ANDREA: Would a lot of people like to do that?
ADAM: Apparently not. Monastic attendance is way down. If you think of the passage of the train from the London Underground, from East London to West London, coming to stations and meeting other train lines — it’s a map of all the sexual experiences of your life. The point where those trains cross symbolizes a moment of exchange, a possibility to move in a new direction. So, the map of the London Underground could be a gene map; it’s like an orgy of genes crossing. It doesn’t have to be sexualized. It could be names, it could be ideas. It could be a map of meeting people and exchanging an idea that produces a new idea, a new invention, a new philosophy. The mattress in this series is symbolic of our world — we’re born on mattresses, we’re conceived on mattresses, and we’ll probably die on mattresses. And then, I thought that I want to photograph people on mattresses, because the snake is symbolic of them. I discovered that my daguerreotype technique wasn’t as good as it could be, because I couldn’t retain the quality of pale-skinned models. Their skin was getting darker; it didn’t make sense. That’s why I decided to shoot African Americans — it doesn’t matter if they go dark. I thought it made sense, because I had this cliché in my head that Eve was from Africa, so that kind of tied in with the snake.
ANDREA: And then how did you get to the Medusa, the snakes with the dress?
ADAM: The Medusa story seemed inaccessible to me because it’s a feminine story, a woman’s story. Then my life transpired, and I completely got it. This picture is a very important picture for me because my best pictures have nothing to do with me. As soon as my hand, or my self-consciousness, in on the art making process, I’ve limited it. The best art would be made in a trance, yet the art making process takes part. That’s why Pollock is so great — he lets go before the picture is made. There’s nature between the end of his stick and the canvas. There’s an honesty and universality in it that is very hard to get to with yourself, when the self is making the work. I was looking at the Medusa story and thinking: what the fuck? I don’t even have an entrance to that. What happened was that I was invited to a party, and the theme of the party was Brides and Grooms, so I bought some wedding dresses for my girlfriend, and pretending to be a bride must have tipped her over the edge. It was hell. We were the last of 50-70 couples to arrive. We got back, put the dresses away, and a few months later, I found myself at a breath workshop upstate my wife recommended me to go to. So, I’m in this room with a bunch of people, and these two women were dressed in white. Suddenly the music’s on very loud, and the lights are really dim, and people are doing this breath thing — it was really intense. It was like my head blew off, and I was vomiting, and I was crying, and I was screaming, and it was this heavily cathartic thing. A couple of hours later, I had this thought of putting the snakes in the wedding dress, so I came back to New York and made the picture of the snakes in the wedding dress. I went back and read Medusa, the story we know — the female head decapitated and full of snakes. But there’s the story of how
Medusa becomes Medusa: after Medusa’s decapitated, two drops of blood emerge from her decapitation, and when they hit the ground, they give birth to two beings. One is a golden, shining man — that’s how I felt after this cathartic experience. The other thing that comes out of Medusa is Pegasus, which, for me, is the most optimistic image in art, as it speaks to absolute liberation and freedom of emotion. The image of the dress for me was always the body without the life, it’s a body without a head.
ANDREA: Much of your work feels like a dissection, both literally and emotionally. Why is it important for you to combine the technical and the emotional? Technical, meaning that it’s scientific. Your work is experimental, and there’s a spirituality to it.
ADAM: Well, photography is technical, so there’s an engagement with the materials and the techniques, the root of how you generate the image. That’s always been interesting and a challenge, but I’m not highly technical, while proper photographers are highly technical because, with commercial photography, you have to really know your stuff to get good and consistent results. I don’t have that kind of brain. I just follow my nose.
ANDREA: Why are you attracted to the older methods of creating images?
ADAM: I’m not exclusively attracted to them, and I wouldn’t say the photogram is old-fashioned. I would say that as an image-making technique within that medium, it’s ever-present. From Fox Talbot to Adam Fuss, within that history, it’s a substratum. It’s not historical, except the daguerreotype, but I don’t give a shit about that. I’m interested in it as a print medium, because it holds characteristics that are interesting to me.
ANDREA: Do you have an interest in digital photography?
ADAM: I’m looking into it, thinking about it, exploring it. The reason I got into photograms is because I like its photographic language, which was different than the one that I’d been fed, if you think of images as food. By the time I was 5, I probably had trillions of photographic images, all produced in pretty much the same way, the same conceit. When I reached the age where I wanted to make my own work, I thought: “Fuck that. I don’t want to make images I’ve seen a trillion times; I’m going to try to do something that has a little bit of its own life in it.” No matter how interesting the photographic picture was, it was photographically boring — the syntax, the vocabulary had been used so many times. That led me to the photogram. The daguerreotype is the same story because it’s such a radically different surface, it’s mirror and image at the same time. Symbolically, that really attracted me. The digital presents the same quandary even more, so I’m interested in using the machines to generate images that their creators never thought of. In my last exhibition, there was a whole room of pictures made with digital equipment.
ANDREA: Would you say you’re a storyteller? Do you care if people who are viewing your work know about these references or not?
ADAM: Well, hopefully these images hold all of this material. You stand in front of it, and you may not get it, but it gets you. It goes into you. It stays there. It’s percolating. Image is my language, but I’ll leave it to the viewers to decide if I’m a storyteller. I think of myself as a picture-maker. I’m still committed to exploring what I can achieve in the digital world.
ANDREA: For someone who wants to be a photographer, what would your advice be?
ADAM: My advice is not to do it unless you are enamored with it. Look at historical images, identify the images that speak to you and understand why they speak to you; then you can have a dialogue with that. I think that I chose photography because it was the medium I could be removed from — it wasn’t my mark, my hand.
The photographer Adam Fuss is best known for arresting, brilliant colored photograms that break habits of seeing. His work investigates the elements of life and the basic materials of photography. Part of the appeal of the photogram for Fuss is its directness. The objects depicted in the photogram came into physical contact with the very paper on which the final print appears. The experience is somehow more tactile, more visceral.
Fuss was attracted to photography at school in England in the 1970s and his first photogram was the result of an accident. While Fuss was taking a pinhole photograph using a homemade cardboard-box camera, the opening that served as the camera's lens was accidentally closed off. However, light leaked in from a corner of the box. It struck the color film at a sharp angle, resulting in a graduated color field dotted with the elongated shadows of dust particles floating around the interior of the box. "Light played across the film... When I processed it, I saw this world, this other world of image that I was unaware of. And that showed me that I didn't need the camera any more.