By Randy Malamud
Ben Gest’s angst-filled photographs are disconcerting, all the more so when one realizes that they’re not precisely photographs but rather, composite assemblies of images he has collected of each subject. In the video below, we can see how dozens of smaller discrete images meld into one of Gest’s finished works.
Through January, 2011, Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum features “Ben Gest: Commissure.” A medical term, as Gest explains, “a commissure is where two things are joined. The show is loosely based on the idea that my pictures are describing where intimate lives connect, or perhaps, where they don’t.” Each composition’s odd blending embodies the awkward and irregular commissures that pervade Gest’s vision.
Subtly exaggerated body parts and incongruous proportions give Gest’s works a mannerist flavor. Looking at his photographs, one sees, at first, the common trappings of middle-class American lives; lurking beneath that, a sense of quiet desperation. The subjects’ eyes never meet the photographer’s because Gest wants his subjects to appear alone. “I don’t want to be present in the photo. Looking at me, or the camera, disrupts that for the viewer.” His pictures, he says, “are not really portraiture at all. They are almost the opposite in that they do not try to look into the character of the subject.”
Recently Gest responded to some questions by e-mail:
How do you produce your images?
The subjects in my pictures rarely know what it is I am looking for in my decision to photograph them, and I discuss my ideas with them as little as possible.
I visit the home of my subjects; ask them about their lives, hobbies, interests. At an initial visit, I am simply assessing what kind of photograph I can create in the space with his/her belongings. At this point, I am just taking everything in, listening to how a person speaks of his/her life and interests, watching mannerisms, and imagining what is photographically possible with someone who looks as he/she does with the possessions he/she has.
Even though my pictures seem very private and intimate, many times I know very little at all about the people I photograph. I am not very interested in who they “really” are, but rather, who I can make them seem to be. I do not want my subjects to try and anticipate what I am looking for.
I direct them to a place and give them a task to do over and over again. That is it, their job is to follow my instructions, not look at the camera, and not try to anticipate what they think I want them to do. Just concentrate on the task at hand, which may be as simple as placing a coat on the back of the couch, picking it up, putting it on, buttoning it up and then reversing the whole process and starting again.
I do this separately with every person who is ultimately going to be in the picture and many times I photograph each person on separate days.
When I photograph a person I will stop him/her from time to time to hold still, to smile, frown, furrow, clench or whatever I need in order to build a library of gestures and expressions that I later use to create a final image. The photograph I ultimately create grows in its construction from small close-up photographs into an assemblage of a unique whole.
In the studio I study all of my photographs and decide which parts to use based on the kind of image I am trying to create, and I begin to assemble them together. This process takes weeks and sometimes months.
Your images have been described as tense, haunting, inscrutable, jolting, melancholic, disruptive, askew. Is this the kind of art you think contemporary audiences “deserve” to experience?
Some of the best advice I ever received from a professor was to make work that is of your time. I think about the construction of reality that takes place all around us and how that affects people. I don’t expect everyone to like these images; in fact, they should be challenging. I think my pictures ask viewers to confront who they are, or at least begin to question how they’ve come to be who they are, which for some people may be very challenging.
How important are your academic affiliations? Is this just a way to help support yourself, or is it a more important element of your career?
I’ve taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, and the International Center of Photography in New York, and I will teach at Princeton University in the spring. Academic institutions can be great places of serious and like-minded professionals coming together under one roof. I value my associations with the schools I have taught at, and have learned a lot from the different cultures of each. Educational institutions can at times be insular bubbles of methodology and philosophy, places of stagnation and resistance to change, but they are also important conduits for their students to the world of art and artists.
Would you want a more stable academic position?
The stability of a tenured position is something I would like to have and am carefully considering. The right match for me would be one where my skills and insights are welcomed in a forward thinking department and where my accomplishments and continued creativity are encouraged. The experience a working artist brings to students is invaluable, and I have found that some of the best artists have been the best teachers. I was most influenced by Martha Rosler and Dawoud Bey as a student, and I strive to be to my students what they were to me.
Randy Malamud is a professor of English at Georgia State University and a frequent contributor to The Chronicle Review. He is author of Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (New York University Press, 1998) and Poetic Animals and Animal Souls (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). His recent essays for the Review include “Walt Disney, Reanimated” and “Eadweard Muybridge, Thief of Animal Souls.”
(Video used with permission from Ben Gest)