Sherwin Rivera Tibayan lives and works in Austin, Texas. His practice merges photography (or more commonly, notions of photography) with conceptual art. Tibayan’s projects focus on such works as Jeff Wall’s commonly-cited essay “Marks of Indifference,” and Robert Frank’s book, The Americans—the latter through an examination of the histogram data of each work presented in Frank’s publication. Tibayan took this seminal work and, using digital means, dissected and translated the overlooked components that went into Frank’s production. “The Histograms” won the Society for Photographic Education’s 2012 Award for Innovations in Imaging in Honor of Jeannie Pearce.
Lauren Fulton: We met in Chicago in May of last year during the installation of a show I organized for ACRE Projects, which included your work. You presented your series “Index,” literally an index of Susan Sontag’s classic book On Photography. Since we all know the function of a publication’s index I won’t describe it, but with this ongoing project you essentially explore and question what exactly defines historical importance and relevance. The index offers a concise, bird’s-eye view of this—the canon of the history of photography that we’ve been taught for decades, and it covers about a century’s worth of figures and work. One thing that interests me is your deliberate choice to remove the text from the publication format, instead presenting it (sometimes) framed and hung side by side on a wall.
For ACRE, you expanded “Index” beyond the original four pieces that have shown at various spaces, including The Reading Room in Dallas where I was first introduced to your work. This version features subject headings (China, Surrealism, Kodak, etc.). The project, like “The Histograms” and others, rids us of the common idea that photography only pertains to imagery, or image-making; instead you exploit the performative element that can be, and often is, involved in photography. For example, your process for “Marks of Indifference”–blacking out Wall’s essay you reproduced from the original catalogue, with a marker and recording the time it took to do so—is certainly a performance-based process. Would you mind talking about this and how it plays into you identifying as a photographer?
Sherwin Rivera Tibayan: I do identify myself as a photographer. Early on, picking up a camera felt like the most direct and meaningful way for me to respond to my frustrations, anxieties, and curiosities. It helped me think about how a device could frame who or what is included or excluded in the world. This simple physical reaction of picking up a camera has since grown into a fundamental part of how I understand photography. It’s probably too broad and nebulous a way of describing it, but photography largely serves as a term for me to identify those moments when I pay special attention to how the body—mine or a someone else’s—is permitted to move through and respond to something (physical, emotional, institutional, conceptual, etc.), with or without a camera.
This is certainly the case with “Marks of Indifference.” I wanted to find a way to act out the possible experiences of a reader trying to make sense of this influential text on photography. It seemed like my movement could be a way to record pathways of comprehension, bewilderment, and indifference. So, I marked through Wall’s text with a sharpie, blacking out his words as you mentioned, but equally important, simultaneously highlighting them. The glossy magazine paper, combined with the thinness of the sharpie application, allowed the text to remain completely legible upon closer inspection. In drawing closer to or moving away from the image, the reader’s own movements traverse this process of legibility and illegibility, comprehension and incomprehension. Additionally, each printed and marked spread of the essay is followed by a spread of white pages that record the sharpie marks bleeding through as line drawings—a personal effort at picturing a space for indifference.
This translation of complex text into simple line drawings is part of my long-standing preoccupation with reduction and repetition as strategies for turning photography and its complex histories into smaller, manageable situations. This was the same with “The Histograms” and “Index.” I worked on “The Histograms” because I was trying to understand exposure or, more accurately, the learned and inherited ideas of “correct” photographic exposure. Frank’s high contrast images became a funny way for me to see this problem—lyrical images reduced to blunt data—and provided me with new raw material: graphs that I could repeatedly arrange to form new pictures.
“Index” wasn’t even supposed to be a project. I return to On Photography again and again, so I simply wanted a way to find references quickly. I got the idea that I would just type it up into a document and that I could easily search for key words. I also believed typing and arranging an index would help me understand the work more thoroughly. That bright idea felt increasingly like lunacy as the document grew and I was spending too much time learning how to index a book! It only became a visual project when I asked myself if this index could exist away from the publication. This question opened me up to thinking about photography’s own historical conceptualization as an index. Making work for the wall and fundamentally changing the scale of the physical encounter was a first step at removing it from these bounds. I’m still playing with adding and subtracting formal elements, asking how a viewer might move around the works, and trying to leverage my subjectivity onto this seemingly objective structure. It’s also another way of returning to something I found so fascinating while making “Marks of Indifference”: searching for that moment when the reader of a book becomes the viewer of a picture.
LF: You are framing and re-framing images and content from the past that remains very important and relevant to this day. As an extension of that, I know that not long before conceiving the series “Best General View” you wrapped up a project called “Horror Vacui” in which you photographed billboards while traveling across the Southwest. The signage was blank and your photographs resemble Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Theaters.” With “Best General View” though, you weren’t manipulating the camera shutter to create this “blankness,” like Sugimoto, and were instead photographing boards lacking any content. This body of work sort of naturally led to “Best General View,” which began with thousands of slides purchased off eBay. After weeding through and shrinking down your selection, you projected these on to a space using a projector screen as a new framing mechanism, or maybe I would call it a disruption. The result mirrors Ken Josephson’s conceptual approach to his “Images Within Images,” which he began in the ’60s, and is very dramatic in its presentation. What is the background for these works?
SRT: I was certainly thinking about Sugimoto’s theaters when I was working on “Horror Vacui.” They are such meditative and beautiful works. Mark Klett’s rephotographic projects took on a similar role with “Best General View.” I wasn’t aware of Josephson’s really smart, playful images until after I had finished “Best General View,” and later realized I had known one of his photographs from the cover of Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs. Maybe it is one of those foundational images that just floats around in your head without an author, affecting things.
I think moments in a project when visual and conceptual affinities show up—for myself or the viewer—are really encouraging. Maybe that means I’m moving away from something limited and insular, like an internal monologue, and am contributing to a full-bodied conversation with a plurality of voices. I hope I give the viewer a picture with enough room to determine that my point isn’t to make pictures like other photographers, but rather that their pictures helped give me a more precise and shared language to address photography. It’s a medium that invokes a feeling and sensibility for space and history, but also reduces or confuses our potential for seeing and imagining those same things again, only differently.
“Horror Vacui” and “Best General View” were specific efforts in this regard. I was looking for a contemporary picture of the American West, or more accurately, trying to record the compulsion to repeatedly transform that overly mythologized place, and our experience of it, into an image. What desires and legacies were apparent in such a photograph? What structures and materials supported the way we see it? Especially in the case of “Best General View,” I wanted an opportunity to speculate on what might be hidden or obscured when we do eventually stand in one spot to take our photograph.
LF: Can you tell me about your choice of title, “Best General View?”
SRT: It’s a phrase I’d often seen as part of the titles to early survey photographs of the West. I was attracted to the confidence and definitiveness. Who gets to say that? What privileges go along with such a claim? Well, I wanted to say that too, but without the grandness. I began by removing the condition that in order to make a photograph of the West, I needed to go out into the world to get it. Instead, I bought this box of slides and had it delivered to my home, picked my favorites, cast them onto a wall with a projector placed at a height just a bit taller than me, stood in roughly one spot, and went on a trip with this anonymous photographer, sharing in the space of someone else’s photographs in order to make my own.