IVY Innovator Design Finalist Matthew Jensen isn’t sure he should be called a photographer—at least not in the traditional sense. He might prefer the term “explorer” or “collector.”
“I was having a lot of fun as a kid taking pictures of the landscape,” he says, “and then right on through undergraduate and grad school, I used the camera as an excuse to go exploring. Thinking about it and doing it more, I realized it was that exploration process—being there, being in places, thinking about them, collecting things, having a very multi-layered experience—that was why I did what did. Then, the final result would sometimes just be a picture.”
Matthew’s work questions what it means to be a photographer and considers how our new relationship with technology is changing the way we see the world. His series The 49 States, now a part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, uses Google Street View to capture 49 different landscapes, one from each of the United States before Hawaii’s inevitable addition to Google’s program.
His other work is equally evocative and has been featured in The New Yorker, WNYC, The New York Times, Phaidon.com, Whitewall Magazine online and The Hartford Courant.
Some say art is a conversation with an audience. How would you respond?
There are so many things that a person looking at a photograph doesn’t get. They don’t see what’s on the ground. They don’t understand the history behind that place. They don’t know what it’s like to be there. They can only imagine. So, if I can, in different ways bring that information into the piece, it kind of lets viewers have a little bit more fun and think about themselves a little bit more.
I don’t have some type of control or magic key or lots of money that let me do what I do; it’s just a way of thinking, a way of seeing. A lot of photography is about getting access to impossible or far-off places and advanced technology, but not my work. I always use very publicly-accessible technology and publicly-accessible places. Those two things allow people to get into the work in a different way, which I like.
You use technology to reinvent what it means to capture images. Can you talk about the process you go through in thinking about how you’re going to use technology?
In one chapter of my work called “Light and Landscape,” it’s all about making the technology in the landscape visible. When I’m in an airplane looking out the window taking photos, I try to be sure I have little bits of information that are actually refracted from the windows themselves.
In the case of these photos, the technology is the airplane and my camera, and the strange thing is that both technologies are providing me with access to places I could never otherwise go, like mountaintops and far distant lands. But at the same time, I’m not smelling it, breathing it—I’m not really there in the place.
These images are a whole meditation on this really weird phenomenon, which is seeing someplace, but not being there and what that does to the brain. Because of technology, we have this mitigated experience that we kind of know something about a place, and it’s official knowledge—it totally counts—but it’s not from being there. It’s sort of like, before you visit a place now, you can walk around on Google street view. And then when you actually get there, you remember seeing things.
“Because of technology, we have this mitigated experience that we kind of know something about a place, and it’s official knowledge—it totally counts—but it’s not from being there.”
Catherine Opie once said, “The biggest cliché in photography is sunrise and sunset,” and yet she photographs a lot of sunrises and sunsets. You do too. Can you talk about how you avoid cliché?
Cliché is a huge thing that I teach my students to avoid, unless they’re aware and can take over the conversation. So, yes, shooting sunrises and sunsets is cliché, but what’s interesting about the way I’m using the sun is that I’m not just shooting sunrises and sunsets, but into the sun itself.
The action of shooting into the sun and not losing your landscape is somewhat of a phenomenon of the digital age. It wasn’t until digital cameras could solve these problems of shooting into the sun that we could do it without just getting a black landscape. These Google images and these other images, I couldn’t have made them 30 years ago if I had a film camera. In the Google street view pictures, I was excited that I could see the landscape, while looking directly into the sun. This is a problem that technology has solved for photography.
What advice would you give to people for avoiding cliché in their photographs?
I tell people to do a little research before they start a work and get really personal and autobiographical and actually dig through historical documents and get to know as much about a subject before you start work on that subject. That helps instantly eradicate clichés.
All art is cliché. Just the simple action of it, thanks to Instagram, is cliché, so it’s hard to concern yourself with that. I tell my art students, as long as work is interesting and you’re making it, you can overcome the clichés later. I’ve never told a student his or her work is cliché. I might just push that person to become really aware of who else is doing similar work, so that he or she can extend the conversation further. You can make really, really abstract strange work, and it can still be cliché if it’s copy of something that already exists.
“The action of shooting into the sun and not losing your landscape is somewhat of a phenomenon of the digital age.”
You’re not on social media, which is a bit unusual for an artist these days. Can you talk about your decision not to be on social media?
I had to think about what I would lose if I gained a smartphone, and I realized the main thing I would lose is that feeling of being lost: going someplace, and knowing the sun’s beginning to set, and realizing you don’t know where you are or how you’re going to get to where you’re going. It’s that little bit of fear that makes an experience into an experience. But when you nix that, you end up in this strange, somewhat dangerous state of “everything’s going to be ok,” and a whole other series of problems can happen when you’re relying on a phone instead of your own ability to navigate the landscape.
Do you think apps like Instagram are changing the way people think about art or photography specifically?
In some ways, Instagram is getting a lot of people into photography, which is good. The only reason why photography is considered an art form at all is because so many people know how to do it. The more people know about photography and picture-taking, the more people like to go to photo shows or even try to understand it. So, it certainly has lot of plusses. I don’t really see too many minuses other than there being a huge divide between what you do and the reward you get for it.
It’s hard to live on “likes” alone unless you’re a Youtube star.
What basic advice would you give to amateur to photographers?
You really can’t obsess about how many likes you’re going to get on a picture. I would say, try to make a picture that gets zero likes. Try it. And if you can do it, then you’re probably doing something strange and interesting that nobody cares about, which maybe means you’re opening up a door.
People like what they’re familiar with, and they don’t like what they’re not familiar with. So, one of my goals is to try to make the most boring, beautiful photograph ever. I love boring pictures. If a picture is all zip-bang and perfect and jazzy and filtered and all these weird things, I have almost no interest in looking at it. But if I know that somebody has the state of mind to photograph something really, really subtle, then I like that.
“People like what they’re familiar with, and they don’t like what they’re not familiar with. So, one of my goals is to try to make the most boring, beautiful photograph ever.”
What advice do you have for artists?
I think a good thing for an artist to think about would be to imagine that things take time. One artwork will take about 5 years before it’s anywhere in the world. If you expect that instant feedback from Instagram to be anywhere close to real life, you’re not going to last long. You have to be able to do something in 2015 and realize that it’s not going to be until 2020 that anyone’s looking at it or caring about it.
Most importantly, you have to really like what you’re doing. There are so many things that are going to throw you off the boat, but the only thing that’s going to make you grab back onto the life raft is that you really like what you’re doing. And that’s easier said than done because a lot of people love to paint or take pictures, but as soon as they get beat up in the world or they realize this is costing them and not providing for them, they abandon ship.
You have to find something that is paying your psychic bills and not necessarily your financial bills. For me, it’s really, really important that I recognize that my process and everything I do is exactly the same thing I was doing when I was 9 years old playing in the woods behind my house. There’s this kind of organic development in my work that lets me regress every time I’m doing a project, as if I’m still 10 years old, playing in the woods.
You have to cultivate an obsession. And you have to feed it and realize it may not be logical.
What about time management?
When I graduated from undergrad, I didn’t move right into art. I was working in politics, so I got used to working 100 hours a week for almost no pay. If you can get used to working 100 hours a week for almost nothing, then you’re ready to be an artist because you have to be able to work 100 hours a week—50 for someone else and 50—for yourself) and then still not have money to pay the bills.
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