February 2013 Issue
A conversation with cover artist Caleb Cole ~
Open Letters: Your photography projects deal conceptually with identity–what makes us unique, makes us stand out? In your series Other People’s Clothes, for example, you portray a number of different characters, each of which seems to inhabit a world that has been tailored for them, distinctive dens. How do you go about constructing these worlds and how do you sense when a world is ‘complete’?
Caleb Cole: All of my projects begin as explorations that quickly develop into a set of rules for how the work will be made. It is with these rules in place that I can really be free to play and think about what the work means. Nearly everything I do begins with hunting for items of significance in thrift stores, yard sales, or on the side of the road. With Other People’s Clothes I’m taking clothing I find, dreaming up characters to fill those clothes, then photographing myself as that character in a fitting location. I have tubs and racks of clothes full characters waiting for their space— acquaintances let me use their homes or I find locations when I’m out in the world and I use them without permission. Once I find the right location I frame up an environment with my camera on a tripod and use my camera’s self-timer to trip the shutter. I almost always work alone, though for harder shots I have had some assistants. I leave the spaces exactly as I found them and only remove something if it will dramatically alter the meaning of the image. I know I’m done shooting an image when I see it on the back of my camera and can’t get it out of my head, when every subsequent image fails to compare.
OL: You’re unafraid to dramatize, making something gripping and iconic out of what may otherwise be rather humdrum lives. Context and ephemera aside, how do you center on what moment or emotion to make into a story?
CC: I’m pretty obsessed with certain narratives and those find their way into everything I do. I think a lot about the ways that human expectations and desires rarely match up with the reality of our lives and so I’m interested in the ways that people negotiate that. I’m interested in failure. I’m interested in the ways that people live with boredom or meaninglessness. I’m interested in the ways that people construct their own identities and how they manage to relate to or feel alienated from other people. I don’t know if that sounds like a wide or narrow range of interests but the way people make sense of their lives, their identities, their bodies and their mortality is pretty fascinating to me. So all that stuff is always in my head and is funneled into everything I make. The things I make are the products of a line of questioning I’m working on–I’m less interested in making a statement than I am in asking questions of myself and others.
OL: Your series Odd One Out is composed of altered photographs. How do you select which photographs to work with? And then what guides your process?
CC: With Odd One Out, I collect vintage group and family photographs then remove all but one of the group, leaving the odd one behind. These are the people who don’t play by the rules of looking into the camera and smiling; they appear to be lost in their own interior worlds and physically isolating them from the group makes visible the idea of their internal sense of isolation. I can spend hours digging through old photos at antique malls and the ones I select are the ones where I connect with someone looking back at me across time, where I feel a spark of recognition when looking into their face. I don’t use every group photograph I come across and even the ones I select, though I will go through the process of preparing the image, don’t always make the series — some fail to move me or get me thinking and so I eventually cut them.
OL: What kinds of reactions have you garnered from Odd One Out? I find them hugely moving, but I can’t put my finger on why. Something about our essential lonesomeness yes, but also the passing of time, the way it robs us of everything, surrounding us with a void. Was that one of your aims in the project or is it a happy (& melancholy) accident?
CC: The use of vintage and antique photographs rather than contemporary ones definitely responds to the passage of time, and also how photography has been used since its creation. I love that different viewers access the work through a variety of narratives–some of them have had to do with casualties of war, others with victims of sexual abuse, and others with race, sexuality, or mortality. My aims with the series were initially to explore how people construct their identity in relation to a group, how they connect with or feel isolated from other people and how they deal with the idea that we are all ultimately alone in the world. But all of these other interpretations and responses to the work are a part of it as well and equally as valid.
OL: Could you tell us some details about our cover photo, Refinement and Elegance? It conveys a wonderful haughtiness, but also whimsy and vulnerability (the sleeves on the jacket are a bit long, the smugness of the character is out of keeping with the populist painting behind him). What object or garment did it begin with and how did that help create a window in? How did you arrange the shoot?
CC: This was a situation where, unlike the images where I bought clothes first and then sought out a location, someone invited me to shoot in their apartment and gave me access to their closets. I found a bag of some of his old clothing from the seventies that he was about to donate and instantly connected with this blue suit. I loved how the blue fit in with the blue of the living room but I also loved how the style of the suit and the furnishings in the room make the image hard to place in time. The title comes from one of the books in the stack beneath my hand and it points to a mismatch between the character’s desires and his circumstances. As a viewer we do not know the man’s financial situation and the related visual cues are confusing, but he projects an air of superiority and pride, though there are also hints of guardedness and insecurity. I like that mix.
Born in Indianapolis (1981), Caleb Cole is a former altar server, scout, and 4-H Grand Champion in Gift Wrapping. His mother instilled in him a love of garage sales and thrift stores, where he developed a fascination with the junk that people leave behind. Cole is a 2011 St. Botolph Club Foundation Emerging Artist Award winner, 2011 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship Finalist, 2011 Somerville Arts Council Fellowship awardee, 2010 Magenta Foundation Flash Forward Winner, 2009 Artadia Award winner, and a 2009 Photolucida Critical Mass finalist. He has exhibited at a variety of venues, including Gallery Kayafas (Boston), the Danforth Museum of Art, Photo Center Northwest (Seattle), Good Citizen Gallery (St. Louis), Childs Gallery (Boston), and Jenkins Johnson Gallery (NYC). Cole was also featured in Boston Magazine (HOME) as an emerging photographer who is “shaking up New England’s visual arts scene.” He is represented locally by Gallery Kayafas.