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Jason Fulford

by Jonah Samson in Culture on 28 March 2007

Earlier this week, I was excited to be able to question Jason Fulford about his work. He and his partner, Leanne Shapton, run J&L Books, a small publishing company they started in 2000 that supports emerging artists. The dynamic duo have also curated an exhibition currently on view at Seattle’s OK OK Gallery. Jason Fulford’s own solo show can be seen at Quality Pictures in Portland until 28 April 2007. For more images, go here.

Your photos are more than just great images of small details and ordinary things, they have a very strong graphic sense—as if the things you photograph were designed rather than found. How would you describe your work?
I think about balance a lot, not just compositionally, but about balancing extremes or balancing contradictory things. And I love opposites especially when they happen simultaneously or in one person. My life involves lots of these kinds of relationships, like wanderlust vs. settling or respectability vs. disregard. I see these types of relationships everywhere now, like when I used to drive a Pontiac Sunbird and would always see other Sunbirds out on the street.

What lead you to start publishing books?
The simple answer is that I’ve always loved printed matter and I’ve always had the compulsion to make things. Also a naive dissatisfaction at the time (late '90s) with art books I’d see in bookstores. I wanted to publish books so I could have them on my own shelves. Another reason is that I was traveling so much and really missed a sense of community. Publishing helped me find a community of people, tied together with overlapping sensibilities.

When you’re putting together a show of other people’s work, or when you’re deciding on whose work to publish, what are you looking for?
There are exceptions to this, but generally speaking I look for three layers. First is a physical beauty that makes me want to stare at the work. Second, a connection to the subject matter that activates my own memory and imagination. Third is a question that’s raised by the work but left unanswered. This last layer is the most important for me. If a work has an open or hovering quality, it tends to last longer. I also look for a sense of humor, and the artist’s motivation also affects the way I judge a work. You can often tell right away if the motivation is genuine. Of course sometimes this is irrelevant.

Continue reading... When you show your own work, the presentation is somewhat unusual. (See below.) What are you considering when you present your work?
I feel like I’m still getting my feet wet putting up shows, and it’s really different from presenting work in book form. For one thing, in a book you only see one page at a time, whereas in a gallery, you see the entire room. In the show up in Portland right now, I’ve sort of scattered a selection of prints around on four walls. This placement is a clue as to one way in which the show can be read—pointing to the associations between pictures. For me it’s like being inside a piece of music where you can see the whole song at once, including all the various relationships within the piece. When I make a book, I think of the book as a single piece, and the same goes for a show.

What’s coming up for you?
Later this month I’ll be travelling to Spain and Dubai, shooting for a few magazines. I’m also editing a new DVD for J&L. This is our first compilation of short films by various artists. And I’m working with graphic designer Paul Sahre on book covers for new editions of all the Ernest Hemingway titles.

What have you not done that you would like to do?
I’d like to make a film.

What work are you seeing now that’s blowing you away?
I’ve just discovered Robert Walser’s short stories, written roughly 1900-1930. Oh man, these are so good. It’s such a perfect mixture of sentiment/emotion and clever abstraction. And I just started Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (published in 1946), which is so complicated and amazing. Mann wrote this novel with the help of Adorno while they were living as exiles in Los Angeles during WWII. On the surface it’s about a genius composer who makes a pact with the devil to become the greatest composer ever, and the devil gives him the twelve-tone system. Underneath this surface layer though are many layers of meaning, the most obvious being an interpretation of German history and culture up to WWII. And then there are the descriptions of polyphonic atonal music, described as an orderly system that generates endless ambiguities. I’m also blown away by Michael Schmelling’s project The Plan. We’ll be publishing this work next year at J&L. The pictures were taken in the homes of pack rats—people with obsessive compulsive hoarding disorder. Like Doctor Faustus, these pictures also work on many levels at once. The book will be over 500 pages. I just spent an inspiring few days at the Prelinger Library in San Francisco. Archivists Rick and Megan Prelinger combined their personal libraries into one and have opened it up to the public. Look out for an article about them in the May issue of Harpers. And music-wise, my wife just introduced me to a '60s French pop singer called Pussy Cat. She’s sort of like France Gall, but her voice is deeper and less grating. I’ve been listening to her nonstop along with a reissue of some old Hasil Adkins home.

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