Monday, June 28, 2010

Q & A with Dalton Rooney

I chatted recently with Dalton Rooney about In the age of mechanic reproduction, his current series of images composited of photos found on Flickr.

B: Tell me how you got started on the composites.‬

D: It was all very spontaneous. I was looking through some 19th century photos of the west, and came across a great photo of Yosemite valley. The same one that Carleton Watkins took, but a year before. It was identically framed. I wondered how many people have taken that exact same picture before? So I went on to Flickr and did a search for Yosemite Valley. The sameness was awe inspiring.

The Valley, From Mariposa Trail, 1864, Charles Weed

Yosemite Valley, ca 1865, Carleton Watkins

B: So the Half Dome image was the first one?

D: Yeah, I spent maybe an hour searching Flickr for photos of Half Dome. I don't know exactly how I made the jump to compositing them... maybe I was just wondering how closely they would line up. But it ended up making a panorama view of the valley. I thought it was a pretty interesting effect.

Thirteen Views of Yosemite Valley, 2010, Dalton Rooney

B: The fact that someone preceded Watkins from the same spot raises questions about originality in photography, and I think your series really digs into that. All these images from the exact same spot posted on Flickr. It makes you wonder how to take any new picture. But by combining them maybe you have.

D: I actually have a nice print of that Watkins photo that I pulled off the Library of Congress website. When I realized that even he was copying previously known work... it was a pretty big surprise.

B: I just read an interview speculating that a lot of Muybridge's Yosemite shots were actually by Watkins and miscredited. So questions of originality and authorship have been around from early on.

D: I really liked that article! I'm reading a biography of Muybridge right now.

B: Was Watkins' photo noticeably better than the one taken a year before?

D: It's hard to tell because the earlier version by Charles Weed was not reproduced very well. But the Watkins version is phenomenal. He seemed to be pretty far ahead of most of the other guys in terms of technique and equipment.

B: What about the Rothko shot? What led you to that one?

Fifteen Paintings by Mark Rothko, 2010, Dalton Rooney

D: I don't know if everyone feels the same, but Rothko's work always felt like landscapes, in a way. The prominent horizon maybe. And I always had this feeling of liking Rothko in a very general way, but never looking closely enough to know the difference between two different pictures. I was a little less sure about doing the composites with the painters. The Flickr photos felt more natural. But I thought it was interesting, anyway. So the composite was just a "best general view" of a whole pile of Rothko paintings.

B: And the final result looks very much like a Rothko. I don't think there are too many painters for whom that would work.

D: Pollack, maybe? Some of the other abstract expressionists? But it gets away from the original intention, I think. I like the landscapes.
B: Getting back to process, how much tinkering do you do? Do you experiment with opacity and position? Do you weed a lot of images out?

 D: There's a‪ lot of tinkering. I go back and forth on the position and opacity of a single layer a bunch of times before being happy with it. But it all falls into place pretty quickly. Some of it depends on the source material, too. The barns came together really quickly. The Yosemite one took a bit longer.‬

Six red barns found on Flickr Explore, 2010, Dalton Rooney

B: Do you have some final goal in mind as you're working? For example the barns are much more abstract, whereas the Yosemite shot reflects a more uniform perspective. How did they end up that way?

 D: It all comes out of the source material - I don't know what's going to happen until I find a few images I like and start working with them in Photoshop. The images for the Yosemite and Grand Canyon composites were all from the same site and very nearly the same perspective, so it was easy to overlap them in a way that resembles the actual scene. With the red barns, I had material from a variety of different sources and just worked with it until I had something I liked. The source images for barn and the aurora borealis composites were all from different scenes, so once they were merged they became a completely invented landscape. I was free to put the mountains over here, move the trees to the foreground, add more stars to the sky. I like the idea of the series evolving over time so I will continue to play around with the format a bit.

B: It sounds like you came at this on your own. How do you think it relates to work by Penelope Umbrico or David Hockney collages? Were you thinking about them at all?

Place Furstenberg, Paris, 7,8 et 9 Août, 1985, David Hockney

D: Hockney is interesting - I definitely wasn't thinking about that at the time but looking back it makes sense. Umbrico definitely crossed my mind. Similar idea, but a very different execution, right? I've only seen one or two of her pieces. I haven't been too familiar with "appropriation art" before. It felt a little bit dirty.

B: Did you get any permission to use the original work?

D: No, definitely not. But I did go out of my way to make sure that no single photographer was overrepresented or any single photograph stood out too prominently. I think it falls pretty clearly under fair use. But I thought about how I would feel if someone did it with my photos. I decided I was OK with it.

B: Have you ever been to any of the vantage points in the photos? The Grand Canyon South Rim or Yosemite Valley, e.g.?

Best general view of the Grand Canyon, 2010, Dalton Rooney

D: When I was a kid I went to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, but it's been a really long time. I haven't seen a lot of those famous views. I am working on one of Niagara Falls, which I've seen more recently. But I've seen them so many times, I feel like I've been there, you know? Yellowstone? I would love to go there, but the pictures you see are all so familiar.

B: I think the familiarity is what makes them interesting. Grand Canyon, Half dome, sunsets. They're all postcard fodder, so to see them newly is pretty tough. But I think your collages do that.

D: I get really annoyed when I see 50 tourists looking out over the same view and taking the same picture. Why not just buy a postcard? But at the same time, I guess it gives a kind of connection to the scene? I used to do it before I started thinking about these things.

B: But that banality is exact thing you're playing on.

 D: Yes, it's definitely a commentary on that phenomenon.

Eleven images matching the search term "ocean sunset", 2010, Dalton Rooney

B: You say a tourist snapshot "gives a kind of connection to the scene". Part of what makes the the composites interesting for me is your disconnection from the scene. It's the opposite of the classic approach by say Watkins where you spend hours staking out a spot, and then the final photo has a direct tie to the location. For many people looking at Watkins the photo IS the location. So to use Flickr images at a computer with no onsite reference seems very different, and maybe representative of where one part of photography is at now. You're on a leading edge I think.

D: It's funny because most of my photography is very backwards looking, I think!

B: Well this all started looking backward to Watkins.

I'm guessing that at this point these images only exist on the web, which is sort of appropriate. But is the image quality good enough to make actual prints, if you wanted to?

D: I have done some test prints. The resolution is terrible, barely good enough for an 8x10. But I would like to make them bigger than that so I am playing around with pixelization, which works pretty well and takes the source material into account.

B: That would really press the issue of appropriation. What if you started selling prints for thousands of dollars and someone saw their own Flickr photo in one? Probably still fair use but with tension.

D: I am really unsure about selling the work. (Not that I sell much, anyway!) But I would love to make some big prints. A lot of the original photos were probably never printed in the first place. ‪Speaking of selling, did you see this?

300 x 404, Greg Allen

B: Yeah, I made reference to that picture in a blog post. I don't really get Prince in the first place.

D: Appropriation of appropriation of advertising. It boggles my mind. But the 20 x 200 print came out right after I posted the composites, so I followed it pretty closely.

B: The 20 x 200 print is very low-res but I assume it has sold some. So low-res isn't really a barrier.

D: Yeah, I like the visible pixelation. I was working on that before I saw the 20 x 200 edition, and I think it works. It is more of an ethical question.

Dalton Rooney's Flickr profile portrait

B: You said you felt "a little bit dirty" at first doing appropriated art. Do you still feel that way after completing a few?

D: Actually, I really enjoy doing them. I really like the way they came out and it's such a different way of working for me. That feeling of unease is more about sharing them, I guess. Appropriated art still seems like a hot-button issue, after all this time. Even I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

B: Can you expound on your series title: In the age of mechanical reproduction.

D: The title is borrowed from Walter Benjamin's essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin questioned the value of the original work of art in a time when infinite reproduction is possible. To extrapolate that to the Flickr age, there are very few original images, echoed back and forth over and over. Everyone has a camera, and knows what a picture is supposed to look like. The end result is a vast sea of sameness, the same picture taken again and again. The "mechanical" is the act of picture taking itself.

B: How important is the use of Flickr images, as opposed to using Googlesearch or some other stock shots? Some of the individual titles refer to Flickr and some don't. Was that intentional? Are you mixing high and low art, or commenting on Flickr, or what?

D: Flickr is by far the richest source of this kind of material. It's where I found everything except the paintings, and some of the astrophotography. The titles are somewhat random, but I think the Flickr site itself is an important part of the work. Flickr's "Interestingness" filter inspires this awful kind of homogeneity, just some of the tackiest photographs you've ever seen, and I chose to use that to a certain extent.

At the same time, I love Flickr. There are small subcultures that thrive on Flickr, and I have been part of the community and met great people there. But you really have to work for it.


mozda said...

Interesting work. I've seen similar work- the interpolation of many (i believe over a 100) pictures of pyramids, taj mahal and other similar major tourist locations and I can't find them now.. Not easy to google wanting to find a specific pyramids photo :)

Dalton said...

Mozda - You might be thinking of Corinne Vionnet. I had forgotten about her until you mentioned it:

The idea behind the work is very similar, even if the end result is somewhat different.

Upon further research I also discovered Idris Khan, who does similar things with the Becher's photographs.

Apparently there is software that will automatically do this for you now. You just enter a search term and it emails you with a link to the file. Here's an example for the Eiffel Tower:

Am I completely discredited now?

Blake Andrews said...

Wow, those pictures by Corinne Vionnet are great. Although as you point out it's a slightly different approach.

I like the work of Idris Kahn and coverpop composite (and also Doug Keyes in Seattle who has a similar style), but it seems easy to distinguish from Dalton Rooney since they are mostly layering rather than collaging. The collage version of coverpop seems pretty boring, sort of like those magic composite posters in a dorm room.

mozda said...

thanks a lot dalton!
i've been trying to find that stuff for ages to show to a friend.

i don't think your work is the same, it's more personal, and definitely more photographic or photographers' perhaps. you should definitely keep doing it, see where it leads, for whatever my opinion's worth

JN said...

This is my favorite. It's a composite of every clown in the International Clown Hall of Fame:

Unknown said...

Reminds me of Photosynth. A seven minute video that explains the technology, especially at 3 1/2 minutes into it.

Not my thing, but if you like it...