TJ Carlin : Your work elicits a strong reaction in viewers, most often in relation to your choice of controversial subject matter. Are there things in your work that people don’t talk about, or don’t look at, that you sort of wish they would?
Leigh Ledare : A review often reflects the level of awareness with which the reviewer approaches the subject matter, or what they see as its selling point. This can often times be rather reductionistic. Some individuals seem titillated by the sexual material, some enter into it in terms of a psychological depth that I believe is in the work, and perhaps more often than not people project their impressions of the way that I’m dealing with the subject matter, whether it be as a catharsis, which I think is questionable, or as an experience of sublimation. There’s an aspect of my project that to me is similar to Faruki’s film The Image, which constitutes a disclosure of the negotiation of relationships surrounding the creation of an image, in this particular work, a photo shoot of a woman for German Playboy . The variety of agents, identifications and modes of looking are all very interesting to me. I’d say that much of what I’m putting forward functions as a mirror to situations I notice, ways we temporalise ourselves in the world, in response to our desire and our impositions of desire onto others. I do agree that as subjects we are created at the level of our desires and not simply at the level of our identities. The scenarios I show may stand as negative models of how to be. Increasingly I regard my relationship with my mother as being the secondary content in my thinking about the project. This content is so embedded that it becomes much more about the treatment of the material.
TJC : What made you decide to turn the lens inwards?
LL : In one way the project came about quite organically by virtue of this being rooted in my lived experience, my boundaries with my mother, who from the time I was very young regarded my brother and myself as peers as much as her children I think I was using the camera as a catalyst for a productive relationship with my mother, and also as a way of receiving some distance. In the beginnings of photographing her it’s almost as if she were employing me to photograph her for posterity, except that the way she was projecting herself, in such a sexualised manner, was very destructive toward that idea of family. I think that this was very much an attempt on her part to resist her determined role. You could also see the sexualising of herself as asserting a power through deviance, a kind of topping from the bottom, which very much complicates simple notions of the exploitative. At the beginning of this I had also been working for Larry Clark, and I was very naive to photography at the time, and so I think the beginnings of this work stemmed out of a need to sort out his influence.
TJC : Let’s talk a little bit about your relationship to pornography. Barthes says in Camera Lucida that the difference between pornography and erotic photography is something he calls the punctum, where a detail in the photo pulls the viewer out of the soma of general information he or she already knows and pierces the impersonality of the image. I imagine, because the subject matter you choose is close to you, it’s hard for these images not to be personal in some way. But I wonder if you are able to distance yourself from them as one would with porn.
LL : Of course the punctum is by definition subjective, but one could suggest the punctum of the entire project has to do with the nature of my relationship with my mother and how it is played out sexually. I think of the pornographic element of the work as being as much about how she plays out a genre. This question points to another concern of mine that has to do with issues of how the camera is used in the photograph. I’m concerned with how different types of images have different qualities of use. How the image is used in a documentary mode. As a distancing tool between photographer and event? As a glamour photo for posterity? And then of course there are certain registers set up in the work to read the other images against. There’s an image in the book of my ex-wife giving me a blowjob, which I always regarded as being a much more innocent, idealistic picture despite being inflected by a sexuality present in the images of my mother. I’m also very interested in the way these desires are played out between different people within the images, for instance where do I fit into an image of my mother having sex with a man my age? There are many displacements such as this that operate in the work and which I believe are quite common transpositions we make.
TJC : What, if any, has been your exposure to moral structures in society?
LL : I think that you could look at the ways discourse around the idea of the gaze can function in terms of a moral structure. I tend to favour Kaja Silverman’s analysis of the look as being dependent on the solicitation of the individuals involved. Much of what’s depicted in the work is response to and confrontation with moral issues, evaluations, and so on. It’s always a question of whose morals and what is the purpose behind those morals? Are the demands that they make on the subject fair demands? Or are those morals determining and stigmatising? Hopefully the work creates a space to talk about these issues.
TJC : Do you have experience with personal therapy, if I may ask?
LL : Minimally. Implied in this is a question that I find really interesting, which has to do with the way that some of the work asserts a space for assumptions. I believe it has as much to do with certain autobiographical traditions in western culture and ideas of the work of art as a kind of catharsis. I don’t really believe that it’s cathartic, perhaps only in that it’s about attaining a kind of critical distance, but I’m not looking for a cure. It’s funny how some people have assumed a certain identity for me. I had a very funny review for my second solo show in New York. Making an assumption that my work was within a trajectory of work by somewhat similar artists such as Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, and based around issues of authenticity, reviewers seemed to be granting me permission in the initial work by equating my act of photographing my mother as a reclaiming of agency and as a cathartic expression, a means of dealing with victimhood. I’ve never identified with this, and I see my mother’s involvement in the project as being quite generous, if often difficult. The second body of work intentionally complicated this reading through extending my collaborations to working with other individuals, giving away elements of my agency, and so the work shifted outside of the realm of autobiographical experience to more thematic issues. In a way, this show, which came just on the heels of the book about my mother, was meant to work antagonistically back on the assumptions of who I was in the book, and in this way serve as a challenge to the work within that tradition. I was very interested in the way my mother was asserting her presence in line with very romantic traditions of the artist and tropes of authenticity, something which I felt didn’t represent my engagement in the project. Of course shifting to a more conceptual mode allowed me to state the territory that I feel I’m moving towards, which is the question of how to resolve the affective/ expressive/and individual, with a more conceptual, critical and distanced intellectual tradition, two stances that have often been defined in opposition to one another.
TJC : Your gallery shows often feature very particular installations of your work; it’s clear you have a hand in how it gets shown. Do you have any fantasies for showing your work that haven’t yet been realised?
LL : I see each subsequent show as a means of shifting the perimeters of my practice. I think destabilising an easy read is key, whether through returns, treating one work as an index to another, etc. I recently made a piece that I’m hoping comes to fulfi lment. My grandfather gifted each member of my family a grave plot for Christmas. Once the plot was purchased he forwarded me a piece of paper that served as a deed to the plot, containing a receipt for $100, the cost of the plot, stated as gift from him to me, a diagram of the lot within the cemetery and in relation to other family plots and the town of Melba, Idaho, and a correspondence from the graveyard overseer stating that the plot had been assigned to me. I found this gesture hard to accept, both in effect writing the end of my plot, providing what he regarded as a very comforting location for me to rest, for eternity, and also in a way, as an effort to maintain his idea of the nuclear family. So, I’m currently in the process of trying to get MoMA to accept the plot into their permanent collection, and through the utility of the museum, preserve it unoccupied. I suppose this would count as a different exhibition strategy.
TJC : Your photos impart such a strong sense of the interior, of emotional environments so thick they are like climates. They give me a sense of the extravagance of film, and yet there is something shoddy about the videos in their sort of bare-bonesness. I love this tension. I’m not sure this is a question, but if you want to talk about that gap I would be really interested if it means anything to you.
LL : I suppose the two videos you’ve seen that you’d be referring to are ‘The Gift’ and ‘Shoulder’, both 2007. My mother sent me two unedited tapes of footage that became ‘The Gift’. The tapes were from a softcore fetish spanking movie that she and two friends had hoped to manufacture and sell. In the end it was so hopelessly botched that they shelved the footage. A couple years later my mother sent it to me in the mail with a responsibility to resurrect it. I treated it by editing out the fiction and leaving what I saw to be the real armature for the missing narrative. In the video, which can’t get away from its amateur homemade roots, that bare-bone quality is key to the discrepancy between the fl awed attempt and the outcome. It’s clear that they have ambitions to have it be something else, although, maybe in the end, the act of doing it was purpose enough.
TJC : You’ve made a book. The intimacy of a personal object appears to be very in line with the structures you investigate—what did you like about that? What role does writing play in your process? What do you like about it as a form of capture?
LL : The book is a sort of container for a large portion of the work with my mother. In some ways the book is a dual coming of age, my mother coming into old age, and myself into maturity as an artist. As it portrays a span of eight years I think this development is evident within it, from an early time in which I’d been assistant to Larry Clark and seen myself almost in the role of one of his subjects, which was, in many ways, the case then, to the current period reflected perhaps most succinctly in the structure of the book and the conversation today. Of course this book is an artist’s book and doesn’t function in terms of the normal photography catalogue, and because of that the viewer is open to bring to it whatever they want. There isn’t a contextualising essay for instance. That said, writing about the work, or commenting on the work, is important to how I arrive at what I’m making. Alongside the emotional core of my process, the writing is how I get distance, organise, and push myself along.
TJC : What’s in the future? Any projects you want to talk about?
LL : There are a number of projects coming up. For starters I am working towards a show at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York for the spring of next year. Also, in July, I will exhibit the majority of material from the book in a show Nan Goldin is curating in Arles, France.
TJ Carlin is a writer based in New York
Leigh Ledare, Les Recontres Arles Photographie, 7 July-13 September