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Christopher Williams interview: ‘What’s important is the viewer coming in contact with the picture’

A former child of Hollywood takes a director’s approach to photography

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Photograph: Courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide / © 1968, Eastman Kodak Company, 1968 / (Meiko laughing) / Vancouver, B.C. / April 6, 2005, 2005

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Photograph: Courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Sri Lanka, 1989 / Blaschka Model 694, 1903 / Genus no. 1318 / Family, Musaceae / Musa rosacea Jacq. / (from Angola to Vietnam*), 1989

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Photograph: Lorrin and Deane Wong Family Trust; Los Angeles; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Bouquet for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D’Arcangelo, 1991

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Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art; New York; courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Bergische Bauernscheune, Junkersholz / Leichlingen, September 29th, 2009, 2010

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Photograph: Art Institute of Chicago; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Punta Hicacos, Varadero, Cuba / February 14, 2000, 2000

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Photograph: The Art Institute of Chicago; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Main Staircase for the Arts Club Chicago, 1948–51 / Steel, travertine marble / 359.4 × 458.8 × 609.3 cm / (141 1/2 × 180 5/8 × 239 7/8″) / Arts Club commission 1948–1951 / Ludwig Mies van der Rohe / 109 East Ontario Street, / Chicago

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Photograph: The Art Institute of Chicago; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Model: 1964 Renault Dauphine-Four, R-1095 / Body Type & Seating: 4-dr-sedan–4 to 5 persons / Engine Type: 14/52 Weight: 1397 lbs. Price: $1,495.00 USD (original) / ENGINE DATA: / Base Four: inline, overhead-valve four-cylinder / Cast

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Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art; courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Fachhochschule Aachen / Fachbereich Gestaltung / Studiengang: Visuelle Kommunikation / Fotolabor für Studenten / Boxgraben 100, Aachen / November 8, 2010, 2010

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Photograph: Kravis Collection. Courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Erratum / AGFA Color (oversaturated) / Camera: Robertson Process Model 31 580 Serial #F97-116 / Lens: Apo Nikkor 455 mm stopped down to f90 / Lighting: 16,000 Watts Tungsten 3200 degrees Kelvin / Film: Kodak Plus-X Pan ASA 125 / Koda

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Photograph: Collection of Thomas Struth; Berlin; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide / © 1968, Eastman Kodak Company, 1968 / (Corn) / Photography by the Douglas M. Parker Studio, Glendale, California / April 17, 2003, 2003

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Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art; New York; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Model #105M – R59C / Keystone Shower Door / 57.4 × 59˝ / Chrome/Raindrop / SKU #109149 / #96235. 970 – 084 – 000 / (Meiko) / Vancouver, B.C / April 6, 2005 (No. 1). 2005

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Photograph: The Art Institute of Chicago; courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Mustafa Kinte (Gambia) / Camera: Makina 67 506347 / Plaubel Feinmechanik und Optik GmbH / Borsigallee 37 / 60388 Frankfurt am Main, Germany / Shirt: Van Laack Shirt Kent 64 / 41061 Mönchengladbach, Germany / Dirk Schaper Studio, Berl

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Phootgraph: The Museum of Modern Art; New York; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, ecTake Luxus Strandkorb grau/weiß / Model no.: 400636 / Material: wood/plastic / Dimensions (height/width/depth): 154 cm × 116 cm × 77 cm / Weight: 49 kg / Manufactured by Ningbo Jin Mao Import & Export Co., Ltd, / Ningbo, Zhejiang,

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Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Clockwise from Manufacturer Name (Outer Ring) / Michelin zX / Treadwear 200 / Traction A / Temperature B / Clockwise from Tire Size (Inner Ring) / 135 SR 15 / 723 E2 0177523 / Tubeless / Radial X / Made In France / TN 2148 20-2044 /

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Photograph: Courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Pacific Sea Nettle / Chrysaora Melanaster / Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific / 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach, California / July 9, 2008, 2009

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Photograph: Collection of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, RITTERSPORT / Von oben nach unten/from top to bottom / 100g Tafeln/100 g Bars / Offizieller Produktname/Official Product Name/Ean Code Bar/ / UPC Code for Case/Bars per Case / Voll Nuss/ Whole Hazelnuts/4000417019004/050255013005/10

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Photograph: Collection of Constance R. Caplan; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Untitled (Study in Red) / Dirk Schaper Studio, Berlin / April 30, 2009. 2009.

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Photograph: Katherine and Keith L. Sachs; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Untitled (Study in Yellow and Green/East Berlin) / Studio Thomas Borho, Oberkasseler Str. 39, Düsseldorf, Germany / July 7, 2012, 2012.

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Photograph: Courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Weimar Lux CDS, VEB Feingerätewerk Weimar / Price 86.50 Mark GDR / Filmempfindlichkeitsbereich 9 bis 45 DIN und 6 bis 25000 ASA / Blendenskala 0,5 bis 45, Zeitskala 1/4000 Sekunde bis 8 Stunden, ca. 1980 / Models: Ellena Borho and Ch

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Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art; courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Loading the film (ORWO NP15 135-36 ASA 25, Manufactured by VEB Filmfabrik Wolfen, Wolfen, German Democratic Republic) / Exakta Varex IIa / 35 mm film SLR camera / Manufactured by Ihagee Kamerawerk Steenbergen & Co, Dresden, German De

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Photograph: Private Collection; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Cutaway model Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/15 ZM / Focal length: 15mm. Aperture range: 2.8 – 22. No. of elements/groups: 11/9 / Focusing range: 0.3 m–infinity. Image ratio at close range: 1:18 / Coverage at close range: 43 cm × 65 cm. Angul

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Photograph: Courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams, Fig. 4: Changing the shutter speed / Exakta Varex IIa / 35 mm film SLR camera / Manufactured by Ihagee Kamerawerk Steenbergen & Co, Dresden, German Democratic Republic / Body serial no. 979625 (Production period: 1960–1963) / Carl Ze

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Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art; courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner; New York/London and Galerie Gisela Capitain; Cologne; © Christopher Williams

Cutaway model Nikon EM. Shutter: / Electronically governed Seiko metal blade shutter vertical travel with speeds from 1/1000 to 1 second with a manual speed of 1/90th. / Meter: Center-weighted Silicon Photo Diode, ASA 25-1600 / EV2-18 (with ASA film and 1

Los Angeles artist Christopher Williams grew up on Hollywood movie sets and has applied the collaborative process of filmmaking to his art, using other photographers to create images recalling the ones found in catalogs and magazine ads. The subject of a traveling retrospective that’s just opened at MoMA, Williams met with Time Out New York at the museum to discuss the show and what he thinks is the most vital aspect of photography.

Where does the title “The Production Line of Happiness” come from?
It’s from a Godard video about a Swiss watchmaker who made Super-8 films of flowers, insects and birds, which gave him a sense of satisfaction missing from his usual job. I thought it was a good way to describe the making of work.

You studied at Cal Arts with people such as John Baldessari, Michael Asher and Douglas Huebler. Was there anything in particular that you took from them?
They all belonged to the first generation of conceptual artists, and what I realized is that while they infused their work with a high degree of seriousness, it existed alongside that same idea of pleasure. That’s true even of most rigorous figures among the group, like Dan Graham, who’s always said that his work is about comedy.

You’re also a contemporary of the Pictures Generation artists, yet your work departed significantly from theirs. Did any of them influence you?
Initially, I used re-photography, and was certainly encouraged by the example of Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince. But I’d say the two artists that were very important for me were Louise Lawler and Barbara Kruger. They were more involved in examining the context for making the art. And that idea, known generally as institutional critique, permitted me to put some distance between my work and that of the Pictures artists.

Have you applied some of that thinking to this show?
Yes. Another way of looking at what I do is that I get inside the conventions of displaying and distributing photography, and then amplify them. Naturally, that involves the way they’re exhibited. Only a certain amount of work can fit in a specific space, which generally involves building walls and so forth, and I’ve turned some of those elements into artifacts carrying them over from one venue to the next. So the show in New York is framed by the architecture from the first stop of the tour in Chicago and the next one in London. There’s also point here where I left part of the Gauguin exhibition previously mounted in the same galleries. So there are layers of two or three exhibitions made visible as a kind of palimpsest.

The catalog for the show is somewhat unconventional for a career survey. Are you also treating it as a work in the show?
The idea of a retrospective made me extremely uncomfortable. So one of the things that I wanted to do with the catalog was to bring in other voices. I’ve included lists, descriptions and manifestos by other artists—from Claes Oldenburg to Scritti Politti to Bernadette Corporation. Instead of a picture book describing what I’ve done, I’ve treated the catalog as a source book for the kind of discussions that interests me.

You started out as a filmmaker but moved into photography. Why the change?
Both my grandfather and father worked in motion pictures, and going into art was a way to escape all of that. But after spending time alone in a painting studio, I realized that I missed the kind of dialogue that takes place on a movie set. That became the model for my work.

Is that why you employ professional photographers?
Yes. I like functioning as a director. I’d started by doing enlargements from archival sources. And after a while, I thought that, instead of appropriating images, I’d appropriate the site of image production. So that’s also part of it.

What is the one thing that finally distinguishes your approach?
When people talk about photography, they always refer to the decisive moment—the point at which the image is captured. But I’ve attempted to shift the focus. For me, what’s important is the viewer coming in contact with the picture, not my taking it.

See the exhibtion

"Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness"

Like Robert Heinecken, Williams came out of the West Coast as a photographer who deconstructed his medium through unconventional methods. In Williams's case, this has meant employing commercial photographers to create his works, images that dispassionately dismantle the mystique of the darkroom, the photographer's studio and the camera itself. The results often have the burnished look of midcentury catalogs for photographic services and equipment.

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Until Sun Nov 2

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