Picture Planes: An Interview with Charlie Rubin

When you look at Charlie Rubin’s new book, Strange Paradise, you realize that the title is really perfect. While the images are striking and lush, full of interesting and beautiful visual flora and fauna, they have a sense of weirdness and unease. It’s the kind of imagery that requires time and pondering to notice all the nuances and cleverness going on behind the scenes. Charlie creates photographs and then takes them back to his studio, altering them in sometimes conspicuous, sometime subtle ways, giving the images an exciting and confounding physicality and confusing our assumptions about what a photograph is. The launching of Strange Paradise, which is out now on Conveyor Editions, will be celebrated tomorrow (4/10) at Printed Matter (complete with a custom window display by Charlie), and everyone should come.
Christian: Do you see yourself as a pure photographer in the classic sense, or something else? Your work, while very rooted in photography as a base, has obvious elements and layers of sculpture and painting.
Charlie Rubin: I guess I always start with a classic photograph and then build off of it if it feels right, so it’s a mixture of pure and something else. Recently though, I’ve been leaning toward the something else. Even though my work uses painting, collage and sculpture, I still see the final image as a photograph. I also include straight, unaltered, photographs in series and have side documentary or portrait projects. The medium is transforming fast, and it’s made me transform as an artist- a reaction to the utilitarian nature of it and how anyone can take a beautiful photograph these days. It happened naturally for me; I got bored with a lot of my own imagery because I didn’t find anything unique about it anymore, so I needed to find out how to bring meaning back in to my images.

My little sister showed me this app on her phone the other day where you can add light leaks and dust particles to your iPhone photos and I’m like, “Whoa, someone is turning in their grave.” My work is a reaction to these things, to the yearning for physicality, for something real and non-screen.
Tell me about how you came upon your process of moving the digital back into a physical realm. Did you have an “A Ha!” moment when you discovered a way to make something new with your photographs?
Like I said, it was a response to the feeling that my pictures were losing meaning. I could take the most awesome picture of a sunset with five rainbows and plants and beautiful people in front of it, but it just didn’t matter because I could open up my laptop and find five images just like it. I had to work with the medium and figure out how to convey my frustration and conceptualize this change in the visual cultural landscape surrounding me. It’s also a fantasy or escape from the monotony of imagery I was seeing and making.
At first I experimented with ink on my photos, influenced by graffiti and other mark-making techniques, and highlighting what I found important in the photo. I made a breakthrough some years later when I used inkjet ink on an inkjet print and everything came together.

How has the process you do in post affected how you take the images to work from? Has it changed your selection process at all?
Yeah, I take a lot less photographs now. I used to shoot all the time and edit down from a large archive of work. Maybe I’m more focused now. I guess I have a more defined vision in my head when I make something now. But my process is always changing slightly, because I don’t want to get stuck in one method and have all my photos retain the same effect.
How do you go about choosing which images you want to take or use? I notice you often use images that are visually complex. And then, of course, you add even more layers on top.  Is that a conscious effort on your part to make the images contain a lot of information?
For sure, I love those kinds of images, where there’s no horizon line and everything fills up to the edges of the crop. It reminds me of painting in elementary school and the teacher used to say, “I still see some white on the paper, you ain’t done yet!”  I want the picture to hold my attention for a little bit, so I can scan around the whole thing and make different images in my mind within the whole picture.

Each image is different, but when I see it, it just clicks, like “Yes, this is what I was going for,” or, “OK I know what I want to change/add for this one.”

In general, I like when a picture has a dreamlike quality to it, too, like it transcends the real life moment it was taken.
Does that flattening of the image with various layers act as a metaphor for you?

It seals a new history of the image, by flattening it and scanning it, from the time it was taken to the time I altered it. It becomes reproducible and a new image forms.
So not only is it flattening space its also flattening time.

Woahh, yeah. Different planes of information exist simultaneously without affecting each other, like some of the layers in the images. Everything is so weird now. I can be on my phone and find out a friend went to a concert then find out about a tragedy across the world without scrolling down, or chatting with a roommate online all day and getting home and its like that never happened. My friend, and artist, Sylvia Hardy was talking to me about “Internet Jetlag” the other day. She was saying when people first started flying commercially, in the 1970s, they hadn’t ever experienced jet lag, no one knew what it was, so when they got to a new time zone so fast they felt very weird. Now the internet is changing the way we perceive time, and after I use it all day my head feels weird.

To take it further, we’ve been in a war since I was 10, across the globe, and it’s just this constant story in the background. Sometimes we can be so connected and unaffected at the same time.
Do you think these photos are distinctly American?

Sure. It’s a response to a moment in America and a lot of the photos reference American design and imagery, but it’s easily relatable all over the world. Maybe that anxiety exists other places, but this is where I grew up and live and read about in the news, so it’s affected me more I suppose.
For a body of work like this, which deals so much with analog vs. digital and layers and the “real,” what was it like to see it go from a computer screen to a physical book you could hold in your hand? Does something happen to these photos in specific when printed on a page?
They come alive. It’s how I always intended them to be, real object prints. I can really get lost staring at a print in my hand or on the wall, but I have a tough time doing that on a screen. When making an image, I never intend for it to live on my computer or on the Internet; it’s so sad that so many pictures live there. People should let their images out in to the real world more often.
Christian Storm is a photo editor and creative professional located in New York City.

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