If the history of photography were a ship, Chuck Samuels would be a stowaway, but one who had boarded the vessel not for a free ride but in order to start a mutiny.Joan Fontcuberta
The first time I saw a photograph by Chuck Samuels I didn’t see it. I was flicking through a photo magazine, and what I saw was a classic Edward Weston nude. The sunlight defining surface and shadow, the modestly averted gaze, the artfully folded limbs cradling the tip of a penis… (!) Stop flicking. Backtrack. Yes, that is indeed what I saw… For this is one of a now famous series of images in which Chuck Samuels substituted his own body for the original model in iconic images of women made by male photographers of note: Richard Avedon, Man Ray, Helmut Newton, Paul Outerbridge, Weston… The images are witty but unsettling. They make clear (at least within the mores of their day) the very different conventions for representing and looking at the two sexes. But there is something deeper. A more fundamental push–pull that challenges both the reliability of memory and the conventions of photographic veracity. And then there is something else, less tangible. A certain unexpected warmth…
These images and the others we will discuss in this interview are forms of appropriation art. A genre in which existing images are reproduced with minimal changes in ways that recontextualise them, setting them in a new critical light. Appropriation art can be by turns earnestly conceptual, mocking, or coldly brutal. The work of Chuck Samuels is none of these. It certainly disturbs cosy certainties and atrophied assumptions, but it does so in a remarkably amiable way. The unexpected warmth I feel underlying his images is one of a deep affection for photography. His is a love that is far from blind. He is acutely aware of the limitations and misrepresentations of the medium; his artistic mission is to make evident this inherent untrustworthiness. And yet he also seeks to immerse himself within its very fabric. To pursue the impossible of ‘becoming photography’. He makes no secret of it, for this is the title he gave to his recently published monograph, a book which spans three decades and the six series we will discuss here. For me, his images challenge one to see photography realistically, for what it is and what it cannot be, and love it all the more for that.
Although it is not the earliest of your work that we will discuss, I would like to start with your series ‘Before Photography’. How did this begin?
With a winsome colour photograph of my mother taken by my father before any of their three children were born. She’s sitting on a park bench in a bucolic setting, looking longingly into the camera. Discovering this image among my father’s slides, I had a revelation: contrary to what I had observed as a child, my parents loved one another. I came to realise that my father, who was a talented amateur photographer but an emotionally reserved man, expressed his love for his wife and his children through photography. And it dawned on me the reason I had become a photographer who photographed himself was to be, once again, the object of paternal love. Unfortunately, my father passed away several years before I had this epiphany, so I never had the opportunity to ask him who or what led him to become a photographer. ‘Before Photography’ was an attempt to imagine an answer to this question.
How was this series conceived and realised?
It consists of four sections, each with its own title. ‘Chuck’s Family Photos’ is comprised of three photographs taken by my father: that one of my mother, a self-portrait, and a picture of me. After taking it, my father had handed me the camera so I could finish the roll of film, marking the very moment I became a photographer. ‘Chuck Goes to the Movies’ is a monumental grid of 108 movie stills taken from films that were released in or before 1967, the year my father gave me the camera. Each still features one or more photographers, but where I perform the role of the actor playing the photographer. ‘Chuck’s Home Movies’ is a twenty-four-minute video assembled from scenes in the same films used in the grid of movie stills, intertwined with footage I shot of myself and several of my cameras. The fourth element is a short video called ‘The Last Words on Photography’. I repeatedly videotaped myself being photographed while recounting, from memory, the story of my father’s last words. I then stacked the many recitations on top of each other so that the story, which was slightly different in each telling, became almost impossible to decipher.
And did this help you understand why your father took up photography?
It didn’t. In the end, the project became, like most of my other projects, another contemplation of my own relationship with photography and its history. Only this time it was filtered through the lens of my relationship with my father.
[Left] Chuck Samuels ‘After Man Ray’ 1990 from the series ‘Before the Camera’
[Right] Chuck Samuels ‘After Outerbridge’ 1990 from the series ‘Before the Camera’
We go back two decades now to 1991 and ‘Before the Camera’. What first suggested this concept to you?
I was finishing my master’s degree when I first got the idea for ‘Before the Camera’. I had been reading a lot of postmodern and feminist theory, which raised the concept of the ‘male gaze’. It got me thinking about the history of female nudes in photography and the relatively uncritical fashion in which such images were received by the spectator. In response, I remade twelve photographs of nude women – each made by a well-known male artist from the history of photography – substituting myself for the original model. The remakes were as accurate to the original as I could manage, right down to the technique, paper, size, and framing.
[Left] Chuck Samuels ‘After Newton’ 1991 from the series ‘Before the Camera’
[Right] Chuck Samuels ‘After Weston’ 1991 from the series ‘Before the Camera’
What was the effect of that substitution?
Although the intent of ‘Before the Camera’ was earnest and serious, the effect was deliberately both disorienting and comical, at least for viewers familiar with the history of photography. For those with no knowledge of the original photographs, the project could seem slightly baffling. However, I later heard many reports of people who eventually came across one or more of the originals in another context, at which point the full effect of the project was retroactively reveal to them.
You have described your approach as being one of “curiously reverent irreverence”. What did you mean by this?
When appropriating another artist’s work, my goal is not to denigrate, challenge, or criticise their original work. Rather, it is an attempt to encourage the viewer to think more analytically about photography; to share my profound distrust of the medium and its history. I want to undermine the alleged link between photography and reality, as well as the widely held belief that a photograph tells the truth. In effect, I revere the photographers while treating photography itself irreverently.
[Left] Chuck Samuels ‘After Stieglitz’ from the series ‘The Photographer’ 2015
[Right] Chuck Samuels ‘After Cunningham’ from the series ‘The Photographer’ 2015
Almost a quarter of a century later you made ‘The Photographer’, focusing this time on famous self-portraits. How did this series come into being?
From the beginning I have been captivated by self-portraits, particularly those made by the photographers whose work I admire. That said, I always sensed that these self-portraits were an attempt to insert the photographer’s own image into the canon of photography. That was something into which I wanted to immerse myself. I began to research the history of photographic self-portraiture, in particular those made by celebrated photographers whose work had had an impact on me during the formative years of my career. While it is true that all self-portraits have at least an element of performance in them, I selected images in which one feels the artist is trying to create a ‘true’ portrayal, legitimising themselves through the assumed veracity of the photograph. The resulting images were framed and presented linearly, in chronological order, to simulate a museum survey exhibition.
[Left] Chuck Samuels ‘After Miller’ from the series ‘The Photographer’ 2015
[Right] Chuck Samuels ‘After Witkin’ from the series ‘The Photographer’ 2015
How did it feel to photographically ‘inhabit’ the persona of these photographers?
It’s hard to describe. Bear in mind that I’ve been in a long-term and intimate relationship with photography since I was eleven years old, studying its history, and spending virtually all of my career working with the medium. So, ‘becoming’ another photographer for a photograph was like putting on a favourite old jacket – familiar… comfortable.
How would you describe this process of becoming?
When I’m alone in the studio photographing myself, I often slip into a state that I can only describe as trance-like. For the few moments I’m actually capturing images, I am simultaneously thinking about the technical issues (lighting, camera angle, body positioning, and so on) and the subject (his or her history and their place in the history of photography). I try to feel the way I imagine the subject might have felt, performing with my entire body, even when only my face will appear in the final image. Concept, good technique, good presentation, all have their place, but ultimately it’s the quality of the performance that makes it work. If the performance is honest and strong, the viewer will tend to forgive any faults in the image.
Chuck Samuels from the series ‘After’ 2020
[Left] ‘After Sherman’; [Centre] ‘After Fontcuberta’; [Right] ‘After Levine’
In ‘After’, your practice folds in on itself yet again as your focus shifts to appropriation art, your images becoming re-makes of re-makes.
Appropriation art is a movement that has had an enduring impact on my own practice and to which I’ve made my own humble contribution over the years. In ‘After’, I wanted to create a project that would render vertiginously obvious the ironic distance inherent in appropriation art by adding yet another layer. I studied and, in my deferential but deliriously tongue-in-cheek style, copied the copies, once again using myself as model. For example, in the case of my piece, ‘After Morimura’, I ignored the iconic Cindy Sherman work, ‘Untitled #96’  and instead carefully examined, (re-)deconstructed and interjected myself into Yasumasa Morimura’s wonderful remade remake: ‘To My Little Sister: For Cindy Sherman’ .
Again, when exhibited, the works in ‘After’ are presented as if part of a museum survey show dealing with appropriation art. Each photograph is printed, framed, and hung in the same manner as the ‘original’, while the videos are presented on flat screens or as projections.
For me, your images dance between memory and photography in a way that seems to suggest one can trust neither.
Memory is certainly a key factor in my work. I work from my own recollection of learning about photography and its history – primarily the canon of North American and European photography in which I was raised. Consequently, my projects are often best understood when sifted through the viewer’s own memory. This is why I urge curators not to exhibit or publish the original images next to my versions. My work is about memory, not about comparison. So, no, I don’t trust photography to tell me the truth and, particularly at my age, I definitely don’t trust my memory…
In ‘On Photography’ you turn your attention to the theorists who dissect images with words.
The series consists of thirty photographic portraits in which I become various celebrated critics and commentators including Hannah Arendt, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Szarkowski, and Susan Sontag, whose influential book is honoured in the project title. Each portrait is accompanied by a quotation that could be interpreted as an endorsement of my practice. The quotations are accurate but the context is misleading. I wanted to demonstrate, deploying my mischievous methodology, that it is not only images that can – and often are – misinterpreted; the same applies to the words of the critic.
An integral component of this project is my video entitled ‘in the land of the giants the one-eyed camera is king’. In it we hear recordings of the actual critics discussing issues germane to photography and representation while we see excerpts from an episode of an American TV show from the 60s called ‘Land of the Giants’, which features the characters discovering, exploring, and even entering into a number of enormous cameras. (I also make a cameo appearance as the giant.)
The final series I would like to discuss is ‘The Complete Photographer’. What was the underlying concept for this work?
Unlike my other projects, this was made very quickly – almost recklessly – with a minimum of reflection, research, or preparation. I inherited among my father’s personal effects an incomplete set of a photography magazine from the 1940s called The Complete Photographer. The magazines contain images and essays by such influential photographers and critics as Bernice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Laura Gilpin, Lotte Jacobi, Beaumont Newhall, and Edward Weston. The topics covered are presented alphabetically so that ‘Cloud Photography’ precedes ‘Clown Photography’, while ‘Documentary Photography’ is followed by ‘Dog Photography’. If one collected the entire set and bound them in the embossed leather binders that were available at the time, one would have an encyclopedia of photography of that era.
In late 2019, I was accepted for a six-week residency to carry out the production of ‘After’ and ‘On Photography’, which I completed in five weeks. Since I was interested in the role that this magazine played in the history of photography, I decided to dedicate my final week to creating ‘The Complete Photographer’.
How was it made?
I worked in a state of uninhibited frenzy, infiltrating not only the illustrations of people but also animals, birds, and a colossal bas-relief statue of Ramses II. In my attempt to become a ‘complete photographer’ I occupied sections from that magazine that dealt with ‘Contest Photography’, ‘Documentary Photography’, ‘The History of Photography’, ‘Humor in Photography’, and ‘Portrait Photography’. When exhibited (with the exception of one framed print) each page is presented in its own archival sleeve pinned to the wall, reinforcing their (fake) status as precious historical documents. In this way, I employed a kind of affectionate mockery to illuminate the importance that the photography magazine had in the construction, development, and reinforcement of the tropes in art photography of the era – traces of which we still find in today’s photography.
Created between 1991 and 2020, these six projects span three decades. What, for you, is the principle conceptual thread that connects them?
Photography is my medium. It is also my subject. Since my first exhibition in 1980, I have been questioning how photography works and doesn’t work, photographing myself to examine these issues. In some ways I use myself as a surrogate for photography. By focusing the camera on myself I am, in fact, turning the spectator’s gaze upon the very nature of photography, thus sharing my love for, fascination with, and ultimate suspicion of the medium. I have been trying, in an absurd but rigorous manner, to ‘become’ photography.
Chuck Samuels was born in Montréal in 1956. He holds a master’s degree in fine arts (MFA) from Concordia University, Montréal (1987). From 2002 to 2014 he served as the Director of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, an international biennale of contemporary photography (since renamed Momenta, biennale de l’image). His photographs and videos have featured in over fifty solo presentations, and a further fifty group exhibitions in Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Mexico, Switzerland, and the USA. His works are held in a number of prestigious public and private collections including La Musée de la Photographie, Charleroi, Belgium; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, France; Le Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Québec city, Canada; and George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY, USA. In 2021, his monograph ‘Chuck Samuels: Becoming Photography’, which includes essays by Joan Fontcuberta and Mona Hakim, was co-published by Kerber Verlag (Berlin), Expression (Saint-Hyacinthe), and Plein Sud (Longueuil). He lives and works in Montréal.
Photo: Gabor Szilasi
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.