Through A Real Imitation, photographer Tommy Kha, a native Memphian of Chinese descent, uses performance, self portraiture and Memphis iconography to understand his experience and the nuances of feeling different. Obsessed with photography's tendency to reveal and conceal, and a nod to Diane Arbus' description of photography as a "purveyor of secrets," Kha pushes its function with quiet and sometimes humorous images that depict and exaggerate his alienation. Upon the release of his recent monograph published by Aint Bad, Kha spoke with friend Justine Kurland to dive deeper into his process and the psychology behind it.
Justine Kurland: In your book A Real Imitation, you use the camera to reenact psychological scenes. The photograph becomes a site to stage a fantasy, yet your figure inside the frame seems fugitive. Your apparent discomfort with the role (you've) assigned yourself charges these pictures with energy. Which is different than saying you are uncomfortable making the pictures—you use the camera, composition, lighting and color with a definite rigor, even muscularity. But it is against the confidence of your picture making that you, as a subject, seem so unsettled. It is as if you want to get the hell out of your own picture and even your own head. Could you speak a little bit about what goes into constructing these tableaus?
Tommy Kha: This project never started out as a "project." I started photographing, trying to find different ways to make self-portraits and look at them together, how they [the pictures], or really, how I don’t resemble the same from picture to picture.
And I never come first within my own pictures--which sounds very against the whole notion of the self-portrait. The artist/photographer as the subject is automatically the protagonist and therefore, the photograph almost becomes second nature. Does that make sense?
Much of my photographic instinct, (is there such a thing?) is the Winogrand quote on how the “thing” looks photographed, and my picture-making involves trying to re-stage things from my own reality, which I tend to sequence unexpected gestures that occur within them.
I think that’s why I prefer the test shots more than the ones where I am in the picture.
Justine Kurland: I’m interested in your use of self-portraiture. Judith Butler writes about subject formation, through Lacan, basically saying we can only perceive ourselves at a distance, or by turning ourselves into an Other. Or maybe a stranger way to say it, is in you self portraiture the “I” that you photograph becomes a “you.” I wonder what that means days or weeks or years after you take a picture, do you feel closer or further from the person in the picture? And can a picture change who you were before you took the picture?
Tommy Kha: Alterity, or Sartre’s Look, we only know ourselves through the eyes of the Other, usually through our aversion towards it. It’s possible to feel both, further and closer I mean. The present doesn’t resemble a few seconds ago, when the next time I make pictures, the sentiment still exists. Having awareness that I may be the photographer in some of the pictures, it does something when I see how the camera sees me, how I like people to see me as but ending up with what I can't help people see me as. I think phenomenology does something similar, the totality of a Richard Serra’s piece, like Sequence, we don't see the entirety at once, there's always some part we can't see.
Justine Kurland: You mention the term, “test shots” which refers to Andy Warhol’s screen tests. But you aren’t auditioning people, you are auditioning spaces. Are the photographs without people a way of setting a stage you plan to people later? Most are domestic spaces, for instance the white window, taken from the angle as if you were lying in bed. They seem like spaces rubbed smooth through constant childhood staring. They stand in stark contrast to the Memphis spaces. Can you talk about the difference between exterior and interior views?
Tommy Kha: I was looking at studio portraits, particularly Polaroids from photographers who used him/herself as the subject to test the composition and lighting, becoming a one-off.
At the time, I was more of a T.S. Eliot’s “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I constantly went home to Memphis, or when I couldn’t desperately looked for interiors having some semblance of home. Historic sites such as the Sun Studio interior or the site where Martin Luther King, Jr. last stood, they were going to be something like Tseng Kwong Chi’s East Meets West pictures.
Even now, there are a lot of unresolved things I’m working out by photographing there.
But I don’t think there are differences; I was going to be in them but I sequenced in these test shots as part of my continuity. Like how a shadow or the shutter cord is an extension of the photographer.
With that in mind, have you ever felt going back to something, a place you’re intimate with but you find it so foreign, it’s hard to photograph it the way you imagined it?
JK: That reminds me of John Szarkowski’s introduction to Eggleston’s book The Democratic Forest. He says if you have never been to Memphis you will take these pictures as facts, but if you know Memphis the pictures will seem as unfamiliar to you as your own passport photo. That is why I respond to your photographs as a mother. I have often told my son not to grow too fast or if he gets too tall he might not fit in our apartment. Why grow up at all, I think as I stoop to tie his eleven-year-old shoelaces. It occurs to me that is simply more convenient to care for someone small. I wonder if you could talk about the way you use scale in your photographs to mark your relationships.
TK: I love that you respond to these pictures as a mother, my mom has never seen these or any of my work. She does set aside time for us to photograph ourselves whenever I'm home, I like to think it's a way for us to spend any time with each other. Mainly my ideas of her are antagonistic; she's very conservative and against my lifestyle, the parts that she likes to believe.
But to answer your question, my depiction of my body in this work is very self-deprecating. Partially, it comes from how as a person of color, I’m more self-aware of my otherness, and how that is even furthered by my gayness. I like how my body doesn’t easily belong to the very work I’m making.
I think of Solondz's Palindromes--which is not a date movie, all the character names were palindromes and a line is spoken on how no matter how much we change, we end up the same way we were born; that's there's something inescapable about ourselves.
At the same time, I think of your work and your recent works just occupying roles of the photographer, mother, and part-time nomad, etc. I think I respond to work most when the role becomes muddled; having to “sound the deeps of our nature, parts of our nature that are deeper than us.”
I like it when pictures are never settled as a certain genre.
JK: I think about a poem by Ocean Vuong, where he writes, “Which I meant I was a murderer of my childhood. & like all murderers, my god was stillness.” Baudelaire says that art is childhood recovered at will. In your pictures you seem to take on the figure of a child, the bored and petulant son (on the first page) or the beguiled innocent (wearing those flash underwear) or sometimes Lolita, erotic and coy. I wonder if you could talk about your relationship to childhood?
TK: It's funny you mentioned childhood because the first instance I turned the camera to myself, I was recalling what my family wanted me to be, dressing up in those professions and eventually the roles they idealize me as.
I remember your interview with John Yau, and you mention if you were to see your picture from 1998 and another of your picture now, how they would seem to be from two, opposing artists.
I feel, in some ways, photographic projects seem to be loose sequels, they all somehow fit in the same reality; they were just on the other side of the tracks.
My photographs back then had a limited understanding to what photography is. And then I went into Yale without a project in mind. I wanted to see what I could do, what kind of pictures I could make, and allow them to help me work out what I was trying to say. My earlier work and my pictures now feel they are made by two different people, but there are consistencies such as performance, my deadpan face, and humor.
Humor in self-portraiture isn’t completely unheard of, one of the first photographic self-portraits was Hippolyte Bayard’s Self Portrait as a Drowned Man. Well, I thought it was funny.
Particularly, I always thought humor was a sort of my childhood manifested, it’s there to go against what’s going on in my work—often it was cahoots with my deadpan character.
JK: You seem to insert yourself into pictures: "your face here" pirate cutout or your face popping into the light, or sandwiched between two parental figures lying together in bed. Or else you assume a persona; is it my imagination or are you playing Thurston Moore with the blond Kim Gordon looking woman? And in so many pictures you insert your hand into the hand of the fellow you are photographed with. In a way it’s related to childhood, but I wonder if it has more to do with the out of place-ness you talked about. When a child takes your hand, or places their head between you and the computer screen they are asking to be recognized—literally, to be known again. Your pictures are demands for visibility, but at the same time they conceal you. How do you reconcile that contradiction, or is it a contradiction for you?
TK: This out-of-placeness is a very lived and everyday experience for me. I think this is where contradiction comes from, the neither here or there but in the background, lurking. The camera is self-validating, I can point to some semblance of me in my own work--but trying to is lifting a mask for another mask. It's very Claude Cahun.
Something Sontag says, “Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” I’m not sure if I'll ever leave.