Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Q & A with Mark Peter Drolet

Mark Peter Drolet

Mark Peter Drolet is the founding editor of MPD. If you haven't yet explored the MPD Tumblr I suggest spending a bit of time there before reading this conversation.
BLAKE ANDREWS: You seem like you have a good handle on Tumblr. The amount you post is hard to keep up with. What is your daily process?
MARK PETER DROLET: I'm not entirely sure that I have a good "handle" on Tumblr because I honestly don't know how to situate myself within that matrix, or where I am even situated for that matter. In either case, it's definitely not what has shaped my approach and driven me by any means.
Let's break it down. Where do you find your images? Do you attempt to sequence them thematically?
The way I see it, I'm sort of on a trip. Like anyone else, I have decades of imagery cataloged in my head and on my book shelves. I was an art history/film studies graduate in Montreal and research and archiving was drilled into me early on. I enjoyed it, it fueled my interests, and the linkage that exists out there in all artistic disciplines fascinated me. So to your query about thematics, yes, there's no other real way that I approach any of this stuff. Decades worth of colors, themes, formal elements--they all get tossed into the mix.

I'm sure you can relate in regards to the unplanned and unexpected nature of street photography. I find that I'm in an evolving and ongoing state of research and the journey is just so great because I'm not necessarily looking for specific relationships but rather making them as I go along.
So you're saying that all of these images are actually ones you remember and hold in your head? I assumed you were using computer searches or Tumblr feeds for at least part of it.
As for source material, man, I don't even know where to start. Books were definitely where it started on this blog, hundred of archived scans and such. A virtual cornucopia of starting points. But I was never (and am still not) a fellow that reads a book from cover to cover. I'll be twenty pages in and lock in on a reference and then head to another book where there was one related bit that fascinated me and so forth and so forth. It's a bit of a lily pad jump from image to image and from day to day, and that follows through in the editing for this blog, which in so many ways is mental cataloging and me making sense of interesting relationships. Often they're formally based, pure visual connection, and often they're driven by a specific hue or mood like fog or the apex of a hilltop or whatever mundane element I'm working through.
I played around with a game of Google Image Telephone a while back but that was before I discovered yours or Wayne's Tumblrs. I think it's what you guys are doing in a way. And it's in a way that probably wasn't possible even 2 or 3 years ago. Digital archiving has opened up whole new worlds of mixing and sequencing photos.
The internet has no doubt opened the floodgates of possibilities, not only in the way that larger archives are presented by museums, galleries, and others, but perhaps more importantly for zines, young artists and the more "unpolished" photographers out there that in yesteryear might have struggled for a voice.
Were those initial book scans related to your work? Don't you research photos for book covers and such?
Well, while undertaking my Master's degree I started doing a load or archival research for professors and folks at the National Gallery of Canada" and photographers but I later took on being a freelance photographer concentrating on editorial work and some commercial stuff as the kids came about. I did shoot a lot of book cover work as well. Tumblr-esque possibilities for editing were something I did indeed do for my own stuff, and an approach that seemed to work for me in the way that it opened up a bunch of new possibilities for direction of the work and mostly personal stuff.
When did you start the Tumblr?
I believe it was in late-2010. August maybe?
OK, so you post an image. Then how do you find the next related one? Does it jar some memory of a past photo? Or do you just sift through feeds until something pops up?
Well, several ways I guess--and it's not like they're unique or anything. Again, much like yourself, I just have a visual language stored in the ol' data banks. Just like you might spot some fellow on the street who has that John Travolta-styled chin, and you make a genotypical relationship between the two, I'll drag an image into the forefront and often match it with something I know of (and hunt that image down) or with something I've already archived in my drafts that's waiting for a friend.

Some weeks I'll go into foraging mode and collate images and leave them in the margins until better/other images get discovered. It's like tossing up a stack of baseball cards and then enjoying re-shifting how they're ordered, where they're placed, and how they play off one another. I guess I'm looking for meaning, and it's been an educational little journey. I'm always aware that it's for myself primarily and if others truly latch on (and I've gotten enough feedback to know that indeed that's the case) then that's just good gravy.

Plus, much like it was when I got hold of my Hasselblad way back in the day, there's a built-in discipline with those relationships on Tumblr. Whereas with the square format you deal with an entirely different visual language, how you organize things and how you begin to interpret things, Tumblr equates that with the vertical nature of its distribution. It's a new discipline in some ways, and a bit foreign because it's all digital as well.
Tumblr can be a very ephemeral experience, at least for me. The vertical nature sort of feeds into the momentary quality. Things disappear down the scroll, and into oblivion? It's all about the current post, locked in the present. I'm wondering if you agree. And taking a step back how do you view your Tumblr from a more historic/archiving perspective? Does it have value to future researchers? Or as a whole? Or is it all about the next image?
I have definitely benefited from turning tons of folks on to new work, even more obscure works by artists they are accustomed with, and in that respect I feel a wee bit satisfied to make a small contribution to what on some days feels like a really vapid little website. Thinking of Joerg's recent "educational contribution" stance, I feel like I'm definitely reaching and challenging folks/followers and they're definitely letting me know, although it has never been my intent to post those exchanges, or turn the blog into a different type of photography forum.

As well, the numbers start to shape what's going on too, Blake. Not in the way that it dictates my choices, but more in the way that I am made conscious of people's expectations and intrigue.
Maybe I'm reading too much into this but I see some of that style sneaking into other platforms like books. The attention is as much on the sequencing and throwing expectations askew as it is on the photos. The current show at Blue Sky is WM Hunt's collection which is maybe organized along the same lines. It's called The Unseen Eye, and in some ways the show seems like a test of how far can Hunt can stretch that phrase and still capture dissimilar images.
In some ways, the way I treat my blog is equivalent to a French studio style hanging in a gallery. If you take the groupings in as bunches, I think there's some real meat there and ideally for me, that's where the gold is. Book form brings it more closely to the way that I've approached this style of editing with my own photographs--whether it be tacking them to a wall and shifting them around for weeks until you find the right fit, or grouping them in ways that were completely unintentional and looking for new meaning. There is often a tiny overlap between what I'm seeing and others are digesting and it's kind of important and exciting to try and discover where that overlap is. For me at least. The blog in many ways is a daily attempt at getting close to that puddle.

As I type this, just know that I'm grounded about what I'm doing and don't take claim for any outstanding originality or the like. It's a trip. A little visual journey with an audience.
There is a tension I think in presenting things on a Tumblr, knowing that they will again be thrown into a giant mixing bowl of other Tumblr feeds. So the images in your sequence might make sense there but many people might consume them just as singles amid a stream of other stuff. That's the nature of Tumblr. I think it's hard to maintain any integrity and maybe that's a good thing in some ways. The world is one big ipod shuffle now. But it gets back to the question of how you view MPD historically or as a whole. How do you?
On a good day I put forth the work in threads of narrative, but singles are no doubt plucked and have their own meaning. The stand alones no doubt stand alone, but those that benefit from a new narrative thread can be given new/alternate meaning and that's sort of neat.
They might wind up in Wayne's thread or Bryan's or who knows, and take on a whole new meaning. It sort of reinforces the idea of photos possessing only the meaning shown in the image. You can impose all of these narratives and guesses but in end any photo is just what's in the frame.
That being said, the integrity of meaning being hermetically enclosed inside the frames of the photograph and such, I find myself playing with how much I can stretch that. Pulling from the great sea that is the information highway and championing some gems in a new light is kind of a kick. I guess my angle has been to create a grab bag of tiny lyrical interludes for those that are faithful to the dribblings of what I post up. Kind of like wading in to the stream at a given point and following it along from there. I'm conscious that the entire thing can't be taken in as a true series, but I'm just trying to communicate with breadcrumbs and if you follow the trail hopefully it's a fruitful journey. I guess there's always that Abstract Expressionist trap where the meaning is so intrinsically tied to theory that you miss your audience entirely because they don't get it.
Tumblr doesn't feel like a classroom however, and I'm surely no teacher.
It is a bit like a classromm in that it's a very one directional platform compared to a blog or other social networks. There isn't as much interaction or comments, just the old model of an "expert" disseminating data. It's more megaphone than telephone. Or maybe it's a football field of people swapping megaphones.
Agreed, although if you're listening then hopefully that's a good thing for you because I'm using a thoughtful and decent toned voice.
What sort of feedback have you gotten?
Once I acknowledged that it was a bit meditative for me to work through these creatives I thought I might bail when it got exhausting and when the results seemed a tad empty. The funny thing is that it became a portal similar to that of real-life relationship building with a handful of peers and other photographers. I have met some interesting folks and have had some no doubt beneficial exchanges with those people behind the scenes--which is neat although not novel by any means--and I found that it differed from the feedback one gets at the end of their lengthy photo essay or more traditional blog entry (much like yours). It differed in the way that it became a lengthier conversation instead of an abbreviated " great work/great point, thanks for sharing, etc) type of feedback, although I'm sure your experience in that department hasn't been that dry. Again, the upswing has been somewhat limited.

I'm also intent on exposing the margins as I may have hinted at before. I've discovered so many artists on the fringes, part of tiny group shows, fresh out of school, or even embracing the old "screw you establishment motif" that several little upstart galleries and zines have taken to the internet for.
I don't think we really addressed the archiving question. Do you think your Tumblr or any Tumblr has a historic role as an archive or just as an art project? Or is it all just in the moment?
Tumblr has become as I believe you put it a while back "eyeball currency". People are still trying to figure out how to milk its possibilities and photographers, much like news agencies and others have been employing its pedestrian/democratic nature to their advantage. As for my blog, other than it being an ongoing stream of consciousness, I hope it can be an archival resource for others (and I get messages weekly that indeed it is for many out there). If that has historical significance in some small capacity than great, but to your question I guess that if I do not elevate it to another platform or have it take shape in some other form, it just might indeed have serious limitations. Some weeks my goal is simply to turn folks on to images they haven't been bombarded with on Tumblr or elsewhere and if their interest lies where mine often does, then those images become batons that lead them to discover new artists, new work, etc.

For it to have true impact, for there to be a historical hook, I think my blog or others out there need to have a more specific and opinionated voice attached to it. They need to be truly didactic rather than mere visual associations.
That feeds into my next question. You feature such a variety of photos on MPD that it's almost beyond any aesthetic. I wonder what type of photos you like best? What is your personal taste? Who are your favorite photographers?
Larry Towell and his book The World From My Front Porch. It was a gift from a neighbor when I was like ten, and it had a pretty big impact on me. The book itself was a great compilation of history, of tactile memories and family photos. Knowing what I know now about turning the camera on my family it's a bit overwhelming to see how genuine the feeling is and how thoughtful his approach was. The book and the rest of his career have concentrated on the notion of land, landlessness, how land defines you and what happens when you lose it and that path was what first clued me into the power of what the camera and the picture maker could accomplish.
Cool. I like his photos a lot. Don't see many Magnum guys showing family stuff.
Gabor Szilasi was also a professor of mine and influenced my eye to a great degree. The work was steeped in Quebec and the small town culture, but from a Hungarian's eye. Then there's all the regular players like the New Topographers, Meyerowitz, Shore, etc.
Sounds like you're into the classic stuff, the person wandering around with a camera finding things, rather than more conceptual po-mo shit.
Indeed, though as mentioned earlier, the internet has blown open the canon to incorporate a lot more young folks creating and we're blessed to see their experiments. Plus, I've assisted a whole range of guys and it's been fun to have a window into how those guys/gals operate within the industry mould.
I wonder if someone young can still make a name for themselves just going around finding scenes to shoot. To gain success nowadays usually requires some twist or angle. Which brings up the question addressed in recent posts by Colin and Joerg. What if anything do you think is new in photography?
I think editorial-styled storytelling has been impactful over the last few years. Work that starts, continues and trails about for a bit. Photographers that fly out somewhere on assignment and share their wares about the streets of Mumbai, the widow of some soldier in Germany, or whatever. These types of stories have been magnified in many respects over the last little while and seek out the masses that can now be reached more efficiently with the internet and such. They seem to have increased their share of the real estate in the photography world and sometimes bleed into the territory of fine art.

I guess I'm talking about photo essay type work, that shares a bit of that Magnum-styled journalism but doesn't necessarily need to be steeped in rigid narrative or come from a specific platform. Tumblr is a weird beast. It's sort of like a TV set that is on 24 hours a day and the content runs the gamut. Photographers that use it frequently have a self-promotional bend to their blogs, updating fans of their work, about upcoming projects, exhibitions, print sales, etc. It feels like a cork board of sorts, with snippets of what's new.
Hmm. I actually think the opposite is true, that the power of straight photojournalism has been somewhat diminished recently by democratization of photography with cameraphones, instagram, etc. I don't see as many straight up photodocumentary stories as I did a decade ago.
I just believe there are so many more of them and they have entered that social language in a more plentiful manner--albeit perhaps watered down when compared to the past.

When I was working in a healthy capacity in Toronto, the new waves of photographers were your all-in-one photographer/digital artist type folks, and they became a bit of a threat to how photographs were being made in that town. Their work, whether it was Matrix-styled green shifted crap or otherwise seemed to right the trend wave more than anything. The focus was on merging the painterly with the conceptual and a lot of that more "realistic" type stuff was relegated to the hobbyist ranks. But that's just the environment that I was working in at the time. When we moved to Texas, the vibe I got was one of a much larger market, and as a tie-in to what I was mentioning earlier, it just seemed that there was a much looser scene happening on the West Coast, mixed in with the more serious culture-pushing stuff.
I think the major trend is to avoid trends. It gets tiring. I know my own photos are probably derivative of those who've come before. But it's just how I see. I can't consciously uproot and follow some other anti-trend.
Dude I'm with you but hang in there--our style of work will be retro again soon. Don't toss your negative binders son.
So just keep making work and wait for the occasional 1 year periods every generation or so when it's fashionable.
You know, one thing that we can say is "newish" in photography is that a whole host of work never really makes it beyond the digital realm. I was reminded of this when a friend came by and I gifted him a print and his reply was: " It's always nice to see work move from a screen to a wall", and I just realized how that it often not the case. The images sort of live out there in the ephemeral universe.
Tom Griggs made that point about Instagram but surprisingly it didn't really go viral. All the Instagram stuff is aimed, perhaps for the first time ever, at the screen as final result. No print needed. Which has been happening for a while but now is finally fully shifted.
Photographic production in that sense often lacks a visceral component--at all stages of production. Notwithstanding the actual camera of course.
Communication has already made the leap completely. You don't print out emails. This conversation will never be printed.
How about signatures? They're gone.
Let's extend the question to Tumblr. What if anything is new about Tumblr?
I think the very nature of Tumblr's sharing platform is definitely shaping and influencing how and what people choose to post and/or highlight--in part because they surely become aware that their own posting habits have elements and the images/text/etc. have a distinct voice. To that point, the sum of their efforts (whether 1. actively seeking out goods and combing archives or websites like myself, 2. passively liking and reflagging posts and tossing them back into the Tumblr universe) creates a language of sorts that will be shared by several other folks in no doubt very different ways.

So on the one hand you might go into curating and editing with specific delivery and intended meaning and that gets completely blown up the minute someone extracts it from the flow of imagery you might have created--and that's pretty neat. In some ways this speaks directly to what you had mentioned about the power of series vs singles and how that all goes down. There's no doubt that certain singles stand on their own as all-around intriguing and kick ass compositions, but the attachment that is made between multiples also makes for often insightful observations, some of which might stick with the viewers or not.

Tumblr seems to be, by the very nature of its all-inclusiveness, able to champion the everyday and bring it to the forefront. So much of the photography that splashes across the dashboard comes from the fringes and from the unpolished halls of day-to-day people's hard drives and cameras. In the plenty arises something cool. I believe that writers and photographers that produce in an industry capacity enjoy having the ability to extend some tentacles on here and have it be some good ongoing discourse (and I've been told so by both) Website like Tim Barber's tiny vices site or even Jake Stangel's Too Much Chocolate come to mind in that respect because they became mini-promo forums for artists spearheaded by artists and in a lot of ways that is what Tumblr can sort of reflect for photographers from time to time--a sense of community. Listen, I'm not floating around with my Birkenstocks and talking free love here, but the ability to pit stop and network for these people is a strengthening and highly supportive little deal. The cross-influence that's been taking place with shooter's works is also sort of interesting. 

It's also free promo, there's sometimes bizarre camaraderie but in the end it's the place where most photographers congregate these days--at least those that are shooting a lot of editorial work and combining travel and personal projects in their portfolios.

In terms of what I'm doing week in and week out, I'd say it's a healthy blend. To not observe or obey the fact that many of my posts are linked is not to be read as missing out on anything. It's not always a rolling thread of narrative. I'll be honest that I do take pride in the fact that this evolving collection has in many respects come to be an archive of sorts, a deepening well of resource for a bunch of the teeming masses that turn to Tumblr for eye candy or conversations every day. My feeling is that on a good day I'll unearth a bunch of golden nuggets, many that have been seldom seen--even by the seasoned photography connoisseur.

There's no doubt that on some days that's what fuels me--the fact that I know I'm bringing something somewhat original to the massive pool of curation that we see here month in and month out. Don't get me wrong, I like and post some recognizable imagery, a bunch of the old school stuff that no doubt baptized my ongoing love for photography. If I'm lucky though, digging around sometimes feels like finding a fellow's old suitcase packed with some random personal belongings, and just making up and building up whatever kind of person he was or life he may have led.

All in all, it's making a contribution like any other contribution, with the knowledge that people are going to twist and shuffle and deconstruct the content like a Rubik's cube. Different combinations, start, stop, repeat. Sort of like bona fide Tumblr agency where to be a wizard you need only to be online.

1 comment:

j.e. gomez said...

Very nice Q&A, thank you.