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A Brief Interview with Joel Whitaker

SM: Who are you?
JW: My name is Joel Whitaker. I’m named after Joel Greene, a man my father never met. Mr. Greene ran the largest used car auction in Orlando, FL and my father was a big fan of used car auctions. I grew up and attended school in the South and spent time in assorted locations for most of the late 80s through the early 90s. I’m currently, and hope to be for some time to come, an artist and educator living in Dayton, Ohio.

SM: What are you?
JW: I’m a collection of memories, experiences, movies, music, books, food, failures, and a few successes.

SM: When are you?
JW: I am rarely in the moment. As hard as I try I always find myself somewhere else.

SM: Where are you?
JW: Physically, I’m at home, in Ohio, with my immediate family. But, for some reason, I’m also thinking about a Paul Auster novel and that when I first read it I was living in New York and spent a lot of time walking and looking. So, I am often times in multiple places at the same time.

SM: Why are you?
JW: I have been trying to figure that one out for a long time. It is a question I ask myself repeatedly and probably the primary reason I turned to photography as a career.

SM: The photographic process is complete when the photograph is seen and imbued with meaning—rather that be by the photographer or the viewer. Meaning can vary widely in interpretation, more so than the meaning of words, like purple or blood. It is a result of searching within the frame for something familiar, something that as you write in your statement for When Things Go Missing: spaces between as being a process of “recognition and acceptance.” When viewing imagery we learn to internalize what we see and from there, arrive at meaning. This is perhaps a self-centric way of reading a photograph, but a way by which we can most easily understand the photograph. While this way of seeing might point to broadly understood feelings like tragedy or fortune, it is still at a distance from which we can really see most photographs we encounter as we likely did not experience the tragedy or fortune as is depicted in the photograph. The photographs in When Things Go Missing: spaces between are therefore a non-literal document of “an event witnessed and not experienced.”

SM: Words hold almost universally accepted meaning(s)—a dictionary definition. This is how we build our vocabulary. From that dictionary definition we can deem it an adequate or inadequate descriptor, arrive at truth, and also project a meaning more specific to ourselves. But a photograph is different. There is no dictionary definition for a tangled mass of fishing line on wood planks or a chalice of fruit atop a lace cloth covered table. Each element of the photograph could certainly be defined individually with some precision, but the camera has confined these objects into a frame to be understood as one thing. It would be an impossible task of course to create such a lexicon that defines all the possibilities that might coalesce within the frame of a photograph. Thus we are perhaps left with few options other than to start with that internalized meaning specific to ourself—what does fishing line tangled on a wood planks mean to me? From that question we begin to apply a narrative born out of first recognition, then acceptance of these elements as our own.

SM: When Things Go Missing: spaces between challenges that way of seeing. It is not “the presumed narrative qualities or the anecdotal aspects of the photographs” but rather the question, how can we look at something that wasn’t ours to begin with, not overly burdened by personal narrative, and still arrive at a meaning that is not specifically our own but yet pervades us with a sense of understanding? In photographs and perhaps more broadly, how do we navigate the space in which we assimilate meaning?

JW: Yea, these are questions I struggle with all the time. The abstraction of the idea vs. the reality of the thing, the grey area of signification and meaning, that suggested, but vague space of understanding. With that said, I’m not sure there is a sensible or correct answer to the question/s. But I do think we spend too little time as viewers thinking about, not the subject, but the photograph(s) in its entirety. I like the idea of trying to give the photograph a dimensional space to sit in, one that contains layers of reference and context, as much as light.

JW: How do we talk about a photograph without talking about the obvious, i.e. the fishing line on the floor or the chalice of fruit? We have come to rely on the narrative…and someone else’s narrative at that, to give a photograph meaning. I want to work through the visual problem of not what a photograph is of, but what it is about and how do I, as a viewer and maker, understand, appreciate, and create that meaning from the experience of viewing. Is the photograph a neutral space in which we are being invited in, or is it charged with meaning and we are expected to respond in whatever way we think is appropriate. It can be difficult. I don’t think there is clarity in what I do and there is no directness, or problem solving. My photographs can be muddy in meaning and reference, silly, and obtuse, but finally I hope that it, and I like your wording here, “pervades us with a sense of understanding.”

JW: I rarely conceive or start a project based on a current event or immediate experience. I usually have to have some space, some distance between what I’m working on and how I approach the project regardless of how it has affected me. I’m really interested in the more oblique, the sideways glance; the subject of the photograph as something outside of itself. It doesn’t tell you anything…it is a photograph and its meaning is defined more as the space between what we see and what we know. It’s like the old joke of buying a picture frame complete with a pre-inserted photograph of a smiling family that strangers identify as your family. It fulfills a need to make meaning, it is a total fabrication, but still easy perfection.