FILM TALKS #30:
JONATHAN SADLER, NEW CATALOGUE CO-FOUNDER & BSU PHOTOGRAPHY PROFESSOR
© Jonathan Sadler. Doberman, 2014. Solarized print from medium format negative.
FOTOFILMIC: A prolific and versatile visual artist since the late nineties, you belong to this transitional generation who started out getting their photo education mostly based on film then witnessed the digital revolution in the front row seats: how has your photographic practice evolved since then (if at all, we’ve been told you still enjoy straight landscape photography in the retreat of your Sierra Nevada cabin) and what is your relationship to digital photography as an authoring tool today?
JON SADLER: As photography started making the shift to digital, I continued to use film. Even a few years after the digital revolution, film was still the only option for high quality prints over a certain size – about 20”x24.” (but really about 5”x7”) With New Catalogue, our first dip into the digital world was scanning medium format negatives and printing the digital file (through a lab) in a traditional C-print format (Digital C prints: Laser Jets, Lambda prints). For the past few years all of New Catalogue’s photographic work has been fully digital. But whenever I pick up a film camera I feel like I am working on a “real” project. I am happiest, photographically, when limited to 10 – 12 exposures. Even though I do change rolls and take more photos, there is something about the care that goes into each frame that I lack with a digital camera. I also like waiting a few days to see what I got. It’s always a surprise.
Early on, Luke (Luke Batten, New Catalogue’s 2nd half) and I did buy a digital Olympus. It was 3.1 megapixels and was under $1000. Anyone who says digital is cheaper than film must remember that digital cameras are quick to be outdated or they break and repair costs are high and replacement is higher. My 1959 Rolleiflex still works and has extremely high quality optics. I’m starting to sound like an old man. An aside: Have you ever seen someone with a tattoo of a digital camera?
© Jonathan Sadler. Untitled, 4×5 in. paper negative.
F/F: Let’s talk a little about New Catalogue: although not (enough) widely known, this has to represent one of the most enduring, independent, thought-provoking collaboration to be encountered in American contemporary photography. Can you briefly describe how important or crucial the kind of dialectical output you and Luke entertain in creating New Catalogue’s voice? Do you think you could occupy the same artistic positioning and critical take on photography’s social ecology if approaching the same projects solo?
JS: Here is my long-winded answer: New Catalogue started exhibiting in 2004 in Chicago. Around that time we were given a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Back then our work was photography only. In 2008 we had our first show at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, also in Chicago. That was our first exhibition without photography in its strict definition. I suppose installation might be the best word to describe what we did then. There were paintings (commissioned from an actually painter – Steven Husby), there were digital prints of color fields that corresponded with headlines from the Economist (the magazine) and there was a motorcycle. The motorcycle was covered with decals that we conceived in order to tell a brief life story of a United Nations Diplomat, Sergio Viera De Melo, who had died while trying to broker peace in Bagdad. This was when we started collaborating with graphic designers and when graphic design became a much more important and clearly tangible part of our work. Regarding the collaborative aspect of New Catalogue – me collaborating with Luke and the two of us collaborating with others.
Before New Catalogue (BNC), I found it difficult to let go of parts of the art making process. Now, not only do I let go, I completely trust that others are doing their parts so that I can do my part what ever that may be on a given project. When I work on solo projects they tend to be smaller in scope. I have grown used to working with a team though so when I work alone I sometimes forget that I have to do everything.
© New Catalogue. “Preppy Girl with Notebook, Horse and a Cup of Tea, 2008”.
F/F: As tenured faculty you’ve been invested with colleagues Larry McNeil and Laurie Blakeslee for nearly a decade with crafting and adapting Boise State University’s photography program into a nationally competitive curriculum: what do you think makes a great 21st C. photo department, and what changes do you hope to see happen in the next few years to make BSU’s even more appealing?
JS: I believe an institution can have a great 21st century photo program without a darkroom. But on a personal level, I am still enamored with light sensitive materials. I do not consider a digital sensor a light sensitive material. Maybe it is. But I love the way a piece of film or paper can change because light and then chemicals hit it. So I think it is important and meaningful to show and teach these techniques to students. Now, I don’t use the word magic often unless I am talking about Harry Potter or photography, but traditional photography looks like magic to me, and magic is exciting even to students today. But, to answer your question in the simplest terms I think technique isn’t all that important. The traditional, “assignment, critique, assignment, critique” format of art classes will remain the foundation of a great photo program. What students are paying for is a group of people – sometimes like-minded, often interested in the same basic thing, creating something new – that will sit with you and talk about your art.
©Jonathan Sadler. “Atlanta School, 2016”. 8×10 paper negative.
F/F: The film and analog photographic industries future remains precariously uncertain yet new, smaller players have emerged and grabbed hold of the traditional torch, while a core of highly influential Hollywood figures (such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams or Christopher Nolan) seem to gain more definitive traction in maintaining film as a valid artistic media of choice: how do you yourself see the future of film and analog photography? In what ways can it too remain a relevant artistic practice?
JS: Film communicates ideas differently than other formats. There is a certain lack of control inherent in light sensitive processes. Letting go of some control is a relevant part of art making. Not to everything or everybody but I believe the choices made based on uncertainty or accidents are relevant and important. I like that with film you can take half a picture by accident if you run out of film mid-frame. That doesn’t happen with digital. When that happens one must decide to use it or discard it. Does half a photo say what I want? Or can what I want to say change to fit what half a picture says? At the same time it can be disappointing, like when you think you have Kodak Tri-x 400 in your camera but you actually have Kodak Portra 160. Pro tip: Always label your camera with the film you loaded.
I am hopeful that film will stick around. In the last couple years I have started sending my film out for processing because the local options are few (or non-existent). I like my film to be processed in a lab that processes lots of it so the machines are warmed up, and clean. A rarely used developing machine is a dirty developing machine.
©Jonathan Sadler. “The Flowering Tree, 2016”. 4×5 paper negative.
F/F: What’s the photography community like in Boise, and Idaho in general? Do you guys still have access to good quality photographic labs and film stocks? Any great gallery you’d recommend to photographers looking to connect and show work in Boise?
JS: I do not feel like I am part of a photographic community in Idaho. Maybe I am thinking too narrowly. I’m not part of any clubs. And it’s not because I am a snob. My snobbery manifests itself in different ways. My classes and colleagues are the closest thing to a photographic community that I am a part of.
There is one big photo store in Boise – oops- just checked. It is gone. There is one smallish photo store in Boise called Idaho Camera. I end up ordering my film and paper most of the time. I really miss being able to walk into a photo supply store and check out different photo papers, back when there were quite a few to choose from.
©Jonathan Sadler. “Atlanta School, 2016”. 8×10 paper negative.
F/F: FotoFilmic is dedicated to promoting all generations of photographers attached to film and the material relationship that comes with it: what essential advice or recommendation would you have for them?
JS: What tends to turn me off with film based work is when practitioners make work that is “retro” for “retro” sake. I love wet plate photography but not when the subject is people dressed up to took old timey. I guess my advice would be to be contemporary in your ideas even if some of your technique is old or even antiquated.
F/F: Lastly what have you been up to recently? Any recent achievements, projects or news you’d want to share? And if anything was possible, what would be your next ultimate project photography-wise (or else)?
JS: I have been doing portraits with a 4×5 camera. I’ve started photographing young people. I’ve never been comfortable asking strangers if I can take their photos but I am forcing myself to do it. It’s easy to talk myself out of it so it is a bit slow going but I have always loved photographs that show what people of a certain time look like. A lot of that comes down to fashion. I’ve started with skater kids. Luke and I (New Catalogue) are working on a proposal for a show in California. I do not want to say too much in case it doesn’t happen though. I am excited about the prospects. I will say there will be collaborators and it will be multi-media.