Fiskin Interviewed by John Divola
background was in Art History. How did you decide to become
the first week of graduate school at Berkeley, I realized
they had changed the game on me, and I quit school. I went
over to the university employment center and found out
that the only thing I qualified for with my B.A. in art
history was clerk typist. So I re-enrolled and decided
to stay in graduate school until I figured out something
else to do. After a year, I came down to L.A. to finish
at UCLA. I was taking seminars on modern art with a really
wild guy; his name was Kurt von Meier. This was the late
sixties, and he was having us do "happenings." We
would all get together and go to the airport and watch
the planes come in, or he bought a small TV, and we all
threw it off the pier. For one seminar, he told us to get
hold of a camera and document some image of popular culture.
I was given the heart. This was after seven years of art
history, looking at lots and lots of images. I don't remember
using a camera before this. I looked through the lens and
right away I thought, "This is what I want to do."
I learned the basic mechanics from my then brother-in-law
who had a darkroom in his garage and was teaching himself.
It was enough to get me going and it accounts for my rather
peculiar take on technical things, because he taught me
wrong. I mean he didn't know that much. Then I just taught
myself after that.
do you mean when you said they changed the game?
college you're just having a great time discovering all
this stuff. I was in it for the appreciation and not for
the information. In graduate school, you were supposed
to be thinking about dates – dating every work, putting
everything in the proper slot. And even though now in art
history there's more of an idea of work in its broad historical
context, I wouldn't be interested in that either. When
I had to get serious about it in an academic way, I didn't
studying Art History influence your work as a photographer?
I think directly translated into my work was the idea of
looking at art in tiny reproductions. A lot of my experience
of looking at art was in reproductions that weren't that
much larger than the size that I make my work now. In Los
Angeles at that time, there weren't too many examples of
real art to look at.
Also, after spending hundreds of hours in dark rooms looking
at thousands of slides, I had quite an image bank stored
up in my subconscious.
the last eight to ten years, I've never seen a photograph
of yours any larger than a couple of inches square. Has
that been the case from the first, or is that something
that you evolved into slowly?
took me about a year to get down to that size. I did take
one class in photography, a summer school class at UCLA.
Everybody was doing 8 x lOs. By the end of the class everybody
was trying to make 11 x 14s or 16 x 20s, and I had already
started trying to make them smaller. They just looked too
gross to me. I worked in 5 x 7 for awhile, then I got it
down to 4 x 5, and within one or two years I got down to
the size that it is now: 2 3/4 inches square. The way I
arrived at it was that it was the farthest that my enlarger
would go down. I didn't realize that if I had put a book
on the enlarger table I could have made them even smaller,
and I'm grateful now that I didn't because I don't know
how small I would have made them.
do you think the small size affects the reading of the
me, looking at small images somehow recreates the experience
of looking through a viewfinder. When you are looking through
a viewfinder of a thirty-five millimeter camera the scale
disappears; you don't know the size of the object you are
looking at. It's like receiving an image directly into
your brain. And when you have to get up to the photograph
and peer into it, you lose the sense of separation between
yourself as a body and that picture as a separate entity.
At this size they're edible. You don't just scan them.
You take them in all at once. The small scale organizes
the image visually in a really graphic way. It gives it
an immediate impact. Then if you want to look for detail,
employ other strategies that further undermine an attempt
to read detail: your exaggerated tonal scale, the highlights
being blasted out. Is that a conscious device for reducing
that kind of information?
never started out with the idea that I wanted to reduce
the information in the image. I wanted the photographs
to act on me in a certain way and to look a certain way.
At the time that I got interested in photography, I also
discovered Atget. The first two years I tried to make photographs
that looked as much like Atget photographs as I could because
I thought his prints were so beautiful. But he was using
albumen paper and a big view camera, and I was using silver
paper and 35 millimeter. Reducing the print size and printing
high contrast was my version of reproducing the look of
albumen paper, which has bleached-out whites and very strong
blacks. On silver paper you couldn't make such an extreme
print large, so detail had to go.
But suppressing detail also did something I was very interested
in. I was trying to match my mental image of the world,
rather than the world itself, and mental images of objects
aren't full of detail. If you think "house," you're
going to get something very general, and if you want detail,
you're going to have to make an effort to add it. Dropping
detail made the photographs more general, like mental images.
that particular kind of print have anything to do with
I first started I was really interested in atmosphere.
I've developed away from that, but that's true of the first
stucco bungalows that I did and then the stuff I did in
San Bernardino – and even the military
bases to some
extent. I was interested in a sort of Raymond Chandler
atmosphere – too much sunlight, making you squint,
everything really menacing. That's how I picked San Bernardino.
I grew up in Southern California, and on my childhood map,
after San Bernardino there was a big void that you would
fall into if you went any farther. And then one day I was
driving through there, and the smog was so thick it was
palpable. It made the place look filthy and disgusting,
and that was very appealing to me. In my mind, it was a
very creepy place. That's why I wanted to photograph there.
photograph is often compared to an act of redemption – to
select from an infinite number of choices that which is
to be remembered. In some of your early work there was
a sense of redeeming from popular culture certain gestures
which otherwise might be dismissed. However, in your work
dealing with furniture in museums, the objects which you
photograph already populate a catalogue of redemption.
Their context, the museum, is an assertion of their significance.
a way that you can't avoid that act of redemption as a
photographer, especially if you're doing anything that
looks at all documentary; the work is going to be read
that way anyway. I didn't try to avoid that reading or
undermine that reading, but I was more interested in something
else: a feeling of the arbitrariness of the world. A metaphor
that I've always used for that is aesthetic choice. One
of the reasons that I have always dealt so much with kitsch
material is that arbitrariness of choice in popular architecture
and popular art is quite obvious because the choices are,
from our point of view, so often wrong.
That's why I photographed flower
shows. Flower arranging
has such a frozen aesthetic. The judges at those shows
would take me around and say, "See, that rose is half
an inch off." I would nod my head. I couldn't see
anything wrong, but this was an aesthetic that had very,
very, strict rules. It was an aesthetic, but it was completely
awkward. What appealed to me was the idea of so much meticulous
care being put into something that turned out so wrong.
museums has already been designated and canonized
as high art, but a lot of it fits into the same category
as flower arrangements. I didn't go photograph Shaker objects
in museums. I photographed wild Victorian furniture. I
photographed Rococo French furniture from the 18th century.
Because it's canonized in the museum, people look at it
and tick off all these examples of "good taste." But
in fact a lot of them are quite bizarre, which puts them
in the right territory for me. It gets back to the idea
of the photograph as redemption when you say, "Let's
look closely at these things and see what's really there." The
furniture is being redeemed from conventional notions of
beauty. In the photographs the objects are freed to take
on a different kind of beauty.
you photograph a piece of furniture from the 18th century,
the context it operates within is the present. To some
degree it undermines the notion of history.
making objects appear slightly off, the way that I do in
the photographs, by making them appear different from the
way they're presented, you have to deal with them as objects
of the present. Once you do that, you have to ask, what
are they now? We're used to understanding them as direct
links to the past – if you have contact with this,
you have contact with Louis XIV. In fact, it's not true,
and once you throw that notion out then it becomes very
unclear what they are or what your attitude toward them
should be. That is always the feeling that I'm trying to
get at in whatever I do.
all of your work seems to be anchored in a representation
of particular historical eras.
eras that I've dealt with up until this furniture series
have been close to the present, starting from the bungalows
of the twenties and thirties, and that does bring up the
question of the nostalgia. I want to deal with that a little
bit. For instance the desert
landscapes – it wasn't
just that I wanted to go out and photograph the desert.
I was going out and photographing an idea of the desert.
That idea of the desert was set in the forties, and I'm
sure it came from forties movies. But I was also working
from my own memories of having a lot of childhood vacations
in Las Vegas and Palm Springs. But I still don't think
of the way that I dealt with it as nostalgic. A friend
recently looked at the furniture work and said he thought
I was casting a cold eye on my own nostalgia. I think it's
nostalgia with a distance, a step back from nostalgia and
an acknowledgement that what you're longing for is just
work often addresses aesthetics as subject. In more recent
work it was the aesthetics of high culture, the objects
which literally populate the museum. Your work is a kind
of catalogue of the stylistic codes which characterize
looking at the idea of how those definitions are put in
place. One way to define each era is through this kind
of visual shorthand that gets constructed. Once you've
got some distance in years from that, it looks more and
more arbitrary. In Some Aesthetic
Decisions, the flower show images, I was dealing
with an aesthetic that had been frozen in the fifties.
This was already 1984, and here was this whole group of
people who were doing something very consciously aesthetic,
but the aesthetic was thirty years old and they didn't
have any idea that that was so. I found that an interesting
thing to be dealing with.
idea of arbitrariness sounds sort of metaphysically bleak.
is. What I am dealing with over and over is having your
ease in the world pulled out from under you, because I
don't feel easy in the world. The flip side of that, the
positive side of that, is that it makes a clearing where
you can see the world with fresh eyes, see the world with
a sense of wonder. Once the comfortable meaning of things
slides away, it makes you aware of your own contingency
in the world, but it opens objects up for you to really
see them and have a strong experience of them. That's a
positive thing, and it can be applied to everything – even
sixties apartment buildings.
the emotions you wanted to inject often emotions of detachment?
were about being detached when you didn't want to be detached.
an emphatic reticence about them.
During my career as a depressed person that was part of
my personality. In fact, at that time of my life, I didn't
talk much. I hung around with people who would talk for
me. But I also think that the reticence in the work is
an attempt to allow a thing to speak for itself. If I leave
an object seeming like it doesn't have enough meaning,
I think it just allows it more room to be there, to have
notion of presence is interesting because your work has
often seemed impenetrable. All that's allowed to come through
is this stylistic code or this idea of a type of an object.
opaque, obdurate: these are good terms to apply to the
work. They all express something about what the world feels
like to me.
call all aesthetic decisions arbitrary undermines the whole
pretense of the arts as this notion of humanizing the world,
or inflecting objects with a sense of individual character
that is just what makes it arbitrary. For every era of
art making there is some new agreed-upon code. If you don't
agree on it, then it doesn't mean anything. That's one
of the things that conceptual artists explored: That is,
at art as an activity that depends on consensus. If the
consensus dies, then the object is up for redefinition.
The game changes all the time; for me, if you look at that
too closely, you're getting into real queasy territory.
How do you say anything means anything if that's the case?
I'm not making art in which everything that I'm doing is
meant to lead you to that conclusion. Instead I'm trying
to make that into a visual experience that leaves you somewhat
I do appreciate these objects that I'm looking at. But
I have to make up my own terms of appreciation, redo the
objects; then I can appreciate them. In that sense, I am
doing a kind of photographic rescue mission, but I know
like you to talk about the cataloguing approach that exists
in your work. You often work with the methodology of the
catalogue, exploring variations within a group of similar
think there's something basically appealing about variations
on a theme. A lot of people in photography have done that.
I think photography is a great medium for cataloguing because
you can gather information endlessly. In the Dingbat series,
I did a lot of photographs of apartment building facades
that were decorated with geometric motifs. You could drive
through Los Angeles and say, "Boy, there's all these
apartment buildings and some of them have circles on them,
and some of them have triangles and some of them have squares," but
you couldn't have the experience of seeing them all together
except in a series of photographs.
Also, that kind of serial structure is a benign way of
working out greed. It's a kind of stand-in for owning things.
It satisfies your acquisitiveness.
often has been described pejoratively as a form of shopping.
and I'm a great shopper, too. But if that's all it was,
it wouldn't be enough. The catalogue structure does lots
of other things. It lets me put things together in a way
that feeds into the idea of the arbitrary. That showed
most clearly in the Dingbat series.
I had so many photographs that I was able to divide them
into several different sub-series. On the surface it sort
of looked like an encyclopedia of sixties architecture,
but underneath, if you looked at all the different categories,
they didn't make sense as categories. One category was
buildings with side stairways, another was geometric motifs,
another Japanese roof lines. Those categories don't really
add up to anything when you put them together. I had one
category of peaked roofs and another category of Japanese
roof lines, but Japanese roof lines also have peaked roofs.
They could have all gone in the peaked roofs category.
It started to fall apart on you if you were paying attention.
It was about dissolving order, but I did it in a playful
way. I put together three buildings that had decorative
screens on their facade with a building that had a tiny
diamond-patterned window, because that looked like a screen
generally emphasize the concrete, discrete objects as opposed
to photographs of broad fields of information. It seems
very consistent, even in the desert work.
think that's a question of sensibility. One of the reasons
I chose a desert landscape as opposed to a mountain landscape
is that the desert is where you can see things discretely.
I got images of a cactus or a bush just sitting out there
by themselves. I was able to silhouette them, so they really
stand out. I also had a verbal idea, which was "rock," "mountain," "sagebrush." I
was going to try to come up with some primal image of those
three things together. I got one photograph that I think
finally did that. That goes back to the idea of working
from idealized images in my mind.
of the fascinating things about photography, as opposed
to many of the other media, is that it pulls you out into
the world. It pulls you into what's outside the house.
Is that any sort of motivation in relation to the work?
I come up with something I want to look at, some part of
the world opens up. When I was looking at little stucco
buildings, since L.A. is so full of those, L.A. became
a whole playground for me, because I was not just looking
at them and appreciating them, but I could really focus
on them. I was looking at them with a purpose. The interesting
and unfortunate thing is that when I'm through with the
series I could care less about those buildings. The world
keeps opening up and closing down through this process.
Making something that you really like is like getting a
shot of morphine. It's pleasure. Unfortunately for artists,
you can't keep getting that hit from the same thing over
and over again. That's why your work has to keep changing
to some extent. You get bored within the work. That's what
keeps me going, to have that pleasure and not be bored.
of your work is shot either in the Los Angeles area or
the New York area. Why is that?
of all, shooting in L. A. was a matter of circumstances.
It's where I grew up, it's where I mostly went to school,
it's where I discovered architecture, and it's full of
different kinds of interesting architecture. There was
fertile ground for me here. Also, when I started, I was
interested in the atmosphere of this semi-arid place with
lots of light. I think again I wanted to recreate something
about my memories of childhood that way. Also, for many
years I felt like I couldn't live anywhere else, couldn't
have an identity anywhere else. That's no longer true.
I went to shoot in New
York because of what I would see
when I took trips there, driving in from the airport, going
through Queens. At one point in Jamaica the expressway
is elevated, and you see all these little houses with all
kinds of different siding – weird, at least to West
Coast eyes. I was fascinated by that. At a certain point
I realized I could go there and photograph those houses.
There was a whole different kind of vernacular architecture
I would like to shoot in all different kinds of places.
I'm interested in domestic architecture in Germany, pictures
I've seen of vernacular architecture in Africa, especially
Mali. This stuff is on my mind. In fact, I don't enjoy
travel that much, but I have this terrible feeling that
I might actually get myself to some of these places to
do this. On the one hand, I would really like to do the
work. On the other hand, I think I would hate the trip.
So, we'll see. In the meantime, I'm about to go to New
York for six months to shoot Stick Style Victorian architecture
on the Jersey
there any difference in working in New York or Los Angeles?
People reacted differently to what I was doing in each
place. People get upset when they see you outside photographing
their houses. I learned to tell the story that seemed to
satisfy the most people the most quickly. When I first
started in L.A., I used to tell the truth. I would say, "I'm
a photographer" or "I'm an artist and I'm doing
this series on small houses." Nobody believed that.
I learned to say something else when I was in L.A.: "I'm
a location scout and there's going to be a movie made and
your house might be in it." There's nobody in L.A.
who didn't go for that. Really, it's just a question of
what people are used to and know about.
Then I went to New York, and I was photographing in Brooklyn.
The first person that came out to question me, I said, "Well,
I'm an artist." Total relaxation. They got that right
away. They said, "Oh, you're an artist. We have some
artists moving in around the corner. If you think this
house is interesting, there's an even more interesting
house around the block." This happened over and over
again. In New York the concept of being an artist has reached
everyone. No matter what people say about L.A. as an art
center, it does not get you anywhere to tell people in
L.A. that you're an artist.
was it like to shoot in the desert?
always went out there alone. Before I went I was really
interested in reading survival books. I was pretending
to myself that I was going to go out there and get lost.
So I learned all this stuff like how to burn the tires
on your car to signal for help. I sent away for a huge
orange plastic tarp that spelled out HELP, to throw over
the top of your car if you got lost. I put together a whole
survival kit. I had a little snake bite kit. I carried
boards in case the car got stuck in the sand, even though
when I did get stuck in the sand I had no idea how to use
them. I had to go find someone who was parked in a trailer
nearby to get my car out of the sand. The truth is when
I went out there I never went more than a five minute walk
away from the highway.
Actually, I've had lots of fantasies about being in danger
when I'm shooting, and I've heard other photographers talk
about that, too. When you're walking around behind a camera,
you lose track of what's going on around you, and I think
that makes you feel vulnerable. There was the danger of
hostile people coming out of their houses at me. How was
I going to handle them?
was it like photographing military
thought it was going to be incredibly difficult to get
permission to photograph. In every case except for one,
all I had to do was to call up the public information office
at that base and say that I was interested and sound like
my interest was positive, and they rolled out the red carpet
for me. Someone there would take me all over the base.
Nobody ever questioned what I was doing. Nobody ever checked
my references, nobody ever called me to see if I was at
the right telephone number. At some bases they let me go
around by myself.
The best place for my purposes was a Seabee base in Ventura.
The Seabees are the construction battalion, and in peacetime
they go all over the world to help rebuild in places that
have had natural disasters. There were these big fields
of what my guide called "materiel," which changed
from week to week. There were things like giant rubber
water bags that they would drop on places where there had
been earthquakes. But most of what was there was unrecognizable,
and there were acres of it. For me, it was like finding
miles of functional minimal sculpture to photograph.
The other thing they did on this Seabee base was to train
soldiers in construction. They had a miniature block of
houses that they would have the trainees build. Then, when
new people came in, they would tear down the houses, trim
the wood and rebuild them. So the houses kept getting smaller
and smaller until they used up the lumber. They also had
2' high telephone poles so the guys could learn to string
telephone wire without worrying about falling off the pole.
the perspective of a woman evident within your work in
think so. It's subtle. It can only be seen in a certain
context. When I first started showing my work, some of
the ideas I was working with were generally in the air.
There were a bunch of photographers who were grouped together
at that time after a show called "New Topography." New
Topography was work that dealt with the landscape and the
urban landscape in a very neutral-looking way, coming out
of the documentary tradition of Walker Evans. It wasn't
totally documentary because a lot of emphasis was given
to a certain kind of beautiful print, but an air of absolute
neutrality toward the subject matter was essential. All
the work of the New Topographers was men's work.
My work came out at the same time, and there were ways
in which it was related to theirs. I wanted the work to
look objective in a certain way, too. On the other hand,
arbitrariness and depression and bleakness are not so present
in the work of the men who did New Topography. I wanted
to inject certain kinds of emotional states into this neutral-looking work.
That, I would say, is more female and less male.
When I photographed the flower
arrangements, part of what
drew me to that was the milieu. It was such a paradigm
of the options traditionally open to women. I got to know
some of the women, and when they felt comfortable with
me, they would say, "We're not doing flower arranging;
we're doing sculpture." But they're not doing sculpture
in a creative way, and they're not doing sculpture in a
professional way, although the competitions they go through
have all the trappings of something highly serious. It's
a picture of an activity in which women were doing this
thing that was parallel to what men did, except the stakes
and the rewards were very low. Women get to pretend to
do what men do. These women were all middle class and upper
middle class, and very conventional, something I feel that
I narrowly escaped in my life.
I remember sitting in an auditorium when one of the clubs
was giving a demonstration of flower arranging, and I had
the fantasy that the doors were going to swing shut. We
were all going to be locked in there forever. I was going
to be the only one who wasn't really a part of this world,
but I was going to have to live in there, the flower arranging
world, for the rest of my life. I think that's in the work.
you talk a bit about the influences that surround your
specific influences started back when I was studying medieval
architecture. I liked Romanesque architecture, which is
heavy and squat, with sort of powerful generalized spaces.
I was drawing on this taste for heavy and somewhat awkward
architecture when I decided to look at vernacular architecture.
Then there was Atget. And after Atget, Walker Evans was
a strong influence because of the way he centered objects,
the way he was interested in looking at objects, in vernacular
architecture, and the way he made vernacular architecture
look monumental. My earliest work on architecture was trying
to make the stuff look monumental. It doesn't any more,
but it did at the beginning. After that there was an influence
that I didn't see at the time, even though it was all around:
minimal sculpture. But when I look at my photographs of
simple buildings centered in the middle of a square frame,
I have to think that somehow something about the minimalist aesthetic
filtered into me.
Then there are things that look like influences, like the
Bechers, that I just don't think were influences at the
time this work was developing. As for the work of the New
Topographers, I had pretty much gotten to all the essential
elements of what I was doing before I became aware of them.
I was dismayed to find out that there was this bunch of
other people who were doing such similar work.
based in the aesthetics of minimal sculpture.
think it also comes from looking at a lot of 19th century
landscape photography and really loving it. but having
to deal with the problem of the fact that it had already
been photographed. How do you make those photographs again
in a contemporary way? I think that was a problem that
they were solving and that I was solving too. That was another
very heavy influence: 19th century American landscape photography.
do you know when you're finished with a body of work?
these days, I just make work for a show. When I have the
show, that's it for the series. For instance, I think when
I had the show of the desert series, I didn't feel like
I was finished. I still wanted to go out to the desert.
I was still interested in it. But once I had the show it
was dead. I couldn't do it anymore.
Other times, you see things on the proof sheet that you
know would make good photographs for that series, and you
just don't want to do them anymore. It just gets boring.
You've tapped it out in some way. You just know. I mean
it's as simple as that.
process of art history is to take a category of objects
and reduce it into propositions about what it means. It
seems to me that you have great skepticism about that reduction.
It's because I'm more interested in creating an experience
than in summarizing experience.
My work a lot of times gets talked about as if it were
documentary work. My definition of documentary work is
photography in which the information is the most important
part of the work. In my work, the information is the least
important part. It's there, and the work wouldn't mean
the same thing without it; I don't deny it, but it isn't
structured around the information. The most interesting
part to me is the visual play: how many different kinds
of one thing I can put together; how these things look
when I make them into prints. The most interesting part
is looking at this little universe of representation that
I can make out of the world.
John Divola is an artist and
educator who lives in Los Angeles, California.