Phyllis LambertAutoportrait, 860 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, 1961.
Photo: courtesy of the artist
[En anglais]

Esse is pleased to publish this exclusive conversation between Adad Hannah and Phyllis Lambert for the exhibition Observation—Phyllis Lambert, on view until May 20 at Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain. The exhibition includes photographs from Lambert’s latest book, Observation Is a Constant That Underlies All Approaches (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers), which provides a record of her photographic wanderings ranging from the 1950s, when she used black-and-white 35 mm film, to her latest images, taken with her cell phone and published on her Instagram account.

Phyllis Lambert You took what, seventy or sixty-nine photographs from the book? And in the book they are paired, but you organized it in a different way. It was a different medium. How did you think about how you wanted to put things together?

Adad Hannah I pulled the images out thinking of them as single images, and then I had this kind of constellation of images, so we could play with these little points and move them around. I created some groups of three, four, or five photographs. I think a few of them, though, did make it back to their original pairs. In the book, the logic of pairs really makes sense because of the way the pages open. But in the exhibition, I wanted more—I don’t know, like, a different rhythm of images. Some of the pairs are still there from the book, because they just made so much sense.

Phyllis Lambert
Observation—Phyllis Lambert, exhibition view, Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain, Montréal, 2023.
Photo: courtesy of Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain, Montréal

P.L. What were your criteria for choosing the images?

A.H. It was tough. Obviously, the images are already a subset of your archive. Already they’re a pretty good selection. I didn’t want to focus on portraits of people or architecture too much. I wanted to make sure that the different parts of your photographic practice were addressed. I like the photographs that have some kind of mystery. You’re not sure what’s going on, or you’re not sure what you’re looking at. And those say more—to me anyway—about how you are looking at things.

P.L. That’s true for me. Yes.

A.H. And then, we looked at a floor plan. I’m used to visually laying things out, rather than starting from a theoretical thesis. It was tough when we had to cut some images. You know, you pull some, and then you feel like there’s something missing, so you bring a couple back in. I enjoy that push-pull. I remember at first we had these little postage-stamp-size cut-outs on a plan of the gallery.That’s a fun way to visualize work.

P.L. Something I learned from that, which was very interesting, is that the different cameras all had very different aspect ratios. I never fully realized this.

A.H. And now, with Instagram, everything’s vertical, right? A vertical image used to be a rare thing. Now, I would say they’re the majority of images, or certainly many of them. I was thinking about that in one of my later questions here for you. Because I think you called yourself a lens junkie?

P.L. Instagram junkie. I also called myself a camera junkie. At one point I was changing from black and white to colour, and I was using single lens reflex cameras. I’d go around with two of them slung over my shoulders; one with black-and-white film, one with colour. And then, I was also recording sound.

A.H. You used to be so into changing lenses and cameras. Now it’s much more instantaneous, but you don’t get to pick your lenses, right? You just have the lenses that are on the camera. I was wondering if at the beginning, when you first started, you were taking photographs and not thinking of it as an archive. Now, obviously, you know when you take an image that it’s going to become part of your archive.

P.L. I’ve been doing it for so long, just taking photographs, because I really enjoy doing so, and they just went into my archive at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. But when I started Instagram, they became photographs that a public is going to look at. Before that, they never were.

A.H. You don’t remember a moment when you went from just making photographs to thinking, “I’m a photographer and this is a body of my photos”?

P.L. I’m not a photographer in the sense that I have a theory about what I’m doing. I’m really somebody who just enjoys looking through lenses. They’re more snapshots, I never set up or rearrange anything. Occasionally, I move something. I work with what I have in front of me, and it’s about the framing of the view. With Instagram, during the pandemic, when one couldn’t go anywhere, you’re sitting somewhere and you see something. I take a photograph for some reason. But when I’m at home, I see something and say, Oh, that’s pretty interesting. And then I experiment with how I look at things.

Phyllis Lambert
Jantar Mantar Observatory, New Delhi, India, 1999.
Photo: courtesy of the artist

A.H. I think of myself the same way. I’ve never taken a photography course in my life. I feel like I take pictures because I enjoy it, or without a real plan. But I think smartphones kind of freed people up a bit to take photos of the everyday, like a different kind of snapshot.Another step.

P.L. It was amazing, the first photographs that were taken in the nineteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, you needed to have a tripod and a large-format camera. And then they used to actually develop the negative on site. So, they had to carry huge amounts of equipment with them. And for portraits they had all those instruments that look like torture instruments. They held your head still.

A.H. A lot of the armatures and apparatuses in my photographs are based on those historical tools. More recently there used to be video cameras and still cameras. But in the last twenty years, they’ve really merged. When you’re aiming a camera now, youalways have a choice between a still and a moving image.

P.L. There were the little eight-millimetre cameras, and they got to the point where you could actually put sound and film on them, moving film on them. But I wasn’t really interested.

I like that series on Sounion in the exhibition where I walk up to the temple and turn, go one way, then the other way, to walk up the hill. They’re all single images. I really enjoy that. You look at one thing, then you look at another thing. It’s like when you could use the dissolve in projection that created a kind of movement. But you can get some of that movement with the iPhone camera’s “live” function.It gives you the possibility of actually choosing. Because the live function gives you a whole series of images. When you edit it, it shows each frame. You can choose the frame that you like better than the one that was chosen for you.

Phyllis Lambert
Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion, Greece, 1971.
Photos: courtesy of the artist

A.H. What I like in the photographs of the temple when you’re moving around is that each photograph tells you about the person taking the photograph and where they are in relation to the world around them. It’s the same, actually, with your slideshows, which I think was part of the reason to want to include more images at a smaller scale rather than fewer at a larger scale in the exhibition. The exhibition almost could be seen as a slideshow that you operate yourself as you walk through it.

P.L. This is the first time I’ve had an exhibition of my photographs. I never thought of it until some people on Instagram said, “Hey, why don’t you make a book?” I think a lot of them were thinking of Instagram because that’s all they knew. But I have that big backlog of so many photographs that were just always there.

A.H. Do you see your images as individual images each with its own meaning? Do you think meaning is accumulated over multiple images? I find that the individual photographs work on their own, but there’s a different kind of meaning that builds up from the accumulation of them.

P.L. Yes. The movement in looking at the temple, because of all the columns … you want to look at it in different ways. Just the whole process of approaching it, because I didn’t do it to get different angles as much as I did, really, just to document how the temple changes as you approach it. And I’ve done that quite a few other times.

Phyllis Lambert
Les Halles, Paris, France, circa 1967.
Photo: courtesy of the artist

A.H. I’m doing some 3D scanning now, with photogrammetry that’s used for architecture. You take a series of photos around an object and then the computer calculates what’s where, and the shape of it.

P.L.: That’s mechanical, sort of.

A.H. We’ve talked about this with cell phones. But I find your social media posts quite light and playful. I think there’s less judgment involved, because it’s so easy, right?

P.L. Often it’s because you see something and you frame it immediately. Usually, you work around framing and you’re taking, for example, the great theatres in Greece, and I would take them very specifically so that I could make three screens to make a panorama. You can do that with the iPhone too, but I don’t find them very satisfactory.

A.H. Do you ever feel pressure when you’re making photographs?

P.L. I had to learn to keep the camera straight. It’s not so key a problem with the phone because you take a photograph at night and it turns into day, so it’s able to allow the light to come in. Whereas with the lenses on a single lens reflex, or even the Canon that I used, you can’t move because it’s fairly slow. You get that greater depth of field, of course. I had to learn to do that. I think that a lot of those eighty thousand photographs are probably not very good.

A.H. When I’m at your place looking in your library there, what always strikes me in your area on photography, behind the couches, is that you were there and very active—and collecting photographs as well— during the period when photography moved from a way of documenting the world and documenting art to a kind of art discipline in itself. The first photography exhibitions and things like that at MoMA. I can’t help but think that that moment made an impression on you.

P.L. Yes, but that was before that I started photographing. I can’t think of when John Szarkowski’s earliest exhibitions were, I can’t think of the dates. But it was all sort of at the same time. And that was also the period in which the photographs were coming up at auctions. And they started to really roll in. It was a period for consciousness of photography. And now it’s getting back again. I think I’d be more influenced now that I’m thinking more about photography.

Phyllis Lambert
London, England, 1961.
Photo: courtesy of the artist

If we go back to the question we had about still photographs and moving films, you take still photographs with a video camera, not a still camera. So, why do you do that?

A.H. I was thinking about film, about early trick photography in film, when they would make ghosts appear and that sort of thing. And then I just pulled everything away from what makes a video a video. Then I made these videos of people standing still and doing nothing. Tim Clark, a professor of mine said, “Oh, you’re doing tableaux vivants.”I didn’t know what a tableau vivant was. When I started to do research, it just opened up a whole world. He kind of opened my eyes to the relationship between my work and history paintings. And then I guess that I was fascinated that tableaux vivants were kind of at their height of popularity at the exact same moment that photography was starting to become popular. And when I was doing my PhD, I was reading about this idea—I think by Geoffrey Batchen, the Australian author—about how many different people had simultaneously kind of invented photography and come up with the technology for photography in different ways. And so then the question is, did the technology lead to the ability to make photographs? Or was it the desire to make still images that led to the technological advances?

I was having trouble remembering why I decided to do this project of restaging Degas’ The Absinthe Drinker several years ago. Then I remembered that it was because this painting looked so much like a photograph, right? And you see so many paintings that are inspired by photography or technology.

P.L. Degas very much was. Because all those photographs he took, with just an arm coming in, you know, the way you’d frame with the camera.

A.H. In my still videos, I did a lot of that as well, actually. It’s funny because it was probably before I was aware of Degas’s use of that kind of photographic framing, but I would have videos where someone is just coming into a frame, but then they’re not moving and they’re still, right? Creating these snapshot moments, kind of faking them, I guess.

When you look at your own photographs, especially because you’ve been making photographs for so long, do you recognize all the images as you saw them? Or do you think you see them with fresh eyes as an outsider, an observer of your own work?

P.L. For the book, I had to give captions, so I remember the moments. And when you’re with friends, you pretty well remember the moments. I remember my intention, when I loved looking through the lens. It took me a long time to get away from the hundred-millimetre lens, because you could get very, very close, just two or three inches away, which you can do, of course, with this little thing [the phone] very easily.

Phyllis Lambert
Observation Is a Constant That Underlies All Approaches, interior pages, 2023.
Photo: courtesy of the artist

I find myself photographing now, after the exhibition, in a different way than I was photographing before.

You can see it on my Instagram images. Maybe they’re less formal, and more formal… I’m not sure. I’m using the wide angle quite a bit now. On the iPhone you can go to 0.5, the wide angle. And I find that quite interesting.

A.H. I guess you’re working on your next show.

P.L. David Cyrenne, who actually chose the images and worked on them, went patiently through all them. He knows the photographs, and he’s found some new ones. Most of the images had been put in some order, but some had escaped the process. So he’s finding all sorts of new things. We’ll see what happens.

A.H. Do you feel any difference between when you used to take pictures? You’d have to capture the image and then send the film off to be developed—waiting in suspense until it came back.And then you’d get pictures and flip through them. But now it really is instantaneous. Do you have any thoughts about it now, looking back?

P.L. I didn’t want to go back.

A.H. I see your lack of fascination with that change as being an indication of your project of observing the world around you. You’re capturing it, and you’re actually not that fetishistic about the tools you’re using to make the images, right?

P.L. Yeah. You wrote in the little sheet that accompanies the exhibition something about that.

A.H. The choice of scale – of what size to print the photos was a hard one. Were you satisfied with the scale of the photographs?

P.L. I think when you look at photographs on a screen or in a book, you see them one after the other. When you put them on the wall, you start to see them in relation to each other, which I think is the interesting thing about an exhibition. You can do that on a projected screen, of course, to a certain degree, but not that many at the same time. You’re not showing images on one side of the room that somehow have something to do with the images on the other side of the room, as you can when you’re doing an exhibition.

Phyllis Lambert
Observation—Phyllis Lambert, exhibition view, Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain, Montréal, 2023.
Photo: courtesy of Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain, Montréal

A.H. I would do it as a slideshow.

P.L. Oh, yeah. I actually did a huge one on the construction of the Saidye Bronfman Centre. I had three screens, and I had music with it, because that’s always great. You had to push a button at the right moment to have the music coordinated with the change of the slide. It was really difficult, but it was fun.I found them very exciting.

A.H. Do you remember what music you used?

P.L. Yes, sure. I chose it very carefully. For the slideshow on Guatemala, I did two kinds of music. One was—I recorded some of the flute playing and the drummers there. There were some records of that. But for very dramatic moments, like the volcanos or the funeral cortege or the sacred oil in front of the cathedral, I would use a—well, I guess he was a nineteenth-century Spanish composer whose music was very symphonic and dramatic. And some of the Greece things. I had recorded the crickets! They were very, very typical of the sound you hear around you there.

A.H. What’s also interesting is the shift that happened with COVID. A shift into a more interior world. Because there are images from within your living spaces in the exhibition, from before cell phones and before COVID. During COVID, everybody’s sense of vision got a bit more limited. Like, everybody’s depth of field was reduced!

P.L. It’s a spatial thing, because what you’re doing is photographing the same thing in the same environment over and over again. You’re playing with the light, the seasons, the time of day! It’s marvellous because you get to observe that much more closely—and be more conscious of it—than you had before, which also involves a whole process of thinking about why you’re going to do it. As I said, some of it might be, I’m just sitting here like this and I’ll say, “Oh, that looks interesting over there,” you know? And I wonder how I can frame it in a photograph. That’s a kind of conscious way of wanting to do things. A conscious idea that you just wanted to make photographs of what you see, capture what you see. It’s a way of looking.

A.H. I feel the exact same way, but I also feel frustrated about it, because there’s something about needing the mediation of the phone that frustrates me, that I can’t just do it like this … if that makes sense. I’m exactly the same, I take a million pictures.

I take my phone everywhere and take pictures of things as a way of understanding what I’m looking at. But, to me, there’s some frustration—like, you should be able to understand what you’re looking at without a camera.

P.L. You could, but then you have to frame your way of thinking differently.

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