The following is an extended conversation between Dan Thawley of A Magazine and the artist Erik Madigan Heck, who is the Editor of Nomenus Quarterly. They discuss Heck’s working methods, his two most recent photographic series’ for Haider Ackermann and Undercover by Jun Takahashi, and his opinion on the state of fashion today.
In an exclusive collaboration, here are Erik’s never-before-seen photographs from the upcoming Nomenus Quarterly #10, released online on September 1st, 2010.
(This interview and gallery is presented in two parts. Click here for the Haider Ackermann article)
An interview with Erik Madigan Heck, part I : UNDERCOVER
DT: It is interesting to hear you speak about your work. I’ve read some transcripts from two lectures you gave, one in New York and one in Sao Paulo where you talk about your working methods and how you approach fashion. You seem to discuss fashion in a more considered, and conceptual manner. Is that right? You don’t view your fashion images as simply commercial or traditionally editorial, but you talk about them almost as fine-art projects. Can you elaborate on this?
EMH: Yes, that is correct. When I was in graduate school at Parsons I was always grappling with how to make my fashion work fit into an art context, or at least expand the vocabulary used to discuss my fashion photographs, mostly because at the time graduate school was concerned with teaching you how to verbally contextualize your work alongside your contemporaries. For the most part my professors dismissed fashion and fashion photography as a cheapened artistic practice that really didn’t have any relevance to the art world. I disagreed considerably, granted I was in an MFA program, not a fashion program, but I always felt that fashion could be discussed and considered with the same amount of thought and social depth as art photography is discussed in journals like Artforum. And I still feel that in reality both are the exact same, even if the intentions for fashion and art images are different. For both types of photographs are a catalyst to discuss something larger, whether it’s a portrait of a woman by Katie Grannan hung in Chelsea, or a portrait of Guinevere in a fashion spread, you can speak about both images in relation to feminism or the current role of women if you choose to take the conversation there. There is nothing inherent in the Katie Grannan photograph that makes the discourse different. It’s just that the art world enjoys intellectual discussion more so than the fashion world at this particular moment in time. However I actually think there is a lot more interesting things happening in the underground fashion scene now then there is in any gallery I’ve stepped into in the last couple years, and I say that after spending a lot of time in galleries in this city. Just look at someone like Carol Christian Poell and what he has done with fashion…
DT: Where does your work fit in to this?
EMH: My work is always changing, but I suppose I am an advocate of more considerate fashion photography, or at least fashion photography that can engage viewers outside of the very small industry that we work in. We have to keep in mind how small our industry really is, and how boring it can be if we just stick to glossy skin with standard fashion poses in a studio. I consider each project I take on and each issue I curate of Nomenus Quarterly with an extreme amount of thought now as time goes on. I have become very much about trying to subtly intertwine my imagery with literal historically relevant information and research, partly because I feel a responsibility to my audience and to the fashion designers whose work I’m documenting. Each project is now about how do I approach this particular fashion designer’s collection ontologically, rather than seasonally, and consciously negating what everyone else is doing around me. I have become very aware of how history affects the images that are being made now, and I try to bring attention to this by referencing specific moments in time with my work. I attempt to use the clothing to talk about things other than just the clothing- things that may be in the back of our minds that are ultimately more important than just a shirt or pair of pants.
But I would like to draw a distinction, because often time there is a misconception that my work is nostalgic, and it’s not about nostalgia at all. It’s definitely not about trying to make “old looking” images, its more complicated than that, and each project appears the way it does depends on a multitude of factors. For example the series I did this spring with Comme des Garcons was a very important project for me personally, because it was taking a brand we know very well and trying to make it face its own nationalistic identity. Comme des Garcons is the most iconic Japanese brand, but I’ve felt that it has always had an identity crisis in the sense that it desperately wants to be Western. It’s always photographed in a very Western manner, and its branding has always seemed a bit more British than Japanese in my opinion. So I thought I would reference the history of Japanese photography from the mid 19th century (when Dagguereotypes first made it to Japan) to create a time warp that most Westerners immediately associate with Japan as a nation. I wanted to make the most literal photographic references I could make in terms of recreating sets that were standard during the 1860s for Japanese portrait photography. We even flew in original objects and props from Japan to help with authenticity. I wanted people to be hit over the head with Comme des Garcons as being the most iconic and stereotypical brand to encapsulate Japan, by accessing the Japan that we all have seen in geography books: the bathing scenarios, the umbrellas, etc. I wanted Comme to be face to face with its history, and I felt the best way to reconcile this was by placing the current collection in this specific time capsule and see what happened. And I think it worked, it definitely put the images in a whole other world altogether- away from just fashion, and literally removed from photography’s inherent sense of depicting time as truth.
DT: That’s interesting that you talk about the altering or removing of time. That is a good tie in to the current project you just finished with another Japanese brand, Undercover by Jun Takahashi, which is a bit controversial. Can you explain the photographs and what you were trying to do with this project?
EMH: Certainly, like all projects the starting point was really studying Jun Takahashi’s oeuvre. I thought about what I could add to the conversation he began with Undercover some years ago. The most important thing I had to remind myself is that the history of Undercover as a brand lies in the street not in high fashion. Although he has crossed over here and there Undercover is considered to be higher end street fashion, especially with this current collection. For me its such an interesting brand because of this cross over from highbrow to street wear, mostly because the price is still extremely expensive. I immediately began thinking of what street culture means now, and specifically African-American street culture, being the origin for so many references in what we consider to be “street culture” that has made its way overseas. I thought, how I could dive into creating a series of images that can access some of the stereotypical psychological fears of the street, or touch upon some darker elements from the street that may or may not even exist anymore here in New York. Many would argue that street culture is dead. So I wanted to think about hip hop street culture as a romantic past notion and from the very stereotypical outsider or white upper class perspective.
I helps that I live in Harlem, the part of New York City that still has a stigma amongst most white middle and upper class people as being very dangerous because of its all black population. I’ve lived here for four years and have definitely watched south Harlem turn into an extension of the upper West side, that is to say, very safe and in the middle of gentrification. But when I tell people I live in Harlem they still kind of seem hesitant as if the projects are still burning, or teenagers are being shot dead in the streets, which I assure you is not the case. So I thought it would be interesting to create a series of photographs that depicted brutal murders in Harlem in the old newspaper style of documentary photographers like Weegee who almost strictly photographed murders throughout the 1940s and 50s. I wanted to give people a series of photographs that didn’t appear to be staged at first glance, but came across as real documents of violence. The series really became a personal comment on Harlem as a place now. Being the quintessential African American neighborhood for the US, I wanted to play up how the community is still perceived by white Americans in 2010. The truth is we might have voted for Obama, but many of us still wont cross 125th street at night out of fear that we’ll be harmed.
The danger with creating this series was that it’s very easy to immediately dismiss the images as naïve, or made purely for shock value. But I wanted to challenge people to really think about what they are looking at, because that’s what street culture does at its core and that’s what Jun Takahashi does with Undercover. The street as a metaphor brings an energy and thought process to a more or less commercialized culture, until the mainstream eventually appropriates it and in turn makes it commercial. Which is what happened to hip hop in the mid 90s by white suburban kids like myself, and what hipsters have done to New York in the last 5-10 years. I used to listen to Wu-Tang Clan in math class, while going to a top-notch private school. Its funny how fast street culture expands through a society, from the origin to the suburbs…
DT: Is this really the role of fashion though? To discuss political and social issues, or is fashion really just about clothing and style, and you are choosing to bring it to another place for your own personal reasons? You studied political science before getting your MFA, can your background have something to do with this desire to stimulate the mind first?
EMH: I absolutely feel that it is the role of fashion to not just create luxury goods but to help educate the populace through alternative thought, and I don’t think I am alone in sharing this opinion. Read any interview with Hussein Chalayan, or look at how LVMH is trying to attach itself to social institutions like the MoMA. My educational background undoubtedly comes forth into my image making, but I also think the fashion designers I choose to work with are also very overtly political in their work. Rei Kawakubo is arguably one of the most radical feminist designers we have seen since the 1980s, like Louis Bourgeois, altered the shape of the woman’s body. Ann Demeulemeester, who has become a dear friend of mine, is one of the smartest designers I have met by rejecting fashion altogether and creating her own insular world that is constantly evolving as our world does, but according to her own understanding of time. I think that we have reached a period where the element of money has become the central focus in fashion, and its very scary to me. Its scary to pick up a fashion magazine today and see a litany of thoughtless spreads created by photographers and stylists who aren’t truly realizing the power they have to make something thought provoking, and instead are imitating their surroundings. I think people should want to alter the norm, or want to make a statement of some sort, even if it is as simple as attempting to create the most beautiful image ever made- which in it self can be a very powerful political statement. Instead we discuss who is paying for the spread, and how to appease an advertiser who wants the same look as their competitor. And that is very frustrating.
DT: To play the devil’s advocate though, isn’t that what fashion is at its core? We’re in the business of selling a product.
EMH: Yes we are, and in Art it’s also about selling a product too. A painting or a sculpture are also commercial products, but there are ways to create that can stimulate minds and conversation, and there are ways to do it where we are just filling pages with catalog imagery and the latter is too often what we are settling with. There is inarguably an establishment of photographers and art directors accounting for 90 percent of what we consume visually in fashion today, we all know their names- they are celebrities. From them we see the same aesthetic formulas time after time: furthering this sort of inverted hipster-utopian American Apparel culture. They are essentially sending the message to emerging photographers that in order to be successful you have to find your recognizable formula and never stray from it. Just look at the obvious examples of Terry Richardson or Juergen Teller, I feel silly even bringing them up because its so mind numbing. It assumes people are stupid and by feeding them mindless snap shot imagery we can all be like the person in the photograph, or are on an equal playing field with the photographer. To take it one step further, the current mindset assumes photography itself is pretentious unless it’s immediately accessible with a point and shoot and a flash. My argument is that we are now perpetuating a culture where standards have become inverted, where serious artists are now looked at as pretentious, or worse, not even discussed. Instead street artists from the LES are put on the front of magazines around the world, and they aren’t Basquiat- or anywhere close. How is someone like Dash Snow immortalized by the fashion world, instead of an actual great artist like Gerhard Richter or Anselm Kiefer who have proven themselves over decades? Lastly, I don’t think it’s enough for those photographers who we do see publishing constantly in the magazines to become comfortable and formulaic in repeating the same image over and over until we can’t take it anymore. I speak for everyone when I say that if I see another 30 page Juergen Teller spread that looks exactly like everything else he has ever produced, I’m going to throw the towel in. The thing is I actually like some of his work. Juergen has produced some iconic images, but at this point you wonder if he is capable of doing anything interesting, or if we’re forever burdened with the same image….
Nomenus Quarterly #10 is launched online on September 1st, 2010. http://www.nomenusquarterly.com