Louis Mazza: I drove down Lake Street last night at dusk. I had been told that your photographs were hanging on the side of the Sears building. As I drove by there were three passersby standing in front who had stopped to look. You’re holding up a mirror to the community in a way that I think is unique, in that the site of creation and the exhibition space are one and the same. The people in the photographs may pass by a larger-than-life image of themselves every day, in a sense, interacting with the work. Would it be accurate to describe this as a type of “interactive documentary”?
Wing Young Huie: I appreciate and accept all attempts to describe what I do, since I sometimes seem to lack the necessary perspective or desire to describe it myself. In fact, I would rather not get in the way of other people’s interpretations, although I am intensely curious to know what those interpretations are.
A lot of photographers shy away from the documentary label. I don’t mind it so much. Every photograph is a document of something. Every photograph is also surreal. If you call me a documentary photographer than it seems to make sense to call me a surrealist too. I might even prefer that.
Sometimes I think of my collection of Lake Street photographs as a novel. Or a family album. I’m not sure. Even though I strive for a certain transparency in my work, I see my presence everywhere. Maybe its a document of my ideas about photography as much as it is about the inhabitants of Lake Street.
I think viewers are reacting more than interacting. What does it really feel like to see a huge photograph of yourself taken by a complete stranger you met on the street? Empowerment? Here’s my 15 minutes? My hair looks funny? I’m going to send that photographer a nasty letter!
LM: I’ve always loved Gary Winogrand’s work because of his sense of timing. How did your studies with Winogrand affect you? Did his work influence the way you make a picture or capture a moment?
WYH: I was around 24 when I attended the one week workshop with Garry Winogrand. It was an amazing experience. I’m still digesting it 20 years later. With his brusque wit he articulated what I was feeling, or was starting to feel at the time. Much of what he said still rings true. He was uniquely entertaining.
However, he was good in a way I could never be. It took me a while to realize that. I’m not even sure if I want to characterize what I mean by that. In fact I feel a little silly talking about it. All his stuff was interesting. But his best photos are among the best taken by anybody, and there area lot of them.
Certainly I devoured everything I could find that he did. In my twenties and thirties I looked at everybody. I spent a lot of money on photography books and magazines. Not as much over the last several years.
It’s hard to know where influences come from. Really, Winogrand said it best: “The way I understand it, a photographer’s relationship to his medium is responsible for his relationship to the world is responsible for his relationship to his medium.”
I really have no particular method. And I don’t like thinking about process too much. Paralysis by analysis, you know. Shooting pictures is a lot like shooting a basketball for me. When it’s going well the ball seems to go in by itself.
LM: Absolutely! When I mentioned interaction earlier I was thinking about the difference between showing these (or any) photographs in a gallery and displaying them on the street. The latter seems to be so much about people coming in contact with them spontaneously which activates a whole different thought process than if you go to a gallery with the intention of looking. In that way, the show needs the streets and the interaction with the community to optimize its effect and its meaning. The audience shapes the meaning of the work day to day. In this way, it is very similar to net art, web-based art. It is alive and growing within a changing environment. This form of presentation skips over the traditional, established way of presenting art (in a gallery, museum), which is another thing they have in common. Do you think the people in this community would perceive the work the same way if it were in a gallery? Would they come to see it?
WYH: I can think of several differences between gallery/street presentation. Accessibility, for one. This is an assumption, but most Lake Street inhabitants don’t go to art galleries. Just like most of America doesn’t go to art galleries (except in malls). In a way I’m forcing people who routinely walk Lake Street to see my pictures, if only on a subconscious level. When people ask where on Lake Street the pictures are going to be I say, “Everywhere. You won’t be able to avoid them.”
I think having it outside also normalizes it. I mean, being in a museum legitimizes it as art, whether viewers agree or not. But outside? In a way it’s a truer test. Most people see hundreds of pictures daily. We’re a visually-inundated culture. But how many pictures do we see that aren’t trying to sell us something? It’ll be interesting to see if people do indeed notice them solely on their own merit, and think of them differently from advertisements.
Of course we’ll never really know because of the media publicity. After several beers one night I was inspired with the idea of ignoring the press completely. Needless to say I changed my mind. I was passionate about it that night, however. But bringing “good” publicity to Lake Street (and myself) is satisfying. But really, what will the affect/effect be? And how can it be analyzed/quantified? I’d really like to know. The question seems too large for me. Everyone has a opinion, sure. But who really knows?
LM: Did you consider the different ways the public might see the work (walking by, from a passing car, out of their apartment window, in the rain, etc) when constructing the arrangement/placement of the images? How did that affect your decisions? Were you deliberate in noticing how real life would bump up against the media? Were there any conscious placements of your photographs to contradict existing signage or to reveal new meaning in those images?
WYH: I wanted to make the photos as large as possible so that viewers could at least get a sense of the images from across the street or in a car/bus. Most are in store windows ranging in size from 11" x 14" to 4’ x 6’. The largest are on the Great Lakes Center (former Sears), which are 12 by 8 feet. We also rented ten backlit bus stops.
(I say the collective we because this project included a small army of volunteers, friends, art & community organizations, family, family to be–I’m getting married in September–and most prominently Alison Ziegler, the project coordinator, who has been working with me full-time since last fall.)
We also considered billboards, and sides of buses, but they were too expensive. (Billboards maybe too political and too high.) We may still build billboard-like structures that will be placed in parking lots. Photos may be placed on more sides of buildings or in other unexpected places. It’s an organic exhibit. I might still take pictures and just keep adding on to the end.
I wanted my pictures to coexist with everything else out there. I was worried that Lake Street would swallow 600 photos, but at the same time I was conscious that I was adding to the clutter.
We tried to mix up the photos as much as possible and think of Lake Street as one big neighborhood. But we also made an effort to put many of them in areas where they were taken so that the people in them would see them. (One person called me and specifically requested that their picture be as far from their neighborhood as possible.) We tried to avoid anything that would appear to be too didactic, but at the same time we wanted to have fun and maybe tweak some noses.
LM: Is exploitation a concern of yours? Being perceived (either by the community or by the public at large) as opportunistic by using the folks in the community as subject?
WYH: Exploitation? Sure, I carry around a certain amount of guilt. It comes with the territory. I tell myself that they are just photographs. Everybody has photographs of themselves, even ones that they don’t like. To tell you the truth I don’t like thinking about those things too much–it might stop me from working. I try to be responsible to what I’m photographing, and I draw lines, but sometimes the lines get blurry. There are photographs I took that I think are powerful that will not be included in this public exhibit.
LM: When I used to go out into the streets to photograph, I sometimes couldn’t bring myself to take the picture I wanted to take because it somehow seemed invasive to me. As if I was looking at the subject as a specimen, as somehow existing outside of my world. Especially if they are in a vulnerable or emotional moment. How do you deal with a very private moment, in a church for example, when those moments are the stuff of wonderful photographs. It’s what you dream about!
WYH: Some situations are too intimate for me to photograph. And I don’t like showing anyone’s misery just to show that people are miserable. I like what Arbus said: “I don’t particularly like dogs. Well, I love stray dogs, dogs who don’t like people. And that’s the kind of dog picture I would take if I ever took a dog picture. One thing I would never photograph is dogs lying in the mud.”
Churches are great to photograph! I always ask permission from the person in charge who then tells the congregation. I’ve never had a church refuse me. They want my soul. I want their pictures. It’s a fair exchange.
I think people often collaborate, consciously or subconsciously, when I take their picture. I don’t know if this is true, but I sometimes get the feeling people pray harder when I’m photographing them.
LM: In Vince Leo’s essay, he mentions that with this project, “the community has a stake in its own representation.” I think this is the essence of true interaction. There are the things that the people themselves have written that accompany some of the photographs, which to me, is a complete contradiction of what a traditional museum or gallery does, which is to keep people at a distance–to just observe.
WYH: Accessibility breeds interaction. Interaction is about acceptance. When I put up my photographs in Frogtown in an outdoor lot, people told that it was a crazy idea, that it would be down the next day. In a way I thought that once they were up they weren’t mine anymore. That they existed like any other structure in Frogtown. I was a curious observer like anyone else. Surprisingly they were not enhance/defaced at all. They were some pictures taken, but I think those were by the people in them.
LM: Peter Ritter, [author of the City Pages article] mentions the possibility of someone taking a black marker to one of your photos on the street. Would you look at that as an enhancement or a defacement? Or just part of the risk you take in placing things outdoors?
WYH: With Lake Street I feel a little more of an ownership, plus it’s a large-scale collaboration with 150 businesses involved. I think when possible we will remove any markings of street art critics.
LM: Your attitude of “letting go” of the work after you’ve finished and giving it back to the community is very holistic. This draws another parallel to net.art which often generates its meaning from this kind of organic process. Each viewer shapes, to some degree, the meaning of the work and the “art” is a flexible idea.
WYH: I used to place more importance on the photograph itself. Like it was some prize trophy. Working on Lake Street I made a conscious effort to enjoy the process more. I.e., when I interacted with someone I tried not to get anxious over whether or not I’m going to get a good photograph out of it, and instead tried to enjoy the conversation. (It was somewhat successful.)
LM: Do you perceive a shift in the consideration of art toward this notion of flexibility, where less meaning is placed on the thing itself than on the experience it generates for the individual? Or is it nothing new? (i.e., Fluxus, Happenings, etc.)
WYH: I like the idea of being thought of as a Fluxus artist (although I’m not completely sure what that means). Because I usually ask permission first, the photographic act for me is a kind of dance, although most of the time I lead.