Canadian-born Laura Letinsky is an internationally exhibited photographer (U.S., Canada, India, Belgium, Germany, France) and fine arts professor at the University of Chicago. Even though she says the word ‘intimate’ is mushy, there seems to be no other word that captures the soul of her work. Through the romantic photo series “Venus Inferred” to the endearingly crooked ceramics of her “Molosco Dinner Set,” viewers can explore Letinsky’s love affair with imperfection, delicacy and raw thinking. While the average person uses light to inform the eyes, Laura Letinsky uses it to shape aesthetic concepts. For the past several years, Letinsky has been toying with the fragility of light in her series “Ill Void and Void Full.” Her pieces, while heart-wrenchingly delicate upon initial glance, are fraught with tension. Ill Void evolved from an exploration of evocative, modern still lifes into a discussion of architecture and design. Letinsky’s work often uses a palette of soft pastels to discuss the human intimacy behind discarded foodstuffs and other objects. Flipping through a Martha Stewart magazine does not yield nearly as satisfyingly ethereal of an experience as a Letinsky piece.
Q: Your most recent exhibition was at the University of Manitoba, a culmination of your work over the years. What is your current project?
A: That show was an extension of “Ill Void and Void Full.” The new work is pulled away from the table and more engaged with architecture and how space is described two-dimensionally, but thinking still about interior spaces and the relationship between interior and exterior, and how we understand those spaces metaphorically, spatially and conceptually.
Q: Earlier in your career, you photographed humans and later focused on photographing objects. What prompted this transition, and what kind of human intimacy are you still conveying through your art?
A: The switch, on the one hand, seems different, but on the other hand it was tied by my interest in intimacy. I’m interested in the ways personal gets defined against the public…how those categories are defined collectively and perpetuated through society through cultural mediation. While they are defined as opposites, what we think of as personal and idiosyncratic is very much allied with the social and public sphere because who we are as individuals is always defined through mediation. The categories are perhaps one and the same.
Q: How do you think technology has affected the integrity of art?
A: It’s allowed for great political events like the Arab Spring to be revealed to the world and made a lot of events more facile and less inundated. It’s easy to feel like you amplify the dearth of real combat. I don’t want to be a naysayer of technology; it’s improved many forms of communication. Whether it’s a product of getting old or not, I like monotasking. I like slow art. I like aesthetic experiences that involve more sense than just the visual.
Q: How do you think different generational definitions of intimacy have affected your work and how audiences converse with the body of your work and the themes behind it?
A: One of the primary differences I’ve noticed is the increasing proliferation of photographic media and its impact on the world. When I was coming of age, the repetitiveness of image transmission was so much slower than it is now, with the advent of Internet and those things we call phones that we hardly use to talk on and send pictures.
Q: Do you think the proliferation of iPhone photography encourages the growth of aesthetic photographic art or does it bastardize it?
A: I think it’s a different beast. I think it’s ridiculous to lament technology. [Art critic] Charles Baudelaire lamented the fall of art in the face of photography … but really it’s just a new way of making. There are artists on Instagram who I admire. Is it the kind of space I want to live in all the time? Not necessarily, but I think it’s totally valid and just a different form of art. The bastardization, if there is any, is when work is translated to JPEG when it’s meant to be viewed in person. The photograph can be diminished to an object versus an image or experience.
Q: You often mention light as your favorite medium. What does light mean to you, and how does it convey your themes?
A: I sort of think of light as a really great dance partner; you never know what it’s going to do. People always say “you’re a photographer, what do you take pictures of?” It’s always about what you take pictures of, rather than what the image is conceptually or ideologically speaking. They are always considering what’s [literally] in the picture rather than what the picture is about…this rarely happens with painters and sculptors. With photography there is perhaps a slippage and you get caught up on what the picture is of rather than what’s in the picture. I feel that I see things differently, and the photograph is always different than what you see with your eyes. One of the standards when I teach photography is that if I walk by and see the same thing as the photograph, then what is the work of art? Light is an avenue that engages the whole process, translating the experience of seeing something as a different entity.
Q: You photograph objects, but really you photograph the relationships and stories behind the scene. You establish tension that doesn’t exist in other forms of photograph. What does tension mean to you, and how do you seek to convey it?
A: I am interested in how our particular historical moment has differences from 17th century still lives and we are post-global, post-everything. Photograph is always the after-moment. The table and foodstuffs after things have been consumed seem to me an apt narrative to think about modern desires. Using that site as a way of interrogating our expectations of narrative, desire and hunger, to try and talk about the complications and ambiguity of that space rather than the cornucopia of what is literally in the picture, I try to trouble the photograph so it is not easily digestible. There is an unease that is being presented to the viewer. To consume the picture, the viewer has to navigate the picture rather than settling on a monocular perspective that the camera often incites.
Q: Is tragedy a prerequisite to good art? Can you evoke intensity of emotion when it is not personally experienced?
A: I think everyone, regardless of what their life is, feels as though they have had some tragedy—even if it is something as Freudian as separation anxiety. Everyone feels as though they’ve had a trauma, so everyone works with some knowledge of the depths. I don’t think every work is about trauma and tries to instill that in the viewer.
Q: What did you enjoy about your time at Yale?
A: It was a total revelation, I came from Winnipeg, Manitoba and coming to Yale was a completely different place. If I were an anthropologist I would have found better tools to navigate it. It felt like I had found my people, a group of artists that made me realize that this was a way of being in the world. A great thing about Yale is that art is embedded within the University and is really privileged as a mode of knowledge and creative exploration whereas it’s not in many schools.
Q: Is it not? How would you consider the creative environment of other schools compared to that of Yale?
A: Art is embedded into Yale [as a serious discipline]. I imagine it ebbs and flows, but in what is now changing economic times, STEM trades are pushed in many places because they’re viewed as a more stable professional guarantee whereas art is riskier and isn’t necessarily a trade for the working class. People have to make money so [art] is a particular kind of study that one has to make an active choice about that lifestyle.
Q: Do you think art should be more accessible to the masses and that it’s still kind of elitist, considering the cost of time and materials?
A: The art market has changed radically, and two hundred years ago there was the idea that people would be bettered by exposure to art. Museums had free admissions to cater to the masses. That had it’s own problems, but now the market has gone crazy, and now it’s a bit a monarchical social system and it was the 10%, then the 1%, then the 0.01%. Less people own more wealth, and I think the world should be a more democratic place. The decreasing quality of distribution of resources in the world is scary.
Q: Do you think nowadays it’s more important what you make or who you know?
A: Depends on who you are and what you want.