‘Words Without Pictures - Q&A: Aaron Schuman’
Excerpted in Words Without Pictures, by Alex Klein (LACMA, 2009)
June 2008

Aaron Schuman
Editor, SeeSaw Magazine
e: editor@seesawmagaizine.com
w: http://www.seesawmagazine.com/

What are your interests and concerns as an editor and how do they manifest themselves in your publication?

     SeeSaw Magazine is fundamentally inspired by Walker Evans’s statement, ‘[Photography] is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing; it is the defining of observation full and felt’.  The magazine is dedicated to publishing and promoting photographic work that presents serious and acute observation via the photographic medium, whether it’s made by established, emerging or entirely unknown photographers.  Personally, I am generally interested in photography that explores such themes in a relatively frank and direct manner, but of course there’s an incredible amount of grey area when it comes to such issues.  With that in mind, I believe that SeeSaw inherently reflects the diversity with which photography is used by various practitioners to capture, define and project their ‘full and felt’ observations in an engaging and challenging manner.

How do you believe the role of print publications has changed as a result of the increasing presence of internet-based publications?

     In terms of mass-media, I think that the internet has profoundly changed, if not entirely superceded, the role of print publications, in that it can offer infinite content in a variety formats – and within a complex network of both current and archival material – all of which is instantaneously accessible.  When I first moved to New York, I remember thinking that it was so cool that you could pick up a copy of the Sunday Times on a Saturday night; it felt like you were really ahead of the game, almost peering into the future.  Now, if a story broke an hour ago, it’s old news.  It’s almost as if today’s print publications simply substantiate something’s relevance or importance after the fact, in that someone’s gone to the trouble of physically recording it – they’ve actually ‘put it in writing’ so to speak.  So in a sense, I guess that the print format – to varying degrees – still connotes a sense of selectivity, significance or integrity to that which it chooses to publish.
     In terms of photography-specific publications, I believe their role has been greatly strengthened and supported by web-based magazines, journals, blogs and so on, in that all of these outputs have helped to expand, cultivate, inform and diversify the general photographic audience.  Due to their bulk and the expensive nature of making high-quality photographic reproductions, the print-run and distribution of photography publications are generally quite limited.  When I first moved to the UK, I discovered a whole range of remarkable European photo magazines that I’d never come across in the States; at the same time, I struggle on a monthly basis to find some of my favorite American magazines, even within specialist bookshops in London.  In contrast, the web is both internationally accessible and practically free, so anyone who wants to engage with photography and photographic culture can do so on their own terms.  Then, through the links that they find on their favorite web-mags, blogs or photographers’ sites, they can discover exactly which print publications cater best to their particular interests or tastes. 
     Also, the print magazines can, and often do, use the web-based publications as research filters to help them sift through the millions of portfolios available internationally; instead of just hoping that the best photographers will make themselves known, they can resource exactly what invested audiences are getting excited about in different photographic communities around the world. 
     Again, I think that the best of the print magazines have a strong reputation for being extremely selective, so they still bestow a real sense of relevance and integrity upon the work that they feature.  And as a photograph is still considered both a visual experience and a precious physical object, the printed photography magazine continues to offer its readers something tangible in a way that generally doesn’t concern text publications.  We in have to remember that the majority of photographers are quite obsessive collectors or hoarders (just look at the act of photographing itself), so most people with a passion for photography generally want to be able to have and to hold the work that they admire.  Therefore, in many ways the print publications remain at the top of the editorial publishing hierarchy within this genre, but the internet-based publications serve a vital role in supporting them, as well as guiding readers, writers and photographers to their pages.  If you’re at your computer and want to instantaneously engage with remarkable photography, clicking on your favorite link in the ‘Bookmarks Bar’ can be incredibly informative and gratifying; but inevitably, it will never be as satisfying as pulling a great magazine off the bookshelf and curling up with it for an hour.

In the ever-expanding world of online media, how do you distinguish yourself?

     To be honest, I’ve never intentionally attempted to distinguish SeeSaw from other online sources in any particular way, other than trying to find and present photography that I find fascinating in a coherent manner.  The actual design of SeeSaw is extremely conservative – if not entirely primitive, in online terms – in that its format is simply a digital imitation of print publications; a cover, a table of contents, and pages that display one image or essay apiece.  Apart from my own ignorance in terms of programming and web-design, this decision was originally based on the fact that I found myself increasingly frustrated with websites that insisted on overloading the viewer with information, or that relied on ‘bells and whistles’ to impress its audience.  I remember around 2000 or 2001, when Flash websites first became extremely popular but the speed of the internet wasn’t particular remarkable, I would find myself becoming so annoyed whilst waiting for sites to load, and then would become infuriated to discover that I’d been forced to wait so long just so that some unrelated animation and gratuitous soundtrack could ‘introduce’ me to the site.  At the time, I was just beginning to develop a real love for photography books, and I remember reading an interview with Lee Friedlander in which he said:

‘I realize that the nature of photography is such that I can’t see everything on first look, because photography has this ability to deal so well with information.  There’s so much information in a picture that often I don’t see until the fifth reading or thirty years later.  I can pick up Walker’s book, American Photographs, today and see something I never saw before – and I’ve owned that book for over thirty years…I can only digest so much stuff at one sitting, so I think that books are really a wonderful way to show photographs.  I can go back and re-read things.  ‘Oh shit, I didn’t see that before.’”

Friedlander’s comments really struck a nerve within me at the time, and so I thought, ‘Why not make a website that behaves in the same way as a book.’  And really, the site hasn’t changed from its original and very basic format since; hopefully, it is something that people will return to again and again.

What do you see as being in store for the medium?

     I think that, up until very recently, much of photography has sought to grab the attention of its audience in a relatively immediate and aggressive manner.  But with the ever-increasing presence of visual media within our daily experience – and in particular, the encroachment of the moving image into realms that have traditionally been reserved for the still image – photography will have to redefine its relevance, intentions and approach to the viewer.  In the very near future (if not already) photography will just not be able to effectively access to or ‘seduce’ viewers in the same way it has done so in the past; in terms of captivating its audience, it just cannot compete with video billboards, video phones and iPods, on-demand television, in-car media systems, the internet, and so on.  But because of such over-saturation, I believe that photography could actually become an important ‘refuge’ from this onslaught of visual information  – a source of and opportunity for thoughtful reflection, consideration and contemplation, in which time is literally forced to stand still long enough for experience to be ‘full and felt’ rather than fleeting.  Rather than a continuous quest for new information, the contemporary experience is one of editing out as much extraneous information as possible; therefore, what better medium to explore this with than one which profoundly condenses time and space within a concentrated, still, two-dimensional frame.
     Also, now that the technology has actually advanced in such a way that anyone can produce technically accomplished pictures quite easily, I’m surprisingly optimistic that people’s understanding of the complexity and subtlety of the expressive aspects of the medium will become much more sophisticated – as will photographs themselves – and that content and substance will determine the strength and power of an image, rather than its surface or its immediacy.  Photography will grow increasingly challenging and will aim to sustain and nurture viewers’ attention, rather than just simply trying to capture it.  And instead of searching for that which has never been seen, the best of photography will look more intimately, originally and rigorously at that which might be seen continually, but which is rarely absorbed entirely; in other words, we will find ourselves saying more and more, ‘Oh shit, I didn’t see that before.’




Aaron Schuman Photography
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