Interview with Penelope Umbrico: Pluralistic Orogenesis

Portrait by Andrea Blanch

Andrea Blanch: How did your book come together?

Penelope Umbrico: I am working with a gallery in L.A. that is selling bits of it. The cover of my book actually has the docu- mentation of the prints, so you can see the texture. Inside the book, I laid out the digital files. I made this digital collage of what the work would look like, if you printed it out and put it up on the wall. Aperture sells the addition that are in the book. The gallery is called Mark Moore. They’re not a photo gallery. In the last five years, I’ve been getting grants in photography. That says more about photography than it says about me; the photo world is coming around, in a sense. It’s understanding that digital media and photography and the impact of the in- ternet is a big part of what photographers do now.

Do you think of yourself a photographer, curator or mixed media artist?

All of those things. I would say that I make art, and that my subject is often photography and the impact of photog- raphy on our lives.

You teach at SVA. What are current trends with photography students?

There is no one direction that I can put my finger on. I teach undergrad and graduate. It was two years ago that I noticed I was more digitally adept than most of my un- dergrad students, in photography and Photoshop. This is a generation of kids who grew up so that their parents were taking photographs of them, and getting prints made, and then around their adolescence, stopped. Digital cameras were so ubiquitous that all the photographs became digi- tal. A lot of them really felt this need for something mate- rial and were printing in the darkroom. The grad students didn’t seem to have that same kind of need. It’s the same as the discussion around black and white photography, where five years ago, you had to have a reason. This medium has become truly pluralistic.

umbrico_02_8.25x11_200dpi_Winfried-HeiningerPenolope Umbrico, A Proposal and Two Trades (Winfried-Heininger), all images from Mountains, Moving: of Swiss Alps and the Sound of Music, 2013-2014

I like that you don’t have to always explain your techniques.

I always feel like I have to explain why. I am in the middle of this project that I started last year, called Mountains Mov- ing. I’ve been doing work with Aperture because I’m really intrigued by a dialogue with an institution that is so much a part of the history of photography, and part of the canon. They have this series called The Masters of Photography. They asked ten artists last year, for their 60th anniversary, to work with, or make an intervention into one of their books. I chose the whole entire series. I would start a dialogue be- tween the master and the contemporary relationship of the master to photography now. I decided that the master is the most stable form of a photographer and the mountain is the most stable object that is photographed. They all happened to be male photographers. There was this dialogue between male and female, because I’m a woman, and I’m re-photo- graphing these male photographs of mountains. I used about 530 filters, downloaded about twenty-seven camera apps, found fifteen mountains, and I generated about 6,000 images. Sometimes they’d be upside-down, and they’d be sideways. I loved that, if it’s the most stable, it’s certainly not anymore. I called it Mountains Moving because it’s like they’re moving distance and time. We hung eighty-seven next to the vintage prints, to make this relationship between the singularity of the original vintage print, and the multiplicity of my project.

Who are some of the masters?

Hosoe, Weston, Ansel Adams, Bravo, Cartier-Bresson.

Did you take philosophy courses?

Yeah, I think I’m always breaking things down. I grew up in the 70s, in Ontario. That book called Subliminal Seduction had come out when I was in high school. My friends and I would pour over advertisements and try to find the hid- den meaning in every advertisement. It also comes from the time I was ten. My brother is autistic, and I was involved in teaching him. My mother also teaches, and she and I real- ized, we teach very different things; she’s a musician, I’m an artist, but we teach almost exactly the same way. It came from how we had worked with my brother. Maybe we treat our own practices that way, always trying to get at the root of something. Most good artists do that.

Do you ever feel like a historian, hoarding and preserving the digital age in your collections?

It happens the other way around. If I had to look online and think that I was collecting the things that are out there, it would be daunting. The Suns project came about because I was interested in what was the most photographed subject. We only have one sun, and it existed in this grand monumental multiplicity online. The heat of it in its physical sense, and the coolness of it online; these juxtapositions and oppositions made me want to look at it. Each one of them, more or less, looks the same as the other. They’re all scripted and we all participate. To say that, “This is my photograph, in the context of all the other ones,” is to deny the beauty of that kind of collective practice that we are all participating in. Once you put it on- line, it is part of this collective thing.

What do you think about the Getty case, where they used the photographer’s work and didn’t ask him permission?

We’re talking about three things. One is different markets. One is a trope, like a scripted photograph and unscripted photograph, or an authored photograph and un-authored photograph. The other is intention and transformation. Every artist or photog- rapher has to figure out where he or she is on that spectrum. I would feel uncomfortable doing certain things that some of my friends do. I’m fine with them doing it, but I wouldn’t. It’s im- portant to me for instance, in the sunset portraits project, where you can see the silhouettes, that you can’t actually recognize any of the people. I don’t want it to be about the individual. It’s about the phenomenon of photographing this way.

umbrico_06_11.75x13.75_200dpi_Patrick HerschdorferPenelope Umbrico, A Proposal and Two Trades (Patrick Herschdorfer), 2013-2014

You use eBay, Flickr and Craigslist as sources. Do you ever go to high-end catalogs?

I used to. eBay, Flickr and Craigslist are all consumer to con- sumer. You can see something about our culture by looking at the images that get posted there in a way that you can’t when you look at images that are visually educated. The timing permits the photograph. It can start to become a self- portrait of who we are. Nobody’s really consciously think- ing about how we’re taking photographs. There’s this huge, massive movement to take a photograph of everything you see, down to Google Glasses, which is ridiculous. Now we have this second world of visual images. It becomes a really grand archive. I did do a lot of work around using consumer catalogs online and printed media that were more like how we market toward the individual.

I was still working with these home improvement catalogs on- line. I noticed all these armoires that were perfectly set up. The theory of this project was, you buy this thing and as soon as you put it in your house it loses all its value because you stuff it and it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. You start clicking through mine, and they start off looking most like the Pottery Barn, with their arrangements. They get more messy, to the point where you can’t even see the armoire. I started to think about social media. If you’re trying to sell an armoire, and it’s so full with your stuff, and you’re posting that image where you can’t even see the armoire-what are you doing? Is your image there to sell your armoire? Yes, on the surface. Maybe underlying that, there’s this need for showing who you are.

How much time do you spend online?

Almost all my time. When I start looking for something, I get obsessed. I have to start early enough, if I don’t want to stay up until five in the morning. If I’m looking for televisions to make a new installation, I’ll go into different cities, and I have to look at all the televisions. If I leave and come back the next day, I have no idea what I’ve already got.

What do you mean by saying online fosters a critical visual literacy?

People talk about the democratization of photography, and how we’re visually more literate now than we’ve ever been. We’ve become such a visual culture. I wonder whether that’s visually literate through the eyes of technologies that have been scripted to teach us how to see through their scripts.

Can you give me an example of these scripts?

People are taking pictures and posting them to Instagram; there’s a visual literacy around those images, but that’s a script that someone else wrote. Nobody even knows where that aesthetic comes from. Is it visually literate to have eighty percent of our society making photographs like that, and not even understanding what that language is based on?

I find it interesting that a lot of people who come in here are students that want to be photographers but don’t know who someone like Richard Avedon is.

Right, they’re not using a Richard Avedon, they’re using a Richard Avedon app.

How do you feel about that?

If you see the arm out, you know it’s a “selfie”. That’s a kind of visual literacy, but it’s based on a very superficial relation- ship to photographs and history. I question whether we are becoming more or less aware, more or less literate, more or less sophisticated.

Made with Repix ( Umbrico, A Proposal and Two Trades (Peter Mathis), 2013-2014

Do you think you teach students to see, or think?

Both. You can’t see unless you’re thinking, and can’t think unless you’re seeing.

Do you find consumerism and today’s visual dialogue to be linked?

For sure, especially in terms of how we make images with cam- eras, filters and app. Then we put them online. When you’re so reliant on corporations and institutions, to build the things that we’re seeing with, you can’t say that it’s democratized. It’s actually tyrannical. That’s all connected to consumerism.

What relationship do you hope viewers have with your work?

I want people to be seduced by the work, and realize that their seduction points to something in themselves, and ask them to question that thing. I don’t think I set out to do that, but that’s what I always do. I’m equally seduced by the things that I work with.

Since this issue’s about fantasy, what’s your personal or latest fantasy?

World peace, no borders-people could travel, and not worry going through security lines and getting to the airport two hours ahead and with passports. That’s the moment where the general and personal collide. It’s the one moment in public space where your body is subjected to stuff in public, that’s personal. There’s something really disturbing about it.

Alright, I was thinking something else . . .

Like sex or some


No, I didn’t want any sex, no.

Let’s see, I was lying in bed last night . . . .


Frieze Art Fair 2014