American modern era photographer Berenice Abbott once said: "photography helps us to see." And yes, in a lot of ways it can access things that can’t otherwise be accessed or things that aren’t necessarily tangible. Thus, photography seems to always present a proof of the actual or evidence to what is unidentified. Yet, artists after artists have philosophized against the objectivity of visual documentation and its inherent confines in representation.
Benjamin Freedman’s works tends to be preoccupied with photography’s characteristic parameters and juxtaposes it with indexical ideas of the unknown and intangible such as the cosmos and the moon etc. “[The] collision between mystery and the language of objectivity is what interests me,” Freedman describes. He makes formally rich images and forms that tethers between what supposedly is versus can be. And what surfaces is the paradox between presenting factual evidence of something that isn’t accessible. Freedman is a Toronto based artist and we recently connected with him to talk about his beginnings in thinking through photography, his current practice, and his recent one person show at Toronto’s Ryerson Image Center. Read our full conversation below
"to me, a photograph is like a point on a graph running through a polygraph. There are no absolute truths - only degrees of it. This blurry grey zone between truth and fiction is the space I like to make work in/about. I don’t want to speak for anyone and working with fiction helps me insert a bit of poetry and weirdness into my work."
Luther Konadu: Can you recall your earliest encounter with a camera and photography, when it started to become a sustained encounter and when it shifted towards more of a critical relationship and a way of exploring ideas like you doing now in your practice?
Benjamin Freedman: I remember my dad always having a camera with him when I was younger. He would record many of our family events and take photographs. Through him, I was always really curious about making photographs. I grew up in a big family and we use to attach his video camera to the television, and playback his recordings. My four older sisters and and I would watch ourselves on the television. Totally weird but I remember thinking it was so monumental.
When I was thirteen I started directing short movies for fun with my friends after school and my interest in art developed over many years. When I graduated from high school I took a great photography course in CEGEP. It quickly became my favourite class and my teacher, Rachel Echenberg had a really strong influence me. She is this fantastic performance and visual artist - I was very lucky. She helped me think about photography as a conceptual tool and a method of communicating ideas. Although it definitely took me a while before I started making the work I’m currently interested in, I think about her work and her influence on me very often.
Joy & Sorrow (installation view), 2014
LK: It seems like more and more, artists working within photography are expanding their work into sculptural and installation processes, and that's the same for your work...your earlier work in comparison to say New Votives or Folding Space has followed into third dimensions...a) how did you see your ideas needing to adapt these forms to which they weren't before, b) what do you find the work is "doing" when they are seen in those forms in a way that they couldn't "do" in a mere flat image. c) how, from your point of view, do you see that as impacting our perceptions of photography
BF: Although I make a lot of relatively traditional photographs that sit cleanly in frames, I’m always interested in rocking back and forth into more experimental territory. Early on in my education, I was interested in thinking about photography more as a material. I remember looking around at my peers one day as they were delicately placing negatives into plastic sleeves to protect their negatives from dust, moisture, scratches etc and thinking how inherently physical analogue film is. Naturally that led me to begin creating support systems that encouraged negatives to sit upright in a room. I also became interested in dust and scratches - the nemeses of a photograph - and the lengths to which photographers go in removing these signifiers of process. This obsessive behaviour and attitude toward analogue photography became really interesting to me. The treatment of photography/photographs is very sterile! I’m always envious of artists who work in other mediums who get messy. My interest in sculptural photographic work was first an act of protest and a bit of a rejection to the conventions of photography I was encountering in school and in galleries. I made a lot of the sculptural work either in school or just after graduation in 2013. I’m certainly still interested in making sculptural object using photographs but it really depends on what I’m working on/thinking about. Right now, I’ve been enjoying the limitations of photography and how to communicate complex ideas with a single flat photograph.
Amazing Amy (installation view), Amazing Amy, 36 x 46”, 2015
LK: While on Folding Space, I like the images and forms that came out of that series can you talk a bit about where you were coming from with this body of work? and how you arrived there...
BF: Folding Space was an experiment. Essentially, I assigned myself the challenge of photographing a number of completely disparate subjects i.e. people crying, garbage bags and outer space, and forced them to exist in a room together. I was really interested in playing with disconnected visual registers and forcing associations between the images through their proximity in a physical space. As a photographer, I like to think of images as vessels that, when arranged properly, create sentences and hopefully ideas. Some of my work would be described as narrative and very representational but when I was making Folding Space I was trying to use photographs symbolically in the construction of a poem.
At one point in my life, religion was a very important aspect of my education. Although I’m not religious, I’ve remained interested in spirituality and the ways it might manifests in the 21st century. I had already made a couple projects that involved outer space and often thought about science as a religion and outer space as its church. I think there is something tender, heartbreaking and sublime about becoming emotional about the cosmos and Folding Space was meant to invoke a reverence for this feeling.
I was soliciting actors on Craigslist and asked them to perform “sadness” for my camera in my studio . The woman photographed in Amazing Amy projected such heartbreak and sadness, the resulting photograph still gives me goosebumps. Although a completely disingenuous moment and completely fabricated, I consider it one of the saddest photographs I’ve ever made. The photographs of outer space that I was folding/stuffing in the corner of the room were made through appropriation. I downloaded them from the internet and was thinking about ways I can both control the image as well as ritualize my respect in an action. I also liked the idea of creating structure and three-dimensionality to images of an uncontrollable, unknown, expansive space.
Treasure Trash Tryptic, 2015 / 28"x35" / Inkjet
The Treasure Trash triptychs are inverted photographs of trash bags. A completely mundane, unpleasant byproduct of human activity. The images in their negative formats reminded me of looking through a kaleidoscope. An undulating, woven and organic texture that might mimic what outer space might look like if seen in a particular visual spectrum. I like to think that the presentation of these three things resulted in a meditative space in which people could contemplate the unknowable, existential cosmos next to the fragile and rapturous human spirit.
"as a photographer, I like to think of images as vessels that, when arranged properly, create sentences and hopefully ideas."
LK: You've also presented work in book forms...how do you see the book format as a way to aid conceptualize your images or rather what do you think presenting work in the book format does that it doesn't quite do when you present in say a wall install.
BF: I love making books. I really enjoy the process of squeezing photographs into sequences and all the creative compromises involved. I consider books a form of sculpture. It has its own rules, history and conventions. A book forces readers to engage with photographs linearly and with photobooks, photographs function as the word/ sentences. I love the physical form of a book and how it literally binds images together, forcing relationships between images.
Observations of Foreign Objects in a Remote Town, 2014
I had to think a lot about this question while creating my current exhibition. Originally the project (Observations of Foreign Objects in a Remote Town) was a book and I designed and shot the book at the same time. I would spend the day making photographs and at night, drop the images into InDesign. Both shooting and designing happened simultaneously which is probably uncommon.
It was a really valuable creative exercise transforming what was meant as a book into an exhibition. I essentially pulled the book apart and tried distilling my concept using only fifteen photographs. The large wall vinyl that covers an entire wall does not appear in the book. I originally created it for another project I was working on while in Iceland but discovered that in the context of this exhibition, it provides so much visual information. It’s a large panorama of the town in which the narrative unfolds.
Observations of Foreign Objects in a Remote Town (installation view), 2017 © Riley Snelling, Ryerson Image Centre
LK: Your show at Ryerson Observations of Foreign Objects...continues from a previous inquiry you did a couple years ago while Iceland...why were you interested in fictionalizing your gaze and experience of the landscape there and presenting it in the way you did? Also, where is the project now...are you re-presenting it for the show or are there added content to the project? How do you view that work now that it's been a couple years
BF: When I first graduated from my undergrad in 2013, I was really interested in photojournalism. After working on a couple projects with this in mind - I became unhappy with the work I was producing. I hit so many roadblocks and was confronted by so many issues of representation that I personally couldn’t reconcile.
In 2015, when I first landed in Iceland, I started working on a series where I followed Icelandic kids around in their sport cars and documented their fascination with cars and road trips. In the end, it again felt really disingenuous. It was an interesting subject but I’m not Icelandic, I’m only there for two months - barely enough time to make any long lasting friendships. I felt abusive asking these kids to integrate me into their lives.
I decided I needed to start from scratch - restart my brain a bit. It’s a bit funny looking back now because the solution was just photographing something really mundane. I started making photographs of snow balls in the studio. A couple days later, I was very fortunate when at the bar I came into contact with a couple of researchers who worked at the laboratory in the town. They told me about a curious moment in Icelandic history when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were flown to Iceland to practice their now infamous moonwalk of 1969. This training mission in North Western Iceland is considered by some people as damning evidence of a lunar hoax. This conversation led me to consider photography’s role in promoting, documenting, and mythologizing historical narratives. This line of questioning ultimately led me to create Observations of Foreign Objects in a Remote Town. I assigned myself a character within an unfolding narrative and began documenting from that perspective. I thought about the symbols that illicit degrees of truth in an image and tried blending them with elements of surreality and, in some instances absurdism. I thought about the moon as this anthropomorphic agent that human beings have studied, mythologized, deified, feared, loved, and respected for millennia. With this project, I’m participating in a long history of people proclaiming their affection for the moon but in this instance, I’m using the language of science and technology.
Observations of Foreign Objects in a Remote Town (installation view), 2017 © Riley Snelling, Ryerson Image Centre
Today, I’m still very interested in fiction and the poetry inherent in the genre. This project was my first committed step into that space and I continue to think about my practice through this lens. Since I made the project, a lot of people think I have this crazy obsession with the moon but the work was meant to references the moon symbolically. The moon represents mystery and the unknown, translated through a medium that is often misunderstood as a truthful practice. This collision between mystery and the language of objectivity is what interested me.
LK: What's your relationship to fiction as it relates to your work and photography, in general…
BF: I’ve made a couple works that use fiction but it’s less the subject of the work and more simply an element of it. To me, a photograph is like a point on a graph running through a polygraph. There are no absolute truths - only degrees of it. This blurry grey zone between truth and fiction is the space I like to make work in/about. I don’t want to speak for anyone and working with fiction helps me insert a bit of poetry and weirdness into my work.
Installation images courtesy of artist