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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stephen Grebinski | Introducing our new Media Technician

My early photographs documented the continuing aftermath of American de-industrialization in the urban Midwest. These works had a particular poignancy to me through their stark and formal depiction of hollowed out and forgotten spaces. There was something both horrifying and thrilling about seeing the near total destruction of sites that represented the glorious past recounted to me by my father, an expatriate of the “splendors” of old Detroit. Despite the grandeur of these spaces, I see no chance for redemption in them. Their stories had been told, and they could not take into account the realities of those living in their wake.

With complete loss can come massive liberation, as we no longer have to rely on the values of the system that shaped our lives and influenced our thinking. As our system of a democratic and supposedly benevolent capitalism, which has slowly failed us throughout my life, and leaves us to our own devices we are faced with paralyzing changes. But what is this system that has failed? It may have actually never existed, except as a myth, a dream of industrial progress and community, maintained for generations, and is now faced with an abyss of neglect. The industrial past and the middle class values that have sprouted up around it to help legitimize it. Giving up on this legacy is not an easy liberation; there is no paradise, only the abyss. But this is liberation in its truest sense, a complex emotional and intellectual truthfulness that depends upon interaction, situation and camera.

I then began working with a group of photographic slides that I had found in thrift stores and in the basements of various apartment buildings I had been living in. As I sifted through these discarded images I started noticing how many incidental, un-posed photos there were of members of the same family. These non-narrative moments seemed to reveal more about the relationships these people had with the spaces they did with the other members of their family or traveling group. There is an omniscient quality to the un-posed and incidental slides.

In considering the limitations of a single slide to provide any intelligibility or narrative content, I decided to superimpose slides to create a photograph that could consider or reveal multiple moments; a moment that is the sum of multiple moments. I began layering slides together in an equally obsolete slide printer; the multiple exposures portrayed the same individuals in different situations as they traveled to different spaces, or in single spaces that included different individuals. Time is compressed and literally stacked as I try to preserve moments in time as well as reunite individuals who existed in different images. There is still a yearning and searching, as these individuals are still separated from one another, but coexisting in a single place

After the collage work, which I still hesitate to call finished, I started taking photographs of my family as a microcosm of social issues in the Midwest. Inspired by a 1970s period of Soviet film known as “The Stagnation”, I began thinking of the dynamic of post-industrialization as more of a literal stagnation as opposed to a slow decay toward total immobility and death. These films mocked notions of heroism, selfless duty to country, family and career, and faith and reliance on industry and conservative values, as we saw them fail on the screen. To me this was more than relevant as I came back to Ohio to take pictures of my sister's release from her military training, and subsequent acclimation to a life that had not changed. The social and economic climate that I feel almost forced her into making this drastic change that has yet to deliver on its promises of upward mobility.

I followed her and my mother throughout this acclimation, exploring the nuances of the domestication of this military life, a process that downplays the risk and terror of the eventual realities of war. These photographs existed isolated from the rest of those I took, and had the risk of existing as a photojournalistic project. I then wanted to expand on these feelings of stagnation and isolation and humanize individuals who were losing a sense of identity, or experiencing shifts within that identity. Inspired by Wolfgang Tillmans, I created a network of images consisting of a few of these domestic portraits juxtaposed with one another, as well as landscape work. Besides opening up new meanings as the photographs collided, I wanted to create a richer environment that existed somewhere between narrative and documentary. I wanted to create a stagnating but beautiful world, a way perhaps of both redeeming and of asserting the power of the lost.

Still thinking about notions of documentary and yearning, I began taking photographs of men I located on gay social networking sites. I still wanted to work with the internalized psychology that existed in the Ohio pictures. I wanted to mix the observational approach from this work with a more conceptual approach. After a short discussion with someone on the site, we would meet at their house or a public location of their choosing, and work with their relationships to the space and to the camera. Despite the awkwardness and artificiality of the encounters, the photographs have a palpable intimacy. That intimacy could somehow come from something so impersonal intrigued me. The photographs oscillate between narrativity and stasis, terms I am borrowing from photo critic and theorist George Baker. Narrativity refers to the historical and narrative information in a photograph that causes the viewer to contemplate the world and concepts outside of the photograph, while stasis refers to a slowing down, a stillness that is more concerned with the psychological or subconscious, which stays within the photograph. The space between these two poles interests me, as there is an inherent narrative or documentary quality to these photographs, but also something psychological that permeates. This slowing down, and eventual freezing is what interests me most about photography.

A relationship to Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency became clear as this series began, yet, how do these notions of intimacy and access exist in the face of the internet? Unlike Goldin, I have no pre-existing relationship to the subjects of the photograph. In these encounters there is a physical danger present that does not exist in her work. Not just the danger of being with a complete stranger in a highly charged situation but also the risk of intimacy itself, emanating from nowhere. The camera becomes the catalyst for a performative space. Has intimacy become a commodity, an expectation brought about by the nature and origin of the encounter? Even as I try to negotiate these new territories, I still want to give these men a dignity within this system. Is there a desire for all of these men to reach out to someone, or is it me who is trying to reach out to them?

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