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Interview to James Casebere

(Photo: Courtesy of the Artista and Templon Gallery)

I had the pleasure of interviewing the renewed Master of photography, Mr James Casebere, on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Galerie Templon in Paris, On the water's edge.

(My interview is also featured in Italian language on Artribune Magazine at this link)

How did it really start, you and photography?

I had a brownie camera when I was a child and later did a project as a high school student where I learned how to use my father’s Fujika range finder camera, and I did all kinds of exposure, motion, and depth of field tests. My favorite pictures were the ones my Dad brought back from Japan while he was an MP, working with the Army Air Corp intelligence, the OSS, during the US occupation of Tokyo. There were pictures with Japanese friends, and Geishas, posing in front of Buddhist and Shinto temples. I was mesmerised by these.

What were your motivations, and what people/artists had the most influence in your practice?

I was motivated by artists who used the camera to document performances, temporary installations, earth works, etc.. In high school, I loved the work of artists like Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Michael Hiezer, and the artists involved in happenings, like Oldenburg, Robert Kaprow, Warhol, Elenora Antinova, etc.. In art school I read Andre Malraux’s book the Museum without Walls/Voice of Silence. And, living in the Midwest it seemed prescient since I was intrigued very interested in by the way my experience of art was mediated by the camera and experienced primarily in reproduction - especially sculpture when it is converted into a two dimensional, often black and white images on a page. I was also influenced by Magic Realism, Latin American, and Mexican literature, and the way photographs are used to construct a fictional reality by those in power for their own purposes.

Do you feel that photography may have changed the way you look at the world?

It may have opened up the world for me in that I could imagine these far away places, and it also seemed to create a certain confusion between what I actually remembered and what I imagined or remembered only from personal family photos. I think it made me ask questions about how we each individually, (as well as socially) construct our view of the world, not based on fact but a confusion of memory and imagination.

In an interview you said, in regards to your work: “I look at making art as a process of social dialogue. Now I'm trying to reduce the images to their bare essentials. The interior rooms are not only a reflection of my studio but also a reflection of the mechanisms of photography. The cell is a little box, like the camera, and the window is an aperture that lets in light. The room is a camera obscura.”

Would it be correct to assume, that you see art a universal tool for communication, a vehicle to overcome cross-cultural barriers?

I hope so. It’s a complicated process. I have learned to be skeptical of claims for universal anything. Of course, photography is often also used as a tool to create barriers, too.

Through the cinematic use of light, based solidly on an understanding of architecture, you deliver conceptual images, a metaphor for human’s condition. For example, in the prison series, your visual aesthetic communicates a critique on solitary confinement and imprisonment. How do you feel about artistic, as opposed to documentary, photography?

I have never really been interested in documentary photography, because it seems to record what I regard as distractions, more often than not. I am more interested in photography as just another tool in the arsenal of the artist, who starts from scratch.

Since the 1980s, your photographs have been transporting viewers into ambiguous, evocative, and surreal environments. You’re considered to be one of the pioneers of “constructed photography”. “Fabricated”(staged) vs. “taken” (captured), “Graphic” versus “Anti-graphic/pictorialist”. How would you consider these terms, when applied to the composition of your work/images?

I would regard my work as more akin to the graphic than pictorialist, because I’m not exactly interested in narrative.


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