“Photographer and bookseller Melissa Catanese has been editing the vast photography collection of Peter J. Cohen, a celebrated trove of more than 20,000 vernacular and found anonymous photographs from the early to mid-twentieth century. Gathered from flea markets, dealers and Ebay, these prints have been acquired, exhibited and included in a range of major museum publications. In organizing the archive into a series of thematic catalogues, she has pursued an alternate reading of the collection, drifting away from simple typology into something more personal, intuitive and openly poetic. Her magical new artist’s book, Dive Dark Dream Slow, is rooted in the mystery and delight of the “found” image and the “snapshot” aesthetic, but pushes beyond the nostalgic surface of these pictures and reimagines them as luminous transmissions of anxious sensuality. Through a series of abandoned visual clues, from the sepia-infused shadow of a little girl running along a beach to silhouettes of a group of distant figures pausing upon a steep and snowy hill, a dreamlike journey is evoked. Like an album of pop songs about a girl (or a civilization) hovering on the verge of transformation, the book cycles through overlapping themes and counter-themes–moon and ocean; violence and tenderness; innocence and experience; masks and nakedness–that sparkle with deep psychic longing and apocalyptic comedy.” – Dive Dark Dream Slow - The Ice Plant, October 2012
Melissa Catanese lives in Pittsburgh and is the founder of Spaces Corners, an artist-run photobook gallery opened in October 2011.
Interview by Bryan Formhals
When did you first become interested in vernacular photography and working with archives? One of the first photography books I bought was Evidence, and it’s still one of my favorites. Was that one of the books you used as inspiration? Were there others?
My interest in vernacular photography began to really grow when I started working with Peter Cohen’s collection and until then, I didn’t have much interest in it, and certainly not within my own photographic pursuits. Although Evidence was definitely an early influence, I was drawn more to what happened when those images were removed from their original contexts. What really inspired me about this work was the simple pleasure of getting lost in those elusive images and the mysterious associations that arose from the edit and sequence. This experience has certainly shaped the way I began to put together my own photographs. As far as other books go, I’m always hunting for new books that inspire me, but the book that stands out the most during this time was The Mushroom Collector by Jason Fulford. I found the process of trying to ‘decode’ this work really engaging. In general, Fulford’s books are so playful and clever. I also revisited Floh by Tacita Dean. I think I was trying to figure out what I was doing and how it was different.
How difficult was it to find a ‘narrative’ and I use ‘narrative’ very loosely there. For me, the challenge with this type of work or working any large body of work is that there a literally endless different avenues you can pursue in an edit. Did you ever think you were creating a sequence that too obscure and abstract? Or did you find yourself gravitating MORE toward that direction?
I do gravitate to elliptical and abstract ‘narratives’, looking for pictures that are somehow incomplete and mysterious. It usually begins on a subconscious level and I try to let the pictures guide me. I’ll have a really simple visual idea, mood or atmosphere in mind and that’s the foundation for the ‘narrative’. If I didn’t use these abstract elements as a base, then there’s no doubt the sequence would have turned out much differently. An important part of the process is defining the tone and then playing around with the patterns that emerge. A lot of trial and error takes place and a lot of time is spent looking and moving pictures around – searching for the chord that you’re hoping to hit.
It’s strange how at times it seems as if the photographs are sequencing themselves. I’m curious about how you put an edit together. Do you just start with a pile of photographs and then start putting the puzzle together? Do you start the beginning? Or the end?
There are usually two or three photographs that I’ve been looking at for a while. Sometimes they are orphans from an earlier edit that I keep going back to. Thinking on those key photos is what helps determine the foundation. I’m usually guided by a few simple visual cues, like a color or a pattern, or something that I find beautiful in the content. Once a basic edit is compiled, usually in a stack of photographs, I’ll start the sequence. I work in small edits of three to five photographs. Threading those groups together, I sequence forward from the beginning and backward from the end and sometimes I start in the middle, working outward. But it’s always in a line. I’ll leave spaces where I feel there’s a natural break. I like to flip the ‘beginning’ with the ‘end’ once I’m close to completion. When I feel good about the sequence I’ve started, I start working in InDesign and depending on where I am in the edit, I’ll either import the images as a line on one long page or I’ll begin a book with many pages.
How does working with other people’s photographs as an editor impact the way you make photographs?
I think about this in reverse actually. My interest in making photographs and editing from my own archive has always been the driving force. When I edited Dive Dark Dream Slow, it was really important that the mood felt like an extension of work from my photographs and initially, when I started the project, I intended to include some of them as well. They’re inherently different ‘genres’ I guess, but I wanted to experiment with the possibilities. If I considered my snapshots as raw material that I would later build something from, then what happens if I try to do the same thing from this massive vernacular archive? I was told once that the hardest part of editing is the ability to remove your ‘self’ from the pictures, to create enough emotional distance from the work where you could see objectively. I think about this a lot when I’m looking at pictures and editing. But I’m not entirely sure if its ever really possible, no matter who the author is, and I’m not sure I would ever really want to do that anyway.
That’s very interesting about trying to remove yourself from the pictures. The dogma is that photographers are the worst editors of their work, but I question that to some degree. I’m probably wrong! I think with some or maybe most fine art photography, the edit is the vision, if that makes any sense. I don’t think I really started to evolve as a photographer until I really started to get my hands dirty in the editing process. It’s very difficult because you have no other option but to make choices: Yes, this photograph! Yes, these ten photographs! Once you start doing that, you begin to understand more clearly what you’re doing which I think helps you immensely when you’re out making photographs.
It does make sense to me that the edit is the ‘vision’ and I would completely agree. It’s become so easy to make pictures and accumulate huge archives that it’s interesting to see how others organize and edit their work. I think because it’s so common for people to have this challenge of figuring out how to manage hundreds of photos at once, they’re beginning to really appreciate the invisible art of editing now more than ever. There’s also a lot more dialogue about these concerns – in many online magazines like LPV and with publications out like Aperture’s The Photobook Review.
I do think it’s an interesting time to talk about editing. I know it can probably seem hermetic to outsiders but I’ve found most photographers get excited when they can talk about it because editing opens up creative doors. With the ease of self-publishing it feels like we’re living through a period of great experimentation. Of course, only time will tell if that’s true or not. It could also be a great period of homogenization. The way the internet brings people together often means we’re all looking at very similar work. Do you look at much photography on the web? How do you balance your consumption between online and offline? What are some of the aspects of the web that you find problematic for photography?
I spend a lot of time on social media, like Tumblr and Facebook, and I enjoy it, but it’s often hard to break out of the voyeurism of it all and actually participate in the dialogue. Everything online moves really fast and adapting to this constant recycling of images and ideas takes visual dexterity and can be exhausting. It doesn’t feel totally natural or fluid yet. This is why it’s nice to take refuge in a book.
You founded Spaces Corners in Pittsburgh, which you call “an artist-run photobook gallery and project space.” I’m also interested in how people describe their activities these days because most of us are engaged with the medium on multiple levels. It’s hard these days to narrowly define people. What made you want to open up Spaces Corners? How has the reception been in Pittsburgh?
We love our city, but there’s nothing like Spaces Corners here. We saw this as an opportunity to fill a void, cultivate local curiosity, and maintain some international resonance. We wanted our experience as artists to reflect our approach to curating the shop, but we also wanted to be able to integrate our own work. We’re constantly evolving and redefining ourselves which I think is an important part of the learning process. Right now, we’re in the early stages of beginning a small publishing program. Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes by Ed Panar was printed here in Pittsburgh in January and is our first experiment with this. We have a pretty small local audience and a growing online community, but all-in-all support has been overwhelming and a source of great energy for us.
Dive Dark Dream Slow
88 pages, hardcover, 7.5′ x 9.25′
The Ice Plant, October 2012
Photographs ©Melissa Catanese.