In 2013, the influential curator Charlotte Cotton published an article titled Nine Years, A Million Conceptual Miles on Aperture’s blog, surveying the changes in photography since her book The Photograph as Contemporary Art had been published in 2004. Back then, she argued, photography had just been accepted in the art market, exiting “the final death throes of traditional editorial photography” and taking on “a shift in emphasis in the realms of documentary photography and photojournalism” as it headed away from magazines and newspapers and into museums, galleries, and photobooks.
But, she went on, the changes had only just begun. In 2004, “few knew how digital capture or postproduction would impact independent and artistic photography”; for her, those digital tools had brought about a sea change in the intervening nine years, as a new generation of “digital native” photographers explored what they meant for both making and disseminating work.
In the article, Cotton referenced the image-maker Lucas Blalock, one of a handful of artists whose work gave her “a mighty rush of excitement about photography’s bright new future”. In 2015 Cotton published a new book, Photography is Magic, gathering together a new wave of image-makers whose work, she argued, coalesced around experimental practices in the post-internet age. Once again, Blalock was part of the group.
Shooting meticulously set-up still lifes on film with a large format camera, Blalock scans his images and digitally manipulates them, creating tricksy, mind-bending work that plays with the boundary between reality and fiction. Now it’s fashionable to talk about fake news, but Blalock got in early, poking holes in our faith in images.
It’s earned him an enviable career, with books published by respected outfits such as Morel Books and Self Publish, Be Happy, and solo exhibitions at private galleries such as the White Cube. Now he’s got his first solo show at a public gallery in the US, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Los Angeles, where he’s showing images made since 2014. Initially he might have seemed part of a movement, but Blalock has carved out a career on his own.
“From my point of view, five years ago felt like photographers – at least those who were interested in using the camera to make art – were up against a new set of material conditions,” he tells BJP. “For the first time in the medium’s history you could make and distribute a picture without ever producing an object, and this situation lead to artists trying out a bunch of new strategies.
“I would say it has died down, or at least changed,” he continues. “I feel like this has been more in response to our harrowing political climate than anything else. But personally I never felt very connected to a lot of the work that you are asking about and I can’t say I am a believer in anything so much as I have found a vein and have kept mining it.”
The exhibition at ICA LA is titled An Enormous Oar, a phrase Blalock has borrowed from the artist Constance De Jong’s 1975 novel Modern Love. He’s using it out of context, he says, but for him the phrase has a tragicomic tone, speaking of the potential of digital technology vs our ability to use it meaningfully. “The enormous oar is this huge, and potentially powerful, tool that is not scaled to our body in a way that makes it useful, so instead it is this cumbersome lumber,” he explains.
“I liked the phrase as a title because I like the idea that my own work is a kind of Rube Goldberg machine [an overcomplicated machine used to a simple end] to begin to address this scale problem in my own idiosyncratic way.”
As Blalock’s literary reference shows, while he’s intrigued by new digital tools, he also has wider cultural references. He got interested in painting and its history about five years ago, and some of his most recent images have been compared to Cubism; he’s also interested in sculpture and three-dimensional space, as expressed in both the physical and virtual world. His image An Other Shadow includes both a shadow shot in situ and another one Blalock has added in post-production, for example; in the exhibition at ICA LA he’s placed a sculpture near the print, which casts another shadow again.
“I think digital image culture is super interesting but a lot of my work has been in connecting sculptural potentials native to virtual space back to the material world,” he explains. “I have most often realised this through making prints but I am also in the midst of a second augmented reality project, and see photography as just one means of approaching the questions I am curious about.”
And, cerebral as it is, his work also operates on an enjoyably visceral level, using queasy, highly-saturated colour, and – not infrequently – lurid, over-processed food such as hotdogs, salami, and clingfilm-wrapped melon. Not for nothing was his last book titled A Grocer’s Orgy (a reference to Baudelaire), complete with an anthropomorphic block of mincemeat on the cover. “I want my pictures to resonate with the nervous system,” he explains, “and food has been one way to open up this circuit.”
At the end of Nine Years, A Million Conceptual Miles, Charlotte Cotton pronounced herself stymied by the new wave of imagery she was seeing, “struggling to find the words to discuss their work – though I am neither short of opinions nor inexperienced at looking at new photography”. Reflecting that the work was “beyond the discourse that I know”, she concluded that all of those with a genuine interest in the future of photography as contemporary art “should open our doors and just let this new life come in”. It feels like its been a long time coming, but in giving Blalock his first solo show in a US museum, maybe ICA LA has done just that.
Lucas Blalock: An Enormous Oar is on show until 21 July at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles www.theicala.org/en/exhibitions/64-lucas-blalock-br-an-enormous-oar