In conversation with Lisa Oppenheim & John Stezaker

Interview accompanything the exhibition Sublime Smoke at The Approach, London


Sublime Smoke is an exhibition of works from Lisa Oppenheim’s photographic series Smoke paired with John Stezaker’s cropped found images from the series Sublime curated by Nora Heidorn. These works by Oppenheim and Stezaker make an unlikely convergence across time and material approaches in their respective use of found images of billowing smoke that they have cropped to suggest the sublime beauty of clouds in the sky.

Nora Heidorn: How did you arrive at the idea to crop the source of the smoke from your respective images?

John Stezaker: They came from seeing a detail of a De Chirico painting in which puffs of smoke can be seen from behind a wall, but only the slightest trace of their source. It seemed like a pictorial joke to me and reminded me of a similar encounter as a child of puffs of smoke being emitted from a hidden steam engine, which I remember seeming funny at the time. Later, I used to hang around with train spotters near a bridge to watch that first puff of smoke emerge from the darkness of the bridge. It was my earliest experience of the sublime as described by Burke as "danger experienced from the vantage point of safety".

Lisa Oppenheim: The idea for how to make the smoke series came to me reading an inaccurate description of my Heliogram series by an art critic. He wrote that the images were solarized images of the sun, which was technically incorrect but gave me the idea to make solarized images using firelight. It was the most generative erroneous description I’ve read about my work. I believe the cropping of the image came out of thinking through the phrase where there’s smoke there’s fire. The fire becomes the performative gesture that occurs in the darkroom that produces the image but remains unseen, cropped out.

NH: John, you said you have ‘a collection of clouds’. Are these archival images you collected for their depictions of clouds?

JS: I started collecting images of clouds from topographical photographs in the mid-1970s. I began to focus on the painted or airbrushed fluffy white clouds and blue skies that were substituted for the real (photographic) skies in hand tinted black and white landscape images from the 1930s. I called these Stolen Skies. The Sublimes came later in the 1980s and are the artificial clouds made by steam trains taken from my collection of 1940s-1960s railway photography.

NH: Lisa, where do the negatives you use in the Smoke series come from and have you chosen them for their formal qualities, or were you also interested in the historical incidents and current affairs the images relate to?

LO: I found the negatives everywhere. I ordered copy negatives from the U.S. Library of Congress website, I ordered some from archives, I outputted jpegs from Google image searches to sheet film. I was more interested in working with a range of negatives from different historical moments than examining any particular event or time period in-depth. I printed many more negatives than I ended up working with in this series. I chose them mostly for their formal qualities so there is a uniformity that perhaps takes the images themselves out of a particular time period or historical register, collapsing them through the act of producing the prints in the darkroom.

NH: Although the media of your respective works are photography and found imagery, they allude to the history of painting. We have seen similar clouds countless times, as frescoes on the vaulted ceilings of churches, in Renaissance painting and landscape painting. Perhaps the installation of both bodies of work together in this exhibition emphasises the painterly nature of the motif of the epic sky?

JS: Yes, I thought of my Sublimes as referencing those painted celestial overworlds that you describe, except my clouds are miniaturised and internalised and technologically controlled. Steam as T. J. Clark has suggested is “an image of power. Steam could be harnessed: steam could be compressed”.* The scale of the Sublimes suggests compression. The reason I chose the title for these steam clouds was to invoke the landscape tradition of the sublime and its attachment to the vaporous and amorphous space in painting, exactly the tradition from Turner through to colour field abstraction that Clark relates to the spectacle of steam and the advent of the machine age, which steam made possible.

LO: I think in many ways the conventions of photography, at least early photography followed the conventions of painting. Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits, for example, are extremely painterly. ‘Art’ photography established itself as such as mimicking painting’s conventions to give it a sense of artistic value. Although this tendency has slowly diminished in the past 100 years, I think the residue of the relationship to painting still exists in the medium.

NH: There is a sense of beauty and disaster merging into one potent image in your Smoke works, Lisa. How does the tension between beauty and serenity on the one hand, and the force and violence of disasters and destruction on the other, play out through your intervention in the negatives?

LO: I think both the generative and destructive power of the energy that produces light (in this case fire) has always been of interest to me, how both potentials are contained within the same force. Fire is what produces the images themselves through my use of firelight in the darkroom and is generative but it is also the force that produces the destructive energies the photographs depict.  

NH: John, in your Sublime series the velocity, noise and weight of the steam engine are at odds with an image of serenity, creating a similar tension as in Lisa’s works.

JS: Another of Burke's definitions of the sublime seems applicable here: 'tranquillity tinged with terror'. The Sublime works deliberately lifted the serene spectacle out of connection with the technological violence below. The trace of the funnel is the 'tinge' which hints at all those disastrous associations with fossil fuel technology and pollution. Though I was neither attempting to make an ecological point nor was I trying to in any way suggest a redemptive dimension with this work.

NH: An ecological dimension of the polluting smoke is what many a contemporary viewer might read into these works, informed by the current context of global warming, President Trump’s pledge to revive the coal industry, or more locally, the harmful levels of pollution in London. These weren’t your concerns when you first began this series in the early 1980s. In this way, the Sublime works show how artworks may accumulate meanings over time and how this process often occurs in their reception in new contexts or by younger generations.

JS: I don’t find that contemporary reading relating to pollution so alien. I think of old images, and the remaindered images of our culture, as pollutants. Images which have lost their connection with the world and with communication stay on as physical remnants in a culture of dematerialisation. Image collectors like myself are gatherers of these impurities and of opacities. It is for me a kind of negative alchemy. We collect the negrido (the impurities) and discard the transparent, pure distillate.

NH: References to the Great British Railways also appear in your postcard collages in the form of crumbling railway bridges or train tracks disappearing into the distance. These images represent very British landscapes, not without a good dose of romance and nostalgia. Steam locomotives were first developed in Great Britain during the early 19th century. From my perspective as a foreigner, it seems that the steam train is bound up with British culture and identity. Apart from your memories of trainspotting, what place do you think the railways (or a nostalgia for their past glory) hold in your work?

JS: I recognise the appeal of the smaller and simpler world of nostalgic recollection and I am as subject to these impulses as anyone else, but my interest in images of vanished worlds is anything but a desire to return to former times. My fascination is more with images which have lost their connection with their intended world rather than with the world that has left them behind. As to the spaces to which you specifically refer and which feature in my work: railway sidings, bridges and tunnels, they are in themselves uncanny and uninhabited spaces. These days they are often cut off from view by high walls and access is denied by security fences. Since the days when I inhabited these spaces as a teenager they have become frozen in time as non-spaces and like all such spaces that are off limits, they have a dangerous and uncanny allure. It is this feeling of a tinge of dread rather than anything nostalgically reassuring that I feel I am tracking in these images of the past. It is not the desire to inhabit them but to confront them as spaces that cannot be inhabited and which become purely imaginary.

NH: Lisa, I have noticed that your Smoke series is not the only work in which you use motifs representing the sublime beauty of nature (sky, clouds, sun) to address violence or disaster. The Calendar series from 2013, which you made using aerial negatives of smoking bomb sites from the Imperial War Museum, also reflects on war and destruction. For your earlier work The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else (2006), you printed photos of sunsets that American soldiers had taken in Iraq and shared online. You held these pretty-as-a-postcard images in front of the setting sun at home in New York. In this series, you were interested in how ‘certain visual clichés function to displace representations of violence’. I guess the sublime is that cliché, a recurring theme, an art historical trope…

LO: Yes, the sublime is also a point of entry in that it produces an affect. I am interested in affect in relationship to clichés of the sublime—an encounter that makes you feel something, even if the feeling is generic in a sunset kind of way. Then the content of the image or a closer read of it undermines this feeling, poses something vaguely dark or counter to the sublime. That’s where the questioning or criticality comes in, the tension between what is depicted and how it is depicted: what is really going on, what is it that I am looking at?

NH: The most iconic photofraphs of smoke in human history must be of the mushroom clouds that resulted from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In a similar way as you have each thought through your works in terms of ‘visual clichés that function to displace representations of violence’, or ‘tranquillity tinged with terror’, Peter B. Hales has analysed the photography and language in American news reporting about the atomic bombs and the nuclear testing of the post-war period.** Hales notices a convention among the images of the explosions: the photographs focus the attention on the spectacle of the atomic cloud, eclipsing the destruction on the ground or the effects of the explosion on human life. The increasingly absurd aestheticisation of the atomic cloud in news articles and image captions helped to separate it in the American consciousness from the disastrous impact of the nuclear bomb. You have both made a formal intervention in your images—the crop—to a very similar effect.

JS: The combination of the funnel and the steam cloud in the Sublimes did remind me of the images of atom bomb mushroom clouds at the time, especially the black and white images. In fact, I remember thinking that the elongated horizontality of the Sublimes, whilst reminiscent of the cinemascope wide screen format also suggested the horizontal viewing slot of a bunker. So, I guess I must have had disaster on my mind. More consciously though I was thinking about Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass and the amorphous, horizontally stretched, cloud-like figure of the Bride, which hovers over the Bachelor apparatus below.

LO: I think the atomic bomb’s iconic mushroom cloud is imagery I have very consciously veered away from in that it is too recognizable, too loaded. Its disaster is totalizing and therefore there is little room for opening up critical distance between event and depiction or the questioning I am interested in. I prefer to focus on less obvious events: the burning of a Nike distribution facility during the London riots of 2011, fires after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. By addressing these ‘smaller’ disasters, there’s more room for thought in that a viewer comes to the image as something that is yesterday’s news. This is in contrast to something as complete as the annihilation produced by nuclear war.

NH: Of course, the images taken of the mushroom clouds must be understood as propaganda tools as much as they are historical documents. In your respective works, you have not completely eclipsed the cause of the smoke, be it industrial machines, human conflict or natural disaster. You have both left some subtle clues for the viewer in the works…

LO: Yes, clues are important to me as a way for the viewer to more fully access the work. I am not interested in total obfuscation. Titles in this way are very important to me, when I am working with images that have captions, I usually maintain the caption of the source images for this reason.

JS: In my case the clue or the remnant of what has been cut away in the picture is the funnel of the steam train. Protruding out of an unseen underworld to the vaporous over-world, I saw it as a conduit and aperture linking the two worlds of the visible and invisible.

* T. J. Clark 2002: “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Steam”, October, Vol. 100, Spring.
** Peter B. Hales 1991: “The Atomic Sublime”, American Studies, 31.3, Spring.