In Conversation: Joshua Tarplin

Joshua Tarplin (an American artist holding degrees in Art and the History of Art from Yale University) currently resides in Los Angeles with his cameras Wallace, Camille, and Frank. He engages in the rituals of photographic technology to understand how images infect the meaning of one’s life. He explores the pleasure of disordered networks to offer a stress-free point of view. His photographs live gladly in the doubtful space between image and imagination and knowledge. They see a strict, unredeemable world with an imaginative reason – offering a reality bent and folded by strange sensations, a lens for Josh to rest in and view all the possibilities.


I am interested in finding my sealegs. I need my sealegs to stay balanced between all that I know and all that I see, especially as I remain adrift among an infinite swamp of imagery. I glance up at a person walking toward me on the sidewalk and their image comes to me, quick and clean and describing haphazardly, a fragment. I stare at a lover for months and struggle, caught in between comprehension of him and my image of the others waiting. Wandering through my images I come to recognize and gain control over their power to amplify, filter, and suppress how I imagine the world around me.

Exploring how images influence my vision, I mix many types. Some images seem sliced from the stream of perception flowing through my eyes; others waver buried in layers of recapitulation or destabilization expanding their potential. Fusing photographs disparate in style and made using various technologies, I hope to catch the texture of an anonymous and yet entirely particular perception. I want to talk about the world on a level where vision and imagination become reason, on a level where my own personal visual grammar blends with and exposes the murky visual grammar of photographic meaning. My photographs tease out these grammars not like translation through a codex but like detection of the composition of a solar system according to the machinations of that system’s gravity.

Sealegs is my collaboration with images to see photography open up the seams of the world, to create a space where vision becomes an attitude of consciousness aimed at understanding myself and the world around me. I ask: what are the bonds between myself, others, and our collective world; how are those bonds represented; and how can those bonds be untangled photographically to appreciate their opacity. Among my images, I come to understand the disconnect between reality (actuality) and possibility and uncover a more faithful picture of myself and my world fashioned by the wild ambiguity of photographs.

BD: Joshua, thanks again for speaking with us about your work! Can you start by touching on your personal development as a photographer and what attracted you to the medium?

JT: Thank you so much for reaching out! I’m really excited to speak with you.

In terms of personal development, I guess I was a late bloomer. Before going away to school, I was a science guy. I used to work at the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense on a project involving stem cells and war-time trauma surgery. My science-y early years gave me a pretty rigid perspective and way of considering the world.

In school, I went along with a friend to an intro photography course. I fell deeply in love with the whole deal: looking at images, the technology of the camera, struggling with the colors and tones of the print, coming to terms with the epistemological consequences. I owe everything to Ka-Man Tse, my first photo professor, who showed us everything so clearly and gave me some gentle nudges to switch into the art school.

Getting obsessed with photography was really good for me emotionally because it opened me up to the world and to other people. It helped me to not be so shy and to not make so many assumptions and to not close down within my own small perspective of just the things I could know for sure. I started to ask more questions than I answered, paid more attention, and most importantly started to rely on my imagination and intuition as much as whatever pool of dry facts I had stored up related to whatever was at hand. It was also intensely uncomfortable for me to do something constantly without anyone able to tell me that I was correct, that I had found the solution because there really was hardly ever a solution to be found.

I think what attracted me to the medium was all the cameras and little gadgets and tools and techniques I got to play and experiment with. I loved the way this strict set of materials could become infinitely malleable while remaining a friendly helping hand. I was also attracted to the medium because it showed me a version of reality that felt more real – which sounds annoying but I mean it in that simple kind of guttural sense – and I wanted to know how and why.

BD: It sounds like your background in science, while it did give you a rigid perspective, may have also influenced your photographic process in terms of experimentation and the way you utilize objects within your work. Do you feel a connection between the two?

JT: I definitely feel a strong connection between the two. Both are ways of working with the world systematically to understand it symbolically – science people might squirm at that characterization, but data-collection has as much to do with the imagination as it does with the “objective view.” Photography itself was invented as a scientific tool for the detection of radiation and not for depictive or illustrative purposes. Even today most photographic technology is not used for depiction, but for manufacturing, industrial, and military purposes.

Anyway, for me, exploring science strongly influenced the way I make photographs. There’s a very similar process of experimentation: an idea or subject comes, its explored with assistance from the technology and techniques and traditions, and then analyzed in terms of what that transformation of material into data means for the idea or the subject. I do feel a big difference in expectation, however, in the sense that scientific work leads to data ever more specific and particular while photographic work leads to data that is constantly expanding and encompassing new questions.

BD: I’m always interested in the early stages of projects. For “Sealegs,” did you know from the beginning that you wanted to use physical photographs within the frame, or was that something that developed later on? I love how you describe this as a “collaboration” between you and the images.

JT: That was something that developed later on.

With Sealegs I was interested in this divide between the way I imagine something or someone in my head – or imagine things about/around them – and what I know about them or how I know them. I began to see that photographs had space for all of this consideration; the photographs themselves in containing both worlds so-to-speak became like personal but unfamiliar tokens related to or pointing at whatever or whoever the subject might be. These photographs felt more popped out of thin air than taken by me because they usually reflected things back to me that I had not known for sure or admitted about/to myself.

I just started to see them and imagine them in the same way I had seen and imagined real objects and people before. One image might become the character or theme or background of a still life, others might need to be rephotographed or repurposed several times before they gain their full potential. With some of the images, it’s kind of like knowing all four or five generations of a family, being able to recognize all the idiosyncrasies running throughout.

The photographs all had small lives of their own and gave me a kind of safety-blanket by helping me to know myself and why I might think how I do. It felt like they took everything away from me and held it in a strange logic that was easier for me to read and not my entire burden to nearly resolve – I guess that’s the collaboration.

BD: I love your connection between the physical photographs and experiencing them like generations of a family. It’s interesting to consider that a lot of the photographs used within your work were originally shot by you, yet I imagine that they suddenly become foreign once they’re displaced within a new frame/context. How do you decide when an image is complete, considering there are endless ways to utilize objects within a frame?

JT: For me, that distance and displacement is something so special about photography: there’s this “removal of the hand” business, all these happy accidents, and an intensely personal Keplerian kind of perspective. The combination offers a critical distance emotionally and intellectually without losing that deep-running connection back to myself.

I guess that’s why I would never consider an image complete – I make them but they are not entirely under my control. I mean yes there’s a point in the process when I look at a print and feel it’s ready, but ready does not mean finished. Maybe it’s like taking a break in the conversation to stop and reflect and frame something up for the time being. Conversations don’t really end they just wait to be returned to with fresh perspectives.

Maybe another way to put it is that photographic technology has its own momentum and I would rather follow along than try to steer the ship with my weak little arms. And why should images need something so neat and tidy as a completion when they are bound to the mess of the world?

BD: How has your journey through creating these images changed your worldview, if at all?

JT: I think it made me fall in love with the world again. Like that childhood time when everything is so bright and dazzling and full of possibility with no division between imaginings and facts.

Before this project I felt a big need to hold on to what was demonstrable and “correct,” but working through all these images taught me how to use photography to balance along with the wonderful, deeply frustrating ambiguity of everything – as much as possible at least. I think the project taught me that what’s “real” can just be anything opening meaning around something or someone, communicating possibilities and considerations among people building some kind of collective imagining.

I had been looking for a way of knowing the world that was not so contingent and unreliable as my perception and ended up circling back to realize that very same space of anxiety and unresolved tensions held everything more balanced and holistically. I just had to come to peace with it and learn to love it.

BD: Beautifully said. Something I see you returning to often is the notion of not coming to conclusions or your feeling of not needing to completely resolve things. I think this is so important to creating photographic work and art in general – that you should always remain open and just keep doing. What can we expect from you and your work in the future?

JT: Definitely that is part and parcel of it all. For me it’s about opening up meaning/possibility and finding authenticity and pleasure in the neither-here-nor-there, letting imagination become purely logical and reasonable. That’s my version of reality that feels more real: a stress-free point of view.
You are so right about doing – all you have to do is look around and do something about it, and often. I’m always making images. Currently, I’m working on a couple of new projects that I’m not really in the right place to discuss. One relates to the kind-of reverent disorder of national/international systems. The other explores the power of our accelerating global networks of images to influence the way we see other people and feel seen, particularly explored within a queer perception.
I am also very interested in working within the fashion community – what more intoxicating and far-reaching collective imagining could there be – and hope that I might have a new perspective to offer.

To view more of Joshua Tarplin’s work please visit his website.