By Becky Huff Hunter
Matt Giel was the first artist I met after moving to Philadelphia three years ago—his MFA show at the Crane Building was beautiful, so I picked up his postcard and gave him a call. I curated his work in the exhibition Duett at Grizzly Grizzly in 2012, he rescued a roving squirrel from my apartment a little later, and now we’re friends who share a CSA. Matt’s expanded photographic practice encompasses analog image making, painting, performance, installation, and participation. He also works as an exhibition photographer and preparator.
I visited Matt’s studio in spring 2014 and our conversation began while looking at this photograph on the wall:
Becky Huff Hunter: I want to know more about this piece…
Matt Giel: That was kind of a performative print. I learned a while ago that citric acid can affect the emulsion of photo paper. One day I was eating pho, squeezing lime into the soup—it was actually just before my darkroom printing performance at the Crane Building—and where my fingers touched the print it left these areas, white rings with yellow and green because of the lime residue. I wanted to incorporate this into a photograph. So, here, I’m peeling and eating an orange during the exposure of this cloud photograph.
BHH: This is my first time in a darkroom since art school. When in the development process did you eat the orange?
MG: With the orange piece, first I ate an orange and timed roughly how long that takes—about 90 seconds—then I made sure that the settings for the print would take 90 seconds to expose, and in the darkroom while eating, let the peel and juice from the orange get all over the print during the exposure. I have to wait until my chemical bath is pretty much exhausted—almost out of date—before I experiment with ingredients like this. Getting orange juice in the chemistry isn’t good for it.
BHH:So few people work with analog photography anymore and darkrooms are dying out. What keeps you interested in the medium? Does scarcity have something to do with it?
MG: I’m attracted to the tangibility of film and paper, its material qualities. The darkroom has always been my favorite aspect of photography—more than operating a camera and much more than editing on the computer—it’s central to my practice. It’s gratifying to make a print after fussing around in darkness, anxious that all of the settings and everything are correct. Digital is immediate; film makes me pause and think while I’m working with it.
With the experimental darkroom-based pieces I’m exploring the margins of a nearly defunct mode of image-making (RA-4, color darkroom). Photography as a discipline has consistently changed and evolved in terms of production, from Daguerreotypes to commercially manufactured film and photo labs, to digital—and everything in between. For most people, the realization of the image is secondary to the image itself; I suppose I’m the opposite. My images are purposefully mundane; the “object-ness” of the print is what counts.
To answer the scarcity question: it probably does have something to do with it. I’ve always been a contrarian—it’s boring if everyone is doing it.
BHH: The orange peel print is a lovely example of your performative photographic work. When did you introduce this performative aspect?
MG: In2004, the last year of my BFA in Akron, OH, I was making photograms and other camera-less photographs. I began incorporating my body into the photogram. For the first consciously performative piece, I jumped up and down in front of a nine-foot expanse of paper during exposure. Using the body in a photogram seems to be a common conclusion for many artists. During graduate school at the University of Delaware I revisited this—and added getting naked to the equation. I don’t know if it translated, but I found humor in the idea that I would set things up for the print, turn off all of the lights, and disrobe before exposing the print.
BHH: There’s a pun in there: exposing oneself during the exposure! I get the sense that you’re performing during this studio visit, as well as when you’re on your own in the dark room.
MG: Making work in the darkroom is a very active thing, much more so than using a filter in Photoshop. In a black and white darkroom you’re able to work using a dim red light and you can faintly see what you’re doing; in a color darkroom you work in total darkness because the paper is sensitive to the entire spectrum of light. Being temporarily without sight has made me calculate all of my movements in the darkroom, I think this parallels or even becomes a kind of performance art, albeit without an audience.
With someone like Ana Mendieta, she did a lot of those performances by herself, or some of the Vienna Actionists were doing similar things too. My work’s not as heady and intense as theirs, though.
BHH: Your truck piece was participatory. How did it come about?
MG:I bought avery old opaque projector on Craigslist—I wanted its five-inch diameter lens. I began making a large-format camera with the lens, foamcore, wood, black plastic drop cloths, and lots of gaffer tape. As I worked on it, Tim Belknap and Ryan McCartney invited me into the Pickup Truck Expo in the Crane’s Icebox space—truck-owning artists each made a piece incorporating their vehicle. My DIY camera used the rear window of my truck as its ground-glass; the lens and “bellows” of the camera sat in the truck bed; and to see the image you would go in the cab and look out the back window. The expo audience saw a camera obscura image when they entered my truck—the camera was functional, so I was able to take some crude group portraits.
Disconnected from the truck, I eventually used this camera to shoot a skull still-life and an orange studio shot.
BHH: As someone obsessed by drawing, I love the linearity of much of your work, for example the seemingly endless scroll of your 305 foot seascape, exhibited at Rowan University Gallery, and the repetitious lines of the piece which was exhibited in the Vox Populi Collection show last year. What attracts you to the line—I mean, the long stretch of paper? Is it something to do with the way it can capture time? Or the way it registers so much of your touch?
MG: Making my pieces is a very active experience—often some kind of movement takes place during the paper exposure and a straight line is a motion I can maintain without being able to really see what I’m doing. Many of my works, such as the 150 and 300 foot coils of paper, focus on the horizon line found in nature. It seems logical to keep extending the horizon line. I’ve also made lots of circles, as that motion similarly translates to print.
I’m compelled by both time and touch. Photography boiled down is light and time: the print is a manifestation of physical touch.
BH: I’ve been re-reading Roland Barthes’s Mythologies and was struck by one sentence: “Plastic remains impregnated throughout with this wonder: it is less a thing than a trace of a movement.” I’ve been staring at all my plastic objects ever since—curvy shower gel and shampoo containers, for example—thinking of them as a sort of fossilized flow. And now I’m looking at the piece of yours I have in my apartment: it’s alive with movement! You might say that your performative photographs are also not so much images as traces of movement, or even performance documents?
MG: It is my intention to convey a sense that something beyond the traditional making of a photograph is happening in the production of my work. I don’t expect a viewer to fully understand what that action may be, especially as people are more and more removed from film photography. That’s okay, though. I don’t think you need to be able to make a piece of art to appreciate art.
See Matt Giel’s newest work in the group exhibition To Labor With Love at Fjord, curated by Elisa Gabor, opening May 2, 2014.
Becky Huff Hunter is a writer in Philadelphia. Her work can be found at www.beckyhuffhunter.com.