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JoAnn Verburg on Newspapers as Portals to the Political

By Paul Schmelzer

True-to-life scale is vital to photographer JoAnn Verburg: she prints her photos at life size to draw viewers in and encourage them to identify with the subjects in her work. So a kitchen table, laid out for breakfast, is scaled as if to welcome viewers to pull up a chair, while a newspaper—presented so that text is legible—begs to be read. But these newspapers, intermittently part of her work since 1990, serve another purpose as well, piercing idyllic scenes of her husband, poet Jim Moore, napping or lounging, with news about poverty, war, and—in a work on view in the Walker exhibition The Living Years: Art after 1989—the terrorist attacks of 9/11. During a recent conversation at her Minneapolis riverfront studio, Verburg said that she sees the newspapers as portals into the political, reminding us of the myriad realities coexisting in the world.

Paul Schmelzer

Tell me how you see the newspaper functioning in your photos. What does it do?

JoAnn Verburg

One thing that it does, which is the same thing I’m doing when I use multiple frames, is suggest that there’s more than one thing going on in the world. There’s more than one vantage point, more than one reality. It’s not just a monocular, fixed view of the world, which would be my ego presented to you as a photograph.

Schmelzer

You’re subtly letting people know it’s not all about you? “There’s another world out there and I want you to not forget about it, even though I’m showing you this other thing that is so intimate, my husband.”

Verburg

Right. So subjective, so about me, so personal, and yet I’m aware that you have another perspective. There are other vantage points, there are other perspectives, other subjective beings outside my frame and my imagination. That would be the basic use of the newspaper. Then I often give the viewer something to read, which is usually (but not always) life-size newspaper text. In that case, there are two things going on. One is that you’re engaging the subject matter, which tends to be a story about the consequences of war or greed. Second, you’re also doing what the person in the image is doing, which I love. Jim is reading the newspaper as you are reading the newspaper, only he is not a person. He’s the simulacrum, and you’re the person. The time in the photograph and the time in the gallery are in collusion in some really odd way, a way that appeals to me. There’s that—the question about what’s reality—and the fact that these things all exist simultaneously.

Schmelzer

What was the first piece you did that featured a newspaper?

Verburg

I was photographing Jim. I was still getting used to the idea that I was living with somebody, which was disturbing every cell of me because I’d never lived with anybody before. I wasn’t used to it, and I loved living alone. I was photographing him and absorbing the idea of him. In this particular case, I was staying in Florida. I thought, “Well, I’ll just try doing a panoramic image of the two halves of his body.”

At the time, I was looking through art books and found a Van Gogh, one of the sunflower paintings, in reproduction. And I was thinking, “Where’d that green come from?” I realized it had been reflected, or at least that’s my idea. I think Van Gogh reflected green into the picture, because it makes no sense otherwise. It comes from nowhere. I thought, “I’m going to try that.” I took something red, and put the newspaper in near his feet and bounced red light on it.

The newspaper is life size in the final image. You can read the story: It’s the day that Ceausescu, the dictator of Romania, was executed. It looks a little bit like Manet’s Execution of Maximilian. This is coming out of a series of very quiet, intimate, love-filled, or questioning portraits, and I thought, “I’m going to hate this.”

When I put the two together and I looked at it later as a diptych, I actually felt that by adding the newspaper, what started out as—I don’t want to say a claustrophobic portrait—but certainly an intact portrait that wasn’t missing anything, the sense of Jim’s reality shifted to being even more separate. Not isolated, but somehow even more private and intimate.

Schmelzer

Is the diptych also functioning to create a barrier between Jim and this sort of reality?

Verburg

I don’t like the word barrier because I really think the power of a diptych is that both sides are there together. The fact that it’s two different images does reflect the fact that there are two realities, but they’re together. The implication is that they are simultaneous, although they are not. Also, I always use that day’s paper: “This thing happened, the story was being told that day, the day that he was taking his nap.”

Schmelzer

How does the content of the newspaper story that’s visible play into this image for you, and in general?

Verburg

In this specific case, it’s a choreographed death. It’s an execution. It comes from the pain of a whole country, or at least many, many people in Romania. But in the photo, Jim feels really sort of drifty, dreamy. It’s not an ending. It’s just a floaty, dreamy, drifty sense of being. The newspaper feels quite the opposite: it’s more concrete, I think. And finite. The newspaper’s the end of something, while Jim, on the other hand, is in a liminal state. It’s past tense, future tense. Again, I’m interested in making pieces where seemingly incompatible realities can exist. Life is like that.

Schmelzer

The title of your 2007 MOMA show, Present Tense (which came to the Walker in 2008), seems so fitting for these photos because of the idea of presence and tension coexisting.

Verburg

Exactly. That goes back to Missing Children (1988), my first photo that included text. This piece [showing a breakfast table set with food and a milk carton bearing the images of two missing children] is life-size, with part of the table in the foreground. There’s a sense of presence that you’re there at the table, that it is your—the viewer’s—presence. As you look at the picture, it’s your time. You’re breathing the same air as is in this photograph. I really like that. If that does work, that’s a really important part—that present moment of the gallery, and the present moment of the photograph getting confused a little bit, the boundarylessness of that. Beyond that, there’s this tension represented by what’s on the milk cartons.

Schmelzer

Why the breakfast table?

Verburg

I like the kitchen table as a site for this sort of work because at the kitchen table one is sometimes just waking up, vulnerable, half in a dream state, sitting in morning light (maybe) and reading the paper (maybe) that has news of another reality. So it is a point where dreams and real nightmarish news coexist. And I think it’s more likely that those breakfast table moments are moments when political ideas form and maybe even change.

I used to be a person who went to demonstrations, and I still occasionally do, but I am more inclined to speak my mind “over breakfast” now, by which I mean moments of openness and vulnerability. More dramatic and strident afternoon events can be awfully hard-boiled: full of people whose minds have developed one way or the other. They still have their place, and body count and showing up can be meaningful, but falling out of one’s dream-life into the news is a remarkable transition.

Paul Schmelzer

Some of these newspaper pieces address current events head on. Tell me about the Secrets series.

JoAnn Verburg

At the time I was working on these pieces, I had been told a secret by someone and I was told not to say anything. I’m really good at keeping secrets, but it drove me crazy. It felt like a lie because I was walking around in my life feeling as though there was another layer that was hidden and had to remain hidden.

I was in a place with one of these tables—with the perforations on the table’s metal surface—and I discovered something odd and useful when I was looking through my camera’s lens: wherever a shadow was cast on an out-of-focus part of the table, you could see through the tabletop. Where there was sun on the table, even if it was out of focus, it seemed to be a solid (or perforated) plane. When I placed the newspaper headline under a shadow, the reality of the story seemed hidden under a different reality. On top of the table, there was a sense of leisure: light, color, and a bottle of sparkling water. What could be better?

It was a metaphor for me for the hidden existing in another more conscious version of reality having to do with this specific personal problem I had. But of course, there were greater problems that we face—in this case, poverty. The newspaper has this ridiculous headline that says, “In Ravaged South Bronx, a Camelot Is Envisioned.” I placed the headline under an out-of-focus shadow, so that it could be seen below the tabletop.

In the case of Secrets: Iraq (1991), beneath the coffee cup, with the beautiful morning light coming in, there’s a story about our American troops who have not been inoculated because the military didn’t send the right kind of medicine with them when they shipped them over to Iraq. All you have to do is turn 30 degrees to the left, and there’s so much going on that you’re ignoring. But it’s still there. It’s like this festering secret.

I was taking these pictures in frustration because I needed to let this out somehow but I couldn’t tell the secret. That was the personal motivation, and of course, absolutely, the personal and the political are intertwined and inseparable.

Schmelzer

In Secrets: Iraq, it’s not so much a secret because it’s a news story, but it’s a stand-in for these kinds of secrets.

Verburg

It’s like a layer in Photoshop. These stories can be like layers in your life that you’re either consciously or unconsciously avoiding. That’s the secret. In this case, it was Iraq. You travel through your life, you’re not thinking about what’s going on in this other part of the world that’s the responsibility of your own country, of your taxes, of your vote. It’s very, very easy just to float through the day without thinking about that stuff, so it becomes like a secret.

Schmelzer

WTC and Terrorized, which are arrestingly presented side-by-side in the Present Tense catalogue, both feature Jim, this person you love and who’s long been a subject in your work—although he’s obscured by the newspaper. This may be a blunt interpretation, but is there a message that the reality of the war on terrorism means the death of loved ones?

Verburg

Right. Susan [Kismaric], the curator of the MOMA show, and I talked about this a lot because I had just lost a number of people in my life and she had just lost her sister to cancer. When we would talk about the war in Iraq, it was with a very fresh understanding of what it means to lose somebody. It doesn’t just affect the wife or the children. A lot of people suffer when someone, even in the best circumstance, dies. It’s always difficult for the people who are left behind.

The idea that someone is shot, or mistakenly shot, or in the line of fire at the wrong moment, all those kinds of things would make it so much worse. The fact that the death is caused by a political ideal that isn’t necessarily agreed to by the person who experiences the loss would make it so much harder. In other words, we just both felt that each death in Iraq, each injury too, was the beginning of a ripple effect that just doesn’t stop. You’d have to have generations of people follow before it’s not felt in the same deep and tragic way.

Schmelzer

Jim is often obscured by the newspaper in these shots. Tell me about that choice.

Verburg

Do you know the type of painting called “The Madonna Enthroned”? There’s a Madonna on a throne and she’s holding a baby. There are a million of them. But in some of Giovanni Bellini’s versions, there are often little bits of landscape slipping in on the sides of the painting, behind the throne. That’s where I got my structure. I’m using the central newspaper—like the throne—to block the view, but there’s also a hint of a lyrical landscape going on. It’s not one or the other.

For me the richest, deepest, most meaningful art isn’t exclusively either political or beautiful. It doesn’t just do one thing. It can contain opposites and it leaves open uncertainties.

The date of this exposure was the Sunday after 9/11, but I didn’t print it right away. It usually takes me a while to figure out that it should be printed. In this case, it was the Sunday after the World Trade Center towers were hit by airplanes. We hadn’t invaded Iraq at this point, and I think people didn’t even understand how big a story it was going to be. Everyone was in shock, and I saw Jim reading the paper on the back porch and saw the fog and the flowers. I probably didn’t just stumble out there with my camera, though. I probably set it up and wanted the two sides of the newspaper to be showing, so I had him with backlighting and reading this page so that the light could come through like that.

As I said, I like the structure that comes from “Madonna Enthroned” paintings. The Madonna and baby are surrounded by another world that’s both a portal and a relief from the central story. The newspaper is also a portal, but obviously of a very different character, leading to strife and problems that are taking place outside the frame. In WTC, the central story is that we as viewers are reading the paper along with Jim. All of these things are happening at once. It feels unreal, as though in a dream.

Jim is in a different time. He’s in the time of the events that are taking place in the newspaper. He’s the Sunday after 9/11 and we are in “after.” We’re in his future.

Schmelzer

There’s a real sense of mourning in this piece.

Verburg

M-O-U-R or M-O-R-N-I-N-G?

Schmelzer

Well, that’s a good question. [laughs] It’s funny, because in last week’s interview with Paul Chan, he misheard something and it really led to a better truth.

Verburg

I think it was about mourning—mourning, among other things, the loss of our innocence. This story [featured on the newspaper page] of people being frisked at the airport was the beginning of mistrust of travelers that will probably never go away. That was like a toggle switch that got flipped when this event happened—the wave of government rules and statutes and laws that came afterward in the guise of protecting us from the bad guys. There’s a lot of baggage in those laws. There’s a lot of phobia in those laws. I’m not pretending that I know what to do or how to solve the problem of people living in this country who would like to destroy lives randomly. At that same time, I do recognize and I am absolutely aware of the cost of making laws that restrict people, and that’s been happening ever since.

Schmelzer

Terrorized has a different, less calm, quality to it.

Verburg

That was the next day—the day after 9/11.

Schmelzer

How do you now view these two photos today, from the distance of time? How are they different in your mind?

Verburg

The Terrorized picture was the deer-in-the-headlights moment. Such shock and disbelief. I walked over to this house with Jim and asked him to pose in front of that house, which was kind of falling apart. There was a sense of distress in the building, in the architecture behind him. It was still that gorgeous blue sky that we’d had the day before, and I knew that I wanted him to wear something blue that would relate to that.

We walked over together. I think I brought a chair for him to sit in—like a little lawn chair or something—and placed him in front of that house, that distressed background that was also very beautiful color-wise, with the open newspaper that was also about distress and these very intense colors that were beautiful colors.

Just the horror and shock. We didn’t really know yet what was going on. It was so new. That was that piece. It was really about the shock of that day, that 24-hour period.

With the other one, we’d had a few days to realize that we weren’t going to wake up from a bad dream and that it had really happened … and now what?

Schmelzer

This piece feels almost funereal because of the flowers.

Verburg

No, it is. When you said mourning, I think that’s really very much the spirit of this piece. And the fog. Something about the fog feels very spirit world here.

Tragedy and beauty together. They are both true, happening at once. Mourning and morning. Because there is also a sense of hope, I think, in the presence of beauty even in our darkest hours. Tragedy exists and beauty exits. They are not mutually exclusive. And they are both going to continue. It’s our job to negotiate between them, which can be confusing. But it is part of being human. This isn’t an ending.

Conversations in an Election Year

Based on the belief that artists’ voices are vital in the conversation about creating a better society, this series of discussions is interested in politics with a lowercase p—concerns about power, inequality, and participation—and ways that artists’ personal values interface with it.

JoAnn Verburg, Untitled (1/11/92), 1992

All photos © JoAnn Verburg 2012 unless otherwise noted

JoAnn Verburg, Untitled (Belly Button), 1991

JoAnn Verburg, Untitled (Ceaucescu/Nap), 1990

JoAnn Verburg, Still Life with Jim, 1991

JoAnn Verburg, Birthday (Big Head/Little Head), 1995

JoAnn Verburg, Missing Children, 1988

JoAnn Verburg, Spectral Ecology, 1994

JoAnn Verburg, Secrets: South Bronx, 1991

JoAnn Verburg, Secrets: Iraq, 1991

JoAnn Verburg, WTC, 2003

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints, 1505

Photo: Wikipedia

JoAnn Verburg, Untitled (High Risk/Nap), 2012

JoAnn Verburg, Terrorized, 2006