Adam Fuss was born in London, England in 1961. From his childhood, spent in lush countryside surroundings, he had an intense relationship with nature and explored science to understand the world around him. Fuss turned to photography as a bridge from the world of science to the world of image. He moved to New York City in 1982, where he lives and works. His work is in prestigious collections across the globe, such as those of the George Eastman House, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art and MOMA. What is Man by Andrew Roth and Adam Fuss, and My Ghost, Daguerreotypes from the Series, by Adam Fuss, Andrew Roth & Jerry kelly have featured his work. In 1997, Arena Editions Published a monograph of his work, Adam Fuss, with a critical essay by Eugenia Parry. Images in this article were provided by Cheim & Read Gallery in NY City.
This conversation was first seen in the Apr/May 2003 issue of Camera Arts magazine. Find out more about the magazine at www.cameraarts.com.
Adam Fuss I would say that the lens is a manipulation of an image. To me, the photogram is a non-manipulation of the object and the interaction of the object with light and the direct recording of that. To me, that’s pure photographic imagery. As soon as you have a lens, you’re reinterpreting the outside world. That’s it. Those are the glasses you’ve got on. That’s your rose-tinted glass. It is not a great analogy, but the idea that every painter used a number 12 squirrel head brush and painted with a box of paint, and everyone used the same box. That’s what most photography is. It’s pulling out of this extremely limited range because the equipment has such a strong fingerprint and in that fingerprint you can see most modern photography. Whether it is your father or Helmut Newton. The difference in the equipment is not extreme. The vision is extreme. But because the equipment isn’t that different, there is something that shares a sameness in those images.
JPC It’s interesting to hear you say that you think the photogram is, in a sense, the most representational kind of image. Are you touching on another use of representational here? Most people assume a photograph is representational because it presents an illusion of reality with a high degree of accuracy relative to our visual perception of the world, which is in many ways quite conventional or learned. A modernist painter might say his or her abstraction was more representational than a photograph because it doesn’t attempt to reproduce the appearance of other objects. It simply is what it is and doesn’t ask to be considered as anything else.
AF That’s tricky stuff. All of photography is the recording of light. It is all representational. I do use a camera from time to time so I am not a fundamental photogramist. I do see the photogram as pure photography and the camera and the lens as manipulations of reality.
JPC Time is stopped, three dimensions are collapsed into two, everything outside the border of the frame is excluded. I’m sure we could find many points to agree on, but let me hear the Fuss version of how the camera eye manipulates reality and how it creates altered images.
AF I wouldn’t say it’s altered. I would just say that it is not as real as a photogram. It’s not to scale. You can’t turn a piece of glass into an eye. Not that any record of light, any photograph, could be the same as our experience of that light. But I see the photogram as being much more truthful and much more honest because it’s just recording light. There is no manipulation of that light, in the way that a lens manipulates light.
JPC So in a sense it is truly a photo/graph.
JPC I was wondering about scale in your work.
AF The scale is one of the things that makes an image more honest.
JPC There’s a one-to-one correlation?
AF Yes. It’s not just the scale, but it is also the intimacy of the object and light. It’s not the photograph of the shadow. It is the shadow. It’s the shadow fixed.
JPC So you think it’s the shadow fixed as much as the light fixed? In thinking of your pieces involving water, I wanted to ask you whether you thought your photograms were primarily recordings of light, recordings of shadow, or a play between the two?
AF Well, it has to be a play of the two otherwise you wouldn’t see anything. It has to be light and dark because if it was all light you wouldn’t see anything. It’s the mixture that creates the image. I don’t know if that makes sense to you?
JPC It does. Photograms …
AF Photogram is a very, very vague term. I remember looking about in the Focal encyclopedia of photography and there was a reference to a photogram being an abstract photograph. What is that? Is that an 8 x 10 transparency of a Jackson Pollock painting? Or is that an 8 x 10 where the camera fell open and exposed. I don’t know what
JPC Or is it a Man Ray where you can see the contour of a pair of scissors but not the bolt that holds the two pieces together?
AF Right. To me, photogram is a non-defined term. And that actually is interesting, that we are so nonconversent with that whole side of photography. To me working with the photogram is a kind of language. It’s a different sort of language of light. We are so used to the language of the camera. In the same way that when they first showed movies people thought that the train was coming out of the screen and they pretty soon got to understand the language of film and people don’t have that concern anymore. We have been so indoctrinated in the language of the camera that the whole realm of photography without the camera that we don’t know the words to use. We can barely make a sentence. So our definition of that area is a jumbled, meaningless concept. It has been my experience that the photogram or working without a camera that one can record a quality which is just as information filled as the one with the camera. The one with the camera has seemingly a lot more detailed information. But I find that there is information of a different kind that is no less rich. I think that is just from my experience of doing it for years and looking at photographs again and again and again.
JPC When I look at many of your images I think of x-rays and sonograms, other kinds of visual recordings that make pictures of information in ways that are not the way we are used to seeing. In a majority of cases, these recordings don’t represent the way that light strikes the inside of our eyes or the way that we interpret that phenomena.
AF Right. But what strikes the inside of our eyes is completely open to interpretation. We don’t know what strikes the inside of our eyes because our brain gets in the way. What strikes the inside of the eyes is upside down for start. So if the brain can do that, it can do anything. We learn a lot of things about seeing. We learn how to see. So I am just arguing your point there.
JPC I’m glad you are. Perception is a fascinating thing.
All of this makes talking and the way we think of photographs, how they’re made and what they do, a lot more complicated. It’s been a complicated process all along. Certain kinds of images aren’t considered enough. So the general public thinks of the photogram as more abstract and less realistic.
AF They’d be mistaken. I mean Talbot’s and Atkin’s photograms were scientific illustrations. What could be less abstract than that?
JPC I think it’s helpful to see both sides of the story. It is fascinating to see the way similar tools can be used to say so many different kinds of things and how widely photography in a larger sense varies.
AF See I disagree with what you said. Because I don’t think it does vary that much. I find most photography looks the same. That’s what I am trying to say, no matter how interesting the picture is today, because I have seen a hundred billion of them produced in the same way, it doesn’t matter what it is anymore. There is an inherent boredom in it because it is all the same paintbrush.
JPC You don’t feel that way with painting, do you?
AF No. Because photography in a way freed painting from those constraints. Photography became the recorder of reality and it allowed painting to function in the realm of art.
JPC Painting was an art long before photography came around.
AF Well, it was but it didn’t have its freedom. It had its constraints. Personally, I don’t think there could be Jackson Pollock before photography. Photography allowed painting to be free. Perhaps new technologies will allow photography to be free, again because the pretense that photography records reality is falling away.
As an aside, I found that you can produce a photogram that can be much sharper than the best lens you can buy, and on a scale that is unprecedented. When you see that sharpness at such a large scale, that is another thing that is very unusual about them. That is part of its language as well, and you are not used to that.
JPC Interesting, so a photogram looks abstract but in one way it outperforms a quality conventional photography champions, particularly for its representational capacity – sharpness.
There are certain kinds of photographs where the final record reproduces something that their maker can’t see while he is making it and sometimes those recordings represent things that can’t be seen with the naked eye. You may be in the darkroom and the light goes off for one of your photograms but you don’t see the light or the shadow from the angle that the image is made from. The image is a revelation to its creator.
AF That’s the same as using a 1,000th of a second shutter speed. Or any shutter speed on the camera in a way, even if it were five seconds. I love long exposures on view cameras where parts blur.
JPC Right. In Sugimoto’s work crowds in theaters disappear because they don’t linger long enough while images on the silver screen disappear because they linger too long. The observers and the observed disappear but the stage remains. Waves become a blurry mist as a result of longer durations of time.
AF I think all photography falls into that sector that you were reserving for photograms.
JPC Even Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment? He looks through the rangefinder and what he sees there is recorded in a 125th of a second as he saw it (conventionally).
AF Especially him. He is taking a moment out of an endless continuity.
JPC But for a brief instant, he experienced something very similar to what the final image presents.
AF I don’t see how he could have. Who do you know operates in segments of 125th of a second?
AF It’s not our perception of the world. There’s a 125th of a second and then there is a one-second period when you advance the film where you are blank, and then there is another 125th second?
JPC It’s thought that photographs represent only thin slices of our total experience which is much more fluid and has a longer duration.
AF The decisive moment? No. If anything I think one could have a perception of a moment that is eternal, that is timeless. That idea that it could be 125th of a second and that we are like that recording machine, I think, is folly. I think in one’s experience of this moment, there could be a pause, where you have an experience that is a timeless event for you and perhaps for the individual captured by the image, where you have an experience outside of your normal perception of time. What would that be? For instance something random, like a bird flying between buildings or the angle of someone’s arm, something extremely beautiful or extremely horrible. I don’t think that becomes an isolated slice. I think in a way it takes us outside of ourselves and that is what allows it to become a doorway to the universe. That would be timeless. Absolutely timeless because it is outside of us in a way. It is outside of the passage from birth to our death, outside of our lifespan, outside of time. It’s the expanded me. Maybe Cartier-Bresson felt that when he was in front of what he was in front of, but that’s such a personal experience. I don’t feel that in front of his pictures, except perhaps one – the women in Kashmir.
JPC That’s my favorite one. So are we saying that in that line of thought one could draw the conclusion that all photographs represent not necessarily recordings of our previous experiences but new experiences?
AF You mean to the photographer or to the person who is looking at the photograph?
JPC Both. That’s a good clarification.
AF I think the degrees of being there at the moment the picture is taken are wide. Speaking for myself, most of the time when I take a photograph I am not there.
JPC Really? Intentionally?
AF No. That is just how it is. I think that is why most commercial photographers end up taking hundreds of rolls of film.
JPC I was going to ask you about the particular qualities of photography that attracted you to devote a substantial part of a lifetime to it.
AF I think the answer to your question is because it records light. And what is light?
JPC A profound mystery that brings one into closer contact with the world.
AF Yes. So photography is compellingly attractive because it is recording light. But it’s not so much for me the light in photographs that I’ve been attracted to, it is the experience of light in my life that interested me in photography.
JPC That’s a good clarification. I find engaging the discipline encourages me to be more conscious or aware of the phenomenon around me. That’s the reason I find it so stimulating.
AF That’s the direct opposite of me. There are moments when I have made pictures here when I wonder, “What is that? What’s going here?” The image becomes so compelling that I have to keep looking at it and in that way that is a real opening.
JPC I am not sure we are so different. I agree with that. That sounds like a sense of both being her and of getting out of the way enough to see yourself as part of a larger process.
AF I’m only out of the way because I don’t know my way because I have made something I haven’t seen before and I don’t understand it. It is not that I voluntarily moved out of the way. It’s the confusion or the compulsion to seek what I define as beautiful that keeps me away because beauty is disarming.
JPC Yes. But you are present enough to keep the process going?
AF No, I don’t think it has got anything to do with me. I think if you stuck a television in front of someone in 1930 they would have the same reaction. It’s hypnotic because you have no idea what is going on. Remember the first time you saw an airplane in the sky. What is that? That’s not you. You’re not doing anything. It’s happening. You’re not in control.
JPC So much for intention. Actually, I think there is a degree of both control and lack of control. I like the phrase controlled abandon. I think the really good images are made when you step into the state you’re describing – encountering something beyond you and being filled with wonder.
AF That’s why mistakes and accidents are so helpful.
JPC Do you find you engineer chance or wait for it?
AF I don’t wait for it. I fight against it. But part of me knows that it is in that that I can discover nourishment, visual nourishment. Most of my pictures are situations that I have set up which are out of my control. Take water falling on water. I can get the paper in the right position. I can get the light in the right position. I can throw the water on the water. But, I can’t control whether that piece of water is going to land over there or over there or over there. I make the picture but it’s not my hand that has made the picture.
JPC That seems to go right to the essence of photography (and possibly zen calligraphy).
These are not standard photographs so in approaching this kind of work people don’t often know the kinds of questions to ask of the work. Any image is a text, it needs interpretation. But if you don’t know the questions to ask you might not gain entrance into them.
AF Hopefully entrance is just in the experience of meeting it. Take the spiral images. (They’re made by swinging a lightbulb over paper.) I don’t think one needs to say too much.
JPC Is that part of the power of the work?
JPC There is a danger in talking pictures.
What are the kinds of questions you ask the images? Do you ask them questions?
AF Absolutely. I ask a lot of questions. It’s a series of yes/no doors that I walkthrough. It’s always been, “Am I interested or am I bored?”
JPC And you just know?
AF Sometimes it takes me a few days, but generally, I know. I think that’s important
JPC Your picture of a grain of dust and its shadow, is that where all this started for you?
AF That was the first photogram. It’s hard to say when things actually start because one thing leads to another. I could argue that using a pinhole camera was the beginning of photograms because it wasn’t about the technology involved. It was about getting closer to the dark space. It was getting closer to the camera (obscura). Eventually, I was able to walk inside it.
JPC Was that picture an accident but a revelation?
AF Yes. I saw that I didn’t need a camera to make images.
JPC I find that images that surprise us often generate the strongest work but start new things as well. I hang onto a quote by Picasso, “An artist knows more than he thinks he knows.” So then I ask, “How do we encounter that which we know but don’t know we know?”
AF You just work and work and work.
JPC Trust the process?
AF No. I think that is how you do what you just said. I don’t trust the process, in that I don’t think the process is particularly healthy. But I do think that is how you get to the creative source.
JPC “Just do it?”
AF Yes, just do it until you figure out what you are doing. Then you do some more. Well, for myself I find that I need to do something again and again before I understand what it is that I am actually doing. For me, that takes a lot of time. As I said I don’t think that is particularly healthy. You spend a lot of time alone in your own universe. If you do that your whole life what happened? But you’re pretty much guaranteed that you’ll make some great pictures. But you’ll end up like Picasso – an asshole.
JPC Do you think there are ways to avoid that?
AF I don’t know.
JPC Do you feel there is a spiritual quality to your work?
AF That’s a hard question to answer. For myself there is. That’s a question that you should address to other people. It’s not for me to say.