An Interview with Jonah Samson
Jonah Samson’s photographic series Pleasantville and Noir depict worlds which are nostalgic, charming, naughty, dark and funny. Having carved out a very particular sensibility which pervades his imagery, in a relatively short period of time, Jonah has exhibited his work internationally including in Berlin, Seattle, Istanbul, and at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and recently was awarded the 2012 grand prize for his Noir series at the Palm Springs Photo Festival. Resisting the moniker “photographer”, he spends considerable time constructing models prepared in painstaking detail which are then dramatically lit and shot from very specific angles to cinematic and surreal effect. With an ongoing interest in history, Jonah has also recently begun collaging and painting on prints of 19th century battle scenes – simultaneously glorifying and denouncing the violence depicted. Curious about his particular worldview which stands out in this city dominated by conceptual photography, we asked him a few questions about his process, interests and influences:
Here and Elsewhere: Your works start as intricate models but end up as photographs – can you describe your creative process?
Jonah Samson: Sometimes I will see an image in a film or a magazine, and it will trigger an idea. Sometimes I’ll come across an object in a shop or on eBay, and I’ll want to build a scene around it. And sometimes an idea will come out of nowhere and cause me to laugh. Ultimately I want to create work that is playful, dark, sexy and quirky. Crime scenes, porn sets, burlesque theatres and car crashes make great subject matter…..they’re narrative, they’re visually compelling, and they fit perfectly into my view of the world. Once I’ve decided on the image I want to create, I make an inventory of what needs to go into making the picture……cars, trees, buildings, clothes, etc. What do I have, what do I need to make, what do I need to buy? I usually plan several pictures ahead, so I’m pretty prepared when it comes to creating the set. Since the sets are built solely to be photographed, I need to have a pretty good idea of what I want the final image to look like before I start the process. Everything is built to look good from a very specific angle and to be lit in a very specific way. Large sections of my sets are left completely unfinished. Occasionally the sets end up looking quite beautiful as objects, but most of the time they are a mess. Because the final piece is actually a photograph, the models are disassembled and the pieces are reused after I’ve taken the picture.
H&E: When viewing your works in the Pleasantville series, one gets the distinct feeling we are interrupting a story, or seeing something that we shouldn’t be. Is this element of voyeurism important to your work?
JS: Absolutely! For me, one of the most enticing elements of photography is that it is fundamentally voyeuristic. Looking at someone else’s photographs is gaining access to a world through their eyes. And the human component of this has always been the most compelling for me. It is why there are human characters in most of my images. I want to create a sense of narrative. I want the pictures to represent a memorable moment from a vague story, or the strong flash of an almost forgotten memory. I think some of the strongest memories we have are from moments we weren’t ever intended to witness. Seeing something violent or naughty seems to get embedded in our brains.
H&E: The subject matter of much of your work includes quite blatant examples of sex and violence – but almost with a comical twist. How do you walk this fine line of depicting sexual and violent acts but in a way that is sometimes surreal, funny or campy?
JS: Because I use toy figures to act out my scenes, no matter how disturbing the situation, the images end up having an element of playfulness. I think this ends up being one of the biggest impacts of the images: a photograph of an actual murder or of real people having sex is going to illicit a very different response than a diorama of the same thing. I am fascinated by our culture’s attraction to sex and violence as entertainment – they’re in practically every movie, TV show and advertisement – yet they remain taboo subjects in many ways. I have always had a dark sense of beauty. One of the first photographers to have an emotional impact on me was Joel-Peter Witkin. He had created a world that was filled with medical anomalies, sexual deviants, severed limbs and death. I found them darkly fantastic and visually stunning. Because of his work I became interested in old medical and crime photography, and in strange tableaux of Peter Greenaway films. As I got older, I began to embrace the idea that art could be dark and serious, while still being quirky and whimsical. If you look at the work of Marcel Dzama or the films of John Waters, you realize that art can be playful and still be poignant.
HE: Your photographs have a fantastical, cinematic quality that is both very detailed and artificial – especially in the way they are staged and lit. Has film been an influence on your practice?
JS: I think the histories of photography and cinema have always been closely intertwined, especially when we look at the history of the “staged photograph”. The Vancouver School of photography, in particular, has strong roots in this genre thanks to Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Stan Douglas, but the effects of cinema have not been limited to Vancouver. Younger “art stars” like Alex Prager have been influenced other contemporary artists such as Gregory Crewdson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Cindy Sherman, who in turn were influenced by the staged photographs of Claude Cahun and other surrealist photographers taken in the early part of the 20th century. My images are much more clearly artificial, but I cannot deny these influences as well.
HE: You also create collages using historical photographs and drawings – mostly containing figures. What is interesting to you about the images you select as the foundation for your collages?
JS: I love portraits. For many years, I have been collecting portraits from all periods of photographic history – daguerreotypes, tintypes, cabinet cards, etc. I have discovered gems that could stand alongside Diane Arbus’ work. I take some of the portraits I collect and alter them with collage and painting. These modifications bring the historical images into my modern view of the world, which is often absurd, dark, whimsical, etc. I love how despite making them my own, the pieces retain their historical reference points. There is still a strong sense of another time and place. Maybe the work is slightly nostalgic, and maybe I’m one of those people who fantasize about what it would be like to live in a different time, and whether it might eliminate the anxiety of living in the present. I think this idea was so perfectly communicated in Woody Allen’s last film Midnight in Paris, in which the characters glamorize past times, but when they are transported to those past times, they encounter others who glamorize times even further in the past….and so on. In my most recent work, I’m painting and collaging over large prints of battle scenes from the latter part of the 19th century. For centuries the historical tradition of depicting battles in art was to glorify the victors. Two hundred years ago, Goya made his famous prints The Disasters of War, which broke from that tradition by depicting war as full of mutilation, torture, rape, etc. In my battle scene collages, I accentuate the atrocities of war, but temper them with a cartoonish comedy. As with my photos and paintings, it’s a way to deal with serious subjects in a whimsical way.
HE: Living and working in Vancouver, where there is a very specific and dominant conceptual bent to photography, do you find it difficult making the kind of work you do that is deliberately funny and naughty, qualities that are decidedly different from a lot of the institutionally sanctioned photography in this city? Or maybe it’s actually a liberating experience for you?
JS: I don’t like to think about art as being location-specific. I think art needs to find its own place in the world. I’m fascinated by sex and violence; these are global issues, not local ones. I don’t think it’s difficult for me to make the work I’m making, because I feel strongly about my process, my subjects, my reference points, etc. I do, however, think that it’s difficult in Vancouver to be taken seriously as an artist when your work is not “serious”. Conceptual art is rarely funny. And because of the stronghold conceptual art has on Vancouver, young artists and the city’s art enthusiasts continue to be exposed to conceptual work. My work has not been seen much in Vancouver. I have had much more success in the U.S. and in Europe. I hope that will change. It’s good to see work that finds inspiration in other traditions.
HE: Thanks so much for sharing those thoughts on your work, Jonah!