Desire & Mirroring: Portraiture as Transformation / Alina Cohen in Conversation with Photographer Job Piston

Alina CohenComment

Job Piston for Rodarte, portrait by Catherine Opie from Rodarte, 
Cath­erine Opie Alec Soth, (JRP|Ringier publisher)

FOUNDATIONS met with Job Piston at a café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Wearing a bright yellow hat, he greeted me with a hug that overturned a cup of ice water on the table. His warmth and generosity grew over the course of our conversation, which meandered from the cultural landscapes of New York and California to his own process, taking turns along the way.

After the interview he walked me to the bus stop and we chatted about how best to introduce your parents to contemporary art and your own work in particular. He hugged me again as he left to run an errand, and I felt the intimacy and trust that I assume many of his artistic subjects feel, a sort of mutual comfort that enables him to produce images that reveal the depths of his friends’ and models’ personal narratives. 

William. Chromogenic print

It's Meg Ryan (Lauren Alice Avery).

AC: You’ve worked as an artist in both California and New York. How do these parts of the country, and your past experiences in different locations, influence your work?

JP: I grew up in Detroit before moving out to San Francisco and LA, where I really came of age. I'm drawn to cities by the water or river, like where great empires got started. The range of cultural production appeals to the weirdo in me who is insatiable. I love traveling and meeting new people - everybody is interesting, and I love diving into that, finding what makes all of us unique, similar or tick. We are opening up more layers of our own identities through that movement across towns. That's my first source of inspiration when I make a portrait.

AC: What does it mean to be an artist working in New York?

JP: A broader issue I'm always grappling with is the purpose of art making against all odds, what are the setbacks and aspirations. There’s some sort of glamorization of a paint-splattering, car-crashing, troubled idiot savant. A part of me identifies with that volatile, emotional chaos. But culture is based on exchange of ideas, collaboration, conversation, pride, shame and resistance which are all healthy. New York and California have both been homes to me, and the dance floor itself has been its own type of “home.” Social spaces that are economically, racially, and gender diverse are most appealing. They bring together everyone from the fallen movie star to the activist attorney to the queer rapper.

Tuxedo, 2006. Chromogenic print. 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy Jessica Silverman Gallery and the artist.

AC: What is photography able to add to dialogue about gender, sexuality, and the body that other art forms can't?

JP: It's not that other art forms can't participate - some of the most exciting dialogue in this realm is happening in performance, sculpture, video and IRL. Let's substitute the word "image" for "photography."

Scale and infinity are the really exciting qualities of image making now. Transmission of images happens at light speed. The reach of a jpg far out reaches the framed photo in a white cube. The impact of artist ideas gets so much mileage beyond the physical. An image or work of art that is a conduit of ideas, propositions, desires, psychology, politics, social change or revolution can take on enormous presence via digital media, communication teams, hackers, whistle blowers. That's why social platforms are fascinating. It's a complicated space when art politics collide with surveillance and advertising.

The democratic aspect of image making also really appeals to me. It’s a generous and welcoming medium that I think everyone can relate to. Everyone can relate to the body, understanding it in terms of similarities and differences to their own. Viewers can come away saying how the image or experience felt to them. This happens in dance too—someone can watch a ballerina or voguer, and even if they don’t completely understand the form, we can connect with the emotions of gestures and posture.

Kevin Aucoin Compact, 2013. Archival color print

Untitled, 2015, Archival color print

AC: Catherine Opie shot you for Rodarte. What was it like to work with her and to be the subject instead of the photographer?

JP: She's a master. Catherine Opie pushed my threshold. To begin with, I was wearing Nicholas Kirkwood 70 inch heels.

Cathy could dominate me. By being a sitter, I was able to highlight an alter persona. She provoked me, and now that I’m aware of it, it can certainly re-emerge more readily.

And I loved being shot for Rodarte. They’re great designers. One of the most exciting parts of the shoot was seeing artists and writers alongside models and actors in these couture pieces; Cecilia Dean, Katherine Moenning, Jenny Shimizu, Julie Tolentino. A slim boy wearing netted lace or a tattooed woman wearing a see-through knit sweater. How did these designs fit or not fit these non-traditional model bodies? There was this element of layering, clumping, stretching, framing the body that creates a larger spectrum and definition of beauty and fashion.

Ross, 2015. Archival print

AC: What insight did this give you into the distinctions (or lack thereof) between fashion and art?

JP: For one, fashion is not just a hamburger! What I mean is that it is not just about consumption, but a garment is also fascinating for its exceptional design, architecture and gendered expectations or subversions.

Larry Sultan, who was a professor of mine and has a retrospective up at LACMA now, loved fashion photography because there’s a set of rules that could be manipulated and worked off of. If manipulated intentionally, this technique is really exciting if not effective. You can bend things to have people reinterpret them. Cindy Sherman, Collier Schorr, Juliana Huxtable, Item Idem, Love Bailey, DisImages are all natural example.

AC: How have your attitudes toward portraiture developed since you began the practice?

 JP: I suffer from a poverty of language. The camera is a tool (or sometimes a key) to speak when I can't find the right words. We all learn how to read pictures before we learn to read words, and maybe I’m still just a screaming, giggling baby inside, trying to navigate this world.  

I revisit my subjects over time to see them transform. I started photography as a documentary tool, which evolved into my interest in the line between representation,  desire and mirroring.

NAR, 2014

AC: And what is the line between desire and mirroring?          

Willard and Jacolby, 2015

JP: Power. Power dynamics between the artist and subject. I'm interested in a dominating sitter, seeing what that looks like because it challenges conventions of power in representation.

For a recent project by FOUNDATIONS at the LA Art Book Fair, I photographed NAR, from the music scene in LA. My idea was to create this kind of dream teenage poster, like something I'd like to hang in my high school locker. But the point is about how we engage with each other. We always exchange found jpgs, discuss the images, and NAR is always heavily involved in the editing. It's a conversation, back and forth.

Photography is provocative. Who is serving whom? Is the sitter serving the photographer, or is it the other way around? I’m really torn using the word “muse,” which traditionally speaks to turning your subject into an object. I want to upend that case.

AC: What does it take to work effectively with such diverse subjects?

JP: To be a good photographer is to be a good therapist. My subjects are aware of the power of their own images. We construct our own identities and representations in the 21st century. So how is the conversation about image making shifting? There is a lot of anxiety around image making, especially representation of a person.

Alex Da Corte, 2014

Family Fued, 2014. Archival c-print

AC: After working with analog, digital, and a combination of the two, are there any new techniques / technologies in which you're particularly interested?  

 JP: My last show was show of photograms. I was in the darkroom printing, and in between I would be on my phone and email.  When you’re working this way, you have to shut the laptop every time—otherwise you risk disrupting the light sensitive process. I started thinking about bending that scenario. What if I didn’t close the laptop, but instead pressed the photo paper right up against the screen? I liked to think of it as having the paper and the laptop shake hands.  The chromogenic paper exposed becomes a kind of fossil, a trace of something that existed. And of course, who knows how long this thing will be around anyway? [Job taps his laptop]

To see more of Job's work visit his website here.