Photos That Blur the Line Between Public and Private Personas
A preview of the latest volume of <i>Mossless</i>, which explores identity, portraiture, and the things that people keep secret.
VICE and the photography publication Mossless have been buds for quite some time, so when I found out Mossless founder Romke Hoogwaerts was taking on a new project in partnership with International Center of Photography here in New York City, we had to find out more. The ICP's exhibit, which opens on June 23, is called Public, Private, Secret, an apparent nod to the Gabriel Garcia Marquez quote, "All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret." To accompany it, the fourth Mossless volume will be dedicated to the same themes of privacy, secrecy, and the different identities people put on.
Below is an interview we did with Hoogwaerts, and following that are excerpts from the book, including conversations with photographers Stacy Kranitz, Anouk Kruithof, Molly Soda, and Arvida Byström.
VICE: Last year you discussed taking a small break from Mossless to focus on other projects, what made you go full force into a new iteration in partnership with ICP?
Romke Hoogwaerts: We had been planning a big book on portraiture and identity. It was a really daunting idea. The whole concept is massive and has been explored in more ways than we could possibly undertake. We just thought we couldn't do it on our own. It was at the New York Art Book Fair last year. I was falling apart, and I remember telling people I needed to take a year off. Keep in mind, we do this in our spare time! When we're working on a project, we basically wave goodbye to meaningful spare time and time to spend with friends. It can take a toll on you. Hell, in the middle of making the last book, I suffered a stress seizure that paralyzed my left shoulder for a few weeks. But at the end of the book fair, [ICP Curator-in-Residence] Charlotte Cotton came to our booth and asked if we wanted to collaborate. How could we say no to that? With their support as well, we knew it would all be possible.
What inspired the theme? Was it something you had in mind from the beginning, or did it take gathering work for the common subject matter to show through?
Since we'd already gathered a ton of content on the theme of portraiture, when we were told that ICP's first exhibit would be on themes of privacy, I figured there was a perfect opportunity to mix ideas. We came up with the name Public/Private/Portrait, and oddly enough, ICP independently came up with the exhibit title Public, Private, Secret. We had a lot of work that applied perfectly and found a lot of other work on the theme that was incredibly powerful as well.
How do you choose what work to include and exclude? What drives your decision?
Oof. That's a tough one. I'd like to say intuition, but it's so relative to what I'm looking at, what I saw before, and unavoidably also the things I haven't seen that I'm missing. I don't really like to make calls for submissions for themes because I know I'll have to turn a lot of work down. I prefer to consistently look at work online, click every link I can, subscribe to every newsletter that seems useful, and so on.
Work we exclude... If something's been seen a whole lot, or if the artist isn't present online, those are two no-nos for us, generally speaking. Then of course, if the work just doesn't feel right, or is already covered by another artist in the book. There's no reason to double up on the same concept if they argue the same point.
Mossless started as an online platform, and as you continue to work on the project, it becomes a publication that focuses primarily within the print format. What prompted the shift? Why the focus on print, and how does it fit into the modern landscape in which we experience photographs?
Print was always the end goal. When I was doing the four-question interview format, posting every two days, I encountered an artist that could not possibly be explored so compactly. That was Sean Vegezzi, one of the four features from our first issue.
If you like, reblog or save a photo online, it's not the same as owning a physical copy. The ownership of a photograph or an artwork, it becomes part of your identity in a weird way. The work becomes a part of you! I don't know how to explain it, but that's how I personally feel, and it seems I'm not the only one.
The wealth of content online has affected a ton of industries, but we try to work in tandem with it. We try to distill a lot of what we love from lesser-known artists online into beautiful objects that our readers and the artists themselves can love. What a joy it is to see those books in the physical world! The book we're making right now is shaping up to be an incredible object as well. We have so many incredible artists in it and a magnificent designer, so if we reach our goal on Kickstarter [which they just did], we'll get the treat of it existing IRL too.
Below are excerpts from Mossless 4: Public/Private/Portrait:
Interview with Anouk Kruithof
Anouk Kruithof: [These subjects in #EVIDENCE], they're just caught with a weapon. It's basically people who smuggle something in their hand luggage who should not do that, right? I like it, the identity cards in the States, they have all different colors for states. That's why you have very different identity cards. Sometimes in the comments [of the social media posts these censored ID cards get posted to], you can also see that people are guessing, Oh, he must be from California. But to me, it doesn't matter that much that those people took something in their hand luggage when they couldn't—you know, who cares, in a way. But the fact that the TSA, as a government agency, having an Instagram account and seriously post this, why would they not take it away and just take a picture of the weapon?
Mossless: Is this what you sample from Instagram?
Yeah, this is what I take out, and then I print it small, and then I rephotograph it, and then I print the bigger files on latex and vinyl, and this [pointing to her sculptures] is some kind of PVC-like, shower-curtain-like material, and this is thin PVC, and those more organic ones are latex.
I love that one.
I like the fact that the cards are aesthetic and are therefore seductive. It's very seductive, but on the other hand, it's also so questionable to the privacy of people in the online circulation of images... that to me is the interesting point, where [the work] has a little bit of friction. And that's also why I use these images, because it doesn't matter that much to the TSA in the end, but [it's questionable how a] government agency is working with the identity cards of people in this manner. I also didn't see anything else on the internet where I could find imagery like this, because I really looked but I don't know... it's a bit like, to me, a little pearl out of the #EVIDENCE project to find it.
Interview with Stacy Kranitz
Mossless: At what point in meeting a community and spending time with them do you start involving yourself in the images?
Stacy Kranitz: So, over a period of time working in this documentary tradition, I came to feel many limitations to the way I work, and I had a lot of beliefs about how one should go about making documentary work in this post-post era of documentary. I've come to see many types of projects even in their more formal kind of approach can be really inspiring, but for me, I could no longer make work like that. I was very much interested in how my subjective ideas played a role and changed the projects and made me move in different directions. One of the things that I was very interested in is this idea of objectivity as a fantasy. So, I had said after [portraying] Leni Riefenstahl, I'm never going to utilize myself again. It's awkward, it's kind of self-serving, and it was not... me. I had wanted to make documentary work about other people, but at the same time, I was feeling like all of that work was very false. So I came into this Appalachian work, and I had started to make this work and again. I wasn't in that work at first, which is always the case. In this case, it's a very different approach to bringing myself [into the photographs]. In Appalachia, you cannot escape this insider-outsider dichotomy. It's just impossible. It's always been a major issue. Instead of telling people how to make work, I believe it's much more important to show so that's where all of this came from...
I was sick of just the drive-by scenario; you come in, you meet somebody, and you have an encounter with them—maybe it's 24 hours, maybe it's even a week, maybe it's just ten minutes, and then you leave. That becomes an important anchor in the work, but really it's very vapid.
I don't know if you want the context of the character I play in Appalachia—Chr.. Christy, do you need that context?
I wasn't aware that you were playing a character. So it's not exactly Stacy Kranitz in the photos?
[laughs] I thought for a second you said Chris Christie!
Oh no, no, no, he has no relationship to Appalachia [laughs]... My first understanding of Appalachia [was with movies]—and that's what I was thinking a lot about, when we travel or make a body of work, we research that place—we have a fantasy. And then we go to the place, and the actual place pushes against that fantasy. It's almost like a wrestling match because the fantasy still sticks around. You're still looking for it, even though, in reality, it's not there. That insider-outsider relationship is so significant...
Christy was the first thing that I saw [about Appalachia], a novel, and then it was a mini-series, written by this woman named Catherine Marshall. It was about her mother. It came out in the 1960s, and the mini-series came out in the 1980s, so I saw it when I was a child. I have the nine hundred–minute mini-series... so good, so bad. So basically, it's based on a real story of her mother's experience in 1910 or 1912. She was living in Asheville when it was a city, so it was kind of sophisticated. There was lower, middle, and upper class. And as a Christian—I think they were Catholic—they were given the opportunity to go and work in the mountains with these mountain communities.. she was eighteen or nineteen, and she was sent to work with this mountain community in the Smoky Mountains of Appalachia to teach children how to read and write and clean themselves. That's what missionaries did at that time, and I see a correlation between being the missionaries asserting a right and wrong onto a group of people. I think that's similar with the [role of] photojournalists.
Molly Soda: When did you start feeling comfortable sharing private moments on social media?
Arvida Byström: I can't remember who said this or if this is a famous thing so—I don't know, maybe somebody can correct me if I'm not quoting somebody properly... but I just remember somebody talking about personal and private, and I don't think I'm at all private online but do think I'm personal, you know? Maybe I have a weird idea of what's private and what's personal... it's not like I mind telling people I'm depressed or I feel like this or that and like you know, important things. But I don't put out my whole life, people don't actually know... That's what I feel like, that people actually don't know a lot about me.
Yeah, that's kind of how I feel—like I feel like I'm sharing like a lot, or seemingly sharing a lot, but actually sharing nothing, basically.
Yeah exactly, like your body, if you see that as super private... that's one thing, but I think, I don't know, I don't think...
Yeah, but when I was a teenager, I would share everything like on LiveJournal. I would write down like every single thing that I did that day.
Dude, I would do things like that too! Answering weird Q&As, you know.
Like the whole night.
I want to do a Q&A now. They're so fun. They're like, "Who's the last person you kissed?"
I know, oh my God—so much like that... have you done the ones that are just like, "Have you done this?"
Oh totally, I'm gonna find one, and do it in a sec.
Things like that are actually more private, maybe... but even on Tumblr, I guess that happens once in awhile.
I see them, but people don't answer them.
Yeah exactly. That's what I feel too: People never answer them.
They're like for the inbox or something... I never understood what those were about.
Yeah, maybe it's mainly teens that have so much time that they need something to entertain them.
That's true. Maybe it's just cause I had more time.
Yeah, I think that's kind of it.
David, Mortram's subject, is a blind man. Mortram followed David's struggles with blindness, his reliance on his mother—his sole caretaker, who passed away. Mortram was present before and after her passing. In this photo, David steps outside his home, still not used to doing so without the tug from his mother's jacket.
Mossless 4: Public/Private/Portrait is being made in conjunction with Public, Private, Secret, which will be exhibited at New York's International Center of Photography.