These kinds of headlines can be deceiving. At worst, they can appear intellectually dishonest, capitalizing on a tendency to quench the thirst for "new" with empty air. In the simplest terms: click bait. But there's some truthy meat to this headline in Lauren Semivan's elegant black and white photographs.
Project after project, the Detroit-based photographer uses her 8x10 view camera to make pictures of elaborately crafted scenes that last for an instant, are quickly discarded, or are folded into subsequent images. Often, she uses her body as a prop or sculpture, photographing herself shrouded in the corner of the frame. A swoosh of hair juts in, paint streaks and illustrated lines imply movement, a metronome tilts, mysteriously hanging by a string. Should we consider these "self-portraits?" Maybe. Surface, object and human form often blend as one, confusing perspective, implying sound. These performances exist to end in Semivan's photographs.
So what makes her work so "forward moving?" Perhaps it's her ability to flatten different artistic histories and traditions onto a one-dimensional picture plane. Or maybe it's her fresh revisiting of "old techniques" through the lens of a selfie-obsessed culture. Or maybe something more open-ended.
In advance of Door in the Dark, her solo exhibition opening February 3rd at Detroit's David Klein Gallery, I corresponded with Lauren to learn more.
Interview by Jon Feinstein
Jon Feinstein: You often make sculptures, photograph them, and destroy them. I immediately think of a kinship to Rodrigo Valenzuela and Alejandra Laviada - these could easily function as pure sculpture, but ultimately exist, as art, in photographic form.
Lauren Semivan: My work needs to exist photographically in order to effectively suspend disbelief. Another level beyond that is about the micro-world of the studio itself. The constructions themselves are seductive and beautiful but ultimately meant to evolve and be impermanent. I have always worked in a relatively small spare bedroom studio wherever I live. I have moved many times over the years to different cities and that small studio room is the constant element. Working with the limitations of this domestic space is stimulating to me. It becomes more active and has more energy in some way.
Feinstein: I and many of our readers are total process nerds. What goes into one of your pieces, start to finish. Can you break it down for me?
Semivan: The physical process involves lots of looking and drawing, thinking, building, things falling apart, having to put them back together, painting, looking through the camera. Then photographing and usually rephotographing. The 8x10 black and white negative is scanned and printed digitally or contact printed as a cyanotype or platinum palladium print.
Feinstein: One of the first things I've noticed about your work is the sense of movement. Whether it's streaks of paint or using your body as a prop – these images conjure so many senses – I can "feel" and "hear" them as I look. This plays into the title of your recent series "Pitch" as well.
Semivan: Much of my work is about creating illusions with the camera, and often the sense of movement is what I am seeking when deciding if something is successful or not. Usually, the pictures that don't make it are too static. When the body is present it functions to show the physical or emotional force of the environment, like a weather vane.
Feinstein: Do you by chance have a background in dance?
Semivan: Not dance specifically, but I do have a background in music. I studied the violin intensely for a lot of my life as a younger person and student. This experience has probably in some way informed everything else I've done. I think about making photographs the same way that I would think about the experience of learning a piece of music. Lots of studying and repeating. I have always been inspired by the films of Maya Deren. Especially without sound. There is such quiet power in the way she moves through space and interacts with the environment.
Feinstein: With music being such a tie-in to your work, what was the last totally mindblowing/inspiring record or song that had an impact on you or how you think about your practice?
Semivan: I don't know if there is a direct connection between specific pieces of music and how I think about my work or one that would inform decisions I have made in my work. However, I can compare the large format view camera to an instrument, like the violin, which is capable of translating ideas with both precision and abstraction.
Feinstein: Your pictures are (almost) exclusively black and white. Why is this important to you?
Semivan: I think about why to work in black and white often. A lot of the power in my images comes from abstraction, which I would need to entirely reformulate if color was involved. I also believe that has something to do with thinking conceptually about darkness and light, that pure black and pure white are such beautiful extremes. I'm continually stimulated by the process of working with film itself; the standing in total darkness for long periods of time, the unknown, the element of failure, then success, etc.
Feinstein: The other day, Amani Olu, [Humble's co-founder] joked that I should headline this piece: 'Lauren is the future of black and white photography,' and I ultimately took the bait. What do you make of that?
Semivan: The "future of black and white photography" concept might be difficult to grasp! Artists always echo previous moments. One could say that there are more photographers working with abstraction at this present moment, but that also already happened in the 20th century with Moholy Nagy, Kertesz, and then Barbara Kasten, etc. Maybe there is something about its primitive form and potential for abstraction that actually gives it so much potential for translation and reinvention.