George Oeser Beautiful & Banal Q&A
You seem to have a strong eye towards the non-traditional in your work. Would you think it a fair assessment that tendency is apparent even in your choices of equipment?
Yes. I’m fascinated with small lenses like you find on the small German made Minox B spy camera. The great beauty of these tiny negatives is the result of a much greater depth of field. The Minox B has a fixed aperture of 1.8 so it is wide open all the time but the depth of field is perfect. I can get within 9 centimeters of something and take a photo in perfect focus. That allowed me to look at things differently than most people could with a traditional camera.
How does working with unusual or non-traditional equipment such as this inform your approach to photography?
It opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me I would have never imagined before. It was always like Christmas for me getting the Minox B film back because more times than not I would get photos of things I didn’t even see when I was shooting because the viewfinder on those cameras never showed exactly what you were shooting because of the parallax view effect. In a way this was like using a substitute for my eyes where a traditional camera would be more of an extension of your eyes.
Was there a particular piece of equipment you preferred to use when shooting this series?
I actually used a range. Some of them were shot fifteen or twenty years ago on a 35 millimeter camera. Most of them were shot on a DSLR Nikon D 3200 with a single 17-55mm lens. When I travel I don’t like to carry the DSLR so I have a little Casio point and shoot that I use. I also use my phone’s camera for some of my work.
You’ve said this series of photos is all about looking at everyday things in a different way. Is this something that gradually evolved as you were putting the show together, or is this a stronger through line of your work in general?
I’m actually quite fascinated by the mundane in photography and these everyday things that I grew up with. There is a certain art to being simplistic without being minimalist. Minimalism can get boring very quickly where simplicity doesn’t. I never want my photographs to look like reality. I don’t want them to look completely abstract necessarily. But I don’t want them to look just like the subject of the photo. In the past, I’ve done some work in analytic Cubism – the first form of Cubism, actually trying to show a three dimensional object in a two dimensional form. One example is of a cigarette package where I took over 60 pictures of it from every conceivable angle and combined them all with layers and transparencies. I think it turned out really well and I really want to try it with portraits. The problem is cubism does not lend itself to beautiful images. So, if I ever get to do it, it’s going to be painful for the models and an annoying as hell for me.
Looking at your public work, It’s easy to note you don’t really use people as your subjects much. Is there a reason behind that?
I really hate photographing people because you have to deal with the fact that we are so innately drawn to human faces. If there is a human face in an image, the face is what you are going to look at even if it’s not the real focus of the image. To me they’re just very distracting.
Where do you feel this idea of seeing things differently originated?
I have an older brother who was born totally blind and being around him had a pretty strong influence on the way I see the world. He went to the Tennessee School for the Blind and lived on campus throughout the week. But, I grew up in Hendersonville and graduated high school in 1987. It was one of the whitest places on the face of the planet. In my elementary school we only had one African American student. When I was in high school out of 1500 students there were only five African Americans, one of Indian descent and two Latinos. Naturally, most of my friends were white. But, I would go to an event at my brother’s school which was a much more racially diverse institution. I soon noticed he reacted much differently than what I was used to when he was talking to people who were not just like him. It wasn’t long before it occurred to me my (and society’s) way of forming a first impression is 90% visual, and my brother’s was 100% not visual. He was “seeing” things that I couldn’t.
How did this epiphany carry over into your photography?
When I was first seriously getting into photography that realization stuck with me in a lot of ways. Whereas most children playing with a camera will take pictures of just about anything, I would notice things like a single blade of grass that was a different color of the ones surrounding it and photograph those things. My experiences observing my brother taught me to absorb more.
Do you remember when you first started taking photos and how it affected you as a youth?
I was seven when I got my first camera. It was little 110. My mother had one that was a little nicer and had a flash. Before I got my own, she was very restrictive of its use because film and processing were to expensive for me to be taking pictures of my thumb or something. At that point in time, Leonard Nimoy was on television doing pseudo-documentaries on The Bermuda Triangle and this thing called Kirlian photography which was supposed to photograph auras and these bands of color around a person. So, it was kind of like taking photos of things you cannot see. It was also during that era that we started seeing a lot of images coming out of electron microscopes. All of these things were ways of taking pictures of things that were unable to be seen with the naked eye, and I found all of them ignited my imagination. Obviously, all of these techniques required specialized equipment which I couldn’t access. So, I started thinking hard about how I could photograph things I couldn’t see, because my brother was unable to see anything.
It was always kind of funny when people would say things to him like, “Did you see last night’s show” and then they would suddenly apologize because they said “see” to him. This was never really a problem for him, because it was just a thing people said and it was perfectly acceptable. But I started to realize he was seeing things other people did not because his lack of eyesight caused him to experience social norms in a completely different way. So, it wasn’t long before I started looking at all of these things together and forming an idea of the sort of things I wanted to do, and these ideas have followed me. Had it been 15 years later when I first became interested in photography, I may have taken a completely different path because things like electron microscopy and the Nimoy documentaries wouldn’t have been as clear in the public consciousness. It was really a lucky combination that was very much a product of that time period. Another revelation came to me when people would ask what was wrong with my brother’s eyes. Well, there was nothing physically wrong with them at all. His eyes themselves actually worked fine. He was born without optic nerves so there was no way for light or images to be delivered to his brain. It was this which made me realize we don’t really see with our eyes. We see with our brain. And if our brain is being constantly impacted by these social norms it is kind of like having a set of binoculars – or even blinders – you never knew you had.
As this series covers a number of years up to and including the present, we’re there any more recent experiences which informed your unique viewpoint?
When my husband and I moved to the Netherlands, I quickly noticed everything was just slightly different than here in the US. Nothing tremendous, just ever-so-slightly. Everyone spoke English so there were no real communication problems. They have Burger King and KFC and the like. So, all of the differences were very slight. The slight differences don’t cause too much disruption to the casual tourist or short-term visitor. But, when you move there those slight differences become very problematic and there’s a lot of adjustment that has to happen.
Did your previous life experiences make these things any less problematic for you at the time?
Being in the Netherlands where I had to learn all these new cultural norms allowed me to reexamine American cultural norms. Since I had already had these experiences forcing myself to see more than was there on the surface, those adjustments became much more easy. Noticing those differences really started to inspire my photography even more. Things as simple as the power outlets fascinated me. Everyone would notice there were two holes for prongs as opposed to slots. But, I took note of where they were located and how they were designed to work with any European style plugs, though each country had their own individual types before these outlets were invented.
From your viewpoint, why do you feel these mundane items are worthy of being used as part of your art?
One of the images in this series is a pair of fingernail clippers. That’s three different mechanisms designed in one but they have become so ubiquitous no one ever thinks about that. It astounds me how something can be so well designed no one ever thinks about it. These are very simple, mundane sorts of things, but being so basic makes them all that much more important. I thought if I’m going to focus on the ordinary, I also had to go in the opposite direction, as well. That’s where the floral photos come in. We think of flowers as beautiful. We want to look at them. But what are we seeing? If you look at photos of roses, they are normally only depicted in a couple of different ways. But, why? There are a lot of different parts to those flowers.
Both of these processes of identification – not noticing something at all and noticing something but only in very specific ways – have lots of reasons for being that way. I think most of them are cultural. Since these processes are not innate or genetic, and because we have to learn them, we can change the way we look at things. I think that brings us back to a much more childlike way of seeing the world. You have to know these cultural norms to first identify if they are good or bad and then learn ways to work around them. But this has implications beyond how we see physical objects. For instance, none of these images are really political in nature. But, if we learned to look at information in this same open way, it would have a profound effect on the way everything works.
Have you ever pursued any formal training in photography?
While I was in the Netherlands, I took a one time photography class just because it was free. But, I’ve never had any kind of formal training. I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends who have had formal training and have been able to source information from them about some specific things. But, a lot of what I know is self taught by trial and error and research.
I don’t consider myself a good photographer. As far as the technical aspects of photography I have a base level of knowledge that is enough to get me by. The advantage I think I have is I’ve never had anyone telling me what a “good” photograph was. What I “should” be striving for was left entirely for me to decide. That has allowed me to take photos most traditionally trained photographers probably would not take. I use cameras most of them probably would not use. I tend to embrace things most trained photographers would try and avoid.
I had to make this something I could do from an economic standpoint. My editing software is good but it’s also free. My equipment isn’t the best, but it works. Photography classes weren’t available to me when I was young like it is to many High School kids and pursuing it in college would have been an inconceivable expense without accruing massive student loan debts I’d be paying off for over a decade.
We currently live in an age where everyone has a camera on their phones or tablets, etc. and can fancy themselves a photographer. How do you feel about that in terms of making your own work stand out?
From one standpoint I am a massive Marcel Duchamp fan, so I love Dadaism and Pop Art in a big way. I like the democratization of artwork that the current technology brings along. Everyone can now be a photographer on some level and there is some truly astounding work coming from people just walking down the street who don’t really consider themselves photographers and simply pull out their phones when they see something eye catching.
At the same time quantity does not equal quality. It has definitely gotten better. But photography has never really been looked at as seriously as painting and sculpting in terms of being an art form. One of the photographers I admire the most is Edward Weston. People see his photos of peppers and cabbage leaves or his nudes and think, “Oh, I could do that” without knowing what went into the work. He didn’t just take a photo of a pepper and call it a day. He did a lot of work to get the light and the shadows just the way he wanted them. He was actually quite brilliant in some of the techniques he came up with to get the photos he produced.
What about the flip side of that coin? There is a certain snobbery in the art world which says photographs which are taken on cheap equipment is worthless. How do you feel about that?
I don’t see how people make that connection. I have seen some pretty damn spectacular pinhole photography that was done with materials which were on hand and cost effectively nothing. That makes it hard for me to believe the cost of the equipment is a determining factor in the quality of the outcome. You can certainly do things with nicer equipment which you cannot with cheaper equipment. But, it’s the output that is important. If it looks right and is a quality photo, how you got the image becomes completely unimportant. It’s all about finding interesting subject matter, being able to look at that subject matter long enough to figure out the best way to present it and then doing it. That is 80% of the work and neither one of them involves a camera.
We’ve talked a lot about working outside of the established “box” and seeing things in a different way than we are taught. Do you see yourself as being openly defiant of these norms in the art world?
I am openly defiant toward established norms in photography. I’ve had to find my own way, I’ve had to create my own norms. I don’t have unlimited resources, but I’m going to make the best of it, and part of that is how I view my work and how I talk about it. Yes, I brought myself to believe in what I’m trying to say with my art, and that was a difficult process. I’m not saying I had to do a lot of mental calisthenics in order to wrap myself around it, but my belief in my process is part of what I feel makes it good.