Thursday, December 6, 2012

An Interview With Matthew Schenning

In conjunction with our both being in Andy Adams’s Looking At The Land exhibition I interviewed my fellow Greenpoint resident and talented photographer Matthew Schenning.

Being from Baltimore, do you just hate it when people ask you about the Wire? And is it a tad sad that people don’t ask about John Waters as much? 

You know, pre-Wire the only thing people knew about Baltimore, and what I was always asked about, was John Waters’ portrayal of Baltimore. I love and embrace both sides of that coin because they are both really accurate.  The one reason that I would rather people ask about the Wire is that it brings up a lot of different social issues that probably afflict every major city in the US. They are issues that everyone needs to be talking about.

During undergrad I took a class that focused on the films of Woody Allan and I’m sure there must be a films of John Waters class somewhere.  But what I really hope is that someone is teaching The Wire. 

Follow up, being an art kid from Baltimore, does that mean you are also into Hardcore and once lived in an unfinished loft space?

When I was growing up, there wasn’t the loft scene that there is now in Baltimore. There were a couple of people that lived in these warehouse spaces and threw parties, but that was more of a graffiti and hip-hop scene. That’s what I was into at the time.

Back then nobody stayed in Baltimore, especially if you were an art kid. There was just nothing there for you, so as soon as you could you just got out and moved to New York. Now people are staying and the kids that are going to MICA are making a place for themselves. Now there is a huge music scene. It just took a critical mass of people that were willing to stay and that didn’t happen until after I left. 

What is your first memory of a photograph and or photography?

My grandmother and her Polaroid camera.  I actually have a tattoo of a blank Polaroid in her honor.  She always had her camera with her at every family event, taking pictures of everyone and everything.

When I was first introduced to your work when writing the catalogue essay for If This Is It, the work, as best I can remember, especially from Beyond This Point, felt like a very concise, clear and critical portrayal of tourist landscapes. The work now is infused with backs of heads, polaroids, and install pictures of sculptures. Why the shift? Have I just been missing the point of your work?

When you first saw the work it was edited down to just the tourist landscape aspect for the purposes of the exhibition. I am really interested in our interaction with landscape and our surroundings, and I wanted to use the tourist work as a straightforward way to contextualize those ideas. But my idea for Beyond This Point has always been to try and portray the subtleties and complexity of our relationship with our surroundings in a way that is more than just one note. I like to keep it loose.

It seems like nowadays in the photography world, as opposed to, say, the 90’s, the way work is organized by artist seems very open and organic, thoughts? And how much of that is owed to Roe Ethridge being awesome?

I still see plenty of Becher-esque typological work, which drives me crazy, but thankfully more photographers are back to feeling they can make work that is not like that. Roe Ethridge is certainly a huge part of that. It’s less about a specific project and more about a collection of images that you have to try to make sense of.  It’s great that we can organize work in a way that might not make sense at first.  We can create narratives that more closely resemble the complicated nature of the world we live in. It allows for a freedom in working and thinking that ultimately pushes the work forward.

Where haven’t you been that you’d like to go?

Everywhere.  I really want to go to Antarctica. 

Suburban Renewal seems to have some very pointed opinions about the current state of things economically, e.g., lots of suburban developments combined with collapsing neighborhoods. How interested are you in trying to address current events?

I’m not sure what could be more important. The reality of that body of work is that it’s infused with a lot of my own personal history and there is quite a bit of the past in there with the present. Suburban Renewal was almost all shot in Baltimore, within a few miles of where I grew up. As the title alludes, the suburbs are not immune to the problems of the city and I am trying to make some connections between the past and current events.

Do you feel any pressure as a photographer who at times has made very straightforward photographs to be more avant-garde and make work that breaks with the history of the medium?

Of course.  Photography still has a chip on its shoulder in terms of the art world, and I think that has increased with the explosion of digital photography. The fact is that anyone can take a good picture now, and all they need is their phone. It’s only natural to feel pressure to make work that is more avant-garde although I don’t think it’s possible to make work that breaks with the history of the medium. It’s funny to think that as photography moves further and further into the digital realm, making work with a large format film camera is almost avant-garde.

For me, both sides are really important. I love straightforward photographs and I love photographs that push the boundaries of the medium. The challenge is to figure out how to combine the two ends of the spectrum in a way that makes sense. And in my case throw in a bit of sculpture too.

As a gallery employee, how much do you find Gallery Girls an accurate portrayal of your day-to-day life? And is Alex Gingrow’s work the best thing ever (

I haven’t actually seen Gallery Girls.  Does some one on that show like that work?

Seems not much of your work is made in Brooklyn or at least its not recognizable as such. How much of a part does traveling play in your making work?

I do travel a lot and I’m always toting my 4x5 camera and tripod around. In a lot of ways it’s easier to make work in a new place but you have to be careful not to end up making tourist pictures.  I can go through patches where I don’t make much work in Brooklyn but I always come back to it.  So much work has been made in New York and Brooklyn that it’s important for me, when I do make work here, I try to make work that isn’t obviously from here. In both cases it’s really easy to slip into clichĂ© and I have to stop myself from making a picture now and then.

OTT or Thai Café?

Ha ha.  Erb.

Anything coming up artwise?

Couple things in the works.  Just keep and eye on the website (


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