Q&A: Jason Fulford, photographer, book-maker, and educator

In adopting the photobook as his primary medium, using complex sequences as well as free ranging associations to create what’s been described as ‘open metaphors’, Jason Fulford is more interested in questions than answers. He invites readers to become active participants in his work, presenting an open enquiry in which the various interconnecting layers are often cryptic and complex, and the meaning is less important than the experience of looking and thinking.

A 2014 Guggenheim fellow, his work is featured in many books and monographs, starting with Crushed in 2003. Additionally, Fulford is the co-founder of J&L Books, which releases between two and five new titles per year, and is co-editor of The Photographer’s Playbook and This Equals That, both published in 2014. These latter two projects point to Fulford’s interest in education, not as a process of formalised schooling, but in learning through play; thinking and experiencing through doing. Places for his workshops have become highly coveted, and this year alone Fulford is leading workshops at ICP in New York, Contact Festival in Toronto, University of Ljubljana, ISIA in Urbino, Photo España in Madrid, and ISSP in Kuldīga.

I first met Fulford eight years ago in Toronto at the Flash Forward Festival. He was speaking, I was curating, so we met for Sunday brunch. Afterwards we walked and talked for several hours, browsing odd shops, turning quiet corners, kicking fallen leaves. It was as if I was catching up with an old friend, only one whom I’d never met before.

Our conversation led to an invite for me to participate in Fulford’s The Mushroom Collection the following year in Amsterdam, an exhibition and installation expanded out of his much celebrated book, The Mushroom Collector (first published in 2010). The genesis of this project was a gift from a friend, found at a flea market – a Manila envelope stuffed full of anonymous photographs of mushrooms. The images stuck with him, “like a bad song”, and started to grow in his own work, which he eventually combined with the originals and enigmatic texts for the book, which then expanded into an evolving series of workshops, installations, pamphlets and sculptural interventions across Europe and the US. In Amsterdam, I gave a performative lecture entitled Jason Is a Funghi (Fun Guy), a visual reimagining of that conversation one Sunday in Toronto.

A year later, I interviewed him about The Mushroom Collection for Aperture, asking him about the relationship between collecting and photography. “The collector I’m thinking of is a scavenger whose mode is to wander,” he told me. “He enters the woods with an open mind. He might find a scarlet elf cup or a hen-of-the-woods; he may come home with nothing but an empty pack of cigarettes. The collecting happens over many years. The analogy continues when it comes to editing, making sense of the mess. Presentation is considered. Similar items are compared; the weak examples are discarded. The collector asks: is there an audience for this? Is supplementary information necessary? Is the collection explanatory or mysterious? What ties the various elements together – the collector’s personal interests, or a predetermined set of categories? Is it about repetition or variety? Does the collection continue to grow, or is it now closed?”

These considerations sit at the heart of not just Fulford’s own work as an artist and book-maker, but in the workshops for which he’s also become renowned. Evolving from early lectures he gave about his own work and influences, he’s devised a set of exercises that encourage participants to play with images, and in particular the associations that arise from placing them together in endless variations to create different meanings. “I’m interested in how one image can affect your reading of another,” he told me in our conversation for Aperture, and that certainly plays out in the workshops. Rather than focusing on their own photographs, participants work with a large pool of images that they all contribute to, which encourages them to think about the interplay of pictures from various angles rather than working towards an end goal.

Fulford brings a bag full of tools and props to the workshops – scissors, glue sticks, coloured paper, Indian ink, various texts, as well as an Aerobie flying ring, which he carries with him everywhere he goes (Alan Adler is one of his favourite inventors, having also made the AeroPress among countless other creations). Additionally, he carries with him a stack of index cards bound together by a silver ring, each of which represents a different exercise that he could run with students – over the course of the workshops he kind of ‘DJs’ with this, picking the most appropriate ones and deciding the order of events based on how the workshop and each of the previous exercises is progressing. There’s a logic to the overarching progression of the workshop, but within this, Fulford is constantly improvising, using these exercise cards as a guide.

“Photography has clarity in the same way that language has,” he said in our 2012 interview, which applies equally to his work as both an artist and educator. “A word is precise, but its meaning can change based on the words around it: think tank; tank top. When a person looks at a photograph you’ve taken, they will always think of themselves, their own life experience. They will relate your photograph to their memories. That interplay is where a picture becomes alive and grows into something. It’s different for every viewer. My puzzles don’t have definitive solutions. I guess they function more like invitations.”

Two years later, I asked him to participate in Re:Search, the main exhibition programme of Krakow Photomonth 2014, which I was curating. Here he presented an installation entitled Hotel Oracle – an imaginary lodging place in which “to find it and see what lies within, one must follow the artist’s instructions”. Additionally, we borrowed a quote from an interview with him about the project – “Your whole life is research” – and used it for one of the festival posters that were hung throughout the city.

Then in early 2018, I invited him to participate in another festival I was curating, Jaipur Photo 2018, where he presented a site-specific installation entitled A Dozen Doors, “an exploration of the concept of home as a state of mind”. Most recently, in May, I invited him to run a four- day workshop for my postgraduate students in the MA photography programme at UWE Bristol. The following conversation took place one afternoon during his visit, and covered subjects ranging from his own education, his approach to teaching, its relationship to his own photographic practice, and much more.

jasonfulford.com aaronschuman.com

Image from Jason Fulford’s workshop in Bristol © Emily Graham for BJP

Aaron Schuman: As this conversation is intended for BJP’s education issue, perhaps we could start with your own. What first inspired you in this regard, photographically and otherwise?

Jason Fulford: Well, when I was a kid my dad mostly wanted me to play football – he actually put a football in my crib on my first birthday. But my mom always encouraged me to try lots of new things. There was a great place in Atlanta which offered art classes – painting, pottery, all sorts of stuff. My mom signed me up for a photography class when I was 11, and I loved it because, in a way, it was a form of instant gratification. By the end of the day, after developing film and working in the darkroom, you’d have this beautiful print. And even that early on, it struck me that the thing I’d made was the same thing that you’d see in a museum – it was that quality of a thing.

Later, my high school had a darkroom and offered a photography class, so for four years I took that and loved it, in addition to drama, student council, sports and so on. In high school, my drama teacher and photo teacher were really important and inspiring to me.

AS: What in particular was inspiring about their teaching?

JF: My photo teacher would just give us tools – “Here’s selenium dye. Here’s how to solarise. Just play around”. Most of his advice was, “Make your print more contrasty”, or whatever, but in each class we were given something different to play with. My drama teacher used more psychology. One time he came back from a trip to Belgium and brought a box of chocolates into class. He had all of us take a piece, and then watched us eat it. With the people who just chewed and swallowed it, he was like, “You’re doing it all wrong. You have to make it last. You’re never going to get any enjoyment out of life.” Those were the kinds of things we weren’t hearing in calculus or Latin. It was great.

Then, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn had this thing called the National Talent Search. High-school students from around the country could submit photographs and an application, and then Pratt would choose a handful of people and offer them scholarships. My photo teacher encouraged a few of us to apply for it, and I got it – I won a full-ride. I’d never even thought about going to art school, or New York City. I was planning on studying business, and both the University of Georgia and the University of Virginia had already accepted me.

Eventually I decided I’d go to business school. So I went in to tell my photo teacher, and he just looked at me and said, “Get the fuck out of my office!” He’d never talked to me like that, or even used words like that before. It really jarred me, and made me reconsider. So I ended up going to Pratt – basically because he’d said that. Several years later, I gave a talk at the International Center of Photography, and he was in the audience. He’d brought along one of his students, and afterwards we talked for a long time.

AS: What did you study at Pratt?

JF: My dad wanted me to study something with ‘job skills’, so I majored in communication design rather than photography. But I kept taking enough photo classes to have a private darkroom for the whole time I was there.

AS: Why do you think that your dad approved of communication design but not photography?

JF: Maybe because it was considered a ‘commercial’ art. But at Pratt [acclaimed photographer] Anne Turyn – who initially taught me colour printing – was the teacher I connected with the most. I’m still friends with her now.

I remember her saying that “keep shooting” was the best advice she could give, “because all of the questions and answers will be in the work”. Shoot, look at what you’ve shot, then go out and shoot again, look at that, and go out and shoot again. Really, that’s all I needed – it was so helpful to have a professor be encouraging in that way.

AS: So far you’ve talked about your education as something that gave you access to photographic tools and provided you with encouragement. But your own practice is heavily inspired by many other fields of study – literature, music, cinema, science, art history, philosophy, and so on – and you’re constantly referencing these in both your work and your workshops. Would you consider yourself self-taught in this regard, or were these a part of your formal education as well?

JF: I would say self-taught, although I’d take the ‘self ’ part out of it. I didn’t start reading seriously until after college, when I found some authors who resonated with me. One author led to another one, and this weird meandering path through culture, literature, science and everything else began. Also, during college I had all of New York City right there, which was so inspiring. Throughout my entire first year at Pratt, it was difficult for me to go to sleep at night because my heart was beating so fast. I had this weird strategy for falling asleep, which was to lay on my back with my arms at my sides, and my rule was that nothing could be crossed – no arms, no fingers, no anything. My heart rate would eventually slow down, and I’d drift off to sleep. It was like that for at least six months – New York was such a stimulating city.

Image © Jason Fulford

AS: After leaving Pratt, you became a working photographer and co-founded the publishing house, J&L Books. When did you begin to teach workshops?

JF: A few years after college, I started to get invitations to give talks at various schools. Those early talks were mostly about things that inspired or influenced me – like passing on my Tumblr of references. But gradually they became more about my own work and less about my references. Then, Ed Panar and Melissa Catanese invited me – along with some other J&L artists – to Cranbrook Academy of Art to deliver a four-day workshop. So that was my first one; we came up with lots of different games and exercises to do with students. That first one wasn’t too dissimilar to what we’ve been doing in Bristol, but it’s evolved and become more refined over the years.

AS: So what exactly happens in a Jason Fulford workshop?

JF: The workshops, and all of the exercises I’ve developed for them, are carefully considered, and each one is slightly different, so I can’t give a simple description or ‘recipe’ for it. But essentially, we’re talking about image sequencing. We start off with pairs of images, and then work our way up to long sequences of up to 25 images, and along the way it gradually gets more complicated. The layers of things we’re thinking about build and build, so by the end we have this rich set of issues that we’re dealing with: connection, storytelling, the arch of a sequence, discreet vignettes within that. The ways that size, order, juxtaposition, white space and so on affect meaning, the ways in which pictures are read, the ways that any text that is introduced can have an influence, and the ways that the overall thing relates to the editor’s voice – or the photographer’s, if that’s the same person.

The individual exercises range from the practical, such as, ‘Look at these two pictures together – what is the connection between them?’, to the more abstract: ‘Look at these three colours – does that feel right to you?’ I love going back and forth between practical and more abstract lessons; I think it’s a great way to learn, because you find ways to take abstract lessons and apply them to a specific situation. We also do some really goofy exercises that keep the mood loose, and I usually play music or put random videos up on the projector screen, just to influence the whole mix. All of the exercises are done with a huge pool of images that the students bring to the workshop, and after each exercise all of the pictures go back into the collective pool and get mixed up again. So nothing is kept, and hopefully what students take away is a new way of thinking and seeing, which they can apply to their own work.

Also, during the workshop, students aren’t allowed to work with their own pictures. When I’ve let them use their own pictures in the past, things just ground to a halt; people are too stuck when it comes to their own images. I guess the takeaway from that is to sometimes ask for help, and to use some of these tools and exercises to stay loose.

AS: When someone is participating in one of your workshops, what do you feel is their responsibility? What are your expectations of the student?

JF: I want them to have an open mind and to play along; you have to in order to get anything out of it. I want the workshop to be both fun and hard. I want them to think and feel at the same time, so that the whole experience is really rich. I believe in setting up situations that have the potential to be something, and then letting it play out, with everyone actively participating in how it plays out. Once everybody gets on board, it really starts to cook – that’s the best.

There are a lot of rules in these exercises, but I also want there to be a lot of openness in them. Sometimes I get annoyed when a student asks, “So wait, how many words should we use?”, or whatever. I’m thinking, “You choose – it’s up to you. What are you in art school for if you want to be told what to do?” But then I realise that I’m also giving them really specific rules at the beginning of each exercise, which are necessary for it to work. So it’s understandable that sometimes they want more clarification.

Image © Jason Fulford

AS: You seem to have the same expectations of your students as you have of your audience when it comes to your own photographs, books, installations and performances. It’s meant to be fun but hard; viewers need to be open-minded, to participate, and to play along. You set very specific rules by determining the content and form of the photograph, the edit or the experience, but within that there’s a huge amount of potential for it to go elsewhere, and so on. Do you see your approaches to teaching and your own practice as being aligned and interconnected?

JF: I hadn’t thought of that connection until now, but it’s totally true. I’d always thought about the workshops as being more related to the way I think when I’m making work, but both my work and my workshops are about a way of seeing. For me, that’s the importance of art; all these different ways of seeing. As I was working with the students today, we did exercises where the meanings of the images changed, and then changed again, and then again – I could do that forever. It’s just total pleasure for me; like rocking on a swing.

AS: Often your exercises will come to an end, and there’s no explicit conclusion or explanation of its purpose – there’s no, ‘OK, so the reason we did that was…’ It simply finishes, and students then realise that they’re responsible for figuring out what can be gleaned from that experience. You don’t necessarily feed them knowledge or information directly, but instead plant seeds, give them tools and encouragement through your exercises, and the students soon realise that they have to cultivate those seeds and harvest the knowledge for themselves.

JF: Exactly. There’s no analysis. I leave it up to the students to do that part. Also, these exercises might seem free, but they’re actually very refined; there are very specific lessons I want them to learn through these exercises – complicated lessons. And I guess that I want my own photos, books and so on to be the same way – like a zip file, or a poem, that you can unpack. It’s huge, but it’s been really condensed down into this seed.

AS: When it comes to photographic education, there seems to be a certain long-standing prejudice – particularly among an older generation, but also prevalent in some contemporary circles – that if you’re studying photography, you’re not really ‘doing’ photography; that by engaging with photography within the ivory towers of an educational institution, a certain connection with ‘real photography’ is lost. And in a sense, you yourself have resisted becoming institutionalised – you often give lectures, workshops and classes at various institutions, but you’ve intentionally avoided a permanent teaching position throughout your career. Where do you stand in terms of what happens to photography when it’s situated within an educational environment or institution?

JF: It’s complicated. One issue is that photography is such a broad field. It’s like writing, and if you’re a poet you don’t necessarily need the same teaching as a journalist, a novelist, or even a comedian. Certain institutions are really good for certain people, and institutions in general are more useful to some people than to others. Also, when it comes to advanced study, I think the best schools have their own angle or take, which is useful both for recruiting the right people and determining what’s taught.

That said, in my own teaching I’m really inspired by Josef Albers [artist and educator whose methods lay the foundations for modern art education in the West] – in particular his colour study exercises [published in 1963] – because the thing that they teach [that perception is different to physical fact] is such a universal lesson, which you can apply to anything in your life. Artists can use it, but you could also use it in an argument with a friend, or in a business transaction, or in a law case. I love how Albers took a complex idea and refined it down to the simplest possible illustration of that idea.

Image © Jason Fulford

AS: You strike me as someone who doesn’t waste time. What makes you spend a week teaching a workshop rather than using that time to make your own work?

JF: I guess that I feel some sense of responsibility; to keep something alive that I care about. I want the photobooks made in the future to be good. I’ve learned some things about making them, and I want to pass this information on to others, so that the books of the future are complex, rich and interesting.

AS: In his 1978 book, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, John Szarkowski wrote: “It might seem ironic that the rapid decay of the traditional professional opportunities for photography [during the 1960s and 70s] has been paralleled by an explosive growth in photographic education, especially in the universities… There can be little doubt that these programmes have increased enormously the number of people who believe, on the basis of their own experience, that photography is a very interesting art form. Thus it might be hypothesised that one of the by-products of photographic education has been the creation of an appreciative audience for the work of the student body’s more talented teachers.” What are your thoughts on what he says?

JF: I hadn’t thought about it that way, and I can’t entirely make out if Szarkowski’s being cynical or celebratory, but it does ring true. A few years ago, Tamara [Shopsin, graphic designer and illustrator who he’s often collaborated with] and I made a book called This Equals That, which in a sense is the most basic version of what my workshops do, and more recently we’ve been working on a series of children’s books with the Whitney Museum of American Art. Sometimes I think about it like we’re indoctrinating a whole new generation of children.

Also, it’s a funny year of pedagogy for me – I guess I’ve accidentally become a real teacher this year. I’m running seven workshops in seven different countries, which is really fascinating. It’s a cultural exchange for me as well. For example, in Slovenia the students didn’t really talk. If I said, “Who wants to start?”, we could have sat silently for two hours; nobody would raise their hand. But here in Bristol, I can feel the preparation you’d done with the students in terms of recruiting them, and developing a sense of confidence, trust and open-mindedness amongst them. Immediately, somebody was, “I’ll start”. And we’ve noticed that the city in general has a really friendly vibe, which feeds into the classroom. I really appreciate all of that within this context; it makes such a big difference.

AS: Ultimately, what do you find most rewarding about teaching?

JF: I don’t really like to self-analyse like that too much. But today, we did an exercise where the meanings of the pictures kept growing and growing, and it seemed like it could go on forever. Each student was given a piece of text, and then they had to pick an image to go with it. We looked at them all, found that they all had some significance, and then we moved the texts and matched them with other pictures – the meanings changed, and then we did it again, and they changed again. Today, we had this feeling that the pictures would never stop giving – that’s a great feeling.

This article was first published in the August issue of BJP www.thebjpshop.com

Image © Jason Fulford
Image © Jason Fulford
Image © Jason Fulford
Image © Jason Fulford
Image © Jason Fulford