An Interview with Benjamin Lichtenstein

Interview with: Benjamin LichtensteinBenjamin Lichtenstein, Head full of dreams, pockets full of piss, Unique silver gelatin prints (8 panels), 2015.

I should begin with the process by which you make images. Could you speak a little about this? There seems to be a lot of layering up of different photographs and drawings as well as darkroom interventions. Do you plan the way you want your works to turn out or are they more spontaneous? 

I make images in the same way all silver gelatin prints are made—exposing light to light-sensitive paper, then processing them in developer, stop bath, and fixer. I guess the difference with my process is that I use various tools to manipulate an image, whether it be through creating masks, which hide or reveal certain parts of the light sensitive page; or use different devices to get a light source onto the page to allow me to draw with the light. Depending on which technique I'm using the level of spontaneity is varied. If I've created a highly detailed set of masks that combine the use of several different negatives to be exposed, then the image is all in the planning and the printing is more mechanical, requiring a lot of concentration on getting everything done in the right order. Some of these prints can take an hour just to expose all the different parts. On the other end of the scale is when I'm drawing with my modified torch—even if I have an idea of what I want to draw, the quality of the line that's produced is very much dependent on how I'm feeling at the time. It's wholly based on feeling around the page and sensing what marks you're making (as you can only see the result once it's gone through the developer).

One of the things that I was drawn to when looking at your work was the emphasis that you appear to place on titling many of your images, especially in your series I Know You Will Be Happy Here (2013). Could you speak to where these titles originated? Why do some works end up with no title?

I'm very interested in language and the way certain words or combinations of words can suggest different things, or appear to be more harmonious than other words or combinations. The way I use titles is largely a way for me to write something that I know or feel about the image that the viewer may not initially infer from just looking at it. The work Immigrant Furniture (2013), for instance, is titled this because of the origins of the text in the image. "We know where you live Franco" was, according to a friend of mine, daubed on the side of Franco Cozzo's furniture shop on Sydney Road in Brunswick, once upon a time. The I Know You Will Be Happy Here show wasn't particularly different to other shows I've had, in this regard.

Benjamin Lichtenstein, Immigrant furniture, Unique silver gelatin print and light drawing, 2013.

I find it interesting that in your practice there is a fusion between the old techniques of the darkroom and the more contemporary concepts and aesthetics of the images themselves. What specifically about the darkroom do you think lends itself to the way you work? Because I think they would read very differently if, for example, you had done them digitally.

The ability to work with my hands is the biggest drawcard for me. Aside from 2-3 years in a call centre, my entire working life (18 years) has been spent doing manual labour jobs. I also like the limitations of the darkroom—only having trays that can fit a certain size of paper; working in monochrome; having an enlarger that can only project a certain distance. Having no limitations means there aren't any excuses for making something shit, so in that scenario I would probably be too timid to make anything at all. The limitations give me something I can push against, something I can stretch. The other thing I like about the way I use the darkroom is the uniqueness of each print. 99% of the work I make can't physically be replicated, which I like. Not to mention the fact that printing an edition of a work and trying to get them all the same does my head in.

To what extent can the images you make be considered photographs? Would it be more accurate to call them collage, or even painting? Many of your works do possess very painterly qualities, particularly in your series Flower (2015).

I've never felt comfortable calling most of my works photographs. Certainly the images that are just a straight print from one frame on a roll of film, I would call a photograph. I have trouble classifying the other works. A lot of them involve collage, but some involve drawing too—Immigrant Furniture, for example. More recently my works have involved a lot of painting, but I wouldn't call them paintings. I guess in the description of my works I've just said 'unique silver gelatin print', as that's what they definitely are. What descriptor comes to mind when you see them?

As far as the painting aspect of my work goes, I am definitely interested in painting and painters. It's a medium that's always mystified me. The way a painter captures light and uses composition and texture are things I constantly look to. My art collection definitely contains more paintings than photographs. Mind you, this is not to say I don't derive a lot of inspiration from photography.

Benjamin Lichtenstein, Untitled Untitled (from Flower), Unique silver gelatin prints, 2015.

That’s interesting as I have a very similar fascination with painting despite being trained as a photographer. I also own more paintings than I do photos! In my mind your works run a line between painting and photography—each leans more toward one or the other. In some I see Constructivist photographic influence and in others such as Crescent (2014) the drawing reminds me of Keith Haring. Could you talk a little about where you draw your influence from?

My influences vary. It's definitely not all visual art. I get lots of influence from music, cinema, poetry, things I hear on the street, language in general, the comment sections of any website or social media platform. I guess with Crescent, that whole show was loosely inspired by the track Crescent by John Coltrane (the live version from his performance at Temple University in 1966). Most of my work is just running on a vibe I get from one thing or another. It's not terribly intellectual. As far as visual artists go, there's too many to mention, but I really like Ian Fairweather, Elizabeth Peyton, Oscar Perry, Howard Arkley, Gillian Wearing, John Divola, Kieren Seymour, Thomas Jeppe, Rennie Ellis, Jess Johnson, Joel Meyerowitz, Martin Bell, Garry Winogrand, Travis MacDonald, Brendan Huntley, Matlok Griffiths, Matthew Griffin, Gabriel Tongue, Richard Prince, Christopher Day, Dan Moynihan, Man Ray, Kate Robertson, the list goes on...

Going back to your process for a moment, am I right in surmising that the way you create the image is of almost or just as much importance as the final print? You talked before about the limitations of the darkroom being part of what draws you to using it. Could it be that what you are creating are the actions you undertake in the darkroom and the relics or documentation of those actions?

Yeah it definitely could be argued that the final works are just documents of the actions in the darkroom. For me, there is no real hierarchy of importance re the process vs. the outcome. Each one relies on the other to exist. Admittedly when I see a work of mine after it's finished, maybe in someone's house long after a show is done, I don't think about the process or what went into it at all—if anything, I'll think about when it was made and what was happening in my life at the time. It's almost like looking at it with new eyes and having a new experience with the picture. 

Benjamin Lichtenstein, It's like a brothel in here, Unique silver gelatin prints (8 panels), 2015.

Many of your images feel distinctly Australian to me, both through the subject matter and the titles, particularly from your recent series Living in Oblivion (2015). Do you intend your work to be specifically read this way or is it more a matter of working with what you are immediately surrounded by?

It's not intentional that the works be read that way. The titles and subject matter are merely a reflection of what's surrounding my thoughts at a particular time. As far as being distinctly Australian, I think it's good that my work reflects my surroundings, though I would hate for it to seem like a clichéd look at Australia.

Where do you envisage your practice moving in the future? Would you consider working with different media or is it more a matter of expanding your use of the darkroom?

At the moment, I envisage working on a bigger scale. I'd like to make a few really big works (in comparison to my usual scale), maybe 2 x 3 metres would be cool. I would definitely consider working with other media. I have done some experiments with airbrush and colour pencil, though nothing I'm ready to show yet. I made a sculptural work for the group show This Has Been in 2013. Working in three-dimensions is something I'm also keen to explore. Nothing's off limits.

I also recently conducted a 'performance lecture' at MPavilion. For this I narrated over a slideshow of images I had produced that were being displayed on a big telelvision behind me. Doing the work definitely made me want to do more things like that. I'm slowly working on different ideas that will suit that format.

Interview by Emily Galicek

Benjamin Lichtenstein is an Indonesian born, Melbourne based artist predominately working with analogue black and white photography. His recent exhibitions include: Living In Oblivion, Anna Pappas Gallery, Melbourne (2015), The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, curated by Cherine Fahd, Dr Martyn Jolly and Suzanne Buljan, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney (2015), Flower, Fort Delta, Melbourne (2015), Mental, Muddguts Gallery, New York City (2014), Das Boot Fair, curated by Oscar Perry and Esther Stewart, Next Wave Festival, Melbourne (2014) Paperwork, 136 Johnston Street, Melbourne (2014), I Know You Will Be Happy Here, Utopian Slumps, Melbourne (2014), Death Adder, Chapter House Lane (2013), Run, Warwick Baker, The John and Marion Frye Collection, Los Angeles (2014).

Lichtenstein has a burgeoning interest in publishing. The first printed publication He's Got A Nug was created for and published by Heavytime Books in 2015. In 2014, Chart Collective released ‘Living In The Present’, an annotated photographic essay as part of Chart Collective’s ‘The Longer Light’ series.