Behind The Scenes: A Conversation With Gideon Jacobs

‘Behind The Scenes’

For our new ‘Behind The Scenes’ series, we interview those that find art, champion art, and talk about art. These influencers, whether it be art critics, independent curators or writers, gallery or museum directors, are paramount in how we go forward in the ever-changing dialogue between artists and the world.

Who are they? What do they do? How do they think? And what are they working on? These are a few questions we plan on asking our contemporaries.

Our first conversation for ‘Behind The Scenes’ is with famed child actor and independent writer / curator / social media raconteur Gideon Jacobs. Gideon writes for a handful of publications like The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, Vice, and many more. As the previous creative director of Magnum Photos, Gideon has worked alongside some of the most influential Photographers of the 20th and 21st century. As a close follower of Gideon, I can say he’s always trying to push the boundaries of social media, how we tell stories, and the recipe for a good art review.

Courtesy of Gideon

William – Can you tell us about your day-to-day existence as a Writer, Curator, and Editor? How did you come to where you are now?

Gideon – I hate to begin with a perfunctory “long story short,” but feels unavoidable here: long story short is that I ended up working at Magnum Photos after college, producing projects, helping them enter the realm of self-funded/self-published endeavors. But maybe what’s important to explain is that, on day one, it was clear that I’d landed at an organization that was, in spite of its incredible history, somewhat starved for new energy and ideas. So, like the young, intrepid, bright-eyed fool I was, I wrote a memo to the CEO at the time that laid out a handful of actions I thought we needed to take ASAP, and told him that I would execute all of them myself if he let me. Nothing in that memo was rocket science—you might have a good laugh when I tell you that one of the things on the list was, “Create an Instagram”—so he gave me the green light. I spent the next three years fighting the good fight, taking on more and more responsibility, and they rewarded me by naming me Creative Director, which was sort of a catch-all title that allowed me to move freely within the company. I did that for a year or so and then somewhat impulsively quit because, as I told the photographers in my farewell address, while I loved helping them make their work, it was time for me to make my own work, to be more like them. Now my days are spent sitting in my garage-turned-studio, writing in the editorial sphere (The New York Review of Books, The LA Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, BOMB, VICE, others), writing in a more artistic/performative capacity (maybe see this project I did at LaGuardia Airport w/ artist and friend Lexie Smith, or my somewhat tongue-in-cheek cross country road trip taken entirely on Instagram), and consulting/copywriting to pay the bills. Wow, I’m only now realizing that when people say “long story short,” they are usually just giving themselves permission to tell a really long fucking story.

William – So long story short, if I can also use that phrase, it hasn’t been a straight forward trajectory as some might imagine. Let me just say that, while I’m sure [I hope] this modernization of Magnum would’ve happened eventually, your decision to push more contemporary forms of distribution and content (beyond email blasts) is greatly appreciated by the 2.8 million that follows Magnum Photos on Instagram. I want to focus on social media platforms for a moment before going into your own work for a moment. What do you think is the role of social media for photo agencies like Magnum, VII, and other visual art related agencies? How do you see an artists role in social media? While you already have a lot to play with here, do you think platforms like Instagram are worth the cost of admission? Necessary?

Gideon – I think about social media a lot, and actually just wrote a whole long thing about how Instagram has changed the way we move through the world. To summarize a chunk of that piece, I can’t help but see social media platforms, especially Instagram, as TV, and profiles as personal TV channels, where users program content for their audience, adjusting this programming based on ratings (likes, comments, DMs, etc). Instagram’s new stories feature is designed so you can watch a sequence for a bit, or move on quickly with a click, mimicking what used to be called “channel flipping.” Advertisements are even squeezed in between the blocks of entertainment. But, where the analogy fails is that, with TV, the networks collect those advertising dollars, and with social media, for the most part, the tech giants have tricked us into being their proverbial NBC or TNT or Golf Channel for the incredible price of $0, programming their channels for them, filling the container they built and wholly own with the most compelling content in the world today. This is all to say that I think social media is a racket, but an unavoidable racket for Magnum, VII, and just about anyone participating in the great attention arms race, fighting for eyeballs so as to sell the owners of those eyeballs either a product or a narrative. Personally, I like artists, friends, and entities who use social media with a clear awareness of what it really is they are participating in. Of course, awareness does not absolve us of our sins though.

William –  I completely agree, it’s terrifying that this arms race for attention can’t deescalate nor can it disappear. I find it difficult to overestimate how profound this new platform for content creation and sharing has been in every aspect of our lives. With so many voices screaming into the void, and thousands of books, movies, art exhibits, photographs, etc. being shared every hour, do you believe the role of the curator and / or editor is more necessary than ever? Is it even possible to put worth a coherent and thoughtful response in this hyper reactionary media sphere?  

Gideon – One of the reasons I’m drawn to photography is that the image—a silent and still sliver of a moment—is one of our best coping mechanisms for the world’s too-muchness. As Szarkowski often said, the act of taking a picture is like the act of pointing. As the volume of the visual cacophony reaches 11, we rely on pointers to help us make sense of the noise, to find the resonant frequencies that allow us to make meaning. The more images there are in the world, the more we need good photographers; the more photographers there are in the world, the more we need good curators and editors.

William – Matthew Leifheit said [Matthew if your reading this, forgive me for paraphrasing], that the role of the curator / editor has been elevated due to everyone’s desire to be a capital “A” Artist. As someone that makes photographs, plays with drawing, and occasionally writes about photography, I’m always trying to catch the moment I realize I enjoy a body of work, or a particular piece of art, and decipher how that moment came to be. How do you judge a photographic work, and have you figured out what [in your opinion], makes a successful photograph?

Gideon – Matt is a friend, and I think I’ve heard him express a similar sentiment. To answer your question, I’m just going to frame my last answer a little differently: to me, a good photograph is meaningful in the way a functioning computer program is meaningful, and all other images are meaningless in the way a series of 0s and 1s are meaningless in a data-saturated world.

William – To step away from photography for a moment, how did you get into writing, and what has been your most challenging project so far?

Gideon – Although I acted as a kid and have worked in photo as an adult, I always wanted to be a writer. To be clear, when I use the label of “writer,” I mean it in a very flexible and fluid way, as I’m not interested in being a novelist or a short story writer or a journalist or memoirist or a screenwriter or whatever. I just more comfortable using words than other mediums, and so, I want to use words to make things. I really think about it that simply and open ended. Although I kind of kickstarted my writing career after leaving Magnum by writing about photography for magazines and online pubs, the rest of my work tends to be a little harder to classify. Maybe a good example of that, and something that also happens to answer the second part of your question, is a project I did a few years ago, when I wanted to try thinking of text as image, and began writing micro fiction that fit within a single frame (an iPhone screenshot). I ended up abandoning the idea of writing a story every day for a year, but did write about 100 of them, and then put those in a little book.

William – I think the label, “writer”, is well suited for the kind of work you do, and your philosophy on writing. To focus on your comment of classifying your work, I think this lack of classification [beyond one that uses words], gives you the unique ability to use any tool, or genre of writing, without pigeonholing yourself to the expectation of others.  Yet, you do seem to have a knack of writing stories that are bound by narrative; whether that be your screenshot stories, or the Landing Pages Project in conjunction with La Guardia Airport, where you and Lexie Smith wrote a story for everyone that came by your pop-up shop in Terminal A and gave you their contact and flight info. By the time they landed at their final destination, they received a short, fictional story about their journey.

Can you talk about this project and what you learned from this experience? In addition, do you feel narrative is innate in art? Whether it be painting, writing, photography…

Gideon – So, Landing Pages was this public art project Lexie and I did that was commissioned by the NY/NJ Port Authority and the Queens Council on the Arts. Lexie and I opened what was essentially a small pro bono business called Landing Pages in an defunct Hudson News in LGA Terminal A. The idea was simple: passengers could give us their flight number and contact info, and then we had the duration of their flight to write them a “Landing Page,” which we would then text or email to their phone before they touched down and regained cell service. These Landing Pages were often pieces of fiction that varied in length — flights to Boston usually got short pieces — but sometimes we sent drawings — Lexie is a great illustrator — or really abstract writing. That said, I tend to think that all art is narrative art because humans think in narrative. We are story animals. We make sense of everything we consume by turning the raw data we encounter into stories. Of course, packaging reality into something digestible is like shoving a square peg through a round hole, meaning a lot is lost in translation. It’s possible I’m seeing what I wanna see, but I think all artists feel this built-in problem/truth of art, whether they’re the sort who casually drops Derrida or Foucault or whatever in their artist statement, or someone who doesn’t even think about this stuff at all.

William – Lastly, what are you excited about? What’re you working on at the moment? Can we expect anything to be released by you in the near future?

Gideon – This is a bit of a self-oriented answer but I’m kind of most excited about the fact that I’ve been a somewhat happier person recently, that the container that houses stuff like, say, my interest in photography or my writing practice, seems to be growing more solid as I get older. I started a show for 8 Ball Radio a few years ago called How to Exist OK, which was pretty much an hour of me asking different wise people how to exist ok. Originally, I planned on doing a radio show where I’d interview photographers, but then I realized I had a much more urgent interest in figuring out how to survive the human condition, how to walk around in a complex and troubled world with a conscious, self-aware brain housed in a body that begins decaying at birth. How to Exist OK is now a column for VICE, and although I feel less desperate in my search for how to exist OK these days, I remain acutely aware that the content of my life is secondary to the container. So, although I’m excited about some projects, like my collaboration with photographer David Rothenberg published by Roman Nvmerals this fall, or a secret email play thing that might be ready sometime next year, I tend to care more about my ability to enjoy that stuff than I care about that stuff itself.

Where you can find Gideon? Twitter @GideonsByeBull, Instagram @gideonsbyebull, IMDB, or a good old-fashioned website