Cut and Paste: on Feminism, Collage, and the Photographic Canon – an interview with Justine Kurland

Justine Kurland is an American photographer based in New York City.  Her latest book, SCUMB Manifesto uses collage to break down the works that make up the male ‘canon’ of photography – quite literally. Kurland took books by male photographers from her own library, cut them up, and rearranged the pieces into individual collages.  In doing so, she aims to carve out a historical space for women throughout the history of the medium, and build a new lineage of canonical work by women that undercuts the patriarchal influence of the straight white man over photographic history.  Andy Pham spoke to her over the course of several weeks about her work, her thought processes behind making the book, and the messages she wants to convey with it.

AP: I’m interested to know why you initially chose photography as your visual language. Was there a moment or maybe an image or work that served as a turning point for you? 

JK: Photography offered me a way of looking at something without naming it. I was drawn to its latency as much as its overt descriptions. I started taking pictures so I could be like my childhood friend Nicki Rosenthal. Through her, I also got to Edie Sedgwick and eventually Valerie Solanas. But I don’t believe in origin stories. I’ve read too many applications for graduate school not to cringe at the seminal moment when a father or grandparent placed a camera in hand and it has never been put down since.

The point of these collages is to annihilate the influence of these men who were introduced to me through my schooling and reinforced by museums, galleries, and publications.

AP: SCUMB Manifesto is a provocative attack on the male canon in the history of photography, so I am interested in who or what some of your influences were for getting into the medium.

JK: The (modernist) history of photography is a narrow story where one artist begets the next artist in a singular chain of influence. So, it doesn’t matter who you pick along the chain. It’s all the same thing – although there are clearly weaker links. I learned about art photography before the internet, so the men were basically all there was. I’m interested in finding an alternative genealogy that allows for a broader definition of what a photograph can be or mean and an inversion of the normal power dynamic of who is on what side of the lens. 

The point of these collages is to annihilate the influence of these men who were introduced to me through my schooling and reinforced by museums, galleries, and publications. So, it would be contradictory to speak about their work. For me, it’s about opening up space to consider artists like Ming Smith, Jay Defeo, Laura Aguilar, Betty Tompkins, Barbra Hammer, Loraine O’Grady, Moyra Davey, Carrie Mae Weems, Claude Cahun, Lorna Simpson, JEB, Carolee Schneeman, Adrian Piper, Ishuiuchi Miyako, Tee Corinne, Hannah Wilke, Yoko Ono, Alice Neal, Yayoi Kusama, Howardena Pindell, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, among others, and to build a new frame of reference through their legacy.

AP: I was initially challenged by your book as someone with a very different background and personal history (you are a queer white woman and I am a straight non-white man).  Did you have a target audience in mind when you set out to make the work or was it a matter of feeling like the work was necessary to make, and the audience could receive it on their own terms and from their own perspectives, whatever those might be?

JK: I think the cover of my book reads like a sweet children’s story after the Trump administration, but I agree that it’s highly accessible. The viewer can make what they want of it. But the subversion of my book is that by simply buying it a person actively participates in the dismantling of the canon. Even by opening it the viewer changes photography’s ability to imagine a future we want to belong to. 

… the subversion of my book is that by simply buying it a person actively participates in the dismantling of the canon. Even by opening it the viewer changes photography’s ability to imagine a future we want to belong to. 

AP: Some might perceive your message as radical or extremist – the text on the front cover of the book is highly provocative. Do you think that the possibility of coming across as having a relatively extremist agenda might detract from the book having an impact on not only those who agree with you, but also those who embody or perpetuate the male canon?

JK: You do know we just lost the right to have an abortion. You’ve been following the news about white supremacists murdering people in grocery stores, schools, churches, and nail salons. I’m not the extremist here.

AP: Are the collages all made using work pulled from the male canon of photography? It seems like a lot of the source material might be taken from magazines, advertisements, etc. Is it a mixture of both?

JK: Each collage is made from one man’s book. There have been occasions where I collaged more than one copy of the same book together, but each piece is always only from one source. 

AP: You take parts of the canon and make once-famous works and images now partly unrecognizable. If they were whole or complete, the audience might immediately know whose work it is. Cut up and reassembled, they partially lose their identity and meaning. Was it important for you to toe the line between having the collages be reappropriations of the original works, versus having them stand on their own as individual pieces?

JK: I would argue that they don’t lose their meaning so much as become the material for something new that might be more meaningful than where it started. They are not appropriation so much as theft, but only in so much as stealing what was already mine.

AP: One thing that personally motivates me in making work is the issue of gatekeeping at large. I am driven by making work and finding avenues to show work that overcome the power structures, exclusivity, and elitism in the art world. Was the issue of gatekeeping, whether it be by males or by white people, etc. something that you thought about while making the work? And how do you think the book itself will play a role in shaping the future of the conversation around gatekeeping?

JK: Yes, I’m against any gatekeeping. The collages are about breaking the hierarchical power of photography’s canon. The canon looks like Trump, like the eleven white men on the judiciary committee for [US Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh’s nomination, and like the sheriff who sympathized with the white supremacist shooter for having a very bad day. It’s a doorman building on the Upper East Side and a pass to the front of the line. It’s the hand on your ass by your boss. The reason why it’s so insidious is because we accept these hierarchies as indisputable fact, the way it’s always been done. I hope my book offers a counterpoint.

AP: In ‘researching’ for writing about your book, I made my own collage from a poster of the Korean pop group BTS. It made me think about the ideas of masculinity and hero-worship. Most of photography’s ‘heroes’ or major influences are men. What’s interesting to me is that a group like BTS doesn’t portray traditional masculinity, yet is still ‘worshiped’ by girls and women all over the world. In relation to your work in this book, you seem to tie traditional Western ideals of masculinity to hero-worship and patriarchy. Many of the collages are statements on the objectification of women throughout the history of image-making in general, as well as the static idea of masculinity and power in society (cars, motorcycles, guns, war, etc.) Is this accurate? To what extent do you think masculinity and hero-worship or idolization go hand in hand?

JK: Oh wow, that’s sweet. I don’t know the band, but I’d love to see your collage. The K-pop bands I know are mostly girl groups. A student of mine, Ramona Jingru Wang, has made some interesting work about those K-pop girls. But I think you might be taking my collages too literally in terms of their message. I start with the observation that the history of photography books has been a history of men’s books. The collages invert the usual terms of possession, I am objectifying the men and using their work for my own fantasy and world-building. It is a feminist project – not one that centers men. 

I start with the observation that the history of photography books has been a history of men’s books. The collages invert the usual terms of possession, I am objectifying the men and using their work for my own fantasy and world-building.

As far as masculinity is concerned, I defer to bell hooks who wrote a book on it. She says patriarchy isn’t good for anyone, not men or women. She writes about how the emotional repression expected of men and the narrow gauntlet of feeling they must walk deprives them of the full range of the human experience and, therefore, they have less of a chance of being happy. I know a lot of people who are casualties of this kind of being. 

The first collages I made are about carving space and freeing myself from a very heavy library. But now, several years into this mode of making, my collages are a response to collages I’ve already made. I’m interested in hybridity, fragmentation, and circularity. I’m interested in referencing the language of other cutters; see Marina Chao’s essay in my book. Lately, I’ve been thinking about flowers and vaginas, essentialist tropes that have defined women that I’m trying to reclaim through visual pleasure. My collages are about women and the power of the erotic through the cut, the fold, and the coming together.

AP:I also realized while making the collage that I wasn’t cutting up the poster out of anger. I was mostly concentrating on making it look aesthetically pleasing. For some, the act of cutting up an image is a hostile or angry act of defilement. How motivated were you by anger or the idea of retribution in cutting up the works (versus aesthetics)?

JK: Yes. Exactly. Collage is very fussy. Did you know it was British housewives who invented collage in the form of scrapbooking? Definitely not Picasso. 

AP: To some, it might seem that you are more interested in dismantling the male canon than specifically the straight white male/patriarchal influence on the history of photography. Is it the more highly visible ‘canon’ itself, or the more subtle and insidious idea of ‘influence’ over photographic history that you are more interested in dismantling?

JK: Could you explain the difference between the male canon of photography and the straight white male patriarchal influence in the history of photography? It seems like the same thing to me.

AP: How do you feel about ‘canonical’ photographers like Minor White, Gordon Parks, or Daido Moriyama, for instance, who don’t fit squarely into the idea or structure of the white male canon?

JK: I think queer, Black, and Japanese photographers have been given very little room in the history books or the museum walks. See, for example, Howardena Pindell’s research on the number of exhibitions given to people of color. It’s published in the exhibition catalog for We Wanted a Revolution at The Brooklyn Museum. 10×10 found that only 10% of all photography books ever published were by women. Or do the research yourself. How many women or people of color had solo shows at a place like ICP?

Minor White is more famous for starting Aperture than for his own work. Gordon Parks was mostly known as a Life Magazine editorial photographer and given very little art world attention until Steidl published a five-volume anthology of his work and Jack Shainman picked him up only a few years back. Moriyama has gotten more play than the other two in large part because he’s Japanese rather than American and was part of a vibrant art and book scene over there.

AP: The opening text on the front cover, to me, feels more like a feminist attack on all men (in the history of photography), rather than a wider and more nuanced attempt to undercut the male canon and uplift the work of any/all underrepresented demographics (people of color, the queer community, women). Would you say that is a fair statement?

JK: This statement suggests an overreliance on an unfortunate and unnecessary binary and leads me to believe you may not be very familiar with the manifesto as a political and literary form. There’s a great book by Brea Fahs called Burn it Down. It’s an anthology of feminist manifestos. She also wrote a great biography on Valerie Solanas. I also thought you might want to look up Mark Morrisroe’s Cutthroats for Hire. I also really love this poem by Bernadette Meyer, it really makes me laugh. 

AP: Were you concerned at all about having that opening statement (or the book as a whole) feel like an extended rant, rather than a more even-keeled or positively oriented message that the idea of the male canon is outdated and highly problematic?

To write a polemic is a formal challenge. It is to connect the most miniscule of details with the widest of panoramas, to walk a tightrope between rage and reason, to insist that ideas are nothing but lived emotion, and vice versa.

JK: Here’s Catherine Lorde from her essay on Solanas, Wonder Waif Meets Super Neuter: “As far as I’m concerned, the guy was a fucking saint.” The fucking saint is Michel Foucault. The guy who wrote the sentence is David Halperin, whose Saint Foucault: Toward a Gay Hagiography is one of the most battered books in my library. I scribble and underline not because I revere Michel Foucault, or David, although I do, in different ways, but because I cannot resist a good polemic: Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, for example, Malcolm X on white devils, and Yvonne Rainer’s No to everything she could think of in 1965. To write a polemic is a formal challenge. It is to connect the most miniscule of details with the widest of panoramas, to walk a tightrope between rage and reason, to insist that ideas are nothing but lived emotion, and vice versa. To write a polemic is to try to dig oneself out of the grave that is the margin, that already shrill, already colored, already feminized, already queered location in which words, any words, any combination of words are either symptoms of madness or proof incontrovertible of guilt by association. Halperin’s beatification of Foucault is a disciplined absurdity, at once an evisceration of homophobia and an aria to the fashioning of a queer self.

AP: The act of making a collage can be either very preconceived and thought out, or randomized and free-flowing. Yours seem to be more of the former. The work is all very aesthetically pleasing to look at and intricately detailed. Can you talk about your process of making each collage? How long did it take for you to find source material, do the actual cutting up of images, and reassemble them?

JK: I tear all the pages out of the books and carefully comb through them for anything I want to cut out. The process is intuitive but based on three decades of making and looking at photographs. I know exactly what I want from each book. Once I have a pile of fragments, I start putting them back together. Early on I composed from the edges, the way a photographer does. Later I made shapes. Sometimes the collages are assembled for conceptual reasons but most often the composition is a response to how the fragments fit together. I often try to connect lines or colors by knitting disparate pieces, finding a new form through the careful balance of rhythm and motion. Most of the collages have a narrative structure. It’s a kind of irrational dance between form and subject.

AP: SCUM Manifesto itself is quite a radical text. It argues for a revolutionary elimination of the male sex as a moral imperative and the reclamation of social power for women in a utopian female world. In your book’s closing essay, you write that “the collages in SCUMB Manifesto are an homage to Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto.” To what extent do guilt and innocence by association play into your work and its message? Are all men guilty, to some extent, of perpetuating patriarchal norms and male supremacy? Are all women innocent because of the fact that they are women? To the extent that your book pays homage to Solanas’s, is there a more nuanced message that you are trying to communicate compared to hers?

JK: I point out in my essay in the book that Valerie Solanas’s real battle was with “daddy’s girls,” those women who soldier up to men and are more worried about rocking the boat than civil rights. She sees women as being more complicit in perpetuating patriarchy than men. She’s not actually that concerned about men as they are already busy killing each other. In fact, she does make space for male allies and calls them the “women’s auxiliary.” The part of Valerie’s work I continue in mine is the decentering of men. In both of our cases, the violence operates as satire but is aimed at a very real set of problems that many of your questions highlight: the difficulties of seeing from the perspective of a woman, valuing women’s culture, work, or art. This violence is cited and gesturally enacted in the interest of producing a matrilineal genealogy of art history in order to make space for those who have been excluded and the only way to ensure that photographic art can move forward.

Justine Kurland
MACK, 2022

All Rights Reserved: Text ©Andy Pham
Images ©Justine Kurland/MACK

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