I am sitting in Toronto artist Steven Beckly’s light-filled studio surrounded by the work he lives with like I have many times before. Only this time, I get to ask him about them and his broader practice. In May of 2017, I saw an image of two arms linking on a giant billboard in my neighbourhood. It was by Steven as part of the CONTACT photography festival and was immediately invested in his work. A couple of months later, I went to the Toronto Art Book Fair at Artscape Youngplace and met him for the first time. I told him I loved that image and picked up a couple of issues of his unbound zines. He asked if he could photograph me so I left him my contact information. We quickly became close friends and he has since become a mentor to me.
Steven’s work carefully straddles various forms, including photographs, artist books, sculptures, and installations. He is interested in the paradoxical nature of love and desire, of light and darkness. We discussed his relationship to research, place, the three dimensional quality of his photographs, and his sensitive methodology to presenting images. We also talk about the differences in presenting work within the public realm, gallery spaces, as well as how his images are encountered in books and zines. Steven has a unique perspective towards light and time, two of the most intimate qualities of the photographic medium. Please read our conversation below.
When I talk about love and intimacy in a public context, I think about community, about the interconnectedness between the individual and the collective, between urban life and nature [...] What I’m ultimately interested in with my practice is cultivating a wider definition of love as well as cultivating action, practicing love.
To start, I know you didn’t do an undergrad in the arts, but you received an MFA in studio arts at Guelph. How did you first come into contact with photography, and did your Bachelor of Science influence your work?
I guess I kind of stumbled into art. My undergraduate background is in Psychology; it was largely a research-based degree to get you ready for your Ph.D. In my thesis year, I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted for my future, so after I graduated from the University of Toronto I had to do a lot of thinking about what was next. And I guess artists came up in that search.
Were you making work during your undergrad?
Not really, but shortly after I graduated I met my partner Dylan. Art wasn’t really in the picture until he came along. It was a new relationship and it was around this time that I started to explore photography. It was a way for me/us to explore the shaky grounds of the new love that we were experiencing.
When I eventually went to Guelph for grad school, it was the first time I was exposed to an arts education. Up until that point, I didn’t know what happened in a critique or a studio visit. That was all new. At the time, I felt like my background in Psychology was a disadvantage, like I had a lot of catching up to do; it was an insecurity I sort of carried with me for a long time, but, with the help of my classmates and faculty, I eventually discovered that my unique background was actually an advantage. It provided me with a perspective that was different from everybody else’s. It’s only recently that I’m looking back at that part of my life, not as something less-than. It’s about owning all the parts of yourself I think.
With my new work, I’m going back to research and I’m looking into the worlds of science, of nature, of engineering and architecture, for insights outside of visual arts or fine arts. This is just a long way of saying that what I regarded as a weakness or as something that prevented me from becoming an artist is actually something that I’m cultivating now. It feels sort of “full circle-y” but in a way, I think these parts of my identity have always been there. When I start a new body of work, the research process is so important to me as a way of grounding the artistic process in some kind of shared knowledge in order to ask more questions.
Did you find yourself researching new projects during your MFA or consider that how thinking within a research framework could make your work stronger during that time?
My MFA research was related to folding. I became interested in folding because, in the studio, I was folding my photographs in various, three-dimensional ways to think about the body as a space where intimacy unfolds. I discovered that folds are all around us; nature is full of them. Our bodies are a result of DNA folding in complex ways. From the site of the body, I started to think about folding in cosmic terms and folding as a metaphor to think about intimacy across space and time.
The program at Guelph stressed the importance of grounding your work within the greater arts discourse and identifying where you fit in within the greater conversation. I realized that that’s what I was doing all along; it felt like a natural thing for me to ask the big questions, but also wonder “where do I belong in all of this?” and “what can I learn from other people who are asking the same questions?” Not just artists, but other people in other fields; what can I learn from their perspectives?
Was Reunions the only project where you worked with found imagery?
Yes, Reunions was the first and last time I used found images. Over the years, I accumulated a large collection of black-and-white portraits from various time periods. Mostly of same-sex pairs, some groups, but for the most part the nature of their relationships are ambiguous. For example, it’s difficult to distinguish whether these individuals were family members, close friends or lovers. This ambiguity really struck me. I was curious about how different intimacies were performed for the camera and how those dynamics appeared in photographs of the past.
This project sticks out to me because I feel like there was a clear beginning and end to it, I knew when to stop. With my other work, like the photographs that I create with my camera, I don’t see as having a beginning or an end. For me, working with found images was a way to learn the language of photography and how others composed images of intimacy, which is what I do now, through my own camera and with my own voice.
I think there are myths that are dangerous, that don’t reflect our current culture and that we need to change. The myth that vulnerability is weakness, for example.
I was going to ask if you see yourself collecting moments of intimacy in your own photography. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
It’s hard to describe exactly what it is I’m looking for when I’m photographing, so it’s interesting for me to hear how other people describe my work. It often centres on light. There’s an immediate relationship between light and photography, obviously. I think light is a subject that I keep coming back to not only because it’s deeply complex as an optical phenomenon, but also because I appreciate its poetic and metaphoric values. I like that it’s a paradox and how you can’t really talk about light without talking about the dark. The relationship between light and shadow is an intimate one. I don’t see them as opposites insofar as I see good and evil as opposites; they’re two sides of the same coin and we possess both within us.
I also appreciate how light stimulates the surface; when we feel like the sunlight on our skin, we feel the warmth of light. But light can also penetrate the surface; it can mutate cells and cause cancer, so you cannot talk about light without talking about the darker sides to life. So for me, light/dark is a subject that is by definition a paradox, and I’m attracted to paradoxes.
Do you see yourself as just looking at a light while you photograph or are you thinking about light’s connection to other subject matter?
Well, I think of light as a source of connection when I’m shooting. What I’m looking for are ways to connect to whatever it is I’m looking at. Whether I’m making a portrait of someone I know intimately, whether I’m photographing a plant, a place, or graffiti on the side of a building, I’m looking for ways to connect to them, to learning something new, or maybe to see them in a new light.
I think we can cultivate the power of first sight even with familiar things. For example, I have a perception of who you are based on what I personally know about Ethan Murphy. This dynamic in which you’re asking me questions about my work and I’m answering them is new for both of us. You’re also looking very different to me. This newness that I’m feeling renders you, someone, that I think I know pretty well, suddenly into a mystery. I see you with new eyes. This mystery is crucial not only in relationships but also in art-making.
How does place affect your work, making work in Toronto versus making work elsewhere? How important are residencies to you and how do they influence the work you make?
I think my environment definitely shapes what I’m looking at and what I’m photographing. I bring my camera everywhere, so I’m shooting wherever I am in the world. When you travel, you can easily take on a different perspective or you’re more open to your perspectives shifting. One of my favourite books is Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. In the book, she writes, “When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist.” So this idea that, when you travel your identity becomes more open-ended, which better allows you to change and witness change. This is so important for the artistic process. So while I mostly photograph in Toronto, I do need to get away every now and then. For example, I have such fond memories of the images I made while I was in Mexico City; they take me back to how I felt when I was there.
Toronto has changed a lot over the years. Sometimes, it can be challenging because it’s a place I’m very familiar with, so the challenge is trying to find new ways of seeing my surroundings. It’s almost as if I have to look harder and try harder to shoot when I’m here, because I kind of take it for granted, you know? I think I’m a photographer because it allows me to take on this kind of ever-changing perspective in the way that a camera lens can zoom in and out. When I look through my camera, there’s enough space and distance to see things differently, so it can often feel like I’m traveling even when I’m not.
You’ve participated in a number of residencies. How do they influence your work or the way you think about photography and what you do as an artist?
It depends on the residency. I’ve done remote residencies in which I had a lot of alone time and freedom to do whatever I wanted. And I’ve done residencies that were embedded in urban cities, where there were opportunities to engage with an existing community. For example, a few years ago, I lived in Philly while I was in residence at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. I really enjoyed it because I got a lot of different things out of it. I made a lot of new work and I learned a lot of technical skills in relation to printing that I was able to take home with me. I taught a workshop and got to engage with a lot of young photographers from PPAC’s youth program. I really appreciated the multiple ways I got to connect with the arts community there. I think about them quite often.
One of the things that I love about your work is what you do with the photograph and its presentation. When did you feel that you wanted to move beyond a two-dimensional surface?
When I started exhibiting my work, the practical question was “how do I present my images?” Like most new artists, I didn’t have a lot of money for framing, so I started to turn towards other, more affordable ways of installing my work. That led to a bigger exploration with installation and going beyond the picture frame. So part of the answer is economics.
Over the years, installation has grown into something that has allowed me to consider photographs as three-dimensional things that exist in space and over time. I feel like what I’m predominantly doing as an artist is to create environments for my photographs to exist as they are. For example, acknowledging that a photograph will bend and warp with the humidity, that a translucent image reflects light and shadows beyond the surface. I don’t want to hide these things from the viewer.
What’s the title of the reflective piece?
It’s called Glam Rock. So I guess the second half of my answer is the link between materiality and sensuality. Installation helps me to see this connection. How do these material photographs evoke a sense of touch, of intimacy, of sexuality? For me, this is very difficult to do when you put them in frames.
Did you find you liked the process of thinking about the photograph that way? Was it a research process in the same way you had researched concepts or was it more experiential?
It was completely tactile at the beginning, meaning that the research was in the process of touching and getting to know the different types of paper I was working with. The best kind of learning is through trial and error, I think. When I’m working with a new material, I don’t necessarily know how it’s going to behave. For example, how much ink is on the paper, its scale and weight; all of those things affect the photograph’s form. Then, there are environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and the air current in the room. When I consider this interplay between paper and its environment, I see paper as alive. In my studio, when I see a photograph bend differently from the rest, I think of it as misbehaving. And I like thinking of my images as mischievous in that they don’t behave how you expect photographs to behave.
What was the first piece that pushed you away from a flat photograph? What was one of the earliest works that you were trying something and you thought that’s what you wanted to pursue?
This piece is called Crop Window and it’s probably my favourite piece from grad school. When I print my images, I usually trim off the white borders because I prefer my images to be full bleed. But when I made Crop Window, I became interested in the margins and the borders of a photograph as a kind of hidden territory. I was curious about what information I could learn from the borders that I could not learn from the image itself. Could the stuff you cut off actually be valuable?
At that time, I was reading a lot of bell hooks and her idea about the margins being a place of power that one chooses to operate from really resonated with me. When recalling her childhood as a black girl growing up in a small Kentucky town, she remembers how the railroad tracks were a daily reminder of her marginality. Across the tracks, people from her community could go work as maids, janitors, and prostitutes but they could not live there, they still had to leave the centre and return to the other side of the tracks. This way of living and moving between margin and centre gave them a perspective that is needed for revolution, for real change. Being able to see things from the outside in and the inside out, and understanding that they were necessary, vital parts of the whole. This knowledge helped her to survive. The big insight I get from her work is that marginalized folks who can cultivate the ability to move between margin and centre have a profound edge. However, this doesn’t mean that in our movement, we won’t be confronted by oppressive boundaries or that there isn’t a privilege that comes along with the ability to move between worlds.
I think Crop Window came about at the beginning of a material exploration. I wanted to see how the borders would drape with gravity, which I’m sure was influenced by what I was reading. Who’s to say if I would’ve made this piece if I wasn’t reading bell hooks? So when I talk about research, it’s not something that happens before I enter the studio, it’s happening at the same time as the art-making.
What is the difference between showing public art and showing in a gallery space?
This issue of space I find interesting because spaces are rarely neutral. Spaces are pretty loaded. They carry our histories, and they carry our pain and traumas, as well as our aspirations. When I work with a particular space I think about what pieces will contribute to a conversation with that space, so research becomes a big part of the process, especially if I’m working with a public site, to really understand its history. That hugely influences what I make for that site and I would say the same thing for a conventional gallery situation.
No two galleries are the same; the architecture of each differs from the next. So in those environments, I often try to find unique characteristics, whether it’s a door, an electrical panel, a window, or whatever aspects of the site that I think are unique and worth paying attention to. I find those moments rewarding because it allows me to think about space in a more personal way. I also find it challenging because it requires you to embrace the unknown. But I like having the unknown there; it keeps me on my toes.
Do you think the gallery space is less limiting and allows you to move beyond two dimensions more easily than public space?
It depends on the space and the people I’m working with. I think the gallery world and the public domain are very different systems. The dynamics are different, the politics are different, the people involved are different, and so they’re just different. I try to identify the parameters I’m working with and go from there. I’m still learning how to navigate these different worlds. I think trust is key. I’m lucky to show with a gallery who trusts me and allows me to take risks. So when I’m working on a show at Daniel [Faria]’s gallery, I know that I’ll have tremendous freedom and support in that space. Museums are different because they’re public institutions, so there’s usually more people involved. You’re working with a curator or a team of curators, for example, and dealing with public funding, so it’s very different.
What I’m enjoying is discovering how my work translates from one space to the next. The gallery space allows me to cultivate an experience for the viewer that is perhaps more immersive, more intimate. You can spend time closely with these works in a gallery installation. When you find them on a giant billboard in downtown Toronto, that’s a whole different type of engagement. When I talk about love and intimacy in a public context, I think about community, about the interconnectedness between the individual and the collective, between urban life and nature. The public projects allow me to talk about love on these wider, more expanded dimensions. Some people are still intimidated to walk into a gallery or a museum so the public projects have been a way for me to bring the work directly back to the streets. I want to reach a broader public to spark a bigger conversation around love and intimacy.
Was Earthbound one of the first public works that spoke about community while still having the freedom of showing things as you might in a gallery space?
Earthbound was a unique project in that it was a gallery show that took place inside a shipping container. It was located along The Bentway, a new public site in downtown Toronto. Bunker 2 approached me with the project. For me, it was worth doing because I liked the idea of people encountering my work who may not have went out looking for it. A lot of people who saw the show were people who weren’t expecting to find artwork; it was an unexpected discovery for a lot of them and these potential moments for connection are important to me. I have a lot of family members who don’t have much of a relationship with art, besides through my work. So when I work on public projects, I try to think about reaching them and people like them. I think, “Who is the potential audience of this work?”
Does that impact what you will show in that space?
Yes. With Earthbound, it was easy to call attention to certain qualities of the space. For example, the shipping container had a seam running down the middle; I loved this split. The spider web and transparency I made to hang from the ceiling was a way of calling attention to this rupture in space. The surfaces, the walls that were wood-grained as opposed to traditional white walls, affected everything from the images that I chose to how I printed and installed them. I didn’t want you to forget that you’re in a weird space. I didn’t want to turn it into a white cube when it really wasn’t. It was a matter of working with the space and adapting to the environment I was working with.
What was the first work that you made where you were conscious of thinking about mythology?
Earthbound was definitely inspired by mythology, but it really started with mermaids. I made a body of work inspired by all the myths that I was reading about mermaids because I was interested in our relationship/disconnection with the ocean. I found mermaids to be this beautiful metaphor for hybridity, fluidity, and transformation. They became a poetic device to look at the bigger issues around our environment, around how we look at gender and sexuality. For example, mermaids don’t have any genitals, they exist outside of this gender binary that we’re used to. They’re also contradictions. They are emotional, temperamental creatures; they’re beautiful and seductive, dangerous yet vulnerable.
That body of work was an opportunity to dive deep into the mermaid mythos to reconsider our relationships with the ocean and the unknown. I think myths are written in response to their culture so the myths that we create need to reflect the issues that we find important today. The world that we live in is very different from the world of Homer; The Odyssey and his myths reflect what that culture found important back then. We need to shape our myths to respond to the current moment. One thing that I love about mythology is that it embraces change; myths can be retold from one day to the next. The old myths weren’t written down, they were sung with a lyre. That’s where the term lyric poetry comes from. The same story would change even if it was the same person telling/singing it.
With that being said, I think there are myths that are dangerous, that don’t reflect our current culture and that we need to change. The myth that vulnerability is weakness, for example. Everything that I’ve been reading about intimacy is pointing to vulnerability being absolutely essential to loving. When you love, it requires you to be vulnerable. If you sign up for love, you sign up for disappointment and pain, but you also sign up for joy and everything else. So I think there are myths that need to be broken, that we need to transform.
Another myth about love is this idea of “falling” in love. This is an idea concerned mostly with a romantic love between two monogamous people. We place this version of love on a pedestal and this is the epitome of love for most of us in the West. We expect that love must be maddening, must be crazy-inducing for it to be true love. We’re looking for the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in our love relationships and I think this is quite dangerous because it takes the agency away from the individual. When I fall, I don’t have much of a choice, it’s something that happens to me without my consent. This loss of control can feel like madness. But this really only describes the first few months of a relationship, the rest of it isn’t maddening and love is actually quite enjoyable! We need a new myth or a new way of thinking about love that is more expansive than this falling into madness. It will require us to look at the metaphors we use. People who study language and how it shapes our behaviour suggest that we consider this idea of stepping into love and love as a conscious, deliberate choice that we make in a collaborative process, a relationship that we step into together. What I’m ultimately interested in with my practice is cultivating a wider definition of love as well as cultivating action, practicing love. How do our thoughts and emotions lead to actions, to changes in our behaviour?
A lot of your images live in either books or zines. What’s the importance of book-making and zine-making for you?
Books are a very accessible, unintimidating way for people to encounter my images. There’s touch involved as you engage with them. The books that I make are usually boundless so they’re rearrangeable and you can put them in any order, or you could put them on your walls. How you engage with them is really up to you. I call these books Still Life and they’re an ongoing project, so every year I’ll make a few new issues. Right now there are 50. These books provide a home for all of my images and at the same time, they allow me to think about how people engage with a multiplicity of images as opposed to a select few in a gallery situation.
The idea to keep my books unbound came from thinking more ambiguously and more fluidly about sequence, order, and the expectations of photobooks. With a bound book, there’s a clear beginning, middle and end and it tends to read this way most of the time. When I released the books from being fixed in this way, they almost required the viewer to engage with them even more. I’m interested in how people “read” these books and the types of relationships they form with my images; I’m interested in a shifting encounter as opposed to a static one. There’s no text in these books, there’s no narrative in the traditional sense, so I’m interested in the narratives and the subjectivities that people bring to the work.
The books also allow me to think about how intimacy translates across our communities, how there’s tremendous love that we cultivate from the different communities we straddle. Island is a book that I made when I did a residency on the Toronto Islands; it’s a good example of how my work gets shaped by my environment. I ended up making a book out of the images that I created during that residency and it was the first time I left one of my books unbound. I was thinking about each page functioning as its own unique island within this greater landscape of the book space. Island helped me to think about community in this nested, layered way. With Still Life, the books bring in the concept of collaboration and how they require the viewer to touch them and rearrange them. They’re dormant when they’re not being handled. They come to life and become activated through the intimacy of your touch.
Still Life is a project I’m going to keep making until I’m no longer around. Right now it contains almost 10 years of images. And when I look through older issues and see images from forever ago, I almost feel like I’m seeing ghosts from the past! I’m interested to see what Still Life #263 will look like and if I’ll still be around by then? I call the books Still Life because they are made up of still images of a life, of my life. But then there’s this greater affirmation of as long as they exist, I’m still alive and they’ll end when I end. So the books allow me to think about community and collaboration, but also time. How will time manifest itself over this body of work?
What does the future look like for you? Where do you see your work going? I know you just did an installation with audio and video for the first time.
Yes, that show was called Love S.O.S. in Hamilton at Centre3 and it was curated by Sally Frater. Sally also wrote a great essay for the show. That was a nice opportunity to work with audio and video for the first time. The installation is essentially a slideshow of about 400 images shot over the entire span of my practice. Along with the slideshow is a soundtrack of love songs that you hear while you’re watching my images. So you hear everyone from Tina Turner, Beyoncé, Leonard Cohen and Daft Punk, all these different voices reflecting on love and matters of the heart against this shifting slideshow. I was thinking about love as a practice so I called the show Love S.O.S., after a dance track by Justice that’s also on the playlist, to act as an emergency call. Love is in trouble! We need to re-think and re-consider what it means to be a loving human being. I’d love to show this project in different cities and each time mix up the images and songs so that it’s never the same experience. Other than that, for the next little while, I’m going to dig deeper into the topics that we’ve been talking about and hopefully continue to work across a multiplicity of spaces.