In Conversation: Ian Lewandowski

Ian Lewandowski is a photographer from Northwest Indiana. He has exhibited photographs at Kimberly Klark Gallery (Queens), Skylab Gallery (Columbus), and Lamar Dodd School of Art (Athens). Ian has been published in Hyperallergic, The Fader, and Capricious. In 2017 Dashwood Books released Vigil (RHYTHM) Vigil, a volume of his photographs alongside paintings by his husband Anthony Cudahy, which was featured in Queering Space at Alfred University in 2018. Ian’s work negotiates picture and body histories. Ian is currently an MFA candidate at the State University of New York at Purchase (SUNY) and lives in Brooklyn.

The Ice Palace Is Gone

The Ice Palace Is Gone is an ongoing body of portrait and still life photographs made with an 8×10 view camera. The photographs were made in reflection of my diagnosis and treatment for lymphatic cancer and the network of care through which I began to heal and rebuild. I position this network as a larger symbol for the varied and complicated notions around the phrase “queer community.”

Many photographs in Ice Palace are unpeopled, particularly a subsection titled Community Board. These still lifes depict flat planes meant to convey information like bulletin boards, stickers on windows, and at one point a tangle of IV bags strewn through a tree, each meant to reference a mythologized queer-specific information space or contact point. In Community Board, I invite the complicated – sometimes unintelligible – intersections that exist for queer people to stand alongside pictures of bodies which are themselves cites for information.

J: I wanted to start out by talking about location. I read that you grew up in Indiana?

I: I grew up in northwest Indiana, right by Lake Michigan. Lots of farmland, sort of near Chicago, but still very rural. The body of work I was making in 2017 was pretty centered on Indiana, or at least it seems so now the way I’ve reflected on it. Any work I was making here [Brooklyn] was informed by the larger body of work from Indiana.

J: If you could talk a bit more about how location informs your images or your process? I know you’ve talked about using the 8×10 view camera, and I wonder if there’s a connection between where you grew up and that process.

I: The process [with that camera] is so slow, long-winded. It requires a ton of meditation, almost like you’re sitting there and it’s a really boring process, which I think I gravitate towards. It’s not quite the energy of New York City, so that might be it. When I bring my camera to Indiana, I have all this room to spread out. I actually first used a view camera here [in NYC] for school when we were required to take two classes on it. Not many students continued to use it outside of class; it’s such a love-it or hate-it process. Before that, I was using 35mm or point-and-shoot cameras.

J: That’s a wild transition, 35mm to 8×10.

I: It was. The 35mm camera was so appropriate for certain things. I was really looking at Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. I was looking at all this work that was very immediate impulsive work of people, and I was interested in how seamlessly the camera could fit into these social situations. It’s weird because that’s the thing that led me to keep using the view camera outside of school, which was that it was the opposite. The view camera was so not easy to fit into a social situation, and in a way, the awkwardness was in-line with my personality and how I was conceiving of the pictures. The first time I used a view camera I was like ‘oh, this is what I keep trying to make the other cameras do.’

J: That’s interesting to me, because I think you have an immediacy to your work in some ways. I know what you’re talking about because the images clearly weren’t made with a point-and-shoot, but somehow the lack of a filter or additions, the gazes, and the way you shoot makes the scene feel right in front of me.

I: That makes sense because to me now, the view camera feels so much less technical and intruding, less of an interrupter. The more I use this camera, the more I realize it’s really just a dumbed-down version of a camera: it’s just a box with a hole in it. It’s very big and deliberate looking from the outside, but it’s such an earnest camera, so no-bullshit.

J: I could talk about cameras all day, but I’m wondering about your more recent project from 2018, The Ice Palace is Gone. How do you feel it’s a departure from or tied to the earlier work My Man Mitch?

I: I don’t think it’s totally a departure. I’m someone who has a really hard time knowing when I’m done with something. Actually, there was a weird moment near the end of 2017 where I took this picture [for My Man Mitch] and I thought ‘that’s it.’ I was like, I’m not going to question it, that’s the end of this project. I consider The Ice Palace is Gone to start with the next photo I took, so in other words, I didn’t really switch gears. The work was more going off in a couple of different paths. There’s a big emphasis in both projects on portraits; that’s my bread and butter in a way.

J: Yeah, I can see someone making an edit that would combine the two in different ways.

I: There are moments even where I look back at photos from that December of 2017 and January of 2018, and I’m not totally able to distinguish which project they belong to. I consider The Ice Palace is Gone to be a second chapter.

J: Another thing I’m curious about with the newer project: I noticed a lot of shutter release cables. Is that you in all of those photos? Or do you pose other people and have them release the shutter for you?

I: It started out with me looking at Tina Barney’s work, which is another one of my all-time favorites. There’s certain photographers that I always end up looking at again, and she’s one of them. Often she’s in the photograph with a cable and it’s clear she’s the photographer. But, there are moments where she looks just like anyone else. I like that idea that she’s in control of the picture but it’s ambiguous. She never hands it to someone else, but I had this thought about how a lot of what was coming up when I showed people the work was that the people in the pictures are working as hard as I am. I have issues with the conversation around collaboration between the photographer and the subject. I mean I really like that idea, but I also want to acknowledge because of the nature of the history of photography, there’s always this binary thinking around it. One person is more in control of the photo. So, I don’t want to totally ignore that, but I found that the closest I could get was handing [the cable] to someone so that they could decide. I’m still directing, but this is a way for them to know that this is going to look one way because it was taken at an exact moment.

J: That’s an interesting blurring of characters. I think a lot of photographers can be like ‘what?! No! I’m so detached,’ so it’s nice to see you take accountability for that relationship. Thinking about your landscapes and still lifes, how do you approach them similarly or differently to photographing a person?

I: I used to be really adverse to taking pictures without people. I used to think it might enrich the work to do something that wasn’t a portrait, but I don’t want to take one just to have it. I wanted to be very serious about it, just as deliberate as I am taking a portrait. I had a mentor who was like, you should just try it. I was really reluctant, I didn’t do it actually for months. Then one day, I just noticed the things I looked at out in the world. It was always some sort of plaque surface with like some sort of animation on it. I had made this picture for My Man Mitch that was a restaged bulletin board that had a slogan on it that was just one random square from the AIDS quilt. I had only made that one picture that was flat; I called it ‘Community Board.’ I wanted a medium that was referring to a public bulletin board in what I believe was similar to how the AIDS quilt functioned; to leave a trace of a person’s presence. So, any picture that’s not of a person in this work is referred to as a ‘community board.’ I approach it similarly to how I would a person because I’m trying to notice and preserve the random shit that’s all over. With a person, I’m really interested in the little things, like nails or something they wear everyday. With the boards, I was trying to find things as organically as possible and also sometimes creating situations.

J: That brings to me a general question I had about your work. A lot of your work feels quiet, and a lot of the work out there about the queer community is very based around performance spectacle. Your work does feel performative: how someone carries themselves in a photograph or how the bulletin board is a trace of a performance when you or someone before you arranged it. How do you balance these performative aspects with quieter unguarded elements?

I: That’s a good question. When I first started to make portraits, especially given the nature of the camera, they were always pretty posed. I was more interested in what those people would give me and how theatrical that pose sometimes was. But then I thought about it, and I don’t think there’s more spectacle here just because it’s this [8×10] camera. When this person poses for an iPhone picture, they’re doing that same move. For me, that’s my interest: how mundane or everyday that idea of ‘pose’ and posturing is. I’m glad you bring up spectacle because in doing this, I want to emphasize that I don’t think queer life is always a spectacle. I think it’s very mundane and it’s part of my every day and that of people I take pictures of. It’s not always this utopic thing, not to say it’s not fabulous. I just don’t want to ignore the parts of it that are painful or boring.

J: It’s messy because sometimes it feels like it’s about who is perpetuating those representations and what the context is. You’ve talked a lot in the past about photographing masculinity and your own desire’s role in that process, and I’ve noticed you’ve started photographing people who seem to not completely identify with masculinity in The Ice Palace is Gone. How has that process been?

I: A big conceptual fixture in the older work came from was my upbringing. I was thinking a lot about the degree to which I felt unsafe to talk about my desires — not just mine — but also other queer people who were closeted around me. As an adult going back and making the work, I felt this need to hold even temporary moments of queer space [in Indiana]. What came from that was this inclination to photograph men in particular, to photograph this more macho identity, this thing I had a lot of problems with. I went into it with a lot of anger; if gay men were more masculine and [that] could be accepted by straight people, did that mean we really had solidarity? But after a while, I was making the work more out of empathy because if someone does choose to posture themselves that way, maybe that is because of a lack of safety. What came out of it was this thought that it wasn’t kosher for me to just be photographing men if I’m trying to talk about something bigger. With the newer work, I felt much more like this other path opened up where I didn’t want to just photograph masculinity anymore. I can talk about these problems all day long, but if I’m not representing other aspects of a queer world, I don’t know if the work is helping.

J: That makes sense. Four years is a long time to work through a project for yourself. I know that in your first interview about two years ago with Jordan on Magic Hour, you talk about your images not living in book form. You were more interested in them living on a wall. Do you still feel the same way?

I: Actually, no. It’s funny because shortly after I did that interview, I finished the work and as soon as I finished it, I was like ‘oh, it needs to be a book.’ That was weird because I never naturally thought that way about my work; I always envision it big and installed. Recently, I’ve been very interested in the book format, and I have an edit for that with the My Man Mitch work. I realized maybe I can’t talk about this thing in just 10 pictures. It needs multiple pages. I’m okay with it being a long game; I’m just glad the work is done and it’s something I can call one entity. That allows me to work on something else.

J: Books definitely are a long game. Thank you for talking about your work with me and I’m looking forward to seeing you continue The Ice Palace is Gone!

I: Thank you for talking — I’m glad we got to talk about performativity and the other things we did.

To view more of Ian Lewandowski’s work please visit his website.