to succinctly describe our preconceived notions of history.
Paintings do the same thing, adding a kind of dignity to the subject that isn't always deserved. To add to that, with photography we are more concerned with notions of reality than other mediums. There's a lot of art that challenges photography as a reality but the instinctive reaction to photography, that it mimics reality and thus has power, remains. I guess we trust photography more than a lot of other mediums and feel more confident when looking at pictures of our own ability to draw information from them. There’s a recognition that what we see is what actually is, even if it's staged. Recognizing that a photograph is staged does not necessarily diminish its power.
WS: Where did it all start for you? You said that you grew up in a small town in Minnesota. Did everybody have a camera when you started taking pictures or were you the odd one with a camera?
JRW: I was a loner until I was 13. I wanted to be a writer and read a lot of the classics. I also read a lot of the Bible because I thought it was important. I didn’t think about doing photography until later. At least I didn't have the pretensions of being a photographer until later.
I didn't think being a visual artist was anything special as a kid. There was no social capital in it and I guess people who could draw a hand that looked like a real hand were considered good. I couldn't make things that looked real so I was sort of panned by my art teachers. I never really thought of myself as an artist but I thought I could be a writer. I felt an affinity with writers and at the time words and what people said seemed more important than photography.
I didn't really start taking pictures until I was 19. My start with taking pictures was when I was going to college and I met this guy who was really into art and film, and was from up north too, by where I grew up. He was living on a mutual friend's couch and was/is an intense fucking dude. He was/is a really shitty driver, driving way too fast and weaving in and out of traffic screaming at other drivers, and just having a normal discussion with him is like fuck shit fuck cocksucker and then something about art or movies. He knew a lot about photography so he kinda showed me how to work this camera my dad gave me and showed me some photography books, That got me thinking about pictures and I guess this world I was already living in and maybe how I could put it together in pictures. We went to a lot of concerts together and he kind of lived with me for a while before I found him a place to live. We had a combative relationship and eventually split up, but I kept taking pictures.
I started working at an art museum not long after this. I became friends with one of the guards who was sober when we met, but when he started drinking I did too, and we drank all the time. And I guess that's how we became best friends. He knew a lot about art and film and I took a lot of pictures of him and us. Between drinking with Jake and drinking with Les, a friend of mine since I was a kid, who also was this kind of rock and roll fantasizer turned boozer, and a college dropout gal friend of mine Emily, I took a lot of pictures around these three. Plus whoever my girlfriend was at the time. Eventually I got to know Sophie. The four of them constitute the primary subjects of my book [I can make you as clean as freshly fallen snow, published June 2017 by the Materialverlag].
WS: Tell me about the book.
JRW: The pictures in the book date from the early stuff to the present. It is divided into four chapters, with each of those friends having their own chapter. I guess it explores the singularities of these relationships, the microcosms that exist between myself and the subjects. There are a lot of books that take this approach but it was interesting to keep everything kinda separate. Maybe what makes the book a little different is that each of the relationships exist in a kind of parallel universe to one another.
WS: That’s something that struck me about the book: there seems to be this sense of isolation. And it seemed to be quite an intimate relationship between you and each person photographed.
JRW: I think a lot about how I’m present in the pictures. When I look at other people’s photos, I usually imagine the photographer behind the camera and think about what they were thinking. I guess you can deduce a lot about the photographer from the image – we aren't just passive actors.
Some people just see the image as a kind of surface that connotates a kind of immediate language. I think about the intention, whether it's the commercial aspirations or pretensions of that image, or an attempt to approximate some kind of intimacy or spontaneity. A lot of it is this tension between what we want things to be and what they actually are. I guess the viewer is always left to decide if an image says more about the image maker or the subject.
I'm still sort of a loner – and what a perfect way for an audience to approximate that loneliness than the voyeuristic insertion of the camera. Even with this sense of intimacy you get a sense of isolation.
WS: Yet if I look at the images in your book, the people seem to be completely at ease, as if the camera wasn’t there. How do you achieve that?
JRW: It just got to be normal. I took pictures all the time. I guess being around me on a regular basis is to implicitly consent to be photographed. There was never a clear notion of where those pictures would wind up because for such a long time I was just taking pictures and not really thinking about making objects. I think there are varying levels of awareness with each image and there's a kind of interpersonal democracy at play there. I guess I call it democracy to put the best face on what occasionally is a very one-sided thing, having this added visual awareness and instinctive way of deciding which moments connotate meaning.
WS: You’ve had quite a change of scenery coming from your small Minnesota town, to Germany, first living in Berlin and then studying at HFBK in Hamburg. How have those events influenced your work? What’s changed?
JRW: Coming to Europe was a big change. People were more educated academia-wise, and I'd never lived in a city bigger than Minneapolis. Berlin is kind of a big deal nowadays with all the highs and lows of a city affordable for some but increasingly unaffordable for others. It also has this strange feature of attracting a lot of people who just live there temporarily because they can't figure out the financial or legal stuff. It's one of those places people think is important so it is. I'd never lived in a city before that people really wanted to move to, where young people who wanted to be part of the newness went. I guess I saw a lot of people chasing glory. I didn't really have a good reason to move to Berlin. Yet I felt liberated from prior commitments and concerns. But maybe it was just being in love, waiting for a change. I left the US on a high note, and things got weird fast in Berlin. I didn't really want to be an artist. It was harder than I thought and none of the old faces were there. Not knowing anybody well enough, I didn't know who to take pictures of, or what to take pictures of. I didn't really have a support system, so after my relationship tanked everything got a little rocky.
My decision to go to HFBK was informed partially by my breakup and I also needed a reason to stay here. School is the one of the more accessible routes to living here in the long term. Back then everything was kinda shitty and I made a lot of impulsive decisions. I thought art school could be fun but I had misgivings. I had a lot of dark thoughts about art school. I guess I thought, not so deep down, that art school was dumb. I thought art was going to be more about the fun and people would be a lot more confrontational or subversive. I didn't realize how many people try to make some kind of career out of it. I thought art was more about deconstructing power, but I guess a lot of it is more about confirming it.
I did learn a few things about layouts and materiality, like how certain materials take in color. And Photoshop, InDesign and so forth. I didn't do much to revolutionize anything. I just kind of learned how to put something together, which is important. But I feel like there was nothing particularly incendiary about what I was doing. I do have an innate desire to talk to people about art who don't really care about art, so I always have that in the back of my head.
I started working on the book a year before I started at HFBK and I finished around the time of the Absolventungsausstellung. Making the book was a trying process and I felt really dumb when making the big decisions. I had a lot of help from Ralf Bacher and then Wigger Bierma at the end. But it was a learning process in terms of absolutes and learning to live with the end product.
WS: Would you say your work has evolved since you moved to Germany?
JRW: It has accelerated. A lot of it has to do with how I organize things, that I have a clearer idea of what's good and what's not. I also have a more flexible idea of what constitutes an image. I feel more relaxed about incorporating other mediums. I also started writing a lot again.
WS: What are you writing?
JRW: Sometimes just nonsense but a lot of really short stuff. I've been trying to write the way I talk. When I was a kid I had this idea of the writer as a great thinker, somebody that projects a kind of immortality through words. Now I just see writing as an extension of the visual spectrum.
WS: You said you read a lot. Have you read anything that you would say really had an influence on how you work, how you photograph or make art?
JRW: Reading helps me visualize. I guess reading when I was a kid was different because I was more isolated and it was one of my only connections to the outside world. Nowadays, I guess a lot of reading is for fun, or to just supplement some other shit I'm doing.
WS: If I think about photography as a medium, there are photographers who go down a similar route in being very personal, in inviting you into their worlds, from Larry Clark to Nan Goldin and maybe Wolfgang Tillmans in some respect. Have any of these artists had an influence on your work?
JRW: I can't say that any of their stuff fascinates me, per se. They've got good stuff but with a lot of people who take pictures, like me, the pictures become extensions of pre-existing themes, which trivializes personal experience.
I think you could draw out similar themes between our work but comparing myself to famous people is tough. It's a whole other discussion about fame that departs from the images. On a personal level I can’t relate too much to anybody like that. There's weird shit with all three of them where it just doesn't feel relatable at all. I want what I do to feel more self-reflective but I also disappoint myself sometimes and produce a bunch of cardboard. I guess that's part of conditional irony.
I guess a lot of referentially in photography is death. If the photographer is dead or the subjects are maybe/probably dead, we tend to view their work through the scope of measuring the impact of death.
WS: What do you mean you disappoint yourself?
JRW: I recognize my limitations in working with a subject. I make mistakes and I'm scattered. I also don't really have a way of working. I'm just there. A lot of the ‘work’ I do is in post-production. I also recognize that my work isn't as inclusive as I'd like it to be.
Also, when exhibiting my work, I feel a kind of emptiness or inertia but I guess that's normal because the impact of looking at pictures is invisible.
WS: Tell me about the degree show.
JRW: I wanted to recreate the interior of my grandma's living room. I visited her house regularly as a kid and lived alone there for a few years after she died. It was my favorite place to be, and I felt a deep connection with the space and the objects in it. It was a throwback to the 60's, with the furniture and the colors, a California rambler in Minnesota. It's the only space I really ever felt at home in. The house was also next to a cemetery.
My construction was not to scale, but I wanted at least to approximate the colors. I wanted a different backdrop for my pictures, to remove them from the ether of the blank space. With many of the pictures I exhibited I felt they were inappropriate to exhibit in a white gallery space.
But I ended up building the installation in the hallway of the school, which was the last place I thought I'd wind up. What was supposed to be a quasi-intimate interior ended up being just public space. But it worked. I guess there was a tension between this visibility and the staged intimacy of the space. It was a windowless hallway except for this window doorway between the hallway and the adjacent room where the real light filtered in. I was worried about the light because the colors of the carpet and walls looked better in natural light. I just had to let that go and soak up the few rays that came through that second layer of glass.
The space wasn't anything revolutionary, but it was personally gratifying to see it emerge and function as a designated space. I'm more interested in interior than exterior architecture, and it allowed me to explore what I call 'interior archaeology' – basically how objects in a lived-in space affect the viewer and are affected by the viewer, how objects accumulate and how objects function as a display for audiences with access to those private spaces.
WS: What about image size?
JRW: I’ve experimented with going bigger but it feels better to keep it around A4 or smaller. Maybe there are some images that could be blown up. The obvious comparison to going bigger is with paintings, how the scale sort of swallows the viewer. I don't know if photos operate in the same way as paintings in terms of scale. Most of the information in photos can be read on a reduced scale. The basic principle of enlarging things is to make them more visible but I think it can also disconnect us from images, making them feel less accessible and not allowing us to confront them as objects but rather as exaggerated attempts to make us feel something.
WS: One thing that fascinates me in your work is how you manage to convey a lot of information by photographing seemingly mundane objects. How do you choose what to photograph?
JRW: At this point it’s intuitive, just a way of looking. I still take pictures of dumb stuff that I toss out later. On the other hand, sometimes I have a specific narrative or theme already in mind, and when I see objects or moments that fit this theme, I photograph them.
WS: What’s next for you?
JRW: I want to put together another book but also take a break from exhibiting and figure my shit out. I don't have any commitments or deadlines right now and it feels good.
To see all works by JR Wallner, click here
To learn more about the artist, click here