In today's sketchy political climate, most photographers might at least pause upon receiving an a surprise call from a curator in Russia offering to show their art. Luckily, friends Cary Fagan and Joshua Aronson were down for the adventure. This past September, Nizhny Tagil Museum of Fine Arts— located in a small industrial city in the Ural Mountains—put on a solo exhibition around Fagan's art and fashion photographs, fresh off the heels of his collaboration with Solange for her “Scales” performance piece in Marfa, and the album cover he shot for A$AP Rocky's “Testing.”
Fagan was joined last weekend when Nizhny Tagil opened “Mine Dyed Blue,” Aronson's first solo show featuring nine faceless bodies and their pubic hair, some of it on fire. The two sat down to talk about fashion and art as separate contexts, out of body experiences and how when it comes to photography, the viewer's memory is in control.
Joshua Aaronson: I have to ask—how do you conceive of these gallery shows while at the same time making images for your fashion, editorial and more commercial clients? Is there a way of thinking that helps you navigate?
Cary Fagan: The beauty of what I do is that there are options. I try to go into each experience with an open mind, finding the details of light, texture, or mood. Capturing the right portrait takes time. Sometimes it’s not always about just being “creative.”
So it’s about letting your imagination run wild?
Yeah; being open to having an out-of-body experience.
How did you select the works you’re showing in Russia? I’m curious as to your process is like.
After I learned where these works would be exhibited, I wanted to introduce works that best represented my vision. Ironically, we both know the same guy and you’ve just had an exhibition in Russia open, too. I’ve got to ask the same question. What was your process like?
Thank you. My work is, in some way, a product of the balance between allowing things to sort of happen naturally and applying bits of pressure here and there. With the show, I’m interested in the way in which a photograph can spread a message of acceptance. So my selection process was really just about sticking to that message.
Do you think you’ve reached your audience?
I’m not sure. As a photographer, I’m always going back to this question: how do these images play within their context? It’s as if, for me, it’s only one thing to make a photo and a whole other thing to experiment with what that photo can do or say in context. I think I’ve noticed something similar in your photos, too — there seems to be less of an interest in narrative than there is in expressing a certain feeling or message.
When you stay true to yourself, there’s no deciding factor. Whether it’s a feeling, context or message. I don’t shoot for someone to enjoy the concept. From past experience, people have been able to relate to my images from a memory of theirs. After a recent exhibition, a gentleman approached me, and explained that the wrinkles in a couch reminded him of his childhood. The viewer relates from life experience.
Would you say that approach applies to your editorial and fashion work too?
To me, it’s always a project. It’s never about categorizing my works. How do you define balance? What’s your balance between hobby and work in photography?
I love that you bring up hobbies because a huge part of my practice is about trying to recess back into what got me into this thing. Back when photography was just my hobby, I was interested in honesty and process. I wanted to make something honest, and I wanted to try not to care too much about the product. Speaking of beginnings, did you ever think you’d be showing in Russia? Was this a goal that you set out to fulfill in some way?
I often chuckle at the political irony. But art is meant to go against the grain. Having exhibitions was always a goal. It’s nice to work with a medium that translates well. Tell me, what are some of the reactions you’ve received after announcing your exhibition in Russia?
The most popular reaction is just a question: “How did you choose this gallery in Russia?” It’s funny because I didn’t choose the gallery. I woke up one morning to a message in my inbox from a very nice curator there. He asked if I’d be interested in working together on a show and I said yes. I mean, how could you say no? What was it like on your end?
I relate to your story…at first, I questioned the opportunity; it didn’t feel real. But decided to go with the risk. Most people assume it isn’t possible until you show them; this marks my 5th exhibition. [It's about] exposure; why does art have to be bound by border? Art is a universal message. Going back to the thought of “impossible”, before these opportunities I didn’t imagine my art reaching new audiences. It was manifested. Why did you decide to say yes?
I’ll just say I love the opportunity to show in Russia because it’s so today—never before could a young photographer in America be given that sort of stage. I said yes because I loved the idea of doing something that could only happen today. I wanted to ask; you have photographed campaigns and editorials, which is to say you have a foot in the door as far as the fashion thing. Yet your art, while incorporating fashion, is something different. Where do you see the two colliding? How important is to you to bring elements of fashion into the gallery? And is that a decision you’re consciously making?
Wearing clothes and fashion as a whole is art. Mingling fashion into photography is a natural process. Once it might have been something I consciously thought about. Now it’s fluid.
Right. I find it difficult to photograph someone and not think about what they’re wearing. Whether that’s fashion with a capital F or clothing it’s hard to ignore. This project, for me, was about stripping people down of their clothing. I wanted to play with the experience of getting back to nature.
Nature plays a big influence on my work; expression, and experiences/memories encourage the creative process. Do you see yourself exploring new mediums? I feel we can be passionate about one thing but to evolve we must move forward.
I never want to close that door, you know? But it’s important to finish one thing before moving forward to the next. There’s such a push in our “culture” today to be a multi-hyphenate. I believe that if you’re going to explore a new medium, it’s important to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Does that make sense?
Yeah. “How do you know you’re going to use that medium for something greater if you’ve never tried it?” I disagree though. I feel like in today’s “culture” people are afraid to try new things and stick with it because of what’s “trending”.
"Can’t knock it until you try it!"