Matthew P. Carson, “William E. Jones Interview,” Monsters and Madonnas, International Center for Photography Library blog, December 20, 2010.
In Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration William E. Jones explores the Library of Congress’s FSA archive and reproduces 157 images “killed” by Roy Stryker’s one-man photographic death panel. We see images stamped (or rather punctured) with Roy Stryker’s authority and seemingly random touch as Stryker registered his disapproval of an image by aggressively taking a hole puncher to the negative, ensuring that it could never be subsequently printed. The possible motivations for Stryker’s destruction Jones discusses in his accompanying essay “Puncture Wounds”. In his other essay in the book “Perversion” Jones investigates the queer presence in the FSA photographers which he feels must have been documented, if only unconsciously or accidentally. This is a book which provokes multiple meanings: It is beautiful and well constructed. It has meaning in that it is an attempt to obscure meaning. In the context of Stryker’s dominance over the image it is menacing. It could also be seen as being erotic, holes often are. It is a book which is both political and funny. Simply put, it is a great idea, a big idea and an important idea, well executed.
Matthew Carson: Your use of the FSA archives has really brought to our attention a largely unknown cache of images. Could you explain to us your use of the archives and what it means for you to use publicly accessible image archives. How many hours did you spend on this project? Did you have any special access to the LC archives or are they available for all?
William E. Jones: The images that appear in “Killed” are all available to the public in one form or another, most of them for free. Finding the photographs I used for the book took a vast amount of time, since the FSA’s “killed” negatives are almost never identified in a useful way on the Library of Congress website.
MC: So William did this piece start as a book or a film? Which form normally comes first in your practice? Which is more important to you? What are you? – that is – would you describe yourself as a filmmaker, writer, photographer or artist primarily? All of the above.
WEJ: “Killed” began as a movie, but I had wanted to do a fine photography book for a number of years, and these pictures lent themselves very well to that purpose. The images are absolutely canonical – anyone serious about the history of photography learns about the FSA – but in their ruined state, they are outside the canon at the same time.
The collaborative work with Andrew Roth was as smooth and unproblematic as any I have ever done, at least partly because this is a book that simply had to be made. I couldn’t believe that no one in the field of academic art history had yet devoted a book to the “killed” FSA negatives. I suppose it took an outsider to make the first move, so to speak. While we were preparing the exhibition at his gallery, Andrew told me that I am “difficult to pin down” as an artist, and I agree completely. If it is ever possible to define my work in a brief, totalizing description, like a “high concept” movie, then the whole endeavor has become static. My ambition is to unsettle or subvert unthinking and habitual ways of seeing. This is a task for an artist. It doesn’t matter what medium I use.
MC: How do you think Stryker would react to this work? How would he feel about his destructive touch being documented, examined and analyzed? How do you think he would then feel about this then being turned into art?
WEJ: Roy Stryker’s ideas about the FSA changed over the course of the agency’s existence, and especially later, when photographers of the Historical Section were recognized as artists. He never gave a detailed explanation for his killing negatives, but it’s clear from his actions that he thought of himself as a kind of government photo editor. His practice, brutal as it seems today, was a fairly common way to treat photography in journalistic and commercial contexts. After the FSA was absorbed into the OWI (Office of War Information) and he lost his job, Stryker fought to have the Library of Congress store the entire collection, because he realized its aesthetic and historical value. This was a selfless thing to do, and incidentally, he preserved the evidence of his mistakes for posterity.
If Roy Stryker were around today, I would be able to ask him questions about what he thought he was doing, and I suspect that I would moderate the rather polemical tone of my essays as a result. I can’t imagine he would know what to make of “Killed”. The book is more a work of conceptual art than a fine photography book. I take indifferent or mystified reactions from traditionalists as confirmation of this. Consensus has shifted so far in the direction of the aesthetic that some consider any photo book but a history of great men and their masterpieces just a trivial diversion, in other words, a waste of time. I think this is a lazy attitude. Fortunately, the tendency to appreciate vernacular or offbeat photography is very strong these days, to the benefit of the historian. If anyone’s granny can make a compelling photograph, aren’t the foundations of the aesthetic enterprise of photography threatened? I hope so.
MC: Can socially committed documentary photography be art? Can it exist in both realms?
WEJ: Socially committed documentary photography can certainly exist in the realm of art, but the extent to which it can function as a commodity – the object of collectors’ whims and the curatorial fashions that relate to them – is an open question. Nearly a century has passed since R. Mutt’s urinal appeared at the Armory Show, so in an abstract sense, anything is possible. In practice, there is a lot of “kidding the product,” making the spectator feel smart while truly disturbing or provoking no one. When contemporary spectators express the opinion, “That’s not art” – and one does hear this comment with surprising frequency among supposedly sophisticated audiences – usually money or social status is at risk. In other words, the distinctions between “art” and “documentary” are generally questions of taste and all its attendant anxieties, rather than questions of aesthetic philosophy.
MC: This past year has been an extremely busy one for you. With lots of travel and exhibitions:
WEJ: In 2010, I had a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, New York. I had solo exhibitions at Andrew Roth Gallery, New York; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan; and Galerie Veneklasen/Werner, Berlin; I also curated a show for V/W called Continuous Projections. In early 2011, I will have retrospectives at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna and at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in Germany. I will have a solo exhibition (opening on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday) at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, and “Killed” will be in a group exhibition called The Spectacular of Vernacular at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, opening in late January, 2011.
MC: What projects are you currently working on? Do you think you’ll ever return to being the still photographer [using a camera] as you were at the beginning of your career where you were photographing Vernacular architecture in southern California?
WEJ: In fact, such a return has been proposed to me by Jens Hoffmann, curator at the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco. When we first met about ten years ago, I had just completed The Golden State, the series of photographs you mention. Now Jens is curating an exhibition inspired by Walker Evans’ American Photographs and Roy Stryker’s FSA shooting scripts, and he has invited me to participate.
A fundamental issue of the exhibition is how documentary photography can be relevant today, in the midst of another economic depression. In effect, I have been asked to make good on the claims of my essay in the “Killed” book, “Puncture Wounds,” which laments the relative lack of status the documentary form suffers at the historical moment when it would seem most appropriate for a revival. The problem is that our understanding of the document and of the ontology of the photographic image have undergone major transformations in the last 75 years. How much has changed in society is another matter. I can cite two pertinent statements contemporaneous to the FSA, though from another cultural context: Bertold Brecht’s reminder that a photograph of the Krupp factory or the AEG says practically nothing about these institutions, i. e., it does not constitute a commentary on exploitation; and Walter Benjamin’s assertion that a reproduction of a photograph cannot function alone – it requires a caption. Many years later, the need for captions and the need to decry exploitation are as pressing as ever.
For my contribution to the Wattis exhibition, I plan to return to the place where I grew up in Ohio. I realized a few weeks ago that the opening of the exhibition (September 29, 2011) roughly coincides with the 20th anniversary of my first film, Massillon, which is named for my home town. During the film’s production, the place still had a significant number of picturesque industrial ruins which I spent many hours filming. Now that the industrial economy has been almost completely obliterated in the region, what are people doing? Why have so many of them turned Republican? What do the (more or less abandoned) cities in the area look like? I began documenting Massillon in 1983-84, while I was studying photography. I want to return to the places I photographed then to see what’s left. I should also add that Stark County, Ohio (where Massillon is) has voted for the winner in every presidential election for the last 200 years. Political scientists and journalists look to the place for indications of what is happening in “the heartland” of America, and I am intensely curious to see what I can find that might predict the results of the elections in 2012.
MC: What are your artistic influences at the moment?
WEJ: A recent exhibition that had a profound effect on me was the Iannis Xenakis show that the Drawing Center mounted earlier this year. (It is currently at MOCA.) The only music composer I have ever worked with, Jean-Pierre Bédoyan, performed on Xenakis recordings under his supervision. At the beginning of our collaboration, Jean-Pierre told me that he didn’t compose melodies, and at the time – over 10 years ago – I had no idea what he meant. When I saw the Xenakis show, I finally understood. After two or three years of making silent movies, I would like Jean-Pierre to score new works for me.
I have been asked to co-curate my retrospective at Oberhausen with Olaf Möller, and our screening programs will intersperse my works with those that have been important to me. We plan to include films by Kurt Kren, Peter Roehr, Ivan Ladislav Galeta, Rose Lowder, and Ernst Schmidt, Jr. in the mix.
MC: What are you currently reading?
WEJ: I have just read Paul Verhoeven’s book Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, the director of Showgirls and Starship Troopers is a learned and perceptive biblical scholar. He doesn’t believe in Jesus’ miracles or resurrection, and unimpeded by church dogma (or really any religious faith), he set about determining what Jesus the historical figure actually did and said. I find the man who fomented revolt against tyranny but who later embraced pacifism, and whose Kingdom of God was nothing short of a radical new moral vision of a just world, much more appealing than the Christianized Jesus who walked on water and cured leprosy. This book relates to one of my favorite movies, The Milky Way, which is a picaresque tale of sorts, and also a compendium of heretical thought. (I don’t know why Verhoeven, whose original intention was to make a Jesus film, neglects to mention Buñuel’s movie in his list of previous efforts in the field.) I especially love the scene in which Jesus is about to shave, and Mary tells him, “Keep the beard. It looks good on you.”
Johnny Ray Huston, “A Q&A about v. o.: Talking Tearooms, Movies, Morrissey, and Melancholy with Filmmaker William E. Jones.” San Francisco Bay Guardian, February 13, 2007.
Parts of Peter Berlin’s and Fred Halsted’s bodies of work are now a part of William E. Jones’s body of work, thanks to the recent 59-minute video quasi-mash-up v. o.
But the bodies in gay porn pioneers Berlin’s and Fred Halsted’s movies aren’t what interests Jones. More than bodies, he scouts cities – through the eyes of those directors and others (and the voices of countless other filmed and taped sources) v. o. cruises spaces now gone or under surveillance, often doing so with a prophetic sense of doom. It’s just one of many Jones films which reveal that the most fascinating aspects of movies, and of life, often dwell on the outer edges.
Born in Ohio and now residing in Los Angeles, Jones currently has two handsome websites, one devoted to his films, and the other, ShiftlessBody, focusing on his photographs. In conjunction with an upcoming screening and a feature in this week’s paper, I recently interviewed him via email.
Guardian: After some years of sporadic output, 2006 seems like a watershed year for you, with the release of a handful of long and short works. Can you tell me a bit about the ebb and flow of your creativity, and why you’re producing more work at the moment?
William E. Jones: After I finished Is It Really So Strange?, I wanted to produce videos that were less complex from the point of view of production. The obvious choice was to appropriate material. I had a number of ideas for videos derived from gay porn footage, and I completed them all during two periods in residence at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. I discovered how quickly one can make work when there is no need to shoot anything!
Guardian: v. o. uses lengthy sequences from gay porn classics such as the Peter Berlin vehicle Nights in Black Leather (including a sequence shot at S. F. Art Institute), and Fred Halsted’s L. A. Plays Itself. One thing noteworthy about these films is their exploration of urban space and how it connects to gay sexuality and identity. Another example source-wise would be the subway passages from the movie Subway in v. o. Can you tell me a bit about your interest in this area?
William E. Jones: As the technology for making images has become more accessible, the range of public space available to filmmakers seems to have closed down. More of the world is owned – privatized, filled with advertising and other proprietary images, secured by the state – than ever before. What I find absolutely astonishing in old gay porn at its best is the freedom with which filmmakers negotiate urban space, as well as the trust and good will of the people they represent. Though they did not intend to make documentaries, the pioneering directors in the genre documented the forms of gay life in ways that become more fascinating with every passing year.
Guardian: I’ve read that you and Thom Andersen know one another, and especially having seen v. o.. I’m curious whether you’ve discussed Fred Halsted’s L. A. Plays Itself, and to what degree you think you and Andersen might inspire or inform one another in terms of making your films.
William E. Jones: The simple answer to that question is that I lent Thom Andersen my tape of L. A. Plays Itself so he could include scenes from it in Los Angeles Plays Itself. (Somewhat later, he allowed me to shoot his record player for sequences of Is It Really So Strange?)
L. A. Plays Itself suggested the possibility of sexually explicit, experimental gay filmmaking at an historical moment when this liberty was not only possible but necessary. I believe that the distinction between experimental film and porn had not yet become entrenched at that time, but since I wasn’t around then, I cannot be certain. The union or confusion of gay porn with “higher” art to serve ends more substantial than puerile shock value still gives many pause. (Thom’s use of L. A. Plays Itself in such a respectable context provoked more than one disapproving note.) This claim of aesthetic merit for gay porn films, as well as an interest in the “documentary effect” that I mentioned earlier, were the inspirations for the visual component of v. o.
Guardian: In relation to the soundtrack of v. o., could you tell me a bit about the cinematic sources and your relationship to them? I’ve read that many things came from your VHS collection. As someone who also has a strange library of tapes, I’m curious what you specifically chose to focus on, and what motivated you to use them as source material.
William E. Jones: Like many people serious about movies, I have accumulated a large number of VHS bootlegs, and I am reluctant to part with these supposedly obsolete artifacts. I love the films in v. o., and the fact that they are almost impossible to see makes them all the more precious. The sources for v. o. fall into a number of different categories: films that had few screenings in this country and are unavailable in any consumer format (Doomed Love, The Holy Bunch); films available at one time on VHS, but not yet on DVD (Los Olvidados, Heatstroke); and films in some kind of legal limbo that prevents their distribution on DVD (Sleaze, the full version of L. A. Plays Itself). These gaps in the corpus of cinema are absolutely deplorable, and the complacent assertion that the market eventually makes everything worthwhile available is just a symptom of the fatuous provincialism of American film culture.
When I went into the studio with my source tapes, I had no idea if the “mash-ups” I had planned would work. Several did not; most often the sound of a segment was too different in tone from surrounding scenes, the picture was too “busy” to accommodate subtitles, or the dialogue was too fast or complex to be understood out of context. On the other hand, there were sequences that fit together so well that I wondered if the filmmakers had somehow had each other’s work in mind. For instance, a full seven minutes of Nights in Black Leather’s picture lined up perfectly with a chunk of The Death of Maria Mailbran’s soundtrack.
A certain morbid glamour hangs over v. o., a work that serves as an act of mourning for many departed men, a lost gay culture, and orphan films from the archive. I didn’t impose this mood on the material I used; it was already there. An apparently arbitrary intervention – lifting the non-sexual scenes and pairing them with dialogue in foreign languages – reveals how obsessive and dark these movies really were. Years before the AIDS crisis, porn films embodied tendencies contrary to the affirmation and sexual arousal that were their stated aims. They were the harbingers of a sensibility that speaks to these rather grim times.
Guardian: Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) seems more attuned to sensory pleasure rather than discursive threads – did it feel different in this regard while you were assembling it? Can you tell me a bit about your methods and inspirations in terms of what you’ve put in the film and what you’ve emphasized? I’m thinking specifically of the soundtrack and its use of “real” sound and what I would assume are snippets of electronic porn scores. Visually, I’m interested in the increase in repetition when the camera grazes over languid orgiastic shots that would be out of place in current doll-manipulation gay porn. Also the way you dance around the fringe of the final, highly fetishistic interaction.
William E. Jones: Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) pleases me on every viewing, because it is the least personal of my works. I do not appear in the video, nor do I narrate it; the footage and the formal strategies are appropriated. From the source material, I chose short fragments that I thought would make interesting loops. The sound was used as found, and the repetitions function as visual and aural rhythms without any adjustments in the sync. I didn’t “cheat,” and neither did Peter Roehr. He used multiple 16mm prints of advertising films cut and spliced by hand, while I enjoyed the luxury of non-linear digital editing. In collaboration with the Wexner Center’s editor Paul Hill, I made a sort of musical composition from the material. Strict, mechanical repetition might seem dull beyond endurance, yet I found exhilarating possibilities in it. The strategy lends a hypnotic power to marginal fragments while emphasizing the concreteness of the cinematic image. The result is not campy or ironic, but rather reveals a beauty that one could almost call objective.
Guardian: Many of your films reframe or rework preexisting material from porn to explore aspects of sexuality, fantasy, and identity within society. I’m curious – if you were to direct a porn film, what would it be like, and would it in any way mirror some of the counter-conventional strategies you’ve used in your movies or that are present in movies by directors (Halsted, Christopher Rage, etc.) you’ve borrowed from? Would you work to complicate typical porn star worship, such as in Finished? Or are you turned off by the prospect of such a venture because of what it connotes in consumerist gay culture (such as gay culture exists) today?
William E. Jones: Opportunities to direct gay porn have presented themselves, but I have not taken advantage of them. My main objection is that I do not want to exploit my friends. A tight shooting schedule with a small budget is an unappetizing combination. I make work on tiny budgets, but I usually take my time. Circumstances may change, so I cannot say I would never do it.
Guardian: Your Bay Area visit almost coincides with the GayVN awards, which are taking place at the Castro Theatre this year. Are you going to attend? I’m curious partly because the DVD reissue of at least one Peter Berlin movie is up for an award, so he might be there. Do you think anyone working within current gay porn is stepping outside of the rote mechanics that have come to define the movies?
William E. Jones: The production of gay porn films for public exhibition began in the late 1960s as an artisanal, experimental, haphazard enterprise. Over the course of three decades, it became industrialized, a process that demanded efficiency and standardization. Clearly, some directors can make competent and even inspired work in the context of industrial production. It happens in the film industry, and there is no reason it cannot happen in the porn industry. I must admit, though, that I know very little about contemporary gay porn. I have seen nothing produced in the 21st Century. Perhaps one day, I will have a pleasant surprise.
Guardian: I first saw some of the police surveillance footage within Mansfield 1962 in a presentation at a Frameline fest (in 2000 or 2001) and was both amazed and at the same time not exactly surprised by its audacity. There’s so much at play within it: the unquestioning display of heterosexual legal power, and the way it conflates homophobia with actual, rather than typically imagined, visualizations of gay sex. Can you tell me about your interest in the source material? On another tangent, I can’t help but notice that one youth whose mug shot you emphasize wouldn't be out of place in your Smiths’ doc Is It Really So Strange?. Were you playing off of that consciously?
William E. Jones: The most emotionally intense sequence in my first film, Massillon, is a tearoom scene. It sets a tone and provides an introduction to the final third of the film, an analysis of laws proscribing sexual activity in the United States. At the time I made Massillon, I was not yet aware that another tearoom scene with catastrophic legal consequences had transpired just before I was born in a place an hour’s drive away from my hometown.
When I learned about the Mansfield, Ohio tearoom busts, I felt as though I had found, among other things, a confirmation of what I had written about in Massillon. I suspect that the case cast a pall on what there was of gay life in the region, and though no one talked about it while I was growing up, the witch-hunt must have had a profound effect on attitudes informing my upbringing. The case inspired me to do a substantial amount of research, which I have summarized on my website. In terms of my artistic practice, I chose not to make a Mansfield in the style of Massillon, but instead to reedit the material I found and present it silent, without commentary. It is powerful enough on its own.
The mug shot of the guy with the surly look and pomaded hair in Mansfield 1962 can indeed be seen as a sly reference to Is It Really So Strange? Had the subjects of my previous movie not schooled me in the fine points of greaser style, I would not have been quite so keen to use the Mansfield tearoom material. Both works represent murky, often misunderstood passions in an arena where words like “straight” and “gay” fail to signify. When the greaser guy first appears in Mansfield 1962, the camera tilts frantically up and down, as though the cameraman couldn’t get enough of him. Perhaps he just recognized him from church.
Guardian: As a Smiths fan, have you read all the books about Morrissey, seen all the movies, and taken in a lot or all of the Smiths- or Morrissey-inspired art that has emerged especially over the past five or ten years? If so, are there any projects aside from your own documentary that you've found revelatory? Has Morrissey seen Is It Really So Strange?
William E. Jones: During the production of Is It Really So Strange?, I often encountered Smiths-related art or writing that overlapped with my own project in some way. I responded by striking any redundant material from my script with a sigh of relief, “That work has already been done.” I ended up in the situation I didn’t quite expect (but which was entirely satisfactory) of making a movie more about the fans than their idol. The barrage of publicity accompanying Morrissey’s comeback provoked in me a growing distaste for celebrity culture. I have no wish to return to those noisy precincts any time soon.
Andrew Male, who writes for Mojo and is a fan of Is It Really So Strange?, asked Morrissey in an interview whether he has seen the movie. His answer was, appropriately enough, ambiguous.
Guardian: Your website contains a section devoted to harsh, angry, and sometimes fully clueless reviews. Has criticism of your work, positive or negative, ever given you any insight or altered the way you’ve thought about what you’ve made and are making, or has it always seemed to exist, perhaps uselessly, in a realm apart form it. Likewise, have you gotten feedback or responses from any of the filmmakers you've borrowed from or people depicted within your movies?
William E. Jones: Faced with current market trends toward anodyne product and relentless self-promotion, I decided to present my own ointment complete with flies. My body of work has received plenty of positive reviews, so I can include a bit of dissent. In fact, v. o. has met with a chorus of published praise. (Film critics respond favorably to a video that celebrates great films languishing in undeserved obscurity.) All of my other works have inspired minor controversies, and I thought it would be interesting to provide a sense of that. Bad reviews, seen from a proper distance, have their uses. They can reveal assumptions about what a film should be, according to an implied standard of taste. If one is going to offend people, it is best to know the target audience, or better yet, the target attitudes.
On the website, I also mention Guy Debord’s engagement with his reviews. By comparison, my own intentions are positively warm and fuzzy. I think that others, especially filmmakers and artists, can look at these bad reviews and take heart. In my case, the first reviews in a given publication or of a given work were often terrible. But over time, some critics came around, some hostile publications folded, my supporters managed to publish their writing (not an easy task these days), and the films found an audience. Tenacity has its rewards.
Guardian: What is inspiring you – and/or what are you enjoying – at the moment, musically and visually? Are there any current projects you’re working on?
William E. Jones: In fits and starts I am working on a film based upon Robert Burton’s book The Anatomy of Melancholy. It is Burton’s attempt to collate every mention of melancholy, its causes and cures, in the extant literary corpus of his time. The first edition appeared in 1621, and Burton continued to revise and expand the book until his death in 1640. The Anatomy of Melancholy is the culmination of a sedentary, solitary life, as well as a compendium of classical learning and vividly imagined perversions. A connoisseur of vulgarity, Burton allegedly compiled lists of bargemen’s curses at Oxford. Historians now consider this story apocryphal, but it persists because it suggests a character to which modern readers can relate. The combination of refinement and degradation has obvious appeal.
The Anatomy of Melancholy is massive, 1,200 pages long, so I am adapting a mere 1% of the text. This leaves room for at least 99 other, entirely different films drawn from the same book. I find the prospect of one hundred adaptations of The Anatomy of Melancholy competing for our attention curiously attractive. Whether my Anatomy will one day become a movie depends, as always, upon money, and upon my own continuing interest. I devise many more projects than I have the energy or resources to realize.