This interview series is produced in partnership with MATTE Magazine, a publication produced by writer and curator Matthew Leifheit that focuses on the work of a single photographer per issue.
You’ve probably seen Daniel Gordon’s photography before. He’s shown at MoMA, MoMA PS1, and Wallspace to name just a few venues, and the work’s hard to miss; the faces, plants, and fruit that occupy his pictures look like they’ve been constructed out of Photoshop and a glue gun (you can even see the drips). MATTE publisher Matthew Leifheit sat down with Gordon to talk about his work in relationship to painting, surgery, portraiture, and pretty much everything else.
Stepping back in time, before you made photographs of constructed tableau or constructed portraits, you were making pictures of your own body. Your “Flying Pictures.”
Right. I made that work in college, starting in 2000. At the same time I made the flying pictures I was making photographs in the same way that I do now, by constructing a tableau, but using my own photographs as the constructed material instead of using found images. I think both of these approaches are essentially investigating the veracity of a photograph.
When I was in graduate school at Yale I made a forest that was probably about 500 square feet in the studio out of photographs I had taken, and I photographed the tableau with an 8 x 10 inch camera. It took like six months to do this thing, because I was printing everything out on an 8.5 x 11 inch printer, and I was making everything in a really strict way where I didn’t want the seams to be visible.
I almost killed myself making it, you know? It resolved as a giant print. And I looked at it and thought, “I might as well have made this whole thing on the computer.” It didn’t read as a physical object that had been photographed. So, I decided to make a picture every day as a way to loosen things up. This also allowed me to find a subject matter. Pictures of the body started creeping in among the still lifes and landscape pictures that I was making. It shocked me and reminded me of the first images that I saw growing up, which were photographs of operations.
Your parents are surgeons.
Yeah, I’ve watched a lot of operations, and I’ve never had any issues with getting squeamish or feeling sick to my stomach. I am really fascinated by bodies and that lead to making portraits. I became interested in the problems with a male photographer making a portrait of a woman. There’s been a history of exploitation, and the fact that I’m searching for images online means there is a lot of pornography.
Especially if your search term is “skin.”
Exactly. You do a search for “skin,” and all this stuff [porn] comes up. I think some people have misread some of my early portraits of women as misogynist, but they were a critique; they were difficult pictures.
Are you a feminist?
It’s important for men to be talking about problems with the way women are depicted.
As a man, a lot of the time you just feel like a beast, you know? I think in a lot of ways those pictures were about that feeling, as well as the history of the artist and exploited muse relationship.
It seems like you reference painting often. Your newest series is called “The Green Line,” after the Matisse painting by that name.
Lately my work has been talked about in relationship to painting, which is funny when I feel so connected to photography—to the essence of what the act of making a picture can do. That is, transform what is in front of the lense, so that the photograph is something different than what originally existed. I think of what I’m doing as extremely photographic, though I am inspired by many different types of art—including painting.
You’re kind of a street photographer, in the weirdest way. Garry Winogrand is going out into the street to photograph people and you’re going into Google images.
Yes, I don’t manipulate anything once I shoot the film (other than standard color correction). My ideal form of appropriation would kind of take the form that I imagine a street photographer possesses: pulling seemingly unconnected parts together to create one frenetic whole.
You graduated with an MFA in 2006, and you were in the New Photography show at MoMA in 2009.
I’m so grateful that I was included in that show; it was incredible to have my work in the Museum of Modern Art. I had a show with Zach Feuer one year after I finished school, in 2007. Then I had a few studio visits with Eva Respini, a curator at MoMA, and the next year I was invited to be in that show.
Eva wrote the forward to your new book Still Lifes, Portraits, and Parts.
I asked her to write whatever she wanted to write. She decided to recycle old essays that she had written about other artists, splicing it all together to make it about me.
That’s pretty smart.
Yes, I think it’s great. It was the perfect thing for my book.
You were featured in Art21. What was that like? In art school, teachers show Art21 in classes.
When they’re hungover.
Still, I regard that series as important.
They took their time making the video, so we got to know each other and I felt comfortable having them around. I was working in my studio while they filmed. I felt like I didn’t have to be guarded. Now they’re doing 10 minute segments for the web instead of 30 minute documentaries, like three short stories. Hopefully we’re going to do a couple more. The first one was about process. We’ll see what the next one is.
Why are you making photographs, not sculptures?
Well, everything is made good enough for the camera. I’m a photographer; I’m interested in that transformation the camera performs. When the light hits the film, something changes and when you can harness that transformation that’s incredibly exciting.
You just had a kid, right?
Right. We named him August. I stayed home to be with him for his first 2 ½ months and I’m just returning to my studio now.
That’s one of the perks of being an artist.
Yes, very true.