The Thing That Hides in Fog, 2017. Dye Sublimation on Aluminum. 42"x 48"
AMJAD FAUR's photographic images are haunting, poetic and can't be
trusted. . . at least no more than any other photographic images. He
meticulously constructs scenes—usually drawing on the cultural and
religious history of the Middle East— which only exist to be captured by
his large format camera. Regardless of the geopolitical signifiers and
symbolic imagery in each project, his work repeatedly engages with “the
inescapable duality and tension between the
photograph’s role as the arbiter of record and its inevitable problems
as a constructed image.” Amjad earned his BFA in Painting at University
of Arkansas in 2003 and his MFA in Photography at University of Oregon
in 2005. He is a 2017 Artist Trust Fellow. His solo exhibitions include shows at Archer Gallery, (Vancouver, Washington), The Invisible Hand Gallery (Lawrence, Kansas) and most recently Scythe Across the Night Sky
(2017) at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART (Portland, Oregon). He teaches at
Evergreen State College in Olymipia, Washington, where he lives.
OtherPeoplesPixels: You work solely with a large format camera. Tell us why.
Amjad Faur: I have long been attracted to the ways in which my materials might have something to say about what I am representing. Growing up—and even now—I wanted to work in special effects for movies. As I began to drift closer to the materials of still photography around 1995, I naturally found myself staging most of the things I was shooting with my Pentax K-1000. While I was never able to work in special effects, I also never relinquished the interest in narrative imagery. In time I found large format cameras, and they seemed like the kind of tool that I had always been looking for.
Today, I use the 8 x 10 camera as a way of thinking about photography’s ostensible use as an empirical form of data while positioned against a much more corroded process of how images almost always fail us. I am moved by the ways in which vast amounts of information can still be rendered as unrecognizable. In fact, this is the tension I constantly seek in my work.
Winds Will Carry Their Arrows, 2017. Dye Sublimation on Aluminum. 38" x 42"
OPP: That tension resonates with me politically,
art-historically and philosophically. In terms of your artistic process,
is there also a tension between the experience of taking the picture
(observing and capturing the world) and building the sculpture or still
life (being an active participant in its physical unfolding)?
AF: The tension you are describing lies at the heart of my relationship to making photographic images. I will be perfectly frank and admit that I don’t look at all that much contemporary photography. This isn’t because I don’t find brilliance or value in contemporary photography, only that I am far more excited by painting—more specifically, early Renaissance painting from Italy and Northern Europe. Part of what I find so moving about this period of painting is just how rewarded the viewer is for sustained looking. My own process in the studio requires weeks or months of preparation for one image. The time required to take the actual photo is 125th of a second. The discrepancy between these timeframes points to just how suspicious I feel about the mechanical/empirical reproduction of the camera. What I am trying to do here is build environments that can only exist as interpreted by a camera. The spaces and objects would never make sense if you were to just look at them in my studio. In this way, the camera is not just an instrument of record, it is a mediator.
Erased Person, 2013. Pigment Print
OPP: Can you talk about traditional Islamic art’s prohibition of representational imagery and how it informs the photographic images you make? What do those only familiar with the history of the Western canon miss about We Who Believe in the Unseen, which is informed by Qur’anic scripture?
AF: Not all of my work is based in Qur’anic scripture, but my
approach to images and representation is almost always informed by the history of Islamic art.
Sunni art has always held out against using representational imagery
(with some exceptions during the late Ottoman period) while Shi’a art
folded further into the geographic traditions of West Asia and India.
This means Shi’a art has a long tradition of representational imagery. I
love this distinction because both Sunni and Shi’a sects share the same
cosmology and text in the Qur’an but each has such wildly unique ways
of showing this visually.
What has attracted me most to the prohibition of images in my own work (in photography – arguably the most representational form of imagery that currently exists) is the push and pull of the seen and unseen. This is a concept that is taken directly from Qur’anic scripture, but as I have continued to make new bodies of work, I have returned to the question of iconoclasm.
As I watched members of ISIS destroy statues of Mesopotamian gods and goddesses, I began to ask myself what made these statues so dangerous. Furthermore, I was struck by the fact that ISIS was making images of themselves destroying images. This cyclical process of image creation/destruction was actually very compelling to me and I continued to ask what made an image dangerous. I’m not interested in making images that challenge taste or revel in explicit depictions of violence or sexuality. I’m more interested in this notion that images, in and of themselves, can act as a corrupting or insidious force.
The early Jews, Christians and Muslims all feared that the creation of images might challenge the primacy of God or that those who see these images would be seduced into worshipping them as false gods. I think we are in a similar moment in terms of our current relationship to images. While the danger is rarely framed in religious terms, I think the recent conflicts surrounding the confederate flag or statues of Confederate historical figures can help illuminate how sensitive and vulnerable we still are towards images.
Incomplete Grave, 2006. Toned Silver Gelatin Print.16"x 20"
OPP: What led you to shift into color in your most recent body of work, A Scythe Across the Night Sky?
I had been toying with the idea of making a series in color for several
years, and my gallery really encouraged me to finally do it. For this
series, I was really looking at the inscrutable nature of deep space
photography, as captured by instruments such as the Hubble Telescope,
and also thinking a lot about the visceral nature of images as they were
being used by ISIS.
I have to say that this shift was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my creative life. It almost felt like learning an entirely new process – like everything I had come to depend on in photography was now out the window. It was a truly humbling experience and the kind of thing I should force myself into more often.
I don’t know what role color will play in my work as I move forward. It seems so messy to me! Like a wilderness that I have no idea how to get around in. But I love what it did for these particular images and I certainly have no regrets about making the choice to use it.
ATEN. 2017. Dye Sublimation on Aluminum. 38" x 42"
OPP: The images are beautiful! So kudos to you as a color
“amateur.” Why was color the right move conceptually for this body of
AF: As soon as I knew I wanted to focus on the seductive quality of images as a particular subject matter for this series, I knew I needed to make some kind of gesture in the formal production that would reflect this quality. As I said, my gallery and I had been discussing the possible use of color for a while and it made sense that this could be that gesture. Part of what I was thinking about was this vicious yet opulent reliance on the image that ISIS seemed to so effectively employ. I kept returning to the word scopophilia, or a kind of lustful joy one gets from looking at an image (more commonly associated with pornography or eroticism in images) as a mirrored inversion of the iconoclasm that ISIS was engaging.
St. Margaret in Mosul, 2017. Dye Sublimation on Aluminum. 38" x 42"
OPP: Do you ever use the camera on your phone? If so, for what?
AF: This is a question I wish I could answer in the form
of a long book. I teach at the Evergreen State College, and my students
ask me about this a lot. I think the fact that I use an 8 x 10 camera
and spend two years making ten photos leaves people with an assumption
that I have a natural contempt for something like cell phone cameras. I
don’t! I love my camera phone. I use it all the time. But I use it for
everyday stuff. Mostly for taking photos of my dog doing cool dog stuff.
I also use it to take reference images while I’m walking around in the
woods. Sometimes I use it in my studio while I’m building things and
setting up photos to see how those objects and spaces flatten out in two
dimensions. I also use a crappy, old DSLR to proof the lighting of an
image before I shoot the 8 x 10 negative.
Tamam Shud, 2014. Pigment Print
OPP: What are your thoughts on how the accessibility of this
technology has affected the medium of photography, both positively and
AF: I think the accessibility of really nice cameras on billions of cell phones might one day be compared to the moment in 1900 when Kodak introduced the Brownie camera. This was a moment when the traditional gatekeepers of image-making were wiped out. Middle-class families suddenly had the ability to record their everyday lives and bodies in ways that were previously unimaginable. This was the introduction of the “snapshot” and it changed the way we perceived ourselves because suddenly there was an ever-expanding set of visual signifiers that molded our behaviors and expectations, rooted in the mass-market image.
Obviously I don’t know just how the internet and camera phones will ultimately play out in terms of the transformations that might occur socially or culturally, but I have a suspicion that the shift will be understood as radical as the introduction of the snapshot. I think these forms of image production have amplified our narcissism, our sense of self-importance and and helped to further enforce a perception of self-worth that is predicated on appearances. However, I also believe these new forms of image-making and distribution have helped illuminate forms of institutional racism, race-based violence, and other modern horrors that beg for accountability. These new forms are deeply tied to surveillance culture (fulfilling Jeremy Bentham’s theory of the Panopticon), drone warfare, counterinsurgency combat, asymmetrical warfare, terrorism, colonial expansionism, etc. But they are also at the forefront of liberation movements from Palestine to Black Lives Matter.
Many of my students are between the ages of 18 and 25, and they couldn’t care less about using digital photography when they take my photo classes. They crave film. I think this comes from a lifetime spent taking unlimited photographs on tiny devices. These students intuitively recognize the extremely ephemeral nature of these kinds of photographs and I think they are searching for something that offers a more entrenched process of looking. And that is what I encourage my students to embrace: learning to look. We have the ability to create, archive, record and reproduce images at a scale that is difficult to comprehend. I believe what gets lost in this vast ability is the love and joy of looking. If my photographs can help stimulate this process in any way, I would be so very happy.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014) and Witness, an evolving, durational installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017), that could only be viewed via a live broadcast through a Nestcam. Now that the installation is complete, you can watch it via time lapse. Her upcoming solo show Sacred Secular will open in August 2017 at Indianapolis Art Center.