BOMB in the Building

Flash Points

James Casebere interviewed by Roberto Juarez

Welcome back to BOMB in the Building, where each week we feature a vintage BOMB interview relating to a Season 5 artist or theme. This week we look to the work of James Casebere, who, like Florian Maier-Aichen, has been aggressively pushing the boundaries of what photography is and could be with his tabletop simulations of archetypal institutions. “Casebere’s photographs evoke our deepest fears and longings,” wrote Roberto Juarez, who interviewed the photographer in BOMB 77, Fall 2001. “Perhaps this is because his images captivate our collective imagination, the one ruled by instinct.” Read the full interview here.


James Casebere, "Monticello #3," 2001, digital chromogenic print, 48×60”. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, NY.

Roberto Juarez: I have my ideas of why you used black-and-white photographs in your earlier work, but tell me—why did you use black and white instead of color?

James Casebere: Black and white had more to do with memory and the past. Color was too much about the present, I associated it with color TV, which was not a part of my past. I wanted the images to be related to a sense of history, let’s say, whether personal or social. And I think black and white adds a certain level of abstraction.

Roberto Juarez: What were the images, in the Penn Station installation?

James Casebere: Most of it was a synthesis between two bodies of work, a combination of domestic space in the foreground with romantic, faraway places in the background. I tried, in part, to simulate the experience of sitting on a train, looking out the window. But the foreground might also be a dining room, or a kitchen, or a café.

Roberto Juarez: How did you create that? Was it a layering of pictures through exposure, or was it from a model that you built?

James Casebere: I built a model. Half the time, there’d be a frame dividing the foreground from the background. The backgrounds were images of the American West, corrals, and also one image of a sinking canoe, and one which was simply an outdoor train platform. There was a mission facade in another image. I was trying to create a sense of wistful reverie.

Roberto Juarez: The West is a very romantic idea in the American psyche. I’ve gotten invitations to submit proposals for light boxes in train stations. It’s become such a fad, or an easy art form for public projects to take on, because it’s not that expensive. But you were early.

James Casebere: I used a light box for a show I did at Franklin Furnace in 1981. It sat in the window, facing the street. I was never interested in the context of a fine art photo gallery. I was really interested in the usefulness of art—in a Constructivist sense, or as in the Bauhaus or de Stijl. What all these movements shared—and they overlapped, of course—was the belief that art should not be broken up into separate disciplines. An artist might make paintings, design buildings, do graphics, photographs and sculpture. It was very multimedia. They also shared the belief that an artist had a purpose, a usefulness within the context of the larger society.

I was looking at how art worked within the larger social world and wanted to place my work where most people see other photographs. So I wanted to put my images into the advertising context, the way conceptual artists like Dan Graham were using pages in a magazine as their art. The magazine is one kind of public space, street signs are another. I wanted to design things that relate to people’s everyday experience. People like Dennis Adams and Jeff Wall began using light boxes at about the same time as myself. Adams actually designed the public spaces, the bus shelters, to show them in. There were Holzer’s broadsides, and Barbara Kruger’s billboards. It was the same impulse. We were all thinking about mass media. One of the first images I shot in New York was of a courtroom which I made into a poster, and put up anonymously around Lower Manhattan. There was that anonymous poster phenomenon going on in the Lower East Side at that time.

Roberto Juarez: You make models that sit somewhere between architecture and sculpture. I mean, I’m sitting here with you in your studio, and we’re surrounded by all these structures that you’ve made; do you call them models?

James Casebere:

Roberto Juarez: They’re objects in space, three-dimensional objects that became, through being photographed, illusions or more than simply what they are physically. Maybe that’s how you’ve translated the space. Do you see Aycock’s and Graham’s influence in your structures?

James Casebere: Conceptually, I was following a similar trail. I got more interested in architecture after getting out of undergraduate school. But I looked at the activity I was engaged in as related to installation or performance, because the set or the model I used was temporary, and the image of the set was what most viewers experienced. And that was true for performance artists and installation artists at the time. I simply continued to work the model—that became more and more a part of the pursuit.

Roberto Juarez: Continue that thought, please. The model exists to make this illusion or image but the images that you’re making now are getting to be quite gorgeous things in themselves, objects. That is something that has changed.

James Casebere: You know, part of my program early on was that the seams had to show. That you would suspend disbelief when looking at the object or the image, but the way it was made still had to be clear to the viewer. My models were always clearly models. This is a Constructivist idea; you don’t hide the construction. It’s a Godardian idea, too. This is a value that he held as a filmmaker: you allow the viewer to step back and have a certain critical distance from the experience. You’re not swept away emotionally by the heat of the moment the way you are with a filmmaker like Spielberg.

Read the full interview in BOMB Magazine here.