Paddle8 member gallery Thierry Goldberg is one of the galleries currently featured in our new May editorial project “In the Gallery | New York.” Hannah Whitaker’s The Use of Noise is currently on view at Thierry Goldberg Gallery until June 3rd. This is her first solo exhibition with the gallery and in this body of work she presents photographs shot in diverse geographical locales: near a Hawaiian volcano, in an ancient Greek marble quarry, and in her Brooklyn studio. We had the opportunity to chat with Whitaker about her approach to photography, painting, and more – read the interview below!
Paddle8: How do you “control” a light leak or an accident for that matter?
Hannah Whitaker: Many of the photographs involve various kinds of controlled experimentation, meaning I’ve set up some kind of structure within which something beyond my control would occur. For example, the laser drawings are long exposures that I made inside caves in Hawaii. I could control the general character of the drawings in some ways (as in loops vs. lines) but not with any precision. I couldn’t even figure out with certainty where the edges of the frame were. It was like drawing with your eyes closed. In some of the other photographs, l used unwieldy drippy materials, like chocolate sauce, egg, and ink. For the controlled light leaks, I shot a surface texture or a still life in my studio normally and then re-exposed the film using a handmade film slide with holes in it. The slide in the film holder is usually light tight. It is the thing that you have to remove when you make an exposure and reinsert when you take the film out of the camera. So the parts of these images that look like hot spots are areas of the film that were exposed directly to light, without the intervention of a camera or lens. But the rest of the image is a traditional photograph.
P8: Is there room for traditional color correction in your images or is it more of an interpretive process?
HW: People have assumed that these photographs are highly manipulated in Photoshop, which is not the case at all. They are printed digitally but I tried to more or less print them how they looked in the contact sheets. The process of color correcting obviously changes when you’re photographing colors and textures that are at some remove from our daily visual experience. There’s much more room for interpretation than say, correcting for skin tone. But at the same time, a photograph with a color cast (an unbalanced photograph) will suppress certain tones. So when you have a color-balanced image you have the most possible colors in that image. In that sense I did try to balance them. That said, it is a highly interpretive process. For example there’s a very yellow photograph in the show that I shot inside a lava tube. The yellow is from shooting close to a tungsten light that is installed in the tube so tourists can see it. Color film is balanced for daylight so it records tungsten light as extremely yellow—much more yellow that it looks with our eyes. Under different circumstances I may have tried to correct for this yellowness. But I wanted this photograph to be in dialogue with the other kinds of color shifting in the show so I left the yellow. Generally, I’m not overly concerned with reproducing realty. The long exposures don’t even have a real world referent in the traditional sense.
P8: Can you discuss the influence of painting in your work?
HW: With all the drips and paint-like materials in the show, these photographs have an obvious connection to painting—more so than other bodies of work of mine. Many of them are printed 40 x 50 inches large which is the biggest I’ve ever printed. I wanted them to be able to provide a physical encounter, a little like the way Jeff Wall wants his photographs to be able to have the presence on the wall that history painting would, except the corollary to these pictures would be more abstract. I was influenced by an exhibition at Alex Zachary with Anne Truitt and Hannah Wilke, which I found to be a brilliant and confounding pairing. The meaning generated in their union is complicated, untidy, and potentially contradictory. My aim is for the photographic juxtapositions that I make to have such richness. Anne Truitt’s work is resolutely formal and the Hannah Wilke photographs are the total opposite—expressive and performative. These are the poles between which I like to consider photography. Works by both artists were made in the same year, 1978, and I like the semi-arbitrariness of that linkage. This idea seems almost photographic, as in, just because two people happen to be in the same room they end up in the same photograph. The piece in my show called So Help Me Hannah is partly based off of those Hannah Wilke photographs, which have the same title. While I think a lot about non-photographers (Ellsworth Kelly, Vija Celmins) my life is very photo-centric. I shoot for magazines, I teach photography, and I hang out with a lot of photographers. I feel very invested in the medium. It’s very hard to take a great photograph and I think that’s a worthwhile challenge.
P8: Can you share with us an anecdote related to one of the images from the exhibition? (the 3 images we have are: Cave Drawing 1, 2012, So Help Me Hannah, 2011 and Parian Marble, 2011)
HW: Parian Marble I shot on the island of Paros in Greece. I was there for a wedding. I brought my 4×5 but found it very difficult to make interesting photographs in a place that looks like paradise. I became very interested in shooting in the ancient marble quarry there. It’s protected by an insufficient gate that is easily circumvented and a sad “Do not enter” sign that is roundly ignored. I got really excited by the idea that some of the tool marks in my photographs were potentially made thousands of years ago. The marble from this island was considered among the finest in all of ancient Greece and many of the most prized sculptures from antiquity, like the Venus de Milo, where made with it. The French reopened the quarry to get the marble that they constructed Napoleon’s tomb out of and the site has been inactive ever since. In the past year I’ve gone to see marble sculptures made from Parian marble in the Louvre and in the Met. I like thinking about this marble as comprising a kind of material diaspora. It all originated on this island and now can be found in museums all over the world, and in my studio where I keep the two chunks that I pocketed.