Mike Slack

17 May 2018

Region: Headquarters

Mike Slack

Interviewed by Geoff Nicholson

I think it’s a compliment to Mike Slack when I say that I don’t recall how or when I first encountered his work.  It seems always to have been in my consciousness, though I couldn’t really have seen anything prior to 2002 which was the year he published the book OK OK OK, the first of three handsomely produced collections of Polaroid images; the others are Scorpio (2006), and Pyramids (2009).

The photographs in these books have an alien feel to them, as though someone has arrived from another planet to collect data, and is recording the world with no regard for what’s “important” and what’s “trivial.”  The effect is to make the familiar very strange.  A drain pipe, a wall, a parking meter, a flight of stairs in a subway station beside a window are all commonplace enough in themselves but now there’s a sense of dislocation, a different way of seeing: meditative, askew, and maybe slightly stoned.  Very few of the images are conventionally “pretty” but some are disturbingly beautiful.

Slack now has seven books to his name, the most intriguing and perhaps the one where his photography edges closest to conceptual art (in a good way) is Shrubs of Death, 2014: 57 black and white photographs taken in one day at the Garden of Memory cemetery, in Muncie, Indiana.  The shrubs are trimmed to within an inch of their lives, not topiary exactly but strange sculptural, oddly sinister, but also (unless it’s just me) somehow comical.

His most recent book is The Transverse Path  (2017) and it’s also his most ambitious.  Having left Polaroids behind, these images are more complex, more full of data.  Here are nature and culture, never exactly in harmony but they’ve come to an uneasy coexistence.  A cloud floats in a blue sky above a textured, sandy-colored concrete wall, a bundle of plastic tubes lies on the ground like the innards of a decaying robot; a stretch of grass sparks with points of light but whether that light is real or artificial I honestly can’t tell.

 

I spoke to Mike over an organic lunch in Los Angeles.  Some details were filled in later by email.

 

Geoff Nicholson: How did you start with photography?

Mike Slack:  I started making Polaroids (with a Polaroid 680SLR) sometime in my late 20s, casually at first, without any specific intention or any technical proficiency with cameras and film and all that, and no training as an artist. I did have an interest in the “nondescript,” and the notion of “ambience,” background noise, chance processes, randomness — stuff I’d absorbed by way of John Cage’s Silence, Brian Eno’s Discreet Music, William Burroughs’s cut-ups, the I-Ching, taoism — so all of that influenced how I was using a camera and where my eyes were looking, treating the ordinary world as a “readymade” artwork. The prints stacked up, and I studied and organized them in various ways, which further affected how I was using the camera. Working with Polaroid prints felt more like a game than an art practice.

 

GN: You studied literature at university.  Did you have literary ambitions?  Was starting to take photographs a big change?

MS: I’m more of a reader than a writer — but every reader wants to be a writer, and maybe making photobooks is the literary aspect of all this. In any case, taking photographs didn’t feel like a change. It mainly grew out of what I was reading and the music I was listening to at the time. It was another way of thinking about everyday life, a way of reading the world and describing it at the same time. The bookish impulse — editing and sequencing the pictures, and the desire to publish them in a specific way — came later.

 

GN: You’ve now changed from Polaroid to digital.   Was that easy/hard/inevitable?

It took a while to enjoy working with digital files instead of instant analog prints — I resent the technical necessity of sitting in front of a computer to view and organize the pictures. I wouldn’t say a shift in format was inevitable, but around the time the Polaroid corporation went bankrupt I finished my third book (Pyramids), and it felt like the natural conclusion of something.

 

GN: Does digital affect the way you see the world ?

MS: Yes and no. The behavior of seeing and recording is no different — the long, rambling process of gathering pictures, wandering around, looking, walking, editing and sorting. With the Polaroid, part of the challenge was to make really precise images within the simple, relatively primitive parameters of the instant Polaroid print. The digital camera still “mediates” (and restricts) the seeing, of course, but there are a lot more variables, a lot more data to juggle, within the frame, and within the hi-res image file, exponentially more to consider, before, during and after… I think also my curiosity has shifted slightly too, in that lately I’m less interested in how the manmade world can be framed as a picture, and more curious about how the world happens of its own accord when we’re not looking, or regardless of our looking, and how to get at that with photographs.

 

GN: And what camera or cameras do you use now?

MS:  After owning (and trashing) many Polaroid 680SLRs, I settled on a Sony NEX7, which is what I used for my recent books — Shrubs of Death, Walking in Place 1: New Orleans, and The Transverse Path (or Nature’s Little Secret). I’m now getting used to the Sony a7Riii, which feels rather sporty and amped up by comparison. I don’t use a lot of “gear” besides the camera itself, and I almost always shoot outdoors in natural light. I also keep buying cheap disposable 35mm cameras, but I rarely remember to process the film …

 

GN: What photographers do you admire?

Mostly photographers who make books, like (off the top of my head) Garry Winogrand, Joachim Lempert, Ed Panar, Jason Fulford, Henry Wessel, Ron Jude, Gerry Johannsen, Ricardo Cases, Melissa Catanese, Alejandro Cartagena, Tim Carpenter, but there are too many to list…

(Full disclosure – I had to look up some of these names – it was well worth it – GN)

 

GN: Do you see yourself as belonging to a genre or a school of photographers?

Not really, or I don’t think about it. Most of the photographers I’m friends with are also making books, but that’s a wildly diverse community. I was flattered to see my new book mentioned alongside Ron Jude’s Lago and Gregory Halpern’s Zzyzx in a review recently, though I’m not sure those two even belong to the same “genre.” 

All images © Mike Slack

MIKE SLACK – info

 

His website:

https://www.mike-slack.com

 

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His books:

The Transverse Path
Walking in Place 1: New Orleans
Shrubs of Death
High Tide
Ok Ok Ok / Scorpio / Pyramids
 

The majority of his books are published by The Ice Plant:

http://theiceplant.cc


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His Instagram account is probably the best place to start for a quick intro/crash course – (very little from the books appears on Instagram and vice versa – though it seems not to be an absolute rule)

https://www.instagram.com/mike__slack/