Justin Borsuk: Manifest Destiny
Borsuk is a San Francisco Bay-area photographer and digital artist who creates images with a unique layering technique that plays with notions of time, place and scale. He combines traditional film capture with digital processing, and shoots in both black and white and color. His personal work is visually and thematically dense and challenging, often bordering on pure abstraction, yet is imbued with a surprisingly emotional resonance.
Easy questions first. Where and when were you born?
I was born March 19, 1982 in Sacramento, California. My family moved to the Bay Area when I was two.
When did you first start taking photographs?
I first learned how to make a black-and-white print from my grandfather in his basement in Seattle at a very young age. Photography was one of his passions, and I remember him showing me how to mix chemicals and the correct process for printmaking. I was always interested in other mediums of art before becoming involved with image making myself. I was a good illustrator in school and started woodworking with my father at a very young age in our garage/shop. I learned how to turn exotic wooden bowls on a lathe and took woodshop in junior high. I took art classes in high school: painting, drawing, ceramics, etc. But photography didn’t really interest me as a medium until I got my first digital camera in college. I started taking pictures of my friends and various activities we were all involved in, like sports, skateboarding, social settings, etc.
What attracted you to digital imagery?
In college (Trinity University in San Antonio) I was really involved with computers, Photoshop, video, film and digital editing. I ended up majoring in communications and worked on a few short films and documentaries. I did take one black-and-white photography course during my last semester as a senior. I started shooting with an old Nikon 35mm camera that my parents got as a wedding present and had hardly used. That was my first real introduction to the medium, and I instantly fell in love with it. Photography meant that I didn’t have to rely on anyone but my own creative power and myself. I took a lot of documentary-style photographs of my friends, fraternity brothers, the places I was living…my whole environment.
Were you primarily self-taught?
I read a lot but I’ve mostly learned by doing and just trying everything once to see what the result is. I shot with a handful of different types of cameras before finally settling on an old Hasselblad. I enjoy slowing things down and making an image step by step. Taking the time to capture a single frame really relates to the concepts I explore with my work. I’ve tried printing on almost everything and have been very involved with experimental and historical processes. I sometimes enjoy shooting with a Holga and even built my own pinhole camera out of Legos. I saw Wayne Martin Belger’s work and hand-built cameras at Varnish in San Francisco and was blown away; his work and cameras are unbelievable.
Has growing up in the Bay area, with its history of experimental photography, influenced your aesthetic approach?
Absolutely. Being exposed to such a rich artistic community and all the culture of the Bay Area has definitely influenced who I am and the work I produce today as a result. I spend a lot of time going to museums and galleries. The Bay Area is full of amazing work, from the most obvious places like the De Young and SFMOMA, to the hidden, one-room gallery on almost every other street. I live in Berkeley and pretty much walk or ride my bike everywhere. I am constantly exposed to great, experimental imagery and art everywhere I go. It’s actually really hard to avoid! One of my favorite things to do is just zone out on BART listening to music and staring out the window at all the graffiti and the world happening around me. I constantly think about how to stand out and be a unique artist in this oversaturated world of art that I live in.
Much of your work exhibits an impulse towards abstract, highly graphic imagery. How and when did you begin to see this way?
I think that I have always seen or viewed the world in this way; it has just taken me a few years to finally manifest this in a physical form to show others how I see. I have spent many sleepless hours trying to find my vision, and never thought that my single images truly represent the way I see things. I am definitely my own worst critic, like many artists and photographers, and it has taken me a long time to find a style that satisfies me. Even now, I really can only look at a few of the images I’ve made over the years and say to myself, “Wow! Did that really come from me? Did I really make this?” I am proud of the work I am making, but it takes a lot to blow me away or feel like I have really accomplished something.
Who are some of your influences, photographic or otherwise, and why?
John Gutmann. His style of street and documentary photography really relates to the way I shoot and compose my individual photographs. I admire his eye and I feel like if he were a photographer of my generation, we would be drawn or attracted to similar subjects. His attention to detail and the unique is why I am influenced by his compositions. His early photography of San Francisco prior to WWII is an amazing body of work that speaks to me as a photographer. Gutmann’s perspective influences my work and the way I view the world around me. If I were to do only black-and-white urban landscapes, my work would show a lot of similarities to Gutmann’s.
Jerry Uelsmann. This single photographic artist convinced me to start experimenting with a surrealistic photographic style. Jerry is the master of combination images. I have immense respect for his skill, especially since he creates his work with traditional darkroom processes instead of digitally. I really began to explore my passion of combination or constructed landscapes after viewing Uelsmann’s amazing body of work. This unique genre of photography has had a dramatic influence upon my creative evolution.
Bike confrontation UCB
Idris Khan. He is the main influence for this body of work and this is the first person I have seen develop the multilayer technique I am interested in. Idris often appropriates images and creates a series of photographs representing “every” image of that particular subject. This style can become more painterly than photographic when too many images are combined. I have taken this idea and created something very different by developing this style. Khan says that words and music unfold successively, while photography is about an instant. He also says that photography can ask the impossible and questions what something will look like as a composite or single manifestation of itself.
Picasso. My final images tend to look more like illustrations or paintings rather than just photography, and my favorite painters, including Picasso, influence me. His cubist style of painting, deliberate line work, and bold colors drive me to explore these aspects in my photographs. Picasso has an extensive body of work based on landscapes, especially in the Mediterranean. This work means a lot to me and I try to reference painting with my layered work.
Artemio Rodriguez. An amazing Mexican printmaker/illustrator/artist who creates graphic and extremely intricate imagery. Although it isn’t photography, I take a lot of inspiration from the small details and social commentary in his work.
What was the initial inspiration for your “Manifest Destiny” series?
Sometimes the single image just doesn’t really satisfy me and what I expect from photography. When I started graduate school I was known as the guy who always changed his project and subject matter from week to week. I guess you could call it Art ADD, but I always felt like something was missing with my individual images. I came into my program thinking that I wanted to try everything, every process, every camera, every film type, every presentation method. But I realized that I couldn’t keep up this pace and had to focus on one unique style until I exhausted all of its potential. I became a fan of Idris Khan’s work after seeing some of his images at the Fraenkel Gallery and the SFMOMA. His layering technique appealed to me even though he uses a lot of re-photography of other artists’ work. I thought that I could successfully develop my own style from what I saw using completely original photographs of things and places I was already shooting at the time. I have to say though that I believe my work is totally different than Khan’s, but I have to give him the initial credit for at least planting the idea in my brain.
Is the layering done in camera or in the darkroom?
I shoot all of the images individually with my Hasselblad and 120 film and compose everything entirely in camera. I begin to see the final image develop in my mind and try to shoot while thinking about how the individual photographs will work together to create the final piece. It has taken me a long time to perfect this process because I never really know what I have until the last step of the layering process. This is what keeps it exciting from start to finish, and I really enjoy every step. I use about 5-10 photographs for each final product. I scan the film on a Flextight drum scanner and then use a layering technique I have developed using Photoshop to create the final images.
What criteria do you apply in choosing what and where to photograph?
It should have some historic value, but I also look for something that simply catches my interest and has repeating shapes or elements that would work well with the layering technique. How do you decide which constructions will be in black and white and which in color? Do they signify different thematic intentions? For this series, I usually make different versions of each image and then decide on the best one. This includes making black-and-white and color versions of each photo. I like both, but the work is totally different in both forms and some images are stronger in color, and vice-versa.
Does focusing on historical places allow for a richer philosophical and visual metamorphosis?
Yes, but I feel that the actual place does not necessarily need to be recognizable to the viewer. It can have the same affect or impact on the viewer if that person can connect what they are seeing, to something that they have experienced in their own lives.
Boy Walking Downtown Soufriere
Combining historical settings and such contemporary elements as cars, telephone lines, signage, modern dress, etc., establishes a tension between past and present, tradition and change. What else are you after here?
I think you describe this perfectly. There is definitely tension between past and present, tradition and change, and everything that has happened in these particular places over time. Some of my favorite photographs have subject matter related to just normal, everyday life, like street scenes or urban documentary. I love seeing old cars, old dress, signage, products, etc., from a time that I could never have experienced…the past. I enjoy period photography from the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s. What intrigues me is that these normal scenes describe so much culturally, technologically, and politically of the times they represent. I don’t expect people to be excited about or interested in such elements as cars, signage and modern dress in my imagery now, but I’m thinking long-term. Maybe in 50 years people will look at my images and think that they are the perfect representation of the overwhelming and chaotic times that we live in. Those same cars, signage and dress may accurately portray the fast-paced, technology driven, war- and oil-fueled world that exists in the 2000’s. I guess time will tell.
The people in these images invariably project a sense of isolation, even (or especially) in crowd settings. Does this reflect an attitude about contemporary urban life?
Sure. In some ways they are trapped in time. I find that a lot of people are just oblivious or inattentive to what is happening right around them. I see the images as a series of smaller moments in time. Everyone is moving at such a fast pace, so catching individual moments and then combining them into a single instant is a sort of cultural commentary on the desire for constant progression and doing things as fast as possible.
Port of Oakland
The layering seems to be a way of deconstructing traditional notions of place as well as identification with place.
Yes, but I also want to challenge the viewer to see a place as a single manifestation of itself. I want the viewer to see this place and identify with me as I witness it, how I capture various views and angles, and how all of those mix together to create the personality of the place. It is a very different way to see things, but it is also a series of memories compiled into one instant.
The layering sometimes verges on complete abstraction, giving the viewer few clues with which to navigate the thematic content. Is this a calculated effect?
The layering of the images definitely obscures detail in the smaller versions such as the ones on my website. The photographs are meant to be viewed on a larger scale and I really try not to print anything smaller than 12x12. The series eventually will all be printed 24x24 in order to really exaggerate all of the intricate detail. Shooting with medium-format film allows me to blow up the final product with great detail and minimal grain so the viewer can really explore the images. The smaller scale tends to condense and detail is unfortunately lost. I think the imagery can work at various scales, but it has a different feel to it at every size.
These images have a kind of emotional neutrality; they’re neither warm nor cool. Do you deliberately try to strip them of emotional content, or does the layering automatically do that?
I think the layering automatically does that and it is hard to identify with any individuals in the images, but it is more about connecting with the idea of the place.
Protest Crown Praying UCB
Or is there an emotional level in these images I’m not seeing?
Yes I hope to achieve some impact on an emotional level. I at least want the viewer to feel like they need to be closer to the work, to really explore the images for small detail and have some tension trying to dissect what they are seeing. I want there to be an overwhelming feeling sometimes because this is what I experience when I take the photographs.
Your website states that the images both reveal and obscure essence. Can you talk about this in a little more detail?
I am referring to both the essence of place and the essence of time. In some of my images the place or time may be obscured to the point that it cannot be identified. I want the images to help reference a specific time and place for each viewer…to elicit certain memories, even if the actual place is easily recognizable.
What other specific themes or ideas are you trying to express in this series?
I have always been fascinated with American history, specifically with regard to the conquering of the West. There is a certain allure that surrounds the concept of sacrifice and the idea of venturing into the unknown. My concept of history leads me into a realm of photography where I feel it is necessary to document a place in a way where I can represent the time that I spend there, and its influence on me. It is unfeasible for me to take only one photograph or choose one image that I truly believe captures the essence of that place. It just doesn’t happen that way for me. I want to be able to show others my time and exploration, and conclusions. I want people to see everything that I see in an instant. Exploration and curiosity are essential to building a relationship between the viewer and my images. Each of these places has gone through some sort of evolution based on cultural transformation and events happening throughout history. The images carry a wealth of information all at once and represent a complex history of activity.
(I profiled Borsuk for B&W magazine several years back. In addition to his personal work, he operates a post-production studio that offers digital editing and retouching services for photographers and designers. Be sure to visit his website: www.theflytrapstudio.com.)