journal of contemporary art

 

tim maul

leslie
tonkonow

I thought the following quotation from Susan Sontag’s book On Photography might be a good place for us to begin this conversation about your work: "The urge to take photographs is in principle an indiscriminate one, for the practice of photography is now identified with the idea that everything in the world can be made interesting through the camera." Do you identify with that statement?

tim
maul

Somewhat. It’s similar to something Warhol said about there not being any such thing as a bad picture. I really don’t think there is any such thing as a bad picture. Even when I’m trying not to care about what I’m doing or what I’m photographing, I still end up caring about it a lot. I think, in terms of Duchamp and the ready-made, whenever he was trying to pick something out that he had no feelings about whatsoever, underneath it all he must have really liked the objects he chose. Perhaps affection might be a better term ...

tonkonow

Would you say that your method of taking pictures is random or deliberate?

maul

It’s pretty deliberate although on the surface it might appear quite random. I don’t take a lot of photographs. I plan each photograph fairly well. I usually see it first, write down the fact that I saw it, and go back and photograph it later. I tend to photograph things that already look like photographs. They appear frozen or stopped. They seem to exist as photographs anyway so I’m just kind of doing them the favor of elevating them into pictures. Because I see much of my world as a kind of theater of photographs, going out and taking them seems like a logical step.

tonkonow

Your perception of the world is completely influenced by photographic images that you encounter day to day, whether on television, in a magazine, a newspaper, a book, or in a movie. You perceive your environment as photographs asking to be taken.

maul

Pretty much. Your reference to movies is interesting because the cinema is a narrative that’s produced by a stream of photographs attached to each other and I feel close to that. I’m making a very slow kind of cinema in the sense that each exhibition I do is another ten steps in the big film that I’ll finally complete at my death. As far as reading the urban landscape as a photograph in a kind of Blade Runner way, I think all of the things you mentioned like cinema, television, and commercial photography employ photographs in a manner that is so much more sophisticated than an artist would. My first impulse as an artist is to make pictures and photography is a logical way to make pictures in this age.

tonkonow

Rather than draw pictures.

maul

Yeah. I think the hand has a real poisoning affect; it can be trained to say anything.

tonkonow

How so?

maul

Through the photograph you can get at this aspect of truth because you give up control.

There’s this technology. There’s this little metal or plastic box between your skin and what you see that you have to hold up. And through this little optical thing I think there’s an aspect of truth that can be recorded. I know this is really cornball but I see the hand as producing a kind of corrupting gesture that defuses the truth. Although I like paintings to a certain degree — I think there are ideas to be pushed in painting. You can’t really get rid of it, much like rock and roll. But since I was a kid I always wanted to be a modern person and do things in the most modern way. Photography was clearly the route for that.

tonkonow

You keep using the word "truth" and say that you see the camera as an intervention between subjective and objective interpretations of reality. It’s rare to see that kind of idealism in somebody who works photographically, as you do within the context of contemporary art as opposed to "photography." The belief in the photographic image as an instrument of truth is at the heart of the modernist tradition of fine art photography in America. It reminds me of Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, and Walker Evans.

maul

But I have no interest in those people and I couldn’t even identify any of their works particularly. What amazes me about taking pictures and what I’ve owned up to in the last five years is that anyone who takes a photograph has to summon up a certain set of beliefs to do so. They are choosing what they wish to remember. In making that decision they edit and crop and in that sense become a film director for a moment. When I chose to work with the camera after I got out of school, I did it for kind of semi-political reasons — just being another person using a medium that all Americans use but not in any kind of romantic, idealistic way. I try to suppress my romantic feelings about a certain period of photography, like the Constructivist stuff — I really like Rodchenko, for instance, and when I see the photographs of his apartment, I can’t help but feel this kind of lefty nostalgia for that period. And the photographs of his family or the pictures he took leaning out the window do summon up this sense of social purpose that you can’t help but be carried away by. By using a camera and playing the role of "photographer," one can interact with society in a direct way. When I got out of school in 1973, the only artists I saw doing this were the ones working with photographs. While I worked as an assistant to William Beckley, he built sets, purchased baked goods, got up at dawn to photograph a train trestle and really was out there in the world looking at things and interacting with them. This seemed far more interesting and vital than just the regular painterly activity — an engagement with real life.

tonkonow

There’s an enormous amount of ego involved in thinking one can use this medium to effect social change or to make a grand statement by placing oneself in the larger world but you’ve chosen to engage yourself in your world in a rather ego-less state.

maul

That’s difficult to react to in the sense that the camera and the whole practice of photography is a natural thing for the introvert.

There’s a kind of hierarchy of things that get photographed that’s quite interesting. If you look through any art magazine, museum exhibition or any kind of collection of photographs we can see this hierarchy of subject matter.

But I always thought of these things that weren’t photographed — the things we see between the things we see. My sitting here talking to you now is an important part of my day, but what I’m looking at is your bookcase, which is the way that people see things. Or I was looking at the painting before. The things that our eyesight encounters and records aren’t very important or sometimes very interesting to look at. Also my work can resemble the cuttings on the memory’s editing room floor where the big boffo scenes are put into the film and the kind of visual garbage is left on the floor and swept away. I’m interested in showing the outtakes — the "befores" and "afters."

Also, I like the things I photograph. Andy Warhol said that Pop Art is liking things and I think that artists who really like what they do produce very strong art. Mapplethorpe really liked black men. Warhol really liked old movie stars. Nan Goldin really likes drag queens and her milieu of friends.

tonkonow

Do you really like shower curtains, blank pieces of paper, and office interiors?

maul

Yeah, I do, only because I feel it’s my duty to give these things a kind of pictorial history they wouldn’t have. I’m putting one more link on the chain of their little pictorial histories by photographing them. I believe that they exist probably far better as photographs than the way they exist in the world. I’m giving them a shot, so to speak.

tonkonow

Sometimes when you photograph these things you actually photograph bits and pieces of them so that it’s not that easy to identify what the object is. Are you interested in formal issues of abstraction?

maul

Maybe as a kind of lure. I want to engage the viewer in a fairly serious way. I think the eighties produced a lot of one-look art that could be easily categorized and curated. I’d like to make the person looking at my photographs do a little work. I see my work as incomplete equations, "a + b = c," except that "b" is a blank and you have to provide something of yourself, to participate in it, and complete the equation between viewer and wall. I edit and crop in a certain way that can be read as abstraction and you don’t see this very much in the world of photography, but it’s a very common thing in cinema. For instance, last summer I saw this film on TV called The Thin Blue Line, which was about a murder in Texas. There was a key scene in the film where the policeman was shot sitting in his car, but because of financial restrictions, they could only afford to film brief, snapshot-like images. One never sees the splattery scene of the man being shot You see the dashboard, the overhead mirror, the heel of the policeman walking from the other side of the car. And the way it was edited was very close to what I do because it pictured around the event, as opposed to directly filming it. We have to construct what went on for ourselves — you see that in cinema much more. So I do feel that my work does that, I show you the tip of the iceberg and say, "Please complete this picture."

tonkonow

It’s interesting that you bring up film so much because one of the questions that I prepared for this interview was "Which is more important to you, books or the movies?" And now I don’t really have to ask you that question because I already know the answer.

maul

I think books are far more important, ultimately. I rarely go to the movies. I’ve been renting movies lately because I purchased a VCR, but I’m very uncomfortable in the movies and I really don’t like going to them. They’re certainly vampiric. Also, I get jealous since I produce about forty pictures a year and the filmmaker gets to produce about forty million. Last year I saw three Peter Greenaway films and was really troubled and impressed and that’s it for a while, except for My Own Private Idaho, which I have to see.

tonkonow

Why do you like to take pictures of books?

maul

I like to take pictures of flat things in general. When I photograph anything, I see it hanging in some room someplace and I see it as a flat thing in a frame that is a flat thing, hanging on a wall that is a flat thing. Books and stationary fit really well into this conveyor belt mentality of what will end up on a wall.

I see my work as existing someplace and people interacting with it — either having dinner or walking by it, something like that. I don’t include people in my work because I feel that the equation is finished as soon as someone is looking at the work. I think having a person in the photograph would date it and wouldn’t work although I tend to admire things with people. Photographing someone immediately involves you in this mechanism of loss.

tonkonow

If you avoid using people in your work because they would date it, then obviously you don’t want to locate your images in terms of a specific time.

maul

hat’s an interesting thing. When I decide to photograph something, I try to photograph something that has no moments in it. There’s no passage of time within it, there are no memories either. So, therefore, the person looking at the image is in a quandary as to what kind of emotion to apply to the picture and the resulting state is one of indecision and being fairly open to things. A lot of the information that a photograph normally would have, like a person, or some other detail that locates it to a specific place is absent from my pictures. My images are used up, exhausted in a sense. You have to end up making a lot of other decisions about where you are and what you’re seeing and this is the key to my work.

Duchamp referred to the Large Glass as a "hilarious" picture for years and years and no one knew really what this meant. But since the work was made out of glass and reflected people viewing it, Duchamp assumed that their reaction would be one of laughter because of the obscure imagery; how it looked would be hilarious to most people. He saw the work as this reflection of people giggling. I do see a finished picture on a wall and people looking at it and hopefully participating.

tonkonow

And giggling?

maul

Sometimes, or maybe just going, "Huh."

tonkonow

Do you mean "Huh?"or "Huh!"? Do you want to confound people or enlighten them?

maul

I think to confound is more important because then they’re open to other kinds of suggestions. An example of this was the Nauman installation at MOMA in which these bald heads were yelling at you. The night of the opening I was watching people standing in the room, not knowing where to go, what to do but just standing around stumped like rats in a maze. I know that Nauman and people of that generation read a lot of behavioral texts, which I read too when I was in art school. It informed body art tremendously and I think about that stuff more than the books on the recent postmodern list. I do really think about people’s behavior when they look at an art work — how much time they invest. I think a lot of it goes back to having been a guard at MOMA for about a year from the Summer of 1973 to the Spring of 1974 during the Duchamp show. It was an educational experience. I got really involved in watching people. Going into it I was this little art school snot and had no interest in certain rooms but they would put me in Monet’s Waterlillies, which was like a sensory deprivation tank. By the time I came out, everything looked fresh and I really started to like things like Mondrian and Brancusi — which I had no interest in a year before. Even in my show last summer at the Matrix Gallery at Berkeley, which is certainly a complicated piece of architecture, I tried to be as sympathetic with the way people moved and looked over those complicated ramps as I could. I think that goes back to my experience as a guard.

tonkonow

Earlier you mentioned that you see your photographs as clips from this very subjective documentary work in process. Are you the star of the film or do you equate yourself with the lens of the camera?

maul

The camera lens and the victim to a certain degree. Since childhood I haven’t really been sure who is in charge of our world particularly. Do we rub off on it or does it rub off on us? There was this kind of power struggle between myself and the objects I lived with and the places I lived in. Outside of my art production, something I always did was photograph things just for myself to keep.

tonkonow

Did you do that when you were a kid?

maul

Yes, but even now, when I travel, I always photograph my hotel room right away. Not for my work but just to make it mine and to have control of it — to show it who’s boss, so to speak. Whenever I visit my parents I usually take a photograph.

tonkonow

You never use those images in your work?

maul

No, I really don’t. It’s just kind of like using an air freshener, or something.

tonkonow

Do you have this large secret stash of pictures?

maul

Oh yeah. I have notebooks and boxes full of pictures of hotel rooms and various Thanksgiving afternoons in my parents’ den.

tonkonow

Are there ever any people in these pictures?

maul

No, because it’s a private act. For instance, last Thanksgiving I realized that the first thing I did when I entered my parents’ house was to take off my coat and go photograph my old bedroom. And then I had a cup of coffee.

tonkonow

What do you think about that?

maul

I’m too repressed to really confront it but, once again, it’s a power struggle between what’s past my skin and the internal me.

tonkonow

Your work has been involved with banality for such a long time. How did you move from the ultranormal to the paranormal?

maul

When I started thinking about this practice of mine a few years ago, it did contribute to my contacting a psychic for the purpose of producing a series of photographs. What attracts me to the paranormal, and also to UFO or Loch-Ness-type images, is that all the doubts that one normally suppresses with "normal" photographs are brought immediately to the forefront or surface with the paranormal, no matter how hokey. I was at a point, a few years ago, when I wanted to give up some control in what I photographed. It’s a desire, I think, of a lot of artists to have someone make decisions for them — like Warhol or a lot of contemporary artists now who poll their friends about what they should show. I did want to give up a measure of control and just be Tim Maul, cub reporter, at the heels of some guy saying, "Take a picture of this." So I wrote to this rather well known East Coast psychic and proposed this little project. He was a neighbor and seemed open to meeting and talking with me. This resulted in our going for many walks together. I assured him that the pictures wouldn’t end up in a coffee table book or be exhibited as a collaborative effort, which was his fear. They would be my pictures and that was fine with him as long as I didn’t use his name.

tonkonow

What happened on these walks?

maul

After we got comfortable with each other, he would point out areas and details of buildings and spaces that he felt contained certain vibes or traces of various emotional states, past and present. Some of these places were quite obvious choices for this kind of thing, like docks and alleys. Others were lobbies, sidewalks, and vacant lots. I took hundreds of pictures with him. He would point and I would photograph.

tonkonow

Was he hearing sounds emanating from those places?

maul

No, he would confront things and also get feelings about these places. He would ask me first what I felt and, honestly, I rarely felt anything except once, kind of. And I would take as general a Weegee kind of reportage picture as possible — nothing distorted or cropped in a way that would make it look eerie or weird. He would give me a brief tale of what may or may not have happened there. We did this over a two-month period — kind of an experiment in urban psychic archeology.

tonkonow

Unlike your other work, in which you always use color, these photographs are black and white.

maul

This was a big change for me because I wanted to produce a lot of pictures and didn’t know if this project would exist within the body of my work, whatever that is. And I wanted to look at them very quickly. Also I felt that black and white was something I’d always avoided because of its fine-art connotations. It’s interesting how the aggressive use of color on the part of "narrative artists" like William Beckley or James Collins served only to marginalize their work here in America during the late seventies. Typically, the photography world went crazy when, in the mid-seventies, Eggleston showed color prints at the Modern and this big controversy about color erupted. It’s still a hot potato.

tonkonow

How do you make decisions about scale?

maul

I usually make them by mimicking the scale of things that are important to me. My recent work is on a pretty human scale — thirty by forty inches — because it’s affordable. Early works by Jasper Johns are quite small. Vermeer is pretty small.

tonkonow

Who are your peers?

maul

Too many to name really. In the last couple of years I’ve met Beat Streuli in Dusseldorf and Willie Doherty in Londonderry, both of who have offered support and encouragement. Jennifer Bolande is a valued friend. One of Jennifer’s formative art experiences was seeing some Baldessaris in a Chicago museum when she was 15 or 16. She thought, "This is the kind of thing I want to do." The whole dilemma of art and the photograph never really occurred for her. I can remember being made fun of in an art criticism class at SVA for liking the same Baldessari’s. My teacher, an up-and-coming conceptual artist, dismissed them as "jokes for artists." Eighty-five percent of the class believed him.

 

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.