Julia Wilson is a photographic artist who explores our relationship to, and the relationship between, text and image, as well as photographic materiality in the technological age. Using the large format camera, she photographs images, words, reflections, and grit, composed on her personal computer screen. Julia received a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Studies with a concentration in Latin and Ancient Greek translation from the University of Virginia and her Master of Fine Arts in photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
So I asked Julia a few questions regarding her background and the influences behind her most recent body of work in order that you might get to know a little bit more about the person in front of the screen.
Will Glaser: Can you talk about your background in Classical Studies and how it relates to photography? How did one lead to the other?
Julia Wilson: If we’re being histrionic, I could say, two roads diverged in a yellow wood…and as it turns out and as the poem reveals, both paths are less traveled by. Although academically, I chose to study ancient civilization and language before photography – they came to be one and the same, for my practice at least. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was forced to think about photography in a way other than something that was able to bear witness to the world and its events – and how verbal language wasn’t so different from the visual. Up until that point those two spheres of my life were completely distinct. I translated the New Testament and Plato during the week, and I photographed on the weekends.
WG: As I consider your current photographic philosophy and your undergraduate study of Ancient Greek and Latin translation, I wonder if you’d be in a similar mindset had you undertaken a BFA in photography?
JW: To save you from my overstated tirade on the importance of a liberal arts education (see ‘This is Water’ by David Foster Wallace), I’ll just say that for my particular practice, my background in classical studies gave me the ability to look at photography in a way that I never would have, had I studied and truly learned the apparatus in a technical setting. Because in early academia I had been taught to consider words and meaning outside of their cultural convention, I found myself inclined to think about photography in the same way. So for me, photography became less about what it was representing – the world, events, what have you – and less about the information it presented. I found myself really disengaged with the idea of subject matter, whether that be for better or for worse, which I guess led me to photographing my own computer screen with the large format camera – my weird method of retaining and releasing forms of control.
Is that what you asked? I’m finding this hard to talk about definitively: what leads people to make certain decisions – decisions which end up dictating their work and practice. I guess in the end I believe one’s work will always be a product of their background as much as it is a product of the society in which it was made – whether that’s visually apparent in the work or not. My study of language happens to be very apparent, however, there were so many other just as important unconscious decisions and invisible factors that led me places within my practice, to the point where all of a sudden I’m looking back, thinking, ‘How did I get here?’
WG: What do text and image do (for you) that couldn’t be achieved by image or text alone? Moreover, how do you view the role of text and image when put within the vicinity of one another?
JW: Well, to get all photo-dork on you, Roland Barthes in his essay, ‘The Rhetoric of the Image,’ in so many words, writes that images accompanied by words are able to work in two ways: either as caption or to further or add to a narrative. This is how we are accustomed to seeing text in relation to imagery in the everyday – media, advertisements, billboards, cell phones, laptops, and so on. Images and words are inherently polysemous; they have the potential to be interpreted in ways that communicate multiple and disparate meanings. However, when these two ambiguous systems of communication work together in this conventional, functional, everyday way, i.e. ‘This is this’ or the words ‘This is a picture of me in Aruba’ sitting below a picture of you on a sunset beach, the anxiety of ambiguity, or what Barthes refers to as “terror of uncertain signs” becomes allayed in this closed relationship as each confirms its counterpart.
And so, in the contemporary climate of informational overload, words which neatly label image content, seem to be less of a remedy and more of an opiate that propagates a misplaced reliance on words to direct and define interpretation. As a consequence, image captions repress fluidity, allowing the opportunity for the cultivation of mass ideology and dogmatic cant – we see this extreme polarization in the media everyday.
The intention with my work is to fragment and disjoint language to deny the reader any sort of logical sequence that one might expect when trying to retain information. I attempt to defamiliarize the cultural atmosphere by manifesting and exaggerating it in order to reveal what is present all around us, all the time—what has become hidden in plain sight: the current blindness to words and images as systems of representation. Barthes wrote that an artist’s power is derived through the art of arranging signs. Playing off the proximity of text to image within society, and the automatic assumption that one explains the other, my work deconstructs and rearranges words and images on the same photographic plane, creating a relationship between the two that is not caption nor definition nor reference. The words and images become linked with uncertainty; their anomalous juxtapositions create informational gaps and lack a definitive resolution. There is no agenda lurking within their structure. However, the text in form is generic and typed. It resembles the words one might encounter in the newspaper, in media headlines, or in a research paper. So while the clarity and readability of the words invite the viewer to process and make sense of the given information as they would in the everyday world, viewers are ultimately denied the accustomed gratification of cheap and easy understanding. Instead, in this counter-pull between legibility and confusion, the recognizable and the strange; the viewers find themselves in a space of work, disillusioned to the act of gaining knowledge. By undermining the importance of specific information, the viewer is given the ability to make unconscious connections to construct their own interpretive experience. In this enigmatic state, the world is disrupted. The viewer can experience photography and words outside of their cultural debasement, absent of the everyday and unceasing dogma; the “meaning” of the work is fluid and resides in its individual interpretation. All of these images are fragmented experiences of my life, reformed and manifested into a final image – but nevertheless they are not confined to that. I hope to demonstrate the very conscious decisions we are able to make, when we truly pay attention, in constructing meaning from experience.
I know all of this seems extreme – but with the rise of the internet, and speed and ease of information dissemination, the context of viewing images and words has been completely forgotten and virtually obliterated. We’ve distorted the screens which we stare at all day into windows, mistaking abstractions of the world, for the world itself. We’ve become a herd of naive observers.
WG: As you speak of your relationship to photography and the Internet’s use of the medium, I wonder how you view your role as an editor for a photography publisher. Is your ‘purpose’ to champion the best work, the handful of individuals / collaborations that rise above the masses? Separately, I can imagine your artistic philosophy aligns more toward painting or collage, at least, in our cultural manifestation of what we expect photography to do, or be. How do you want us, the audience, to see photography?
JW: To begin, I don’t necessarily believe my philosophy aligns more so with that of painting or collage, than it does with photography, because in the context of art, I think it’s all the same: significance lies in how we use and interpret earthly materials. Heidegger wrote in the ‘Origin of the Work of Art,’ that art stands on a fine line between materials and transcendence; regardless of whether we are considering what is stony in architecture, or wooden in carving, or the pigments in painting – all art takes elements from the earth, and by human action, creates something which finally transcends it. This idea, too, exists in photography: a natural phenomena, which has been harnessed by humanity. So I think you got to the root of this argument when you said, “What we expect photography to do.” Photography itself never fails, but only our expectations for it.
The point here is the rejection of definition, labels, checkboxes, and expectations. To try to break the binary scale or inclination to say something is either good or bad. I don’t know what a good photograph is until I see it. And what makes one photograph good is going to be for a completely different reason from one instance to another. I also might hate an image one moment and love it later simply based on my concurrent state of mind.
Although our language sets us up to believe something can wholly be something else, no ‘thing’ is ever contained within its referent or descriptor. Again, I think what is important when I view work to recognize the importance of the context in which I am viewing it, and to try to break outside of what I have been culturally conditioned to see – and to consciously try to understand the many different ways of seeing. There is no arguing that a bird sees the world differently than I do, yet we are not able to judge one’s experience to be more true than the other’s. So to answer your question, as an editor for a photography publisher, I think my job is to be as informed as I can within the field, to have an open-mind, and to go from there.
Julia will be giving a lecture on this body of work at SPE South Central Conference Material + Meaning in Baton Rouge, LA on October 5th.
To view more of Julia Wilson’s work please visit her website.