Matthew Besinger

A photograph from Matthew Besinger's series, Annex The Desert.

Los Angeles based photographer, Matthew Besinger was the first photographer to submit his work for ONWARD ‘11. To paint a better picture of his work and the people entering ONWARD ‘11, we had Jacob Pastrovich, the Onward ‘11 Coordinator, ask Mr. Besinger a few questions about his work. He was so gracious as to give a greater understanding into his process and his views on photography. Please visit his website to take a look at his series Annex The Desert.

Jacob Pastrovich: Your series, Annex The Desert places an emphasis on the underlying dependency that comes from living in the desert. How did you come to the realization that modern living in a such a climate is odd in some way and what made you want to photograph it?

Matthew Besinger: Concepts are not something I start with. I photograph as a form of contact- of developing my relationship to a place, a person. I must have wanted to know the desert in a more significant way. I’ll read books about its settlement or its natural history but that only takes you so far. When I was young I’d push my parents to one abandoned ghost town or another. That’s a way to get closer. I visit Tucson as much as I can- but today I don’t take pictures there. I’ll try to plan my trips around the ripening of prickly pear fruit, for example, which we’ll pick. There are so many ways to understand a place. Photography is one of them.

No one’s ever looked through Annex and asked about the dependencies of desert living. That is there on a critical level. George Thompson sat down with me at Sante Fe- he saw it as a peyote trip, which is valid. Photography is not interesting when it’s literal- when it carries a message. Has the Sonoron Desert been abstracted? Yes. Should we live there? Maybe not- there are cultures that preceded us which abandoned it. But to answer: I photographed the desert with no particular aim. I’m a very patient person. I waited for a story to form. Midway through, I poured over the images and this is the story I found.

JP: So Annex turned into a series once you started, then discovered a link. What about when you say you “must” have wanted to know more about something – you seem to be speaking more to your subconscious. Is that something you ever consciously try to do, seek out something underlying in yourself with your photographs?

MB: Never. That’s when photos get silly.

JP: Your formal education is in poetry. Do you find any sort of connection between poetry and photography or does poetry affect your work at all?

MB: Poetry seems to walk an awkward line with our culture- even with other arts. I go through as many photobooks as I can. If I turn a page and recognize the enjambment of a poem, I might skip it. Poetry’s so self-involved- much like an art photo- and the two combined is like icing on top of icing. But really, poetry affects all of our work. If a lyric isn’t floating in your head, there’s idiomatic language all around- url’s, ads, your friends’ signature retorts during conversation. They’re all a form of shorthand.

But poetry pulls the thread of something much larger, just beyond us. Photography is tied to living things: the light, the action, subjects, or backdrops; it’s descriptive but what it can’t surrender is the ephemeral. Some of the pictures in Annex have been described as surreal- but we could get in the car and I could drive you to them: they’re there, plain as day. A photographer is a bit of a trickster, I guess- presenting a ‘find’ as something unique, or at least in a unique way. Thankfully, the viewer of a photograph often knows little of its derivation. That distance causes the viewer to access their own memory and knowledge- and if that’s not enough- the ephemeral takes over. The viewer goes into their own imagination to complete the puzzle, much like a poet.

It sounds hackneyed, but poetry and photography come from the same place. They transfer energy, communicating in silent ways. Catharsis is healthy but to be made pure requires pollution. When art causes trouble, we’re told to suspend judgment- that it comes from some ’special’ place. This idea that art is protected and safe because it’s honest or sincere- come on. Photography, sometimes, is not safe. And it is rarely art. Photos of a human pyramid- from the basement of a frat house or faraway prison- they’re made as deviant acts. A pom-pom squad does similar things, but is artful. Humiliation is the culprit, I guess. The artist should be the only one humiliated. Poetry is humiliating- just find a friend who writes it and ask them for a sober reading. Photography seems like a risk only for its subjects- but if you misrepresent something, you’ve made a conscious error. You’ve failed others.

New work by Matthew Besinger.

JP: What do you mean when you say, “the artist should be the only one humiliated?” Do you not think that making a photograph opens your own psyche to the viewer? Photographers aren’t necessarily always “taking” pictures so much as they are “giving” them. “Giving” in the sense that they are giving the viewer perspective, whether it be into their own lives or the lives of others. What are your thoughts on that notion?

MB: If you’re not being humiliated, you’ve got to push harder. Find risk. You should fail and not feel good and coming back from that is being an artist. If everyone’s a fan of your photos, what exactly have you said? You’re not here to be an arbiter or create Pillsbury dough.

Art is a venture and has the strength to hurt people. Not in the way a chemical plant poisons the air- but something more subversive. A photo does more to open the psyche of the viewer than that of the photographer. The viewer is dislocated and invents things. A photographer doesn’t have that chance. A photographer applies their conscious will- and the view will be as harsh or as light as the person who took it. I feel like photography is always engaged in a defensive stance. Answering defensive questions. A lot of photographers are not artists.

Usually, the most a photographer is capable of ‘giving’ is a work print. And that’s only after you’ve ‘taken’ something. A photographer is the cheeriest type of thief. To get through this trauma, let’s believe we’re giving something. That there’s some mission or greater will that’s guiding it. That’s a lie. A lot of failed artists lack the ego for this. They’re not lesser artists, just lesser egoists. I would like to give something. But how? Even if you pull it off, it’s going to be as Robin Hood. There’s still all of that taking.


    very nice interview.

  • What you are getting at is that creation is a destructive act. What separates papery reflexive photography from art photography is the destruction it wrings from the viewer and from the artist. Effective photography forces rethinking and a disquieting re-imagining by the viewer. To the artist, the taking of a photograph that “works” carries its own destructive potency, one that will eventually rob the object, person or idea of its powers and transfer it to the image. We search for the crop that circumstances have sown and reap the harvest only once, there is nothing to keep us from going back, but for the awareness that the process exhausted our relationship with the thing, the place, the moment.

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