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Photography

A Bizarre Photo Series Flips Off Consumerism and Food Porn

We spoke to photographer David Brandon Geeting about his new show 'Amusement Park.'

Gideon Jacobs

David Brandon Geeting

When I first started sinking my teeth into photography, I considered the medium to be a reactive one. I imagined one carried around a camera and patiently waited, like a fisherman (Stephen Shore often uses this metaphor), for something photographable to occur, for reality to line up in a way that was somehow more valuable than other arrangements. But I soon realized that this was a narrow way of thinking about things, as it doesn’t really leave room for those who dictate the contents of their images, who manufacture photographable moments.

In recent years, my interest has gravitated away from pictures made in a documentarian practice, toward those that blur the line between an active and reactive approach. This has led me to the work of so many great photographers, including David Brandon Geeting. Geeting takes pictures out in the world, and makes pictures inside the confines of his studio. But while these two modes of working are distinct, the pictures they produce are inseparable, as no matter the arena, Geeting is always after the same thing: “a surprise.”

I recently sat down with Geeting at a coffee shop in his Brooklyn neighborhood to talk about his work. His new exhibition Amusement Park is up at Janet Borden Inc. until March 15.

VICE: OK, so the first thing I want to talk about is art. People often want artists to be able to articulate the intentions of a work, or back up their work with some sort of explanation of its meaning. But I’ve always found that a little unfair, as words aren’t, say, a photographer’s medium; pictures are. I once read an article in which you said something like, “Your work should be smarter than you.” Do you try to avoid thinking too hard about your work, or making meaning out of it?
David Brandon Geeting: I don’t want to make things that have no meaning, but I’m not concerned with anything having a specific meaning when I’m making it. And I’m not too concerned with having a fully formed idea before I jump into something. My comment about the art being smarter than you has to do with not fully resolving your idea before you start it. I’ll show up to my studio with a half-assed idea and sort of let the universe figure out the other half.

So you form an understanding of what you’re doing retrospectively?
There are intellectuals who make art and I really don’t consider myself too much of an intellectual. That’s why I’m bad at writing about my work or talking about it. I can talk about the process because that’s kind of all I know. The only way I’m excited about the things I make is when I’m surprised by them, and I don’t think you can be surprised by making something if the whole thing is already figured out in your head.

I think that in this “media climate,” people gravitate towards art that they can make sense of, art that can be explained in paragraph or even a headline. When there’s so much content out there, I think stuff that can be digested and understood quickly wins out.
That’s the same reason I don't think people have time for videos. I don’t really watch videos, especially if they're long.

If people don’t watch videos, then they definitely don’t read. That’s why I’ve been trying to write very short stuff.
If I post something on Instagram without a headline, it generally generates a good amount of likes and comments, and a headline might take away the images effect. But I think seeing one of my images appear in a newsfeed or whatever generates interest because I make photos that are eye catching even if they don’t make sense to people.

I agree that writing definitely can undermine what makes art good.
I like writing, though. I feel like I’m shit-talking writing.

I write for a living, and even I think writing is often superfluous.
There is just too much writing out there these days, and with so many options, it’s tough to get people to read something outside their area of interest.

Do you mean that there’s so much out there, so much competition for your attention, that it’s unlikely you’re gonna read stuff you don’t agree with. If so, that’s the issue that’s being so talked about and unpacked in regard to politics and the election, right?
Yeah. But a nice thing, one thing that breaks that mold is peer-to-peer communication. It’s so easy now to link your buddy to something interesting that you hadn’t seen before and wouldn't have clicked on yourself.

The internet often makes it so that people get what they want, not what they need. It’s like online dating. There’s so much choice available that you only swipe right on people who superficially fit some preformed idea of what you want. That seems troublesome to me, as so many good relationships start with people being surprised by what they’re drawn to, with what works.

I once heard the poet Saul Williams on this radio show talk about how if you’re a musician and you wanna make new music, or if you’re an artist and you wanna make new art, the only way to get out of your comfort zone is to change your diet. You need to change what you put into your body. Read different material. Look at different visuals.

Do you worry about what you absorb, especially in photography? My friends and I have this DM thread where we send each other photos we see on IG of arbitrary fruit appearing in a photo. Like a pretty boring picture that is somehow worthy of publishing because a grapefruit is inexplicably thrown into the frame.
I see what’s popular and make a conscious effort not to look at it. I’m glad people are being creative, and I’m glad Instagram is a good platform for people to share what they make, but I know I’m really influenced by my surroundings. When I first started to get a little online notoriety for making still life images, I fell into, “It’s not weird enough, so let’s throw a piece of fruit in it.” But then I realized that those weren’t really my ideas. So I took a few steps back and rethought exactly what I was doing.

Where do you think your aesthetic comes from? When I walked into your new exhibition, I didn’t see a single piece of organic matter in your photographs. I think I told you, “It’s all so artificial, but somehow not a bummer.”
Before the current popular aesthetic of neon backgrounds with fruit in front of it, there was the fad of window lit food photography on, like, rustic wood tables.

The Kinfolk vibe.
Yeah. I guess what I’m saying is that I eat healthy and try to consume thoughtfully, but I also know that on my desk at home there’s a bunch of boxes from things I just ordered online, and a there’s a Sharpie, and my computer is full of inorganic materials. I think it’s sad that there’s a dolphin out there choking on some plastic, but I think instead of ignoring that and pretending we live in that window lit organic world...

Are you trying to highlight hypocrisy?
I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad about anything. If you’re not a hypocrite I feel skeptical of you. I think being a hypocrite is a sign of being real. It’s natural to believe in two competing things at once. Art is something that should raise more questions than answers. My work makes me uncomfortable, but it’s also therapeutic.

So why isn’t your work a total bummer? Why isn’t the artificiality and superficiality of your pictures sad?
Some of my work looks like it was made by a five-year-old. I think on the inside, I still am excited by stuff I liked when I was five. I still think action figures are cool. I understand why kids are pumped to go to Disney World. I think back to that time before I was jaded, and the things I remember being excited about were all made of plastic.

Well, as society has gotten more thoughtful about consumption, we’ve become more savvy about how we are sold things. We recognize that companies are trying to get kids to buy shit by being bright and loud and sparkly, and we judge it, which we should. But the truth is, kids love bright, loud, and sparkly shit. There’s this happy albeit ignorant place where we can enjoy something before thinking about the complex implications of our pleasure. Do you like the idea of your photos being a simple pleasure? Like walking down the action figure aisle without thinking about the environment, culture, politics, etc.?
Yeah. I’ve never thought about it like that, but I’d say yes. I want the photos to be intricate, but I don’t want them to frustrate anyone.

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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