I recently spoke with John Messinger about his latest series of photo-mosaics, Learning to Meditate and Facebook Makes Us Lonely. These atmospheric, abstract images mark a departure for Messinger, whose previous work operates within the parameters of photojournalism and conceptual documentary. Having studied photojournalism at Boston University, he earned an MFA in photography, video and related media at the School of Visual Arts. His thesis, The Estate of Joseph A. Porter, a photographic and textual collaboration between Messinger and Porter, a homeless, middle-aged New York City resident, is to be published later this year by Harper’s Books.
After finishing his MFA, Messinger borrowed a friend’s van and drove cross- country, Polaroid in hand, to photograph the American West. He laid out his Polaroids in the back of the van to let the emulsion dry and in the process became inspired by the relationships between the images and the grid they created. Messinger began shooting exclusively with these patchwork mosaics in mind, a methodology that was for him both artistic and spiritual.
When he returned east he was offered an artist residency at the Watermill Center in Long Island, but Messinger felt cut off and isolated during his residency and found himself “retreating to [his] computer screen and smart phone, longing more than usual for the connections of everyday life.” He adds, “I realized that I needed to turn the Polaroid camera on myself, and in this case, that included the screen.” The work that he created during his residency, Facebook Makes Us Lonely, speaks broadly about the contemporary dependency on the human-screen interface.
Photographing a large computer monitor from varying distances, Messinger began systematically piecing together large mosaics from his individual Polaroids. One work is comprised of more than 1,200 photographs and is 16 feet long. Other mosaics in his Facebook series were generated by photographing his computer’s default screensaver as well as his own Facebook profile picture. Messinger’s work creates a tension between the ubiquitous and the unique. His mosaics suggest the primacy of photographic multiplicity over the aura of the individual image but his pieces are carefully hand-crafted from hundreds of analog one-offs, each a non-reproducible Polaroid. Messinger has concretized the ephemeral in these abstract compositions,challenging conceptions of contemporary relationships to both digital and analog photography.