James Casebere’s Constructed Realities

BY Lyle Rexer, July 1, 2024

At least since the time of Gulliver’s Travels, artists and writers have spurred us to look at the world differently by shrinking it down to a more manageable size, playing with scale to provide a perspective on what we think we know. James Casebere’s photographs, based on models he builds in the studio, take us into scenes that are at once familiar and strange. His current exhibition at Sean Kelly GallerySeeds of Time (on view through August 2) – highlights his recent architectural interests. James Casebere: Shou Sugi Ban Sculptures will open July 20  at ‘T’ Space in Rhinebeck, NY, and run through October 13.

Lyle Rexer: I had this theory that for many artists of our generation, photography was a hedge, a way of getting some distance on the whole enterprise of art and the mythology of art making. Not simply a tool of critique but a hedge against aesthetic temptations. As someone with a deep interest in sculpture, did you see photography that way?

James Casebere: That’s an interesting way of describing it, and I think you are right. I thought about art along the lines of John Dewey – that art ought to be useful, pragmatic.  When it came to photography, I was more influenced by conceptual artists like Vito Acconci and Eleanor Antin, who used the camera in a fairly straightforward way to document performances and installations. Or in not so straightforward ways, like Robert Cumming. I had a deep interest in sculpture, but I went at it with the intention to embed the images with something more than your average documentary photograph. And because I was making everything myself, and the only thing people would see was the image, it would take on an additional power, sort of like Walter Benjamin’s aura, in spite of the analytic distance inherent in it being a photo.

James Casebere, Greenhouse, 2024. ©James Casebere, courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly

LR: OK, but when did you become a photographer – that is, think of yourself that way? Or do you?

JC: I don’t really think of myself as a photographer. In 1975, when I photographed the models that I made of cardboard and paper, I created what I think of as my first artworks. I made 3-D installations and films later on in grad school.

When I was in high school, I took a shop class and spent all my time taking apart the camera and studying its technical aspects – how to manipulate shutter speed, aperture, all that stuff. I used that practical knowledge later to work out my approach to making images. 

LR: I have this sense of you very carefully working through possibilities in the way you use the camera, playing with angles, points of view, particular lighting choices. Are you investigating the medium as you work with it?

JC: Yes, I guess it changed over time. When I started out, I wasn’t interested in separate disciplines or in the history of photography as such. I appreciated that, but I looked at various other media, too, as potential material. My first photographs were very simple, as simple as cartoons, and they were eclectic in their references. But as I went on, I began to think about film, film editing, different types of shots, but also more and more about architectural space, the psychology of interior space, architecture as a sign system conveying messages, and how to express that.

LR: You had to work out how to translate ideas about this complex experience into a two-dimensional representation. Give me a sense of that evolution.

JC: In the Whitney Program and then in grad school [at Cal Arts], I was watching films and thinking about Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage. I did a project of ten images, titled Life Story [1978-9], in which each image would be like a separate chapter and would contribute to the narrative. After that I asked myself, why not concentrate the entire story in one image? After graduating, I moved to NYC and lived near the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan, along with Troy Brauntuch, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman, artists of the Pictures Generation. It was a neighborhood with buildings that reminded me of boats. I tried to capture that in a single photograph, based on a model I built that resembled a building relief. I had also been watching Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.

James Casebere, Boats, 1980. ©James Casebere, courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly

LR: Boats [1980] is a complicated image in the perspective it activates.

JC: I was trying to create a space that would draw the viewers in, put them inside the picture without an anthropomorphizing element, a stand in.

LR: One thing I like about your work is that you are acutely aware of how to position the viewer in relation to the subject, and that strikes me as an especially photographic issue because photographs are all about subjects and perspectives. I see you manipulating that in your work, especially in the current show at Sean Kelly, whose images seem so simple.

JC: But they aren’t simple to make! Take Patio with Blue Sky [2024]. The models for recent images are inspired by the work of architects I admire, who are trying to respond to values I support, like zero carbon, sustainability, low-cost housing. I built this model and shot it I don’t know how many times. I changed the lighting, I shot from above and below, I shot it with sand and with fake water. I used a gray sky, a blue sky, I moved the clouds around, then I did a hell of a lot of retouching. You have this moment when you are shooting when everything just snaps into place, and I had that, but when I looked again, the results didn’t add up. After months, I said, “Fuck it, we’re going back to the beginning,” and I found an early file that had the energy I wanted, the movement, the dynamic balance. There is a tendency in photography today, with all the tools we have, to go too far, and that’s what I had done.

James Casebere, Beach Huts (Night), 2024. ©James Casebere, courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly

LR: It’s great that you let us into the process because, given the historical, political, and architectural references your work makes, and its obvious precision, my impression always was that everything was worked out beforehand, and the results were a foregone conclusion. But it’s much more intuitive than that, a kind of performance.

JC: I wanted you to be carried into the image by the rising water, to be sucked into the center, not so different from Boats. But in response to your impression of my work, I have ideas and values and interests, and that’s what motivates me subject-wise. I can tell you what I love about all the architects I reference, but the subject is not all there is to the work. In the process itself, you trust in your intuition to be playful and see where that takes you. We are all engaged in building our own worlds. In the end I am making a picture, and there is an ambiguity about its meaning. The photograph we are talking about makes no direct reference to social issues. It’s a particular experience I am trying to bring you into.