Visual artist Max Creasy speaks to Charlotte McInnes about his recently published book ‘Casual Relationships.’
I’ve always really liked the titles that you give your exhibitions and projects; Reflections (an exhibition at the CCP in 2012), Making Marks (exhibition at West Space, Melbourne 2012), and Nothing Matters, (an online photography archive/project). Can you talk a bit about this title, Casual Relationships? To me it calls to mind modern dating practices, blurred boundaries and social rituals.
“The title is a play between formal and informal and alludes to the idea of casual images and relationships. The images are casual in that they are at once vernacular, and also create non-binding relationships with other pictures from the image lexicon. But also, I do think you can draw parallels to this more contemporary idea of foregoing any of the more formal social rituals in connecting and dating. (maybe this last bit isn’t necessary? and engaging in promiscuous acts only for pleasure). The images are devoid of any context or ritual and they don’t have titles. What I’m really interested in is how they operate visually as codes.”
That’s an interesting point, that the images are devoid of context, as so often photography books are put together as essays, grouped around a theme or a story. I think there’s a natural impulse to try and draw associations between the images or work out some kind of narrative or theme. In a way you deny this, or perhaps you intentionally leave it open?
“I’m not trying to deny it from happening, but I’m also intentionally not providing the normal narrative context that exists within a picture and certainly a book. We purposely skewed that a little in the book design, for instance the title page is not the first page in the sequence within. Usually photography books work on this ‘eye of the photographer’ type narrative that poetically links one page to the next with a subjective narrative. In the book I’ve constructed the image order through a conceptual process of curation and simulation. The images sit together because they visually illustrate that conceptual process, not because they form a narrative. Of course that doesn’t mean that by putting them together, we don’t read them in sequence or in relation to one another. The idea really is that in a sequence we can look to understand why people ‘endorse’ images to create visual culture.”
You’ve also described the way that the collection of images in this book is “underpinned by the culture of online photography”. While there is a certain casual tone in the images in terms of their familiarity and referencing of the everyday and vernacular, I would also argue that they are highly staged. The same could be said about people’s use of online photography - it is made to look casual and instantaneous, however it’s actually very carefully constructed. Would you agree with that?
“Absolutely- I‘m interested in photographs as staged simulations, an idea that also links to the process of sculpture. By creating this simulation of an object you question the meaning of that object, and our perception of what is real. So, in simulating the images I have curated, authenticity became a really important factor. I felt I needed to tread a fine line between constructing these images that were ‘authentic’ and presenting works that could be understood to be simulations. A lot of the images involve personal actions that make them authentic. For instance, the bike leaning up against some bushes - an image that references one I first saw on e-bay- suggests that the photographer has placed the bike on display ready to be photographed, a gesture that signals a new type of authentic commerce. It became important for me to mimic these small authentic gestures. Obviously eBay users wouldn’t photograph their bikes with a large format camera, so this becomes a way to discern the two images - the real and the simulated. It highlights this tension between casual authenticity and simulated construction. You can see this role reversal online; people appearing as brands, and brands appearing as people.”
Right, like the way that ‘influencers’ casually endorse brands or products, and equally brands use people to suggest a link or correlation between the two? These days this is done purely through images, as it’s more ‘authentic’, as opposed to back when you had celebrities on TV ads explicitly endorsing products.
“You have these concentric circles where certain social groups are thought to influence and endorse ideas early on - so called early adopters - and then mainstream culture adopts them in a trickle-down effect. This type of influence, product placement with brands, can be so subversive it is now regulated by the government. In the 1950’s you had Payola, which was a radio scandal where some disc jockeys accepted bribes in return for airplay. So, it’s not a new phenomena, it’s just amplified and perhaps more visual in our current culture, as you suggest. The idea of authenticity, which is important in the book, comes from speaking in a tone that appears and feels genuine to other members of the sub-group. People are so used to reading images on a personal and advertising level that this becomes are a very refined action. A snap from a friend has in the past been ultimately more personal and credible, but now that’s being subverted.”
Many of the images have something to do with leisure and lifestyle, things like skateboarding and yoga. These are activities that can contribute to how people define their identity, and shape their social circles. Is this in part where the title comes from?
“Not completely - the title is more concerned with the mechanics of how the images operate. I had been working with that title since I started the research and reading component of the project. How we can collectively portray and identify our personalities through endorsed visual language, is more of an outcome of the process. I selected the images separately of each other, and it was not until we (myself and the design duo OK-RM, made up of Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath) put them in a sequence for the book right towards the end of the process, that these different connections became more apparent.”
Right, so perhaps it was more incidental rather than intended?
“The process of the book was really about exploration, in the sense that I was interested in this idea of norm circles and how they related to the construction of visual culture, but I didn’t yet know what it constituted visually. When I lived in London I shared a studio with OK-RM. We had talked about the project casually at that time, but it wasn’t until I moved to Berlin about a year ago that it really picked up steam. When I first showed the images to Rory I attempted to present them to him in a really objective way; simply placed single images on a page and then a series of contact sheets to just be able to see them all at once for reference. Rory picked up on this repetition of image - thumbnail/single image - which played in nicely to the idea of endorsement; seeing things over and over. This repetition and increase in size also speaks of the language of online culture. This repetition in the layout was really the starting point of the book design and we slightly tweaked a few things from there to question how we understand the reading of images to operate.”
Right, and that’s definitely something unique about the book, the way that images are repeated. The contact-sheet style pages are like contents pages, and then you see the image again on its own, in a much larger scale. The second time you see the image, there’s already a degree of recognition and familiarity, but the shift in scale causes the viewer to look more closely, examine the detail. Was that part of the intention?
“Yes there is a play between the image being an index picture originally, easier to understand as a photographic trope, then again enlarged and in more detail. The second time you see the image it is more revealing, you recognise you have seen it before. You can indulge in the reading of the image. This repeated familiarity helps us recognise the image and the endorsement of the image starts to take place. It’s illustrating a construct that within social groups we see things repeatedly from our peer group.”
Having been familiar with your work for a while now, I can also see the influence in this book of architectural photography; the symmetry, the complex linear compositions and geometries. Does your interest and work in the field of architecture consciously influence your work, or is it something more intuitive?
“With my architectural work I’m interested in architectural ideas and concepts and I use my photographic language, that I borrow from elsewhere, to portray what I see within architecture. I don’t look at very much architectural photography per se but rather still life, portrait and landscape imagery. These interests all feed into my work and it’s all really a jumble; I quite often cross over more subjective and objective ways of taking photographs. I do think though, as you alluded before, these images are missing certain narrative cues that give them a more architectural feel. Architectural and advertising photography is often presented without context, in order to give us the viewer the possibility to project themselves into the space and onto the objects.”
Absolutely. It’s interesting that you mention portraiture and still life too, as there are certain images that illustrate this genre mash-up. The image of the guy drinking the Fanta can, wearing a Coca-Cola cap, for example. There’s also an element of tongue in cheek humour, or perhaps a visual pun in this. Would you agree?
“Yes for sure. One of the things that I think compels people’s endorsement of images is colour, and what those colours might signify. The man drinking Fanta, wearing a Coca-Cola Cap is really a mash of those colour signifiers. It also has undertones of a commercial shoot with the studio lighting and white backdrop, but is subverted with this slightly unreal cross-pollination of brands and associations.”
In your ongoing online project, Nothing Matters, you match the automatically generated image file name with a book in your local library of the corresponding number in the dewy decimal system, creating random yet logical, and often poignant conjunctions. In this book, the relationships are contained between the images themselves, or perhaps how we draw associations and correlations?
“Yes, what I am suggesting here is that when we put two or more images together we can read things (associations and meanings) between them that weren’t otherwise possible. This idea of endorsement by social groups/norm circles and how it operates can be seen more easily seen when we put all the images together to create a typology. Then the relationships, casual or formal, can be identified among the images. For example I see the parquet floor becoming a really important signifier of domestic authenticity; it represents a gesture made in the privacy of the home. Before, I mentioned this blurring of roles between brands and people. Take the image of Zeit Magazine on the floor for example. This is taken from Christoph Amends’s (editor of Zeit Magazine) Instagram. He is presenting his newly finished piece of work in this quasi humble way - I did this!, but casually on the bedroom floor, so the gesture is not so grand and appears authentic.”
Right, it’s very casual, thrown on the floor, but we all know that he most likely spent some time and consideration setting up the image. And, we’re also thinking: hmm, I wonder what the rest of his apartment looks like!?
“Yes exactly. In that instance we’re provided with more context into the action of presentation because we know who Christoph Amend is and we can assume he is conscious of what he is doing. Whereas on the other hand, the skateboard deck on the parquet floor is more vernacular because it anonymous and seems to be less consciously set-up.”
Right, it’s all part of our constructed identity, and how this is carefully constructed, either knowingly or not. I know that the book launched at Paris Photo last year, and there’s an upcoming launch in London – how about Australia?
“The book is going to be available in Australia for the first time with Perimeter at the NGV book fair (March 15-17th). This is really nice for me because I studied in Melbourne in the late 90’s. The Centre for Contemporary Photography, in Melbourne, was the first place I exhibited when I was still studying in Melbourne and Daniel Palmer has written a brilliant essay in the book about my work, as we’ve known each other for 20 years through the CCP.”
Max Creasy is a half-Australian half-Norwegian visual artist living and working between London and Berlin. His photographic practice explores systems of meaning through architecture, the archive and still life.
Originally from Melbourne, Charlotte McInnes has been based in Europe since 2010. She is currently an Associate Director at Modern Art, London.