Interview: Jonathan Postal, All the People Who Died

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All the People Who Died, Jonathan Postal’s exhibit at the Robinson Gallery, is more than a collection of his photographs of erstwhile friends; it is an exploration of reproduction and depreciation, objects of value, and the preservation of photography as art. Postal uses light boxes, "ghost boxes," old TVs and various other objects to control the viewer's observation of his photographs.

Michael and Deedee
  • Jonathan Postal
  • Michael and Deedee

You have an impressive collection of photographs, with a number of fairly famous subjects. Where are they from?

I’ve been a photographer my whole life. I was in San Francisco and involved in the punk scene, with my band, the Readymades. Before that I was in a band called the Avengers and we played with Blondie. I was there at the last Sex Pistols concert. That’s where I got the Sid Vicious picture that’s in one of the boxes. And we played with Talking Heads and the Stranglers. But I didn’t always pull my camera out. I was actually pretty good friends with the Clash, but I don’t know, somehow I just felt it was inappropriate to pull my camera out. The same thing happened with Alex Chilton. I never felt like I should ask ‘Hey can I take some pictures?’ I took one later, and that’s the one shot I have of him. After doing that I moved to NYC and I wound up getting a position at the SOHO weekly news, and every week I was shooting somebody. I was out every night being friends with people.

Sam Phillips
  • Jonathan Postal
  • Sam Phillips

Why not just display your photographs, your digital prints, as they are?

My dilemma was I walked in Jay Etkin Gallery for my last show and looked at my show and I thought ‘I wouldn't pay $1500 dollars for these. I wouldn't pay over $100 for these.’ Because they're digital prints and in my mind, just a digital print alone is not worth that much money. You’ve put it into your computer and generated it from your computer and part of the value of photography is how many editions there are of the print and how was the print made. I’ve talked to people who say it doesn't matter, but I can't see how it wouldn't matter.

So this was the conclusion I came to: I thought if I'm going to make stuff and I'm going to expect people to want to collect it and have it, I have two problems here to deal with. One is, what are you going to create that is an object of value? Other people were kind of horrified by this because I couldn't explain to them that the concept of "object of value" didn't just have to do with ‘Can I sell it?’ It has to do with more. An old camera: you touch it and you pick it up and it's heavy and even if you didn't know what it did it would be a beautiful thing. Like a 54 Les Paul, even if you don't play guitar you recognize that it's a thing of value. A 1938 Colt Police Special is a beautiful object. These are all objects of value, and it sort of came to me that I have to make objects of value. I want to make objects of value.

People_who_died_Ghost_Box_Postal.jpg
  • Jonathan Postal

And the other problem?

The other thing is, now since everybody takes photos, when you walk into a room and you see a bunch of photos hanging on a wall, it's not going to get the same reaction from you. You [used to] walk into a gallery where there were a bunch of Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander or any of the older photographers' pictures that you would see in books and you're finally getting to see for the first time. You know, with all the dust spots and clearly made by hand and all the imperfections that come with that. It would be stupid to try to recreate imperfections with your computer.

You're going to want to look at those pictures. You're going to walk up to those pictures and look at them, just as if you were in Paris and finally seeing the Monet haystacks for the first time. You look at it and you really see those colors. Or Thomas Hart Benton— he was doing what people considered just these WPA murals, but you look at them and he had his stuff together. You look at those brushstrokes and how he handled color and all that, and it's amazing to look at. But people don’t really bother to look at photographs at this point other than in an extremely casual way. Because they can all make them themselves, and there's just nothing to bring their eyes to the object to really get them to look at the object.

So how do you do that?

I actually started out making paintings. I laid color on canvas, then I digitally printed a photographic image on the canvas and then I went back and completely painted the image over. But when I actually showed the stuff, I realized that for better or worse no one even understood that they were paintings. You have to understand though, that this was very liberating for me because it was the first time I threw out this rigid set of rules I had about photographs. You know that black line you see around some photographs? That’s the actual edge of the negative and some people like me, when we started, we sort of made this commitment that we would always print that. It had to do with this kind of zen-like thing, which was, you get it or you don’t get it. You train yourself to do it right or you don’t get it. You’ve got to print the whole negative: you can’t crop it, you can’t mess with it. If you screw up, you lost the picture. You can’t use it because you print all your pictures with that black line, which at the time was evidence that that was an entire frame.

People_Who_Died_Ghost_Box_Wendy_O_Warhol_Postal.jpg
  • Jonathan Postal

How did you get from painting over photographs to using objects to display your photographs?

I started thinking, where do people look at their images? When people are just sitting around, what do they look at? The first thing I noticed was that every place I walked into had a TV set. Even my old favorite bars that barely have electricity would have TV sets. The doctor’s office has a TV set, the dentist’s office had a TV set, the airport has a TV set. There’s no place to go that doesn’t have a TV set. So I thought, I’ll put the pictures there.

People_Who_died_TV_willie_DeVille_Postal_small.jpg
  • Jonathan Postal

I started with older 70’s TV sets mainly because those were the vintage that I could readily find, and that really kind of worked. Then I started finding more of these sixties ones and then a stockpile of even earlier ones. The one I have in this show is one of the sixties turquoise ones. The images were adjusted in Photoshop (my rules were out the window; I could print any way I wanted to.) Then they were printed on the same kind of stuff you get in bus shelters and stuff like that. With each TV set I had to figure out how to gut it and then put the image between two pieces of plexi and then bend the plexi so that it was genuine to the experience of looking at the TV set. I was also learning how to reapply veneers, basically take things apart and put them back together again, and I was starting to amass tools.

Did anyone buy them?

These turned out pretty successful. A few collectors bought them. The main problem with the first ones, they were just so damn large. It would be one thing if Lichtenstein had done them, and then you’d be glad to have your entire living room occupied.

What objects have you used other than TVs?

In this show I have two medicine cabinets, which are going to get even more complicated. The ones I did only have kind of the images in the medicine cabinets, backlit, but I plan to eventually try and figure out how when you look in you see yourself and your face will kind of blend with the subject in the medicine cabinet.

Videophone_alex_chilton_Postal_copy.jpg
  • Jonathan Postal

What is it that drives you to find new ways to display your work?

There’s a quote from Hunter S. Thompson, “Art’s not art until its sold.” I used to go someplace, or a friend of mine would take me over and say ‘Hey you’ve got to meet this guy. He’s amazing.’ You know, I’d be living in New Orleans and I’d go over to these little shotgun places and there’d be guys there and they would play me these songs and the songs would be so good and I’d say ‘What do you do with this? What do you do?’ And he’d say ‘Oh nothing, I’m a mailman.’ And I’d go, ‘Well don’t you want to play with anyone?’ ‘No.’ ‘You don’t care if anyone hears these songs?’ ‘No I just write them. I’m fine. This is good.’ And there are people that are like that, and I think that’s a great way to be and lots of times I wish I was that way. But for me a song isn’t complete until someone hears it, and to me the art isn’t complete until someone sees it and preferably wants it and puts it somewhere where more people will see it. It goes out into the world; it’s an orphan. It gets adopted.


All the People Who Died is on display now at the Robinson Gallery. Call ahead for an appointment, 521-0400 or 871-1998.

Jack Robinson Gallery, 44 Huling Avenue, 521-0400

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