Brooklyn-based photographer Carl Gunhouse’s American Desire project is now on view at Arts & Sciences PROJECTS. Carl was recently interviewed about the series by photographer Phillip Pisciotta. The full interview is posted below. A PDF version is available here.
Originally from suburban New Jersey, Carl Gunhouse (b. 1976) completed his undergraduate studies in European History and Photography at Fordham University. He earned an MA in American History at Fordham, and later completed the MFA program in Photography at Yale University. Gunhouse lives in Brooklyn, and currently teaches photography at Montclair State University.
Phillip Pisciotta was born in 1970 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and currently lives and works in New York City. He received his BFA from the Maine College of Art in 2001 and his MFA in photography from Yale University in 2003. From 2003-2004 he worked as “collections photographer” at the Museum of Modern Art. In 2005 his photographs were included in the New Photography ‘05 exhibition at MoMA. In 2007 he was included in the Silverstein Photography Annual at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery. Pisciotta’s photographs are in a number of collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, The Yale Art Gallery, and the J.G.S Foundation collection. He is currently a visiting lecturer at Sarah Lawrence and Hunter College.
Phillip Pisciotta: Carl, when did you first become interested in photography?
Carl Gunhouse: My mother was an amateur photographer, and I remember as a kid we’d be at the zoo or some family outing and she would be sneaking a picture of some strangers and I would helpfully point out that we didn’t know those people. As I got older I got into punk rock and a very specific strain of it called Hardcore. It was a scene that existed because of fan participation. When only 50 people know your band exists, buying a demo really matters to the band’s continued existence. Hardcore meant a lot to me and I wanted to contribute. I remember feeling an obligation to do something, but I wasn’t musical, and I was a little too shy to be in a band. I remember feeling like maybe I could take pictures and put out a fanzine. By 16, I already felt comfortable enough with one of my mother’s old manual cameras to take pictures at shows, so she must have explained how the camera worked. And of course I took photography in high school and college and had Joe Lawton as a professor in college. He made me think photography was something I was good at and could possibly make a life out of it.
PP: What was it about the medium that captivated you?
CG: Again as a kid, my parents were very supportive of my sisters and me making stuff and being creative. I loved comic books and wanted to draw, but found it unendingly frustrating. During some embarrassing preteen years, I got obsessed with the Beatles and Bob Dylan and thought that maybe I could write poetry, and my mother would give me feedback and help me edit my poetry. She was unendingly proud of everything I wrote, but with the self consciousness of being a teenager, I stopped, and photography became this very accessible way of expressing myself, of doing something creative, that at the same time didn’t seem as self-indulgent and artsy as poetry. I’ve always been a collector, so collecting, stopping, organizing moments was very enjoyable. Especially in photographing hardcore shows, it was very appealing to me to be a dutiful recorder of the goings on.
PP: Both photography and writing are descriptive mediums. In your current exhibition American Desire, you wrote an essay to accompany your photographs. In general, what do photographs or pictures do that writing doesn’t? More specifically, for you, as an artist, do marrying photographs and words open up new possibilities? If so, what are they?
CG: I don’t think of it as opening up new possibilities as much as that writing is a way of clarifying the images. When I write an artist statement, I am usually just trying to express what ideally I hope people would get from the pictures if I weren’t there. Part of it is oddly aspirational, because you always end up writing on bodies of work before you are really done with them. In that sense, I’m trying to verbalize what I hope the work will turn out to be. Then when I get back to looking at the world and making work, that subconscious part of my brain that recognizes a photograph will be a little more focused.
PP: Two of our medium’s geniuses, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, described America in black and white, and, although Evans used a variety of different format cameras, in Frank’s case, he stuck to one, a small unobtrusive 35mm camera. Why, in your opinion, did Evans and Frank choose the format cameras they did? And, in the American Desire portfolio or work, why do you describe your vision of the US with a view camera and in color?
CG: I think Evans and Frank both used the camera that suited them. As you said, Evans used lots of cameras for American Photographs, but most of the people photographed in the book are taken with a 35mm. Evans also talked about getting so excited by pictures that he had a hard time focusing his camera, so I imagine the large format, which by nature makes you slow down to use it, was very helpful in that process. Artistically, I think there was a continuous effort on his part to make the pictures look authorless, and the large format camera does have a way of describing the world in a very precise, impersonal way. Frank, a generation removed, and certainly Tod Papageorge, would have a better answer than I to this question, but the 35mm is certainly a discreet camera, and for Frank, a kind of freaked-out Swiss guy in America, I imagine a smaller camera was preferable, especially in photographing strangers on the street. But it is also a camera that tends to see as a person would, not always parallel to the ground, capturing things quicker. It makes images that look like moments, and I think artistically Frank has an interest in making a more personal account of America than Evans does, and the camera suits it.
As for me, I came to the camera before the subject matter. Like Evans, I get really wound up and can become sloppy, so the 4x5 definitely slows me down and makes me think more about what I’m doing. The American Desire work happened very amorphously, and I’ve used my 35mm, my point-and-shoot, and a 6x7, but at the end of the day, I haven’t really been all that happy with the results and just feel more comfortable with the 4x5. As for color, the world is in color and it makes the picture that much more real and immediate, one less step removed from the world, and it’s my preference. I enjoy working with color, but every once in a while, I find myself looking at Ted Partin’s pictures and get very tempted to buy some Tri-X.
PP: Your pictures are taken throughout the U.S. Besides being a means to an end, how is the road, and or travel, important to your creative process?
CG: Well, as you said, it is a means to an end. America is out there, but I shoot around Brooklyn when I see something, and I’ve shot a lot along I-95 between here and Boston, where Christine, my significant other, lives, so I feel in a way that travel per se doesn’t play that much into it. I have definitely tried to avoid making work that looks like I am on a road trip. I’ve done my best not to photograph too many motels, roadside attractions, or highways. I’ve tried to make work that looks like America in general and not any one place in particular. I have to say, to my enjoyment, most places look a lot like New Jersey.
PP: Over the last five years, in the United States, how many road trips have you taken? Over that time period would you agree that your way of seeing, has changed? If so, how?
CG: Man, lots. About one or two a year when school is out. The first was from Boston, MA, to Nashville, TN. Since then, Christine and I have been to AL, AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, FL, GA, KY, LA, MA, MD, MS, NE, NH, NJ, NM, NV, NY, OH, PA, RI, TN, TX and UT, so more or less up and down the East Coast and across the southern part of the country.
I think what I am looking for has changed, mostly because once you get pictures back, you start getting a feel for what is working and what is not. And really, the American Desire work just kind of happened. Embarrassingly enough on the first road trip, I just took a point-and-shoot, because at the time I was taking pictures in the woods in NJ and didn’t think the road trip had anything to do with my work. But then it occurred to me that I could take pictures elsewhere that fit with what I was doing in NJ. Somewhere during all this, I met with Susan Kismaric at MoMA and she thought that somehow the NJ work in the woods should include more of suburbia. I had some stuff that was going that way and eventually I found I was taking pictures just of suburbia. This happened to coincide with the collapse of the housing market, so out of nowhere, the work felt like it was about more than just my personal experiences with suburbia; the pictures could be about what was going on in America. And honestly it took me a while to get over being embarrassed, to admit to people that I wanted to make work about America, because it has such a heavy photographic tradition and even as an endeavor it’s pretty grandiose. But I’ve got to say, the more I drove around, the more I enjoyed the work, and it felt like it could be something good.
PP: I’m really excited by the work that was chosen for the American Desire show, could you talk about your edit and that great picture of the lone house titled Development, Nashville, TN. Or the picture titled Street, Warrenton, VA?
CG: Well, not to break the fourth wall, but you were there when I took the picture in Warrenton, VA, and come to think of it, I don’t ever remember seeing what you took when we were there. I was hoping to print some stuff big, and the space at Arts & Sciences PROJECTS isn’t huge, so I had to try and get across in 5 pictures what I wanted the work to be about, and I think it does the job.
It starts with the Warrenton picture, which I thought was sad and empty, like a place where culture goes to die. But at the same time you could almost use the same image if taken on a sunny day as an advertisement for the development, so I liked that there is a certain openness to the picture.
And the development in Nashville is a little bit more of a bummer to me. I read this piece in The New Yorker about people who had bought into developments where after they moved in the builder ran out of money and abandoned the projects, so with an unfinished development like this, you can just imagine people buying in early. Nowadays, you need a huge leap of faith to believe that your neighborhood will eventually look like the development in Warrenton, VA. The incoming storm clouds in a very literal way set the mood.
I wanted to show the space between wanting stuff that we all kind of want, like families, money, and suburban homes, and where that has led young professionals with kids homesteading in unfinished planned communities.
PP: It is no secret that that the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been compared to the atrocities and absurdities of the Vietnam War. Also, it is no secret that the collapse of the American economy, and, as you write, the collapse of the American Dream, are attributed to the Bush administration. What is it like as a fellow American traveling around looking at and describing our country at a time post-9/11, post-Hurricane Katrina, post-BP oil spill, still at WAR, and deep in an economic crisis near that of the Great Depression?
CG: It’s weird. I am a pretty traditional Democrat, but I wasn’t looking to attack the Bush administration. I think I am much more interested in how the sausage is made. For instance, going to Galveston TX, Ron Paul’s home district, almost makes sense of his anti-government crusade. The whole place looks like an atomic bomb went off there in the 1930s, and they just started rebuilding. In many ways, it’s a place where government doesn’t seem to have worked too well. But yeah, I guess I am just curious about how America and politics work. I am not trying to be overtly political. Michael Frayn, who wrote the plays Democracy and Copenhagen, had a great line, “that when you think about it, it’s amazing that a couple million people can agree on anything.” What gets me going is that part of it, how we as a diverse country end up handling an economic downturn or more recently how we deal with cleaning up the BP oil spill or illegal immigration. As an artist, I am endlessly fascinated with how pictures deal with complex issues, like the collapse of the economy. Taking pictures of half-built developments is effective, but how do you get deeper into the issue? At a certain point without words it’s really hard to deal with the bundling and reselling of mortgages. But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it, that search to try and find images that articulate enough to deal with something that is very complex. Hopefully at times my pictures end up doing that.
PP: In The New Republic, Nov. 13 1976, p.25, Walker Evans stated that he wasn’t “a social protest artist.” What does that mean to you? Do you agree with his statement? If you do, how does his work avoid that trap?
CG: I think Evans was an angry Midwestern kid with a lot of suburban angst, and I think the Depression gave him a stage on which to play that out. I think he clearly is attacking the wealthy and the system that created the Depression, but I think his motives probably have as much to do with his parents getting divorced as they do with Hoover’s presidency. Qualifying art with protest certainly devalues the art part, so I can understand his desire to distance himself from it.
I like reading the paper. I like history. I like trying to understand current events. And the camera is a way for me to do it. Hopefully I can get across to others in an enjoyable way how I feel about what is going on, but protest seems to imply you are trying to change things, and driving around taking pictures and showing them to people, especially in an art context, seems like a pretty limited way to effect change. But I am a photographer, that’s what I do.