Interview by Eidia Mon Amin / Photographed by Elli Trier
A little more than a year ago, I came across Thomas Jackson‘s photographs. They stimulated a curiosity, a fascination, and an intrigue to understand his process, yet they remained a mystery. While working as a teacher’s assistant at ICP, I walked into an open lab and looked at the magnetic board. A test print of paper plates in different colors, floating in mid air, shot against the blues of the evening. Within seconds, I turned around. My exact words: “Who’s print is this?”
Until that point, I had no visual association between the photographs and their creator.
Thomas sat in front of a computer, Photoshop open, scanner ready to accept his film, and test prints printing at a steady speed from the Epson printer above his station. I met the artist amidst his post production process. From that initial meeting, we scheduled an interview. I am glad he agreed, and allowed Elli and me to learn about his work, techniques, and look at his studio space.
Eidia Mon Amin: Let’s talk about the “Robot” book!
Thomas Jackson: Oh, I should have brought it!
EMA: You should have brought it! You made eleven editions of it?
TJ: No, I didn’t.
EMA: Well, your website said you did.
TJ: Well I decided, at first, “I’m going to make fifty of these.” There was this gallery that was in Dumbo at the time and there was a woman named Maddie Rosenberg who specializes in books. I said, “I am going to do fifty of these.” She said “No, you are going to die.” So I decided to do eleven, I got up to five, and I made a one-off artist’s print for her. The book is made out of steel on the inside, which is quite heavy. She said, “I go to a lot of fairs, and I cannot take this steel object doorstep to doorstep, so make me one lighter.” I made her one with aluminum. That one and five steel ones. I think I sold three of them maybe, and there came a point when I could not go any further with this. I have two of them in storage, ready to go. It is very time consuming. The wood; I still have more of that wood, so I could technically make rest of the edition, but I think it’s okay. You’re allowed to make the editions smaller. You can’t make them bigger. Just gluing the steel to the wood, and putting that light in there, I had to learn how to use a router, so I could route the part of the wood with wire, and put batteries inside of it. Also, putting the prints inside was really time consuming.
EMA: Where did you pick up the wood?
TJ: The wood is actually salvaged from a fallen down chicken coop on the location where all the pictures are taken, which is this place upstate.
EMA: And it (the book) includes photographs and illustrations too, right?
TJ: Yes, the book has pretty much the entire series of photographs, and the drawings started out as sketches for the photographs I would take. I really like these drawings. I kept them as something to flush out this narrative, and hopefully raise more questions and create more confusion if possible at the same time.
EMA: It has an antennae.
TJ: Yes, it has an antennae.
EMA: It is kind of like older T.V. sets (with the antennae), but it’s actually a book with photographs. This leads me to the question: How did you start off with this robot series?
TJ: I think it started off with a friend who suggested to me that I should take pictures of a robot— I should make a robot, and I just did it. There was this metal (scrap metal place in Kingston, New York), and I went out there and bought this big steel, oval-shaped cylinder thing, and I was working at a magazine and the time. The IT department would leave junk out in the hallway for the garbage men to pick up, and I picked up these metal things used to hang flat screen T.V.s. Those became the legs, and the steel thing from the metal store became the torso. I went to the Home Depot. I picked up a recessed lighting fixture, and that was the head. Super clamps became the hands, and the feet were surveillance camera parts. I just had those, and I used them. I was extremely upset when the “Wall-e” movie came out, because I swear to God, I did this before that movie came out. But, it’s the last robot in the world wondering around. I like to think mine is a little better, a little stranger and darker.
EMA: Yes, it is stranger and darker and it also has a dark sense of humor. You put it in the middle of the woods, hugging a tree, or in front of a desk, or doing laundry. All human functions. There was one where it was doing laundry, right?
TJ: Yes, that photograph is actually one of the first ones in the series actually. A lot of people responded with: why is there a robot doing laundry? Or why is the washing machine up on cylinder blocks?
EMA: Yes, it is elevated.
TJ: It’s because it didn’t frame well enough, and the water tube doesn’t reach enough, so the water tube does note have to pump as hard… The very first photograph I did actually, did not make the book. The robot was sitting at the dining room table playing solitaire, which was almost too cute, because people play solitaire on their PCs. It was quite silly, but it is a good image and I should resurrect it. It started off being very much more about the work aspect. I did a whole bunch that never made it. I was sort of really learning a lot about how to be a photographer during that series. Developing and refining the style, and there were a lot of misfires. Opposed to as something I really thought through, it was really coming out of my subconscious, in a way. Part of it was – I thought of it becoming a free floating fear and paranoia. I was thinking about this messed up relationship with nature, and this character (the robot) doesn’t really know how to react.
EMA: You mentioned working at a magazine; you worked as an editor, right?
EMA: How is the transition from editor to photographer? How was that journey?
TJ: It came easily to me. I started to get a little bit bored and frustrated with being a writer and an editor. Partly because to do anything as a writer, you do have to think things through from the beginning. If you have to write an article for a magazine, you basically have to do all the research and sell it to them before they can even give you the time of day. It all seemed so cerebral and not subconscious and instinctive. Whereas taking pictures was very sort of natural thing. When I was a writer, I would always have these great ideas, but it was having the ideas that was really the fun part for me. The actual execution was like pulling out fingernails. Taking pictures, I would have these ideas, and execute them joyfully, without any internal resistance— no voice inside my head saying “do something else.” It felt really wonderful. Which is not to say I knock writing from my perspective, which is having a clear idea, and thinking things through, because that’s still something I realize is very important. It’s still something I do. It is hard to progress when you aren’t writing things down and articulating what you’re doing. It is hard to know where you are, and move forward. I have to remind myself of that, and I feel like I should write about something I am doing. I’m rewriting my artist statement all the time. I got into a conversation with a collector recently, and I had two epiphanies.
EMA: What were those epiphanies?
TJ: One that’s important was that even though I kind of frown a little bit on this, I realized in a way a lot of ways my work is about photography about photography. The key ways that I am really interested in digital art and what you can do on a computer, and with Photoshop, but I have been engaged in this personal quest to do that stuff. It occurred to me that (while writing to this guy) that my recent work; especially the pictures I have done over the last year are mostly un-retouched, yet I am still very much a digital artist. That is what I am inspired by. I like to put these constraints on myself to see what I can accomplish by making a set of rigid guidelines, because I think interesting things can happen. I think when you can do anything you want, it’s almost more terrifying than thinking about something you have to conform to. I was thinking about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Jon Stewart is Jon Stewart. He can go on and be himself. Stephen Colbert created this persona, and everything he does, every joke he makes is within strict confines. I think that’s part of the reason why he is so wonderful, and unique. He has this special approach.
EMA: Will we ever not see you do something such as fashion photography?
TJ: I don’t know. I’ve always liked the idea of fashion photography. It was one of the things that got me excited about photography. The one year I had subscription to W and Vogue magazines was really a fine year. When I worked at the magazine as a editor, I loved Italian Vogue and French Vogue. I don’t subscribe to them anymore, but I look at them every once in a while. I think part of what I like about them was how the photographers approached lighting. I don’t like sort of the seamless backdrop with girls in pieces of fluffy fabric jumping around. I liked the gritty motel in the Catskills or something.
EMA: You like locations.
TJ: Yes, locations. And I really liked Steven Klein a lot. But, then I think he really went overboard. Like when he did 30 pages in Italian Vogue, and it was just ridiculous. I can’t even remember all the names of the fashion photographers that I like. A lot of them are really allowed to be very strange and a little deviant. That always appealed to me.
EMA: The work that really compelled me into researching you was “Emergent Behavior“, which I think is probably the most popular series of images. I can easily associate the photographs with you, and it really attracts a lot of audiences. You posted a walkaround video on your blog on “Plates“. It was just amazing seeing the whole three dimensional sculpture in the woods. It reminded me of what Andy Goldsworthy would do. What do you do with the installation? Do you take it apart or leave it like Goldsworthy does?
TJ: I leave it when I can.
EMA: You do?
TJ: Well, generally it’s on somebody else’s property. I mean when I shoot at the place upstate, I leave them. Sometimes. The “Plates” I did leave for a while. Also because it was photographed near a path. There is a year-round stream about twenty yards to the left of where the picture was taken. A week or two after I did that, there was a huge storm, and the guy who owns the house (it probably floods a lot in the Spring time), took a picture of that installation with torrents of water. It looked pretty cool. Another one, “Hoses”, that was shot in the same location, is still there, because my friends love it. This is actually one of my most expensive images, because it is probably designer material. That is about 300 dollars worth of hoses right there. It is the first thing that I made that has been allowed to stay. I am not taking it down, until it falls down, and I have asked them friends to take pictures of it until it does fall down.
EMA: How long does the process take? How does it evolve into what it is now: in its final state of a photograph?
TJ: Well, most of them I just built on the spot. I decided to do something with hoses, so I spent the time finding the right ones. When I find the material I want to use, I decide on what to make. For this, I probably left around 9:30 or 10 in the morning, and got there around noon. I spent the whole afternoon working with them. I always photograph when the sun goes over the horizon, before it’s dark.
EMA: You also tend to choose colors that have vibrant contrasts to the settings.
TJ: Usually, this is a day long process. I did “Leaves” in a day. It wasn’t so hard. I had these long rolls of wire mesh used to make a fence around the garden. I strung it up between two trees, and just walked around with a machete and hacked off branches from maple oak trees. I was allowing myself more freedom in post production when doing that image. However, “Lights” was built in another place. I had a wire armature and I bought a 100 glow sticks and zip tied them to this armature. I took the installation down to the beach. There was a fair amount of retouching on this particular photograph. I would say most of my photographs I make on the spot. The “Cheese Ball” photograph, I made that thing in a studio and I took it upstate and wrapped it around the tree.
EMA: It brings the everyday objects into the wilderness. They are mingling in the photograph. They are co-existing, but there is such a strong presence of these material items against this dark, natural. It shows a dependency we have on these items. Not just in the sense of Post Its or paper plates, but other material and manufactured items. A lot of times we take for granted the actual space that we live in.
TJ: Yes, the thing that I like too, things like Post It notes is that everyone has a very clear association with them. I think of cubicles, and sitting in at office job. Having Post It notes around your computer monitor. I think of “Dilbert“. I just think of the many menial tasks involved in everyday life in the modern world. Whereas the fun comes in taking these objects, and placing them in a completely different context and seeing what happens. It creates this sort of confusion in your mind. When you see something very peculiar and strange, I think that stimulates you, and wakes you up a little bit. My dad actually said something really interesting recently. He is a scientist (a physiologist), who retired a couple of years ago as a professor at Brown University. He mostly did experiments in his laboratory, and he said to me, “What you do and what I do is very similar. We basically have ideas and try them out.” In my case, I take pictures and see what happens, and you sort of have an idea of what you can accomplish. I mean, don’t have a hypothesis. It is still an essence about starting out with a curiosity about what will happen -it all starts in the same place.
EMA: Do you ever considered yourself as a sculptor, or an illustrator? At the same time, you are imbedding all these different forms into your work. So, which one would you associate yourself with?
TJ: I’ve been trying to call myself an installation photographer. How does that sound? But, you cannot meet somebody for the first time and say “I am an installation photographer”, so I am sort of struggling with that. I think you can call me an installation photographer on this website, for people are reading about art. I don’t know if you guys have the same problem. I don’t know if I should call myself an artist, a photographer, or fine art photographer.
EMA: I think when we talk about photographers, we talk about the person’s work without giving it a label. We start off by explaining the work. If I were to explain Vik Muniz, I would talk about how he creates these objects, takes photographs of them, and then destroys the original artwork -leaving only the photographic evidence. Eventually, I think that allows for whoever is listening to form an opinion of what type of photographer the person is.
Elle Trier: At the same time, we are also in a situation where there is a need to distinguish ourselves, so I guess we just need to figure out the proper vocabulary for it.
TJ: I think one of the difficulties with the photography community is that, there are so many different kinds of photographers who are doing work that, you cannot apply the same guidelines and rules. I read an interview of W.M Hunt, and he said a photographer should be doing as much work as possible. If someone is doing fine art photography, he or she should- without a hesitation do as much commercial work as possible, or do editorial work. The more diverse the better. The more enrichment possible. I don’t really do that, but I appreciate the diversity.
EMA: Where do you see yourself and work in ten years?
TJ: I see myself going more abstract. I was reading about Monet the other day, and to see the progression of his work with his age, he became more difficult to pin down. Same thing with musicians. The worst ones only try to imitate earlier successes. They keep on trying to repeat. I think you should try to keep yourself interested, constantly renewing. I think whatever I will be doing will involve things that float. I just like things in the air. I don’t know why. One of the difficulties of taking these pictures is being in the right weather conditions when it is not too windy. I want the pictures to be sharp. “Post Its” This is in Pennsylvania, on top of a hill. There was a pretty strong wind the whole day. They were cool looking, but I thought it would be destroyed. The wind did die; although, you can see the double image from the wind. It made them three dimensional. It occurred to me that I should stop worrying about the wind, and let it be the wind.