Historical Images Take on Surprising Meaning When Interpreted Through These Photographers’ Lenses

Photographers Jonathan Gardenhire and Leslie Hewitt share their work in our annual photo issue.

by Jonathan Gardenhire and Leslie Hewitt
Aug 7 2017, 1:30pm

For our annual photo issue we reached out to 16 up-and-coming photographers and asked them which photographer inspired them to pursue the medium. Then we approached their "idols" to see if they would be willing to publish work in the issue as well. What was provided, we think, creates a unique conversation about the line of influence between young artists and those more established in their careers. This post features an interview with Jonathan Gardenhire and his chosen idol, Leslie Hewitt, and an explanation of each of their bodies of work.

While studying at Parsons in 2011, Jonathan Gardenhire began research on black history and black visuality, concerned that neither was adequately represented nor accurately discussed in his curriculum. As he immersed himself in his work, he began to photograph the stacks of books and piles of photos and objects that he had accumulated. He became fascinated with the ways in which the photographs and artifacts carried history and meaning that were elastic and could be re-contextualized while maintaining so much of the original moment in which they were made. While he was making these still lifes, he also began to make portraits of black boys and men, creating more of the images that he had initially set out in search of, and since then he's seen these photos as an ongoing project that he considers, essentially, his life's work. Asked what we could expect in the final stage of this project, he replied, "There is no final stage… I consider my project to be the full depth of my practice."

Leslie Hewitt describes her art as working where the mediums of photography and sculpture meet. She makes images from found materials, like a vintage snapshot or a personal note, which is then incorporated with some type of mass media, like newspaper or magazine clippings, and then placed on the ground and shot from above. The careful, physical layering is reminiscent of sculpture. Hewitt focuses on the often-veiled intersection of political and personal representations while attempting to create a new lens-based art practice, one that pays close attention to spatial settings. The nuances within her photo-sculptures, which at times include protest imagery, challenge the viewer to see beyond simple constructions of photographs and, by doing this, provide a way to see past simple constructions of identity.

Jonathan Gardenhire

Photo by Leslie Hewitt.

Untitled (Encrypt) from Still Life Studies, c. 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Jonathan Gardenhire
Photo by Leslie Hewitt
Photo by Leslie Hewitt. Riffs on Real Time (3 of 10), c. 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

Jonathan Gardenhire: I was introduced to your work by my thesis adviser, Andrew Bordwin. Around that time, I made the image "Origin of the World." I considered an assemblage of images and objects that could be used as a didactic tool to force critiques and comments from my classmates who decided they wouldn't interact with my work in comparison to others. A few years later, I continue to make these images as I've realized they are more of a diagram of the way I organize my thoughts as opposed to a reaction to my peers. What is your approach to constructing images? How do you define a photograph?

Leslie Hewitt: I consider photography through spatial and sculptural terms; for me, the photograph is a material object of desire, love, sadness, beauty, isolation, melancholia, evidence, and power. It is interesting to hear you describe photography as pure thought. I love this concept, how freeing. How generous.

My approach to constructing images comes from a commitment to making tangible the human gaze and what I would like to call a shifting "interiority." Constructing images in this way in my view creates an intimacy with the viewer/reader of each photograph.

How do we expand the medium without moving image?
If we understand photography as fluid and ever expanded, how exciting is it? Unique in its history, it is linked to technology and philosophy in ways that move at an unpredictable and often paralleling rate. It is volatile. This is what makes it so ripe for addressing pertinent questions of our time.

Photographs are inherently familiar. We are able to make stories and draw conclusions from pictures even when we are not the maker or connected to the actual moment portrayed in the image. In my work, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God/Imperfect Man," I use vintage photographs from the derby to reference the racial obstacles and contradictions that existed in the late experimental music performer Julius Eastman's life. It was a connection that I first started to think about during the Starbucks's Race Together campaign, but people who have viewed the work have made all different types of interpretations and connections. How do you select the individuals, events, or memories that some of your work references?
Well, I guess the conditions for our attraction to anything is a combination of the subconscious, which is the perfect marriage of human concerns with survival and the conscious mind. I build on this and give room for unexpected choices. I think this also produces a sense of joy for me in tandem with a critical eye. The poetic register is essential to art. I understand your use of displacement (insertion of the derby images as a metaphor) as a way to shift the narrative structure from operational to associative. I employ this move as well.

How much of your personal life is embedded in your work? How much are you willing to share?
I wonder often if there is something called a collective personal, if I am building a language; it is a language that refers to an archive of the collective personal. This is important to me as it is deeply psychological and perhaps creates a cognitive dissonance with notions of authorship, ownership, and representation.

Photo by Leslie Hewitt. Riffs on Real Time (1 of 10), c. 2006 - 2009. Image courtesy of the artist.
Leslie Hewitt. Installation image c. 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and the Institute of Contemporary Art. Boston, MA.
Photo by Jonathan Gardenhire
Photo by Leslie Hewitt. Riffs on Real Time (3 of 10), C. 2006 - 2009. Image courtesy of the artist.
Leslie Hewitt. Installation image, c. 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. New York, NY.
Photo by Jonathan Gardenhire
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