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Imagined Spaces :: Inside the Constructed World of Lou Krueger

“If you aren’t making artwork, then you’re not an artist, and if you’re not an artist you don’t belong in a classroom teaching art.”

In April 2007, I attended the first f295 Symposium and was treated to the vision and work of Lou Krueger. I was fascinated by his work and the combination of intricate dioramas he constructs and the custom cameras he makes to take the images. A new camera for each scene. We talked to Lou this summer and he peels back some of the mystery by sharing his processes and taking us behind the scenes of these fascinating constructions.

Erin Malone: When did you start working with pinhole?

Lou Krueger: I first started with pinhole in the early 80’s. My work to that point was a variation on cliches-verre (hand-drawn, light-printed) in which I constructed and painted16"x20" color negatives or positives and printed them as C-prints or Cibachromes. That process encouraged an image that was at its heart, somewhat surreal and unpredictable. For me pinhole embraces a similar kind of fantasy, the distortion of space, focus and scale provide fertile ground for images that are simultaneously truthful and fantastic. The thesis sentence from my most recent artist’s statement pretty much summarizes 35 years of photographs: “My work is fantasy masquerading as reality, with an emphasis on the existentially absurd.”

What came first—the idea for the image and the construction or the camera?

Depending at what stage of my career, I might give you a different answer. When I constructed my first pinhole camera it was a very modest device capable of recording images on 4×5 film with very little thought given to much else other than making large 50-60 inch color, pinhole prints. I used that first camera for15 years, and made mural size installations that exploited scale and distortion. Today I use a variety of cameras that help me better achieve my specific narrative.

In fact I’ve discovered that I’m as much an object-maker as I am an image- maker. I think I like constructing the cameras and the dioramas because they appeal to the toymaker in me…the process of trial and error, the hands-on of directly forming object that can respond to itself as you go. Whereas the photographs appeal to me because of the illusions they represent… of the magic created by truth and fantasy sharing the same space.

Inside mouth
Outside mouth
Inside and outside shots of teeth used for the image “French Kiss”

When you build the environment and cameras, do you work on each simultaneously, or do you sequence?  Do you make different incarnations of cameras in order to “get” the image imagined?

I wish I could say that it’s all clear cut and that one follows the other logically, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way. I have a series of cameras and removable lens boards that can be altered to suit my particular needs. As an image evolves either on my worktable or in my head, I usually build or design features that will best take advantage of the set that I create. For example, the 4×5 camera and lens design for “Honeymouth” was made specifically to record an image that would be sharp at about 21/2 inches (the front part of the teeth) and then flare everywhere else within the image giving the feeling that the bees were in motion. The model of teeth was purchased at a flea market thirty years ago and redesigned by me to attach (rest against, on a stand) to the front of the camera.

What motivates you to create?

I believe strongly in the democracy of art, the opportunities that it creates, and feel privileged to be a practitioner of it. I’m a storyteller, and stories tend to transcend both time and tragedy. My narratives will never change anything, but perhaps they have ability to preserve something. So if nothing else my artwork (I also paint and draw on occasion) represents a point of demarcation, and a reflection on the absurd nature of the contradictory and inexplicable messages that routinely bombard us as we go about our daily business in a world that is going mad. I’m a maker of fiction, and as a reader of it, I’ve learned that frequently there is a better description of truth in fiction than you can find in documents of the phenomenal world.

It’s not too often that most of us find the right words to frame a catchy comeback, or in the heat of argument discover an articulate, spontaneous rebuttal. But I can think of one occasion, in my own experience, where I said exactly what I wanted to say, and it summarized perfectly my feelings about making artwork. I was in the process of having my MFA photographs matted at a local frame shop, and one of the other patrons in the store looked at my work and asked, “were you on drugs?” I replied, “Madam, they—gesturing to my prints—are the drug.” The phrase was a quote from Dali…. (To any students out there, attend your art history classes!)

What artists / photographers inspire you?

I’m afraid the list is endless and doesn’t stop with visual artists. Musicians, writers, performers also work their way into my consciousness on a regular basis. I have no clear-cut standards that might apply universally. My work and process embrace an overly baroque complexity, but I have deep respect for simplicity. I admire risk-takers and think that most truly meaningful artwork usually breaks with convention. But if I have to pick out a few of artist/photographers: Charles Eisenman and Diane Arbus for their recognition of stratification and marginalization; Duane Michals for creating unbelievable narrative structures; Susan Meiselas ,James Nachtway, and Sebastian Salgado for taking photographs I could never take; Joel Peter Witkin, Eric Fischl and Andres Serano for examining the taboo and accepting all the crap that accompanies it; Gregory Crewdson and Sandy Skoglund for obsession times ten; Robert Frank for speaking frankly; Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel for their use of satire, irony and wonderful juxaposition; Sally Mann for her family of man and clarity of purpose; Janine Antoni, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, and Carrie Mae Weams for undermining stereotypes; Sophie Calle for her introspective view of intimacy, or rather that which substitutes for it in contemporary society. And the list goes on, and on.

120 camera
Multi-lens camera
Two of the cameras Lou Krueger works with. The multi-lens camera is currently under construction.

Do you ever photograph your creations with traditional cameras?

I haven’t yet but there are times when I am tempted. The odd thing about this is that I bought a Hasselblad thirty years ago, and that’s the camera I use to record images of family, friends, and travel. It’s my two-dollar, home-made pinhole cameras that I use to make my serious work.

Do you use pinhole out in the “real” world?

A qualified yes. For the first 15 years of my pinhole work I photographed a broad cross-section of subjects as I discovered them, but always with the knowledge that the camera would distort, disrupt, and alter the meaning of the thing being photographed. So I don’t think anyone would ever place my work in the category best identified as straight.

What do you do with the construction and the camera after you have made the image?

Good question. When I started with the dioramas it was my intention to treat the set as a small stage or theater; with a curtain and moveable partitions, etc. My thinking at the time was that I’d simply change scenes, figures and lighting to create a whole new environment for each new print. But what has actually happened since was not something I anticipated.

Usually, I’ll spend a month or more creating the components for the diorama that I create, and then I’ll shoot about 25-30 negatives to get to the final iteration of the print. What I discovered was that the sets are often times as interesting to me as the prints that record them. As with any constructed reality or tableau image (think Sandy Skoglund here) there are those that will find the thing itself as rewarding as the document of it. The difference being that the camera has but a single point of view and prevents the viewer from finding other ways to understand or interact with the scene itself. And with my work the camera is constructed to compress space, alter scale and exploit that point of view in such a manner that the resulting image is not just a simple record of the diorama, but rather it’s an interpretation of it.

Cigarettes with hand
Cigarettes being made and constructed into the image “Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

With some sets I’ll spend far too many hours trying to resolve small issues. For example, in the piece, “Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health” I spent two weeks trying to figure out how to make the cigarettes look as if they were actually lit while flying through space. What I discovered was that there is a particular foil wrapper that surrounds a Hershey’s Kiss that worked well for my purpose. That foil, removed from the candy, balled up and rubbed with a permanent red marker looks pretty convincing when reinserted into the cigarette. I spent weeks making the cigarettes and building the set, and the getting the exposures right; I took the photograph, made 30″x40″prints of it and dismantled the whole thing. The issue for me now is that set was pretty exciting in its own right, more so than the final image, and now that I’ve got some distance from the image I’d love to go back in there and change the primary figure and re-photograph it, but obviously I can’t because the set no longer exists. In this case the photograph is not one with which I’m satisfied; the components are far better than the print.

So I learned to save the sets. Since that point, I’ve come to the conclusion that the cameras, the sets, and the prints work very well together and hopefully might make for a provocative exhibition someday. The few people that have seen one of my dioramas, and the print of it, appear to respond positively to both. I was concerned that first-hand knowledge of the set might undermine the magic of the print, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

How has this work affected your teaching?

I can think of a thousand ways…. If you aren’t making artwork, then you’re not an artist, and if you’re not an artist you don’t belong in a classroom teaching art. So on a general level, I believe that it is your work as an artist that gives you credibility in the classroom. As an educator you feel less like a fraud when actively engaged in the process of making work, and that usually translates into increased risk-taking by you and your students. Faculty and their students share similar issues as artists, so how I approach my own artwork clearly influences how students approach theirs. If done properly I try to model in myself those behaviors I’d like to see in my students.

However, and to better answer your question, this particular body of work has a direct link to my current teaching. Every so often you get lucky as an instructor and a perfect storm occurs, the planets align. I recently taught an advanced course titled, “Experimental Camera,” that in fact drew directly from my research with cameras. I spent forty hours a week on that class alone, and not because I had to, but rather because the kids worked so far beyond the parameters of their existing knowledge that I wanted to see how far we could push the envelope. They were driven, I was driven, and at one point I remember declaring to them that “this is no longer a class, it’s a #@$*&%! quest.” We fed off each other and what I was in the process of discovering about my own camera constructions, dioramas, and prints made an imprint on their learning, and what they learned in turn influenced how I thought about my work.

Disarmed setup
Set for the image “Disarmed”. Bottom image: Arms closeup.

What’s your favorite image you have created? What was the hardest to build and photograph?

It’s funny but over the whole of my career I think that I’ve made only about twenty pieces that I’m really, really satisfied with… pieces that in hindsight I would not change. Of the current group of photographs I’m pretty happy with “Disarmed”, “Honeymouth,” and “The French Kiss”. Of those I’d have to choose “Disarmed” because of its personal significance. This particular print incorporates photographs that I took of my parents at times of extreme duress. The image of my dad with the cat on him—unbeknownst to us at the time—turned out to be an image of his first epileptic seizure. He was confused, lost and so he crawled up in a sleeping bag and slept for two days; it was the first time that I’d ever experienced him in a position of jeopardy. And the image of my mother—the figure hovering above him—was taken a couple of months after my dad died. Because I took the photograph of her with my pinhole camera her arms tended to morph into the table she was sitting at it and it looked very much like she was frozen in a block of ice. In both cases my parents appeared to be without the use of their arms and vulnerable to whatever may come.

Thus the arms in the diorama provided a kind of symbolic support and protection.

And if not the hardest to create…certainly the most complex piece technically was “The French Kiss” with it’s constructed mouths, and six different light sources (including sparklers), and ten minute exposures.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in this media?

I’ve taught for thirty years and probably not a day goes by without me questioning my position to give advice. However, I give it often, I give it freely, and I also know that what works for me doesn’t always work for others. Everyone develops differently and at varied rates depending on both motivation and exposure to stimuli.

My advice: You’d better love what you’re doing because if you’re serious, you’ll probably be doing it for sixty or seventy years. So find the thing that you are truly passionate about, do it, and don’t apologize for doing it. Artists—and scientists, I think—establish their own problems to be solved. We design the thing that we want to better understand. There is no one telling us that you must do this, or you must do that. We choose, and perhaps sometimes, the thing itself chooses us. There is no high quite like completing a piece that expresses almost perfectly the thing you feel. It’s not about celebrity, status, recognition, or acclaim it’s about expression and discovery. I find that the better I’m able to express myself, and the more I learn, the more adequate I feel as a human being.

And a closing thought… my goal: to be an engine of inspiration in the lives of my students, to create magic with my artwork, and find grace with my life.