John Reuter was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1953. Raised in California until high school, he moved to New York and attended college in upstate New York at SUNY Geneseo. It was there that he began to study photography and art. He studied with photographer Michael Teres and painter and art historian Rosemary Teres. Together they inspired his early work, which took advantage of photographic process to transform the camera’s reality into a more “mythic” reality. Reuter continued this work in graduate school at the University of Iowa in the late seventies. It was here that he began his SX-70 collages, which still inform his work today. Following graduate school Reuter began working for Polaroid Corporation, first as a research photographer and later as main photographer and director in the 20×24 Studio. Here he began the collaborative relationships with artists such as William Wegman, Joyce Tenneson, Olivia Parker, David Levinthal, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and many others who have produced work with this legendary and unusual camera. Throughout the twenty years of working with other artists Reuter has maintained his own work and vision in a very different direction. The SX-70 collages gave way to painted Image Transfers in formats ranging from 8×10 inches to 5×6 feet. In the early 90’s Reuter moved into digital imaging. The freedom of image making provided by this new medium inspired his work in ways reminiscent of the early SX-70s.
John Paul Caponigro There is a powerful sense of integration between the photographic and the painterly; not only are you constructing images you’re also altering them after an initial impression has been made. Photography and painting can provide very different modes of seeing and so generate different kinds of recordings of the process of vision. Do you feel that one can complement or inform the other?
I’d been wanting to do a project like Prairie Passage for some years, particularly in the area around Chicago, where I grew up. I didn’t grow up in the Canal Corridor, but it was similar enough that there wasn’t a big difference in terms of landscape and light. Central to the photographic project was the transition from the urban to the rural. It’s not static thing. There’s the whole issue of what you preserve and what you try to acknowledge in the way of reading the landscape. Chicago is rich for a landscape study because of its rapid growth and the designation there of the nations first National Historic Corridor.
John Paul Caponigro One of the things that makes this new kind of park unique are the easements or land grants from corporations in return for tax incentives and private property exists within a larger area designated as public? That’s creative.
John Reuter I’ve been combining painting and photography for over 20 years, 23 years now. Early on, when I was in undergraduate school, my painting teacher happened to be Michael Teres’s wife, Rosemary. She’s also an art history teacher. Not only was she influential in terms of some of the philosophy of image making that I had, but she allowed me to combine painting and photography very early on. In my painting classes, I was actually able to use photographs and embellish them, change them via painting. I have the attitude that they both were complementary from that point forward.
I did take some painting classes where I just painted, just straight out, there weren’t photographic influences, but even then I think I always wanted to use photographs as sources. I’ve never been a painter in the sense that I’ve worked from the blank canvas and then filled it in. It’s always been tied to a photographic source. If anything, I’m more of a colorist than I am a painter, in the sense that when I work, in the sense that when I work I use the structure of the photograph as a framework for the painting. I did paint separately from 1985 to 1991 but all the imagery was based on either collages of photographs that I had made, or separate transfer images that I thought were successful. I would scale these up to a painting. So they were paintings in that sense, but they were really blowups of an existing image. Many times, I was really just using photography to create a structure for the image, and then painting it in. I know there are painters who work specifically that way and are considered painters. I feel my paintings didn’t equal my images made from transfers. They didn’t have the same impact. The paintings almost looked stilted. There was a freshness that came from reworking the transfers. I liked reworking an image rather than working from scratch. I seem to do better with an interactive process. What’s interesting to me now, with the digital, is taking in pieces of painting and applying painterly techniques, mixing the two. It’s come full circle. It’s one again. I don’t distinguish that much between the two. It’s just imagery.
JPC Agreed. But each mode carries it’s own vocabulary full of particular nuances and inflections. In combining the two, in using hand or machine, we have an opportunity to speak with richer, fuller voices.
JR Yeah. What’s interesting to me is I had put off doing direct digital output such as Iris. I had been working digitally since ’92 and was just using Polaroid as my output. Here I am in the Polaroid studio; I just went with what was natural. But I would see other people’s Iris prints and wondered what my images would look like. When I finally did it I just fell in love with it. It was exactly what I was getting on the screen. With the Polaroid transfers I knew there’d be an abstraction and deterioration in the transfer itself that would tear down the structure of the image. Then I would I would fix all that, or add to it, or take it in a whole new direction. Once I got better and more sophisticated with the digital techniques, I started becoming too attached to what I was getting on the screen for the collage and I didn’t want that sort of abstraction and deterioration to occur because it was ruining things that I had created on the screen. I ended up calling it the seduction of the screen. I would fall in love with that image and then not want to go through my normal process. It’s a real freedom to be able to just go straight to Iris and have it come out. They still physically resemble the transfer imagery without having to do all the other work. There’s been a push/pull tension for the last couple of years in terms of working. So it’s painting, but in a very different way. I actually consider what I’m doing now a form of hand coloring, even though it’s very different and the structure of the coloring is different because of the digital intrusion that could only be done by the computer. That’s the new chance element coming in, because I don’t know what those combinations are going to be, and how one image is going to give way to the other, or what’s going to be interesting or not about that. Suddenly it’s just revealed. There isn’t an equivalent way to work.
There’s certainly a lot of Surrealist influence in my work. The combination of the unexpected, the contrast of the beautiful and repulsive, those have always been elements that I’ve looked at. It became a much stronger issue for a long time because my medium imposed a chance element – the transfer would peel away and fall apart. I’d be looking to get that sort of thing. And then that image would not be really revealed or fully resolved until I did the reworking part of it, an emotional addition, by either enhancing or embellishing things.
I surrendered myself to chance, but it was controlled chance to a large extent. Still there were surprises. I never quite knew where things were going to go. Over the years, I allowed that to be a very important part of the work. That became my way of working. I liked that. I looked for it. And when I didn’t have it, I found the work would often go flat. If my transfers were too perfect, or if the image was too well-resolved from the beginning, I found myself in trouble, even now with the digital. I’ve always been a little wary of digital, because it’s so open and there are so many effects that you can do. You have to have the discipline to just rein it in and work within a range that makes sense for you aesthetically.
JPC When you mention Surrealists, I wonder which surrealist are foremost on your mind?
JR Max Ernst, no doubt. Not only for his early painting, but his collage work, like “The Hundred Headed-Woman,” the combination of the 19th century line art; that was hugely influential to me.
JPC Une Semaine de Bonte. I think they’re wonderful; it’s important work for me as well. Whenever I talk about appropriation, to students or in a lecture, even in conversation, there are always a few Ernsts that I think of. I feel that if you want to work with someone else’s images, you have to find a way to make them your own. Ernst is a great example of someone who has done that. Often he hasn’t drawn a single line yet he’s reworked his source material to such a degree that he has imprinted his own sense of line, rhythm, and proportion onto it and created something that is consistent with his vision. That’s a mysterious process that I think is closely linked with photography. Photographers don’t render their pictures either, yet the good ones make them their own. What is it is that attracts you to mining history?
JR I’ve been asked that a lot. I was once lecturing in Brescia, Italy. I had a show there. A lot of the stuff that I mine is Italian Renaissance. Someone asked the question in Italian and it was translated, “Why are you taking our history? You, an American, why are you doing that?” I was born in Chicago and moved to Utah very young, and to California at age four. I rarely saw my grandparents, barely remember them, but also have no history of them telling me what our family was like, what our history was like. There were no real photographs of the great-grandparents or even beyond that. My family was from Germany. When I got married, my father, his older brother, and his two sisters were at the dinner table, and I was trying to find out what they knew about our family history, and they said, “I think we were from Dusseldorf, but I’m not sure.” There was nothing, there was no history there at all. Then of course, when you grow up in a place like Northern California, which did have a kind of rich Spanish and Indian history, but because of the nature of what California is about, everyone’s coming together, there’s sort of a negated history.
I was raised a Catholic, which had history. I think it is what led me to the Renaissance, but not from a devotional point of view. I was fascinated more with the politics, particularly when I got older and found out all the Renaissance imagery, depictions of Christ or the saints, were actually patron-produced paintings where a lot of the saints who were in the images were actually physical images of the patrons themselves. History was changed for people’s own purposes; it was money-driven, and power-driven, and politically-driven.
Once I understood all that, then the whole of history was completely in question to me. My investigations of history and even my use of Renaissance imagery was debunking those things, breaking them down a little bit, exposing them for what they were, just patron-dominated imagery, the church being the biggest patron of all, ways to have power over people via imagery. A lot of the church imagery, when it was created in the murals, was really to, in effect, awe the masses, ultimately to control them, how they would respond to God, and basically keep them in line, have power over their lives – besides the devotional structure.
JPC There is the devotional context too. The art, beyond the socio-economic conditions of its time, and our time, did and still does have another kind of life.
JR It’s true. I think successful art then was art that could overwhelm the viewer, emotionally and religiously. On that same trip to Italy, when I was there, my father had died a couple months earlier. His confirmation saint was Saint Francis. There was a Church of St. Francis in Brescia that I went into, and it had beautiful murals. Candles were lit. I was seeing them in a way that I think was the way they were supposed to be seen, and of course I was in a very emotional state anyway, and was really overcome by viewing all this, knowing it was his patron saint, really feeling his presence in a lot of ways. I think then I understood the power that that imagery had over people then, because most of the peasants or middle class didn’t necessarily have access to imagery in any other way. They probably didn’t own books or paintings, that was really for the aristocracy. So this was their only experience of imagery, in a church. And under the right conditions, it can be an incredibly powerful force.
JPC Do you think power of imagery today is less, more, different?
JR I think there’s so much of it that it gets canceled out in a lot of ways. People don’t understand what a special image is anymore, partly because of technology. I’ve often held out in making pieces, singular images, like my Polaroid work. I’ve always felt that I want my work to be viewed not as a transparency, not on the printed page, but right in front of the real piece. That’s always important to me. I want the real thing of mine to be experienced, because that’s what I put it all in for. Just as the real power was in that church on the walls with the right lighting, the power of my work ultimately will be in the piece presented in the right way in the right light when you are standing physically in front of it. There is physical texture, particularly in this work. That’s totally missing when you see it in reproduction.
JPC How long have you been working digitally?
JR I started in ’92. I bought an IBM, because at that time the price differential was like two to one between a good Mac and a PC. About six months later I got a scanner and the film recorder. Not knowing any better, I made 4×5 chromes of one or two megabyte images. And then, as I had done for a long time, when I manually created my collages. I would make a 4×5 transparency with a view camera, and then I would print that on the 20×24 Polaroid by lining up the Sinar 4×5 with it – making a horizontal enlarger out of the whole thing. Then I went about reworking them. I went ahead with thecomputer images that same way. If I listened to somebody that said, “You can’t make a picture out of a one-meg file.” …
JPC You proved that you could. Now, you may have learned over the course of time, in terms of normative photographic vision, there may be a more optimal way of doing things. But you did do it. I’m reminded of a conversation I had yesterday with a friend of mine, John Stein, who was showing me his 19th century collection. He said he was really interested in the 19th century because that was the beginning of photography and photographers really didn’t know how to relate to photography. What a photograph was supposed to be hadn’t been defined. He found it fascinating that the questions were so fresh. They dared to solve questions that hadn’t been answered before. They tried things. There’s an lot we can discover when we admit that we don’t know.
Where do you stand on appropriation? We share an admiration for Ernst’s appropriative work. It raised the notion that just as a photographer doesn’t make a manual mark on the film something of that person is still left behind. How does one make something not one’s own one’s own? How does one disrupt this sense of otherness?
JR Ernst was certainly a big inspiration in my feeling that I could do that too. I guess it depends on what you pick to use. He was using romance novels and medical illustrations, supposedly imagery that no one cared about aesthetically. He brought them to a new level. The difference with me, of course, is I’m dealing with work that people recognize. To tell you the truth, sometimes I don’t remember which is which. When I started early on I didn’t know what paintings I was taking. people would say, “What is that background?” I’d have to go find out and would then learn about the artist. I was reacting visually. If I saw a fragment that made sense to me with something I would just take it. I wasn’t thinking of the consequences, because to me there were no consequences, other than my desire to use that fragment of the image with my work.
JPC So it was a kind of spontaneity born of innocence?
JR Yeah. I guess when you’re taking “old masters” some people assume that there’s a political intent, you’re making a statement about art and mastery. When Sherry Levine rephotographed the Walker Evans images she just redid them. That was a statement about usurping male mastery of the medium.
JPC And problematizing modernist notions of originality and authenticity. Sherry’s approach works only once, now that she’s done it (and it helps that she’s a woman) no one else could do it as authoritatively and there’s a debate as to whether that’s because of her wit and skill or because she got there first.
JR I think that’s what people assume that I’m thinking about, but I’m really not. I am just reacting to the images, as if they were in front of me, as a photographer. It’s as if I’m in Italy, and I see this wonderful street scene, or combination of buildings, or a lawn that gives way to trees in a certain way with a nice building on a hill. I like that background, this face, this figure. That’s how I’m looking at those fragments of paintings.
JPC So a man without history, save his own phenomenological experience, has become enchanted with the history of processes and the processes of history, revealing its fictions and creating his own in a process of sifting and translating information, from both new and old sources, which continually contaminate and influence each other, searching for presence in what’s left behind. It sounds like identity work.
JR Yes, to a large degree it is identity work. I think every artist ultimately uses the act of creating to inform their identity. Whether they choose to communicate this search or not depends on their personality. I do believe there are present in every artist’s work many clues and messages that no one will ever be able to decipher but that were extremely important to the artist at the act of creating the piece. That is certainly true in my work and there are messages there that are only for me, the confirmation of feelings and emotions that I have and don’t necessarily share with anyone but that I wish to especially remember by virtue of presenting them in image form. I always want interpretation of my work to be open to the viewer, and I feel by creating an image structure that can carry a variety of emotions I am opening something up to the viewer. But they will never feel entirely what I feel and they should never expect to, some of the emotions are too intense for me to articulate in any other form. And yet I want to connect with my viewers, why else would one ever show work to another? Experience is an unusual thing, everyone comes to interpretation of any event informed by their own psyche and state of being, stimulation of any kind will vary depending on your state of mind. So this would be true of reaction to my work, whatever is going on for me may have nothing to do with how you perceive my work at any particular time. I think sometimes we make it too easy for the viewer if we give all the facts about what the images mean to us. It will predetermine their interpretation. Maybe sometimes they just want the gossip level of what is in the image and I suppose that has value on occasion but I really do prefer the reaction to be more innocent on the part of the viewer. I want the elements of the image to move the viewer without knowledge of who is in them or where they come from. If I am successful on that level I know I have created something powerful. That’s all I can ask for.