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On Photographic Manipulators and Techno-gadgetry

On photographic manipulators, techno-gadgetry and endless choices – April Rapier and Roy Flukinger discuss a medium in constant transitionRoy and I met in 1984 at a regional SPE conference in Amarillo; I pushed my way to his highly sought-after review table, and we’ve been artistic co-dependents and friends ever since, and continue to co-author (from exhibition catalogs to fiction) and co-curate. For almost thirty years, our ideas and words have ignored territorial boundaries, collaboration trumping the vanity of singularity.

April Rapier:In this interview, we’ll discuss the porous borders of photography and core issues surrounding the medium–truth, irony, narrative power. Contemplating photography from its inception, how did the urge to alter come about?

Roy Flukinger: I often wonder if the photography gods intended it to be sacred and immutable or porous in the most inevitable sense. It has been in transition since the first photograph was made, ca. 1826, by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (the piece de resistanceof the Gernsheim Collection). Niépce experimented with original processes, decided upon heliography, and by factoring in technical considerations, brought to life the one best image representing nature. This has been the model/conundrum ever since.From birth, photography in the abstract intended to be purely representational, but when humans entered the equation, reality became once-removed. As processes and techniques pile up, endless choices offer vastly different approaches, purposes and challenges; results remain fundamentally the same. Experimentation and a wealth of technological variables distinguish one artist from another; the obstacle seems to be knowing when to stop. Despite intent, distinctions are all but meaningless.

AR: What good can come from manipulation for manipulation’s sake?

RF: If one considers where photography has been and where it’s headed, one must acknowledge all that has rubbed against it historically. As a medium in constant transition amid techno-gadgetry shifts, it must be witnessed as a continuum. Prior to the digital age, “serious” photographers immersed in one or another school of photographic thought; secondary considerations–surfaces, chemical alterations, vintage processes, emulsions­–even teachers became as important as subject matter. Photographers were philosophically manipulated into manipulating.

AR: We’ve anointed Niépce “first manipulator”; who has followed most honorably?

RF: Bart Parker and Rita DeWitt collaborate in every conceivable manner, manipulating each other’s physicality as much as any process. They fully recognize the significance of our vast technological arsenal, as well as maximize the impact of the written word in league with imagery.

Parker insinuates himself within the image so that it becomes his history. He overlays text onto image­, exclusively in-camera and in the darkroom, often consigning little lifetimes to grid or diptych. The resulting narrative is anything but an improvement on his experiences, for Parker is his own most elegant, mournful critic.

DeWitt, a true hoarder of visions and materials alike, uses photographs as a springboard. Drawing from a tremendous palette of technologies–wondrous color combinations–and an army of difficult and peculiar emotional back-stories, she neutralizes her topics by subliminally editorializing and inserting hidden meanings here and there. She dislikes secrets, yet knows their worth. One must interpret silence in order to mine and fathom Parker’s work. DeWitt’s, on the other hand, speaks loudly and steps on your foot.

AR: How about emotional manipulation?

RF: Barbara Crane remains, after a lifetime as educator and artist, more mystic visionary than anything else, so I’d nominate her.

From arcane to ordinary, her prolific and diverse subject matter is brought to life and transformed by extraordinary vision. From the small-scale series Tar Findings to her confounding, exquisite large or small versions of leaves, whether using the 20X24 Polaroid camera or making small ink jet prints, there exists within delightful multiplicity, the mark of a mad scientist who cannot be wrangled by mechanical constraints. Sequentially or alone, intimate or monument-scaled, her images are supremely musical, experientially and visually.

AR: It may be kerosene on fire to add intellectual manipulation to a convoluted tangent, but do you know the work of Robert Rodeck?

RF:Sure. He makes the ordinary beautiful by recreating reality to suit his surrealist ways. His seemingly-innocent yet subversive eye recruits alt-media to all but obscure origins. For example, the Quintana Rooseries (late 1970s) broke serious mixed media ground…

AR (interrupting as usual): Yes, photographs on watercolor paper that he marked with pastels and other media, rendering them infinitely removed from their origins. It’s fascinating to see how veracity exists within, a photograph buried beneath, and recognizing the “thingness of the things” (Rodeck’s term)–the beautiful essence–is the end run.

RF: At first glance, his glow-in-the-dark photographs pose more questions than answers–methodology in perfect union with desire. Dark-hearted and disquieting, implications are dire, so why are they so magnificent? Run one into a dark room and watch it come alive–you’re instantly filled with wonder, curiosity, terror and a strong desire to dive in and exist, if only for a moment, within.

AR: And his self-portraits?

RF:They are by far some of the most intriguing to date. Bearing in mind that if technique isn’t interesting to him, the medium holds little interest, he tied a camera with flash to the end of a long, heavy rope, somehow got it circling overhead in great tornadoing arcs, shutter randomly triggering–an inverse Bauhaus pendulum experiment. Something was risked in taking that picture.

AR: The most compelling images, while appearing photographic, could no more be real than photos of total darkness. Who’s a reigning king of tech-essence?
RF: Dan Burkholder plays such an important role in inventing cutting-edge technology and application. He embeds possibilities inherent to the electronic palate in his art; in doing so, he offers myriad possibilities to others.

AR: Contemporary photographers seem to value uniqueness at the expense of truth; work becomes more technique, less vision–

RF: While it seems that digital-age image-makers crave challenge more than their historical counterparts, rarely does art as significant as Burkholder’s result. From iPhone photographs to hard-core esoteric platinum on gold leaf prints, Burkholder documents without blinking, perhaps because he allows technology to lead and inspire, not overshadow him.

AR: You’ve been at this for a while. What part of your day is spent looking? What else occupies you?

RF: I mine the riches contained within the Ransom Center. Other tasks: seeing to the perpetuation and growth of the Photography Department, maintaining standards of collection development and research services and continuing to aid in publications, programming, exhibitions, fund-raising, acquisitions, teaching, lecturing, and academic excellence. Just finished an Arnold Newman book and I’m now immersed in our big Magnum show for next year. And you and I are working on a book and exhibition about Bart Parker.

Regarding discovery, there is no shortage of photographers finding their way to my door. I am intrigued and excited by work we add to the collection. Finding photographs and funds with which to collect and preserve them is both prime directive and challenge. I’m looking ahead with an eye to collect for the HRC: Abelardo Morell, Cori Pepelnjak, Ansen Seale, Carl Chiarenza, Shawn Records, Robert Rodeck, Pedro Meyer, Dave Anderson, Julie Blackmon, Eileen Kennedy, Susan Burnstine, and Christine Laptuta. When time comes to build upon a collection as historically and aesthetically significant as Gernsheim’s one must consider the artists and critical factors that have shaped and transformed the discipline. And, we should heed what Asimov warned: we must now take into account not only the world as it was but also the world as it will be.”

ROY FLUKINGER is Senior Research Curator of Photography and former Department Head and Senior Curator of Photography and Film at the Ransom Center, University of Texas, where he has served as a curator since 1977. He holds degrees from Tulane University and The University of Texas Austin, and has taught as Adjunct Lecturer or Assistant Professor at UT and other institutions. He has published and lectured extensively, and has produced nearly eighty exhibitions. He serves on numerous professional boards, consults with a variety of institutions, serves as juror and conducts peer reviews and evaluations for a number of professional and developmental organizations.

In 2012, Flukinger was awarded The CAA Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Award for Smaller Museums, Libraries, Collections, and Exhibitions for the book The Gernsheim Collection (The University of Texas Press & Ransom Center, 2012).

Upon receiving an MFA in, Photography from RISD in 1979, APRIL RAPIER embarked on an adventurous if non-conventional career. Rather than choose one discipline, it made more sense to her to combine sources of inspiration, including photography (and its permutations), writing, music and teaching, each informing the other.

As a founding member of Houston Center for Photography, Rapier had the honor of introducing Flukinger to HCP. Through the years, they have taken great delight in discovering emerging and working artists as a result of a strong connection to this stellar institution.