Since the early 2000’s, Adam Ekberg has been making photographic spectacles that play on, and sometimes poke fun at the trial and error of the scientific method. Engaging milk cartons, paper airplanes, beer bottles, and dominoes with mirrors, flashlights, prisms, and other science-fair ephemera, his photographs depict highly controlled, yet seemingly pointless experiments that make science and fantasy seem easy, approachable, and even humorous. Sometimes spending days at a time staging a single still life – for example, an image of milk spilling seamlessly from carton to carton – until he gets it right, Ekberg’s pictures, unaided by digital manipulation, recall childhood playfulness and present an optimistic view of the often overlooked. Unlike the heavy, cinematic tableaus of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, his lighthearted theatrics, though precise and intentioned, wear their self consciousness on his sleeves. I caught up with Adam after his recent solo exhibition at Seattle’s Platform Gallery, to learn more about his process and ideas, and his recent monograph The Life of Small Things.
Jon Feinstein: You've been making these "not-science-experiments" since the early two thousands. How did you start making this kind of work?
Adam Ekberg: I began making these types of images by accident, or perhaps a more honest answer is I developed this process of making this work out of failure and frustration. When I moved from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 2004 to attend graduate school, I had no photographic subject, I knew very few people and I understood my time in school was finite so I had better take advantage of it. In the absence of having a photographic subject, I determined I had better just make one. It all began as an exercise, something I could do until I figured out what I was actually going to do. After being in class during the day, I would return to my apartment at night and began trying different things to make pictures: I threw paper airplanes, blew smoke rings, turned on all the burners on my gas stove. I thought of my apartment as my studio and all of the objects that I lived with as materials filled with the possibility to convey presence through absence. With this in mind, I began shopping at neighborhood markets for more materials. I remember going to my local store and buying nothing but fists full of Bic lighters with some vague notion that they could be a picture.
Is there a "scientific method" to your process?
I wish there was anything akin to a scientific method-- that sounds very organized and controlled. Every image starts as a sketch and the desire to see the contents of that drawing actualized in the world. I work backwards from this drawing to figure out how I will make an event happen and exist at least long enough to be photographed. It is a process that has pushed me to develop some idiosyncratic skill sets that will only be used a once. How can I make a glass of milk sitting on a table have a splash erupt from it? How can I generate an eclipse with a pineapple? How can I trigger a line of dominoes to cascade through the desert?
Light, fire and water are recurring elements in your work. Can you speak to this?
The iconography I use in my work tends to be very elemental—light, fire and water—but often delivered through the plastic devices that are the trappings of contemporary life: disposable lighters, cheaply made oscillating fans, and plastic flashlights, among others. I use and misuse these objects to create a presence of the sort I mentioned earlier. I want to be absent from the picture but still have my presence outside the frame be conveyed through things such as a small fire, a displaced object, or a splash.
How do you think your work or thoughts on photography have evolved over the past 10+ years ... from the bowl of fruit + lighters to the man in the frozen lake?
For me it is important to think of my process as a body rather than a series. Like a body it grows and changes, organically and slowly. There is a relationship between all of the images but it is on a cellular level that may not be apparent to the viewer. Over the years I have developed a greater knowledge of my process as well as the underlying concepts that compel me to make photographs in the first place. I would also say that I am generally more demanding in the newer images than I was in some of the earlier work. When I set out to make a specific image now I am increasingly less compromising in variation between what I envision and the resulting picture. Each image still comes slowly, each one having its own unique problem set. I am at work on a new photograph right now and, like so many of them, it seemed quite simple when I drew it in my sketchbook and it has been anything but easy to stage it for my camera.
Would you consider your work to be a form of performance art? Who are some of your influences?
Absolutely, although I would say it is performance art with a lower case ‘p’. The pictures are a byproduct of a performance or gesture, but unlike much performance art, there is a desired photographic record. Keeping my list of photographic references as brief as possible, I would cite James Turrell, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Roman Signer, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and Harlan and Anna Hubbard.
You recently published your first monograph -- how did the edit, sequencing, etc change the way you think about your work as a whole?
It was a pleasure to work on my monograph The Life of Small Things and, yes, it did change the way I see my photographs. Since I see my work as a fluid group of images that I slowly build over time, there is rarely a chance for the type of reflection that publishing the book allowed me. The book spans roughly ten years of images so it was nice to put a period at the end of a decade and be able to look ahead. I also appreciated how different experiencing the book is from experiencing one of my exhibitions. Since I am usually exhibiting only recent work, it was wonderful and strange to hold the book and look through all of those pages with a little more distance from the creation of a specific image. I found I tended to forget all the struggles involved in making a photograph and could simply enjoy the final result as well as the collective world of gestures that the photographs in the book comprise.
Growing up, were you into science/ science fairs?
It’s funny you ask that because I was the kid that looked forward to the science fair being over so he could head to the woods with his friends or do something unstructured. This desire to escape still persists today, and I think it relates at least tangentially to my work. I tend to come home from any adventure with fresh ideas for photographs I want to make. This has been the case for some time. When I was 19, my best friend Peter and I traveled across the country in a 1977 Toyota Chinook. In my twenties I had a camper van that I called home for stints in New Mexico, New England and the Pacific Northwest. For the past many years I have done long-distance, self-supported bicycle trips throughout Canada and New England. This year I will bike 1,500 miles across Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. On all these adventures, I feel a certain euphoria coupled with aloneness that I try to bring back to the studio.
Bio: Adam Ekberg received his MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has recently had solo exhibitions at ClampArt, New York; DeSoto Gallery, Los Angeles; Thomas Robertello Gallery, Chicago; Platform Gallery, Seattle; and Fotografiska, Stockholm, Sweden. His work has been included in recent group exhibitions at venues such as Aran Cravey Gallery, Los Angles CA; DePaul Art Museum, Chicago; RayKo Photo Center, San Francisco; and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork Ireland. His work is in the collections of The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, among others.
He is the recipient of the Society for Photographic Education’s Imagemaker Award (2015). He was awarded a Tanne Foundation Award (2013). Ekberg has also received grants from Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs (2008, 2009, 2010) and the Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Grant (2005). His first monograph titled The Life of Small Things was published by Waltz Books (2015). Ekberg lives and works in New Jersey.