Artist finds his voice and unexpected order in visual chaos.
Anthony Tafuro is hard to pin down. In one series called Barrier Kult, the Brooklyn-based artist makes dreamy, mysterious black and white photographs of skateboarders with references to satanic Norwegian Blackmetal. The statement for another project, his recent book, Where Ya' At, which includes digital glitches, discolored flowers, skulls, and abstractions of light sources describes the work as "Analog captures of living and dying throughout the real and digital world." And since the days of Occupy Wall Street, he's followed masked activists Anonymous, making images that hover between traditional photo-journalism and something sinister.
Across all of his work, Tafuro's eye weaves through black and white and color, through casual snapshots, near-documentary, pure abstraction and visual experiments with no beginning or end. On the surface, it's messy and discordant but somehow it hangs together swimmingly.
I contacted Tafuro to learn more.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Anthony Tafuro.
Jon Feinstein: Your work is in some ways "all over the place" – experiments with digital color and artifacts, brooding black and white landscapes, paired with individual photo titles like "Heresy," "Dragon Drool," and "Sky Burials." On the surface, it might feel discordant, but I think it hangs together with dark humor. Where's your head with all of this?
Anthony Tafuro: I’m not sure where my head is, but most of the time it’s probably somewhere else. I think in a good/healthy way most of the time though. As for my style, I’ve always gravitated towards a heavier cynical output. I think a lot of my work needs to feel like it’s from the same universe otherwise I choose to not share it. This universe includes dark provocative moments that teeter on the verge of fact and fiction. In the end, everything I work on is usually on negative, drawn, or painted.
Feinstein: Skate, punk rock, and heavy metal culture seem to be an underlying thread in many of these images, but not in a documentary sense. They feel like metaphoric footnotes or clues to a larger narrative.
Tafuro: Definitely playing and going to shows began that affiliation. Then photographing throughout it around 2006 really got me understanding how to immerse myself in it. That kind of needs to be mentioned because you usually think immersion and documentary to be just about the same. You don’t need a camera to immerse yourself in a project. Kind of need it to document it though. Tons of my projects I’ve spent less time taking photos, than just talking about photos we should work on making. The project then has a collaborative look rather than my documentary of it. I could know how someone wants to be represented and how I could help meet that expectation.
At times I feel that I am just a documentary photographer when working on these projects. You could always go further and deeper, but I want to work on lots of projects. Not just that one. So it’s always important to move on for me but revisit when needed.
Feinstein: You've made a number of books over the past five years. Why is bookmaking important to your work?
Tafuro: Books are and always will be one of my favorite mediums to produce and collect. I’ve always enjoyed being able to collect an artists collection in a book. I also grew up loving magazines and comics. The format just always works for any imagery and text. Photo/art books could at times be a bit one note or too much pretty easily.
Feinstein: You've worked with household name publishers like Powerhouse, done some self-publishing, and also worked with more independents folks like RITA and SUN. Has the experience been different working with different kinds of publishers?
Tafuro: When working with a publisher like PowerHouse, I understand that they will get a project to a larger audience/make a larger edition. Those books tend to be more documentary/concept driven as opposed to a collection of fine-art works. Eventually, I started to enjoy working with smaller publishers. Smaller editions, high page count zines, and hand printed/bound books have been a way to stray away from more generic forms of publishing. For those types of publishing it’s easier to work with publishers like PowerHouse that handle the production, distribution, and everything you don’t want to do as an artist.
I do feel like books are in a really weird place, especially photo/art books. It doesn’t mean it’s any less exciting it’s just that much harder to make something unique/fresh that will also sell. Personally, when I attend book fairs with s u n, Bill, Corey and Myself will always have books, shirts and prints. I really enjoyed the NY and LA fairs in 2016/17 but not sure if they will be the same without Shannon. Printed Matter was a bookstore that helped me get one of my first events for the Barrier Kult book. Shannon gave us one of the best spots in one of the hottest rooms (physically). I’m sure that whole thing will change without him, truly was an awesome person. So going back to your question there are a ton of differences between how big publishers work, mid-level, art-book fair publishers and true DIY ventures like s u n do it. Most could go on for hours, especially when you get into the book fairs outside of the States.
Feinstein: Shifting gears, tell me about the Anon project. How did this get started? What drove you to follow the masked Anonymous activists?
Tafuro: I was first attracted to the idea of Guy Fawkes when reading V for Vendetta. At the time I was obsessed with Swamp Thing, Watchmen, and anything Alan Moore worked on. So after reading, I became obsessed with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and everything involved with the plan to blow up parliament. David Lloyd’s depiction of Fawkes for the character known as V was the perfect comparison of how the future will always have issues that mirror the past. Will there always be a Fawkes that comes forward to try and implement change by force? I think everyone sees it in different ways, but it made sense that an organization like Anonymous adopted this face for their organization.
Anonymous was also a group that formed on 4chan so it didn’t really have any sort of broad physical presence until around Occupy. It was a few years after occupy and I was assigned to photograph the group on the 5th of November (Guy Fawkes Day). Every year people gather with the mask on at Union Square and they march through the city. In 2016 I noticed that the group that was supposed to be united as one divided by none was arguing the entire time. Half right and half left, really was a divide that has been seen by everyone involved. Protest has turned into an everyday practice for people on both the left and right.
Feinstein: How does this play out in book form?
Tafuro: It’s broken up into three sections. You have the first, main chunk which is all the different years of meeting up for 5th of November. The second part features some paintings that depict moments in 1600s, like Guy Fawkes signature before and after torture. As well as the first face Anonymous was ever given (from Fox News LA) before V’s face was chosen. The third part shares moments of a members' meetup in a discreet location in NYC. One member composed an entire album and performance in 2015 that I was able to gain access to. There is also a really great collaboration text piece that I worked on with one of my favorite members. It comes out this June with PowerHouse.
Feinstein: I imagine you constantly shooting, sourcing, retreating to a chaotic studio, trying to make sense of it all. What's your day-to-day look like for making work, editing, etc?
Tafuro: My studio is always kind of messy for sure and so is my apartment. I have a great studio now and have been making tons of new stuff. Photos, guts for another small edition handmade book and paintings. Really want one of those Sony RX100 V that do the 4K/HFR. I have so many video ideas.
Day-to-day, get here pretty much every day that I don’t have to go to work. I usually stay for a really long time. I don’t really know the hours.
Feinstein: What are you working on right now? What's on deck?
Tafuro: This year have a trip to London for Offprint fair will probably bring some shirts and a new Book edition of 10-20. Haven’t decided yet. Depends on how many my riso can push out. Other than that, a bunch of different types of paintings, drawings and other things before I get my hands on that mini video camera. It would just be great to get some of my mini dv footage and record it with the 4K rx100v. High res grain looks shitty and really great, I enjoy it.